Every Brand is an Ad Network

TechCrunch recently highlighted how most of Glam's growth has come from the combination of shallow pure SEO play to pump pageview stats and syndicating their ads on other related sites to further pump the success story, all while the network is projected to lose over $20 million this year. But VentureBeat also noted that the growth is significant enough that Google wants to do a custom ad deal with them.

Marchex recently had a brutal quarter which drove their stock price down to $9 a share. Their site development process was far too broad and far too shallow. They need to start developing their top domains or sell them off to someone who will leverage them for their full value. In response to Marchex's down quarter Sahar Sarid asked what they should do and got this brilliant comment:

What is the business model here… we got out sites indexed by Google but the users had a shit experience and BTW our indexed sites make nothing compared to if we just parked them. Come on - it not really very hard to figure it out- take the top 30 golden domains and build them into authority sites NOT openlist scrape sites but bankrate.com’s

Keep in mind that when you create one Bankrate.com you get the leverage to charge advertisers more, which allows you to spend more on marketing. As you increase that spend search engines are willing to look the other way if you create a bottomless pit of near identical white-labeled search spam.

As markets consolidate, 2 of the biggest determiners of who will win a market are going to be
brand perception and AdWords ad budget.

  • Brand perception: Google gives brands a discount on AdWords ad prices while price gouging smaller competitors, which subsidizes the value of building a brand. If BMW spams, Google is afraid to remove BMW from their index for very long. If a smaller site does something that is borderline gray and comes under scrutiny Google may penalize the domain and pay an AdSense spammer for stealing that content and keeping it in the Google index. It all feels a bit like the mafia, but this is Google's way to extort you and kill smaller market players without being branded as a corporate criminal.

  • AdWords ad budget: if you are blowing millions a month on Google AdWords then Google will be more likely to white list your sites and less likely to penalize you for white-label clone sites, robotic content, subdomain spam, or bought links.

Even if you lose money on the main brand, it still allows you to backfill with high margin garbage with limited risk from Google. What are the odds of Google doing anything about this BizJournals spam? If you want to monetize garbage you have to put one star brand at the center of it to mitigate you risk profile.

General News is a Worthless Commodity

Aug 9th

I get cold called about twice a month pitching a newspaper subscription, but as we are able to subscribe to specific channels, generalist news lose relevancy, and loses profitability.

The NYT is rumored to be dropping its paid content wall. As generalist publishing moves toward free it still will not be enough to create strong sustainable profits:

"The New York Times is a strong and respected brand however the type of content they are writing about [in columns] is available everywhere," Borrell explains. "Their niche is strong writing and this is not a strong enough niche to charge readers for."

As long as news is just data, those profits are going to move to the aggregators who can cut deals with any publisher and dump any they dislike. Not surprising to see Google turning Google News into a destination, such that they can learn more about the news business and gain more leverage over anyone in that space.

What types of publishing business models will stay profitable?

  • Niche Industry Leaders Publishers in fields with few competitors, or content which is so good (good as in one or more of the following: evokes emotional response, overtly biased to match user bias, focused, consistent) that people chose to subscribe to that channel as a proxy for that entire industry. If you have your own distribution and a large following you don't need search engines to sell stuff or influence markets.

  • Honesty in Fraud Markets The AdSense business model is undermining the credibility of information. If you are serving customers making big purchases or customers who have been taken advantage of, many will want to pay a premium for peace of mind.
  • Conversion Experts If you can pay more for traffic than anyone else you can't lose. There will always be an arbitrage option available for you. Get enough leverage and get a fatter margin, which allows you to recruit and teach a pool of affiliates to make you money. If you can write content that converts you will get paid more per word. Google pushes CPA ads and today Yahoo! today just announced their traffic quality center.

Trend Gold for Google News Publishers

Most search trends typically last more than a day. Since Google integrates news results right in the first page of the search results all a news website needs to do is look at popular searches, Amazon best sellers, top Amazon movers, new items on Amazon, and hot items on eBay, write a vanilla piece of content, throw ads on the page, and cash a check.

Reporters no longer have to research public demand. All they have to do is look up the ad value and write about whatever makes the most money interests them. In some cases publishers may let a robot write the story for them!

Straw Man Marketing & Information Pollution

One of the easiest ways to get your message across is to be different and denounce a currently popular meme. Dan Thies recently referenced a person who is launching their marketing brand by calling the long tail crap. Even if they know what they are talking about with some forms of marketing it undermines their credibility to talk about search marketing with no appreciation for the tail.
This is a growing trend with information in general online. Marketers with a for profit agenda, a reason to create spin, or no knowledge of a field create ratings, reviews, or half compiled resource list at a market and get people to talk about them

  • for being useful (to those naive and new to the market, or those featured in the compilation) and

  • for being inaccurate (for those who know the market and realize that the lists are marketing garbage)

As marketers like you and I fill industries with information pollution it gets harder and harder for the novice web user to know truth from fiction.

The net effect is that we all buy more lies and garbage, become less trusting and more cynical, and small businesses end up having more similar externalities to large businesses, where the profiting company does not take into account any of the downsides to the pollution they created to generate profit.

Some publishers feel absolved of any wrongdoing when they rely on a third party ad network for ad targeting, but profit driven ad network are amoral. Why would someone pay $3 a click for free ringtones if there wasn't some sort of reverse billing fraud on the backend?

Catching a Thief Red Handed

Sometimes people borrow and rewrite content, but it is just plain out sick when they steal your site design and content without the decency to even bother changing it. Tonight in the SERPs I saw a weird site that looked awfully similar to a friend's site.

You judge the similarities between the content at CollegeScholarships.org (original site) and at ScholarshipsInTheUS.com (thief). Their site design looked similar to the original, until the site went offline. A few of his internal links even point at the real site! Earlier tonight I called the number that was on the WhoIs data of the site stealing content. He was mad someone called and bothered him, but claimed he did not have anything to do with the content theft or domain. Within hours of the phone call the site was offline.

I bet they hope my GoDaddy representative doesn't look at the link to Google's cache I just sent them, and that they hope their Google AdSense account doesn't get banned. If either of those happened that would be a real shame.

The Anonymous Web of Theft

I am not listing a name or the AdSense account number here because someone may have spiked the guy by putting false data in the WhoIs or publishing someone else's AdSense code to try to get them burned. What is to prevent me from doing that to someone who I don't like?

Part of the great strength of the web is that it is anonymous...so that people like you or I can do what we like and find a way to spread our ideas and profit from them (I use the term profit loosely there...I am not just talking about money). But I think some of the central network operators need to take on a bit more responsibility in who they are willing to partner with.

Google's Lack of Respect for Copyright

The real issue I have here is not just with the content theft, but also with the central networks on the web. Google is currently lobbying to soften up copyright warnings, largely because they have no respect for copyright.

Google's Youtube Copyright & Piracy Claims

Google claims they can fingerprint video content to prevent piracy and copyright violation (although the world is still waiting for that technology). If Google can fingerprint duplicates to remove them from the search results, and claims they can even find copyright video content, then why do they allow 100+ page websites that nearly 100% match current sites in their index to run AdSense ads without doing either of the following

  • flagging the site for automated or human review to compare it to related content sites before approving ad distribution

  • notifying the other publishers of the potential content theft being sponsored by AdSense

Maybe they are slow to getting around to that because doing the right thing would cost them a couple dollars. But delaying on that issue is actually going to cost the web as a whole, because if people think that by publishing anything online that they are granting someone permission to steal it and Google permission to run ads on it then Google isn't encouraging the production of the high quality content needed to make their search service more relevant and more useful.

eBay Also Supports Theft

Google isn't the only large network which openly and proudly profits from theft. eBay, which has made $10,000's from my Paypal payments, is allowing this dirtbag to sell my ebook on eBay over and over again. I have sent complaints using eBay's internal system, and talked to my Paypal representative, but so far they have not yet banned the thief and I am stuck monitoring eBay for theft that eBay's policies clearly and openly encourage.

Making Anonymity Work

Yesterday a leading search engineer at another search company informed me that he thought my book was good, but it was being distributed by another thief on another site. Here I am with a Technorati top 100 ranked blog, thousands of subscribers, millions of inbound links, giving these large companies tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and still eating crow.

How are new entrepreneurs to compete on the web if many of the central networks place a $0 value on content? How is that good for the long-term health of the web? Unless you sell ads, are syndicating misinformation or public relations spin, or have a large back-end up-sell you are screwed.

If the web is to remain anonymous the large networks need to make it easier to inform you if they are partnering with thieves to share in the profits from stealing your content. Or perhaps they could put a little effort into avoiding the issue by limiting their partnerships.

What is Content? When is Publishing a Commodity?

People Tolerate (and Expect) Ads:

As Google's ad network gets more efficient and Google controls more bits, almost everything in any commercial market is going to sell something, subsidize another commercial interest, or have ads on it. To appreciate how much this trend will grow, just read the comments on my post about using custom search engines. Many of the comments are insightful, but almost nobody appreciated that not having ads in your internal site search result was a value add for a commercial site. If you look at blog search results for shower gel you will see Google's version of the web. Google and Microsoft already own in game advertisement firms. With Google bidding billions of dollars for part of the US wireless spectrum you can bet that there are going to be even more ads between content producers and consumers.

It doesn't matter what ads appear on the publisher site if they didn't sell the ads directly themselves. Somehow the publisher is off the hook because they didn't know, and it wasn't Google's fault because the system is partially automated.

Newspapers Practicing Arbitrage

Google killed some of the scraper AdSense garbage, but now arbitrage is going mainstream, with newspapers leveraging their brands to publish thin content from freelance writers. Think of newspapers buying ISP data or mining their server logs and suggesting writers create content about crap that got a lot of traffic when Google featured their story on the homepage in the past.

Newspapers Practicing Automated Garbitrage

The above trend is going to make the most competitive keywords even harder to rank for as there will always be at least one fresh news story about every high value topic.

  • This just in...make money with the best forex platform!

  • This just in...mortgage rates are at all time lows!
  • This just in...online education is more affordable than you thought!

Google has already proved that they don't mind large publishers creating robotic content and building its authority with spammy links. Did you know that BizJournals offers Google searchers a credit card application service? If I posted similar content on this site Google would kill it.

Anyone Can do Public Relations

Beyond the recycled content, the movement will also be fueled by lazy underpaid writers who will heavily rely on social media and others work for story ideas. If you are good at spamming social media then the mainstream media will act as your megaphone without requiring you to hire a PR firm.

When is a Link Buy Legitimate?

Most profitable publishing enterprises are moving toward producing lower quality content. As a publisher, a brand is nothing more than something that allows you to practice arbitrage while appearing that you provide a valuable service. It allows you to get extra exposure and charge a higher rate for your ads.

The only difference between a smart strategic ad buy and a text link sale that Google wants you to report is the publisher's rate card.

Google Ringtone Search (Beta)... the Utility of Search & the Value of Relationships vs Data

Jul 17th

Google recently announced they are offering an ad free search service to small businesses for as little as $100 a year. They are also rumored to be working on creating a mobile search offering to search for ringtones, cell phone games, and other high margin cell phone services:

With the new system, users would search for a piece of content -- such as ringtones -- and would get back a list of companies that provide it, with links letting them easily purchase the material. Eventually, Google would charge companies for high placement in the search results, much as it does with "sponsored links" on Web search, the people familiar with the company's plans said.

If this proves effective, why wouldn't Google create search services for real estate and student loans? Off the start they likely wouldn't be any dirtier than those markets already are.

The local sites (or other niche sites) that die are the ones that don't have a supportive community...the ones that can roughly be described as data. But as you move your site away from data toward community building and user experience you increase its marketability, profitability, and longevity.

John Scott recently said

when the Internet becomes a community more than a marketplace, the community oriented merchants have the advantage.

Most general music lyric sites will lose over 90% of their traffic and value in the next 2 years. Niche value add sites like SongMeanings.net will increase in value.

Some newspapers are fighting off their own irrelevancy by publishing more ads, and becoming more irrelevant. The reason WSJ.com is worth $5 billion is because it will be one of the last newspapers surviving after many competitors are marginalized. Its brand and business relationships make it unique.

The next step for search is moving away from age and citation based trust toward user satisfaction based rating. In a recent interview Jakob Nielson said:

Of course, the big thing that has happened in the last 10 years was a change from an information retrieval oriented relevance ranking to being more of a popularity relevance ranking. And I think we can see a change maybe being a more of a usefulness relevance ranking. I think there is a tendency now for a lot of not very useful results to be dredged up that happen to be very popular, like Wikipedia and various blogs. They’re not going to be very useful or substantial to people who are trying to solve problems. So I think that with counting links and all of that, there may be a change and we may go into a more behavioral judgment as to which sites actually solve people’s problems, and they will tend to be more highly ranked.

Part of that will include collecting user feedback and personalizing results. For the commercial parts of the web, much of this will be done by search engines pushing more aggressive ad units (while using non-ads to test how far they can go), licensing content from premium publishers, and making more transactions direct to funnel traffic internally while minimizing the downside of bait and switch marketing. If Google controls the transaction they know the lead value AND the customer satisfaction stats. If something that was once good becomes spam Google controls distribution and monetization, and can kill it without a second thought.

If you are in a market that is likely to get commoditized what does your site do that makes it more than just data?

11 Unique Content Sources in Saturated Markets

Jul 10th

Hamlet Batista commented on my last post that a problem with blogging is that many people look to the same sources for inspiration and information to blog about. Even in the most saturated markets there are a wide array of unique data sources. Here are some of my favorites:

  • your own experiences - how you save time, your favorite work tips, things that slow you down, interactions with others, how your perspective has changed over time, etc.

  • encourage readers to ask you questions - use a button like this one, and run open threads where you answer questions
  • find common questions in forums that are typically poorly answered - why doesn't Google show all my backlinks and why hasn't my PageRank changed? etc.
  • common misconceptions in your marketplace which are spread as fact - new websites can't rank, etc
  • interview other experts, create interactive contests, offer awards, etc. - these touches the ego of others and uses their reach to help market your site
  • bring back old classics that are not talked about too much in the current marketplace and compare them to the current market. You can't go wrong bringing up Orwell's Politics and the English Language, Bush's As We May Think, Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons
  • show how your topical language has shifted - compare news from the 1950s to today, there are many stories from the 1980s and earlier which are easily accessible via Google News, but have not been pushed heavily on the web graph
  • compare information from different formats - blogs, magazines, books, dvds, conferences, stuff in Google Scholar, etc.
  • content behind firewalls - bring these ideas into the active parts of the web
  • find ideas that were popular and spread on other networks, seamlessly aggregate the best parts in a new way which allows the structure to add significant value
  • parallel markets - read information from other markets and relate it to your current market

Less Writing, Higher Quality

Value Blogging is In

Brian Clark recently highlighted that while valuable blogs continue to gain traction, the bloggers who were only popular because they were early are seeing diminished traffic and are fading in relevancy.
It makes sense that many of the original bloggers would fade because blogging about oneself is narcissistic and highly irrelevant to most readers, while blogging about technology and the web is quite easy, and there are thousands of people doing it.

What Makes Content Valuable?

The difference between value and non-value content is how unique the content and thoughts are, and how actionable the content is. If everyone else reads the same channels you and I do then us posting about their information has little value. In an ironic twist, that is one likely reason this is a low value post.

The Importance of Formatting & Framing

Almost all content ideas are recycled. The key is to target your message to an audience and format your message in a way that gives you credit as being the thought leader who came up with it. Jakob Nielson continued his (well structured) rants against blogging with Write Articles, Not Blog Postings. He didn't have to call thin low value information blog posts, but he did to help target his message at bloggers and have them spread his message.

Information Pollution

From Jakob's article

Even if you're the world's top expert, your worst posting will be below average, which will negatively impact on your brand equity. If you do start a blog despite my advice, at least screen your postings: wait an hour or two, then reread your comments and avoid uploading any that are average or poor. (Even average content undermines your brand. Don't contribute to information pollution by posting material that isn't above the average of other people's writings.)

The best channels, the ones worth paying attention to, filter. They are valuable as much for what they DON'T publish as they are for what they do publish. If you have an ad supported business model then information pollution is an effective means to increase profit margins, but if you sell consulting and/or content a different approach is required:

Elite, expertise-driven sites are the exception to the rule. For these sites, you don't care about 90% of users, because they want a lower level of quality than you provide and they'll never pay for your services. People looking for the quick hit and free advice are not your customers. Let them eat cake; let them read Wikipedia.

The reason TropicalSEO is so good is that Andy only publishes every once in a while. If you publish everyday eventually you run out of stuff to say. Blogging is just like writing songs or books. Each writer only has so much in them before they have to take a break to gather their thoughts and find more material to write about.

Jakob also mentioned that by writing longer articles that you create content which is not only of greater value, but hard to duplicate. It is why my book is read more frequently than my best blog posts, and part of what makes writing 20 page articles fun and worthwhile .

Are New Bloggers Experts?

I think we are all experts at things we have experienced, but any field worth being in takes a while to become an expert. To become a publicly recognized expert you have to

  • garner attention and keep it

  • develop many social and business relationships
  • build a personal brand
  • have thick skin

The hard part about writing in depth stuff when you are new to a market is that if you are still learning there is little upside to trying to write beyond your knowledge level. When I did that people took time out of their day to email me reminding me of what a horrible human being I am. I still get some of that.

A better approach to getting traction for a new blog is to add an element of social interaction to it, leveraging the brand and reach of others. Awards, interviews, and contests work great. After you get a bit of attention make sure to follow that up with some higher value content to turn one time readers into subscribers. It is hard to imagine a blog market more saturated than SEO, and yet in 3 weeks Patrick Altoft built 10,000 links.

How to Lose Relevancy

One can talk about the current hot memes, like Squidoo spam is right now, but ultimately nobody cares to read 31,843 people blogging about Terry Semel stepping down. The only way to build a brand talking up memes is to be the person who started the meme, or have such influence that you can re-frame the meme and gain ownership of it.

Deleting Garbage

As content quality improves short me too posts end up costing more than what they are worth. I have known of people who deleted a year and a half of archives because it wasn't worth the link equity the content was wasting, when it could be spread across higher value content.

The threshold for usefulness will continue to increase as more content is available online in richer and more interactive formats.

When Garbage Content is an Effective Monetization Strategy

Internet marketing advice is rarely universally useful. Here are 3 cases where low value information pollution is an effective strategy:

  • If you are in a market full of garbage it is not hard to beat it by being slightly different and then bolting a bit of linkbait onto it. In many consumer finance markets just rewriting the affiliate feed is all you need to start getting traction.

  • If you have an older authoritative site and are not effectively monetizing it you can add a related offer sections.
  • If you are a blog or a media website that regularly publishes news you can backdate commercially oriented posts or publish special advertisement sections without adding noise to your main channel (blog, newsletter, RSS feed, homepage, etc).

Content Without Subscribers Will Become Worthless

Traditional Publishers Are Wising Up to the Web

The WSJ posted an article about travel publishers wising up to the web, placing large chunks of their books online:

John Wiley & Sons, the publisher based in Hoboken, N.J., is offering an array of free travel tidbits and articles on the site of its Frommer's travel-book series. Not only can visitors to the site read blogs or listen to podcasts, they can plan and book trips -- generating commission revenue for frommers.com.

When you think of the authority of the Frommer's domain name (over 10 years old, PR7, 364,000 links), they must be able to get millions of pages of content indexed.

The first publishers to put their whole books online will see amazing returns because few people are doing it. The WSJ article stated that Wiley was already enjoying 10 to 15 million a year from 3 flagship sittes (Frommer's, For Dummies, and Cliff Notes). After hearing the early results, others will follow, putting all or nearly all of their content online. The lagging publishers will make crumbs, but their books will flood the search results with content that undermines the value of lower quality content.

Books Publishing is Fast Becoming a Vanity Industry

I was offered to get SEO Book published by one of the leading book publishing houses. I have made more in a day than what they were offering me as down payment for writing the book. And they wanted me to do all the book marketing as well, for no further compensation unless I sold enough books to make the hot books lists. It didn't help that my profit margins from a book sale would have been less than what I pay for a click.

I was unwilling to get published because I thought there was upside in the current model, in a growing market, and realized that the model of being published did not work unless I was interested in feeding my ego, in need of credibility, or was writing a book just to up sell more expensive services.

Ad Revenues Are Richer Than Book Profits

If I couldn't afford to buy ads for a physical book, that hints that the format and price-point lock in value in a way that is far from the potential returns if that value was unlocked.

I recently went on a book buying binge to get content ideas for one of my sites. I spent over $500 buying 30+ books, searching through them for their ideas, their structure, and their format. It was easy to do that because they are so under-priced relative to their value. I have an AdSense site that was far easier to create than many of those books were, but it makes about $1,000 a day.

If those publishers just put the content online they would make far more than I am from my AdSense site. My AdSense model only works so long as they don't put their content online, or I create a better known brand than they do.

Defending an AdSense Site's Viability

If your strategy is entirely long tail keyword oriented and you don't have a real brand your income will fall sharply in the next couple years. Site targeted AdWords will cause premium publishers to get paid more for similar content, and position placement reports will trim back the ad buys on sites with limited exposure and few conversions.

Not only will many of these books go online, but many of them with serious distribution and authority will act as gateways or clearinghouses for related books. What is to stop a publisher from pushing 10 other economics books on the Freakonomics site? Why not turn Frommer's into an endless sea of travel information?

Whoever introduces an idea gets credit for it, but, as hinted by my book buying binge tip, most of the content on the web is just copied and repackaged. Packaging and formatting can make an idea or kill it before it has a chance to spread. Everywhere I look there are free tips on formatting and monetizing, numerous competitors testing and tweaking, and market feedback is near real-time if I change my format or offer.

The only way to avoid losing to big publishers is to create real brands, position them as self reinforcing authorities, aggressively monetized and reinvest in marketing, and get hundreds or thousands of subscribers to spread your message and do your marketing for you.

Momentum is a force. Use the force. ;)


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