Portrait of an SEO

Jul 26th

The following is a guest post by Kpaul. :)

A long time ago, on an Internet far, far away (when I wrote for fun - and for free), I did a piece called Portrait of a Blogger. The year was 2002 and blogging was just beginning to really hit the mainstream hard. If you’re not familiar with the audience at Kuro5hin.org, they’re a snooty version of slashdot readers if you can imagine such a thing. (Mentioning both of these websites is outing my age, I think. I better not mention Compuserve.) The story was published on K5 and is still available today. I was told once that it drew a lot of traffic, although Mr. Foster never would share the exact numbers with me. (I imagine he’s laughing somewhere on his yacht these days.) It’s interesting to see how many of the links are still active in that article.

In any case, I thought about that story the other day when I was lamenting the fact that I didn’t start publishing my own content on my own sites earlier. (I spent the bubble years working for corporate media on the Death Star.) I let the idea of the piece gel in my mind for a while. I knew I couldn’t do another portrait of a blogger piece. I mean, I could, but I don’t think it would do as well as the previous one did. Also floating around in my mind was an okay from the esteemed Aaron Wall to submit a guest post for SEO Book. Eventually, these two ideas crossed paths, exchanged emails, and set-up a plan to combine the old Portrait of a Blogger piece with something relevant for Aaron’s audience.

So, without further ado, I give you a portrait of an SEO circa 2010

The SEO Newbie

Favorite software: SENuke
Favorite website: webmasterworld.com
Favorite drink: Jolt (cause that’s the stereotype and it was in Hackers the movie)
Favorite viral video: Numa Numa
Favorite rapper: 50 cent

A friend of their friend’s sister’s little brother makes money online, so it’s totally going to be possible. The SEO newbie looks forward to a life of an hour of work every week for untold riches. While more and more people are trying to make money online, many of them just don’t have what it takes to work for themselves online. While chasing the magic button - also known as the golden tip, the super duper affiliate secret, or even the extra double tip for making money online - the SEO newbie tends to get distracted from the one obvious thing that equals sucess - i.e. work. Once most SEO newbies find out making money online takes work (more and more of it as time passes and competition increases), they drop out of the game and go back to whatever it was they were doing. Before that, they’re usually found on Webmaster World gabbing about the latest “Google Dance.”

SEO Auto-Blogger

Favorite software: WordPress MU
Favorite website: Any with an RSS Feed
Favorite drink: Watered Down McDonald’s Pop (mass produced sugar water that sorta resembles soda)
Favorite viral video: Lazy Sunday (something everyone copied)
Favorite rapper: Black Eyed Peas

If one page in the SERPs is good, and ten pages in the SERPs is great and so on and so forth, what about 1 billion pages? That would be best, right? But how to write a billion pages worth of content? Enter the auto-blog. This spray and pray method of SEO is still tried by many new to the industry, but it is becoming more and more difficult to keep a site like this going for more than a few months. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but there are few low level auto-bloggers who don’t end up getting burned. And yet auto-bloggers make up a large slice of the SEO landscape. This will undoubtedly change in the years ahead.

The mainstream media also plays this game :D

SEO Link Merchant

Favorite software: Yahoo! Site Explorer or any Online Link Tool
Favorite website: Any that will buy or sell a link
Favorite drink: Absynth (not legal anymore)
Favorite viral video: Star Wars Kid
Favorite rapper: Tupac

These people live and dream about links. From the value of links to anchor text to placement to link wheels, their world revolves around the power of the link. Since link selling and buying has gone into a shady black market type atmosphere over the last few years, some of these characters can be shady. A common technique is to peddle “text advertisements” for a low monthly rate to unknowing webmasters. While there are some websites and email accounts still operating in the open, there are also black hat link merchants in some very bad neighborhoods. While I probably shouldn’t mention it, there are some who see short term success using these methods. The thing is, online you want to play the long game. And for that, buying and selling links is out.

Phony SEO Guru

Favorite software: The autoresponder
Favorite website: forums.digitalpoint.com
Favorite drink: Acai Juice
Favorite viral video: That annoying frog techno thing!
Favorite rapper: Vanilla Ice

The schemes and scams are plentiful in the world of the phony guru. Yes, you too can make money by showing others how to make money. A lot of these so called gurus don’t even make money on the Internet other than peddling their ebooks and membership sites. The problem with these people is that after a person is burned by so many, they run the danger of not spending ANY money online. This can be just as bad as wasting money on worthless, phony gurus. For example, an SEO Book membership is a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. Don’t be afraid to invest money wisely after being burned by phony SEO gurus.

SEO Tail Chaser

Favorite software: The latest WSO!
Favorite website: warriorforum.com
Favorite drink: Budweiser (or something domestic and bland)
Favorite viral video: Anything their neighbor liked
Favorite rapper: Eminem

Usually found huddling around the phony gurus (which grow in numbers every month it seems as more and more people try to monetize the web), tail chasers are those people who try to copy current successful marketing methods online. If you study the whole rebill period of Internet marketing, there were a few people who started off strong (and somewhat legit), but as more and more people got into the game, the boundaries were pushed more and more. The highlight for me, I think, was seeing an elderly lady talking on a YouTube video about posting links to Google to make money. While some tail chasers may be able to make small (or even moderately large) amounts of money in a short time, they lack the skills (and vision) to replicate the success on a continual basis.

<INTERMISSION>

We interrupt this guest blog post for a shameless plug. On one of my blogs, I’ve started using D&D character alignments instead of ‘colored hats’ to tag various methods for SEO and marketing online. Okay, it’s not really unique and I doubt it catches on, but it gives more opportunities to categorize Internet marketers. We now return to our regularly scheduled guest blog post. Thanks, Aaron!

</INTERMISSION>

White Hat SEO

Favorite software: Vanilla Internet Explorer
Favorite website: mattcutts.com/blog/
Favorite drink: Water (good for you)
Favorite viral video: Anything LOL cats
Favorite rapper: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

When not wearing their “I Heart Matt Cutts” t-shirt or coming up with ways to make their website more unique and useful for visitors, these individuals like to volunteer at local homeless shelters and nursing homes. But seriously, these people make an effort to do things above board online. Many are still able to make a good living while doing this. Many don’t have the patience for white hat SEO, which is a shame, because it’s one of the better long term methods of success online. Think of your visitor after they get to your site more than trying to trick Google into ranking you high in the SERPs and you’re on your way to becoming a high level white hat SEO, which comes with many special abilities and powers.

Black Hat SEO

Favorite software: xRumer
Favorite website: Any that will take a link - willingly or not
Favorite drink: Whiskey (wine is fine but liquor is quicker)
Favorite viral video: Anything from 4chan
Favorite rapper: NWA

There are some who fall between the tail chasers and the SEO grandmasters (of all persuasions) who have the ability to recognize an opportunity and jump on it, making a bit of money along the way. The problem is that most methods used with Black Hat SEO are short term. They may have a huge payout, but the model is not sustainable unless you can stay somewhat ahead of the crowd when it comes to new things to exploit online. While some are fine with this, most at this level have the ability to come up with unique ideas on their own. When you consider that there’s about the same amount of work involved and the non-black hat techniques last longer, it makes sense to try to get beyond this stage in your SEO evolution.

Grey Hat SEO

Favorite software: A little of this and a little of that
Favorite website: wickedfire.com
Favorite drink: Coffee (some mornings with a dash of rum)
Favorite viral video: Boom Goes the Dynamite
Favorite rapper: Drake

If you mix black and white, you get grey, of course. The grey hat SEO uses both white and black hat techniques. While they’re more open than those who wear a black hat most times, they are generally more cautious than people into white hat SEO. For the most part the mix of both (good and bad) vary at any one time with grey hat SEO. Over the years, this label has morphed somewhat into a blue hat SEO, with a few key differences. Grey hat SEO, to me, means more about techniques while blue hat SEO concentrates on a mixing of web properties with different values.

Blue Hat SEO

Favorite software: A little of this and a little of that
Favorite website: wickedfire.com
Favorite drink: Coffee (some mornings with a dash of rum)
Favorite viral video: Charlie the Unicorn
Favorite rapper: Ice Cube

I’m pretty sure I know who came up with this phrase, although I’m not exactly sure of their definition of the term. To me, it follows the ‘SEO Empire’ line of thinking that was created by Eli at Blue Hat SEO. So, it would be a mix of pure white and somewhat grey (or downright black) websites in a network online. So, garbage sites at the bottom of the pyramid point up toward the money sites at the top of the pyramid. How this differs from straight grey hat SEO, I’m not sure, but it’s used by quite a few people these days. For the most part, Blue Hat SEO peoeple are well versed in the way the Internet works. And if they don’t have skills, they have someone in their network who does. There are quite a few high level blue hat SEOs currently operating online.

Article Marketer

Favorite software: Google Docs
Favorite website: ezinearticles.com
Favorite drink: Green Tea (proven weight loss, act now!)
Favorite viral video: None (text based viral only)
Favorite rapper: Mos Def (very lyrical)

When they’re not actually banging out articles for their own or other sites, they’re thinking up ideas and topics for their next round of articles. They know the value of content online. This group is split like most others into various levels of quality ranging from garbage to modern literature and everything in between. You will notice if you look closely that the more successful article marketers have higher quality content. This is no coincidence. Of course, good content is only one small piece of the puzzle, but you may want to consider outsourcing your content needs to an article marketer.

Viral SEO Ninja

Favorite software: Anything related to email
Favorite website: digg.com
Favorite drink: Tang (it’s orange, it’s different)
Favorite viral video: lonelygirl15
Favorite rapper: Kanye West (marketing magic man - good or bad)

When it comes to linkbait and causing ripples in the blogosphere, there’s nothing like the skills of a high level viral ninja. Part Charlie the Unicorn, part Star Wars Kid, and with a dash or two of LOL cats and one very, very, extremely tiny bit of 4chan, the viral ninja can mix media to send a message, get a laugh, or compel people to tell their friends about the content. As more and more people come online and try to be viral, it’s becoming more and more difficult to be unique and stand out from the millions of other people online who are vying for attention. The viral ninja understands this and is already working on three or four projects that will drown the numbers for the “Please don’t taze me” video.

SEO Grandmaster

Favorite software: LAMP
Favorite website: SEOBook.com
Favorite drink: Vitamin Water (expensive, but worth it)
Favorite viral video: Dancing baby (old school...)
Favorite rapper: Grandmaster Flash

You don’t hear from these people too much on the forums or at conferences. They don’t typically have a very active blog. They do, however, spend their time making money online - most times quite a bit of it. They apply their SEO knowledge quietly in the background, slowly building their empire piece by piece. They understand marketing and business principles and employ them. These people learned early on that wasting time online - especially at forums chasing the magic button - is not a good thing. They learned how to buckle down and apply the knowledge that everyone who’s anyone has. They know it’s all about applying the information rather than just knowing about it. While you don’t hear much from these people publicly, when they do talk quite a few people tend to listen.

Real SEO Guru

Favorite software: Firefox browser + extensions
Favorite website: Any that they own or are involved with
Favorite drink: Orange Pineapple Juice (sweet, sour, but good for you)
Favorite viral video: All Your Base Are Belong To Us (cause they do)
Favorite rapper: Jay-Z (making piles of money)

What are the lyrics from Ghetto Boys about real gangsters not talking much? Go Google it. (Sorry, Matt, it’s a verb now. You know there are secret Google parties celebrating the fact. Smile.) But yeah, real gurus aren’t all talk and no action. Real gurus of the industry don’t pitch anything and everything just to make a buck. The real gurus are few and far between, but they do exist. If you run into one, be nice to them. Unlike the SEO grandmasters, they’re more public and don’t mind interacting with the public. That said, they tend to value their time, so don’t waste it. This path has the most opportunities for people who are into SEO. (In gaming terms, it has the highest level cap.) It’s a long road, and it’s not a quest that can be undertaken alone, but if you’re serious about SEO, this is the route you want to take.

The Future of SEO?

If you’ve been around for any length of time, you know that the Internet is still constantly changing. Some of the changes are for the better and some aren’t as good, but they all are something that everyone who works online has to deal with. The SEO of last week - or even today - isn’t the same SEO that is going to be in operation over the next decade. Personally, I see the word organic being more important.

By organic SEO, I mean not mass produced, not a trick, not a scam, not a scheme, but an actual relationship between publishers and website visitors. The sites that are able to build communities around themselves are going to be the ones that survive, I think. And there is no method of SEO known to man that can create a community - a real one - out of thin air. That said, SEO can be useful to help draw people to a website that is worthy of a community forming around it.

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The above was a guest post from K. Paul Mallasch, who runs kpaul media, which publishes local news communities like Anderson Free Press as well as many niche websites. You can contact him at kpaul.mallasch@gmail.com

A disclaimer from Aaron: I thought it was fun, but I loath rap music (especially that from asshats like Kanye West), and I realize that being a publisher in the SEO space is way more profitable than being labeled as an SEO guru. I also didn't put the last picture in because he used me...and I felt that would have been a wee bit egotistical for me to publish a guest post highlighting me like that. ;)

But the post is still a lot of fun & I am sure you can associate with at least 1 or more of the above profiles. If not then you haven't been in the SEO space very long yet! ;)

Google As Publisher...

Jul 11th

They might prefer to use different labels (so as to minimize fear in the marketplace & slow down regulators), and they might claim that aggregate statistics control the investments & thus they are not really publishers, but they plan on skimming a big piece off of the top of many big markets.

AdWords was just the start!

Videos, maps & product search...look how Google self-deals in each while managing to call it a value added feature (or some such).

If Google collects data, hosts data, sorts data, recommends personalized consumption habits, and then makes small investments in new content from proven past performers (and then give them a bit of stealth promotion on their network)...how is it possible for Google to lose money? (Outside of lawsuits)?

Google can claim they are "democratizing" media while showing a string of successful partnerships based on investing using real time data that nobody else as access to. Meanwhile if you are a publisher they are gutting your business model through paying people to snag your content and wrap it in their ads, while they also redirect user attention to the companies and acts they have invested in.

"One day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try and predict the stock market... and then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that." - Eric Schmidt, Google CEO

Note that there was no moral debate on the table. Their only internal limitation to setting up a hedge fund and swaying the markets to increase the profits of their trades would be that they thought it was illegal.

How much of the online ecosystem can Google consume before publishers promote other views of the web?

One way to fight this sort of strategy is Yahoo!'s sell or outsource everything but the logo strategy. It increases short term margins, but in the longrun it makes one that much more vulnerable. Google can always buy the partner of choice and then ride off the free promotion & validation that the acquisition gained from earlier partnerships. Sure adding more noise to a noisy market can bring in eyeballs, but fleeting ones. Death by a thousand compromises.

The other is to work in markets too small for Google to be interested in. Or to define & create a new vertical, like Zynga did. Even with as shady as Zynga's founder is, longterm that company is in a better position than Yahoo! is.

LiveStrong OR SpamStrong? You Decide!

Want to Live Strong?

  • You have to look strong. Start with a nice manly high & tight haircut livestrong.com/business_barber/
  • You have to be strong. Drink propane. 3 times daily. livestrong.com/propane/
  • You have to bulk up. Not steroids! Feed the search engines their own search results. livestrong.com/business-don-and-tennas-hair-place_563-326-2277/

I think Google is getting the message on what the search results would look like in a couple years if they let the above continue.

Sure they own the search category, but if they let the rot set in too much then people will shift to other modes of discovery. Google realizes that search may splinter - its why they bought Youtube, why the offer a mobile operating system, etc.

Google may not be 100% responsible for the above trend. But they will be 100% responsible for cleaning it up.

I won't be surprised to see a lot more of this in the near future. Such a shame, as Jason is such a great guy. :(

TV is the New Mobile

When Google enters a field sometimes they do so quietly, but when they decide they want to own something there is nothing quiet about their approach. They are not content to pick one niche and one model (the way that Netflix does):

Google keeps fighting on multiple fronts. Like boxing a glacier, over time they just wear the market down.

Google wants to turn Youtube watchers into mindless drones who are spared the expense of thought:

“If too much of your brain is occupied with the process of choosing, it takes you out of the experience of watching,” explains James Black, a NowMov co-founder. ... “We’re looking at how to push users into passive-consumption mode, a lean-back experience,” Mr. Davidson says.

They want Youtube to be like television, because the TV ad market is far larger than the web ad market, and they already own search. They are desperately searching for new markets for avenues to grow.

Google spent $106 million buying On2, and then open sourced their V8 video codec:

It’s the “first one is free” approach that a drug dealer uses, and it’s not a “free” play, it’s a “we are the new railroad” play. For one-tenth the amount they paid for that crappy old codec, they could have paid Firefox’s licensing fees in perpetuity, if being a sugar daddy is what they want. They don’t want it. This is a “in your face, Apple” play, and a monopoly play.

And in addition to owning Youtube, tons of dark fiber, and their video codec, Google announced their Google TV effort. The person who controls the set top box has the market data.

Mark Cuban highlights the gaming that will occur in manipulating the rankings

The success of Google TV will come down to one thing….PageRank. Can you imagine the white hat and black hat SEO battles that will take place as video content providers try to get to the top of the TV Search Listings on Google TV ? Like Google said, there are 4 billion TVs and growing and the US TV Ad market is $70 BILLION. There is a lot at stake if Google TV takes off. How Google does its PageRank for this product will have a bigger impact on the success of the product in the TV market than anything else it does.

but if Google is passively monitoring the network they are far better than a guide. It becomes easy for them to see when their recommendations were not relevant & adjust. And if a network screws them multiple times they can always provide a dampening factor in their rankings.

If successful their TV efforts can tear down the walls between different types of content:

Google will do what it does, and that’s insinuate itself between information and the user. And the fretting will be minimal. As for the impact of Google TV, this has the potential to challenge the TV hegemony. By blurring the lines between TV and the Internet, Google TV has the potential to destroy classifications of content. No more “TV shows,” just “content.” No more “Web videos,” just “content.” And, once the distinctions are completely undermined, then direct distribution via the Internet becomes more viable. Google TV could replace Big TV as the aggregator, then it just becomes a matter of who offers the fattest pipes.

Once Google has the aggregate usage data they can use it any way they like. The concept applies to any market. Economies of scale advantages breed more economies of scale. Apple and Amazon want to have proprietary ebook formats? Fine. Google will assist publishers in creating the default common e-book format.

It is not just regular algorithm updates that can whack your traffic. A couple years out these additional content formats will be a big issue for many web publishers because if Google gets a significant sample size & market leverage in any of these parallel markets then some of these other content formats will start bleeding into the search results. And that (along with market competition) can quickly drive margins into negative territory for many publishing business models.

Google Still Busy Killing Off the Link Graph, One Link at a Time

May 28th

Now that big media practices keyword stuffing, engage in link selling, are invested in SEO start ups, and are selling SEO services perhaps they won't publish ill-informed pablum when writing about SEO. :D

Don't hold your breath waiting on that, but...

Now that newspapers are looking to sell SEO services, Google is rumored to be out and about asking them to remove links:

We understand that newspapers are currently being contacted by Google and being asked to remove links (especially those placed after the articles have been written – ie comment links and links that are placed for payment in articles weeks or months after it had gone live). As a company, we have been aware that placing links in articles once they have picked up PR is not an uncommon practice in the industry, and we also knew that it would probably come to no good which is why we stayed well away. However, we do have some legitimate links on these sites that were placed as part of a press release or an interview and these are slowly being removed through no fault of our own. So much for all the hard work eh?

Google is warning newspapers from linking out and is warning webmasters not to do guest posts. It turns out that any and every link is a bad link in their warped mental model of the web. :D

The random surfer must be quite inebriated. And lost.

As Google controls more traffic and the value of a #1 ranking increases Google continues to filter filter filter the web graph.

The good news is that as Google's view of reality is increasingly warped & their guidelines reflect reality less and less they create a greater opportunity for some competing company to come along and build something better. And for any professional SEO who reads between the lines there is value in Google misleading the rest of the herd.

About a decade ago Sergey Brin stated they didn't believe in spam. A decade later they don't believe in the media and don't believe in links. What happened?

And So The Margins Race Toward Zero

May 19th


Yahoo! & Associated Content @ Yahoo! Video

The backfill content business model has had a great run over the past 5 years, but with today's announcement of Yahoo! acquiring Associated Content, it certainly feels like it is getting toward the beginning of the end for that model for most folks.

  • Demand Media has grown eHow aggressively & struck partnerships with the likes of USA Today, and has recently been in the news about looking to do an ~ $1.5 billion IPO. If you look at Richard Rosenblatt's past sales you will see that he is quite good at selling right at the top.
  • Former Googler Tim Armstrong rebuilt Aol around their internal SEED platform which targets content at longtail arbitrage opportunities & leverages their premium Google ad feed.
  • Associated Content struck deals with companies like Thomson Reuters, Cox Newspapers, Hachette Filipacchi and USA Today. And they just landed a $90 million payday in the sale to Yahoo!

Yahoo! still has north of 10% search marketshare and can probe new & trending content ideas in real-time, while also using their huge distribution to market the new features. The fast data and instant distribution likely double the value of the business model for them. Take average content, tie it to a trusted brand, and immediately give it huge distribution and you have a winning formula. Assuming Yahoo! does a good job of integration this is probably one of their better acquisitions.

About a year ago a friend told me he bought some Yahoo! stock and I told him I thought he was nuts, but if I saw signs of decent integration of this content then I think they just increased their longevity of their company probably by a decade or more. And the part of this model which works great is that they view this content not as a replacement for their premium content, but as a backfill for the keywords they would like to target which don't have enough demand to pay for premium content creation. Some of the smarter independent webmasters have long understood that part of publishing profitably online means having featured content which loses money but builds awareness, and a second bucket of content which leverages that reputation to profit. That understanding is where the term "linkbait" came from, but now the big companies are playing the same game.

Here is a list of Aol properties, and as soon as they show strong profit growth you can bet they will use their stock to purchase more sites

You could put up similar network maps for the likes of Expedia, BankRate, Yahoo! subdomains, Monster.com, etc. etc. etc.

If Google continues to keep the algorithm fairly similar over the next couple years (ie: overall domain authority = relevancy panacea) it is pretty obvious what is going to happen to a lot of online categories. They will get watered down search by search as these publishing companies reinvest profits into creating a second, third, or fifth site in profitable categories.

If many people are using the same approach that will often create opportunities for other approaches. The good news for the average webmaster is that as the bland one size fits all approach (based on domain authority) gains momentum is that it will likely force Google to adjust. And it will make people become more loyal to great sites when they find them. As such general purpose sites grow I almost think it adds value to sites which look a bit unpolished and look like they are created from am amateur hobbyist. Thoughts? What say you?

Does Marketing Make You Cynical?

Apr 16th

A common practice in the marketing space is for people to diminish what you do, state that it is below them, help rebrand your stuff in a negative light, and then at some point in the future basically clone the idea (maybe with a few new features, maybe not) and then push their clone job aggressively as though it is revolutionary.

Another shady practice is when you ask people for advice and they say "no don't do that" and then as soon as they hang up the phone they send off emails to their workers telling them to do that which they told you was a bad idea.

I don't think that the average person or the average marketer is inherently sleazy. But I think when you look at the people who are the most successful certainly a larger than average percent of them engaged in shady behavior at some point.

To keep building yield and returns at some point short cuts start to look appealing. And so you get

None of the above is a cynical take or an opinion at this point. That was simply a list of 3 stated facts.

Create a large enough organization with enough people and you can always make something shady seem like it was due to the efforts of a rogue individual, rather than as company policy. A key to doing this effectively within a large organization is to publish public thoughts that are the exact opposite of your internal business practices.

The word "propaganda" was a bad word, as that is what the Germans were using, so Edward Bernays had to give it another name - public relations.

Recently the Google public policy blog published a post titled Celebrating Copyright. Around the same time Viacom leaked the following internal Google document

You can't get any clearer than that!

In the past when I claimed Google operated as-per the above I was accused of being cynical or having sour grapes. But when you tie together a lot of experiences and observations others lack and you are not conflicted by corporate business interests you have the ability to speak truth. You are not always going to be right, but the lack of needing to cater to advertiser interests and filter means you will typically catch a lot of the emerging trends before they show up in the media - whatever that is worth.

If you're ever confused as to the value of newspaper editors, look at the blog world. That's all you need to see. - Eric Schmdit

Speaking of the media, have you heard about the Middle American Information Bureau

The Century of Self is an amazing documentary, well worth buying

Paid Content: the New Paid Link

Apr 12th

Paid Links Are Spam

Buying links is considered spammy by Google because it is a ranking short cut which subverts search relevancy algorithms.

And so Google considers it a black hat SEO practice.

Links are somewhat hard to scale because (outside of those who create a network of spam) it is time intensive to find the right sites, negotiate a price, and then ensure appropriate placement. It requires interacting with many webmasters & going through a lot of rejections to get a few yes responses. Due to scale limitations, paid links typically only exert a slight influence on core industry keywords and common variations, limiting any potential relevancy damage.

Further, when a person buys a link, the relevancy is almost always guaranteed (as one would go broke fast if they rented links targeting irrelevant keywords).

Even still, Google hates paid links because they can lower result diversity & bias the organic search results away from being informational and towards being commercial (which in turn means that Google AdWords ads get fewer clicks).

Policing Paid Links

To make link building efforts easier to police, Google created nofollow, which aimed to disrupt the flow of link equity across certain links. Initially the alleged purpose was blocking comment spam. And then after it was in place, comment spam never went away, but the role of rel=nofollow quickly expanded to be a cure-all to be placed on any paid link.

Google encouraged spam reports that highlight paid links. SEO blogs highlighted people that were buying links. Firms like Text Link Ads were eradicated from the Google index. And all was well in GoogleLand.

...Until...

The Rise of Content Farms

Over the past few years people realized that Google had dialed up the weight on domain authority & that links are now much harder to get. So companies started placing lead generation forms on trusted sites & firms like Demand Media purchased highly trusted websites like eHow (which already had a ton of links in place from back when links were easier to obtain).

Demand Media then automated and streamlined the content production process and poured content into eHow until the rate of returns on new content and growth rate started to slow.

This type of strategy attacks the longtail of search, and given how many unique search queries there are each day, that amounts to a lot of opportunity!

Corporate Content Farming: The Art of Informationless Information

Anyone who has watched The Meatrix is likely afraid of factory farms. The content created by these content farms isn't much better. When I highlighted how bad one of the pieces was their solution was to delete it and hide it from site, then write a memo about how they do "quality" content at scale.

That scale part is no joke - Demand Media brought in over $200 million last year. And I suppose if they put the word "low" in front of quality, it wouldn't be a joke either.

Abusing Nofollow

These same authoritative websites which managed to create content for $10 to $15 a page (or sometimes $0 auto-generated pages) then leveraged nofollow on *all* outbound links, so that they would not vote for anyone, even if their content was only a thin watered down rewrite of 3rd party content sources:

eHow is a content publisher known for “How To..” articles. Lately, it seems eHow visits other websites, scrapes their instructional content (on whatever topic), and republishes it as a How To article on eHow. Sometimes the entire step-by-step process is “copied” for the eHow article. I’ve noticed a few times this week, how eHow articles are basically copies of existing content from other sites, worse than Wikipedia rewrites. That’s pretty much “scraping”, even if done by poorly-paid human workers.

So now companies are building a wide range of "content" business models ranging from auto-generated content to semi-autogenerated mash-ups to poorly crafted manual rewrites (as mentioned above).

Content Scraping & Recycling as a Legitimate Business?

Even search engines are becoming general purpose scrapers, snagging third party content, mixing it together, wrapping it in ads, and pushing it into the index of other search engines.

The result?

Ask.com's share of search traffic rose 21% last month alone!

The Information Age

We are no longer in an “Information Age.” We are in the Age of Noise. Falsehoods, half-truths, talking points, out-of-context video edits, plagiarism, rewriting of history (U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, for example), flip-flops, ignoring facts (Cheney and torture for example), neatly packaged code words and phrases, media ratings focus, dysfunctional government (fillibusters have more than doubled, but most don’t realize Republicans are blocking everything), mainstreaming fringe causes….I could go on and on. Is it any wonder why so many who are struggling with kids, jobs, rising medical costs, etcetera have such a tough time wading through all the crap? - source

Paranoid About Links

As building up your own profile has grown harder (since links are harder to get) many new web 2.0 websites provide free outbound links to help encourage participation and get links back into their websites. But then after they reach a critical mass they claim that spam is an issue and strip away the links by using nofollow, stealing that hard work people did to build up the network, offering nothing in return for it!

Google's fear of links is *so out of hand* that an SEO simply mentioning that a person can get a link from their own profile page on a social site is enough to have Matt Cutts go out of his way to push the social media site to remove the opportunity. If you put a lot of work building up a social profile Google doesn't want you to benefit from that work, but it is fine if that network does:

If Google is the one who wants that web link nofollowed because some twitter profile pages may be automated bots or spammers, then it is time they realize that THEY are responsible for determining which of those individual pages is authoritative, trusted and legitimate enough to pass link popularity, by a method other than demanding that other websites and social networks change the ways they do business to help Google stop links being used as a form of currency and to manipulate their algorithm – an issue Google and Google alone created and profited from.

Any Form of Payment = Not Trustworthy

A few years back a well known SEO joined our training program, read our tip about using self-hosted affiliate programs as a link building tool, and then promptly outed us directly to Matt Cutts, in a video, and on their blog. Google quickly blocked our affiliate program from passing link juice. Later a Google engineer publicly stated affiliate links should count.

Since then affiliate links have been a gray area (it works for some companies and doesn't work for others, based on 100% arbitrary choices inside Google). Looking for clarification on the issue, Eric Enge recently asked Matt Cutts: "If Googlebot sees an affiliate link out there, does it treat that link as an endorsement or an ad?"

Matt Cutts responded with: "Typically, we want to handle those sorts of links appropriately. A lot of the time, that means that the link is essentially driving people for money, so we usually would not count those as an endorsement."

So links which are driven by payment should not count as endorsements, even if the affiliate does endorse & believe in the product. The fact that there is a monetary relationship there means the link *should not count*

The Elephant in the Room at the GooglePlex

Ignoring links for a moment, lets get back to the the content mill content business model. It was fine that Demand Media bought trusted (well linked) sites like eHow for their trust to pour low-end content into, even though those pre-existing links were bought by the new owner.

And here is where the content mill business model gets really shady, in terms of "what is good for the user" ... Demand Media is now licensing backfill content to be hosted on USAToday.com on a revenue share basis. Describing the relationship, Dave Panos, Demand Media's CMO said "It's an opportunity for us to get in front of the audience that's already congregating around very well-known brands."

But you won't find that content on the USAToday.com homepage.

When he said "already congregating around very well-known brands" what he meant was "will rank well on Google." And so, what we have is a paid content partnership which subverts search relevancy algorithms.

If affiliate links shouldn't count, then why would affiliate content?

If Google doesn't stop it from day 1 then the media companies are going to quickly become addicted to the risk-free money like crack. And if Google tries to stop it *after* it is in place then they are going to find themselves lambasted in the media with talks of anti-trust concerns.

Something to think about before heading too far down that path.

Two Roads Diverged in a Wood...

How is a content exchange network any different than a link exchange network? The intent is exactly the same, even if the mechanics and payment terms differ slightly.

If a paid link that subverts search relevancy algorithms shouldn't count on the web graph, then why should Google trust paid content that subverts search relevancy algorithms?

Will the search results start filling up with similar sounding misinformed content ranking for 1 then 3 then 8 of the top 10 search results? Do the search results slowly get dumbed down 1 article and 1 topic at a time?

This trend *will* harm both the accuracy and diversity of content ranking in the search results. And it will grow progressively worse as people begin to quote the misinformed garbage on other websites (because hey, if it ranks in Google and is on USA Today it is *probably* true). Or is it?

Some questions worth thinking about:

  • Google is willing to truth police SEOs. Will they do the same for media outlets publishing backfill "content"?
  • How will Google be able to filter out the Demand Media content without filtering out the rest of the media sites?
  • Does Google care if the quality & diversity of the search results is diminished, even if/when most searchers will not be savvy enough to recognize it? I guess it depends on who has the last word on the issues inside Google, because most garbitrage content is wrapped in AdSense ads.

Are Content Mills the Future of Online Publishing? What Comes Next?

Apr 7th

Aaron's discussed content mills in his interview with Tedster yesterday.

What is a content mill?

A content mill is a site that publishes cheap content. The content is either user-contributed, paid, or a mix of the two. The term content mill is obviously pejorative, the implication being that the content is only published to pump content into search engines, and is typically of low value in terms of quality.

The problem is that some sites that publish cheap content may well provide value, but it depends who is reading it. For example, a forum might be considered a content mill, as it contains cheap, user-generated content of little value to a disinterested visitor, or a forum might be a valuable, regularly updated resource provided by a community of enthusiasts!

Depends who you ask.

As Aaron says, content mills are all the rage in 2010. Let's take a closer look.

Why Are SEOs Interested In Content Mills?

This idea is nothing new. It's actually white-hat SEO strategy, and has been used for years.

  • Research keywords
  • Write content about those keywords
  • Publish content and attempt to rank that content in search engine results
  • Repeat

If you can publish a page at a lower cost than your advertising return, then you simply repeat the process over and over, and you're golden. Think Adsense, affiliate, and similar means to monetize pages. Take a look at Demand Media.

The Problem With Content Mills

One of the problems with content mills is that in an attempt to drive the production cost of content below the predicted return, some site owners are producing garbage content, usually by facilitating free contributions from users.

At the low end, Q&A sites proliferate wherein people ask questions and a community of people with opinions, informed or otherwise, provide their two cents worth. Unfortunately, many of the answers are worth somewhat less than two cents, resulting in pages of little or no value to an end reader. I'm sure you've seen such pages, as such pages often rank well in search engines if they are published on a domain with sufficient authority.

Some sites, like Mahalo, not only automate their page creation, but the use that automated page to generate automate related question pages as well. The rabbit hole has no bottom!

At the other end of the spectrum, we have sites that publish higher-cost, well researched content sourced from paid writers. A traditional publishing model, in other words. Generally speaking, such pages are of higher value to end user, but the problem is that the search engines can't appear to tell the difference between these pages and the junk opinion pages. If the content mill has sufficient authority, then the junk gets promoted.

And there are many examples in between, of course.

As Tedster mentioned, "the problem here is that every provider of freelance content is NOT providing junk - though some are. As far as I know, there is no current semantic processing that can sort out the two. It's tough to see how this could be quickly and effectively reined in, at least not by algorithm. I assume that this kind of empty filler content is not very useful for visitors — it certainly isn't for me. So I also assume it must be on Google's radar.".

The Future Of Content Mills

I think Tedster is right - such sites will surely appear on Google's radar, because junk, low value content doesn't help their end users.

It must be a difficult problem to solve, else Google would have done so by now, but I think it's reasonable to assume Google will try to relegate the lowest of the low-value content sites at some point. If you are following a content mill strategy, or considering starting one, it's reasonable to prepare for such an eventuality.

The future, I suspect, is not to be a content mill, in the pejorative sense of the word. Aim for quality.

Arbitrary definitions of quality are difficult enough, as we've discussed above. Objective measurement is impossible, because what is relevant to one person may be irrelevant to the next. The field of IQ (information quality) may provide us some clues regarding Google's approach. IQ is a form of research in systems information management that deals specifically with information quality.

Here are some of the metrics they use:

  • Authority- Authority refers to the expertise or recognized official status of a source. Consider the reputation of the author and publisher. When working with legal or government information, consider whether the source is the official provider of the information.
  • Scope of coverage - Scope of coverage refers to the extent to which a source explores a topic. Consider time periods, geography or jurisdiction and coverage of related or narrower topics.
  • Composition and Organization- Composition and Organization has to do with the ability of the information source to present it’s particular message in a coherent, logically sequential manner.
  • Objectivity - Objectivity is the bias or opinion expressed when a writer interprets or analyze facts. Consider the use of persuasive language, the source’s presentation of other viewpoints, it’s reason for providing the information and advertising.
  • Validity - Validity of some information has to do with the degree of obvious truthfulness which the information carries
  • Uniqueness - As much as ‘uniqueness’ of a given piece of information is intuitive in meaning, it also significantly implies not only the originating point of the information but also the manner in which it is presented and thus the perception which it conjures. The essence of any piece of information we process consists to a large extent of those two elements.
  • Timeliness - Timeliness refers to information that is current at the time of publication. Consider publication, creation and revision dates.
  • Reproducibility

Any of this sound familiar? It should, as the search landscape is rife with this terminology. This is not to say Google look at all these aspects, but they have used similar concepts, starting with PageRank.

As conventional SEO wisdom goes, Google may have tried to solve the relevancy problem partly by focusing on authority, on the premise that a trusted authority must publish trusted content, so the pages of a domain with a high degree of authority receive a boost over those with lower authority levels. But this situation may not last, as some trusted sources, in terms of having authority, do, at times, publish auto-gen garbage content. Google may well start looking at composition metrics, if they aren't doing so already.

This is speculation, of course.

I think a good rule of thumb, for the time being, should be "will this page pass human inspection?". If it looks like junk to a human reviewer in terms of organization, and reads like junk in terms of composition, it probably is junk, and Google will likely feed such information back into their algorithms. Check out Google's Quality Rater Document from 2007 which should give you a feel for Google's editorial policy.

Usage Data vs Relevancy Algorithms

Mar 21st

A few years ago Google's chief economist Hal Varian explained that scale is over-rated:

We're very skeptical about the scale argument, as you might expect. There's a lot of aspects to this subject that are not very well understood.
...
So in all of this stuff, the scale arguments are pretty bogus in our view because it's not the quantity or quality of the ingredients that make a difference, it's the recipes. We think we're where we are today because we've got better recipes and we have better recipes because we spent 10 years working on search improving the performance of the algorithm.

Wednesday Google's chief scientist Peter Norvig shared his view:

We don't have better algorithms than anyone else. We just have more data.

And this is why you see so many hucksters hyping trash, committing fraud, scamming users, cutting corners, and working legal loopholes at launch time to try to grow marketshare *at any cost*

Build the scale and you have the cashflow and feedback mechanisms in place to test viral marketing strategies, improve conversion rates, increase real (and perceived) relevancy, and lock in users.

"In a July 19, 2005 e-mail to YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen wrote: 'jawed, please stop putting stolen videos on the site. We’re going to have a tough time defending the fact that we’re not liable for the copyrighted material on the site because we didn’t put it up when one of the co-founders is blatantly stealing content from other sites and trying to get everyone to see it.'"
...
"Our dirty little secret... is that we actually just want to sell out quickly," said Karim at one point. In an e-mail, Chen talked about “concentrat[ing] all of our efforts in building up our numbers as aggressively as we can through whatever tactics, however evil.” - Ars Technica

Welcome to the exciting world of innovation in online media!

Without brand you have nothing.

With brand even a wounded duck full of unauthorized scraped content like YouTube or Mahalo somehow manages flight, at least for a while. Then you only need to find someone dumb enough to buy the growth story and purchase the bag of smoke before the fire emerges.

Of course people don't have to cut corners, lie, cheat, and steal to build a real business. Those are the strategies employed by people trying to sell value where none exists. You can do just fine by dominating a small niche THEN leveraging data to grow. It is not sexy. You probably can't hype it to the media. It might not lead to an 8 or 9 figure payday. But then you won't have to describe your strategy as "whatever tactics, however evil.”

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