Neurological Exploitation & Selfish Ignorance

Feb 11th

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch, which is required reading for every online publisher and marketer. Here is an interview of him by Greg Jarboe about the book

In the chapter The Great Unbundling Nick talked about the demise of newspapers, news organizations, and many traditional news containers. Some of those containers offered a packaging which allowed the creation of free premium content subsidized by profitable backfill content.

The same chapter also talks about what we use to replace these intermediaries - our clickstreams, RSS subscriptions, search, and personalization algorithms. Some offline studies in communications have proved that we are more likely to listen to information that reinforces our worldviews. In addition research has shown that we become more confident, biased, and extreme when we find others who reinforce our worldviews.

Consider the following about the future of online information quality

  • overtly biased information is more remarkable: and is thus likely to gain more comments, more links, more subscribers, and is easier to remember
  • shock testing: much like overtly biased information being remarkable, headlines can easily be tested for performance with little to no cost. I have created headlines that ranked #1 on social news sites when those headlines were only marginally related to the article I was promoting.
  • quality and bias are the same to algorithms: any sign of quality that search engines often ties directly into bias. Just because something has many links does not mean it is "of quality." Ranking a bunch of left wing nutball stuff and right wing nutball stuff is a way to claim you have result diversity, but it does not create or nurture business models for creating more rational and balanced information.
  • marketers track performance: Publishing largely consists of topic selection and publication format. But with so many ways to track performance, publishers are becoming marketers and affiliates who can track the performance of content based on links, pageviews, and earnings. And they can use all that feedback to further arbitrage profit centers while giving less coverage to important topics with limited commercial viability.
  • half truth: If a lie or half-truth is more profitable than the truth someone will sell that story. One of my affiliates went so far as declaring that I am a scammer to try to sell my ebook. What more might that person do to arbitrage my brand if they did not like me? How many affiliates typically emphasize the downsides of a product (unless they are using X is a scam as their sales strategy)?
  • your truth is confirmed: with millions of people publishing information online you will find someone who confirms your facts, even if they are not true. Any person who cites a falsehood makes it easier for others to discover (and believe in) the same lie.
  • everything can be discredited: just about anyone or anything which has risen to social significance has someone talking badly about it. We all make mistakes and the web has a memory longer than our lifespans.
  • similar language usage: people who have similar biases will tend to write information and seek out information using similar words
  • the fight for timing: with so many people competing for attention being first is often more important than being correct. Just yesterday it was claimed that a record label quit and uploaded their catalog to Pirate Bay, but that news was fabricated. Even if you are wrong those links and the page views do not disappear.
  • sound bytes: with so many people creating information more information is being consumed in smaller chunks lacking in context. If it long who has time to consume it?
  • the blend: the borders between content and advertising are blurring as ads get more interactive and we learn to ignore ads that look like traditional advertisements. Organizations like the US military created video games as recruiting tools aimed at 14 year old children.
  • personalization: through the channels we subscribe to, words we search for, and sites we visit search engines make it harder to get outside of our comfort zone by showing us what we already know and believe.
  • exploitation algorithms: Large online media companies know a lot about us, and where they lack information they can mathematically model us based on our interests and habits. Scientists are studying marketing on a neurological level. Google has a patent for targeting ads directly to our psychological flaws based on things like risk tolerance during game play and offers a nearly unmarked text link as an ad unit.

Couple the above with sharply increasing wealth disparity in the US and it makes the web look like a pretty bleak tool for fostering democracy and better understanding of ourselves and each other. How interactive should ads aimed at children get? Should relevancy algorithms give us what we like even if it is false? Is it ok if ads lie? Will marketing advances make us better, or will more people be given pharmaceutical drugs to cure them of their personality?

Might there be a business model in reminding people to slow down and look at things from another angle? When things really bother and frustrate me I try to consume information from someone from an alternate perspective to give myself greater balance. But many people are stuck in debt and do not have enough time to read a 200 to 500 page book unless it offers immediate profit potential.

Books Published Online by the Chapter

Feb 11th

HarperCollins is going to post free books on the web:

Starting Monday, readers who log on to www.harpercollins.com will be able to see the entire contents of “The Witch of Portobello” by Mr. Coelho; “Mission: Cook! My Life, My Recipes and Making the Impossible Easy” by Mr. Irvine; “I Dream in Blue: Life, Death and the New York Giants” by Roger Director; “The Undecided Voter’s Guide to the Next President: Who the Candidates Are, Where They Come from and How You Can Choose” by Mark Halperin; and “Warriors: Into the Wild” the first volume in a children’s series by Erin Hunter.

Random House is going to start selling books by the chapter. Leading off with Made to Stick at $2.99 a chapter.

I am a bit skeptical of the "by the chapter" business model, but books have tens or hundreds of thousands of words in them, backed by a trusted brand with editorial control, which can rank in organic search results AND be promoted through a vertical book search. Once they get a taste of the ad revenues, book publishers are going to publish most traditional nonfiction books online in their entirety, which will create a lot of competition for traditional web publishing based businesses.

Freemium Publishing & Sustainable Business Models

Jan 21st

Here is a great speech by Chris Anderson about how reputation and attention are becoming the new economies upon which much of the internet (and potentially offline) world may be based upon.

Freemium consists of giving away value (and possibly wrapping it in ads), as a lead generator to sell premium products and services. The model minimizes consumer risk by allowing them to become familiar with and reliant on the service before paying for it.

A Startup Nation article explains why the model is so powerful:

David Beisel, principal at Masthead Venture Partners in Cambridge, Mass., says the freemium model is attractive to VCs for the same reason it’s attractive to entrepreneurs. “Giving away a free version of the service allows consumers to not just learn about it through collateral or a free trial,” he explains, “but it presents them the opportunity to fully adopt the service and incorporate it into their lives.

“Those types of customers are ones who begin to evangelize the product to others. Entrepreneurs then greatly benefit, as powerful and inexpensive word-of-mouth marketing kicks in.”

One of the things I believe is that just like services that move toward free, all forms of content (even specialized high value niche content) will follow the same path. Information that is sold as a product (not a service) will keep seeing its margins decline as self satisfying hollow chucking and local substitution (ie: wikipedia editors rewriting your content, or someone uploads it to a torrent site) drive the value of most information to nothing.

People buy the reputation, experience, story, and relationship. It is more emotional than logical, and so publishers will become interactive media artists.

Video link via Seth.

Pharmaceutical Research Information Properly Optimized

Jan 21st

The WSJ published an article about the fraudulent research sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies which push antidepressant drugs on children:

A total of 74 studies involving a dozen anti-depressants and 12,564 patients were registered with the FDA from 1987 through 2004. The FDA deemed 38 of the studies to be positive. All but one of those studies was published, the researchers said.

The other 36 were found to have negative or questionable results by the FDA. Most of those studies -- 22 out of 36 -- were not published. Of the 14 that were published, the researchers said at least 11 of those studies mischaracterized the results and presented a negative study as positive.

The NYT is publishing custom branded content to help these advertisers. And, from a few months back, here was Google's take on health marketing:

News reporters may focus on Pharma’s annual sales and its executives’ salaries while failing to share R&D costs. Or, as is often common, the media may use an isolated, heartbreaking, or sensationalist story to paint a picture of healthcare as a whole. With all the coverage, it’s a shame no one focuses on the industry’s numerous prescription programs, charity services, and philanthropy efforts.

Many of our clients face these issues; companies come to us hoping we can help them better manage their reputations through “Get the Facts” or issue management campaigns. Your brand or corporate site may already have these informational assets, but can users easily find them?

We can place text ads, video ads, and rich media ads in paid search results or in relevant websites within our ever-expanding content network. Whatever the problem, Google can act as a platform for educating the public and promoting your message.

Prozac vs Tryptophan - On June 15, 1993, the FDA Dietary Supplement Task Force published a report on the work it had been doing in the area of developing FDA policy around nutritional supplements. On page two, the report admits, “The Task Force considered various issues in its deliberations, including... what steps are necessary to ensure that the existence of dietary supplements on the market does not act as a disincentive for drug development.”

This is where the manual editing of search results gets tricky. The multi-billion dollar company rarely gets edited, but in many cases their information is much less honest than that provided by the independent PageRank 4 website

Alternative Energy, Alternative Media, & Asset Bubbles

Jan 21st

If you have ever wondered how the mainstream media works, watching Manufacturing Consent does a great job of displaying its sordid underbelly. The bias is not always this obvious, but it is always there:

The most recent issue of Harper's has an article by Eric Janszen about financial bubbles throughout US history named The next bubble: Priming the markets for tomorrow's big crash. A couple key quotes:

We have learned that the industry in any given bubble must support hundreds or thousands of separate firms financed by not billions but trillions of dollars in new securities that Wall Street will create and sell. Like housing in the late 1990s, this sector of the economy must already be formed and growing even as the previous bubble deflates. For those investing in that sector, legislation guaranteeing favorable tax treatment, along with other protections and advantages for investors, should already be in place or under review. Finally, the industry must be popular, its name on the libs of government policymakers and journalists. It should be familiar to those who watch television news or read newspapers.

The media rides the story up and rides it back down. We always need something to talk about. It happens to the media offline just like it does to niche publishers online. But the memory and analysis are short and shallow, quickly pointing a finger at a false cause, fixing symptoms like antidepressant drugs do:

The U.S. mortgage crisis has been labeled a "subprime mortgage crisis," but subprime mortgages were only a sideshow that appeared late, as the housing-bubble credit machine ran out of creditworthy borrowers. The main event was the hyperinflation of home prices. Risks are embedded in the price and lurk as defaults. Even after the faith that supported a bubble recedes, false beliefs continue to obscure cause and effect as the crisis unfolds.

It puts the formation of the alternative energy market in a fascinating perspective, especially as I finished reading about the demise of ACA and hung up the phone from an automated call from a sleazy telemarketer company calling me at 8pm, stating their partnerships with non-profits to help consolidate the debt that I don't have due to the country's current credit crisis.

When economic fraying appears at the weak edges of the market it hints that more is to come. Long time bulls are turning bearish and the stock markets are hurting worldwide. And so history repeats itself for the people, yes.

Web Publishers: Are You Ready for Your Ad CPM Rate to Drop 30% in 2008?

Jan 18th

Carl Fremont of Digitas thinks their might be online CPM rate contraction in 2008. Google helped provide one form of CPM contraction when they changed what part of an AdSense ad block is clickable. Markus Friend said that knocked his CTR down by about 60%.

Markus Friend also highlighted that Google controls about 40% of the (heavily consolidated) ad market:

90% of Advertising revenues are made by the top 50 sites and the top 10 sites take 70% of that, with google taking 40% of all Online US advertising.

This CPM compression is going to cause many late movers to crank out content with more ads on it, further lowering their CPM and direct readership until they are financially insolvent. But then again, the web could use another bust cycle to clean up the meaning of the word "content". Shoddy intrusive ad networks like NetAudioAds should not be featured as the next big thing in the WSJ.

In a recent interview, Nick Carr said he expects the ad consolidation trend to continue

It's the aggregators that are the big winners, at least in economic terms, not the legions of individual contributors.

Over the past 20 years, we've seen that the automation provided by computer systems has tended to concentrate wealth in the hands of a small slice of the population. I expect that trend will only accelerate in the years ahead. If you're one of the digital elite, you've got it made. If not, the prospects are less bright.

What is the solution for publishers? How do prevent yourself from being absorbed by the commons? Develop meaningful relationships, be remarkable, and sell direct. Hugh on owning an idea:

Social Markers are a prime form of social shorthand, that people use to STAKE OUT the ecosystem they're occupying. So why do I find this such a useful term for marketers? Because obviously, if your product is a Social Marker in your industry ecosystem [the way the iPhone is in the mobile world, or Starbucks is in the coffee world, or Amazon is the book world, or Google is in the search world, or Whole Foods is in the supermarket world, or Virgin is in the airline world, or English Cut in the bespoke world etc etc] you will have an AMAZING competitive advantage to call your own.

And if the product your company makes is not a Social Marker, I guess the first question would be, "Why the hell not?" Quit your job and start over.

One of the easiest ways to claim an idea is to turn its launch into an event, and differentiate it from everything else you are doing. Buy the matching domain name if you can. :)

Bonus cool link: Bill Slawski mentioned a Yahoo! patent about moving away from the random surfer model to a user sensitive PageRank. Now if they could only apply some good ideas in the SERPs. And no, this does not count. :)

Triggit - the Easy Way to Monetize Accidental Rankings

Since Google largely tends to favor ranking informational websites over commercial websites, some authoritative blogs tend to rank for valuable queries based on posts they make in passing.

Even if you had no intent to monetize a post, it just became easier to monetize accidental rankings. If you use analytics to track your stats and notice that you start ranking for some good keywords you can use Triggit to embed links to merchant products directly in the text of your blog post.

Shoemoney created this quick video to show how Triggit works

Unlike the automated ad solutions like intellitxt or AdSense, these Triggit ads

  • look like other regular links on the page (so they should get a high CTR)
  • can easily be applied on a page by page level (so you do not have to clutter up every page to monetize the few pages that can make a lot of money)
  • link to products recommended by the editor (to preserve editorial integrity)
  • can link to merchants that pay via affiliate payout or CPC (offering multiple monetization models)
  • allow you to keep your pages clean (and easy to link at) until they rank, then have you add monetization after you have a leading market position for related keywords

Triggit ads are easy to set up and should require little maintenance on the end user's side, but they are still a small start up, so if you start doing well with them make sure you remember which pages do well so you can keep monetizing the pages if the Triggit partnership stops working, and so you can track which pages you should try to monetize more aggressively and/or build links to.

As blended semi-editorial in content ad networks like these evolve, the distinction between optimization and spam blurs. And since Google has a similar product, it is going to be hard to view this in a negative light without looking hypocritical in the process. From Google's pay per action page:

Text links are hyperlinked brief text descriptions that take on the characteristics of a publisher's page. Publishers can place them in line with other text to better blend the ad and promote your product.

For example, you might see the following text link embedded in a publisher's recommendatory text: "Widgets are fun! I encourage all my friends to Buy a high-quality widget today." (Mousing over the link will display "Ads by Google" to identify these as pay-per-action ads).

Though the maximum length of a text link is 90 characters, we've found that shorter links perform better because they allow the publisher use the link in more places on her/his site and in different context. The maximum length is 90 characters but less than 5 words is best. Even better, just use your brand name to offer maximum flexibility to the publisher.

Social Media vs Influencing Thought Leaders

In most markets worth being in and with most sustainable business models, sales is not a one time event, but a process. You first have to create awareness, then build trust, then finally make the sale. Do all 3 happen at once for some people? Sure, but probably not for the majority of customers.

My big issue with hyping social media is that most things that are popular on social media sites do not actually build credibility, and that you are going to have marginal success building your brand if you start by focusing on these broad third party communities rather than YOUR TOPICAL COMMUNITY.

When I first started getting well known there was no Digg. There was a Slashdot, but exposure on Slashdot did not make or break me. What really sent my personal brand on a sharp upward trajectory was when Danny Sullivan mentioned me. Because he felt I was comment-worthy many other people suddenly thought I knew what I was talking about and that I was trustworthy.

That perception of trust, audience, and personal-brand that Danny had spent years building was in some part transferred to me. Am I as well known as he is? Of course not, but while sites like Digg have audience they tend to lack that perception of trust and personal-brand that transfers BUYING CUSTOMERS to your site.

If a person who has trust and a broad base of readership recommends you that creates immediate sales. I see that in my daily sales data and my affiliate statistics. If you get featured on social media sites it does not lead to many sales. Perhaps that exposure leads to awareness, which can further be enhanced by writing about that community, buying banner ads from sites like Lead Back, or by writing other create subscription-worthy content, but generally in content editorial link from a trusted expert creates more sales than exposure on a nearly automated hollow social news site.

If your site is new to the market and you want some exposure you have two options

  • eat Taco bell for a month, take the world's biggest crap, then write a leading 10 step how-to guide on how-to polish it, or
  • create things that people INSIDE YOUR COMMUNITY will find useful

One of those strategies will get you in the Guinness book of world records. The other will make sales.

Does your content build trust?

Wikia Search Launch Not Really a Launch

After much hype Wikia Search just launched with a dummy index. No surprise the launch was received badly. Worse yet, none of the alleged human relevancy tools are available. Wasted opportunity. Google has at least another year of having no real competition.

SearchGuild, My Favorite SEO Forum, Goes Offline

Dec 24th

My buddy Patrick Münzinger just informed me that SearchGuild went offline - forever. SearchGuild is the forum that (along with NFFC, a few other mentors, and a few lucky breaks) took me from near bankruptcy to knowing enough about this market to be exceptionally profitable and be able to help many other people do well.

While many other forums were polluted with useless noise, syndicated spin and half truths from search engineers, self promotion (submit your site to MY directory AND buy MY services), bogus ethics claims (what is a white hat anyway?), and tactical misinformation ... SearchGuild was the one that taught me to test stuff and to gain enough confidence in myself to make my opinions matter and make my decisions profitable. Guys like Chris Ridings and Lots0 may have seemed cranky, but they were blunt and honest. They helped people just because they liked helping. The web could use more of that.

But when SearchGuild was profitable the profits were donated to charity, and even though the site's popularity has been maintained, ad revenues dropped, and so that great service no longer exists as a hobby in spite of the great value it offered. In the last 5 years my 2 favorite sites about search were Threadwatch and SearchGuild, and now they are both dead because they had bad business models. This is yet another sign to me that you really have to charge what you are worth if you create value for others, or eventually it dries up. Thanks for the 5 great years SearchGuild.

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