Is Result Diversity Enough? Search Offers a Reflection of What?

Pay Per Post Already Dominates Many Business Models

Search engines toe the company line fighting against spam, but are paid posts any worse than sponsored research? The day before Matt posted about some lowbrow PPP ads used to equate paid post with bogus information on brain tumors, I posted about how some scientific research is polluted by commercial interests, and an SEO Book contributor by the nickname of RFK left this great comment:

I was just going to comment on this issue on Matt's blog, since he went on a rant about paid posts being bad for personal brain surgery research. Really.

The irony is that most/all of the articles that he would prefer to see on the Google SERPS are researched, assembled and ghost written by pharma companies. Having worked with a number of clients in the medical field it's become more and more apparent that the "studies" published by well-known academics are most often based on research by the drug companies, scripted by a hired copywriter and given to the academic to sign off and publish under their byline.

This begs the question: what's more harmful, the illiterate drivel of a $10 Pay Per Poster or a biased supposed medical study published by a respected researcher? Obviously Google can't control what papers are published, but they shouldn't be pretending that restricting competing paid advertising practises is about returning better content.

The Copy & Paste Culture

As a joke, years ago I created a rather offensive seedy website (with low quality information on porn, drugs, and gambling), and a professor diametrically opposed to my worldviews sourced that site as a credible source. If he was that intellectually lazy with his own professor profile page, how much intellectual laziness goes into the average web page?

As media empires crumble the recycling effect of online information is only going to get worse. While I may not agree with all of the research, the Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google highlighted how journalists start research using Google, and even have a way to warp Google for other writers:

More and more, initiatives to maintain journalistic quality standards complain that also journalistic stories are increasingly the result of a mere "googlisation of reality". One drastic example is described by the German journalist Jochen Wegner [Wegner 2005]: A colleague of him did a longer report on a small village in the north of Germany. He reported about a good restaurant with traditional cooking, a region-typical choir doing a rehearsal in the village church and about a friendly farmer selling fresh agricultural products. If you type the name of the small village into Google, the first three hits are the web sites of the restaurant, the farmer and the choir. And if you compare the complete story of the journalist with the texts on the web sites found by Google, you will see: As a journalist of the 21st century, you don't have to be at a place to write a "personal" story about it. Google can do this for you.

When you think of that publishing trend, think of how well Wikipedia ranks, and how Wikipedia often reflects the public relations campaign of the largest market participant it gets a bit concerning. It gets even uglier if you think about the erosion of publishing based business models, and their increasing reliance on public relations firms to give them stories as they drastically cut staffing levels.

The Race Toward The Edges of Reality

The types of publishing that will dominate the web are

  • those selling content as service: the value add of service will allow them to develop relationships with readers which help them market their content while still being able to provide honest value and compete in competitive marketplaces
  • those giving away content to push commercial services: if you can gain enough attention, respect, and credibility you can charge well for your work. You can even sell what others give away, see the above category.
  • those creating content from passion: they don't need to be profitable if they are doing it for fun or because they are passionate
  • those with extreme bias: a biased article is remarkable and more citation-worthy than a vanilla article
  • public relations spin: essentially Pay Per Post, also without disclosure
  • those creating thin content: consumer generated content, repackaged ideas as link list linkbaits, and/or copy and paste of one of the above groups
  • profitable advertisements: with automated integration or editorial selection causing these to have exposure in the above content types even if they are not well ranked in the organic parts of the web. The ease of tracking these ad results will effectively warp many of the above categories of information.

Biased content is easier to reference, syndicate, and subscribe to than more balanced content because we are more aligned to communications messages that match our worldview. And much of the passion driven content is tied to a strong bias (like hate sites). Which means that search engines can try to display a diverse set of search results, but as time passes they will reflect more biased groups of opinions and far fewer balanced articles.

Your Feedback Needed

Maybe it has always been this way though? Do any reporters read this blog? I would love your comments on concepts similar to result diversity in offline publishing, especially contrasting it before and after the web.

I wonder if my roll as an SEO makes me interested in such issues? Do other SEOs (perhaps you) find macroeconomic and publishing trends interesting? What other topics do you find yourself losing hours to every week?

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Brian Clark just hit a home run with his post about how we let fear harm our productivity.

I want to create more things like The Blogger's Guide to SEO, with the goal of pushing myself up the value chain by creating better brand touch points. I am hoping to launch a big site in the next month and want to add some cool new features to SEO Book.

Many of my projects have went far slower than they should have, largely because I have been far too busy, but also because I have let fear, laziness, and routine guide me toward accepting the needed excuses to wait until tomorrow. Once you get beyond self sustaining it is easy to sit comfortable and make up fake work just to keep yourself busy.

One of my favorite parts about being somewhat well known online is that I get to talk to others that are well known and far more successful than I am, and hear what they think in a way that is unfiltered by the need for professionalism or public relations. Tips, strategies, ideas, motivations, and human flaws unmasked - stuff you just wouldn't read on a blog - because if you did they would lose money for sharing. Unfiltered conversations where people are human and real to a level that inspires me to do better things and curb the fears that hold me back. In the end it makes you more confident because you know you can help others out, they can help you out, and everyone has some amount of fear guiding them toward action or inaction.

At the end of the day, Google and other market participants are not our biggest competitors, we are. Having said that, I might take a break from blogging for a week or two and slow down blogging for the rest of the year so I can start digging in on doing some of those big projects that have been lingering about.

[Update: A friend of mine recommended I read Dan Kennedy's The Ultimate Success Secret, which states that control = responsibility and responsibility = control. If this post resonates with you this book is well worth a read.]

Share Your Best Ideas Today, Not Tomorrow

Intro quote from The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . .
—John Donne

Around the time when Brian Clark launched the initial Teaching Sells report I made a post covering many similar ideas from my perspective. About a month ago I wrote a guest post for ProBlogger about overcoming fears in writing a blog, but Darren's vacation got moved and the post just got published today. A couple days ago Brian wrote a post about overcoming writing fears.

If a person was to only read Brian's blog then read my post it might appear that I copied his story. Or that maybe a couple stories were published because of the other. We both read each other's blogs regularly, and in some cases ideas feed off each other, but in the above example I think the delay on the posting to ProBlogger and the timing shows that beyond the ability to recycle ideas sometimes people are just thinking about the same things at the same time. And it makes sense that people in similar markets would do that.

Some of the best writers focus on their own problems, struggles, and issues associated with their learning, background, or history. Many of the best ideas stem from personal experience, customer questions, and/or other market feedback. Thus some great ideas are obvious to any marketer who is creative and has a few months of experience.

The day that my wife Giovanna wrote her first post here asking when will Wikipedia rank for everything Rand posted about the dark side of Wikipedia. A total coincidence, but if Gio would have put a bit of a negative slant on her article it might have seemed like one was derived from (or inspired by) the other.

There are only so many topics that are interesting enough to write about. Well maybe the sea of stories is endless, but within the confines of any market some ideas are recycled once a year while others enjoy a fresh view every few months. When I wrote linkbait is the new reciprocal links page I was quickly reminded that someone else used that exact same title in the past. The sad thing is that I know I have accidentally done the same thing before without knowing it until after the fact.

In every market worth being in there are so many people competing for attention that you are bound to accidentally recycle stuff. And if you have any reach people will recycle your stuff or create additional ideas inspired by your stuff. The sooner you share your best ideas the more likely you are to be attributed as source and the less likely you are to be viewed as a copycat.

The Blogger's Guide to SEO was an idea kicking in my head for six months before we finally did it. And the motivation to do it stemmed from a panel at the Blog World Expo with Andy Beal, Vanessa Fox, and Stephan Spencer. After I published it, Andy linked to it and said it was something he was thinking about doing. If he had done it first he would have got thousands of links and I would have been busy eating crow, or meowing - as a copy cat does. :)

Many people are thinking similarly to you right now. The longer you wait to release your idea to the wild the more likely it is that someone else already did something similar.

Link Buying Crimes vs Sponsored Scientific Research

Nov 30th

A friend of mine sent me a link to The Kept University, a great article about how corporations are increasingly turning universities into cheap biased research labs.

Companies give researchers stock options for conducting research on product development, censor negative reviews, and see a much higher rate of positive reviews. They then use this research to try to push new products into the market. That is about a million times worse than something like PayPerPost, which recently saw many of their bloggers get their PageRank axed by Google.

In one way it makes Google's position seem absurd because many of the "best links" are simply a reflection of these hidden business deals by publishers and the advertisers with the largest profit margins. But you could also think of these types of relationships as a low risk source of clean links, and the type of relationship and reputation building tools needed to sustain profit margins in competitive marketplaces.

When you are new and small you can't afford to sponsor a school, but you can still offer to take a professor out to lunch or offer them free stuff to help build your credibility and push you into a market leading position.

You don't have to own the world to do well, just be a leader in a growing market and ride that growth curve. And if your field does not relate to a school it probably relates to some community or industry organization. And if those do not exist you could create one and build from there.

I am not suggesting that anyone pay people to lie about you, but that if Google doesn't like paid links maybe we should try to emulate how market leaders get and keep their leading market positions offline: pay to get your products in the hands of market leaders and (when possible) don't disclose the sponsored editorial transactions!

Excerpts from The Kept University:

In higher education today corporations not only sponsor a growing amount of research -- they frequently dictate the terms under which it is conducted. Professors, their image as unbiased truth-seekers notwithstanding, often own stock in the companies that fund their work. ...

In the summer of 1996 four researchers working on a study of calcium channel blockers -- frequently prescribed for high blood pressure -- quit in protest after their sponsor, Sandoz, removed passages from a draft manuscript highlighting the drugs' potential dangers, which include stroke and heart failure. ...

In 1996, while serving as a consultant to Microfibres, a Rhode Island company that produces nylon flock, Kern discovered evidence of a serious new lung disease among the company's employees. Upon learning that he planned to publish his findings, the company threatened to sue, citing a confidentiality agreement that forbade Kern to expose "trade secrets." ...

The New England Journal of Medicine warning that drugs like fen-phen could have potentially fatal side effects. But the same issue contained a commentary from two academic researchers that downplayed the health dangers of fen-phen . Both authors had served as paid consultants to the manufacturers and distributors of similar drugs -- connections that were not mentioned.

If everything becomes free then hidden costs will pop up everywhere. It is so much cleaner if it is all out in the open, but some people don't think of the alternative before trying to force their view of the world upon it. Cheers to the rise of paid content as free content becomes more polluted.

In a few years search engines will wish their problems were as simple as spotting paid links.

Lowbrow Frugal Web Design Tips: How to Create a $10 Logo You Can Be Proud of

Nov 28th

When launching new tools or information products it helps to create a professional logo that people can spread around. But sometimes you are short on time or just want to get the idea out the door. Even if you don't have a lot of time or money you can still get a logo that looks good.

When launching the Blogger's Guide to SEO and the Website Health Check Tools my designers were busy, so I went to Istockphoto to buy a few illustrations, resized them, and then added text to them. 10 minutes work with Photoshop (download a free trial version here) and I had decent looking logos. Even the little widget pictures on my homepage were part of a $10 image set.

There is a lot of text on the web, but most of it is not branded with imagry that helps people remember it. When many people are pitching / selling / spreading the same stories and ideas, it helps to create something that is easy to remember. Naming is a large part of that, but creating a logo that reinforces helps too.

The SEO Book Blog is Now Creative Commons Licensed

Nov 22nd

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

When I published the SEO glossary I made it creative commons licensed. I wanted to do that with all the blog posts on SEO Book too, but just got around to doing so. If you like any of the blog posts here feel free to do what you like with them.

I also made the how search engines work article CC licensed too.

BizRate.com & Google Break Up

Nov 13th

Google Checkout Makes Shopping Sites Undesirable

As Google Checkout ramps up, many thin arbitrage / shopping aggregator sites are going to see a significant love loss from Google. In September Andrew Goodman wrote a piece on how paid search and organic search quality criteria may play off each other, after coming across a post on Inside AdWords where Google stated that some types of sites are likely to merit a low quality score:

The following types of websites are likely to merit low landing page quality scores and may be difficult to advertise affordably. In addition, it's important for advertisers of these types of websites to adhere to our landing page quality guidelines regarding unique content.
  • eBook sites that show frequent ads
  • 'Get rich quick' sites
  • Comparison shopping sites
  • Travel aggregators
  • Affiliates that don't comply with our affiliate guidelines

Market Saturation

It does not help any of the shopping aggregators that there are about a dozen competitors (BizRate, Shopping.com, Shopzilla, MSN Shopping, NextTag, Epinions, DealTime, Pricegrabber, Pricerunner, Yahoo! Shopping, etc.). From a marketing standpoint almost all of them offer near identical user experience, so few of them are remarkable or linkworthy. The whole field (including Yahoo!) compete based on renting large swaths of links.

Everyone MUST Rent Links to Compete

Given Google's recent war cries against buying and selling links, and that there are so many shopping comparison sites, it is easy for Google to whack a few of them with it going unnoticed by anyone outside the companies. But if you are in the comparison shopping field and do not rent links, how can you compete with Yahoo! when they do? You can't.

The Fall of BizRate.com

I am uncertain if the drop in Google was algorithmic or editorial, but BizRate's Alexa ranking is off sharply over the past couple weeks, and if you look at top keywords they ranked for on Google (via Compete.com, SEO Digger, or SpyFu), their site is no longer ranking for many of them. In fact, I didn't even see the US site ranking for "biz rate". For that term bizrate.co.uk ranks #1. When I visit the UK site from a Google search result for "biz rate" the site asks if I want to view the US site or the UK site.

Here is a snapshot of the plunged BizRate traffic

And here is a running historical graph:

Google's Algorithmic Whitelists Are Not Carved in Stone

BizRate, which sold to the E.W. Scripps company for $525 million, used to be on Google's editorial white list.

Perceived Authenticity is Key to Profitable Niche Publishing Business Models

Via TC, I discovered IBM released a report on how the they think the $550 billion global ad market might change in the coming years. The predictions look bleak for most ad agencies and traditional media gatekeepers, but good for niche publishers who have a solid stream of attention:

The "voice" delivering a message, along with its perceived authenticity, will become as powerful perhaps as the message or offer.

As media gets more saturated, we get better at filtering out garbage. Jakob Nielson's article about writing articles instead of blog posts does a great job of explaining why writing fewer and more in depth articles is effective for gaining and keeping attention in a competitive marketplace.

On a related note, Frank just noticed a TV show skipping the TV and starting out on the web. There is no easier way to increased perceived authenticity than having a direct and open relationship with the audience.

IBM also offered research on the attention economy in a paper titled Vying for attention: the future of competing in media and entertainment. Rich Shefren recently created a mindmap of what he calls the Attention Age Doctrine, which shows why people are willing to pay larger premiums for great advice and nothing for decent advice.
attention age

How to Create & Unlock $100 of Value Per Word

Seth Godin referenced a Steven Berlin Johnson post analyzing the word usage of various authors. Writers using short words and short sentences tend to sell more.

It is easy to think that if you just do more and add more value that you will make more money, but sometimes doing more just means simplifying and clarifying your words, or publishing in a more friendly format. If you want people to take action, to believe they can afford it, making them feel confident and comfortable works. More does not always mean better.

Some of the posts I write about the macroeconomic trends of online publishing and the search economy take 5 hours to write, get few or no comments, get few or no citations, and probably scare off potential customers. Those posts do not cater to people looking to buy SEO information. The short SEO videos I recently made are easier to create and easy to consume. Daily sales are near my all time high.

But is Free Content Actually Free?

Oct 17th

Brian Clark just wrote a great free 22 page report about...

  • why you should ignore the trap of free content + ads as a business model
  • how creating and marketing free content and promotes information pollution
  • how to package and sell information
  • how you are not like a typical web user
  • why you need to take advantage of new trends and ignore trends of old
  • what brands actually sell
  • how primitive the web is

Many of the points he hits on are similar to my post titled Death of the Book: Publishers Will Become Interactive Media Artists with the exception that Brian is more eloquent and used much better formatting. If you only read one thing this week, make sure Brian's Teaching Sells report is on that short list.

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