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.
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.
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.
If you have not yet heard of Drupal, it is the open source CMS that powers this site (and many sites far more robust and popular than this one). I think I am pretty good at predicting web trends, and 2 or 3 years from now Drupal will be about as popular and well known as Wordpress and Wikipedia are today.
Drupal is more powerful than what the average blogger needs to run their site, but it has so many features and options that it can allow you to bolt many things onto your blog that you would not be able to do very easily with something like Wordpress or MovableType.
The business models for news companies rely upon regional based monopolies that are quickly eroding.
Domain names and community activity largely supplement or replace the need for much of the generalist news or syndication based business model. I used to live in State College and talked to the guy who owned StateCollege.com. The local paper was doing worse and worse every year, and with a small aggressive staff, better technology, more interactive ads, and a great domain name beat them.
And the news that is worth money spreads fast OUTSIDE OF the pay wall. Does WSJ want the pageviews for breaking a news story, or do they want to see the TechCrunch post about the WSJ story get those pageviews?
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?
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.
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?
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.]
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. . . .
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.