Disappearing Clicks

When Compete.com launched with credits-based pricing well over a decade ago I felt like a kid in a candy store using their competitive research tool. Recently Compete.com announced they were shutting down, but many of the link analysis & competitive research tools which leverage scraping have also started licensing clickstream data from sources like Clickstre.am & JumpShot.

These sorts of features add a lot of value to traditional keyword tools, as they can highlight the CTR on ads vs organic results & show if people click on anything after they search for a particular term.

When I read Ahref's recent blog post about integrating clickstream data I got that same kid in a candy store feeling I got when I first used Compete. Some highlights...

  • their keyword database contains over 3 billion keywords
  • they offer localized search volumes
  • searches with clicks vs searches without clicks
  • clicks per search
  • repeat searches metric
  • organic vs ad clicks

As an example of how the searches with clicks feature is helpful, consider Google's recently announced RGB conversion feature

In that image you can see how the feature displaces the result set.

What's cool about the Ahrefs feature is you can also see what sort of impact that feature has on click volumes.

After 1 month, 20% of the searches for that keyword no longer had any clicks to an external website.

On the second month it looks like the "no click" rate was closer to 7%, so perhaps some of the initial additional search volume was driven by people searching for the related keywords after blogs covered the new feature.

But the nice thing about the feature is you can see how the click rate changes over time as the feature evolves.

In some areas like weather Google ends up dominating most the user behavior with their in-SERP feature.

About half of all weather keyword searches do not click on any listings. And then of those which do click, about 20% of people click on an ad.

That means the potential organic click volume for that keyword is only about 40% of the initial search volume estimates.

Search results keep getting more interactive features & some of them appear to be click black holes. Literally...

Here is a new item comparison feature table.

As more of the value chain appears in the search results, more of the value chain which formerly appeared on websites disappears. This is true from a wide range of aspects including ad sales, content hosting, ad blocking & brand value.

General Ad Sales

No click into the publisher's site means no ad revenue for the publisher. Voice search will only accelerate the declines seen from mobile, which shifted user attention away from large screens with many listings to smaller screens with fewer listings & a far higher ad ratio in the search results.

Facebook Instant Articles & Google AMP

Google has already pushed hard to make hotel searches a pay-to-play vertical & yet some publishers are adopting AMP formatting in that vertical. Google is also forcing AMP down publisher's throats in other verticals like recipes.

If central ad networks host your content then they get better user data for your content than you do as a publisher.

User Tracking, in Aggregate

Increased user tracking depresses premium ad sales & moves value from niche players to broad networks "Whether it’s a third party like Facebook or Google tracking across the web or an ISP leveraging its distribution arm, this is outside of consumer expectations. Importantly to the digital media industry, it also devalues the context and relationship of consumer trust which drives the businesses of premium publishers."

Ad Blocking

Some large sites like Google or Facebook either pay ad blockers or technically work around them within their apps. By funding ad blockers exempting the search result page from having their ads blocked, Google is ultimately defunding competing ad networks.

Brand Value

As search results get noisier & more ad heavy, Google is trying to coerce brands into re-buying their pre-existing brand equity. These efforts are effective, as on some branded & navigational searches over half the click volume goes to the ads. Here are a few examples from Ahrefs. The orange bar shows what percent of the SERP clicks are on ads.

And the above doesn't even account for...

  • Google Maps being an ad-heavy search engine.
  • the Google Trips app which prevent searches from happening on Google.
  • The mid-tail of travel search on mobile where Google does away with the concept of organic search results.
  • Direct booking features complementing traditional AdWords ads & hotel price ads.
  • Google buying ITA Software to dominate flight search. Notice the most popular term is Google's branded term & for the generic term [flights] 72% of people don't click on any external site while 37% of the remaining 28% of searches click on an AdWords ad.

    And almost everyone else in that industry is stuck licensing flight data from Google, as they own ITA Software.

So Google is eating the generic terms, the brand terms, and the search query pool more broadly.

There's a reason Google's online travel business is over twice the size of anyone else & has their biggest advertisers seeking more sustainable & more legitimate alternatives.

The biggest travel players are accustomed to Google’s moves and trying their best to adjust and work around them. Missing from this story is the fact that Google’s latest moves are making it nearly impossible for all but the smallest number of consumer travel startups to succeed. — Dennis Schaal

And some of the aggressive stuff carries over into other lines of business outside of travel. Google is also testing large image extensions on AdWords ads on cell phones that don't leave room for even a second AdWords listing on the screen. When one invests in brand they have to start thinking about how much they are willing to pay Google as an ongoing tithing for their success. Look at the following ads where one brand bidding on a competing brand.

Google is willing to make their results worse (to the point they would consider a similar page as an ad-heavy doorway page of spam if hosted by anyone other than themselves) in order to monetize navigational searches.

What's more, you can't just opt out & ignore. When brands make agreements to not cross-bid Google has the FTC sue them.

On some high end fashion brands Google lists shopping ads which lead to third party sellers who sell used goods. Quite often counterfeits will also be in the mix. When the counterfeits are destroyed in the first wash, it is the brand owner who was took to the cleaners.

But there's a solution to that... they can pay Google ever-increasing protection.

Google & Facebook Squeezing Out Partners

Sections

Just Make Great Content...

Remember the whole shtick about good, legitimate, high-quality content being created for readers without concern for search engines - even as though search engines do not exist?

Whatever happened to that?

We quickly shifted from the above "ideology" to this:

The red triangle/exclamation point icon was arrived at after the Chrome team commissioned research around the world to figure out which symbols alarmed users the most.

Search Engine Engineering Fear

Google is explicitly spreading the message that they are doing testing on how to create maximum fear to try to manipulate & coerce the ecosystem to suit their needs & wants.

At the same time, the Google AMP project is being used as the foundation of effective phishing campaigns.

Scare users off of using HTTP sites AND host phishing campaigns.

Killer job Google.

Someone deserves a raise & some stock options. Unfortunately that person is in the PR team, not the product team.

Ignore The Eye Candy, It's Poisoned

I'd like to tell you that I was preparing the launch of https://amp.secured.mobile.seobook.com but awareness of past ecosystem shifts makes me unwilling to make that move.

I see it as arbitrary hoop jumping not worth the pain.

If you are an undifferentiated publisher without much in the way of original thought, then jumping through the hoops make sense. But if you deeply care about a topic and put a lot of effort into knowing it well, there's no reason to do the arbitrary hoop jumping.

Remember how mobilegeddon was going to be the biggest thing ever? Well I never updated our site layout here & we still outrank a company which raised & spent 10s of millions of dollars for core industry terms like [seo tools].

Though it is also worth noting that after factoring in increased ad load with small screen sizes & the scrape graph featured answer stuff, a #1 ranking no longer gets it done, as we are well below the fold on mobile.

   

Below the Fold = Out of Mind

In the above example I am not complaining about ranking #5 and wishing I ranked #2, but rather stating that ranking #1 organically has little to no actual value when it is a couple screens down the page.

Google indicated their interstitial penalty might apply to pop ups that appear on scroll, yet Google welcomes itself to installing a toxic enhanced version of the Diggbar at the top of AMP pages, which persistently eats 15% of the screen & can't be dismissed. An attempt to dismiss the bar leads the person back to Google to click on another listing other than your site.

As bad as I may have made mobile search results appear earlier, I was perhaps being a little too kind. Google doesn't even have mass adoption of AMP yet & they already have 4 AdWords ads in their mobile search results AND when you scroll down the page they are testing an ugly "back to top" button which outright blocks a user's view of the organic search results.

What happens when Google suggests what people should read next as an overlay on your content & sells that as an ad unit where if you're lucky you get a tiny taste of the revenues?

Is it worth doing anything that makes your desktop website worse in an attempt to try to rank a little higher on mobile devices?

Given the small screen size of phones & the heavy ad load, the answer is no.

I realize that optimizing a site design for mobile or desktop is not mutually exclusive. But it is an issue we will revisit later on in this post.

Coercion Which Failed

Many people new to SEO likely don't remember the importance of using Google Checkout integration to lower AdWords ad pricing.

You either supported Google Checkout & got about a 10% CTR lift (& thus 10% reduction in click cost) or you failed to adopt it and got priced out of the market on the margin difference.

And if you chose to adopt it, the bad news was you were then spending yet again to undo it when the service was no longer worth running for Google.

How about when Google first started hyping HTTPS & publishers using AdSense saw their ad revenue crash because the ads were no longer anywhere near as relevant.

Oops.

Not like Google cared much, as it is their goal to shift as much of the ad spend as they can onto Google.com & YouTube.

Google is now testing product ads on YouTube.

It is not an accident that Google funds an ad blocker which allows ads to stream through on Google.com while leaving ads blocked across the rest of the web.

Android Pay might be worth integrating. But then it also might go away.

It could be like Google's authorship. Hugely important & yet utterly trivial.
Faces help people trust the content.
Then they are distracting visual clutter that need expunged.
Then they once again re-appear but ONLY on the Google Home Service ad units.
They were once again good for users!!!

Neat how that works.

Embrace, Extend, Extinguish

Or it could be like Google Reader. A free service which defunded all competing products & then was shut down because it didn't have a legitimate business model due to it being built explicitly to prevent competition. With the death of Google reader many blogs also slid into irrelevancy.

Their FeedBurner acquisition was icing on the cake.

Techdirt is known for generally being pro-Google & they recently summed up FeedBurner nicely:

Thanks, Google, For Fucking Over A Bunch Of Media Websites - Mike Masnick

Ultimately Google is a horrible business partner.

And they are an even worse one if there is no formal contract.

Dumb Pipes, Dumb Partnerships

They tried their best to force broadband providers to be dumb pipes. At the same time they promoted regulation which will prevent broadband providers from tracking their own users the way that Google does, all the while broadening out Google's privacy policy to allow personally identifiable web tracking across their network. Once Google knew they would retain an indefinite tracking advantage over broadband providers they were free to rescind their (heavily marketed) free tier of Google Fiber & they halted the Google Fiber build out.

When Google routinely acts so anti-competitive & abusive it is no surprise that some of the "standards" they propose go nowhere.

You can only get screwed so many times before you adopt a spirit of ambivalence to the avarice.

Google is the type of "partner" that conducts security opposition research on their leading distribution partner, while conveniently ignoring nearly a billion OTHER Android phones with existing security issues that Google can't be bothered with patching.

Deliberately screwing direct business partners is far worse than coding algorithms which belligerently penalize some competing services all the while ignoring that the payday loan shop funded by Google leverages doorway pages.

"User" Friendly

BackChannel recently published an article foaming at the mouth promoting the excitement of Google's AI:

This 2016-to-2017 Transition is going to move us from systems that are explicitly taught to ones that implicitly learn." ... the engineers might make up a rule to test against—for instance, that “usual” might mean a place within a 10-minute drive that you visited three times in the last six months. “It almost doesn’t matter what it is — just make up some rule,” says Huffman. “The machine learning starts after that.

The part of the article I found most interesting was the following bit:

After three years, Google had a sufficient supply of phonemes that it could begin doing things like voice dictation. So it discontinued the [phone information] service.

Google launches "free" services with an ulterior data motive & then when it suits their needs, they'll shut it off and leave users in the cold.

As Google keeps advancing their AI, what do you think happens to your AMP content they are hosting? How much do they squeeze down on your payout percentage on those pages? How long until the AI is used to recap / rewrite content? What ad revenue do you get when Google offers voice answers pulled from your content but sends you no visitor?

The Numbers Can't Work

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighting the fast ad revenue growth at Google & Facebook also mentioned how the broader online advertising ecosystem was doing:

Facebook and Google together garnered 68% of spending on U.S. online advertising in the second quarter—accounting for all the growth, Mr. Wieser said. When excluding those two companies, revenue generated by other players in the U.S. digital ad market shrank 5%

The issue is NOT that online advertising has stalled, but rather that Google & Facebook have choked off their partners from tasting any of the revenue growth. This problem will only get worse as mobile grows to a larger share of total online advertising:

By 2018, nearly three-quarters of Google’s net ad revenues worldwide will come from mobile internet ad placements. - eMarketer

Media companies keep trusting these platforms with greater influence over their business & these platforms keep screwing those same businesses repeatedly.

You pay to get likes, but that is no longer enough as edgerank declines. Thanks for adopting Instant Articles, but users would rather see live videos & read posts from their friends. You are welcome to pay once again to advertise to the following you already built. The bigger your audience, the more we will charge you! Oh, and your direct competitors can use people liking your business as an ad targeting group.

Worse yet, Facebook & Google are even partnering on core Internet infrastructure.

Any hope of AMP turning the corner on the revenue front is a "no go":

“We want to drive the ecosystem forward, but obviously these things don’t happen overnight,” Mr. Gingras said. “The objective of AMP is to have it drive more revenue for publishers than non-AMP pages. We’re not there yet”.

Publishers who are critical of AMP were reluctant to speak publicly about their frustrations, or to remove their AMP content. One executive said he would not comment on the record for fear that Google might “turn some knob that hurts the company.”

Look at that.

Leadership through fear once again.

At least they are consistent.

As more publishers adopt AMP, each publisher in the program will get a smaller share of the overall pie.

Just look at Google's quarterly results for their current partners. They keep showing Google growing their ad clicks at 20% to 40% while partners oscillate between -15% and +5% quarter after quarter, year after year.

In the past quarter Google grew their ad clicks 42% YoY by pushing a bunch of YouTube auto play video ads, faster search growth in third world markets with cheaper ad prices, driving a bunch of lower quality mobile search ad clicks (with 3 then 4 ads on mobile) & increasing the percent of ad clicks on "own brand" terms (while sending the FTC after anyone who agrees to not cross bid on competitor's brands).

The lower quality video ads & mobile ads in turn drove their average CPC on their sites down 13% YoY.

The partner network is relatively squeezed out on mobile, which makes it shocking to see the partner CPC off more than core Google, with a 14% YoY decline.

What ends up happening is eventually the media outlets get sufficiently defunded to where they are sold for a song to a tech company or an executive at a tech company. Alibaba buying SCMP is akin to Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post.

The Wall Street Journal recently laid off reporters. The New York Times announced they were cutting back local cultural & crime coverage.

If news organizations of that caliber can't get the numbers to work then the system has failed.

The Guardian is literally incinerating over 5 million pounds per month. ABC is staging fake crime scenes (that's one way to get an exclusive).

The Tribune Company, already through bankruptcy & perhaps the dumbest of the lot, plans to publish thousands of AI assisted auto-play videos in their articles every day. That will guarantee their user experience on their owned & operated sites is worse than just about anywhere else their content gets distributed to, which in turn means they are not only competing against themselves but they are making their own site absolutely redundant & a chore to use.

That the Denver Guardian (an utterly fake paper running fearmongering false stories) goes viral is just icing on the cake.

many Facebook users wish to connect with people and things that confirm their pre-existing opinions, whether or not they are true. ... Giving people what they want to see will always draw more attention than making them work for it, in rather the same way that making up news is cheaper and more profitable than actually reporting the truth. - Ben Thompson

These tech companies are literally reshaping society & are sucking the life out of the economy, destroying adjacent markets & bulldozing regulatory concerns, all while offloading costs onto everyone else around them.

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” ... Until we treat the millions of kids across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.

And the solution to killing the middle class, is, of course, to kill the middle class:

An FTC report recommended suing Google for their anti-competitive practices, but no suit was brought. The US Copyright Office Register was relieved of her job after she went against Google's views on set top boxes. Years ago many people saw where this was headed:

"This is a major affront to copyright," said songwriter and music publisher Dean Kay. "Google seems to be taking over the world - and politics ... Their major position is to allow themselves to use copyright material without remuneration. If the Copyright Office head is towing the Google line, creators are going to get hurt."
...
Singer Don Henley said Pallante's ouster was "an enormous blow" to artists. "She was a champion of copyright and stood up for the creative community, which is one of the things that got her fired," he said. ... [Pallante's replacement] Hayden "has a long track record of being an activist librarian who is anti-copyright and a librarian who worked at places funded by Google."

And in spite of the growing importance of tech media coverage of the industry is a trainwreck:

This is what it’s like to be a technology reporter in 2016. Freebies are everywhere, but real access is scant. Powerful companies like Facebook and Google are major distributors of journalistic work, meaning newsrooms increasingly rely on tech giants to reach readers, a relationship that’s awkward at best and potentially disastrous at worst.

Being a conduit breeds exclusives. Challenging the grand narrative gets one blackballed.

Mobile Search Index

Google announced they are releasing a mobile first search index:

Although our search index will continue to be a single index of websites and apps, our algorithms will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site, to understand structured data, and to show snippets from those pages in our results. Of course, while our index will be built from mobile documents, we're going to continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.

There are some forms of content that simply don't work well on a 350 pixel wide screen, unless they use a pinch to zoom format. But using that format is seen as not being mobile friendly.

Imagine you have an auto part database which lists alternate part numbers, price, stock status, nearest store with part in stock, time to delivery, etc. ... it is exceptionally hard to get that information to look good on a mobile device. And good luck if you want to add sorting features on such a table.

The theory that using the desktop version of a page to rank mobile results is flawed because users might find something which is only available on the desktop version of a site is a valid point. BUT, at the same time, a publisher may need to simplify the mobile site & hide data to improve usability on small screens & then only allow certain data to become visible through user interactions. Not showing those automotive part databases to desktop users would ultimately make desktop search results worse for users by leaving huge gaps in the search results. And a search engine choosing to not index the desktop version of a site because there is a mobile version is equally short sighted. Desktop users would no longer be able to find & compare information from those automotive parts databases.

Once again money drives search "relevancy" signals.

Since Google will soon make 3/4 of their ad revenues on mobile that should be the primary view of the web for everyone else & alternate versions of sites which are not mobile friendly should be disappeared from the search index if a crappier lite mobile-friendly version of the page is available.

Amazon converts well on mobile in part because people already trust Amazon & already have an account registered with them. Most other merchants won't be able to convert at anywhere near as well of a rate on mobile as they do on desktop, so if you have to choose between having a mobile friendly version that leaves differentiated aspects hidden or a destkop friendly version that is differentiated & establishes a relationship with the consumer, the deeper & more engaging desktop version is the way to go.

The heavy ad load on mobile search results only further combine with the low conversion rates on mobile to make building a relationship on desktop that much more important.

Even TripAdvisor is struggling to monetize mobile traffic, monetizing it at only about 30% to 33% the rate they monetize desktop & tablet traffic. Google already owns most the profits from that market.

Webmasters are better off NOT going mobile friendly than going mobile friendly in a way that compromises the ability of their desktop site.

I am not the only one suggesting an over-simplified mobile design that carries over to a desktop site is a losing proposition. Consider Nielsen Norman Group's take:

in the current world of responsive design, we’ve seen a trend towards insufficient information density and simplifying sites so that they work well on small screens but suboptimally on big screens.

Tracking Users

Publishers are getting squeezed to subsidize the primary web ad networks. But the narrative is that as cross-device tracking improves some of those benefits will eventually spill back out into the partner network.

I am rather skeptical of that theory.

Facebook already makes 84% of their ad revenue from mobile devices where they have great user data.

They are paying to bring new types of content onto their platform, but they are only just now beginning to get around to test pricing their Audience Network traffic based on quality.

Priorities are based on business goals and objectives.

Both Google & Facebook paid fines & faced public backlash for how they track users. Those tracking programs were considered high priority.

When these ad networks are strong & growing quickly they may be able to take a stand, but when growth slows the stock prices crumble, data security becomes less important during downsizing when morale is shattered & talent flees. Further, creating alternative revenue streams becomes vital "to save the company" even if it means selling user data to dangerous dictators.

The other big risk of such tracking is how data can be used by other parties.

Spooks preferred to use the Google cookie to spy on users. And now Google allows personally identifiable web tracking.

Data is being used in all sorts of crazy ways the central ad networks are utterly unaware of. These crazy policies are not limited to other countries. Buying dog food with your credit card can lead to pet licensing fees. Even cheerful "wellness" programs may come with surprises.

Want to see what the future looks like?

For starters...

About 2 months ago I saw a Facebook post done on behalf of a friend of mine. Gofundme was the plea. Her insurance wouldn’t cover her treatment for a recurring breast cancer and doctors wouldn’t start the treatment unless the full payment was secured in a advance. Really? Really. She was gainfully employed, had a full time, well paying job. But guess what? It wasn’t enough although hundreds of people donated.

This last week she died. She was 38 years old. She died not getting access to a treatment that may or may not have saved her life. She died having to hustle folks for funds to just have a chance to get access to another treatment option and she died while worrying about being financially ruined by her illness. Just horrid.

Is this the society we want? People forced to beg friends on gofundme for help so they can get access to medical treatment? Is this the society we are? Is this truly the best we can do?

Click here to read more.

Penguin 4.0 Update

On Friday Google's Gary Illyes announced Penguin 4.0 was now live.

Key points highlighted in their post are:

  • Penguin is a part of their core ranking algorithm
  • Penguin is now real-time, rather than something which periodically refreshes
  • Penguin has shifted from being a sitewide negative ranking factor to a more granular factor

Things not mentioned in the post

  • if it has been tested extensively over the past month
  • if the algorithm is just now rolling out or if it is already done rolling out
  • if the launch of a new version of Penguin rolled into the core ranking algorithm means old sites hit by the older versions of Penguin have recovered or will recover anytime soon

Since the update was announced, the search results have become more stable.

They still may be testing out fine tuning the filters a bit...

...but what exists now is likely to be what sticks for an extended period of time.

Penguin Algorithm Update History

  • Penguin 1: April 24, 2012
  • Penguin 2: May 26, 2012
  • Penguin 3: October 5, 2012
  • Penguin 4: May 22, 2013 (AKA: Penguin 2.0)
  • Penguin 5: October 4, 2013 (AKA Penguin 2.1)
  • Penguin 6: rolling update which began on October 17, 2014 (AKA Penguin 3.0)
  • Penguin 7: September 23, 2016 (AKA Penguin 4.0)

Now that Penguin is baked into Google's core ranking algorithms, no more Penguin updates will be announced. Panda updates stopped being announced last year. Instead we now get unnamed "quality" updates.

Volatility Over the Long Holiday Weekend

Earlier in the month many SEOs saw significant volatility in the search results, beginning ahead of Labor Day weekend with a local search update. The algorithm update observations were dismissed as normal fluctuations in spite of the search results being more volatile than they have been in over 4 years.

There are many reasons for search engineers to want to roll out algorithm updates (or at least test new algorithms) before a long holiday weekend:

  • no media coverage: few journalists on the job & a lack of expectation that the PR team will answer any questions. no official word beyond rumors from self-promotional marketers = no story
  • many SEOs outside of work: few are watching as the algorithms tip their cards.
  • declining search volumes: long holiday weekends generally have less search volume associated with them. Thus anyone who is aggressively investing in SEO may wonder if their site was hit, even if it wasn't.
    The communications conflicts this causes between in-house SEOs and their bosses, as well as between SEO companies and their clients both makes the job of the SEO more miserable and makes the client more likely to pull back on investment, while ensuring the SEO has family issues back home as work ruins their vacation.
  • fresh users: as people travel their search usage changes, thus they have fresh sets of eyes & are doing somewhat different types of searches. This in turn makes their search usage data more dynamic and useful as a feedback mechanism on any changes made to the underlying search relevancy algorithm or search result interface.

Algo Flux Testing Tools

Just about any of the algorithm volatility tools showed far more significant shift earlier in this month than over the past few days.

Take your pick: Mozcast, RankRanger, SERPmetrics, Algaroo, Ayima Pulse, AWR, Accuranker, SERP Watch & the results came out something like this graph from Rank Ranger:

One issue with looking at any of the indexes is the rank shifts tend to be far more dramatic as you move away from the top 3 or 4 search results, so the algorithm volatility scores are much higher than the actual shifts in search traffic (the least volatile rankings are also the ones with the most usage data & ranking signals associated with them, so the top results for those terms tend to be quite stable outside of verticals like news).

You can use AWR's flux tracker to see how volatility is higher across the top 20 or top 50 results than it is across the top 10 results.

Example Ranking Shifts

I shut down our membership site in April & spend most of my time reading books & news to figure out what's next after search, but a couple legacy clients I am winding down working with still have me tracking a few keywords & one of the terms saw a lot of smaller sites (in terms of brand awareness) repeatedly slide and recover over the past month.

Notice how a number of sites would spike down on the same day & then back up. And then the pattern would repeat.

As a comparison, here is that chart over the past 3 months.

Notice the big ranking moves which became common over the past month were not common the 2 months prior.

Negative SEO Was Real

There is a weird sect of alleged SEOs which believes Google is omniscient, algorithmic false positives are largely a myth, AND negative SEO was never a real thing.

As it turns out, negative SEO was real, which likely played a part in Google taking years to roll out this Penguin update AND changing how they process Penguin from a sitewide negative factor to something more granular.

Update != Penalty Recovery

Part of the reason many people think there was no Penguin update or responded to the update with "that's it?" is because few sites which were hit in the past recovered relative to the number of sites which ranked well until recently just got clipped by this algorithm update.

When Google updates algorithms or refreshes data it does not mean sites which were previously penalized will immediately rank again.

Some penalties (absent direct Google investment or nasty public relations blowback for Google) require a set amount of time to pass before recovery is even possible.

Google has no incentive to allow a broad-based set of penalty recoveries on the same day they announce a new "better than ever" spam fighting algorithm.

They'll let some time base before the penalized sites can recover.

Further, many of the sites which were hit years ago & remain penalized have been so defunded for so long that they've accumulated other penalties due to things like tightening anchor text filters, poor user experience metrics, ad heavy layouts, link rot & neglect.

What to do?

So here are some of the obvious algorithmic holes left by the new Penguin approach...

  • only kidding
  • not sure that would even be a valid mindset in the current market
  • hell, the whole ecosystem is built on quicksand

The trite advice is to make quality content, focus on the user, and build a strong brand.

But you can do all of those well enough that you change the political landscape yet still lose money.

Google & Facebook are in a cold war, competing to see who can kill the open web faster, using each other as justification for their own predation.

Even some of the top brands in big money verticals which were known as the canonical examples of SEO success stories are seeing revenue hits and getting squeezed out of the search ecosystem.

And that is without getting hit by a penalty.

It is getting harder to win in search period.

And it is getting almost impossible to win in search by focusing on search as an isolated channel.

Efforts and investments in chasing the algorithms in isolation are getting less viable by the day.

Anyone operating at scale chasing SEO with automation is likely to step into a trap.

When it happens, that player better have some serious savings or some non-Google revenues, because even with "instant" algorithm updates you can go months or years on reduced revenues waiting for an update.

And if the bulk of your marketing spend while penalized is spent on undoing past marketing spend (rather than building awareness in other channels outside of search) you can almost guarantee that business is dead.

"If you want to stop spam, the most straight forward way to do it is to deny people money because they care about the money and that should be their end goal. But if you really want to stop spam, it is a little bit mean, but what you want to do, is break their spirits." - Matt Cutts

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Free Google AdWords Keyword Suggestion Tool Alternative

Google recently made it much harder to receive accurate keyword data from the AdWords keyword tool.

They have not only grouped similar terms, but then they broadened out the data ranges to absurdly wide ranges like 10,000 to 100,000 searches a month. Only active AdWords advertisers receive (somewhat?) decent keyword data. And even with that, there are limitations. Try to view too many terms and you get:

"You’ve reached the maximum number of page views for this day. This page now shows ranges for search volumes. For a more detailed view, check back in 24 hours."

Jennifer Slegg shared a quote from an AdWords advertiser who spoke with a representative:

"I have just spoken to a customer service manger from the Australia support help desk. They have advised me that there must be continuous activity in your google ad-words campaign (clicks and campaigns running) for a minimum of 3-4 months continuous in order to gain focused keyword results. If you are seeing a range 10-100 or 100-1k or 1k -10k its likely your adwords account does not have an active campaign or has not had continuous campaigns or clicks."

So you not only need to be an advertiser, but you need to stay active for a quarter-year to a third of a year to get decent data.

Part of the sales pitch of AdWords/PPC was that you can see performance data right away, whereas SEO investments can take months or years to back out.

But with Google outright hiding keyword data even from active advertisers, it is probably easier and more productive for those advertisers to start elsewhere.

There are many other keyword data providers (Wordtracker, SEMrush, Wordze, Spyfu, KeywordSpy, Keyword Discovery, Moz, Compete.com, SimilarWeb, Xedant, Ubersuggest, KeywordTool.io, etc.) And there are newer entrants like the Keyword Keg Firefox extension & the brilliantly named KeywordShitter).

In light of Google's push to help make the web more closed-off & further tilt the web away from the interests of searchers toward the interest of big advertisers*, we decided to do the opposite & recently upgraded our keyword tool to add the following features...

  • expanded the results per search to 500
  • we added negative match and modified broad match to the keyword export spreadsheet (along with already having phrase, broad & exact match)

Our keyword tool lists estimated search volumes, bid prices, cross links to SERPs, etc. Using it does require free account registration to use, but it is a one-time registration and the tool is free. And we don't collect phone numbers, hard sell over the phone, etc. We even shut down our paid members area, so you are not likely to receive any marketing messages from us anytime soon.

Export is lightning quick AND, more importantly, we have a panda in our logo!

Here is what the web interface looks like

And here is an screenshot of data in Excel with the various keyword match types

If the tool looks like it is getting decent usage, we may upgrade it further to refresh the data more frequently, consider adding more languages, add a few more reference links to related niche sites in the footer cross-reference section, and maybe add a few other features.

"Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them."Ha-Joon Chang

How I Learned to Start Loving Social Media's Darkside

I'm baaaaaaack.

Organic Listings

What a fun past couple years it has been in the digital marketing landscape; we've seen hummingbirds, ads displacing organic listings, phantoms, ads displacing organic listings, rank brain, and of course ads displacing organic listings. It has been such a long time since my last post that back when I was last writing for SEObook we were still believing in the timelines provided by Google employees on when Penguin was going to run next. Remember that? Oh, the memories.

Idiot Proof SEO Concepts You Better Not Screw Up For Me

The reason I'm back is to share a tip. Normally I don't share SEO tips because by sharing information on a tactic, I end up burning the tactic and killing whatever potential usable market value remained on its shelf life. Why share then? Because this isn't something you can kill; it involves people. And killing people is bad. To explain how it works though, I need to explain the two concepts I'm smashing together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Keepin' it REAL.

Chocolate

The chocolate, aka Influencer Marketing – my definition of influencer marketing is having someone tell your story for you. Some people view influencer marketing as paying someone like Kim Kardashian $50,000 to post a picture of herself on Instagram holding a sample of your new line of kosher pickles. While that does fit under my definition as well, I consider that aspirational influencer marketing since her audience is primarily comprised of being aspiring to be Kim. Also equally valid is having Sally your foodie neighbor posting that picture in exchange for getting a free jar of those delicious pickles; in this particular case though the influence would be considered peer level influence since Sally's audience is going to be comprised largely of people that view Sally as their equal, and possibly recognize that Sally as a foodie knows her food. Personally, I am biased, but I prefer lots of peer influence campaigns than a single big budget aspirational influence campaign, but I digress. If you want to learn a lot more about differences in the campaign types, I spoke with Bronco on the ins and outs of influence.

Peanut Butter

The peanut butter, aka Online Reputation Management, aka ORM – while I would hope reputation management doesn't need to be specifically defined, I'll define it anyhow as changing the online landscape for the benefit of a client's (or your own) reputation. Peanut butter is a really good analogy for ORM because a lot of work gets spread around in a lot of directions, from creating hundreds of thousands of properties designed to flood the SERPs and social channels as a tail that wags the dog, to straight up negative SEO. Yeah, I said it. If negative SEO wasn't made so much more available due to Panda, Penguin, and the philosophical neative a priori shift, in ORM would not be the industry that it is today.

So what's the tip? You can combine these two concepts for your clients, and you can do it in a variety of different ways. Let's walk through a few…

POSITIVE/BENIGN Focus

  1. Use aspirational influence to find a blogger/writer to talk about your client or product.
  2. Use peer influence indirectly to let a more difficult to approach blogger/writer “discover” your client and write about him or her.
  3. Use aspirational influence as a means to gain links to some properties. Seriously, this works really well. Some audiences will write a series of articles on whatever certain individuals writes about.
  4. Use peer influence to change tone/meaning of a negative article to something more benign.
  5. Use peer influence to find bloggers/writers to discuss concepts that can only be disucssed by referencing you or your client.

NEGATIVE Focus

  1. Use peer pressure influence to get material removed.
  2. Use aspirational influence to change the mind of blogger/writer (think politics – this works).
  3. Use peer influence to change links from one target to another in source material (this occurs quite a bit on Wikipedia too).
  4. THE TRUMP® CARD©: Use aspirational influence and peer influence in combination, which I call compulsion marketing, to inspire frightening movements and witchunts (coordinated DOS attacks, protests, crap link blasts, et al).

My business partner at my influencer marketing network Intellifluence, Terry Godier, and I also refer to some of the above topics under the umbrella of dark influence. I'm sure this list isn't even close to exhaustive, mainly because I don't want to go too deep on how scary one can get. If you need to address such things, I still take on select ORM clients at Digital Heretix and can help you out or refer you to a quality professional that will. Combining concepts and tactics is often a lot more fun than trying to approach a tactic singularly; when possible, work in multiple dimensions.

Think of a way that I missed or some cool concepts that could be paired to be more powerful? Let me know on Twitter.

Cheers,
Joe Sinkwitz

Facebook's Panda Update

So far this year publishers have lost 52% their Facebook distribution due to:

Instant Articles may have worked for an instant, but many publishers are likely where they were before they made the Faustian bargain, except they now have less control over their content distribution and advertising while having the higher cost structure of supporting another content format.

When Facebook announced their news feed update to fight off clickbait headlines, it sure sounded a lot like the equivalent of Google's Panda update. Glenn Gabe is one of the sharpest guys in the SEO field who regularly publishes insightful content & doesn't blindly shill for the various platform monopolies dominating the online publishing industry & he had the same view I did.

Further cementing the "this is Panda" view was an AdAge article quoting some Facebook-reliant publishers. Glad we have already shifted our ways. Nice to see them moving in the same direction we are. etc. ... It felt like reading a Richard Rosenblatt quote in 2011 about Demand Media's strong working relationship with Google or how right after Panda their aggregate traffic level was flat.

January 27, 2011

Peter Kafka: Do you think that Google post was directed at you in any way?

Richard Rosenblatt: It’s not directed at us in any way.

P K: they wrote this post, which talks about content farms, and even though you say they weren’t talking about you, it left a lot of people scratching their heads.

R R: Let’s just say that we know what they’re trying to do. ... He’s talking about duplicate, non-original content. Every single piece of ours is original. ... our relationship is synergistic, and it’s a great partnership.

May 9, 2011

Kara Swisher: What were you trying to communicate in the call, especially since investors seemed very focused on Panda?

R R: What I also wanted to show was that third-party data sources should not be relied on. We did get affected, for sure. But I was not just being optimistic, we wanted to use that to really understand what we can do better.

K S: Given Google’s shift in its algorithm, are you shifting your distribution, such as toward social and mobile?

R R: If you look at where trends are going, that’s where we are going to be.

K S: How are you changing the continued perception that Demand is a content farm?

R R: I don’t think anyone has defined what a content farm is and I am not sure what it means either. We obviously don’t think we are a content farm and I am not sure we can counter every impact if some people think we are.

A couple years later Richard Rosenblatt left the company.

Since the Google Panda update eHow has removed millions of articles from their site. As a company they remain unprofitable a half-decade later & keep seeing YoY media ad revenue declines in the 30% to 40% range.

Over-reliance on any platform allows that platform to kill you. And, in most cases, you are unlikely to be able to restore your former status until & unless you build influence via other traffic channels:

I think in general, media companies have lost sight of building relationships with their end users that will bring them in directly, as opposed to just posting links on social networks and hoping people will click. I think publishers that do that are shooting themselves in the foot. Media companies in general are way too focused on being where our readers are, as opposed to being so necessary to our readers that they will seek us out. - Jessica Lessin, founder of TheInformation

Recovering former status requires extra investment far above and beyond what led to the penalty. And if the core business model still has the same core problems there is no solution.

"I feel pretty confident about the algorithm on Suite 101." - Matt Cutts

Some big news publishers are trying to leverage video equivalents of a Narrative Science or Automated Insights (from Wochit and Wibbitz) to embed thousands of autogenerated autoplay videos in their articles daily.

But is that a real long-term solution to turn the corner? Even if they see a short term pop in ad revenues by using some dumbed-down AI-enhanced low cost content, all that really does is teach people that they are a source of noise while increasing the number of web users who install ad blockers.

And the whole time penalized publishers try to recover the old position of glory, the platform monopolies are boosting their AI skills in the background while they eat the playing field.

The companies which run the primary ad networks can easily get around the ad blockers, but third party publishers can't. As the monopoly platforms broadly defund ad-based publishing, they can put users "in control" while speaking about taking the principle-based approach:

“This isn’t motivated by inventory; it’s not an opportunity for Facebook from that perspective,” Mr. Bosworth said. “We’re doing it more for the principle of the thing. We want to help lead the discussion on this.” ... Mr. Bosworth said Facebook hasn't paid any ad-blocking software company to have its ads pass through their filters and that it doesn’t intend to.

Google recently worked out a deal with Wikimedia to actually cite the source of the content shown in the search results:

it hasn’t always been the easiest to see that the material came from Wikipedia while on mobile devices. At the Wikimedia Foundation, we’ve been working to change that.

While the various platforms ride the edge on what is considered reasonable disclosure, regulatory bodies crack down on individuals participating on those platforms unless they are far more transparent than the platforms are:

Users need to be clear when they're getting paid to promote something, and hashtags like #ad, #sp, #sponsored --common forms of identification-- are not always enough.

The whole "eating the playing field" is a trend which is vastly under-reported, largely because almost everyone engaged in the ecosystem needs to sell they have some growth strategy.

The reality is as the platform gets eaten it only gets harder to build a sustainable business. The mobile search interface is literally nothing but ads in most key categories. More ads. Larger ads. Nothing but ads.

And a bit of scrape after the ads to ensure the second or third screen still shows zero organic results.

And more scraping, across more categories.

What's more, even large scaled companies in big money fields are struggling to monetize mobile users. On the most recent quarterly conference call TripAdvisor executives stated they monetize mobile users at about 30% the rate they monetize desktop or tablet users.

What happens when the big brand advertisers stop believing in the narrative of the value of precise user tracking?

We may soon find out:

P&G two years ago tried targeting ads for its Febreze air freshener at pet owners and households with large families. The brand found that sales stagnated during the effort, but rose when the campaign on Facebook and elsewhere was expanded last March to include anyone over 18.
...
P&G’s push to find broader reach with its advertising is also evident in the company’s recent increases in television spending. Toward the end of last year P&G began moving more money back into television, according to people familiar with the matter.

For mobile to work well you need to be a destination & a habit. But there is tiny screen space and navigational searches are also re-routed through Google hosted content (which will, of course, get monetized).

In fact, what would happen to an advertiser if they partnered with other advertisers to prevent brand bidding? Why that advertiser would get sued by the FTC for limiting user choice:

The bidding agreements harm consumers, according to the complaint, by restraining competition for, and distorting the prices of, advertising in relevant online auctions, by reducing the number of relevant, useful, truthful and non-misleading advertisements, by restraining competition among online sellers of contact lenses, and in some cases, by resulting in consumers paying higher retail prices for contact lenses.

If the above restraint of competition & market distortion is worth suing over, how exactly can Google make the mobile interface AMP exclusive without earning a similar lawsuit?

AMP content presented in the both sections will be “de-duplicated” in order to avoid redundancies, Google says. The move is significant in that AMP results will now take up an entire phone screen, based on the example Google shows in its pitch deck.

Are many publishers in a rush to support Google AMP after the bait-n-switch on Facebook Instant Articles?

Brands Beat Generics

When markets are new they are unproven, thus they often have limited investment targeting them.

That in turn means it can be easy to win in new markets just by virtue of existing.

It wouldn't be hard to rank well creating a blog today about the evolution of the 3D printing industry, or a how to site focused on Arduino or Raspberry Pi devices.

Couple a bit of passion with significant effort & limited competition and winning is quite easy.

Likewise in a small niche geographic market one can easily win with a generic, because the location acts as a market filter which limits competition.

But as markets age and become more proven, capital rushes in, which pushes out most of the generic unbranded players.

Back in 2011 I wrote about how Google had effectively killed the concept of category killer domains through the combination of ad displacement, vertical search & the algorithmic ranking shift moving away from relevancy toward awareness. 2 months before I wrote that post Walgreen Co. acquired Drugstore.com for about $429 million. At the time Drugstore.com was one of the top 10 biggest ecommerce pure plays.

Thursday Walgreens Boots announced it would shut down Drugstore.com & Beauty.com:

The company is still trying to fine tune its e-commerce strategy but clearly wants to focus more of its resources on one main site. “They want to make sure they can invest more of the equity in Walgreens.com,” said Brian Owens, a director at the consultancy Kantar Retail. “Drugstore.com and Beauty.com are distractions.”

Big brands can sometimes get coverage of "meh" content by virtue of being associated with a big brand, but when they buy out pure-play secondary e-commerce sites those often fail to gain traction and get shuttered:

Other retailers have picked up pure-play e-commerce sites, only to shut them down shortly thereafter. Target Corp. last year shuttered ChefsCatalog.com and Cooking.com, less than three years after buying them.

The lack of publishing savvy among most large retailers mean there will be a water cycle of opportunity which keeps re-appearing, however as the web gets more saturated many of these opportunities are going to become increasingly niche options riding new market trends.

If you invest in zero-sum markets there needs to be some point of differentiation to drive switching. There might be opportunity for a cooking.com or a drugstore.com targeting emerging and frontier markets where brands are under-represented online (much like launching Drugstore.com in the US back in 1999), but it is unlikely pure-play ecommerce sites will be able to win in established markets if they use generically descriptive domains which make building brand awareness and perceived differentiation next to impossible.

Target not only shut down cooking.com, but they didn't even bother redirecting the domain name to an associated part of their website.

It is now listed for sale.

Many short & generic domain names are guaranteed to remain in a purgatory status.

  • The price point is typically far too high for a passionate hobbyist to buy them & attempt to turn them into something differentiated.
  • The names are too generic for a bigger company to do much with them as a secondary option
    • the search relevancy & social discovery algorithms are moving away from generic toward brand
    • retailers have to save their best ideas for their main branded site
    • the rise of cross-device tracking + ad retargeting further incentivize them to focus exclusively on a single bigger site

Neofeudal Web Publishing Best Practices Guide

At the abstract level, if many people believe in something then it will grow.

The opposite is also true.

And in a limitless, virtual world, you can not see what is not there.

The Yahoo Directory

Before I got into search, the Yahoo! Directory was so important to the field of search there were entire sessions at SES conferences on how to get listed & people would even recommend using #1AAA-widgets.com styled domains to alphaspam listings to the top of the category.

The alphaspam technique was a carry over from yellow page directories - many of which have went through bankruptcy as attention & advertising shifted to the web.

Go to visit the Yahoo! Directory today and you get either a server error, a security certificate warning, or a redirect to aabacosmallbusiness.com.

Poof.

It's gone.

Before the Yahoo! Directory disappeared their quality standards were vastly diminished. As a webmaster who likes to test things, I tried submitting sites of various size and quality to different places. Some sites which would get rejected by some $10 directories were approved in the Yahoo! Directory.

The Yahoo! Directory also had a somewhat weird setting where if you canceled a directory listing in the middle of the term they would often keep it listed for many years to come - for free. After many SEOs became fearful of links the directory saw vastly reduced rates of submissions & many existing listings canceled their subscriptions, thus leaving it as a service without much of a business model.

DMOZ

At one point Google's webmaster guidelines recommended submitting to DMOZ and the Yahoo! Directory, but that recommendation led to many lesser directories sprouting up & every few years Google would play a whack-a-mole game and strip PageRank or stop indexing many of them.

Many have presumed DMOZ was on its last legs many times over the past decade. But on their 18th birthday they did a spiffy new redesign.

Different sections of the site use different color coding and the design looks rather fresh and inviting.

Take a look.

However improved the design is, it is unlikely to reverse this ranking trend.

Lacking Engagement

Why did those rankings decline though? Was it because the sites suck? Or was it because the criteria to rank changed? If the sites were good for many years it is hard to believe the quality of the sites all declined drastically in parallel.

What happened is as engagement metrics started getting folded in, sites that only point you to other sites become an unneeded step in the conversion funnel, in much the same way that Google scrubbed affiliates from the AdWords ecosystem as unneeded duplication.

What is wrong with the user experience of a general web directory? There isn't any single factor, but a combination of them...

  • the breadth of general directories means their depth must necessarily be limited.
  • general directory category pages ranking in search results is like search results in search results. it isn't great from the user's perspective.
  • if a user already knows a category well they would likely prefer to visit a destination site rather than a category page.
  • if a user doesn't already know a category, then they would prefer to use an information source which prioritizes listing the best results first. the layout for most general web directories is a list of results which are typically in alphabetical order rather than displaying the best result first
  • in order to sound authoritative many directories prefer to use a neutral tone

If a directory mostly links to lower quality sites Google can choose to either not index it or not trust links from it. And even if a directory generally links to trustworthy sites, Google doesn't need to rank it to extract most the value from it.

The trend of lower traffic to the top tier general directory sites has happened across the board.

Many years ago Google's remote rater guidelines cited Joeant as a trustworthy directory.

Their traffic chart looks like this.

And the same sort of trend is true for BOTW, Business.com, GoGuides.org, etc.

There is basically nothing a general web directory can do to rank well in Google on a sustainable basis, at least not in the English language.

Even if you list every school in the city of Winnipeg that page can't rank if it isn't indexed & even if it is indexed it won't rank well if your site has a Panda-related ranking issue. There are a couple other issues with such a comprehensive page:

  • each additional listing is more editorial content cost in terms of building the page AND maintaining the page
  • the bigger the page gets the more a user needs something other than alphabetical order as a sort option
  • the more listings there are in a tight category the more the likelihood there will be excessive keyword repetition on the page which could get the page flagged for algorithmic demotion, even if the publisher has no intent to spam. Simply listing things by their name will mean repeating a word like "school" over 100 times on the above linked Winnipeg schools page. If you don't consciously attempt to lower the count a page like that could have the term repeated over 300 times.

Knock On Effects

In addition to those web directories getting fewer paid submissions, most are likely seeing a rise in link removal requests. Google's "fear first" approach to relevancy has even led them to listing DMOZ as an unnatural link source in warning emails to webmasters.

What's more, many people who use automated link clean up tools take the declining traffic charts & low rankings of the sites as proof that the links lack value or quality.

That means anyone who gets hit by a penalty & ends up in warning messages not only ends up with less traffic while penalized, but they also get extra busy work to do while trying to fix whatever the core problem is.

And in many cases fixing the core problem is simply unfeasible without a business model change.

When general web directories are defunded it not only causes many of them to go away, but it also means other related sites and services disappear.

  • Editors of those web directories who were paid to list quality sites for free.
  • Web directory review sites.
  • SEOs, internet marketers & other businesses which listed in those directories

Now perhaps general web directories no longer really add much value to the web & they are largely unneeded.

But there are other things which are disappearing in parallel which were certainly differentiated & valuable, though perhaps not profitable enough to maintain the "relevancy" footprint to compete in a brand-first search ecosystem.

Depth vs Breadth

Unless you are the default search engine (Google) or the default social network everyone is on (Facebook), you can't be all things to all people.

If you want to be differentiated in a way that turns you into a destination you can't compete on a similar feature set because it is unlikely you will be able to pay as much for traffic-driven partnerships as the biggest players can.

Can niche directories or vertical directories still rank well? Sure, why not.

Sites like Yelp & TripAdvisor have succeeded in part by adding interactive elements which turned them into sought after destinations.

Part of becoming a destination is intentionally going out of their way to *NOT* be neutral platforms. Consider how many times Yelp has been sued by businesses which claimed the sales team did or was going to manipulate the displayed reviews if the business did not buy ads. Users tend to trust those platforms precisely because other users may leave negative reviews & that (usually) offers something better than a neutral and objective editorial tone.

And that user demand for those reviews, of course, is why Google stole reviews from those sorts of sites to try to prop up the Google local places pages.

It was a point of differentiation which was strong enough that people wanted it over Google. So Google tried to neutralize the advantage.

Blogs

The above section is about general directories, but the same concept applies to almost any type of website.

Consider blogs.

A decade ago feed readers were commonplace, bloggers often cross-linked & bloggers largely drove the conversation which bubbled up through mainstream media.

Google Reader killed off RSS feed readers by creating a fast, free & ad-free competitor. Then Google abruptly shut down Google Reader.

Not only do whimsical blogs like Least Helpful or Cute Overload arbitrarily shut down, but people like Chris Pirillo who know tech well suggest blogging is (at least economically) dead.

Many of the people who are quitting are not the dumb, the lazy, and the undifferentiated. Rather many are the wise trend-aware players who are highly differentiated yet find it impossible to make the numbers work:

The conversation started when revenues were down, and I had to carry payroll for a month or two out of my personal account, which I had not had to do since shortly after we started this whole project. We tweaked some things (added an ad or two which we had stripped back for the redesign, reminded people about ad-blockers and their impact on our ability to turn a profit, etc.) and revenue went back up a bit, but for a hot minute, you’ll remember I was like: “Theoretically, if this industry went further into the ground which it most assuredly will, would we want to keep running the site as a vanity project? Probably not! We would just stop doing it.”

In the current market Google can conduct a public relations campaign on a topic like payday loans, have their PR go viral & then if you mention "oh yeah, so Google is funding the creation of doorway pages to promote payday loans" it goes absolutely nowhere, even if you do it DURING THE NEWS CYCLE.

So much of what exists is fake that anything new is evaluated from the perception of suspicion.

While the real (and important) news stories go nowhere & the PR distortions spread virally, the individual blogger ends up feeling a bit soulless if they try to make ends meet:

"The American Mama reached tens of thousands of readers monthly, and under that name I worked with hundreds of big name brands on sponsored campaigns. I am a member of virtually every ‘blog network’ and agency that “connects brands with bloggers”. ... What’s the point of having your own space to write if you’re being paid to sound like you work for a corporation? ... PR Friendly says “For the right price, I will be anyone you want me to be.” ... I’m not saying blogging is dying, but this specific little monster branch of it, sponsored content disguised as horribly written “day in the life” stories about your kids and pets? It can’t possibly last. Do you really want to be stuck on the inside when it crumbles?"

If you can't get your own site to grow enough to matter then maybe it makes sense to contribute to someone else's to get your name out there.

I recently received this unsolicited email:

"Hello! This is Theodore, a writer and chief editor at SomeSiteName.Com I noticed that you are accepting paid reviews online and you will be glad to know that now you can also publish your Sponsored content to SomeSite via me. SomeSite.Com is a leading website which deals in Technology, Social Media, Internet Stuff and Marketing. It was also tagged as Top 10 _____ websites of 2016 by [a popular magazine]. Website Stats- Alexa Rank: [below 700] Google PageRank: 6/10 Monthly Pageviews: 5+ Million Domain Authority: 85+ Price : $500 via PayPal (Once off Payment) Let me know if you are interested and want to feature your website product like nothing! This will not only increase your traffic but increase in overall SEO Score as well. Thanks"

That person was not actually a member of that site's team, but they had found a way to get their content published on it.

In part because that sort of stuff exists, Google tries to minimize the ability for reputation to flow across sites.

The large platforms are so smug, so arrogant, they actually state the following sort of crap in interviews:

"There's a space in the world for art, but that's different from trying to build products at scale. The one thing that does make me a little nervous is a lot of my designer friends are still focused building websites and I'm not sure that's a growth business anymore. If you look at people who are doing interesting work, they tend to be building inside these platforms like Facebook and finding ways to do interesting work in there. For instance, journalists. Instant Articles is a really great way for stories to be told."

Sure you can bust your ass to build up Facebook, but when their business model changes (bye social gaming companies, hello live streaming video) best of luck trying to follow them.

And if you starve during the 7 lean years in between when your business model is once again well aligned with Facebook you can't go back in time to give yourself a meal to un-starve.

Content Farms

Ehow.com has removed *MILLIONS* of pages of content since getting hit by Panda. And yet their ranking chart looks like this

What is crazy is the above chart actually understates the actual declines, because the shift of search to mobile & increasing prevalence of ads in the search results means estimates of organic search traffic may be overstated significantly compared to a few years prior.

A half-decade ago a bootstrapped eHow competitor named ArticlesBase got some buzz in TechCrunch because they were making about $500,000 a month on about 20 million monthly unique visitors. That business was recently listed on Flippa. They are getting about a half-million unique monthly visitors (off 95%) and about $2,000 a month in revenues (off about 99.6%).

The negative karma with that site (in terms of ability to rank) is so bad that the site owner suggested on Flippa to publish any new content from new authors onto different websites: "its not going to get to 0 as most of the traffic is not google today, but we would suggest to push out the fresh daily incoming content to new sites - thats where the growth is."

Now a person could say "eHow deserves to die" and maybe they are right. BUT one could easily counter that point by noting...

  • the public who owns the shares owns the ongoing losses & many top insiders cashed out long ago
  • Google was getting a VIG on eHow on their ride up & is still collecting one on the way down (along with funding other current parallel projects from the very same people with the very same Google ad network)
  • Demand Media's partner program where they syndicate eHow-like content to newspapers like USA Today keeps growing at 15% to 20% a year (similar process, author, content, business model, etc. ... only a different URL hosting the content)
  • look at this and you'll see how many publishing networks are still building the same sort of content but are cross-marketing across networks of sites. What's more some of the same names are at the new plays. For example, Demand Media's founder was the chairman of an SEO firm bought by Hearst publishing & his wife is on the about us page of Evolve Media's ModernMom.com

The wrappers around the content & masthead logos change, but by and large the people and strategies don't change anywhere near as quickly.

Web Portals & News Sites

As the mainstream media gets more desperate, they are more willing to partner with the likes of Demand Media to get any revenue they can.

You see the reality of this desperation in the stock charts for newspaper companies.

Or how about this chart for Yahoo.com.

It doesn't look particularly bad, especially if you consider that Yahoo has shut down many of their vertical sites.

Underlying flat search traffic charts misses declining publisher CPMs and the click traffic mix shift away from organic toward paid search channels as search traffic shifts to mobile devices & Google relentlessly increases the size of the search ads. Yahoo may still rank #3 for keyword x, but if that #3 ranking is below the fold on both mobile and desktop devices they might need to rank #1 to get as much traffic as #3 got a couple years ago.

Yahoo! was once the leading search portal & now they are worth about 1/5th of LinkedIn (after backing out their equity stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan).

The chart is roughly flat, but the company is up for a fire sale because organic search result displacement & the value of traffic has declined quicker than Yahoo! can fire employees & none of their Hail Mary passes worked.

Ms. Mayer compared the [Polyvore] deal to Google’s acquisition of YouTube in 2006, arguing that “you can never overpay” for a company with the potential to land a huge new base of users.
...
“Her core mistake was this belief that she could reinvent Yahoo,” says a former senior executive who left the company last year. “There was an element of her being a true believer when everyone else had stopped.”

The same line of thinking was used to justify the Tumblr acquisition, which has went nowhere fast - just like their 50+ other acquisitions.

Yahoo! shut down many verticals, fired many workers, sold off some real estate & is exploring selling their patents.

Chewing Up the Value Chain

Smaller devices that are harder to use means the gateways have to try to add more features to maintain relevance.

As they add features, publishers get displaced:

The Web will only expand into more aspects of our lives. It will continue to change every industry, every company, and every life on the planet. The Web we build today will be the foundation for generations to come. It’s crucial we get this right. Do we want the experiences of the next billion Web users to be defined by open values of transparency and choice, or the siloed and opaque convenience of the walled garden giants dominating today?

And if converting on mobile is hard or inconvenient, many people will shift to the defaults they know & trust, thus choosing to buy on Amazon rather than a smaller ecommerce website. One of my friends who was in ecommerce for many years stated this ultimately ended up becoming the problem with his business. People would email him back and forth about the product, related questions, and basically go all the way through the sales process with getting him to answer every concern & recommend each additional related product needed, then at the end they would ask him to price match Amazon & if he couldn't they would then buy from Amazon. If he had more scale he might have been able to get a better price from suppliers and compete with Amazon on price, but his largest competitor who took out warehouse space also filed for bankruptcy because they were unable to make the interest payments on their loans.

We live in a society which over-values ease-of-use & scale while under-valuing expertise.

Look at how much consolidation there has been in the travel market since Google Flights launched & Google went pay-to-play with hotel search.

Expedia owns Travelocity & Orbitz. Priceline owns Kayak. Yahoo! Travel simply disappeared. TripAdvisor is strong, but even they were once a part of Expedia.

How different are the remaining OTAs? One could easily argue they are less differentiated than this article about the history of the travel industry makes Skift against other travel-related news sites.

How many markets are strong enough to support the creation of that sort of featured editorial content?

Not many.

And most companies which can create that sort of in-depth content leverage the higher margins on shallower & cheaper content to pay for that highly differentiated featured content creation.

But if the knowledge graph and new search features are simply displacing the result set the number of people who will be able to afford creating that in-depth featured content is only further diminished.

Over 5 years ago Bing's Stefan Weitz mentioned they wanted to move search from a web of nouns to a web of verbs & to "look at the web as a digital representation of the physical world." Some platforms are more inclusive than Google is & decide to partner rather than displace, but Bing's partnership with Yelp or TripAdvisor doesn't help you if you are a direct competitor of Yelp or TripAdvisor, or if your business was heavily reliant on one of these other channels & you fall out of favor with them.

Chewing Up Real Estate

There are so many enhanced result features in the search results it is hard to even attempt to make an exhaustive list.

As search portals rush to add features they also rush to grab real estate & outright displace the concept of "10 blue links."

There has perhaps been nothing which captured the sentiment better than

The following is paraphrased, but captures the intent to displace the value chain & the roll of publishers.

"the journeys of users. their desire to be taken and sort of led and encouraged to proceed, especially on mobile devices (but I wouldn't say only on mobile devices).
...
there are a lot of users who are happy to be provided with encouragement and leads to more and more interesting information and related, grouped in groups, leading lets say from food to restaurants, from restaurants to particular types of restaurants, from particular types of restaurants to locations of those types of restaurants, ordering, reservations.

I'm kind of hungry, and in a few minutes you've either ordered food or booked a table. Or I'm kind of bored, and in a few minutes you've found a book to read or a film to watch, or some other discovery you are interested in." - Andrey Lipattsev

What role do publishers have in the above process? Unpaid data sources used to train algorithms at Facebook & Google?

Individually each of these assistive search feature roll outs may sound compelling, but ultimately they defund publishing.

Not a "Google Only" Problem

People may think I am unnecessarily harsh toward Google in my views, but this sort of shift is not a Google-only thing. It is something all the large online platforms are doing. I simply give Google more coverage because they have a history of setting standards & moving the market, whereas a player like Yahoo! is acting out of desperation to simply try to stay alive. The market capitalization of the companies reflect this.

Google & Facebook control the ecosystem. Everyone else is just following along.

"digital is eating legacy media, mobile is eating digital, and two companies, Facebook and Google, are eating mobile. ... Since 2011, desktop advertising has fallen by about 10 percent, according to Pew. Meanwhile mobile advertising has grown by a factor of 30 ... Facebook and Google, control half of net mobile ad revenue." - Derek Thompson

The same sort of behavior is happening in China, where Google & Facebook are prohibited from competing.

As publishers get displaced and defunded online platforms can literally buy the media: “There’s very little downside. Even if we lose money it won’t be material,” Alibaba's Mr. Tsai said. “But the upside [in buying SCMP] is quite interesting.”

The above quote was on Alibaba buying the newspaper of record in Hong Kong.

As bad as entire industries becoming token purchases may sound, that is the optimistic view. :D

Facebook's Instant Articles and Google's AMP those make a token purchase unnecessary: "I don't think it's any secret that you're going to see a bloodbath in the next 12 months," Vice Media's Shane Smith said, referring to digital media and broadcast TV. "Facebook has bought two-thirds of the media companies out there without spending a dime."

Those services can dictate what gets exposure, how it is monetized, and then adjust the exposure and revenue sharing over time to keep partners desperate & keep them hooked.

“If Thiel and Nick Denton were just a couple of rich guys fighting over a 1st Amendment edge case, it wouldn't be very interesting. But Silicon Valley has unprecedented, monopolistic power over the future of journalism. So much power that its moral philosophy matters.” - Nate Silver

Give them just enough (false) hope to stay partnered.

All the while track user data more granularly & run AI against it to disintermediate & devalue partners.

TV networks are aware of the risks of disintermediation and view Netflix with more suspicion than informed SEOs view Google:

for all the original shows Netflix has underwritten, it remains dependent on the very networks that fear its potential to destroy their longtime business model in the way that internet competitors undermined the newspaper and music industries. Now that so many entertainment companies see it as an existential threat, the question is whether Netflix can continue to thrive in the new TV universe that it has brought into being.
...
“ ‘Breaking Bad’ was 10 times more popular once it started streaming on Netflix.” - Michael Nathanson
...
the networks couldn’t walk away from the company either. Many of them needed licensing fees from Netflix to make up for the revenue they were losing as traditional viewership shrank.

And just like Netflix, Facebook will move into original content production.

The Wiki

Wikipedia is certainly imperfect, but it is also a large part of why other directories have went away. It is basically a directory tied to an encyclopedia which is free and easy to syndicate.

Every large search & discovery platform has an incentive for Wikipedia to be as expansive as possible.

The bigger Wikipedia gets, the more potential answers and features can be sourced from it. More knowledge graph, more instant answers, more organic result displacement, more time on site, more ad clicks.

Even if a knowledge graph listing is wrong, the harm done by it doesn't harm the search service syndicating the content unless people create a big deal of the error. But if that happens then people will give feedback on how to fix the error & that is a PR lead into the narrative of how quickly search is improving and evolving.

"Wikipedia used to instruct its authors to check if content could be dis-intermediated by a simple rewrite, as part of the criteria for whether an article should be added to wikipedia. There are many rascals on the Internets; none deserving of respect." - John Andrews

Sergy Brin donates to fund the expansion of Wikipedia. Wikipedia rewrites more webmaster content. Google has more knowledge graph grist and rich answers to further displace publishers.

I recently saw the new gray desktop search results Google is tested. When those appear the knowledge graph appears inline with the regular search results & even on my huge monitor the organic result set is below the fold.

The problem with that is if your brand name is the same brand name that is in the knowledge graph & you are not the dominant interpretation then you are below the fold on all devices for your core brand UNLESS you pay Google for every single click.

How much should a brand like The Book of Life pay Google for being a roadblock? What sort of tax is appropriate & reasonable? How high will you bid in a casino where the house readjusts the shuffle & deal order in the middle of the hand?

I recently did a search on Bing & inside their organic search results they linked to a Mahalo-like page called Bing Knows. I guess this is a feature in China, but it could certainly spread to other markets.

If they partnered with an eBay or Amazon.com and put a "buy now" button in the search results they'd have just about completely closed the loop there.

Broad Commodification

The reason I started this article with directories is their role is to link to sites. They are categorized collections of links which have been heavily commodified & devalued to the point they are rendered unnecessary and viewed adversely by much of the SEO market (even the ones with decent editorial standards).

Just like links got devalued, so did domain names.

And, as mentioned above in the parts about blogging, content farms, web portals & news sites ... the same trend is happening to almost every type of content.

Online ad revenues are still growing quickly, but they are not flowing through to old media & many former leading bloggers consider blogging dead.

Big platform players like Google and Facebook broaden cross-device user tracking to create new relevancy signals and extract most the value created by publisher. The more information the platform owns the more of a starving artist the partners become.

As partners become more desperate, they overvalue growth (just like Yahoo! with Polyvore):

"It's the golden age right now," [Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer] said. "If you're a digital publisher, you have every big TV company calling you. When I look at media brands, if a media brand disappeared tomorrow, would I notice?" he said. "And there are a bunch of brands that have scale, and maybe a lot of money raised, and maybe this and that, but, actually, I might not know for a year. There's so many brands like that. Like, what does it really stand for? Why does it exist?"

Disruption is not a strategy, but the whole point of accelerating it & pushing it (without an adequate plan for "what's next") is to re-establish feudal lords.

The web is a virtual land where the commodity which matters most is attention. If you go back in time, lords maintained wealth & control through extracting rents.

A few years ago a quote like the following one may have sounded bizarre or out of place

These are the people who guard the company’s status as what ranking team head Amit Singhal often sees characterised as “the biggest kingmaker on this Earth.”

But if you view it through the some historical context it isn't hard to understand

"The nobles still had the power to write the law, and in a series of moves that took place in different countries at different times, they taxed the bazaar, broke up the guilds, outlawed local currencies, and bestowed monopoly charters on their favorite merchants. ... It was never really about efficiency anyway; industrialization was about restoring the power of those at the top by minimizing the value and price of human laborers." - Douglas Rushkoff

Google funding LendUp & ranking their doorway pages while hitting the rest of the industry is Google bestowing "monopoly charters on their favorite merchants."

Headwinds

The issue is not that the value of anything drops to zero, but rather a combine set of factors shrinks down the size of the market which can be profitably served. Each of these factors eat at margins...

  • lower CPMs
  • the rise of ad blockers (funded largely by some big ad networks paying to allow their own ads through while blocking competing ad networks)
  • rise of programmatic ads (which shift advertiser budget away from publisher to various forms of management)
  • larger ad sizes: "Based on early testing, some advertisers have reported increases in clickthrough rates of up to 20% compared to current text ads. "
  • increase of vertical search results in Google & more ads + self-hosted content in Facebook's feed
  • shift of search audience to mobile devices which have no screen real estate for organic search results and lower cost per click (there's a reason Google AdSense is publishing tips on making more from mobile)
  • increased algorithmic barrier to entry and longer delay times to rank

The least sexy consultant pitch in the world: "Sure I can probably rank your website, but it will take a year or two, cost you at least $80,000 per year, and you will still be below the fold even if we get to #1 because the paid search ads fill up the first screen of results."

That isn't going to be an appealing marketing message for a new small business with a limited budget.

The Formula

“The open web is pretty broken. ... Railroad, electricity, cable, telephone—all followed this similar pattern toward closedness and monopoly, and government regulated or not, it tends to happen because of the power of network effects and the economies of scale” - Ev Williams.

The above article profiling Ev Williams also states: "An April report from the web-analytics company Parse.ly found that Google and Facebook, just two companies, send more than 80 percent of all traffic to news sites."

The same general trend is happening to almost every form of content - video, news, social, etc..

  • a big platform over-promotes a vertical to speed up buy-in (perhaps even offering above market rates or other forms of compensation to get the flywheel started)
  • other sources join the market without that compensation & then the compensation stream gets yanked
  • displacement of the source by a watered down copy (eHow or Wikipedia styled rewrite), or some zero-cost licensing arrangement (Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP, syndicating Wikipedia rewrites)
  • strategic defunding of the content source
  • promise of future gains causing desperate publishers to lean harder into Google or Facebook even as they squeeze more water out of the rock.

Hey, sure your traffic is declining & your revenue is declining faster. You are getting squeezed out, but if you trust the primary players responsible for the shift & rely on Instant Articles or Google's AMP this time will be different.

...or maybe not...

Facts & Opinions

When I saw some Google shills syndicating Google's "you can't copyright facts" pitch without question I cringed, because I knew where that was immediately headed.

A year later the trend was obvious.

So now we get story pitches where the author tries to collect a few quote sources to match the narrative already in their head. Surely this has gone on for a long time, but it has rarely been so transparently obvious and cringeworthy as it is today.

And if you stray too far from facts into opinions & are successful, don't be surprised if you end up on the receiving end of proxy lawsuits:

Can we talk about how strange it is for a group of Silicon Valley startup mentors to embrace secret proxy litigation as a business tactic? To suddenly get sanctimonious about what is published on the internet and called News? To shame another internet company for not following ‘the norms’ of a legacy industry? The hypocrisy is mind bending.

The desperation is so bad news sites don't even attempt to hide it. And part of what is driving that is bot-driven content further eroding margins on legitimate publishing. Google not only ranks those advertorials, but they also promote some of the auto-generated articles which read like:

As many as 1 analysts, the annual sales target for company name, Inc. (NYSE:ticker) stands at $45.13 and the median is $45.13 for the period closed 3.

The bearish target on sales is $45.13 and the bullish estimate is $45.13, yielding a standard deviation of 1.276%.

Not more than 1 investment entities have updated sales projections on upside over the last week while 1 have downgraded their previously provided sales targets. The estimates highlight a net change of 0% over the last 1 weeks period.

Sales estimated amount is a foremost parameter in judging a firm’s performance. Nearly 1 analysts have revised sales number on the upside in last one month and 1 have lowered their targets. It demonstrates a net cumulative change of 0% in targets against sales forecasts which were given a month ago.

In latest quarterly period, 1 have revised targeted sales on upside and 1 have decreased their projections. It demonstrates change of 4.898%.

I changed a few words in each sentence of that quote to make it harder to find the source as I wasn't trying to out them specifically. But the auto-generated content was ranked by Google & monetized via inline Google AdSense ads promoting the best marijuana stocks to invest in and warning of a pending 80% stock market crash coming soon this year.

Hey at least it isn't a TOTALLY fake story!

Publishers get the message loud and clear. Tronc wants to ramp up on AI driven video content at scale:

"There's all these really new, fun features we're going to be able to do with artificial intelligence and content to make videos faster," Ferro told interviewer Andrew Ross Sorkin. "Right now, we're doing a couple hundred videos a day; we think we should be doing 2,000 videos a day."

All is well, news & information are just externalities to a search engine ad network.

No big deal.

"With newspapers dying, I worry about the future of the republic. We don’t know yet what’s going to replace them, but we do already know it’s going to be bad." - Charlie Munger

Build a Brand

Build a brand, that way you are protected from the rapacious tech platforms.

Or so the thinking goes.

But that leads back to the above image where The Book of Life is below the fold on their own branded search query because there is another interpretation Google feels is more dominant.

The big problem with "brand as solution" is you not only have to pay to build a brand, but then you have to pay to protect it.

And the number of search "innovations" to try to siphon off some late funnel branded traffic and move it back up the funnel to competitors (to force the brand to pay again for their own brand to try to displace the "innovations") will only continue growing.

And at any point in time if Disney makes a movie using your brand name as the name of the movie, you are irrelevant and need of a rebrand overnight, unless you commit to paying Google for your brand forever.

Having an offline location can be a point of strength and a point of differentiation. But it can also be a reason for Google to re-route user traffic through more Google owned & controlled pages.

Further, most large US offline retailers are doing horrible.

Almost all the offline growth is in stores selling dirt cheap unbranded imported stuff like Dollar General or Family Dollar & stores like Ross and TJ Maxx which sell branded item remainders at discount prices. And as Amazon gets more efficient by the day, other competitors with high cost structures & less efficient operations grow relatively less efficient over time.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about a rift between Wal-Mart & Procter & Gamble: “They sell crappy private label, so you buy Swiffer with a crappy refill,” said one of the people familiar with the product changes. “And then you don’t buy again.”

In trying to drive sales growth, P&G is resorting to some Yahoo!-like desperate measures, included meetings where "Some workers donned gladiator-like armor for the occasion."

Riding on other platforms or partners carries the same sorts of risks as trusting Google or Facebook too much.

Even owning a strong brand name and offline distribution does not guarantee success. Sears already spun out their real estate & they are looking to sell the Kenmore & Craftsman brands.

The big difference between the web and offline platforms is the marginal cost of information is zero, so they can quickly & cheaply spread to adjacent markets in ways that physically constrained offline players can not & some of the big web platforms have far more data on people than governments do. It is worth noting one of the things that came out of the Snowden leaks is spooks were leveraging Google's DoubleClick cookies for tracking users.

As desperate stores/platforms see slowing growth they squeeze for margins and seek to accelerate growth any way possible. Chasing growth ultimately leads to the promise of what differentiates them disappearing. I recently bought some "hand crafted" soaps on Etsy, which shipped from Shenzen.

I am not sure how that impacts other artisinal soap sellers, but it makes me less likely to buy that sort of product from Etsy again.

And for as much as I like shopping on Amazon, I was uninspired when a seller recently sent me this.

Amazon might usually be great for buyers & great for affiliates, but hearing how they are quickly expanding their private label offerings wouldn't be welcome news for a merchant who is overly-reliant on them for sales in any of those categories.

The above sort of activity is what is going on in the real world even among brands which are not under attack.

The domestic economic landscape is getting quite ugly:

America’s economy today is in some respects more concentrated than it was during the Gilded Age, whose excesses prompted the Progressive Era reforms the FTC exemplifies. In sector after sector, from semiconductors and cable providers to eyeglass manufacturers and hotels, a handful of companies dominate. These giants use their market power to hike prices for consumers and suppress wages for workers, worsening inequality. Consolidation also appears to be driving a dramatic decline in entrepreneurship, closing off opportunity and suppressing growth. Concentration of economic power, in turn, tends to concentrate political power, which incumbents use to sway policies in their favor, further entrenching their dominance.

And the local abusive tech monopolies are now firmly promoting the TPP: "make it more difficult for TPP countries to block Internet sites" = countries should have less influence over the web than individual Facebook or Google engineers do.

In a land of algorithmic false positives that cause personal meltdowns and organizational breakdowns there is nothing wrong at all with that!

I kept waiting. For a year and a half, I waited. The revenues kept trickling down. It was this long terrible process, losing half overnight but then also roughly 3% a month for a year and a half after. It got to the point where we couldn’t pay our bills. That’s when I reached out again to Matt Cutts, “Things never got better.” He was like, “What, really? I’m sorry.” He looked into it and was like, “Oh yeah, it never reversed. It should have. You were accidentally put in the bad pile.

Luckily the world can depend on China to drive growth and it will save us.

Or maybe there is a small problem with that line of thinking...

Beijing’s intellectual property regulator has ordered Apple Inc. to stop sales of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in the city, ruling that the design is too similar to a Chinese phone, in another setback for the company in a key overseas market.

Can any experts chime in on this?

Let's see...

First, there is Wal-Mart selling off their Chinese e-commerce operation to the #2 Chinese ecommerce company & then there's this from the top Chinese ecommerce company:

“The problem is the fake products today are of better quality and better price than the real names. They are exactly the same factories, exactly the same raw materials but they do not use the names.” - Alibaba's Jack Ma

Reinventing SEO

Back in the Day...

If you are new to SEO it is hard to appreciate how easy SEO was say 6 to 8 years ago.

Almost everything worked quickly, cheaply, and predictably.

Go back a few years earlier and you could rank a site without even looking at it. :D

Links, links, links.

Meritocracy to Something Different

Back then sharing SEO information acted like a meritocracy. If you had something fantastic to share & it worked great you were rewarded. Sure you gave away some of your competitive advantage by sharing it publicly, but you would get links and mentions and recommendations.

These days most of the best minds in SEO don't blog often. And some of the authors who frequently publish literally everywhere are a series of ghostwriters.

Further, most of the sharing has shifted to channels like Twitter, where the half-life of the share is maybe a couple hours.

Yet if you share something which causes search engineers to change their relevancy algorithms in response the half-life of that algorithm shift can last years or maybe even decades.

Investing Big

These days breaking in can be much harder. I see some sites with over 1,000 high quality links that are 3 or 4 months old which have clearly invested deep into 6 figures which appear to be getting about 80 organic search visitors a month.

From a short enough timeframe it appears nothing works, even if you are using a system which has worked, should work, and is currently working on other existing & trusted projects.

Time delays have an amazing impact on our perceptions and how our reward circuitry is wired.

Most the types of people who have the confidence and knowledge to invest deep into 6 figures on a brand new project aren't creating "how to" SEO information and giving it away free. Doing so would only harm their earnings and lower their competitive advantage.

Derivatives, Amplifications & Omissions

Most of the info created about SEO today is derivative (people who write about SEO but don't practice it) or people overstating the risks and claiming x and y and z don't work, can't work, and will never work.

And then from there you get the derivative amplifications of don't, can't, won't.

And then there are people who read and old blog post about how things were x years ago and write as though everything is still the same.

Measuring the Risks

If you are using lagging knowledge from derivative "experts" to drive strategy you are most likely going to lose money.

  • First, if you are investing in conventional wisdom then there is little competitive advantage to that investment.
  • Secondly, as techniques become more widespread and widely advocated Google is more likely to step in and punish those who use those strategies.
  • It is when the strategy is most widely used and seems safest that both the risk is at its peak while the rewards are de minimus.

With all the misinformation, how do you find out what works?

Testing

You can pay for good advice. But most people don't want to do that, they'd rather lose. ;)

The other option is to do your own testing. Then when you find out somewhere where conventional wisdom is wrong, invest aggressively.

"To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right." - Jeff Bezos

That doesn't mean you should try to go against consensus view everywhere, but wherever you are investing the most it makes sense to invest in something that is either hard for others to do or something others wouldn't consider doing. That is how you stand out & differentiate.

But to do your own testing you need to have a number of sites. If you have one site that means everything to you and you get wildly experimental then the first time one of those tests goes astray you're hosed.

False Positives

And, even if you do nothing wrong, if you don't build up a stash of savings you can still get screwed by a false positive. Even having a connection in Google may not be enough to overcome a false positive.

Cutts said, “Oh yeah, I think you’re ensnared in this update. I see a couple weird things. But sit tight, and in a month or two we’ll re-index you and everything will be fine.” Then like an idiot, I made some changes but just waited and waited. I didn’t want to bother him because he’s kind of a famous person to me and I didn’t want to waste his time. At the time Google paid someone to answer his email. Crazy, right? He just got thousands and thousands of messages a day.

I kept waiting. For a year and a half, I waited. The revenues kept trickling down. It was this long terrible process, losing half overnight but then also roughly 3% a month for a year and a half after. It got to the point where we couldn’t pay our bills. That’s when I reached out again to Matt Cutts, “Things never got better.” He was like, “What, really? I’m sorry.” He looked into it and was like, “Oh yeah, it never reversed. It should have. You were accidentally put in the bad pile.”

“How did you go bankrupt?"
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

True Positives

A lot of SEMrush charts look like the following

What happened there?

Well, obviously that site stopped ranking.

But why?

You can't be certain why without doing some investigation. And even then you can never be 100% certain, because you are dealing with a black box.

That said, there are constant shifts in the algorithms across regions and across time.

Paraphrasing quite a bit here, but in this video Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google Andrey Lipattsev suggested...

He also explained the hole Google has in their Arabic index, with spam being much more effective there due to there being little useful content to index and rank & Google modeling their ranking algorithms largely based on publishing strategies in the western world. Fixing many of these holes is also less of a priority because they view evolving with mobile friendly, AMP, etc. as being a higher priority. They algorithmically ignore many localized issues & try to clean up some aspects of that manually. But even whoever is winning by the spam stuff at the moment might not only lose due to an algorithm update or manual clean up, but once Google has something great to rank there it will eventually win, displacing some of the older spam on a near permanent basis. The new entrant raises the barrier to entry for the lower-quality stuff that was winning via sketchy means.

Over time the relevancy algorithms shift. As new ingredients get added to the algorithms & old ingredients get used in new ways it doesn't mean that a site which once ranked

  • deserved to rank
  • will keep on ranking

In fact, sites which don't get a constant stream of effort & investment are more likely to slide than have their rankings sustained.

The above SEMrush chart is for a site which uses the following as their header graphic

When there is literally no competition and the algorithms are weak, something like that can rank.

But if Google looks at how well people respond to what is in the result set, a site as ugly as that is going nowhere fast.

Further, a site like that would struggle to get any quality inbound links or shares.

If nobody reads it then nobody will share it.

The content on the page could be Pulitzer prize level writing and few would take it seriously.

With that design, death is certain in many markets.

Many Ways to Become Outmoded

The above ugly header design with no taste and a really dumb condescending image is one way to lose. But there are also many other ways.

Excessive keyword repetition like the footer with the phrase repeated 100 times.

Excessive focus on monetization to where most visitors quickly bounce back to the search results to click on a different listing.

Ignoring the growing impact of mobile.

Blowing out the content footprint with pagination and tons of lower quality backfill content.

Stale content full of outdated information and broken links.

A lack of investment in new content creation AND promotion.

Aggressive link anchor text combined with low quality links.

Investing in Other Channels

The harder & more expensive Google makes it to enter the search channel the greater incentive there is to spend elsewhere.

Why is Facebook doing so well? In part because Google did the search equivalent to what Yahoo! did with their web portal. The rich diversity in the tail was sacrificed to send users down well worn paths. If Google doesn't want to rank smaller sites, their associated algorithmic biases mean Facebook and Amazon.com rank better, thus perhaps it makes more sense to play on those platforms & get Google traffic as a free throw-in.

Of course aggregate stats are useless and what really matters is what works for your business. Some may find Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest or even long forgotten StumbleUpon as solid traffic drivers. Other sites might do well with an email newsletter and exposure on Twitter.

Each bit of exposure (anywhere) leads to further awareness. Which can in turn bleed into aggregate search performance.

People can't explicitly look for you in a differentiated way unless they are already aware you exist.

Some amount of remarketing can make sense because it helps elevate the perceived status of the site, so long as it is not overdone. However if you are selling a product the customer already bought or you are marketing to marketers there is a good chance such investments will be money wasted while you alienate pas

Years ago people complained about an SEO site being far too aggressive with ad retargeting. And while surfing today I saw that same site running retargeting ads to where you can't scroll down the page enough to have their ad disappear before seeing their ad once again.

If you don't have awareness in channels other than search it is easy to get hit by an algorithm update if you rank in competitive markets, particularly if you managed to do so via some means which is the equivalent of, erm, stuffing the ballot box.

And if you get hit and then immediately run off to do disavows and link removals, and then only market your business in ways that are passively driven & tied to SEO you'll likely stay penalized in a long, long time.

While waiting for an update, you may find you are Waiting for Godot.

Google Rethinking Payday Loans & Doorway Pages?

Nov 12, 2013 WSJ: Google Ventures Backs LendUp to Rethink Payday Loans

Google Ventures Partner Blake Byers joined LendUp’s board of directors with his firm’s investment. The investor said he expects LendUp to make short-term lending reasonable and favorable for the “80 million people banks won’t give credit cards to,” and help reshape what had been “a pretty terrible industry.”

What sort of strategy is helping to drive that industry transformation?

How about doorway pages.

That in spite of last year Google going out of their way to say they were going to kill those sorts of strategies.

March 16, 2015 Google To Launch New Doorway Page Penalty Algorithm

Google does not want to rank doorway pages in their search results. The purpose behind many of these doorway pages is to maximize their search footprint by creating pages both externally on the web or internally on their existing web site, with the goal of ranking multiple pages in the search results, all leading to the same destination.

These sorts of doorway pages are still live to this day.

Simply look at the footer area of lendup.com/payday-loans

But the pages existing doesn't mean they rank.

For that let's head over to SEMrush and search for LendUp.com


(Click for enlarged image)

Hot damn, they rank for about 10,000 "payday" keywords.

And you know their search traffic is only going to increase now that competitors are getting scrubbed from the marketplace.

Today we get journalists conduits for Google's public relations efforts writing headlines like: Google: Payday Loans Are Too Harmful to Advertise.

Today those sorts of stories are literally everywhere.

Tomorrow the story will be over.

And when it is.

Precisely zero journalists will have covered the above contrasting behaviors.

As they weren't in the press release.

Best yet, not only does Google maintain their investment in payday loans via LendUp, but there is also a bubble in the personal loans space, so Google will be able to show effectively the same ads for effectively the same service & by the time the P2P loan bubble pops some of the payday lenders will have followed LendUp's lead in re-branding their offers as being something else in name.

A user comment on Google's announcement blog post gets right to the point...

Are you disgusted by Google's backing of LendUp, which lends money at rates of ~ 395% for short periods of time? Check it out. GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) has an investment in LendUp. They currently hold that position.

Oh, the former CIO and VP of Engineering of Google is the CEO of Zest Finance and Zest Cash. Zest Cash lends at an APR of 390%.

Meanwhile, off to revolutionize the next industry by claiming everyone else is greedy and scummy and there is a wholesome way to do the same thing leveraging new technology, when in reality the primary difference between the business models is simply a thin veneer of tech utopian PR misinformation.

Don't expect to see a link to this blog post on TechCrunch.

There you'll read some hard-hitting cutting edge tech news like:

Banks are so greedy that LendUp can undercut them, help people avoid debt, and still make a profit on its payday loans and credit card.

#MomentOfZeroTruth #ZMOT

Update: Kudos to the Google Public Relations team, as it turns out the CFPB is clamping down on payday lenders, so all the positive PR Google got on this front was simply them front running a known regulatory issue in the near future & turning it into a public relations bonanza. Further, absolutely NOBODY (other than the above post) mentioned the doorway page issue, which remains in place to this day & is driving fantastic rankings for their LendUp investment.

Update 2: Record keeping requirements do not improve things if a company still intentionally violates the rules, knowing they will only have to pay a token slap on the wrist fine if and when they are finally caught. All it really does is drive the local businesses under.

The massive record-keeping and data requirements that Mr. Corday is foisting on the industry will have another effect: It will drive out the small, local players who have dominated the industry in favor of big firms and consolidators who can afford the regulatory overhead. It will also favor companies that can substitute big data for local knowledge like LendUp, the Google-backed venture that issued a statement Thursday applauding the CFPB rules. Google’s self-interest has become a recurrent theme in Obama policy making

Those records (along with the Google duplicity on doorway pages) however confirm that LendUp are not the good guys! They were outright scamming & over-charing their customers:

Onine lending start-up LendUp, which has billed itself as a better and more affordable alternative to traditional payday lenders, will pay $6.3 million in refunds and penalties after regulators uncovered widespread rule-breaking at the company.

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