Neofeudal Web Publishing Best Practices Guide

Jun 20th

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

May 12th

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?

May 11th

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.

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The (Hollow) Soul of Technology

The Daily Obituary

As far as being an investable business goes, news is horrible.

And it is getting worse by the day.

Look at these top performers.

The above chart looks ugly, but in reality it puts an optimistic spin on things...

  • it has survivorship bias
  • the Tribune Company has already went through bankruptcy
  • the broader stock market is up huge over the past decade after many rounds of quantitative easing and zero (or even negative) interest rate policy
  • the debt carrying costs of the news companies are also artificially low due to the central banking bond market manipulation
  • the Tribune Company recently got a pop on a buy out offer

Selling The Story

Almost all the solutions to the problems faced by the mainstream media are incomplete and ultimately will fail.

That doesn't stop the market from selling magic push button solutions. The worse the fundamentals get, the more incentive (need) there is to sell the dream.

Video

Video will save us.

No it won't.

Video is expensive to do well and almost nobody at any sort of scale on YouTube has an enviable profit margin. Even the successful individuals who are held up as the examples of success are being squeezed out and Google is trying to push to make the site more like TV. As they get buy in from big players they'll further squeeze out the indy players - just like general web search.

Even if TV shifts to the web, along with chunks of the associated ad budget, most of the profits will be kept by Google & ad tech management rather than flowing to publishers.

Some of the recent acquisitions are more about having more scale on an alternative platform or driving offline commerce rather than hoping for online ad revenue growth.

Expand Internationally

The New York times is cutting back on their operations in Paris.

Spread Across Topics

What impact does it have on Marketwatch's brand if you go there for stocks information and they advise you on weight loss tips?

And, once again, when everyone starts doing that it is no longer a competitive advantage.

There have also been cases where newspapers like The New York Times acquired About.com only to later sell it for a loss. And now even About.com is unbundling itself.

Native Ads

The more companies who do them & the more places they are seen, the lower the rates go, the less novel they will seem, and the greater the likelihood a high-spending advertiser decides to publish it on their own site & then drive the audience directly to their site.

When it is rare or unique it stands out and is special, justifying the extra incremental cost. But when it is a scaled process it is no longer unique enough to justify the vastly higher cost.

Further, as it gets more pervasive it will lead to questions of editorial integrity.

Get Into Affiliate Marketing

It won't scale across all the big publishers. It only works well at scale in select verticals and as more entities test it they'll fill up the search results and end up competing for a smaller slice of attention. Further, each new affiliate means every other affiliate's cookie lasts for a shorter duration.

It is unlikely news companies will be able to create commercially oriented review content at scale while having the depth of Wirecutter.

“We move as much product as a place 10 times bigger than us in terms of audience,” Lam said in an interview. “That’s because people trust us. We earn that trust by having such deeply-researched articles.”

Further, as it gets more pervasive it will lead to questions of editorial integrity.

Charging People to Comment

It won't work, as it undermines the social proof of value the site would otherwise have from having many comments on it.

Meal Delivery Kits

Absurd. And a sign of extreme desperation.

Trust Tech Monopolies

Here is Doug Edwards on Larry Page:

He wondered how Google could become like a better version of the RIAA - not just a mediator of digital music licensing - but a marketplace for fair distribution of all forms of digitized content. I left that meeting with a sense that Larry was thinking far more deeply about the future than I was, and I was convinced he would play a large role in shaping it.

If we just give Google or Facebook greater control, they will save us.

No they won't.

You are probably better off selling meal kits.

As time passes, Google and Facebook keep getting a larger share of the pie, growing their rake faster than the pie is growing.

Here is the RIAA's Cary Sherman on Google & Facebook:

Just look at Silicon Valley. They’ve done an extraordinary job, and their market cap is worth gazillions of dollars. Look at the creative industries — not just the music industry, but all of them. All of them have suffered.

Over time media sites are becoming more reliant on platforms for distribution, with visitors having fleeting interest: "bounce rates on media sites having gone from 20% of visitors in the early 2000s to well over 70% of visitors today."

Accelerated Mobile Pages and Instant Articles?

These are not solutions. They are only a further acceleration of the problem.

How will giving greater control to monopolies that are displacing you (while investing in AI) lead to a more sustainable future for copyright holders? If they host your content and you are no longer even a destination, what is your point of differentiation?

If someone else hosts your content & you are depended on them for distribution you are competing against yourself with an entity that can arbitrarily shift the terms on you whenever they feel like it.

“The cracks are beginning to show, the dependence on platforms has meant they are losing their core identity,” said Rafat Ali “If you are just a brand in the feed, as opposed to a brand that users come to, that will catch up to you sometime.”

Do you think you gain leverage over time as they become more dominant in your vertical? Not likely. Look at how Google's redesigned image search shunted traffic away from the photographers. Google's remote rater guidelines even mentioned giving lower ratings to images with watermaks on them. So if you protect your works you are punished & if you don't, good luck negotiating with a monopoly. You'll probably need the EU to see any remedy there.

When something is an embarrassment to Google & can harm their PR fixing it becomes a priority, otherwise most the costs of rights management fall on the creative industry & Google will go out of their way to add cost to that process. Facebook is, of course, playing the same game with video freebooting.

Algorithms are not neutral and platforms change what they promote to suit their own needs.

As the platforms aim to expand into new verticals they create new opportunities, but those opportunities are temporal.

Whatever happened to Zynga?

Even Buzzfeed, the current example of success on Facebook, missed their revenue target badly, even as they become more dependent on the Facebook feed.

"One more implication of aggregation-based monopolies is that once competitors die the aggregators become monopsonies — i.e. the only buyer for modularized suppliers. And this, by extension, turns the virtuous cycle on its head: instead of more consumers leading to more suppliers, a dominant hold over suppliers means that consumers can never leave, rendering a superior user experience less important than a monopoly that looks an awful lot like the ones our antitrust laws were designed to eliminate." - Ben Thompson

Long after benefit stops passing to the creative person the platform still gets to re-use the work. The Supreme Court only recentlyrefused to hear the ebook scanning case & Google is already running stories about using romance novels to train their AI. How long until Google places their own AI driven news rewrites in front of users?

Who then will fund journalism?

Dumb it Down

Remember how Panda was going to fix crap content for the web? eHow has removed literally millions of articles from their site & still has not recovered in Google. Demand Media's bolt-on articles published on newspaper sites still rank great in Google, but that will at some point get saturated and stop being a growth opportunity, shifting from growth to zero sum to a negative sum market, particularly as Google keeps growing their knowledge scraper graph.

Now maybe if you dumb it down with celebrity garbage you get quick clicks from other channels and longterm SEO traffic doesn't matter as much.

But if everyone is pumping the same crap into the feed it is hard to stand out. When everyone starts doing it the strategy is no longer a competitive advantage. Further, if you build a business that is algorithmically optimized for short-term clicks is also optimizing for its own longterm irrelevancy.

Yahoo’s journalists used to joke amongst themselves about the extensive variety of Kind bars provided, but now the snacks aren’t being replenished. Instead, employees frequently remind each other that there is little reason to bother creating quality work within Yahoo’s vast eco-system of middle-brow content. “You are competing against Kim Kardashian’s ass,” goes a common refrain.
...
Yahoo’s billion-person-a-month home page is run by an algorithm, with a spare editorial staff, that pulls in the best-performing content from across the site. Yahoo engineers generally believed that these big names should have been able to support themselves, garner their own large audiences, and shouldn’t have relied on placement on the home page to achieve large audiences. As a result, they were expected to sink or swim on their own.
...
“Yahoo is reverting to its natural form,” a former staffer told me, “a crap home page for the Midwest.”

That is why Yahoo! ultimately had to shut down almost all their verticals. They were optimized algorithmically for short term wins rather than building things with longterm resonance.

Death by bean counter.

The above also has an incredibly damaging knock on effect on society.

People miss the key news. "what articles got the most views, and thus "clicks." Put bluntly, it was never the articles on my catching Bernanke pulling system liquidity into the maw of the collapse in 2008, while he maintained to Congress he had done the opposite." - Karl Denninger

The other issue is PR is outright displacing journalism. As bad as that is at creating general disinformation, it gets worse when people presume diversity of coverage means a diversity of thought process, a diversity of work, and a diversity of sources. Even people inside the current presidential administration state how horrible this trend is on society:

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” ... “We created an echo chamber,” he told the magazine. “They [the seemingly independent experts] were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

That is basically the government complaining to the press about it being "too easy" to manipulate the press.

Adding Echo to the Echo

Much of what "seems" like an algorithm on the tech platforms is actually a bunch of lowly paid humans pretending to be an algorithm.

This goes back to the problem of the limited diversity in original sources and rise of thin "take" pieces. Stories with an inconvenient truth can get suppressed, but "newsworthy" stories with multiple sources covering them may all use the same biased source.

After doing a tour in Facebook’s news trenches, almost all of them came to believe that they were there not to work, but to serve as training modules for Facebook’s algorithm. ... A topic was often blacklisted if it didn’t have at least three traditional news sources covering it

As algorithms take over more aspects of our lives and eat more of the media ecosystem, the sources they feed upon will consistently lose quality until some sort of major reset happens.

The strategy to keep sacrificing the long term to hit the short term numbers can seem popular. And then, suddenly, death.

You can say the soul is gone
And the feeling is just not there
Not like it was so long ago.
- Neil Young, Stringman

Micropayments & Paywalls

It is getting cheap enough that just about anyone can run a paid membership site, but it is quite hard to create something worth paying for on a recurring basis.

There are a few big issues with paywalls:

  • If you have something unique and don't market it aggressively then nobody will know about it. And, in fact, in some businesses your paying customers may have no interest in sharing your content because they view it as one of their competitive advantages. This was one of the big reasons I ultimately had to shut down our membership site.
  • If you do market something well enough to create demand then some other free sites will make free derivatives, and it is hard to keep having new things to write worth paying for in many markets. Eventually you exhaust the market or get burned out or stop resonating with it. Even free websites have churn. Paid websites have to bring in new members to offset old members leaving.
  • In most markets worth being in there is going to be plenty of free sites in the vertical which dominate the broader conversation. Thus you likely need to publish a significant amount of information for free which leads into an eventual sale. But knowing where to put the free line & how to move it over time isn't easy. Over the past year or two I blogged far less than I should have if I was going to keep running our site as a paid membership site.
  • And the last big issue is that a paywall is basically counter to all the other sort of above business models the mainstream media is trying. You need deeper content, better content, content that is not off topic, etc. Many of the easy wins for ad funded media become easy losses for paid membership sites. And just like it is hard for newspapers to ween themselves off of print ad revenues, it can be hard to undo many of the quick win ad revenue boosters if one wants to change their business model drastically. Regaining you sou takes time, and often, death.

“It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Time to Retire From SEO

Apr 1st

Since we are now at the point that some search results don't have *ANY* organic search results, it is hard to see much purpose in SEO.

Maybe the doommasters who called SEO dead for over a decade were finally proved right about SEO?

SEO is dead.

SEO was only ever a bug. And web users mostly didn't notice when the search results turned into nothing but ads.

Everything is going full circle. Ad heavy is bad to nothing but ads.

Webmasters are focusing so heavily on mobile-first that they are making their desktop sites unusable...

...at the same time usability experts are now recommending making things harder to save humanity.

Change creates opportunity. New changes, new channels, new options, new models, new methods.

I have decided to take a break from SEO and am transitioning to paid search, since clearly that is the future of all search marketing.

I've closed our membership site down to new paid member accounts & canceled all active paid subscriptions.

Perhaps it might be time for me to dust of PPCblog and shift most of my blogging to over there.

That is, if blogging still matters!

Going out on a positive note, the great team at Bing recently shared a promotional code with me to offer new advertisers a free $100 ad credit. Bing Ads clicks are a great value when compared against Google AdWords. You can access this coupon today via the following link:

For a limited time, get $50 in free search advertising with Bing Ads* and start tapping into millions of potential customers searching for products and services like yours on the Bing Network.

Google's Big Brand Shakedown

Mar 11th

Inorganic SERPs

A few weeks back Google introduced literally organic-free search results on mobile devices in the travel vertical. Google is now deepening that organic-free offering, announcing their new mobile travel guides would launch in 201 cities.

If you live outside of the United States it can be hard to appreciate just how ad heavy some of Google's search results have become in key ad categories.

Plenty of Room in Hotel California

When Google rolled out the 4 AdWords ads above the organic results layout they mentioned it would mostly appear on highly commercial search terms like New York Hotels. Hotels are one of the most profitable keyword themes, because:

  • the searches tend to be fairly late funnel
  • the transactions are for hundreds of dollars
  • OTAs and other intermediaries often get somewhere between 10% to 30% of the transaction

Google search results for hotels not only contain 4 AdWords ads, but they also have price ads on the "organic" local listings. That gives Google a second bite at the apple on monetizing the user.

Click on any of those prices and you get sent to a beautiful(ly ugly) ad heavy click circus page like the following.

As Google has displaced those sorts of markets, portals like Yahoo! have announced the shutdown of some of their vertical offerings:

today we will begin phasing out the following Digital Magazines: Yahoo Food, Yahoo Health, Yahoo Parenting, Yahoo Makers, Yahoo Travel, Yahoo Autos and Yahoo Real Estate.

Direct Marketing Budgets vs Brand Ad Budgets

Google recently had another vertical search program which paralleled their hotel offering which focused on finance. It allowed users to compare things like credit cards, home loans, auto insurance policies, and other financial offers. They acquired BeatThatQuote, hard coded aggressive placements for themselves near the top of the search results, increased the size of these custom ad units - and then killed them off.

Why would Google invest hundreds of millions of Dollars in vertical search only to kill the offering?

It turns out the offering was too efficient from an advertiser perspective, so it didn't drive enough yield for Google.

If it is a lead-based product the ad rates are set by rational lead values. There is no brand manager insisting on paying $120 a click because "we HAVE TO be #1 in Google for auto insurance."

If Google does lead generation and sells the lead off exclusively they get paid precisely once for the consumer. Whereas if Google scrubs many aggregators from the market & allows searchers to click on one brand at a time they get to monetize the user many times over and take advantage of any irrational bidders in the ecosystem.

As long as Google is monetizing brand advertising budgets they can insert many layers of fat into the ad stack.

(Really broad broad match, enhanced campaigns, fat-thumb mobile clicks, mobile app clicks, re-targeted ads for products which were already purchased, endless auto-play YouTube video streams with ads in them, etc.)

Riding the Google Waves

Google's vertical ad offerings may come and go, the biases behind the relevancy algorithms may shift, and the ecosystem constantly has some number false positives. As search engines test out various features & shift their editorial policies some companies get disrupted and are forced to change their business models, while other companies get disrupted and outright disappear.

Google's move into auto insurance might have been part of the reason Bankrate decided to exit the business. But Google exiting the Google Compare business and adding a 4th text AdWords ad slot above the organic search results a few days before Bankrate reported results caused BankRate's stock to slide by as much as 47%.

Brand Building to Lower Risk

Part of the SEO value of building a brand is the strength of the brand awareness helps you rank better across whatever portion of the search ecosystem Google has not yet eaten, while lowering your risk of becoming a false positive statistic. Branded-related searches should (in theory) also provide some baseline level of demand which insulates against ranking shifts on other keywords. And having a brand name rather than a generic business name allows one to go from one market to the next.

Just be Apple...

Computers.com won't magically morph into MP3player.com then CellPhone.com then Tablet.com then Watch.com, but Apple was able to move from one market to the next with ease due to consumer familiarity and loyalty toward their brand.

Investing in building brand awareness is often quite expensive & typically requires many years of losses to eventually see positive returns. Trends come and go, and with them so do associated brands.

Heavily invest in the wrong trend & die.

Wait too long to invest in an important trend & die.

Few companies are able to succeed in field after field after field.

For every Apple-like example, there are dozens of losers. Look at how many computer companies shifted to an emphasis on higher margin laptops, then sold off their laptop divisions for almost nothing and chased cell phones for growth. While they outsourced everything and relied on a faux open source software provider they guaranteed their own death. Look at how some of the mobile companies are valued at almost nothing, or those that have been bought & gutted like Motorola or Nokia. There are only 3 somewhat strong mobile manufacturers:

Adding Apple management to another company does not guarantee success.

The Financial Crisis & Brand

When the financial crisis happened about 8 years ago Google saw both their revenue growth rate and their stock price crash. Direct marketers receded with the consumer, but many pre-approved brand ad campaigns continued to run. Google's preferred custom shifted away from direct marketers toward large global brands.

When the economy started to recover, Google was quick to ban 30,000 affiliates from the AdWords auction.

When Trends Take Off

As trends become obvious & companies succeed wildly, competitors chase them.

The tricky part is the perception of success & lasting success are not one and the same.

Remember when Demand Media was allegedly profitable as hell? That was sales material for the pump-n-dump IPO & their stock has only corrected about 99% since then.

Since dumping that profitable as hell company on the public they've only had to invest in removing about 2.4 million articles from eHow.

The site is still torched by the Panda algorithm.

And they are still losing money. ;)

Companies like Mahalo which chased eHow also washed up on the rocks. They've since pivoted to YouTube, to mobile apps, to email & perhaps should re-brand to Pivot, Inc.

Groupon was another surefire trend. They're off about 84% from their peak & most the Groupon clones have went under, while Groupon has divested of most of their acquisition-driven international expansion. Numerous other coupon & flash sale sites which haven't yet went under laid off many people and are off significantly from their peaks or were sold for a song.

Trends come and go. Baseball cards are largely a thing of the past. So are Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Beanie Babies.

Perhaps soon independent single author blogs and SEO-driven publishing business models will be added to the list. ;)

Copycats & Trademark Infringement

Some brands have a strong staying power. But even if those brands are highly valued, they still face competition from knock offs.

If you shop at big box stores in the United States you may have no awareness of the following product.

Look a bit closer at that image & you'll see it wasn't LEGO, but rather LEBQ.

Sales for Le Bao Quan are not sales for the core LEGO brand, the consumer gets acclimated to an artificially low price point, and imagine what sort of a traumatic impact it might have for a child if their first LEGO-like toy looks like a pig fresh from the butcher's shop.

The key difference between that sort of stuff and gray areas monetized by the big online platforms is you may have to go to third world to find the sketchy physical products in the real world; whereas the big online platforms all have some number of sketchy globally accessible offers at any point in time. Here are just a few examples:

Monetizing Brand (Retailer)

At the core, all these platform plays are both brands unto themselves & places where third party brands get monetized.

The start up costs to have leverage to work with brands in an official partnership can be quite significant. Just look at how much Jet.com has raised and how much hustle they've used to get in the game, even with their massive burn rate.

Part of why Apple has such strong margins is their brand is so strong they can dictate terms and control the supply chain. Others are willing to give them the majority of the profits because carrying them completes the catalog and helps the retailers sell other, weaker goods where the retailers have higher profit margins.

And even then, when you get outside their core products, there are listings for fake OEM Apple stuff all over the web.

Luckily when fake products use spammy titles on Amazon the reviewers will quickly highlight if they are of inferior quality. But if they look authentic & work, it can be hard for the brands to know unless they proactively track everything. And as that demand gets filled, if there is a negative experience it may lead to customer complaints about the brand, whereas if there are no complaints & the product works it still leaves less money for the brand which is being arbitraged.

"The Internet doesn't change everything. It doesn't change supply and demand." - Andy Grove

Other players with weaker brands and a roll reversal on who needs who can quickly find themselves in a pickle.

Monetizing Brand (Financeer)

Some companies die slowly, as accountants drive strategy & they outsource their key points of differentiation and become unremarkable. When Yahoo! turned their verticals into thin "me too" outsourced plays they made it easy for Google to offer something of a similar quality, which in turn left the Yahoo! vertical properties without much distribution.

As Yahoo! struggles, some investors want to buy the core Yahoo! business so Yahoo! can exit the web business while being a holding company for Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan stock.

In an age of declining interest rates, zero interest rates (or even negative rate) policies some investors look to buy brands, streamline operations (mass firings & outsourcing), lever them up on debt & then sell them back off. Some companies like Burger King have cycled through public and private ownership multiple times.

Brands can be purchased just like links. Everything has a price and a value which shifts with the market.

Good to great to gone.

Monetizing Brand (Affiliate)

Some retailers have symbiotic relations with brands they sell, while other platforms may compete more aggressively with those whose products they sell. The same is true with affiliates. Affiliates can genuinely add value & drive new distribution for brands, or they can engage in lower value arbitrage, where they push the brand to pay for what was already owned by it through shady techniques like cookie stuffing.

One of the most one-sided and biased hate-filled perspectives I've ever seen about affiliates is Lori Weiman's guest columns at Search Engine Land.

Just the same, some merchants treat affiliates honestly and fairly, while other merchants have a pattern of scamming their affiliates through lead shaving, adjusting revenue share without telling the affiliates, and a host of other sketchy behaviors.

Monetizing Brand (Search Engine)

Search engines allow competitors or resellers to bid on branded keywords, which creates an auction bidding environment for many branded terms. Typically Google offers the official site / brand clicks at a significant discount for these terms in order to encourage them to compete in the ad marketplace & to help shift some of the organic click mix over to paid clicks.

Google has also tried a number of other initiatives to boost their monetization of branded keywords. A partial list of such efforts includes:

Sophisticated vs Unsophisticated SEM

Many poorly managed AdWords accounts managed by large ad agency ultimately end up far more damaging to brands than the efforts from "shady" affiliates. The set up (which is far more common than most would care to believe) revolves around the ad agency arbitraging the client's existing brand, falsely claiming the revenue generated by that spend to be completely incremental & then get a percent of spend management fee on that spend. The phantom profits which are generated from those efforts are further applied to bidding irrationally high on other terms, to once again pick up more percent of spend management fees.

Savvy search marketers separate the value of traffic from branded and unbranded terms to take a more accurate view of the interaction between investments in paid search and organic search.

Both eBay and Google have done studies on the incrementality of paid search clicks.

eBay being a large brand found they didn't see much incrementality [PDF]. Search Google for eBay and they won't run AdWords ads. eBay still participates in product listing ads / shopping search for other products they carry.

Google (of course) found much more incrementality with paid search ads. While they conducted their internal study and suggested it would be too hard or expensive for most advertisers to conduct such a study, they also failed to mention that the reason it would be expensive for an advertiser to perform such a test is because Google intentionally & explicitly decided against offering those features inside the AdWords platform. It is the same reason Google shut down Google Advisor / Google Compare - offering it doesn't provide Google a guaranteed positive yield when compared against not offering it.

One thing Google did note about seeing higher rates of incremental clicks in their study was when there was increased space between the listings there tended to be a higher rate of incremental ad clicks. This is part of why we see AdWords ads getting larger with more extensions & there being so many features in mobile which push the organic results below the fold.

The same Lori Weiman who hates affiliates is currently running (literally) an 8-part series on why you should bid on your brand keywords.

If anyone other than a search engine monetizes brand that might be bad, but if the search engines do it then going along with the game is always the right call.

Owning the Supply Chain

"The true victory (the true 'negation of the negation') occurs when the enemy talks your language." - Slavoj Zizek

The opposite is also true. If you are a brand who is being dictionary attacked by an ad network, the brand quickly shifts from an asset to a liability.

"The only thing that I'd rather own than Windows is English, because then I could charge you two hundred and forty-nine dollars for the right to speak it." - Scott McNealy

Google owns English and Spanish and German and ...

Is your control over the supply chain strong enough that you can afford to be below the fold for your own brand?

While you think about that, other pieces of the supply chain are merging in key verticals to better combat the strength of search ad networks.

  • Expedia, Travelocity & Orbitz
  • Zillow & Trulia
  • Staples, OfficeMax & OfficeDepot

How much are you willing to pay Google for each click for a brand you already own?

When does that stop being worth it?

During the next recession many advertisers will find out.

Added: Within days of writing the above post Google was once again found running ads promoting phishing campaigns, even though the ads arbitrage Google's branded keyword terms.

Apparently that issue isn't something new either.

How Google Search Works in 2016

Jan 26th

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Many years ago we created an infographic about how search works, from the perspective of a content creator, starting with their content & following it through the indexing & ranking process.

As users have shifted to mobile devices, the limited screen size of the devices have pushed search engines to squeeze out & displace publishers with their own self-hosted information in an effort to offset the poor usability offered by tiny devices, while ensuring the search habit does not decline.

The philosophy of modern search has thus moved away from starting with information and connecting it to an audience, to starting with the user and customizing the result page to them.

"The biggest three challenges for us still will be mobile, mobile, mobile" - Google's Amit Singhal

How Do Search Engines Work?

Restoring Firefox Extensions After The Firefox 43 Update

Dec 17th

Update: Our extensions are now signed, so you should be able to download the most recent version of them & use them with the most recent version of Firefox without having to mess with the Firefox plugin option security settings.

Firefox recently updated to version 43 & with that, they automatically disabled all extensions which are not signed, even if they were previously installed by a user and used for years.

If you go to the add ons screen after the update (by typing about:addons in the address bar) you will see a screen like this

Extensions which are submitted to the Mozilla Firefox add ons directory are automatically signed when approved, but other extensions are not by default:

Only Mozilla can sign your add-on so that Firefox will install it by default. Add-ons are signed by submitting them to AMO or using the API and passing either an automated or manual code review. Note that you are not required to list or distribute your add-on through AMO. If you are distributing the add-on on your own, you can choose the Unlisted option and AMO will only serve as the way to get your package signed.

In a couple days we will do that submission to get the add ons signed, but if you recently had the extensions go away it is fairly easy to override this signing feature to get the extensions back working right away.

If you recently saw rank checker, SEO for Firefox or the SEO toolbar disabled after a recent Mozilla Firefox update, here is how to restore them...

Step 1: go to the Firefox settings configuration section

Type about:config into the address bar & hit enter. Once that page loads click on the "I'll be careful, I promise" button.

Step 2: edit the signing configuration

Once the configuration box loads you'll see a bunch of different listed variables in it & a search box at the top. In that search box, enter
xpinstall.signatures.required

By default xpinstall.signatures.required is set to TRUE to force add ons to be signed. Click on it until it goes to bold, which indicates that the TRUE setting is set to FALSE.

Step 3: restart Firefox

After changing the add on signature settings, restart Firefox to apply the setting & your Firefox extensions will be restored.

Installing These Extensions On a New Computer

If you are having trouble setting up your extensions on a new computer, start with the above 3 steps & then go here to download & install the extensions.

Publisher Blocking: How the Web Was Lost

Streaming Apps


Google recently announced app streaming, where they can showcase & deep link into apps in the search results even if users do not have those apps installed. How it works is rather than users installing the app, Google has the app installed on a computer in their cloud & then shows users a video of the app. Click targets, ads, etc. remain the same.

In writing about the new feature, Danny Sullivan wrote a section on "How The Web Could Have Been Lost"

Imagine if, in order to use the web, you had to download an app for each website you wanted to visit. To find news from the New York Times, you had to install an app that let you access the site through your web browser. To purchase from Amazon, you first needed to install an Amazon app for your browser. To share on Facebook, installation of the Facebook app for your browser would be required. That would be a nightmare.
...
The web put an end to this. More specifically, the web browser did. The web browser became a universal app that let anyone open anything on the web.

To meaningfully participate on those sorts of sites you still need an account. You are not going to be able to buy on Amazon without registration. Any popular social network which allows third party IDs to take the place of first party IDs will quickly become a den of spam until they close that loophole.

In short, you still have to register with sites to get real value out of them if you are doing much beyond reading an article. Without registration it is hard for them to personalize your experience & recommend relevant content.

Desktop Friendly Design

App indexing & deep linking of apps is a step in the opposite direction of the open web. It is supporting proprietary non-web channels which don't link out. Further, if you thought keyword (not provided) heavily obfuscated user data, how much will data be obfuscated if the user isn't even using your site or app, but rather is interacting via a Google cloud computer?

  • Who visited your app? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • Where were they located? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • Did they have problems using your app? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.
  • What did they look at? Can you retarget them? Not sure. It was a Google cloud computer.

Is an app maker too lazy to create a web equivalent version of their content? If so, let them be at a strategic disadvantage to everyone who put in the extra effort to publish their content online.

If Google has their remote quality raters consider a site as not meeting users needs because they don't publish a "mobile friendly" version of their site, how can one consider a publisher who creates "app only" content as an entity which is trying hard to meet end user needs?

We know Google hates app install interstitials (unless they are sold by Google), thus the only reason Google would have for wanting to promote these sorts of services would be to justify owning, controlling & monetizing the user experience.

App-solutely Not The Answer


Apps are sold as a way to lower channel risk & gain direct access to users, but the companies owning the app stores are firmly in control.

Everyone wants to "own" the user, but none of the platforms bother to ask if the user wants to be owned:

We’re rapidly moving from an internet where computers are ‘peers’ (equals) to one where there are consumers and ‘data owners’, silos of end user data that work as hard as they can to stop you from communicating with other, similar silos.
...
If the current trend persists we’re heading straight for AOL 2.0, only now with a slick user interface, a couple more features and more users.

You've Got AOL

The AOL analogy is widely used:

Katz of Gogobot says that “SEO is a dying field” as Google uses its “monopoly” power to turn the field of search into Google’s own walled garden like AOL did in the age of dial-up modems.

Almost 4 years ago a Google engineer described SEO as a bug. He suggested one shouldn't be able to rank highly without paying.

It looks like he was right. Google's aggressive ad placement on mobile SERPs "has broken the will of users who would have clicked on an organic link if they could find one at the top of the page but are instead just clicking ads because they don’t want to scroll down."

In the years since then we've learned Google's "algorithm" has concurrent ranking signals & other forms of home cooking which guarantees success for Google's vertical search offerings. The "reasonable" barrier to entry which applies to third parties does not apply to any new Google offerings.

And "bugs" keep appearing in those "algorithms," which deliver a steady stream of harm to competing businesses.

From Indy to Brand

The waves of algorithm updates have in effect increased the barrier to entry, along with the cost needed to maintain rankings. The stresses and financial impacts that puts on small businesses makes many of them not worth running. Look no further than MetaFilter's founder seeing a psychologist, then quitting because he couldn't handle the process.

When Google engineers are not focused on "breaking spirits" they emphasize the importance of happiness.

The ecosystem instability has made smaller sites effectively disappear while delivering a bland and soulless result set which is heavy on brand:

there’s no reason why the internet couldn’t keep on its present course for years to come. Under those circumstances, it would shed most of the features that make it popular with today’s avant-garde, and become one more centralized, regulated, vacuous mass medium, packed to the bursting point with corporate advertising and lowest-common-denominator content, with dissenting voices and alternative culture shut out or shoved into corners where nobody ever looks. That’s the normal trajectory of an information technology in today’s industrial civilization, after all; it’s what happened with radio and television in their day, as the gaudy and grandiose claims of the early years gave way to the crass commercial realities of the mature forms of each medium.

If you participate on the web daily, the change washes over you slowly, and the cumulative effects can be imperceptible. But if you were locked in an Iranian jail for years the change is hard to miss.

These sorts of problems not only impact search, but have an impact on all the major tech channels.

If you live in Goole, these issues strike close to home.

And there are almost no counter-forces to the well established trend:

Eventually they might even symbolically close their websites, finishing the job they started when they all stopped paying attention to what their front pages looked like. Then, they will do a whole lot of what they already do, according to the demands of their new venues. They will report news and tell stories and post garbage and make mistakes. They will be given new metrics that are both more shallow and more urgent than ever before; they will adapt to them, all the while avoiding, as is tradition, honest discussions about the relationship between success and quality and self-respect.
...
If in five years I’m just watching NFL-endorsed ESPN clips through a syndication deal with a messaging app, and Vice is just an age-skewed Viacom with better audience data, and I’m looking up the same trivia on Genius instead of Wikipedia, and “publications” are just content agencies that solve temporary optimization issues for much larger platforms, what will have been point of the last twenty years of creating things for the web?

A Deal With the Devil

As ad blocking has grown more pervasive, some publishers believe the solution to the problem is through gaining distribution through the channels which are exempt from the impacts of ad blocking. However those channels have no incentive to offer exceptional payouts. They make more by showing fewer ads within featured content from partners (where they must share ad revenues) and showing more ads elsewhere (where they keep all the ad revenues).

So far publishers have been underwhelmed with both Facebook Instant Articles and Apple News. The former for stringent ad restrictions, and the latter for providing limited user data. Google Now is also increasing the number of news stories they show. And next year Google will roll out their accelerated mobile pages offering.

The problem is if you don't control the publishing you don't control the monetization and you don't control the data flow.

Your website helps make the knowledge graph (and other forms of vertical search) possible. But you are paid nothing when your content appears in the knowledge graph. And the knowledge graph now has a number of ad units embedded in it.

A decade ago, when Google pushed autolink to automatically insert links in publisher's content, webmasters had enough leverage to "just say no." But now? Not so much. Google considers in-text ad networks spam & embeds their own search in third party apps. As the terms of deals change, and what is considered "best for users" changes, content creators quietly accept, or quit.

Many video sites lost their rich snippets, while YouTube got larger snippets in the search results. Google pays YouTube content creators a far lower revenue share than even the default AdSense agreement offers. And those creators have restrictions which prevent them from using some forms of monetization while forces them to accept other types of bundling.

The most recent leaked Google rater documents suggested the justification for featured answers was to make mobile search quick, but if that were the extent of it then it still doesn't explain why they also appear on desktop search results. It also doesn't explain why the publisher credit links were originally a light gray.

With Google everything comes down to speed, speed, speed. But then they offer interstitial ad units, lock content behind surveys, and transform the user intent behind queries in a way that leads them astray.

As Google obfuscates more data & increasingly redirects and monetizes user intent, they promise to offer advertisers better integration of online to offline conversion data.

At the same time, as Google "speeds up" your site for you, they may break it with GoogleWebLight.

If you don't host & control the user experience you are at the whim of (at best, morally agnostic) self-serving platforms which could care less if any individual publication dies.

It's White Hat or Bust...


What was that old white hat SEO adage? I forget the precise wording, but I think it went something like...

Don't buy links, it is too risky & too uncertain. Guarantee strong returns like Google does, by investing directly into undermining the political process by hiring lobbyists, heavy political donations, skirting political donation rules, regularly setting policy, inserting your agents in government, and sponsoring bogus "academic research" without disclosing the payments.

Focus on the user. Put them first. Right behind money.

Ad Network Ménage à Trois: Bing, Yahoo!, Google

Oct 20th
posted in

Yahoo! Tests Google Again

Back in July we noticed Yahoo! was testing Google-powered search results. From that post...

When Yahoo! recently renewed their search deal with Microsoft, Yahoo! was once again allowed to sell their own desktop search ads & they are only required to give 51% of the search volume to Bing. There has been significant speculation as to what Yahoo! would do with the carve out. Would they build their own search technology? Would they outsource to Google to increase search ad revenues? It appears they are doing a bit of everything - some Bing ads, some Yahoo! ads, some Google ads.

The Growth of Gemini

Since then Gemini has grown significantly:

Yahoo has moved quickly to bring search ad traffic under Gemini for advertisers that have adopted the platform. For some perspective, in September 2015, Yahoo.com produced a little over 50 percent of the clicks that took place across the Bing Ads and Gemini platforms. For advertisers adopting Gemini, Gemini produced 22 percent of combined Bing and Gemini clicks. Given the device breakdown of Yahoo’s traffic, this amounts to about two-thirds of the traffic it is able to control under the renegotiated agreement.

That growth has come at the expense of Bing ad clicks, which have fallen significantly:

Shared Scale to Compete

Years ago Microsoft was partnered into the Yahoo!/Overture ad network to compete against Google. The idea was the companies together would have better scale to compete against Google in search & ads. Greater scale would lead to a more efficient marketplace, which would lead to better ad matching, higher advertiser bids, etc. This didn't worked as well as anticipated. Originally under-monetization was blamed on poor ad matching. Yahoo! Panama was a major rewrite of their ad system which was supposed to fix the problem, but it didn't.

Even if issues like bid jamming were fixed & ad matching was more relevant, it still didn't fix issues with lower ad depth in emerging markets & arbitrage lowering the value of expensive keywords in the United States.

Understanding the Value of Search Clicks

When a person types a keyword into a search box they are expressing significant intent. When a person clicks a link to land on a page they may still have significant interest, but generally there is at least some level of fall off. If I search for a keyword the value of my click is $x, but if I click a link on a "top searches" box, the value of that click may perhaps only be 5% or 10% what the value of a hand typed search. There is less intent.

Here is a picture of the sort of "trending now" box which appears on the Yahoo! homepage.

Typically those sorts of searches include a bunch of female celebrities, but then in any such box there will be one or two money terms added, like [lower blood pressure] or [iPhone 6s]. People who search for those terms might have $5 or $10 of intent, but people who click those links might only have a quarter or 50 cents of intent.

That difference in value can utterly screw an advertiser who gets their high-value keyword featured while they are sleeping or not actively monitoring & managing their ad campaign.

For what it is worth, even Google has tested some of these sort of these "search" traffic generation approaches during the last recession. On the Google AdSense network Google was buying banner ads telling people to search for [credit cards] & if they clicked on those banner ads they ended up on a search result page for [credit cards].

To this day many companies run contextual ads that drive search volume, but the difference between today & the Yahoo! which failed to monetize search is there is (at least currently) a greater focus on traffic quality.

Under-performance Due to Shady Traffic Partners

Yahoo! continued to under-perform in large part because Yahoo! had a lot of "search" partners with many lower quality traffic sources mixed in their traffic stream & they didn't even allow advertisers to opt out of the partner network until after Yahoo! decided to exit the search market. As bad as the above sounds, it is actually worse, as some larger partners had access to advertiser information in a way that allowed them to aggressively arbitrage away the value of high advertiser bids wherever and whenever an advertiser overbid.

So you would bid thinking you were buying primarily search traffic based on the user intent of a person searching for something, but you might have been getting various layers of arbitrage of lower quality traffic, traffic from domain lander pages, or even some mix of robotic traffic from clickbots. Those $30 search ad clicks are a sure money loser if it is a clickbot software program doing the click.

And not only were some of Yahoo!'s partners driving down the value of clicks on Yahoo! itself, but Yahoo! was paying some of the larger partners in the high 80s to low 90s percent of revenue. Here is a (made up) example chart for illustration purposes, where the (made up) partner is getting a 90% TAC

  Advertiser Bid Y! Search Clicks Partner Clicks Total Clicks Total Revs TAC Rev after TAC
No Partners $30 3,000 0 3,000 $90,000 $0 $90,000
Bit of Arb $25 3,000 1,000 4,000 $100,000 $22,500 $77,500
Heavy Arb $10 3,000 6,000 9,000 $90,000 $54,000 $36,000

Why did Yahoo! allow the above sort of behavior to go on? It is hard to believe they were completely unaware of what was going on, particularly when it was so obvious to outside observers. More likely it was that they were rapidly losing search share & wanted the topline revenue growth to make their quarterly number. By the time they realized what damage they had already done to their ecosystem, they were already too far down the path to correct it & were afraid to do anything which significantly hit revenues.

The rapid rise and fall of a large Yahoo! search partner named Geosign was detailed by the Canadian Financial Post, in an article which is now offline, but available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine:

Companies fail all the time. Sometimes with little warning. But companies that are highly profitable and only weeks removed from a record-setting venture capital investment? Not so much. Yet in Geosign's case, the cuts that began last May continued through the summer. Late last year, fewer than 100 employees remained. Today, Geosign itself no longer exists, its still-functioning website an empty reminder of its former promise. And while the national business media has, until now, overlooked the story - surprising, given the size of the investment and the fact that Google played a direct role in the outcome - within Canada's technology and venture-capital communities, the $160-million investment is known as the deal "that didn't go well." When the collapse happened, even jaded industry watchers accustomed to financial debacles in the tech sector were stunned. "I've seen a lot of meltdowns," says Duncan Stewart, a technology and investment analyst in Toronto. "But something happening like this, over just a few weeks, that's unprecedented in my experience."

Other traffic sources like domain parking have also sharply declined, due to a variety of factors like: web browsers replacing address bars with multi-purpose search boxes, shift of consumer internet traffic to mobile devices (which increases reliance on search over direct navigation & apps replace some segment of direct navigation), increased smart pricing, lower revenue sharing percentages, and Yahoo! no longer being able to offer a competitive bid against Google.

When Yahoo! shifted their search ads to Microsoft, Microsoft allowed advertisers to opt out of the partner network. Microsoft also clamped down on some of the lower quality traffic sources with smart pricing, which hit some of the arbitrage businesses hard & even forced Yahoo! to seek refunds from some of their partners for delivering low quality traffic.

Shared Scale to Compete

Microsoft launched their own algorithmic search results on Live Search & their own Microsoft adCenter search ads. Microsoft continued to lose share in search at least until they gave their search engine a memorable name in Bing. The Yahoo! Bing ad network seemed to be gaining momentum when Yahoo! signed a deal with Mozilla to become the default search provider for Firefox, but it appears Yahoo! overpaid for the deal as Yahoo! search revenues ex-TAC were off $60 million YoY in the most recent quarter.

In spite of using an ad-heavy search interface Yahoo! has not grown search ad revenues as quickly as the search market has grown. Yahoo! has continually lost marketshare for years (up until the Mozilla Firefox deal). And even as Microsoft has followed Google in broadened their ad matching, a lot of the other "search" traffic partners Yahoo! once relied on to make their numbers are no longer in the marketplace to augment their data.

The Bing / Yahoo! network search traffic is now much cleaner than the Yahoo! "search" traffic quality of many years ago, but Yahoo! hasn't replaced some of the old search partners which have died off.

Shared Scale No Longer Important?

Yahoo! increasing the share of their ad clicks which are powered by Gemini lowers the network efficiency of the Yahoo!/Bing ad network. All the talk of "synergy" driving value sort of goes up in smoke when Yahoo! shifts a significant share of their ad clicks away from the original network.

Yahoo! announced a new search deal with Google. Here's the Tweet version...

...the underlying ethos...

If you love something, set it free; if it comes backs it’s yours, if it doesn’t, it never was.”

...and the long version...

On October 19, 2015, Yahoo! Inc., a Delaware corporation ("Yahoo"), and Google Inc., a Delaware corporation ("Google"), entered into a Google Services Agreement (the "Services Agreement"). The Services Agreement is effective as of October 1, 2015 and expires on December 31, 2018. Pursuant to the Services Agreement, Google will provide Yahoo with search advertisements through Google's AdSense for Search service ("AFS"), web algorithmic search services through Google's Websearch Service, and image search services. The results provided by Google for these services will be available to Yahoo for display on both desktop and mobile platforms. Yahoo may use Google's services on Yahoo's owned and operated properties ("Yahoo Properties") and on certain syndication partner properties ("Affiliate Sites") in the United States (U.S.), Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Middle East, Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Peru, Australia and New Zealand.

Under the Services Agreement, Yahoo has discretion to select which search queries to send to Google and is not obligated to send any minimum number of search queries. The Services Agreement is non-exclusive and expressly permits Yahoo to use any other search advertising services, including its own service, the services of Microsoft Corporation or other third parties.

Google will pay Yahoo a percentage of the gross revenues from AFS ads displayed on Yahoo Properties or Affiliate Sites. The percentage will vary depending on whether the ads are displayed on U.S. desktop sites, non-U.S. desktop sites or on the tablet or mobile phone versions of the Yahoo Properties or its Affiliate Sites. Yahoo will pay Google fees for requests for image search results or web algorithmic search results.

Either party may terminate the Services Agreement (1) upon a material breach subject to certain limitations; (2) in the event of a change in control (as defined in the Services Agreement); (3) after first discussing with the other party in good faith its concerns and potential alternatives to termination (a) in its entirety or in the U.S. only, if it reasonably anticipates litigation or a regulatory proceeding brought by any U.S. federal or state agency to enjoin the parties from consummating, implementing or otherwise performing the Services Agreement, (b) in part, in a country other than the U.S., if either party reasonably anticipates litigation or a regulatory proceeding or reasonably anticipates that the continued performance under the Services Agreement in such country would have a material adverse impact on any ongoing antitrust proceeding in such country, (c) in its entirety if either party reasonably anticipates a filing by the European Commission to enjoin it from performing the Services Agreement or that continued performance of the Services Agreement would have a material adverse impact on any ongoing antitrust proceeding involving either party in Europe or India, or (d) in its entirety, on 60 days notice if the other party's exercise of these termination rights in this clause (3) has collectively and materially diminished the economic value of the Services Agreement. Each party agrees to defend or settle any lawsuits or similar actions related to the Services Agreement unless doing so is not commercially reasonable (taking all factors into account, including without limitation effects on a party's brand or business outside of the scope of the Services Agreement).

In addition, Google may suspend Yahoo's use of services upon certain events and may terminate the Services Agreement if such events are not cured. Yahoo may terminate the Services Agreement if Google breaches certain service level and server latency specified in the Services Agreement.

In connection with the Services Agreement, Yahoo and Google have agreed to certain procedures with the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice (the "DOJ") to facilitate review of the Services Agreement by the DOJ, including delaying the implementation of the Services Agreement in the U.S. in order to provide the DOJ with a reasonable period of review.

Where Are We Headed?

Danny Sullivan mentioned the 51% of search share Yahoo! is required to deliver to Bing applies only to desktop traffic & Yahoo! has no such limit on mobile searches. In theory this could mean Yahoo! could quickly become a Google shop, with Microsoft as a backfill partner.

When asked about the future of Gemini on today's investor conference call Marissa Mayer stated she expected Gemini to continue scaling more on mobile. She also stated she felt the Google deal would help Yahoo! refine their ad mix & give them additional opportunities in international markets. Yahoo! is increasingly reliant on the US & is unable to bid to win marketshare in foreign markets.

(Myopic) Learning Systems

Marissa Mayer sounded both insightful and myopic on today's conference call. She mentioned how as they scale up Gemini the cost of that is reflected in foregone revenues from optimizing their learning systems and improving their ad relevancy. On its face, that sort of comment sounds totally reasonable.

An unsophisticated or utterly ignorant market participant might even cheer it on, without realizing the additional complexity, management cost & risk they are promoting.

Where the myopic quick win view falls flat is on the other side of the market.

Sure a large web platform can use big data to optimize their performance and squeeze out additional pennies of yield, but for an advertiser these blended networks can be a real struggle. How do they budget for any given network when a single company is arbitrarily mixing between 3 parallel networks? A small shift in Google AdWords ad spend might not be hard to manage, but what happens if an advertiser suddenly gets a bunch of [trending topic] search ad clicks? Or maybe they get a huge slug of mobile clicks which don't work very well for their business. Do they disable the associated keyword in Yahoo! Gemini? Or Bing Ads? Or Google AdWords? All 3?'

Do they find that when they pause their ads in one network that quickly leads to the second (or third) network quickly carrying their ads across?

Even if you can track and manage it on a granular basis, the additional management time is non-trivial. One of the fundamental keys to a solid online advertising strategy is to have granular control so you can quickly alter distribution. But if you turn your ads off in one network only to find that leads your ads from the second network to get carried across that creates a bit of chaos. The more networks there are in parallel that bleed together the blurrier things get.

This sort of "overlap = bad" mindset is precisely why search engines suggest creating tight ad campaigns and ad groups. But you lose that control when things arbitrarily shift about.

To appreciate how expensive those sorts of costs can be, consider what has happened with programmatic ads:

Platforms that facilitate automated sales for media companies typically take 10% to 20% of the revenue that passes through their hands, according to the IAB report. Networks that service programmatic buys typically mark up inventory, citing the value that they add, by 30% to 50%. And then there are the essential data-management platforms, which take 10% to 15% of a buy, industry executives said.

If you are managing a client budget for paid search, how do you determine a pre-approved budget for each network when the traffic mix & quality might rapidly oscillate across the networks?

Don't take my word for it though, read the Yahoo! Ads Twitter account

When Yahoo! tries to manage their yield they will not only be choosing among 3 parallel networks on their end, but they will also have individual advertisers making a wide variety of changes on the other end. And some of those advertisers will not only be influenced by the ad networks, but also the organic rankings which come with the ads.

If one search engine is ranking you well in the organic search results for an important keyword and another is not, then you should bid more aggressively on your ads on the search engine which is ranking your site, because by voting with your budget you may well be voting on which underlying relevancy algorithm is chosen to deliver the associated organic search results accompanying the ads.

That last point was important & I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere yet, so it is worth repeating: your PPC ad bids may determine which search relevancy algorithm drives Yahoo! Search organic results.

Time to Quit Digging & Drop The Shovel

The other (BIG) issue is that as they give Google more search marketshare they give Google more granular data, which in turn means they

  • make buying on their own network less worthy of the management cost & complexity
  • make Google more of a "must buy"
  • will never close the monetization gap with Google

Even today Google announced a new tool for offering advertisers granular localized search data. Search partners won't directly benefit from those tools.

The old problem with Yahoo! was they were heavily reliant on search partners who drove down the traffic value. The future problem may well be if the marginally profitable Bing leaves the search market, Google will drive down the amount of revenue they share with Yahoo!.

If the Yahoo! Google search deal gets approved, Bing might shift back to losing money unless Microsoft buys Yahoo! after the Alibaba share spin out.

Ever track how Google's TAC has shifted over the past decade?

It has only been a decade so far, but MAYBE THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT.

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