CPC Contextual Ad Network Review (Updated for 2015)

Sections


Overview

Network Type Rating Review
Contextual
Display
read review
Contextual
Display
read review
Contextual
Display
read review
in-text contextual ads In-text read review
display ads Various various read review
content recommendation Display
Text
various read review
affiliate networks Affiliate various read review


AdSense Review

Overall Rating

Why Publishers Like It

It is generally seen as the gold standard of contextual ad programs. Google owns about a third of the global online ad market & has a higher share in some locations (especially outside of the US, China & South Korea) as well as some categories like mobile & search ads.

When it works, it can be a terrific set-n-forget revenue source which helps subsidize the creation of additional online content. A number of great features are

  • industry leading payouts (due to the depth of their ad network)
  • combining contextual, display, site targeting & ad retargeting in a single offering
  • the ability to tie it in with Google Analytics (to give granular page-level performance data)
  • the ability to serve ads using DoubleClick for Publishers (which allows features like also selling direct ads & setting links to open in a new window)

One of the other features which was fantastic was the ability to tie click performance back to keyword data. That is still somewhat possible, however Google currently hides keyword data on about 90% of organic search traffic and Yahoo! hides keyword data on about 50% of search traffic, so the ability to "close the loop" on the keyword level performance data is not as strong as it once was.

Why People Dislike It - Poor Communications & Bans

A limited amount of competition over the years has caused them to be aggressive & adversarial toward many of their partners. For years they refused to disclose ad revenue share & they only disclosed it in 2010 after a lawsuit in Italy forced them to. At one point Larry Page even stated he thought the concept of customer support is ridiculous.

There have been numerous cases where longstanding accounts were banned out of the blue without warning - with the most recent earning period clawed back.

Some individuals have complained to regulators or taken them to court over the practice, however such a fight can be expensive & time consuming, and success is not guaranteed. More recently there has been an alleged employee leak, reports of accounts being closed right before publisher payouts are due, and a class action lawsuit.

Even outside of account bans, some publishers still face significant margin risk as Google's priorities change. Demand Media's eHow is indeed a cautionary tale.

As Google reshapes the web in its own image, on highly commercial keywords it publishes search result pages which are almost entirely ads or "knowledge graph" listings with ads above the fold. And then they roll out algorithms which penalize publishers for being too "ad heavy." Yet if you look at their heat map, the "best practices" almost seem like a recipe for trouble. And old case studies from publishers long since penalized have been removed.

Their program can seem rock solid while it is working, but the level of churn is quite high. In this article Susan Wojcicki mentioned Google has "some 2 million sites" in their display network. In a 2012 blog post they published the following graph, highlighting how they had disabled ad serving to about 1.5 million sites in the 4 years prior.

In early 2014 they followed up that post with another one, highlighting the following stats for 2013:

we had blacklisted more than 200,000 total publisher pages, an encouraging decline from last year, and disapproved more than 3,000,000 attempts to join our AdSense network. We also removed more than 250,000 publisher accounts for various policy violations.

If each publisher has an average of 1 website, that would indicate something like a 12.5% of publishers faced banning in 2013. If each publisher has an average of 2 sites, it would mean they banned 25% of their partners in a single year - and these bans are lifetime bans.

Consider how they banned AdBlock Plus from their Play Store, only to later allow it once Google search ads were re-enabled in the plugin, yet AdSense ads on publisher sites remained blocked by the plugin.

>>> Sign up to activate your AdSense publisher account today.

Onto the top competing contextual ad networks...


Media.net

Overall Rating

General Review

Many smaller networks which are AdSense competitors have a huge fall off, to where if you earned 50 cents or a dollar a click with AdSense, you'd see penny and nickle clicks. Thankfully Media.net is nothing like that & they are perhaps the best at competing on a eCPM basis. Their interface is quite easy to use, both in terms of creating & customizing new ad units and in tracking performance reports.

In most markets Media.net won't vastly outperform AdSense, but it is certainly worth testing & may do far better than one would expect, particularly in light of how weak the Yahoo! Publisher Network performed many years ago. I've read some Media.net reviews which were a bit negative, but many of those were from people earning under $1 a day or such. Since Media.net lacks Google's advertising network depth & scale, they try to offset that with better ad integration using a manually intensive work process to really help the ads match the look and feel of your sites. It is worth noting that unless you have a decent amount of scale they probably won't be able to justify spending a lot of resources working on custom ad integration for your website.

Competition shifts the balance of power. When companies feel like they don't have to compete they can start believing things like "the whole concept of customer support is absurd." Even if using Media.net were revenue neutral, it would still be worth doing in order to help shift that balance of power in favor of publishers. Some other large web players like Mozilla Firefox have certainly indicated they understand the importance of that sort of competition.

Great Features

  • Competitive eCPM when compared against AdSense in many categories.
  • Can be used in conjunction with AdSense.
  • Has some standard ad unit sizes & some that are custom, which gives you flexibility in terms of integrating them in typical ad spots and in terms of having units which look different than common ones and thus have greater eye appeal than a standard 468x60 or 728x90 banner.
  • Leverages the Yahoo! Bing Network, which gives it a fairly decent advertiser base & network scale to tap into to ensure there are relevant ads for most topics. I believe one thing that has helped them do so well is Microsoft has done a much better job on pricing click quality than many networks did in years past.
  • Since they are not a monopoly, Media.net believes in the concept of customer service & their partner communications are much clearer. You don't have to pull down millions of dollars a year to be considered a valued partner.
  • Their customer support team not only communicates clearly with publishers, but also works to help improve ad integration. Support is perhaps one of their best attributes.
  • Once your account has been established and they see strong traffic quality they are generally quite quick at approving any additional sites you add to your account.
  • In addition to offering contextual ads, Media.net has a partnership to serve Google display ads (though publishers have to be invited to have those features enabled).
  • While earning statistics are not real-time, they provide them the following day.
  • Fast Net-30 payouts.

Drawbacks

The main drawbacks would be:

  • They require English as your primary language & that your site receives the majority of its traffic from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. If you operate outside those markets, then they wouldn't be a great fit at the moment (though who knows where they may be in a couple years as Bing gets more aggressive with international expansion).
  • It can take a while to get a new account approved, so it is worth applying early to have some experience and to have a backup in place in case anything should happen to your AdSense account.
  • Inability to split test units (though if you are doing enough volume your customer support person will help set up and implement a split test for you).
  • While they do offer statistics on a per-site, per-day & per-ad unit basis (along with pageview stats), they currently do not offer data down to the page or keyword level. They provide data on earnings, pageviews & eCPM; but they currently do not provide click or CPC data. (I believe they will be adding more granular metrics fairly soon).

>>> Sign up to activate your Media.net publisher account today.


Chitika

Overall Rating


Chitika launched in 2003 and made waves with their eMiniMalls back in 2005. Darren Rowse helped put them on the map when he reviewed them after seeing great performance on his photography website. As a smaller independent third party service they kept innovating by cleverly used signals like search keyword to help drive ad targeting on the landing page. Of course after Google defaulted to keyword (not provided) on organic search Chitika had to lean harder into a variety of other signals - like file names.

That Chitika is around over a decade after launching is a testament to their fortitude and fighting spirit, as many providers which launched after them have already been shut down. AdBrite was created the year before Chitika and shut down on February 1, 2013. Yahoo! launched their own program (named the Yahoo! Publisher Network) on August 2, 2005 but announced its closure on March 31, 2010. When they closed down they recommended publishers use Chitika.

Great Features

  • Account approval is quite fast. You can add the ad code to new sites quickly after your account is approved.
  • Offers a variety of ad formats including contextual ads, ad links, inline text ads, and a footer bar option.
  • Daily stat updates on clicks, CPC, earnings, pageviews & eCPMs.
  • Fast payouts.

Drawbacks

  • When doing side by side tests we've generally seen lower earnings from Chitika than Media.net or Google AdSense. If your site is about a fairly low commercial interest topic where click prices are fairly low across the board then Chitika can be decently competitive, but if your sites cover topics where clicks often go for multiple dollars there tends to be a more significant fall off.
  • While Chitikia automatically approves new accounts, I believe the initial ad feed they offer might be a more basic one with lower earnings potential. Sometimes you have to wait a few days in order for your CPC to really ramp up.

Join Today

>>> Sign up to activate your Chitika publisher account today.


Yahoo! Publisher Network


CLOSED
Yahoo! launched their own contextual ad program (named the Yahoo! Publisher Network) on August 2, 2005 but announced its closure on March 31, 2010. When they closed down they recommended publishers use Chitika. Yahoo! ultimately had a couple problems which prevented them from competing:

  • their ads were primarily driven by max CPC rather than relevancy matching, which caused many publishers to complain about Vonange ads everywhere
  • they did not use smart pricing to optimize ad click costs as well as Google did
  • their ad network was not quite as deep

The third of the above 3 wouldn't have mattered so much if the first issue wasn't so overt.

After shutting down in 2010, Yahoo! announced they inked a long-term agreement with Media.net on September 27, 2012 to run a contextual ad program (which was reviewed above). In 2013 Yahoo! also signed a non-exclusive deal with Google to syndicate AdSense and mobile AdMob ads.


Microsoft pubCenter

Overall Rating

Microsoft has an ad program named pubCenter. However they only briefly had it open to smaller independent webmasters before shifting it toward focusing primarily on mobile ads and Windows 8 apps. When it first opened up via a YieldBuild partnership it performed strongly, but then they used smart pricing to drive down ad rates.

If you are not developing mobile apps for Windows phones & Windows 8 apps you are probably better off working with Media.net to leverage Bing's network.


In-Text Ad Networks: Infolinks vs Kontera vs Vibrant Media Intellitxt

Overall Rating

We have tested all of these to some degree, but have never seen a huge lift from them when compared against the above mentioned programs.

In many cases the "in-text" ad networks promote themselves as offering free incremental revenues, however if a site's user experience is worse & users click the back button quicker that can not only impact the pageviews of the visitor (as someone who clicks back doesn't view a second page), but those sorts of negative engagement metrics can also fold into algorithms like Google's Panda, which can cause the site to ranked lower in the search results.

And if that were not bad enough, Google is looking down upon these types of ads in their manual review process as well. The March 31, 2014 leaked version of Google's remote rater guidelines state:

  • "Ads and should be arranged so as not to distract from the MC—Ads and SC are there should the user want them, but they should be easily “ignorable” if the user is not interested."
  • "It should be clear what parts of the page are Ads, either by explicit labeling or simply by page organization or design."
  • "Many Ads or highly distracting Ads on the visible part of the page when it first loads in the browser (before you do any scrolling), making it difficult to read the MC."
  • "the popover ads (the words that are double underlined in blue) can make the main content difficult to read, resulting in a poor user experience."

In the above, the MC stands for [main content] and SC stands for [supplemental content]. What they are saying there is that ads blended into the main content can create a poor user experience and thus be justification for giving the site a poor rating. If enough remote raters flag a site as being a poor user experience, that could flag it for review & have engineers penalize the site with a manual penalty.

The above "engagement" sort of issues related to the Panda algorithm are also why I generally don't like pop ups or aggressive overlays like Undertone or similar on smaller niche sites. I'm even hesitant to use something like Adiply, let alone something as aggressive as Exit Junction.

These in-text ads are becoming more widespread. Viglink and Skimlinks are automated affiliate monetization solutions for those who do not want to have to sign up with numerous sites and networks. BrandCrumb is a similar solution which has select brands registered. LinkSmart is yet another in-text ad network.


The above were some of the better known contextual providers, but there are are a variety of other ad formats to monetize sites with, including: display, content recommendation, video, mobile and affiliate marketing.

Display Ads & Self-serve Providers

There are many types of networks and options for display.


Content Recommendation

These appear on various mainstream media sites as "also in the news" or "from around the web" or similar. Here is an example:


Affiliate Networks

  • Amazon Associates is perhaps the single broadest online affiliate program. Amazon has also moved into offering a retargeting display network for publishers.
  • The eBay Partner Network is great for sites which promote vintage goods & collectibles.
  • CJ affiliate by Conversant is the new name for Commission Junction, which has long been the #1 online affiliate network.
  • Rakuten LinkShare has for years fought CJ for the leadership position in the affiliate network space.
  • ShareASale is a growing affiliate network which has been growing their share in the market for years.
  • Viglink and Skimlinks are automated affiliate monetization solutions for those who do not want to have to sign up with numerous sites and networks. BrandCrumb is a similar solution which has select brands registered.
  • Clickbank is a leading marketplace for digital downloads. They skew heavy toward the "get rich quick" niche, but if you get out of the biz op are some of their products might be decent. Since they sell high margin digital products the typical affiliate commission is a far higher percent than merchants selling physical goods.
  • MyCommerce - a more upscale Clickbank-like digital maketplace by Digital River, which skews primarily toward software.

Media.net Review (2015 Update)

Jul 25th

Overall Rating

General Review

We have reviewed a number of contextual ad networks & Media.net scored as the best network outside of AdSense. Many smaller ad networks have a huge fall off, to where if you earned 50 cents or a dollar a click with Google AdSense, you'd see nickle and penny clicks. Thankfully Media.net is nothing like that & they are perhaps the best network at competing with AdSense on a CPM basis. Their interface is quite easy to use, both in terms of creating & customizing new ad units and in tracking performance reports.

Applying

Application only takes a couple minutes. Account approval may take 4 or 5 business days to about a week. Once your account is approved, each additional site you submit must also be approved, but your account representative can help with that and getting additional sites approved should take a day or less.

They have high traffic quality standards and manually review all sites to help maintain network quality. They require English as your primary language & that your site receives the majority of its traffic from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Other publisher requirements are posted online. Their terms of service are published at media.net/legal/tos and their program guidelines are published at media.net/legal/programguidelines.

You can apply online here.

Earnings Payout

Media.net pays on a Net-30 basis and has a $100 minimum earning threshold.

You can select Paypal or bank wire transfer as your payment method.

RPM / CPM Rate

The earnings potential for any ad network is driven by

  • the depth of the ad network
  • the relevancy of the ads
  • how tightly ads can be integrated to fit the theme of the site
  • the commercial appeal of the publisher's topic

Ad Network Depth
Since Media.net leverages the Yahoo Bing Network, it has significant ad depth inside the United States. Shortly after its launch in 2012, Media.net CEO Divyank Turkhia stated: "Media.net has contextually optimized over $200 million worth of internet traffic." 6 months later their ad network already had over 2.5 billion pageviews.

While the earnings from Media.net are typically not vastly better than AdSense, they may be quite close to par and tend to outperform networks like Chitika, particularly when the published content is tied to a high value topic where pay per click (ppc) prices are significant. The cost per click (cpc) will vary across networks and topics, but in my experience the gap between AdSense and Media.net is far less than the gap between Media.net and networks like Chitika or the in-text ad networks like Infolinks, Kontera & Vibrant Media IntelliTXT. I've even seen some cases where Media.net outperformed AdSense on some topics. You don't have to chose one or the other though, as Media.net ads can be used in conjunction with AdSense ads on the same site.

Ad Relevancy
Publishers who have had experience with the (now defunct) Yahoo! Publisher Network may recall the ads in Yahoo!'s old network were not particularly relevant. Ads in the Yahoo! Publisher Network lacked relevancy in part because Yahoo! placed excessive weight on the CPC which the advertiser was willing to pay. That in turn led to substantially lower ad clickthrough rates (CTR). And when some of the top paying advertisers like Vonage lowered their bids, ultimately that led to drastically lower RPM.

The good news with Media.net is it puts ad relevancy front and center. This leads to a high level of user engagement with the ads, which in turn drives a much better yield for publishers at a better RPM rate. Their ads have a 100% fill rate and use page level precision targeting.

Media.net is primarily a contextual ad network. Select publishers may be invited to sign up for the premium display advertising partnership Media.net has with Google, to complement the contextual ad performance with display ads. By leveraging ad retargeting features, display ads can help put a floor under the earning potential of pages covering topics of limited commercial appeal. Media.net also has mobile-specific ad units.

Ad Integration
When a person sets up AdSense ads or other contextual ads on their site, there's a bit of a sense of "you're on your own." Worse yet, there is often a bit of a conflict between the recommendations from the AdSense team and the search quality team at Google.

One of Media.net's big points of differentiation is they have a team of over 450 employees who work on the product and help publishers better integrate the ads into their websites, including making the ad units really match the look and feel of the site. On some higher revenue sites Media.net will help create custom ad units. For instance, on TheStreet.com here's an example of an ad unit.

Even smaller sites will see a significant amount of effort spent on testing optimizing ad colors & ensuring the ads match the look and feel of the site. The customer service is really one of the areas where Media.net shines best.

ad sizes
Media.net offers a variety of ad unit sizes.

  • most popular sizes: 336x280, 300x250, 728x90, 600x250, 160x600
  • horizontal sizes: 728x20, 600x120, 468x60
  • vertical sizes: 120x600, 120x300, 300x600, 160x90
  • square: 200x200, 250x250
  • rectangle: 180x150

Media.net offers a variety of pre-set ad unit templates to choose from and the ability to customize the colors further.

Usage samples / examples

The colors can be adjusted on a per-unit basis, so you can test having some ad units blend in to the design & use higher contrasting colors on other ad units. If your site has enough scale the Media.net team can also help you split test different colors. Another useful ad integration strategy Media.net allows & recommends is the creation of jQuery sticky ads which help keep ads in view as a person scrolls around a page, helping the ad units stand out.

Publisher Interface & Reporting

Media.net has put a lot of thought into usability and detailed reporting. Creating new ad units only takes a minute or two and posting the ad code into your site is just as quick.

Publishers can login to their accounts at the Media.net homepage and view stats 24 hours a day. Currently the dashboard does not offer CPC or click reporting, but report impressions, RPM and estimated revenue. They report live impression traffic stats in real-time on the welcome screen, but earnings stats are typically updated early on the next morning. In addition to account-wide reporting, their interface allows you to drill down into reporting on a per-site or per-unit basis.

Other FAQs

  • minimum traffic: none, but they tend to be more likely to approve sites which are already approved in other tier 1 networks and/or obviously have a strong traffic footprint
  • prohibited topics: illegal drugs, pornography, violence, other illegal activities
  • support: you may contact them via email pubsupport@media.net or phone 415-358-0886

Summary

Overall Rating

Great Features

  • Competitive eCPM when compared against AdSense in many categories.
  • Can be used in conjunction with AdSense.
  • Has some standard ad unit sizes & some that are custom, which gives you flexibility in terms of integrating them in typical ad spots and in terms of having units which look different than common ones and thus have greater eye appeal than a standard 468x60 or 728x90 banner.
  • Leverages the Yahoo! Bing Network, which gives it a fairly decent advertiser base & network scale to tap into to ensure there are relevant ads for most topics. I believe one thing that has helped them do so well is Microsoft has done a much better job on pricing click quality than many ad networks did in years past.
  • Since they are a smaller company than Google, their partner communications are much clearer. You don't have to pull down millions of dollars a year to be considered a valued partner.
  • Their customer support team not only communicates clearly with publishers, but also works to help improve ad integration.
  • Once your account has been established and they see strong traffic quality they are generally quite quick at approving any additional sites you add to your account.
  • In addition to offering contextual ads, Media.net has a partnership to serve Google display ads on their network (though publishers have to sign up with Google).
  • While earning statistics are not real-time, they provide them the following day.
  • Fast Net-30 payouts.

Drawbacks

The main drawbacks would be:

  • They require English as your primary language & that your site receives the majority of its traffic from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. If you operate outside those markets, then they wouldn't be a great fit at the moment (though who knows where they may be in a couple years as Bing gets more aggressive with international expansion of their ad network).
  • It can take a while to get a new account approved, so it is worth applying early to have some experience with their network and to have a backup in place in case anything should happen to your AdSense account.
  • Inability to split test units. While you can use a PHP rotation script to compare 2 ad units against each other, there isn't a core split test feature baked into the ad platform by default - though if you are doing enough volume your customer support person will help set up and implement a split test for you.
  • While they do offer statistics on a per-site, per-day & per-ad unit basis (along with impression stats), they currently do not offer data down to the individual page or keyword level. They provide data on earnings, pageviews & eCPM; but they currently do not provide click or CPC data. (I believe they will be adding more granular metrics fairly soon).

Apply Today

>>> Sign up to activate your Media.net publisher account today.

New Local Carousel

Jun 24th

Google announced they rolled out their local carousel results on desktops in categories like hotels, dining & nightlife for US English search queries. The ranking factors driving local rank are aligned with the same ones that were driving the old 7 pack result set.

The layout seems to be triggered when there are 5 or more listings. One upside to the new layout is that clicks within the carousel might not fall off quite as quickly as they do with vertical listings, so if you don't rank #1 you might still get plenty of traffic.

The default amount of useful information offered by the new layout is less than the old layout provided, while requiring user interaction with the result set to get the information they want. You get a picture, but the only way the phone number is in the result set is if you click into that result set or conduct a branded query from the start.

If you search for a general query (say "Indian restaurants") and want the phone number of a specific restaurant, you will likely need to click on that restaurant's picture in order to shift the search to that restaurant's branded search result set to pull their phone number & other information into the page. In that way Google is able to better track user engagement & enhance personalization on local search. When people repeatedly click into the same paths from logged in Google user accounts then Google can put weight on the end user behavior.

This multi-click process not only gives Google usage data to refine rankings with, but it also will push advertisers into buying branded AdWords ads.

Where this new result set is a bit of a train wreck for navigational searches is when a brand is fairly generic & aligned with a location as part of the business name. For instance, in Oakland there is a place named San Francisco Pizza. Even if you do that branded search, you still get the carousel & there might also be three AdWords ads above the organic search results.

If that company isn't buying branded AdWords ads, they best hope that their customers have large monitors, don't use Google, or are better than the average searcher at distinguishing between AdWords & organic results.

Some of Google's other verticals may appear above the organic result set too. When searching for downtown Oakland hotels they offer listings of hotels in San Francisco & Berkeley inside the hotel onebox.

Perhaps Google can patch together some new local ad units that work with the carousel to offer local businesses a flat-rate monthly ad product. A lot of advertisers would be interested in testing a subscription product that enabled them to highlight selected user reviews and include other options like ratings & coupons & advertiser control of the image. As the search result set becomes the destination some of Google's ad products can become much more like Yelp's.

In the short term the new layout is likely a boon for Yelp & some other local directory plays. Whatever segment of the search audience that dislike's the new carousel will likely be shunted into many of these other local directories.

In the longrun some of these local directories will be the equivalent of MapQuest. As Google gains confidence they will make their listings richer & have more confidence in entirely displacing the result set. The following search isn't a local one, but is a good example of where we may be headed. Even though the search is set to "web" results (rather than "video" results) the first 9 listings are from YouTube.

Update: In addition to the alarming rise of further result displacement, the 2-step clickthrough process means that local businesses will lose even more keyword referral data, as many of the generic queries are replaced by their branded keywords in analytics data.

  • Over 100 training modules, covering topics like: keyword research, link building, site architecture, website monetization, pay per click ads, tracking results, and more.
  • An exclusive interactive community forum
  • Members only videos and tools
  • Additional bonuses - like data spreadsheets, and money saving tips
We love our customers, but more importantly

Our customers love us!

Inbound, Outbound, Outhouse

Jun 1st

Jon Henshaw put the hammer down on inbound marketing highlighting how the purveyors of "the message" often do the opposite of what they preach. So much of the marketing I see around that phrase is either of the "clueless newb" variety, or paid push marketing of some stripe.

One of the clueless newb examples smacked me in the face last week on Twitter, where some "HubSpot certified partner" (according to his Twitter profile) complained to me about me not following enough of our followers, then sent a follow up spam asking if I saw his artice about SEO.

The SEO article was worse than useless. It suggested that you shouldn't be "obvious" & that you should "naturally attract links." Yet the article itself was a thin guest post containing the anchor text search engine optimization deep linking to his own site. The same guy has a "book" titled Findability: Why Search Engine Optimization is Dying.

Why not promote the word findability with the deep link if he wants to claim that SEO is dying? Who writes about how something is dying, yet still targets it instead of the alleged solution they have in hand?

If a person wants to claim that anchor text is effective, or that push marketing is key to success, it is hard to refute those assertations. But if you are pushy & aggressive with anchor text, then the message of "being natural" and "just let things flow" is at best inauthentic, which is why sites like Shitbound.org exist. ;)

Some of the people who wanted to lose the SEO label suggested their reasoning was that the acronym SEO was stigmatized. And yet, only a day after rebranding, these same folks that claim they will hold SEO near and dear forever are already outing SEOs.

The people who want to promote the view that "traditional" SEO is black hat and/or ineffective have no problems with dumping on & spamming real people. It takes an alleged "black hat" to display any concern with how actual human beings are treated.

If the above wasn't bad enough, SEO is getting a bad name due to the behavior of inbound tool vendors. Look at the summary on a blog post from today titled Lies The SEO Publicity Machine Tells About PPC (When It Thinks No One’s Looking)

Then he told me he wasn’t seeing any results from following all the high-flown rhetoric of the “inbound marketing, content marketing” tool vendor. “Last month, I was around 520 visitors. This month, we’re at 587.” Want to get to 1,000? Work and wait and believe for another year or two. Want to get to 10,000? Forget it. ... You could grow old waiting for the inbound marketing fairy tale to come true.

Of course I commented on the above post & asked Andrew if he could put "inbound marketer" in the post title, since that's who was apparently selling hammed up SEO solutions.

In response to Henshaw's post (& some critical comments) calling inbound marketing incomplete marketing Dharmesh Shah wrote:

When we talk about marketing, we position classical outbound techniques as generally being less effective (and more expensive) over time. Not that they’re completely useless — just that they don’t work as well as they once did, and that this trend would continue."

Hugh MacLeod is brilliant with words. He doesn't lose things in translation. His job is distilling messages to their core. And what did his commissions for HubSpot state?

  • thankfully consiging traditional marketing to the dustbin of history since 2006
  • traditional marketing is easy. all you have to do is pretend it works
  • the good news is, your customers are just as sick of traditional marketing as you are
  • hey, remember when traditional marketing used to work? neither do we
  • traditional marketing doesn't work. it never did

Claiming that "traditional marketing" doesn't work - and never did, would indeed be claiming that classical marketing techniques are ineffective / useless.

If something "doesn't work" it is thus "useless."

You never hear a person say "my hammer works great, it's useless!"

As always, watch what people do rather than what they say.

When prescription and behavior are not aligned, it is the behavior that is worth emulating.

That's equally true for keyword rich deeplink in a post telling you to let SEO happen naturally and for people who relabel things while telling you not to do what they are doing.

If "traditional marketing" doesn't work AND they are preaching against it, why do they keep doing it?

Follow the money.

Why the Yahoo! Search Revenue Gap Won't Close

In spite of Yahoo! accepting revenue guarantees for another year from Microsoft, recently there has been speculation that Yahoo! might want to get out of their search ad deal with Microsoft. I am uncertain if the back channeled story is used as leverage to secure ongoing minimum revenue agreements, or if Yahoo! is trying to set the pretext narrative to later be able to push through a Google deal that might otherwise get blocked by regulators.

When mentioning Yahoo!'s relative under-performance on search, it would be helpful to point out the absurd amount of their "search" traffic from the golden years that was various forms of arbitrage. Part of the reason (likely the primary reason) Yahoo! took such a sharp nose dive in terms of search revenues (from $551 million per quarter to as low as $357 million per quarter) was that Microsoft used quality scores to price down the non-search arbitrage traffic streams & a lot of that incremental "search" volume Yahoo! had went away.

There were all sorts of issues in place that are rarely discussed. Exit traffic, unclosible windows, forcing numerous clicks, iframes in email spam, raw bot clicks, etc. ... and some of this was tied to valuable keyword lists or specific juicy keywords. I am not saying that Google has outright avoided all arbitrage (Ask does boatloads of it in paid + organic & Google at one point tested doing some themselves on credit cards keywords) but it has generally been a sideshow at Google, whereas it was the main attraction at Yahoo!.

And that is what drove down Yahoo!'s click prices.

Yahoo! went from almost an "anything goes" approach to their ad feed syndication, to the point where they made a single syndication partner Cyberplex's Tsavo Media pay them $4.8 million for low quality traffic. There were a number of other clawbacks that were not made public.

Given that we are talking $4.8 million for a single partner & this alleged overall revenue gap between Google AdWords & Bing Ads is somewhere in the $100 million or so range, these traffic quality issues & Microsoft cleaning up the whoring of the ad feed that Yahoo! partners were doing is a big deal. It had a big enough impact that it caused some of the biggest domain portfolios to shift from Yahoo! to Google. I am a bit surprised to see it so rarely mentioned in these discussions.

Few appreciate how absurd the abuses were. For years Yahoo! not only required you to buy syndication (they didn't have a Yahoo!-only targeting option until 2010 & that only came about as a result of a lawsuit) but even when you blocked a scammy source of traffic, if that scammy source was redirecting through another URL you would have no way of blocking the actual source, as mentioned by Sean Turner:

To break it down, yahoo gives you a feed for seobook.com & you give me a feed for turner.com. But all links that are clicked on turner.com redirect through seobook.com so that it shows up in customer logs as seobook.com If you block seobook.com, it will block ads from seobook.com, but not turner.com. The blocked domain tool works on what domains display, not on where the feed is redirected through. So if you are a customer, there is no way to know that turner.com is sending traffic (since it’s redirecting through seobook.com) and no way to block it through seobook.com since that tool only works on the domain that is actually displaying it.

I found it because we kept getting traffic from gogogo.com. We had blocked it over and over and couldn’t figure out why they kept sending us traffic. We couldn’t find our ad on their site. I went to live.com and ran a site:gogogo.com search and found that it indexed some of those landing pages that use gogogo.com as a monetization service.

The other thing that isn't mentioned is the longterm impact of a Yahoo! tie up with Google. Microsoft pays Yahoo! an 88% revenue share (and further guarantees on top of that), provides the organic listings free, manages all the technology, and allows Yahoo! to insert their own ads in the organic results.

If Bing were to exit the online ad market, maybe Yahoo! could make an extra $100 million in the first year of an ad deal with Google, but if there is little to no competition a few years down the road, then when it comes time for Yahoo! to negotiate revenue share rates with Google, you know Google would cram down a bigger rake.

This isn't blind speculation or theory, but aligned with Google's current practices. Look no further than Google's current practices with YouTube, where "partners" are paid different rates & are forbidden to mention their rates publicly: "The Partner Program forbids participants to reveal specifics about their ad-share revenue."

Transparency is a one way street.

Google further dips into leveraging that "home team always wins" mode of negotiating rates by directly investing in some of the aggregators/networks which offer sketchy confidential contracts < ahref="http://obviouslybenhughes.com/post/13933948148/before-you-sign-that-machinima-contract-updated">soaking the original content creators.:

As I said, the three images were posted on yfrog. They were screenshots of an apparently confidential conversation had between MrWonAnother and a partner support representative from Machinima, in which the representative explained that the partner was locked indefinitely into being a Machinima partner for the rest of eternity, as per signed contract. I found this relevant, informative and honestly shocking information and decided to repost the images to obviouslybenhughes.com in hopes that more people would become aware of the darker side of YouTube partnership networks.

Negotiating with a monopoly that controls the supply chain isn't often a winning proposition over the long run.

Competition (or at least the credible risk of it) is required to shift the balance of power.

The flip side of the above situation - where competition does help market participants to get a better revenue share - can be seen in the performance of AOL in their ad negotiation in 2005. AOL's credible threat to switched to Microsoft had Google invest a billion Dollars into AOL, where Google later had to write down $726 million of that investment. If there was no competition from Microsoft, AOL wouldn't have received that $726 million (and likely would have had a lower revenue sharing rate and missed out on some of the promotional AdWords credits they received).

The same sort of "shifted balance of power" was seen in the Mozilla search renewal with Google, where Google paid Mozilla 3X as much due to a strong bid from Microsoft.

The iPad search results are becoming more like phone search results, where ads dominate the interface & a single organic result is above the fold. And Google pushed their "ehnanced" ad campaigns to try to push advertisers into paying higher ad rates on those clicks. It would be a boon for Google if they can force advertisers to pay the same CPC as desktop & couple it with that high mobile ad CTR.

Google owning Chrome + Android & doing deals with Apple + Mozilla means that it will be hard for either Microsoft or Yahoo! to substantially grow search marketshare. But if they partner with Google it will be a short term lift in revenues and dark clouds on the horizon.

I am not claiming that Microsoft is great for Yahoo!, or that they are somehow far better than Google, only that Yahoo! is in a far better position when they have multiple entities competing for their business (as highlighted in the above Mozilla & AOL examples).

Getting Granular With User Generated Content

Apr 24th

The stock market had a flash crash today after someone hacked the AP account & made a fake announcement about bombs going off at the White House. Recently Twitter's search functionality has grown so inundated with spam that I don't even look at the brand related searches much anymore. While you can block individual users, it doesn't block them from showing up in search results, so there are various affiliate bots that spam just about any semi-branded search.

Of course, for as spammy as the service is now, it was worse during the explosive growth period, when Twitter had fewer than 10 employees fighting spam:

Twitter says its "spammy" tweet rate of 1.5% in 2010 was down from 11% in 2009.

If you want to show growth by any means necessary, engagement by a spam bot is still engagement & still lifts the valuation of the company.

Many of the social sites make no effort to police spam & only combat it after users flag it. Consider Eric Schmidt's interview with Julian Assange, where Eric Schmidt stated:

  • "We [YouTube] can't review every submission, so basically the crowd marks it if it is a problem post publication."
  • "You have a different model, right. You require human editors." on Wikileaks vs YouTube

We would post editorial content more often, but we are sort of debating opening up a social platform so that we can focus on the user without having to bear any editorial costs until after the fact. Profit margins are apparently better that way.

As Google drives smaller sites out of the index & ranks junk content based on no factor other than it being on a trusted site, they create the incentive for spammers to ride on the social platforms.

All aboard. And try not to step on any toes!

When I do some product related searches (eg: brand name & shoe model) almost the whole result set for the first 5 or 10 pages is garbage.

  • Blogspot.com subdomains
  • Appspot.com subdomains
  • YouTube accounts
  • Google+ accounts
  • sites.google.com
  • Wordpress.com subdomains
  • Facebook Notes & pages
  • Tweets
  • Slideshare
  • LinkedIn
  • blog.yahoo.com
  • subdomains off of various other free hosts

It comes without surprise that Eric Schmidt fundamentally believes that "disinformation becomes so easy to generate because of, because complexity overwhelms knowledge, that it is in the people's interest, if you will over the next decade, to build disinformation generating systems, this is true for corporations, for marketing, for governments and so on."

Of course he made no mention in Google's role in the above problem. When they are not issuing threats & penalties to smaller independent webmasters, they are just a passive omniscient observer.

With all these business models, there is a core model of building up a solid stream of usage data & then tricking users or looking the other way when things get out of hand. Consider Google's Lane Shackleton's tips on YouTube:

  • "Search is a way for a user to explicitly call out the content that they want. If a friend told me about an Audi ad, then I might go seek that out through search. It’s a strong signal of intent, and it’s a strong signal that someone found out about that content in some way."
  • "you blur the lines between advertising and content. That’s really what we’ve been advocating our advertisers to do."
  • "you’re making thoughtful content for a purpose. So if you want something to get shared a lot, you may skew towards doing something like a prank"

Harlem Shake & Idiocracy: the innovative way forward to improve humanity.

Life is a prank.

This "spam is fine, so long as it is user generated" stuff has gotten so out of hand that Google is now implementing granular page-level penalties. When those granular penalties hit major sites Google suggests that those sites may receive clear advice on what to fix, just by contacting Google:

Hubert said that if people file a reconsideration request, they should “get a clear answer” about what’s wrong. There’s a bit of a Catch-22 there. How can you file a reconsideration request showing you’ve removed the bad stuff, if the only way you can get a clear answer about the bad stuff to remove is to file a reconsideration request?

The answer is that technically, you can request reconsideration without removing anything. The form doesn’t actually require you to remove bad stuff. That’s just the general advice you’ll often hear Google say, when it comes to making such a request. That’s also good advice if you do know what’s wrong.

But if you’re confused and need more advice, you can file the form asking for specifics about what needs to be removed. Then have patience

In the past I referenced that there is no difference between a formal white list & overly-aggressive penalties coupled with loose exemptions for select parties.

The moral of the story is that if you are going to spam, you should make it look like a user of your site did it, that way you

  • are above judgement
  • receive only a limited granular penalty
  • get explicit & direct feedback on what to fix

What Types of Sites Actually Remove Links?

Apr 9th

Since the disavow tool has come out SEOs are sending thousands of "remove my link" requests daily. Some of them come off as polite, some lie & claim that the person linking is at huge risk of their own rankings tank, some lie with faux legal risks, some come with "extortionisty" threats that if they don't do it the sender will report the site to Google or try to get the web host to take down the site, and some come with payment/bribery offers.

If you want results from Google's jackassery game you either pay heavily with your time, pay with cash, or risk your reputation by threatening or lying broadly to others.

At the same time, Google has suggested that anyone who would want payment to remove links is operating below board. But if you receive these inbound emails (often from anonymous Gmail accounts) you not only have to account for the time it would take to find the links & edit your HTML, but you also have to determine if the person sending the link removal request represents the actual site, or if it is someone trying to screw over one of their competitors. Then, if you confirm that the request is legitimate, you either need to further expand your page's content to make up for the loss of that resource or find a suitable replacement for the link that was removed. All this takes time. And if that time is from an employee that means money.

There have been hints that if a website is disavowed some number of times that data can be used to further go out & manually penalize more websites, or create link classifications for spam.

... oh no ...

Social engineering is the most profitable form of engineering going on in the 'Plex.

The last rub is this: if you do value your own life at nothing in a misguided effort to help third parties (who may have spammed up your site for links & then often follow it up with lying to you to achieve their own selfish goals), how does that reflect on your priorities and the (lack of) quality in your website?

If you contacted the large branded websites that Google is biasing their algorithms toward promoting, do you think those websites would actually waste their time & resources removing links to third party websites? For free?

Color me skeptical.

As a thought experiment, look through your backlinks for a few spam links that you know are hosted by Google (eg: Google Groups, YouTube, Blogspot, etc.) and try to get Google's webmaster to help remove those links for you & let us know how well that works out for you.

Some of the larger monopoly & oligopolies don't offer particularly useful customer service to their paying customers. For example, track how long it takes you to get a person on the other end of the phone with a telecom giant, a cable company, or a mega bank. Better yet, look at how long it took AdWords to openly offer phone support & the non-support they offer AdSense publishers (remember the bit about Larry Page believing that "the whole idea of customer support was ridiculous?")

For the non-customer Google may simply recommend that the best strategy is to "start over."

When Google aggregates Webmaster Tools link data from penalized websites they can easily make 2 lists:

  • sites frequently disavowed
  • sites with links frequently removed

If both lists are equally bad, then you are best off ignoring the removal requests & spending your time & resources improving your site.

If I had to guess, I would imagine that being on the list of "these are the spam links I was able to remove" is worse than being on the list of "these are the links I am unsure about & want to disavow just in case."

What say you?

Why is Great SEO so Expensive?

Mar 21st

Sharing is caring!

Please share :)

Embed code is here.

The below image has a somewhat small font size on it. You can see the full sized version by clicking here.

Why SEO is Expensive.

Don't Buy Link Rich Advertorials (Unless You're Google)

Feb 23rd

I understand Google's desire to have a clean editorial signal & not wanting people to manipulate the web graph.

But Google once again isn't following the best practices they dish out for others.

Both of the following are not one-off articles, but are part of a "series" of advertorials for various Google products with direct followed links to AdWords, Google Analytics, Chromebook, & Hangouts.

Check the date on this next one: February 19th, the same day Interflora was penalized by Google. This is something that is an ongoing practice for Google, while they penalize others for doing the same thing.

Is using payment to influence search results unethical unless the check has Google on it?

None of those links in the content use nofollow, in spite of many of them having Google Analytics tracking URLs on them.

And I literally spent less than 10 minutes finding the above examples & writing this article. Surely Google insiders know more about Google's internal marketing campaigns than I do. Which leads one to ask the obvious (but uncomfortable) question: why doesn't Google police themselves when they are policing others? If their algorithmic ideals are true, shouldn't they apply to Google as well?

Clearly Google takes paid links that pass pagerank seriously, as acknowledged by their repeated use of them.

We're Going Google...

Feb 21st

In the search ecosystem Google controls the relevancy algorithms (& the biases baked into those) as well as the display of advertisements and the presentation of content. They also control (or restrict) the flow of marketable data.

For example, a publisher might not get keyword referral data on organic search, but Google passes that data on via advertisements & passes a large amount of data on through their ad network to other ad networks. Consider this:

a DoubleClick tag on the site sent data to two other companies that collect it for various purposes -- Rubicon and Casale Media, representing a "hop." In a subsequent hop, Casale transferred the IMDB data to BlueKai, Optimax and Brandscreen, while Rubicon pushed it to TargusInfo, RocketFuel, Platform 161, Efficient Frontier and the AMP Platform. AMP then sent the data on to AppNexus and back to DoubleClick.

For about a decade being relevant & focused created efficiencies that more than offset any "size = quality" biases that the Google engineers created. However across many verticals that window is closing & it is never a good idea to wait until it is fully closed to adjust. ;)

This shift from relevancy to "size = quality" can be seen in the stock performance of mid-market companies like BankRate & Quinstreet.

Those companies were laser focused on the markets that have significant consumer intent & traffic value, but Google has eroded the affiliate base & ad networks of many of the direct marketing plays for a couple years straight now.

If Google's algorithmic biases are strong enough to literally move the market on companies worth hundreds of millions to billions of Dollars, one is naive to swim against the tide. The market is becoming more bifurcated.

This is why it is so hard to find a great SEO to recommend for small businesses. If that SEO really knows what they are doing & understands the market dynamics, then they probably won't serve the small business end of the market very long, or if they do, they will do so in a way where their continued flow of payments is not tied to performance. It is hard to have a sustainable business operating in a closed ecosystem if you are swimming in the opposite direction of that ecosystem.

In terms of our membership site here, a good slice of our customer base is the expert end of the market.


It is a tiny sliver of the market, but it is a segment that is somewhat well aligned with independent affiliate types & the sort of direct marketing relevancy-minded folks that Google has spent a couple years trying to marginalize as they cater to branded advertisers. We could try to shift our site to make it more mass market, but I prefer to run a site where we both learn & teach, and fear that moving to lower the barrier to entry and push more mass market will destroy what makes the membership site unique & valuable in the first place.

In early Google research they warned about relevancy shifting toward the interest of advertisers.

Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is "The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention", a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Perform that same cellular phone search today & that original cited page is nowhere to be found. Today that same search includes Wal-Mart, T-mobile, Samsung, Amazon.com, Best Buy & other well known brands. Search for the more common phrase cell phones & you get the same brands plus local results and shopping results. Awareness is replacing precision.

I think Gabe Newell described it best:

Closed platforms increase the chunk size of competition & increase the cost of market entry, so people who have good ideas, it is a lot more expensive for their productivity to be monetized. They also don't like standardization ... it looks like rent seeking behaviors on top of friction

As Google makes search more complex & mixes in more signals, it is becoming harder to win at the game if your operation is singularly focused on SEO & it is becoming easier to win if your business already has a strong footprint in many other channels which bleeds into your search profile. The following chart is conceptual, but it aims to get the issue across.

If one company is spending significant capital & effort trying to combat the Panda algorithm & another company automatically sees a ranking boost from Panda, then the company with the boost is typically going to see greater ROI from any further investments in SEO.

Having spilled all the above digital ink, back in 2007 we decided to shift away from an ebook model to run a membership site. On and off over the years we have done a bit of consulting outside of running this site, but haven't put significant emphasis on it over the past couple years as we were pushing hard to keep up with the algorithms & keep this site growing. With all the above shifts in place we recently decided to offer SEO consulting again.

Some FAQs on that front...

  • If we work with you, who will be working on our project? The same people who write on the blog & run the community: Peter Da Vanzo, Eric Covino & Aaron Wall.
  • How many clients will you work with? Just a handful at any given time. We prefer to have a deep integration with a few clients rather than a bulk model.
  • Who are ideal clients? Those who know the value of search traffic & already have some general awareness & momentum in the marketplace. Examples of companies we have worked with in the past include: large ecommerce companies, tier 1 web portals, strong start ups & hedge funds invested in the web. Many of these clients already had an in-house SEO team & some were just actively beginning to leverage search.
  • I have a tiny company with a small budget. Could I still work with you? In some cases there might be a fit, but if you feel our consulting is beyond your budget you can of course still join our membership website. Consulting is for those who want a deeper engagement than we can provide through our current membership site model.
  • Can you name some past clients? For the most part, no. Our consulting projects typically come with nondisclosure agreements.
  • Can you fill out an RFP? Most likely not. If you are still shopping around for an SEO, we are probably not going to be a great fit. But if you have known of us for years & know you want to work with us, do get in touch.

Pages






    Email Address
    Pick a Username
    Yes, please send me "7 Days to SEO Success" mini-course (a $57 value) for free.

    Learn More

    We value your privacy. We will not rent or sell your email address.