GoogleMart

May 27th
posted in

It was hard to spot, at first.

It started with one store on the outskirts of town. It was big. Monolithic. It amalgamated a lot of cheap, largely imported stuff and sold the stuff on. The workers were paid very little. The suppliers were squeezed tight on their margins.

And so it grew.

And as it grew, it hollowed out the high street. The high street could not compete with the monoliths sheer power. They couldn’t compete with the monoliths influence on markets. They couldn’t compete with the monoliths unique insights gained from clever number crunching of big data sets.

I’m talking about Wal Mart, of course.

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, Walmart gave people what they wanted, but in so doing, hollowed out a chunk of America's middle class. It displaced a lot of shop keepers. It displaced small business owners on Main Street. It displaced the small family retail chain that provided a nice little middle class steady earner.

Where did all those people go?

It was not only the small, independent retail businesses and local manufacturers who were fewer in number. Their closure triggered flow-on effects. There was less demand for the services they used, such as local small business accountants, the local lawyer, small advertising companies, local finance companies, and the host of service providers that make up the middle class ecosystem.

Where did they all go?

Some would have taken up jobs at WalMart, of course. Some would become unemployed. Some would close their doors and take early retirement. Some would change occupations and some would move away to where prospects were better.

What does any of this have to do with the internet?

The same thing is happening on the internet.

And if you’re a small business owner, located on the web-equivalent of the high street, or your business relies on those same small business owners, then this post is for you.

Is Technology Gutting The Middle Class?

I’ve just read “Who Owns The Future”, by Jaron Lanier. Anyone who has anything to do with the internet - and anyone who is even remotely middle class - will find it asks some pretty compelling questions about our present and future.

Consider this.

At the height of it’s power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and wa worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When it was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, Instagram only employed 13 people

Great for Instagram. Bad for Kodak. And bad for the people who worked for Kodak. But, hey. That’s progress, right? Kodak had an outdated business model. Technology overtook them.

That’s true. It is progress. It’s also true that all actions have consequences. The consequence of transformative technology is that, according to Lanier, it may well end up destroying the middle class if too much of the value is retained in the large technology companies.

Lanier suggests that the advance of technology is not replacing as many jobs as it destroys, and those jobs that are destroyed are increasingly middle class.

Not Political (Kinda)

I don’t wish to make this post political, although all change is inherently political. I’m not taking political sides. This issue cuts across political boundaries. I have a lot of sympathy for technological utopian ideas and the benefits technology brings, and have little time for luddism.

However, it’s interesting to focus on the the consequences of this shift in wealth and power brought about by technology and whether enough people in the internet value chain receive adequate value for their efforts.

If the value doesn't flow through, as capitalism requires in order to function well, then few people win. Are children living at home longer than they used to? Are people working longer hours than they used to in order to have the same amount of stuff? Has the value chain been broken, Lanier asks? And, if so, what can be done to fix it?

What Made Instagram Worth One Billion Dollars?

Lanier points out that Instagram wasn’t worth a billion dollars because it had extraordinary employees doing amazing things.

The value of Instagram came from network effects.

Millions of people using Instagram gave the Instagram network value. Without the user base, Instagram is just another photo app.

Who got paid in the end? Not the people who gave the network value. The people who got paid were the small group at the top who organized the network. The owners of the "Siren Servers":

The power rests in what Lanier calls the “Siren Servers”: giant corporate repositories of information about our lives that we have given freely and often without consent, now being used for huge financial benefit by a super-rich few

The value is created by all the people who make up the network, but they only receive a small slither of that value in the form of a digital processing tool. To really benefit, you have to own, or get close to, a Siren Server.

Likewise, most of Google’s value resides in the network of users. These users feed value into Google simply by using it and thereby provide Google with a constant stream of data. This makes Google valuable. There isn’t much difference between Google and Bing in terms of service offering, but one is infinitely more valuable than the other purely by virtue of the size of the audience. Same goes for Facebook over Orkut.

You Provide Value

Google are provided raw materials by people. Web publishers allow Google to take their work, at no charge, and for Google to use that work and add value to Google’s network. Google then charges advertisers to place their advertising next to the aggregated information.

Why do web publishers do this?

Publishers create and give away their work in the hope they’ll get traffic back, from which they may derive benefit. Some publishers make money, so they can then pay real-world expenses, like housing, food and clothing. The majority of internet publishers make little, or nothing, from this informal deal. A few publishers make a lot. The long tail, when it comes to internet publishing, is pretty long. The majority of wealth, and power, is centralized at the head.

Similarly, Google’s users are giving away their personal information.

Every time someone uses Google, they are giving Google personal information of value. Their search queries. They browsing patterns. Their email conversations. Their personal network of contacts. Aggregate that information together, and it becomes valuable information, indeed. Google records this information, crunches it looking for patterns, then packages it up and sells it to advertisers.

What does Google give back in return?

Web services.

Is it a fair exchange of value?

Lanier argues it isn’t. What’s more, it’s an exchange of value so one-sided that it’s likely to destroy the very ecosystem on which companies like Google are based - the work output, and the spending choices, of the middle class. If few of the people who publish can make a reasonable living doing so, then the quality of what gets published must decrease, or cease to exist.

People could make their money in other ways, including offline. However, consider that the web is affecting a lot of offline business, already. The music industry is a faint shadow of what it once was, even as recent as one decade ago. There are a lot fewer middle class careers in the music industry now. Small retailers are losing out to the web. Fewer jobs there. The news industry is barely making any money. Same goes for book publishers. All these industries are struggling as online aggregators carve up their value chains.

Now, factor in all the support industries of these verticals. Then think about all the industries likely to be affected in the near future - like health, or libraries, or education, for example. Many businesses that used to hire predominantly middle class people are going out of business, downsizing their operations, or soon to have chunks of their value displaced.

It’s not Google’s aim to gut the middle class, of course. This post is not an anti-Google rant, either, simply a look at action and consequence. What is the effect of technology and, in particular, the effect of big technology companies on the web, most of whom seem obsessed with keeping you in their private, proprietary environments for as long as possible?

Google’s aim is index all the worlds information and make it available. That’s a good aim. It’s a useful, free service. But Lanier argues that gutting the middle class is a side-effect of re-contextualising, and thereby devaluing, information. Information may want to be free, but the consequence of free information is that those creating the information may not get paid. Many of those who do get paid may be weaker organizations more willing to sacrifice editorial quality in able to stay in business. We already see major news sites with MFA-styled formatting on unvetted syndicated press releases. What next?

You may notice that everyone is encouraged to “share” - meaning “give away” - but sharing doesn't seem to extend to the big tech companies, themselves.

They charge per click.

Robots.txt

One argument is that if someone doesn’t like Google, or any search engine, they should simply block that search engine via robots.txt. The problem with that argument is it’s like saying if you don’t like aspects of your city, you should move to the middle of the wilderness. You could, but really you’d just like to make the city a better place to be, and to see it thrive and prosper, and be able to thrive within it.

Google provides useful things. I use Google, just like I use my iPhone. I know the deal. I get the utility in exchange for information, and this exchange is largely on their terms. What Lanier proposes is a solution that not only benefits the individual, and the little guy, but ultimately the big information companies, themselves.

Money Go Round

Technology improvements have created much prosperity and the development of a strong middle class. But the big difference today is that what is being commoditized is information itself. In a world increasingly controlled by software that acts as our interface to information, if we commoditize information then we commoditize everything else.

If those creating the information don’t get paid, quality must decrease, or become less available than it otherwise would be. They can buy less stuff in the real world. If they can’t buy as much stuff in the real world, then Google and Facebook’s advertisers have fewer people to talk to that they otherwise would.

It was all a social construct to begin with, so what changed, to get to your question, is that at the turn of the [21st] century it was really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if we give away all the information services, but we make money from advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism. But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where people still participate in the formal economy. And it’s a kind of capitalism that’s totally self-defeating because it’s so narrow. It’s a winner-take-all capitalism that’s not sustaining

That isn’t a sustainable situation long-term. A winner-takes-all system centralizes wealth and power at the top, whilst everyone else occupies the long tail. Google has deals in place with large publishers, such as AP, AFP and various European agencies, but this doesn't extend to smaller publishers. It’s the same in sports. The very top get paid ridiculous amounts of money whilst those only a few levels down are unlikely to make rent on their earnings.

But doesn’t technology create new jobs? People who were employed at Kodak just go do something else?

The latest waves of high tech innovation have not created jobs like the old ones did. Iconic new ventures like Facebook employ vastly fewer people than big older companies like, say, General Motors. Put another way, the new schemes.....channel much of the productivity of ordinary people into an informal economy of barter and reputation, while concentrating the extracted old -fashioned wealth for themselves. All activity that takes place over digital networks becomes subject to arbitrage, in the sense that risk is routed to whoever suffers lesser computation resources

The people who will do well in such an environment will likely be employees of those who own the big data networks, like Google. Or they will be the entrepreneurial and adaptable types who manage to get close to them - the companies that serve WalMart or Google, or Facebook, or large financial institutions, or leverage off them - but Lanier argues there simply aren't enough of those roles to sustain society in a way that gave rise to these companies in the first place.

He argues this situation disenfranchises too many people, too quickly. And when that happens, the costs spread to everyone, including the successful owners of the networks. They become poorer than they would otherwise be by not returning enough of the value that enables the very information they need to thrive. Or another way of looking at it - who’s going to buy all the stuff if only a few people have the money?

The network, whether it be a search engine, a social network, an insurance company, or an investment fund uses information to concentrate power. Lanier argues they are all they same as they operate in pretty much the same way. The use network effects to mine and crunch big data, and this, in turn, grows their position at the expense of smaller competitors, and the ecosystem that surrounds them.

It doesn’t really matter what the intent was. The result is that the technology can prevent the middle class from prospering and when that happens, everyone ultimately loses.

So What Does He Propose Can Be Done?

A few days ago, Matt Cutts released a video about what site owners can expect from the next round of Google changes.

Google have announced a web spam change, called Penguin 2.0. They’ll be “looking at” advertorials, and native advertising. They’ll be taking a “stronger line” on this form of publishing. They’ll also be “going upstream” to make link spammers less effective.

Of course, whenever Google release these videos, the webmaster community goes nuts. Google will be making changes, and these changes may either make your day, or send you to the wall.

The most interesting aspect of this, I think, is the power relationship. If you want to do well in Google’s search results then there is no room for negotiation. You either do what they want or you lose out. Or you may do what they want and still lose out. Does the wealth and power sit with the publisher?

Nope.

In other news, Google just zapped another link network.

Cutts warns they’ll be going after a lot of this happening. Does wealth and power sit with the link buyer or seller?

Nope.

Now, Google are right to eliminate or devalue sites that they feel devalues their search engine. Google have made search work. Search was all but dead twelve years ago due to the ease with which publishers could manipulate the results, typically with off-topic junk. The spoils of solving this problem have flowed to Google.

The question is has too much wealth flowed to companies like Google, and is this situation going to kill off large chunks of the ecosystem on which it was built? Google isn’t just a player in this game, they’re so pervasive they may as well be the central planner. Cutts is running product quality control. The customers aren’t the publishers, they’re the advertisers.

It’s also interesting to note what these videos do not say. Cutts video was not about how your business could be more prosperous. It was all about your business doing what Google wants in order for Google to be more prosperous. It’s irrelevant if you disagree or not, as you don’t get to dictate terms to Google.

That’s the deal.

Google’s concern lies not with webmasters just as WalMarts concern lies not with small town retailers. Their concern is to meet company goals and enhance shareholder value. The effects aren’t Google or WalMarts fault. They are just that - effects.

The effect of Google pursuing those objectives might be to gouge out the value of publishing, and in so doing, gouge out a lot of the value of the middle class. The Google self-drive cars project is fascinating from a technical point of view - the view Google tends to focus on - but perhaps even more fascinating when looked at from a position they seldom seem to consider, at least, not in public, namely what happens to all those taxi drivers, and delivery drivers, who get their first break in society doing this work? Typically, these people are immigrants. Typically, they are poor but upwardly mobile.

That societal effect doesn't appear to be Google’s concern.

So who’s concern should it be?

Well, perhaps it really should be Google’s concern, as it’s in their own long-term best interest:

Today, a guitar manufacturer might advertise through Google. But when guitars are someday spun out of 3D printers, there will be no one to buy an ad if guitar designs are “free”. Yet Google’s lifeblood is information put online for free. That is what Google’s servers organize. Thus Google’s current business model is a trap in the longterm

Laniers suggestion is everyone gets paid, via micro-payments, linked back to the value they helped create. These payments continue so long as people are using their stuff, be it a line of code, a photograph, a piece of music, or an article.

For example, if you wrote a blog post, and someone quoted a paragraph of it, you would receive a tiny payment. The more often you’re quoted, the more relevant you are, therefore the more payment you receive. If a search engine indexes your pages, then you receive a micro-payment in return. If people view your pages, you receive a micro-payment. Likewise, when you consume, you pay. If you conduct a search, then you run Google’s code, and Google gets paid. The payments are tiny, as far as the individual is concerned, but they all add up.

Mammoth technical issues of doing this aside, the effect would be to take money from the head and pump it back into the tail. It would be harder to build empires off the previously free content others produce. It would send money back to producers.

It also eliminates the piracy question. Producers would want people to copy, remix and redistribute their content, as the more people that use it, the more money they make. Also, with the integration of two-way linking, the mechanism Lanier proposes to keep track of ownership and credit, you’d always know who is using your content.

Information would no longer be free. It would be affordable, in the broadest sense of the word. There would also be a mechanism to reward the production, and a mechanism to reward the most relevant information the most. The more you contribute to the net, and the more people use it, the more you make. Tiny payments. Incremental. Ongoing.

Interesting Questions

So, if these questions are of interest to you, I’d encourage you to read “Who Owns The Future” by Jaron Lanier. It’s often rambling - in a good way - and heads off on wild tangents - in a good way, and you can tell there is a very intelligent and thoughtful guy behind it all. He’s asking some pretty big, relevant questions. His answers are sketches that should be challenged, argued, debated and enlarged.

And if big tech companies want a challenge that really will change the world, perhaps they could direct all that intellect, wealth and power towards enriching the ecosystem at a pace faster than they potentially gouge it.

Link Madness

May 14th
posted in

Link paranoia is off the scale. As the “unnatural link notifications” fly, the normally jittery SEO industry has moved deep into new territory, of late.

I have started to wonder if some of these links (there are hundreds since the site is large) may be hurting my site in the Google Algo. I am considering changing most of my outbound links to rel="nofollow". It is not something I want to do but ... “

We’ve got site owners falling to their knees, confessing to be link spammers, and begging for forgiveness. Even when they do, many sites don’t return. Some sites have been returned, but their rankings, and traffic, haven’t recovered. Many sites carry similar links, but get a free pass.

That’s the downside of letting Google dictate the game, I guess.

Link Removal

When site owners are being told by Google that their linking is “a problem,” they tend to hit the forums and spread the message, so the effect is multiplied.

Why does Google bother with the charade of “unnatural link notifications,” anyway?

If Google has found a problem with links to a site, then they can simply ignore or discount them, rather than send reports prompting webmasters to remove them. Alternatively, they could send a report saying they’ve already discounted them.

So one assumes Google’s strategy is a PR - as in public relations - exercise to plant a bomb between link buyers and link sellers. Why do that? Well, a link is a link, and one could conclude that Google must still have problems nailing down the links they don’t like.

So they get some help.

The disavow links tool, combined with a re-inclusion request, is pretty clever. If you wanted a way to get site owners to admit to being link buyers, and to point out the places from which they buy links, or you want to build a database of low quality links, for no money down, then you could hardly imagine a better system of outsourced labour.

If you’re a site owner, getting hundreds, if not thousands, of links removed is hardly straightforward. It’s difficult, takes a long time, and is ultimately futile.

Many site owners inundated with link removal requests have moved to charging removal fees, which in many cases is understandable, given it takes some time and effort to verify the true owner of a link, locate the link, remove it, and update the site.

As one rather fed-up sounding directory owner put it:

Blackmail? Google's blackmailing you, not some company you paid to be listed forever. And here's a newsflash for you. If you ask me to do work, then I demand to be paid. If the work's not worth anything to you, then screw off and quit emailing me asking me to do it for free.

Find your link, remove it, confirm it's removed, email you a confirmation, that's 5 minutes. And that's $29US. Don't like it? Then don't email me. I have no obligation to work for you for free, not even for a minute. …. I think the best email I got was someone telling me that $29 was extortion. I then had to explain that $29 wasn't extortion - but his new price of $109 to have the link removed, see, now THAT'S extortion.

if it makes you sleep at night, you might realize that you paid to get in the directory to screw with your Google rankings, now you get to pay to get out of the directory, again to screw your Google rankings. That's your decision, quit complaining about it like it's someone else's fault. Not everyone has to run around in circles because you're cleaning up the very mess that you made

Heh.

In any case, if these links really did harm a site - which is arguable - then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess the next step. Site owners would be submitting their competitors links to directories thick and fast.

Cue Matt Cutts on negative SEO....

Recovery Not Guaranteed

Many sites don’t recover from Google penalties, no matter what they do.

It’s conceivable that a site could have a permanent flag against it no matter what penance has been paid. Google takes into account your history in Adwords, so it’s not a stretch to imagine similar flags may continue to exist against domains in their organic results.

The most common reason is not what they're promoting now, its what they've promoted in the past.
Why would Google hold that against them? It's probably because of the way affiliates used to churn and burn domains they were promoting in years gone by...

This may be the reason why some recovered sites just don’t rank like they used to after they've returned. They may carry permanent negative flags.

However, the reduced rankings and traffic when/if a site does return may have nothing to do with low-quality links or previous behaviour. There are many other factors involved in ranking and Google’s algorithm updates aren’t sitting still, so it’s always difficult to pin down.

Which is why the SEO environment can be a paranoid place.

Do Brands Escape?

Matt Cutts is on record discussing big brands, saying they get punished, too. You may recall the case of Interflora UK.

Google may well punish big brands, but the punishment might be quite different to the punishment handed out to a no-brand site. It will be easier for a big brand to return, because if Google don’t show what Google users expect to see in the SERPs then Google looks deficient.

Take, for example, this report received - amusingly - by the BBC:

I am a representative of the BBC site and on Saturday we got a ‘notice of detected unnatural links’. Given the BBC site is so huge, with so many independently run sub sections, with literally thousands or agents and authors, can you give us a little clue as to where we might look for these ‘unnatural links

If I was the BBC webmaster, I wouldn’t bother. Google isn’t going to dump the BBC sites as Google would look deficient. If Google has problems with some of the links pointing to the BBC, then perhaps Google should sort it out.

Take It On The Chin, Move On

Many of those who engaged in aggressive link tactics knew the deal. They went looking for an artificial boost in relevancy, and as a result of link building, they achieved a boost in the SERPs.

That is playing the game that Google, a search engine that factors in backlinks, "designed". By design, Google rewards well-linked sites by ranking them above others.

The site owners enjoyed the pay-off at the expense of their less aggressive competitors. The downside - there’s always a downside - is that Google may spot the artificial boost in relevancy, now or in the future, and and may slam the domain as a result.

That’s part of the game, too.

Some cry about it, but Google doesn’t care about crying site owners, so site owners should build that risk into their business case from the get go.

Strategically, there are two main ways of looking at “the game”:

Whack A Mole: Use aggressive linking for domains you’re prepared to lose. If you get burned, then that’s a cost of playing the game. Run multiple domains using different link graphs for each and hope that a few survive at any one time, thus keeping you in the game. If some domains get taken out, then take it on the chin. Try to get reinstated, and if you can’t, then torch them and move on.

Ignore Google: If you operate like Google doesn’t exist, then it’s pretty unlikely Google will slam you, although there are no guarantees. In any case, a penalty and a low ranking are the same thing in terms of outcome.

Take one step back. If your business relies on Google rankings, then that’s a business risk. If you rely entirely on Google rankings, then that’s a big business risk. I’m not suggesting it’s not a risk worth taking, but only you can answer that what risks make sense for your business.

If the whack a mole strategy is not for you, and you want to lower the business risk of Google’s whims, then it makes sense to diversify the ways in which you get traffic so that if one traffic stream fails, then all is not lost. If you’re playing for the long term, then establishing brand, diversifying traffic, and treating organic SEO traffic as a bonus should be considerations. You then don’t need to worry about what Google may or may not do as Google aren’t fueling your engine.

Some people run both these strategies simultaneously, which is an understandable way of managing risk. Most people probably sit somewhere in the middle and hope for the best.

Link Building Going Forward

The effect of Google’s fear, uncertainty and doubt strategy is that a lot of site owners are going to be running scared or confused, or both.

Just what is acceptable?

Trouble is, what is deemed acceptable today might be unacceptable next week. It’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, for a site owner to wind the clock back once they undertake a link strategy, and who knows what will be deemed unacceptable in a years time.

Of course, Google doesn’t want site owners to think in terms of a “link strategy”, if the aim of said link strategy is to “inflate rankings”. That maxim has remained constant.

If you want to take a low-risk approach, then it pays to think of Google traffic as a bonus. Brett Tabke, founder of WebmasterWorld, used to keep a sticker on his monitor that said “Pretend The Search Engines Don’t Exist”, or words to that effect. I’m reminded of how useful that message still is today, as it's a prompt to think strategically beyond SEO. If you disappeared from Google today, would your business survive? If the answer is no, then you should revise your strategy.

Is there a middle ground?

Here are a few approaches to link building that will likely stand the test of time, and incorporate strategy that provides resilience from Google’s whims. The key is having links for reasons besides SEO, even if you part of their value is higher rankings.

1. Publisher

Publish relevant, valuable content, as determined by your audience.

It’s no longer enough to publish pages of information on a topic, the information must have demonstrable utility i.e. other people need to deem it valuable, reference it, visit it, and talk about it. Instead of putting your money into buying links, you put your money into content development and then marketing it to people. The links will likely follow. This is passive link acquisition.

It’s unlikely these types of links will ever be a problem, as the link graph is not going to look contrived. If any poor quality links slip into this link graph, then they’re not going to be the dominant feature. The other signals will likely trump them and therefore diminish their impact.

Build brand based on unique, high quality information, and then market it to people by via multiple channels, and the links tend to follow, which then boost your ranking in Google. Provide a high degree of utility, first and foremost.

One problem with this model is that it’s easy for other people to steal your utility. This is a big problem and prevents investment in quality content. One way of getting around this is to use some content as loss-leader and lock the rest away behind pay-walls. You give the outside world, and Google, just enough, but if they want the rest, then they’re going to need to sign up.

Think carefully about the return on giving the whole farm away to a crawler. Think about providing utility, not "content".

2. Differentiation

There is huge first mover advantage when it comes to getting links.

If a new field opens up, and you get there first, or early, then it’s relatively easy to build a credible link graph. As a field expands, the next layer involves a lot of meta activity i.e. bloggers, media and other information curators writing about that activity. At the start of any niche, there aren’t many players to talk about, so the early movers get all the links.

As a field matures, you get a phenomenon Mike Grehan aptly characterised as “filthy linking rich

The law of "preferential attachment" as it is also known, wherein new links on the web are more likely to go to sites that already have many links, proves that the scheme is inherently biased against new and unknown pages. When search engines constantly return popular pages at the top of the pile, more web users discover those pages and more web users are likely to link to them

Those who got all those links early on will receive more and more links over time because they are top of the results. They just need to keep doing what they’re doing. It becomes very difficult for late entrants to beat them unless they do something extraordinary. By definition, that probably means shifting the niche to a new niche.

If you’re late to a crowded field, then you need to think in terms of differentiation. What can you offer the rest do not? New content in such fields must be remarkable i.e worth remarking upon.

Is that field moving in a new direction? If so, can you pivot in that direction and be first mover in that direction? Look not where a niche currently is, but where it’s going, then position ahead of it.

"Same old, same old content” doesn’t get linked to, engaged with, ranked, or remarked upon - and why should it? The web is not short of content. The web has so much content that companies like Google have made billions trying to reduce it to a manageable set of ten links

3. Brand

Brand is the ultimate Google-protection tactic.

It’s not that brands don’t get hammered by Google occasionally, because they do. But what tends to differ is the sentence handed down. The bigger the brand, the lighter the sentence, or the shorter the sentence, because no matter how much WalMart or The Office Of The President Of The United States Of America spams Google, Google must show such sites. I’m not suggesting these sites engage in aggressive SEO tactics, or need to, but we know they’ll always be in Google.

You don’t have to be a big brand. You do need search volume on your distinctive brand name. If you’re well known enough in your niche i.e. you attract significant type-in search volume, Google must show you or appear deficient.

This is not to say having a brand means you can get away with poor behavior. But the more type-in traffic for your brand, the more pressure there is on Google to rank you.

Links to a brand name will almost never look forced in the same way a link in a footer to “cheap online pharmacy” looks forced. People know your name, and they link to you by name , they talk about you by name - naturally.

The more generic your site, the more vulnerable you are, as it’s very difficult to own a space when you’re aligning with generic keyword terms. The links are always going to look a little - or a lot - forced.

This is not to say you shouldn't get links with keywords in them, but build a distinctive brand, too. The link graph will appear mostly natural - because it is. A few low quality links won’t trump the good signals created by a lot of natural brand links.

4. Engagement

The web is a place.

This placed is filled with people. There are relationships between people. Relationships between people on the web, are almost always expressed as a link. It might be a Facebook link, a Twitter link, a comment link, a blog link, but they’re all links. It doesn’t matter if they’re crawlable or not, or if they’re no-followed, or not, it still indicates a relationship.

If Google is to survive, it must figure out these relationships.

That’s why all links - apart from negative SEO - are good links. The more signals of a real relationship, the better you *should* be ranked, because you are more relevant, in an objective sense.

So look for ways to foster relationships and engagement. It might be guest posting. It might be commenting on someone elses site. It might be contributing to forums. It might be interviewing people. It might be accepting interviews. It might be forging relationships with the press. It might be forging relationships with business organisations. It might be contributing to charity. It might be running competitions. It might be attending conferences. It might be linking out to influential people.

It’s all networking.

And wherever you network, you should be getting links as a byproduct.

One potential problem:

Provide long - well, longer than 400 words - unique, editorial articles. Articles also need get linked to, and engaged with. Articles need to be placed on sites they’ll be seen, as opposed to content farms.

Ask yourself "am I providing genuine utility?"

5. Fill A Need

This is similar to differentiation, but a little more focused.

Think about the problems people have in a niche. The really hard problems to solve. “How to”, “tips”, “advice”, and so on.

Solving a genuine problem for people tends to make people feel a sense of obligation, especially if they would otherwise have to pay for that help. If you can twist that obligation towards getting a link, all the better. For example, “if this article/video/whatever helped you, no payment necessary! But it would be great if you link to us/follow us on Twitter/” and so on. It doesn’t need to be that overt, although sometimes overt is what is required. It fosters engagement. It builds your network. And it builds links.

Think about ways you can integrate a call-to-action that results in a link of some kind.

Coda

In other news, Caesars Palace bans Google :)

Measuring Social Media

May 2nd
posted in

Measuring PPC and SEO is relatively straightforward. But how do we go about credibly measuring social media campaigns, and wider public relations and audience awareness campaigns?

As the hype level of social media starts to fall, then more questions are asked about return on investment. During the early days of anything, the hype of the new is enough to sustain an endeavor. People don't want to miss out. If their competitors are doing it, that's often seen as good enough reason to do it, too.

You may be familiar with this graph. It's called the hype cycle and is typically used to demonstrate the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies:

Where would social media marketing be on this graph?

I think a reasonable guess, if we're seeing more and more discussion about ROI, is somewhere on the "slope of enlightenment". In this article, we’ll look at ways to measure social media performance by grounding it in the only criteria that truly matter - business fundamentals.

Public Relations

We’ve talked about the Cluetrain Manifesto and how the world changed when corporations could no longer control the message. If the message can no longer be controlled, then measuring the effectiveness of public relations becomes even more problematic.

PR used to be about crafting a message and placing it, and nurturing the relationships that allowed that to happen. With the advent of social media, that’s still true, but the scope has expanded exponentially - everyone can now repeat, run with, distort, reconfigure and reinvent the messages. Controlling the message was always difficult, but now it’s impossible.

On the plus side, it’s now much easier to measure and quantify the effectiveness of public relations activity due to the wealth of web data and tools to track what people are saying, to whom, and when.

The Same, Only Different

As much as things change, the more they stay the same. PR and social media is still about relationships. And getting relationships right pays off:

Today, I want to write about something I’d like to call the “Tim Ferriss Effect.” It’s not exclusive to Tim Ferriss, but he is I believe the marquee example of a major shift that has happened in the last 5 years within the world of book promotion. Here’s the basic idea: When trying to promote a book, the main place you want coverage is on a popular single-author blog or site related to your topic.....The post opened with Tim briefly explaining how he knew me, endorsing me as a person, and describing the book (with a link to my book.) It then went directly into my guest post– there was not even an explicit call to action to buy my book or even any positive statements about my book. An hour later, (I was #45 on Amazon’s best seller list

Public relations is more than about selling, of course. It’s also about managing reputation. It’s about getting audiences to maintain a certain point of view. Social media provides the opportunity to talk to customers and the public directly by using technology to dis-intermediate the traditional gatekeepers.

Can We Really Measure PR & Social Media Performance?

How do you measure the value of a relationship?

Difficult.

How can you really tell if people feel good enough about your product or service to buy it, and that “feeling good” was the direct result of editorial placement by a well-connected public relations professional?

Debatable, certainly.

Can you imagine another marketing discipline that used dozens of methods for measuring results? Take search engine marketing for example. The standards are pretty cut and dry: visitors, page views, time on site, cost per click, etc. For email marketing, we have delivery, open rates, click thru, unsubscribes, opt-ins, etc”

In previous articles, we’ve looked at how data-driven marketing can save time and be more effective. The same is true of social media, but given it’s not an exact science, it’s a question of finding an appropriate framework.

There are a lot of people asking questions about social media's worth.

No Industry Standard

Does sending out weekly press releases result in more income? How about tweeting 20 times a day? How much are 5,000 followers on Facebook worth? Without a framework to measure performance, there’s no way of knowing.

Furthermore, there’s no agreed industry standard.

In direct marketing channels, such as SEO and PPC, measurement is fairly straightforward. We count cost per click, number of visitors, conversion rate, time on site, and so on. But how do we measure public relations? How do we measure influence and awareness?

PR firms have often developed their own in-house terms of measurement. The problem is that without industry standards, success criteria can become arbitrary and often used simply to show the agency in a good light and thus validate their fees.

Some agencies use publicity results, such as the number of mentions in the press, or the type of mention i.e. prestigious placement. Some use advertising value equivalent i.e. is what editorial coverage would cost if it were buying advertising space. Some use public opinion measures, such as polls, focus groups and surveys, whilst others compare mentions and placement vs competitors i.e. who has more or better mentions, wins. Most use a combination, depending on the nature of the campaign.

Most business people would agree that measurement is a good thing. If we’re spending money, we need to know what we’re getting for that money. If we provide social media services to clients, we need to demonstrate what we’re doing works, so they’ll devote more budget to it in future. If the competition is using this channel, then we need to know if we’re using it better, or worse, than we are.

Perhaps the most significant reason why we measure is to know if we’ve met a desired outcome. To do that we must ignore gut feelings and focus on whether an outcome was achieved.

Why wouldn’t we measure?

Some people don’t like the accountability. Some feel more comfortable with an intuitive approach. It can be difficult for some to accept that their pet theories have little substance when put to the test. It seems like more work. It seems like more expense. It’s just too hard. When it comes to social media, some question whether it can be done much at all

For proof, look no further than The Atlantic, which shook the social media realm recently with its expose of “dark social” – the idea that the channels we fret over measuring like Facebook and Twitter represent only a small fraction of the social activity that’s really going on. The article shares evidence that reveals that the vast majority of sharing is still done through channels like email and IM that are nearly impossible to measure (and thus, dark).

And it's not like a lot of organizations are falling over themselves to get measurement done:

According to a Hypatia Research report, "Benchmarking Social Community Platform Investments & ROI," only 40% of companies measure social media performance on a quarterly or annual basis, while almost 13% or the organizations surveyed do not measure ROI from social media at all, and another 18% said they do so only on an ad hoc basis. (Hypatia didn't specify what response the other 29% gave.)

If we agree that measurement is a good thing and can lead to greater efficiency and better decision making, then the fact your competition may not be measuring well, or at all, then this presents great opportunity. We should strive to measure social media ROI, as providers or consumers, or it becomes difficult to justify spend. The argument that we can't measure because we don’t know all the effects of our actions isn’t a reason not to measure what we can.

Marketing has never been an exact science.

What Should We Measure?

Measurement should be linked back to business objectives.

In “Measure What Matters”, Katie Delahaye Paine outlines seven steps to social media measurement. I liked these seven steps, because they aren’t exclusive to social media. They’re the basis for measuring any business strategy and similar measures have been used in marketing for a long time.

It’s all about proving something works, and then using the results to enhance future performance. The book is a great source for those interested in reading further on this topic, which I’ll outline here.

1. What Are Your Objectives?

Any marketing objective should serve a business objective. For example, “increase sales by X by October 31st”.

Having specific, business driven objectives gets rid of conjecture and focuses campaigns. Someone could claim that spending 30 days tweeting a new message a day is a great thing to do, but if, at the end of it, a business objective wasn’t met, then what was the point?

Let’s say an objective is “increase sales of shoes compared to last December’s figures”. What might the social strategy look like? It might consist of time-limited offers, as opposed to more general awareness messages. What if the objective was to “get 5,000 New Yorkers to mention the brand before Christmas”? This would lend itself to viral campaigns, targeted locally. Linking the campaign to specific business objectives will likely change the approach.

If you have multiple objectives, you can always split them up into different campaigns so you can measure the effectiveness of each separately. Objectives typically fall into sales, positioning, or education categories.

2. Who Is The Audience?

Who are you talking to? And how will you know if you’ve reached them? Once you have reached them, what is it you want them to do? How will this help your business?

Your target audience is likely varied. Different audiences could be industry people, customers, supplier organizations, media outlets, and so on. Whilst the message may be seen by all audiences, you should be clear about which messages are intended for who, and what you want them to do next. The messages will be different for each group as each group likely picks up on different things.

Attach a value to each group. Is a media organization picking up on a message more valuable than a non-customer doing so? Again, this should be anchored to a business requirement. “We need media outlets following us so they may run more of our stories in future. Our research shows more stories has led to increased sales volume in the past”. Then a measure might be to count the number of media industry followers, and to monitor the number of stories they produce.

3. Know Your Costs

What does it cost you to run social media campaigns? How much time will it take? How does this compare to other types of campaigns? What is your opportunity cost? How much does it cost to measure the campaign?

As Delahaye Paine puts it, it’s the “I” in ROI.

4. Benchmark

Testing is comparative, so have something to compare against.

You can compare yourself against competitors, and/or your own past performance. You can compare social media campaigns against other marketing campaigns. What do those campaigns usually achieve? Do social media campaigns work better, or worse, in terms of achieving business goals?

In terms of ROI, what’s a social media “page view” worth? You could compare this against the cost of a click in PPC.

5. Define KPIs

Once you’ve determined objectives, defined the audience, and established benchmarks, you should establish criteria for success.

For example, the objective might be to increase media industry followers. The audience is the media industry and the benchmark is the current number of media industry followers. The KPI would be the number of new media industry followers signed up, as measured by classifying followers into subgroups and conducting a headcount.

Measuring the KPI will differ depending on objective, of course. If you’re measuring the number of mentions in the press vs your competitor, that’s pretty easy to quantify.

“Raising awareness” is somewhat more difficult, however once you have a measurement system in place, you can start to break down the concept of “awareness” into measurable components. Awareness of what? By whom? What constitutes awareness? How to people signal they’re aware of you? And so on.

6. Data Collection Tools

How will you collect measurement data?

  • Content analysis of social or traditional media
  • Primary research via online, mail or phone survey
  • Web analytics

There are an overwhelming number of tools available, and outside the scope of this article. No tool can measure “reputation” or “awareness” or “credibility” by itself, but can produce usable data if we break those areas down into suitable metrics. For example, “awareness” could be quantified by “page views + a survey of a statistically valid sample”.

Half the battle is asking the right questions.

7. Take Action

A measurement process is about iteration. You do something, get the results back, act on them and make changes, and arrive at a new status quo. You then do something starting from that new point, and so on. It’s an ongoing process of optimization.

Were objectives met? What conclusions can you draw?

Those seven steps will be familiar to anyone who has measured marketing campaigns and business performance. They’re grounded in the fundamentals. Without relating social media metrics back to the underlying fundamentals, we can never be sure if what we’re doing is making or a difference, or worthwhile. Is 5,000 Twitter followers a good thing?

It depends.

What business problem does it address?

Did You Make A Return?

You invested time and money. Did you get a return?

If you’ve linked your social media campaigns back to business objectives you should have a much clearer idea. Your return will depend on the nature of your business, of course, but it could be quantified in terms of sales, cost savings, avoiding costs or building an audience.

In terms of SEO, we’ve long advocated building brand. Having people conduct brand searches is a form of insurance against Google demoting your site. If you have brand search volume, and Google don’t return you for brand searches, then Google looks deficient.

So, one goal of social media that gels with SEO is to increase brand awareness. You establish a benchmark of branded searches based on current activity. You run your social media campaigns, and then see if branded searches increase.

Granted, this is a fuzzy measure, especially if you have other awareness campaigns running, as you can’t be certain cause and effect. However, it’s a good start. You could give it a bit more depth by integrating a short poll for visitors i.e. “did you hear about us on Twitter/Facebook/Other?”.

Mechanics Of Measurement

Measuring social media isn’t that difficult. In fact, we could just as easily use search metrics in many cases. What is the cost per view? What is the cost per click? Did the click from a social media campaign convert to desired action? What was your business objective for the social media campaign? To get more leads? If so, then count the leads. How much did each lead cost to acquire? How does that cost compare to other channels, like PPC? What is the cost of customer acquisition via social media?

In this way, we could split social media out into the customer service side and marketing side. Engaging with your customers on Facebook may not be all that measurable in terms of direct marketing effects, it’s more of a customer service function. As such, budget for the soft side of social media need not come out of marketing budgets, but customer service budgets. This could still be measured, or course, by running customer satisfaction surveys.

Is Social Media Marketing Public Relations?

Look around the web for definitions of the differences between PR and social media, and you’ll find a lot of vague definitions.

Social media is a tool used often used for the purpose of public relations. The purpose is to create awareness and nurture and guide relationships.

Public relations is sometimes viewed it as a bit of a scam. It’s an area that sucks money, yet can often struggle to prove its worth, often relying on fuzzy, feel-good proclamations of success and vague metrics. It doesn’t help that clients can have unrealistic expectations of PR, and that some PR firms are only too happy to promise the moon:

PR is nothing like the dark, scary world that people make it out to be—but it is a new one for most. And knowing the ropes ahead of time can save you from setting impossibly high expectations or getting overpromised and oversold by the firm you hire. I’ve seen more than my fair share of clients bringing in a PR firm with the hopes that it’ll save their company or propel a small, just-launched start-up into an insta-Facebook. And unfortunately, I’ve also seen PR firms make these types of promises. Guess what? They’re never kept

Internet marketing, in general, has a credibility problem when it doesn’t link activity back to business objectives.

Part of that perception, in relation to social media, comes from the fact public relations is difficult to control:

The main conduit to mass publics, particularly with a consumer issue such as rail travel or policing, are the mainstream media. Unlike advertising, which has total control of its message, PR cannot convey information without the influence of opinion, much of it editorial. How does the consumer know what is fact, and what has influenced the presentation of that fact?

But lack of control of the message, as the Cluetrain Manifesto points out, is the nature of the environment in which we exist. Our only choice, if we are to prosper in the digital environment, is to embrace the chaos.

Shouldn’t PR just happen? If you’re good, people just know? Well, even Google, that well known, engineering-driven advertising company has PR deeply embedded from almost day one:

David Krane was there from day one as Google's first public relations official. He's had a hand in almost every single public launch of a Google product since the debut of Google.com in 1999.

Good PR is nurtured. It’s a process. The way to find out if it’s good PR or ineffective PR is to measure it. PR isn’t a scam, anymore so than any other marketing activity is a scam. We can find out if it’s worthwhile only by tracking and measuring and linking that measurement back to a business case. Scams lack transparency.

The way to get transparency is to measure and quantify.

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Experiment Driven Web Publishing

Apr 9th
posted in

Do users find big headlines more relevant? Does using long text lead to more, or less, visitor engagement? Is that latest change to the shopping cart going to make things worse? Are your links just the right shade of blue?

If you want to put an end to tiresome subjective arguments about page length, or the merits of your clients latest idea, which is to turn their website pink, then adopting an experimental process for web publishing can be a good option.

If you don’t currently use an experiment-driven publishing approach, then this article is for you. We’ll look at ways to bake experiments into your web site, the myriad of opportunities testing creates, how it can help your SEO, and ways to mitigate cultural problems.

Controlled Experiments

The merits of any change should be derived from the results of the change under a controlled test. This process is common in PPC, however many SEO’s will no doubt wonder how such an approach will affect their SEO.

Well, Google encourages it.

We’ve gotten several questions recently about whether website testing—such as A/B or multivariate testing—affects a site’s performance in search results. We’re glad you’re asking, because we’re glad you’re testing! A/B and multivariate testing are great ways of making sure that what you’re offering really appeals to your users

Post-panda, being more relevant to visitors, not just machines, is important. User engagement is more important. If you don’t closely align your site with user expectations and optimize for engagement, then it will likely suffer.

The new SEO, at least as far as Panda is concerned, is about pushing your best quality stuff and the complete removal of low-quality or overhead pages from the indexes. Which means it’s not as easy anymore to compete by simply producing pages at scale, unless they’re created with quality in mind. Which means for some sites, SEO just got a whole lot harder.

Experiments can help us achieve greater relevance.

If It ‘Aint Broke, Fix It

One reason for resisting experiment-driven decisions is to not mess with success. However, I’m sure we all suspect most pages and processes can be made better.

If we implement data-driven experiments, we’re more likely to spot the winners and losers in the first place. What pages lead to the most sales? Why? What keywords are leading to the best outcomes? We identify these pages, and we nurture them. Perhaps you already experiment in some areas on your site, but what would happen if you treated most aspects of your site as controlled experiments?

We also need to cut losers.

If pages aren’t getting much engagement, we need to identify them, improve them, or cut them. The Panda update was about levels of engagement, and too many poorly performing pages will drag your site down. Run with the winners, cut the losers, and have a methodology in place that enables you to spot them, optimize them, and cut them if they aren’t performing.

Testing Methodology For Marketers

Tests are based on the same principles used to conduct scientific experiments. The process involves data gathering, designing experiments, running experiments, analyzing the results, and making changes.

1. Set A Goal

A goal should be simple i.e. “increase the signup rate of the newsletter”.

We could fail in this goal (decreased signups), succeed (increased signups), or stay the same. The goal should also deliver genuine business value.

There can be often multiple goals. For example, “increase email signups AND Facebook likes OR ensure signups don’t decrease by more than 5%”. However, if you can get it down to one goal, you’ll make life easier, especially when starting out. You can always break down multiple goals into separate experiments.

2. Create A Hypothesis

What do you suspect will happen as a result of your test? i.e. “if we strip all other distractions from the email sign up page, then sign-ups will increase”.

The hypothesis can be stated as an improvement, or preventing a negative, or finding something that is wrong. Mostly, we’re concerned with improving things - extracting more positive performance out of the same pages, or set of pages.

“Will the new video on the email sign-up page result in more email signups?” Only one way to find out. And once you have found out, you can run with it or replace it safe in the knowledge it's not just someone's opinion. The question will move from “just how cool is this video!” (subjective) to “does this video result in more email sign-ups?”. A strategy based on experiments eliminates most subjective questions, or shifts them to areas that don’t really affect the business case.

The video sales page significantly increased the number of visitors who clicked to the price/guarantee page by 46.15%....Video converts! It did so when mentioned in a “call to action” (a 14.18% increase) and also when used to sell (35% and 46.15% increases in two different tests)

When crafting a hypothesis, you should keep business value clearly in mind. If the hypothesis suggests a change that doesn’t add real value, then testing it is likely a waste of time and money. It creates an opportunity cost for other tests that do matter.

When selecting areas to test, you should start by looking at the areas which matter most to the business, and the majority of users. For example, an e-commerce site would likely focus on product search, product descriptions, and the shopping cart. The About Page - not so much.

Order areas to test in terms of importance and go for the low hanging fruit first. If you can demonstrate significant gains early on, then it will boost your confidence and validate your approach. As experimental testing becomes part of your process, you can move on more granular testing. Ideally, you want to end up with a culture whereby most site changes have some sort of test associated with them, even if it’s just to compare performance against the previous version.

Look through your stats to find pages or paths with high abandonment rates or high bounce rates. If these pages are important in terms of business value, then prioritize these for testing. It’s important to order these pages in terms of business value, because high abandonment rates or bounce rates on pages that don’t deliver value isn’t a significant issue. It’s probably more a case of “should these pages exist at all”?

3. Run An A/B or Multivariate Test

Two of the most common testing methodologies in direct response marketing are A/B testing and multivariate testing.

A/B Testing, otherwise known as split testing, is when you compare one version of a page against another. You collect data how each page performs, relative to the other.

Version A is typically the current, or favored version of a page, whilst page B differs slightly, and is used as a test against page A. Any aspect of the page can be tested, from headline, to copy, to images, to color, all with the aim of improving a desired outcome. The data regarding performance of each page is tested, the winner is adopted, and the loser rejected.

Multivariate testing is more complicated. Multivariate testing is when more than one element is tested at any one time. It’s like performing multiple A/B tests on the same page, at the same time. Multivariate testing can test the effectiveness of many different combinations of elements.

Which method should you use?

In most cases, in my experience, A/B testing is sufficient, but it depends. In the interest of time, value and sanity, it’s more important and productive to select the right things to test i.e. the changes that lead to the most business value.

As your test culture develops, you can go more and more granular. The slightly different shade of blue might be important to Google, but it’s probably not that important to sites with less traffic. But, keep in mind, assumptions should be tested ;) Your mileage may vary.

There are various tools available to help you run these test. I have no association with any of these, but here’s a few to check out:

4. Ensure Statistical Significance

Tests need to show statistical significance. What does statistically significant mean?

For those who are comfortable with statistics:

Statistical significance is used to refer to two separate notions: the p-value, the probability that observations as extreme as the data would occur by chance in a given single null hypothesis; or the Type I error rate α (false positive rate) of a statistical hypothesis test, the probability of incorrectly rejecting a given null hypothesis in favor of a second alternative hypothesis

For those of you, like me, who prefer a more straightforward explanation. Here’s also a good explanation in relation to PPC, and a video explaining statistical significance in reference in A/B test.

In short, you need enough visitors taking an action to decide it is not likely to have occurred randomly, but is most likely attributable to a specific cause i.e. the change you made.

5. Run With The Winners

Run with the winners, cut the losers, rinse and repeat. Keep in mind that you may need to retest at different times, as the audience can change, or their motivations change, depending on underlying changes in your industry. Testing, like great SEO, is best seen as an ongoing process.

Make the most of every visitor who arrives on your site, because they’re only ever going to get more expensive.

Here’s an interesting seminar where the results of hundreds of experiments were reduced down to three fundamental lessons:

  • a) How can I increase specify? Use quantifiable, specific information as it relates to the value proposition
  • b) How can I increase continuity? Always carry across the key message using repetition
  • c) How can I increase relevance? Use metrics to ask “why”

Tests Fail

Often, tests will fail.

Changing content can sometimes make little, if any, difference. Other times, the difference will be significant. But even when tests fail to show a difference, it still gives you information you can use. These might be areas in which designers, and other vested interests, can stretch their wings, and you know that it won’t necessarily affect business value in terms of conversion.

Sometimes, the test itself wasn't designed well. It might not have been given enough time to run. It might not have been linked to a business case. Tests tend to get better as we gain more experience, but having a process in place is the important thing.

You might also find that your existing page works just great and doesn’t need changing. Again, it’s good to know. You can then try replicating this successes in areas where the site isn’t performing so well.

Enjoy Failing

Fail fast, early and fail often”.

Failure and mistakes are inevitable. Knowing this, we put mechanisms in place to spot failures and mistakes early, rather than later. Structured failure is a badge of honor!

Thomas Edison performed 9,000 experiments before coming up with a successful version of the light bulb. Students of entrepreneurship talk about the J-curve of returns: the failures come early and often and the successes take time. America has proved to be more entrepreneurial than Europe in large part because it has embraced a culture of “failing forward” as a common tech-industry phrase puts it: in Germany bankruptcy can end your business career whereas in Silicon Valley it is almost a badge of honour

Silicon Valley even comes up with euphemisms, like “pivot”, which weaves failure into the fabric of success.

Or perhaps it’s because some of the best ideas in tech today have come from those that weren’t so good. (Remember, Apple's first tablet devices was called the Newton.)
There’s a word used to describe this get-over-it mentality that I heard over and over on my trip through Silicon Valley and San Francisco this week: “Pivot“

Experimentation, and measuring results, will highlight failure. This can be a hard thing to take, and especially hard to take when our beloved, pet theories turn out to be more myth than reality. In this respect, testing can seem harsh and unkind. But failure should be seen for what it is - one step in a process leading towards success. It’s about trying stuff out in the knowledge some of it isn’t going to work, and some of it will, but we can’t be expected to know which until we try it.

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about the benefits of using lean methodologies to take a product from not-so-good to great, using systematic testing”

If your first product sucks, at least not too many people will know about it. But that is the best time to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them to make the product better. “It is inevitable that the first product is going to be bad in some ways,” he says. The Lean Startup methodology is a way to systematically test a company’s product ideas.
Fail early and fail often. “Our goal is to learn as quickly as possible,” he says

Given testing can be incremental, we don’t have to fail big. Swapping one graphic position for another could barely be considered a failure, and that’s what a testing process is about. It’s incremental, and iterative, and one failure or success doesn’t matter much, so long as it’s all heading in the direction of achieving a business goal.

It’s about turning the dogs into winners, and making the winners even bigger winners.

Feel Vs Experimentation

Web publishing decisions are often based on intuition, historical precedence - “we’ve always done it this way” - or by copying the competition. Graphic designers know about colour psychology, typography and layout. There is plenty of room for conflict.

Douglas Bowden, a graphic designer at Google, left Google because he felt the company relied too much on data-driven decisions, and not enough on the opinions of designers:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’retesting 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to any Google watchers. Google is driven by engineers. In Google’s defense, they have such a massive user base that minor changes can have significant impact, so their approach is understandable.

Integrate Design

Putting emotion, and habit, aside is not easy.

However, experimentation doesn’t need to exclude visual designers. Visual design is valuable. It helps visitors identify and remember brands. It can convey professionalism and status. It helps people make positive associations.

But being relevant is also design.

Adopting an experimentation methodology means designers can work on a number of different designs and get to see how the public really does react to their work. Design X converted better than design Y, layout Q works best for form design, buttons A, B and C work better than buttons J, K and L, and so on. It’s a further opportunity to validate creative ideas.

Cultural Shift

Part of getting experimentation right has to do with an organizations culture. Obviously, it’s much easier if everyone is working towards a common goal i.e. “all work, and all decisions made, should serve a business goal, as opposed to serving personal ego”.

All aspects of web publishing can be tested, although asking the right questions about what,to test is important. Some aspects may not make a measurable difference in terms of conversion. A logo, for example. A visual designer could focus on that page element, whilst the conversion process might rely heavily on the layout of the form. Both the conversion expert and the design expert get to win, yet not stamp on each others toes.

One of the great aspects of data-driven decision making is that common, long-held assumptions get challenged, often with surprising results. How long does it take to film a fight scene? The movie industry says 30 days.

Mark Walberg challenged that assumption and did it in three:

Experts go with what they know. And they’ll often insist something needs to take a long time. But when you don’t have tons of resources, you need to ask if there’s a simpler, judo way to get the impact you desire. Sometimes there’s a better way than the “best” way. I thought of this while watching “The Fighter” over the weekend. There’s a making of extra on the DVD where Mark Wahlberg, who starred in and produced the film, talks about how all the fight scenes were filmed with an actual HBO fight crew. He mentions that going this route allowed them to shoot these scenes in a fraction of the time it usually takes

How many aspects of your site are based on assumption? Could those assumptions be masking opportunities or failure?

Winning Experiments

Some experiments, if poorly designed, don’t lead to more business success. If an experiment isn’t focused on improving a business case, then it’s probably just wasted time. That time could have been better spent devising and running better experiments.

In Agile software design methodologies, the question is always asked “how does this change/feature provide value to the customer”. The underlying motive is “how does this change/feature provide value to the business”. This is a good way to prioritize test cases. Those that potentially provide the most value, such as landing page optimization on PPC campaigns, are likely to have a higher priority than, say, features available to forum users.

Further Reading

I hope this article has given you some food for thought and that you'll consider adopting some experiment-based processes to your mix. Here's some of the sources used in this article, and further reading:

Creating Effective Advertising

Apr 3rd
posted in

The Atlantic published an interesting chart comparing print advertising spend with internet advertising spend:

So, print advertising is tanking. Internet advertising, whilst growing, is not growing particularly fast, and certainly isn’t catching up to fill the titanic sized gap left by print.

As a result, a number of publishers who rely on advertising for the lion's share of their revenue are either struggling, going belly up, or changing their models.

The Need For More Effective Advertising

We recently looked at paywalls. More and more publishers are going the paywall route, the latest major publisher being The Washington Post.

Given the ongoing devaluation of content by aggregators and their advertising networks, few can blame them. However, paywalls aren’t the only solution. Part of the problem with internet advertising is that as soon as people get used to seeing it they tend to block it out, so it becomes less effective.

We looked at the problems with display advertising. Federated Media abandoned the format and will adopt a more “social” media strategy.

We also looked at the rise of Native Advertising, which is advertising that tightly integrates with content to the point where it’s difficult to tell the two apart. This opens up a new angle for SEOs looking to place links.

The reason the advertising gap isn’t closing is due to a number of factors. It’s partly historical, but it’s also to do with effectiveness, especially when it comes to display advertising. If advertisers aren’t seeing a return, then they won’t advertise.

Inventory is expanding a lot faster than the ability or desire of advertisements to fill it, which is not a good situation for publishers. So, internet publishers are experimenting with ideas on how to be more effective. If native advertising and social are deemed more effective, then that is the way publishers will go.

People just don't like being advertised at.

The ClueTrain Manifesto

The Cluetrain Manifesto predicted much of what we see happening today. Written in 2000 by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, the Cluetrain Manifesto riffed on the idea that markets are conversations, and consumers aren't just passive observers:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies

That seems obvious now, but it was a pretty radical idea back then. The book was written before blogs became popular. It was way before anyone had heard of a social network, or before anyone had done any tweeting.

Consumers were no longer passive, they were just as likely to engage and create, and they would certainly talk back, and ultimately shape the message if they didn't like it. The traditional top-down advertising industry, and publishing industry, has been turned on its head. The consumers are publishers, and they’re not sitting around being broadcast at.

The advertising industry has been struggling to find answers, not entirely successfully, ever since.

Move Away From Display And Towards Engagement

In order for marketing to be effective on the web, it needs to be engaging to an audience that ignores the broadcast message. This is the reason advertising is starting to look more like content. It ‘s trying to engage people using the forms they already use in their personal communication.

For example, this example mimics a blog post encouraging people to share. It pretty much is a blog post, but it’s also an advertisement. It meets the customer on their terms, in their space and on their level. For better or worse, the lines are growing increasingly blurred.

Facebook's Managing Editor, Dan Fletcher, has just stood down, reasoning:

The company "doesn't need reporters," Fletcher said, because it has a billion members who can provide content.You guys are the reporters," Fletcher told the audience. "There is no more engaging content Facebook could produce than you talking to your family and friends.

People aren't reporters in the journalistic sense, but his statement suggests where the revenue for advertising lies, which is in between people’s conversations. As a side note, you may notice that article is “brought to you by our sponsor”. Most of the links go through bit.ly, however they could just as easily be straight links.

The implication is that a lot of people aren't even listening to reporters anymore, they want to know about the world as filtered through the eyes of their friends and families. The latter has happened since time began, but only recently has advertising leaped directly into that conversation. Whether that is a good thing or not, or welcomed, is another matter, but it it is happening.

Two Types Of Advertisements

Advertising takes two main forms. Institutional, or “brand” advertising, and direct response advertising. SEOs are mainly concerned with direct response advertising.

Direct-Response Marketing is a type of marketing designed to generate an immediate response from consumers, where each consumer response (and purchase) can be measured, and attributed to individual advertisements.[1] This form of marketing is differentiated from other marketing approaches, primarily because there are no intermediaries such as retailers between the buyer and seller, and therefore the buyer must contact the seller directly to purchase products or services.

However, brand advertising is the form around which much of the advertising industry is based:

Brand ads, also known as "space ads," strive to build (or refresh) the prospect's awareness and favorable view of the company or its product or service. For example, most billboards are brand ads.

Online, the former works well, but only if the product or service suits direct advertising. Generally speaking, a lot of new-to-market products and services, and luxury goods, don’t suit direct advertising particularly well, unless they’re being marketed on complementary attributes, such as price or convenience.

The companies that produce goods and services that don’t suit direct marketing aren't spending as much online.

But curious changes are afoot.

What's Happening At Facebook?

Those who advertise on Facebook will have noticed the click-thru rate. Generally, it's pretty low, suggesting direct response isn't working well in that environment.

Click-through rates on Facebook ads only averaged 0.05% in 2010, down from 0.06% in 2009 and well short of what’s considered to be the industry average of 0.10%. That’s according to a Webtrends report that examined 11,000 Facebook ads, first reported upon by ClickZ.

It’s not really surprising, give Facebook’s user base are Cluetrain passengers, even if most have never heard of it:

Facebook, a hugely popular free service that’s supported solely through advertising, yet is packed with users who are actively hostile to the idea of being marketed to on their cherished social network......this is what I hear from readers every time I write about the online ad economy, especially ads on Facebook: “I don’t know how Facebook will ever make any money—I never click on Web ads!

But a new study indicates click-thru rates on Facebook might not matter much. The display value of the advertising has been linked back to product purchases, and the results are an eye-opener:

Whether you know it or not—even if you consider yourself skeptical of marketing—the ads you see on Facebook are working. Sponsored messages in your feed are changing your behavior—they’re getting you and your friends to buy certain products instead of others, and that’s happening despite the fact that you’re not clicking, and even if you think you’re ignoring the ads......his isn’t conjecture. It’s science. It’s based on a remarkable set of in-depth studies that Facebook has conducted to show whether and how its users respond to ads on the site. The studies demonstrate that Facebook ads influence purchases and that clicks don’t matter

Granted, such a study is self-serving, but if it's true, and translates to many advertisers, then that's interesting. Display, engagement, institutional and direct marketing all seem to be melding together into "content". SEOs who want to get their links in the middle of content will be in there, too.

You may notice the Cluetrain-style language in the following Forbes post:

Some innovative companies, like Vine and smartsy, are catching on to this wave by creating apps and software that allows a dialogue between a brand and its audience when and where the consumer wants. Such technology opens a realm of nearly endless possibilities of content creation while increasing conversion rates dramatically. Audience participation isn’t just allowed; it’s encouraged. Hell, it’s necessary. By not only providing consumers with information in the moment of their interest, but also engaging them in conversation and empowering them to create their own content, we can drastically increase the relevancy of messaging and its authenticity.

Technology Has Finally Caught Up With The Cluetrain

Before the internet, it wasn’t really possible to engage consumers in conversations, except in very limited ways. Technology wasn’t up to the task.

But now it is.

The conversation was heralded in the Cluetrain Manifesto over a decade ago. People don’t want to just be passive consumers of marketing messages – they want engagement. The new advertising trends are all about increasing that level of engagement, and advertisers are doing it, in part, by blurring the lines between advertising and content.

Native Advertising

Mar 21st

Native advertising presents opportunities for SEOs to boost their link building strategies, particularly those who favor paid link strategies.

What Is Native Advertising?

Native advertising is the marketing industries new buzzword for....well, it depends who you ask.

Native advertising can't just be about the creative that fills an advertising space. Native advertising must be intrinsically connected to the format that fits the user's unique experience. There's something philosophically beautiful about that in terms of what great advertising should (and could) be. But first, we need to all speak the same language around "native advertising.

Native advertising is often defined as content that seamless integrates with a site, as opposed to interruption media, such as pre-rolls on YouTube videos, or advertising that sits in a box off to the side of the main content.

It’s advertising that looks just like content, which is a big part of Google's success.

Here’s an example.

Some high-profile examples of native advertising include Facebook Sponsored Stories; Twitter's Promoted Tweets; promoted videos on YouTube, Tumblr and Forbes; promoted articles like Gawker's Sponsored Posts and BuzzFeed's Featured Partner content; Sponsored Listings on Yelp; promoted images on Cheezburger; and promoted playlists on Spotify and Radio.

One interesting observation is that Adwords and Adsense are frequently cited as being examples of native advertising. Hold that thought.

Why Native Advertising?

The publishing industry is desperate to latch onto any potential lifeline as ad rates plummet.

Analysts say the slowdown is being caused by the huge expansion in the amount of online advertising space as companies who manage this emerge to dominate the space. In short there’s just too many ad slots chasing ads that are growing, but at a rate slower than the creation of potential ad slots.

This means the chances are dimming that online ad spending would gradually grow to make up for some of the falls in analogue spending in print. ....staff numbers and the attendant costs of doing business have to be slashed heavily to account for the lower yield and revenue from online ads

And why might there be more slots than there are advertisers?

As people get used to seeing web advertising, and mentally blocking it out, or technically filtering it out, advertising becomes less effective. Federated Media, who were predominantly a display advertising business, got out of display ads late last year:

“The model of ‘boxes and rectangles’ – the display banner – is failing to fully support traditional ‘content’ sites beyond a handful of exceptions,” wrote Federated Media founder John Battelle in a recent blog post. He explained that the next generation of native ads on social networks and strength of Google Adwords make direct sales more competitive, and that ad agencies must evolve with the growing trend of advertisers who want more social/conversational ad campaigns.

Advertisers aren't seeing enough return from the advertising in order for them to want to grab the many slots that are available. And they are lowering their bids to make up for issues with publishing fraud. The promise of native advertising is that this type of advertising reaches real users, and will grab and hold viewers attention for longer.

This remains to be seen, of course.

Teething Pains

Not all native advertising works. It depends on the context and the audience. Facebook hasn’t really get it right yet:

Facebook is still largely centered around interactions with people one knows offline, making the appearance of marketing messages especially jarring. This is particularly true in mobile, where Sponsored Stories take up a much larger portion of the screen relative to desktop. Facebook did not handle the mobile rollout very gracefully, either. Rather than easing users into the change, they appeared seemingly overnight, and took up the first few posts in the newsfeed. The content itself is also hit or miss – actions taken by distant friends with dissimilar interests are often used as the basis for targeting Sponsored Stories.

If you’re planning on offering native advertising yourself, you may need to walk a fine line. Bloggers and other publishers who are getting paid but don’t declare so risk alienating their audience and destroying their reputation.

Some good ways of addressing this issue are policy pages that state the author has affiliate relationships with various providers, and this is a means of paying for the site, and does not affect editorial. Whether it’s true or not is up to the audience to decide, but such transparency up-front certainly helps. If a lot of free content is mixed in with native content, and audiences dislike it enough, then it might pave the way for more paid content and paywalls.

Just like any advertising content, native advertising may become less effective over time if the audience learns to screen it out. One advantage for the SEO is that doesn’t matter so much, so long as they get the link.

Still, some big players are using it:

Forbes Insights and Sharethrough today announced the results of a brand study to assess adoption trends related to native video advertising that included senior executives from leading brands such as Intel, JetBlue, Heineken and Honda. The study shows that more than half of large brands are now using custom brand videos in their marketing, and when it comes to distribution, most favor “native advertising” approaches where content is visually integrated into the organic site experience, as opposed to running in standard display ad formats. The study also shows that the majority of marketers now prefer choice-based formats over interruptive formats.

Google’s Clamp-Down On Link Advertising

So, what’s the difference between advertorial and native content? Not much, on the face of it, except in one rather interesting respect. When it comes to native advertising, it’s often not obvious the post is sponsored.

Google has, of course, been punishing links from advertorial content. One wonders if they've punished themselves, of course.

The Atlantic, BuzzFeed and Gawker — are experimenting with new ad formats such as sponsored content or “native advertising,” as well as affiliate links. On Friday, Google engineer Matt Cutts reiterated a warning from the search giant that this kind of content has to be treated properly or Google will penalize the site that hosts it, in some cases severely.

If native advertising proves popular with publishers and advertisers, then it’s going to compete with Google’s business model. Businesses may spend less on Adwords and may replace Adsense with native advertising. It’s no surprise, then, that Google may take a hostile line on it. However, publishers are poor, ad networks are rich, so perhaps it's time that publishers became ad networks.

When it comes to SEO, given Google’s warning shots, SEOs will either capitulate - and pretty much give up on paid links - or make more effort to blend seamlessly into the background.

Blurring The Lines

As Andrew Sullivan notes, the editorial thin blue line is looking rather “fuzzy”. It may even raise legal questions about misrepresentation. There has traditionally been a church and state divide between advertising and editorial, but as publishers get more desperate to survive, they’re going to go with whatever works. If native advertising works better than the alternatives, then publishers will use it. What choice have they got? Their industry is dying.

It raises some pretty fundamental questions.

I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertizing and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?

Likewise, in order to compete in search results, a site must have links. It would great if people linked freely and often based on objective merit, but we all know that is a hit and miss affair. If native advertising provides a means to acquire paid links that don’t look like paid links, then that is what people will do.

And if their competitors are doing it, they’ll have little choice.

Seamless Integration

If you’re looking for a way to build paid links, then here is where the opportunity lies for SEOs.

Recent examples Google caught out looked heavily advertorial. They were in bulk. They would have likely been barely credible to a human reviewer as they didn’t read particularly well. Those I saw had an "auto-generated quality" to them.

The integration with editorial needs to be seamless and, if possible, the in-house editors should write the copy, or it should look like they did. Avoid generic and boilerplate approaches. The content should not be both generic and widely distributed. Such strategy is unlikely to pass Google’s inspections.

Markets will spring up, if they haven’t already, whereby publications will offer editorial native advertising, link included. It would be difficult to tell if such a link was “paid for”, and certainly not algorithmically, unless the publisher specifically labelled it “advertising feature” or something similar.

Sure, this has been going on for years, but if a lot of high level publishers embrace something called "Native Advertising" then that sounds a lot more legitimate than "someone wants to pay for a link on our site". In marketing, it's all about the spin ;)

It could be a paid restaurant review on a restaurant review site, link included. For SEO purposes, the review doesn't even need to be overtly positive and glowing, therefore a high degree of editorial integrity could be maintained. This approach would suit a lot of review sites. For example, "we'll pay you to review our product, so long as you link to it, but you can still say whatever you like about it". The publishers production cost is met, in total, and they can maintain a high degree of editorial integrity. If Jennifer Lopez is in a new movie with some "hot" scene then that movie can pay AskMen to create a top 10 sexiest moments gallery that includes their movie at #9 & then advertise that feature across the web.

A DIY site could show their readers how to build a garden wall. The products could be from a sponsor, link included. Editorial integrity could be maintained, as the DIY site need not push or recommend those products like an advertorial would, but the sponsor still gets the link. The equivalent of product placement in movies.

News items can feature product placement without necessarily endorsing them, link included - they already do this with syndicated press releases. Journalists often interview the local expert on a given topic, and this can include a link. If that news article is paid for by the link buyer, yet the link buyer doesn't have a say in editorial, then that deal will look attractive to publishers. Just a slightly different spin on "brought to you by our sponsor". Currently services like HARO & PR Leads help connect experts with journalists looking for story background. In the years to come perhaps there will be similar services where people pay the publications directly to be quoted.

I’m sure you can think of many other ideas. A lot of this isn’t new, it’s just a new, shiny badge on something that has been going on well before the web began. When it comes to SEO, the bar has been lifted on link building. Links from substandard content are less likely to pass Google’s filters, so SEOs need to think more about ways to get quality content integrated in a more seamless way. It takes more time, and it’s likely to be more costly, but this can be a good thing. It raises the bar on everyone else.

Those who don’t know the bar has been raised, or don’t put more effort in, will lose.

Low Level Of Compromise

Native Advertising is a new spin on an old practice, however it should be especially interesting to the SEO, as the SEO doesn't demand the publisher compromise editorial to a significant degree, as the publisher would have to do for pure advertorial. The SEO only requires they incorporate a link within a seamless, editorial-style piece.

If the SEO is paying for the piece to be written, that's going to look like a good deal to many publishers.

When Links Go Bad

Mar 21st
posted in

When is a link not okay? When will you get a penalty for linking to someone else? When will you get a penalty if someone links to you?

This area grows ever more complicated.

The old-hands will know this, but those newer to SEO are justified if feeling confused.

Interflora UK

The Interflora UK site was recently dropped from top position in Google, although it looks like they’ve now returned. As we’ve seen in the past, major brands typically return quickly, because if visitors don’t see a brand they expect to see, then Google looks deficient.

According to this excellent analysis by Anthony Shapley, the Interflora site was likely dropped due to an abundance of links coming from regional newspaper sites. These sites contained “Advertorial” content that looked something like this:

Whilst similar pages don’t appear to have inbound links to Interflora UK now, it’s clear from Anthony’s analysis that they did previously. In turn, sites featuring the Advertorials appear to have suffered a decrease in PageRank. If they were selling space for the purposes of flowing PageRank then that value has likely diminished.

According to SearchEngineLand:

Google has downgraded the Toolbar PageRank scores for several dozen UK operated newspapers and news sites today. It is believed the reason Google has downgraded their PageRank scores is because they were selling links on a massive scale

But What’s This?

So, are Advertorial backlinks “evil”?

It would appear so.

Then again, maybe not, if you happen to be Google. Aaron spotted an advertorial placement - sorry, “Information Feature” - last week. Google appear to be placing content too, complete with backlinks that aren’t no-followed.

When they do it, it’s okay? Or is this simply an “unfortunate oversight” on the part of one rogue tentacle of the sprawling Google octopus? Given Google’s previous stance on such issues, it’s probably the latter. But how many webmasters, especially webmasters of minor web properties, can claim “an unfortunate oversight” in their defense? And if they do, would they receive a fair hearing?

Still, Google, as an organization have done a good job of building their brand, and like most major brands, I’m sure we’ll continue to see them at the top of search result pages. It helps, of course, that if there are any real problems in terms of penalties delivered by an algorithm, or a quality rater who has temporarily forgotten who pays her wages, someone in the search quality team can talk to someone else in the search quality team and clear up any misunderstanding.

And why not? There’s got to be some advantage in being big - and owning the show - right?

What About Guest Columns?

What’s an advertorial?

If someone guest posts on a site, and links back to their site, is that an advertorial? A lot of media websites are run that way. How would an algorithm tell the difference?

But doing so is a standard marketing 101 practice from a time before search engines existed. It’s not a crime to link to another site. It’s not a crime to place self-promotional content on another site that leads back to your own. The visitor traveling across the link is the payoff.

But SEOs know about another layer of pay-off, regardless of visitor traffic.

Google may argue that it’s safest to put a “no-follow” attribute on the link, which indicates intent i.e. “I’m not doing this because of what I read in The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, honest guv!”, but that seems to be an arbitrary way of doing things given people in the SEO community know what a no-follow is, but most webmasters and publishers don’t. Most links won’t be no-followed, regardless of intent.

If Google don’t think the content, and link, is of sufficient quality, then why not just degrade it? Why does the publisher need to jump through arbitrary hoops that won’t apply to everyone, equally? Does the fact a page is labelled an “Advertorial” mean it receives special attention? If so, then won’t we simply see more “integrated” editorial “solutions” in future?

The line is rather blurry.

Best Practice

In the case of Interflora UK, it seems the link problem was largely due to scale. Rule #1 is don’t embarrass Google, and a lot of links coming in from near-identical, low-quality content is a sure-fire way to do so.

It was almost certainly a hand edit, as this practice has been going on for some time, so given the sites are crawled, and in the index, and rank well, as they have been doing for a while, then we can probably assume the algorithms had no issue with them, at least up until recently.

Perhaps a competitor raised the alarm?

Difficult to know for sure.

It’s a good marketing opportunity for Google in that they get to put many webmasters and SEOs on notice again. “Content placement” is not within the guidelines, and if you do it, they may hit you if we see you.

So many webmasters start to fret about where, exactly, the line is drawn.

Google issued a reminder the same day:

Google has said for years that selling links that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines. We continue to reiterate that guidance periodically to help remind site owners and webmasters of that policy. Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or "advertorial" pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations.

Pretty clear. If you want to stay well within Google’s guidelines on this issue, don’t run Advertorial pages with links to the site that paid for them, and don’t be the target of same. As we speak, there will likely be hundreds of webmasters pulling down Advertorial-style campaigns. At very least, I’m sure SEOs will be disinclined to label them as such in future.

It raises an interesting issue, though. What’s to stop a competitor doing this? Running an Advertorial campaign on your behalf, reporting you, and taking you out. And if you’re a minor player, will you get a fair trial?

Dastardly competitors aside, the best way to avoid this type of penalty is to ask yourself “What Would Matt Cutts Do”? Matt's blog is the model for safe linking.

A link needs to be tightly integrated with editorial. A rule of thumb is that the editorial should be closer to balanced journalism and personal opinion and further away from PR - as in press release. The interesting thing about this case is that a lot of press releases will likely fit an Advertorial definition. This is not to say you’ll receive a ban if you're linked to from a press release, or if you carry a press release you’ll be degraded, but you probably need to be a little wary of badly "written" press releases displayed in a...cough....“systematic” way.

The other rule of thumb is “would this pass human inspection and will that human see the content as editorial”? If so, even if you don’t have a no-follow link, it should be fine. If it’s not, then most of the web isn’t okay, including many of Google’s own properties.

Those who don’t care about Google’s guidelines probably got a good case study in how well Advertorial-with-link placement can work, at least up until such time as the campaign pitches-up above-radar.

Tribes: It Depends

Mar 14th
posted in

Following my article about paywalls, a reader raised a point about “Tribes”. I’m paraphrasing the ensuing conversation we had, but I think it could be summarised as:

You’re wrong! The way to succeed on the internet is to build a tribe! Give your content away to the tribe! Grow the tribe!

An internet tribe is “an unofficial community of people who share a common interest, and usually who are loosely affiliated with each other through social media or other internet mechanisms”.

The use of the term dates back to 2003. More recently, Seth Godin wrote a book on the topic. As did Patrick Hanlon. A tribe could be characterized as a special interest group, a demographic, or a group of people interested in the same thing - plus internet.

So, is cultivating a tribe by giving everything away for free a better approach than locking information behind a paywall? If we lock some information away behind a paywall, does that mean we can’t build a tribe? BTW: I'm not suggesting Seth or Patrick assert such things, these issues came out of the conversation I had with the reader.

Well, It Depends

People don't have to build a paywall in order to be successful. Or build a tribe in order to be successful. Either approach could be totally the wrong thing to do.

If anyone found the article on paywalls confusing, then hopefully I can clarify. The article about paywalls was an exploration. We looked at the merits, and pitfalls, involved.

Paywalls, like tribes, will not work for everyone. I suspect most people would agree that there is no “One True System” when it comes to internet marketing, which is why we write about a wide range of marketing ideas. Each idea is a tool people could use, depending on their goals and circumstances, but certainly not proposed as being one-size-fits all. In any case, having a paywall does not mean one cannot build a tribe. The two approaches aren't mutually exclusive.

People may also recall The Well, the mother of all internet tribes. This tribe didn't lead to profit for owners Salon. It was eventually sold it to it's own users for a song. Salon, the parent company, has never been profitable. They have also tried various paywall models and free content models, although I think some of the free content looks very eHow: Driven by Demand Media.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at tribes and how to decide if a certain marketing approach is right for you.

Cart Before The Horse

"Cultivating a tribe" is a strategy.

Will everyone win using this strategy?

No.

Like any strategy, it should be justified by the business case. The idea behind tribes is that you form a group of people with similar interests, and then lead that group, and then, given appropriate and effective leadership, people help spread your message far and wide, grow the tribe, and eventually you will make money from them.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it works well for some businesses. However, like any marketing strategy, there is overhead involved. There is also an opportunity cost involved. And just like any marketing strategy, the success of the strategy should be measured in terms of return on investment. Is the cost of building, growing and maintaining a tribe lower than the return derived from it?

If not, then it fails.

How To Not Make Money From A Tribe

During the conversation I had with the reader, it was intimated that if someone can’t make money from a tribe, then it’s their own fault. After all, if someone can get a lot of people together by giving away their content, then money naturally follows, right?

The idea that profit is the natural result of building an audience resulted in the dot.com crash of 2000.

Many web companies at that time focused on building an audience first and worried about how it was all going to pay off later. Webvan, Pets.com, boo.com, and many of the rest didn’t suffer from lack of awareness, but from a lack of a sound business case and from a failure to execute.

We’ve had digital tribes, in various forms, since the beginning of the internet. Actually, they predate the internet . One early example of a digital tribe was the BBSs, a dial-in community. These tribes were replaced by internet forums and places, such as The Well.

Many internet forums don’t make a great deal of money. Many are run for fun at break-even, or a loss. Some make a lot of money. Whether they make a loss, a little money or a lot of money depends not on the existence of the tribe that surrounds them, as they all have tribes, but on the underlying business model.

Does the tribe translate into enough business activity in order to be profitable? How much is a large tribe of social-media aficionados interested in “free stuff” worth? More than a small demographic of Facebook-challenged people interested in high margin services? Creating a tribe to help target the latter group might possibly work, but there are probably better approaches to take.

Does SEOBook.com have a “tribe”? Should we always be looking to “grow the tribe”?

We don’t tend to characterize our approach in terms of tribes. At SEOBook.com, we do a lot of things to maintain a particular focus. We tend to write long, in-depth pieces on topics we hope people find interesting as opposed to chasing keyword terms. We don’t run an endless series of posts on optimizing meta tags. We don’t cover every tiny bit of search news. We focus almost exclusively on the needs of the intermediate-to-expert search professional. We could do many things to “grow the tribe”, but that would run counter to our objectives. It would dilute the offering. We could have a "free trial" but the noise it would create in our member forums would lower the value of the forums to existing community members.

We do offer some free tools available to everyone, but when it comes to the paid parts of the site we leave it up to individuals to decide if they think they're a good fit for our community. If a person has issues with the site before becoming a paid member, we doubt they would ever becoming a long-lasting community member, so our customer service to people who have not yet become customers is effectively nil. In short, we don’t want to run the hamster treadmill of managing a huge tribe when it doesn’t support the business case.

The Good Things About Tribes

Tribes can help spread the word. People tell people something, and they tell people, and the audience grows and grows.

They’re great for political groups, movements, consultants, charities, and any endeavour with a strong social focus. They tend to suit sectors where the people in that sector spend a lot of time “living digitally”.

As a marketing approach, building tribes is well-suited to the charismatic, relentless self-promoter. A lot of tribes tend to orient around such individuals.

The Problems With Tribes

Not everyone can be a leader. Not everyone has got the time to be a relentless self-promoter and the time spent undertaking such activity can present a high opportunity cost if that’s not how your target market rolls. Perhaps a relentless focus on PPC, or SEO, or another channel will pay higher dividends.

There is also an ever-growing noise level in the social media channels, but the attention level remains relatively constant. The medium is forever being squeezed. Is blogging/facebooking/tweeting all day with the aim of building a tribe really a useful thing to be doing? Only metrics can tell us that, so make sure you monitor ‘em!

To build a big tribe in any competitive space takes serious work and it takes a long time. Many people will fail using that approach. Not only are some people not cut out to lead, the numbers don’t work if everyone used this method. If everyone who led a tribe also followed hundreds of other people leading their own tribes, then there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get anything else done.

It will not be an efficient marketing approach for many.

Getting People To Follow Is Not The Goal Of Business

I know of a company that just got bought out for a few million.

Sounds great, right. However, I know they carry a lot of debt and their business model puts them on a downward trajectory. This site has a massive “tribe”. This site is number one in their niche. People tweet, Facebook, follow them, sing their praises, they engage up, down, left, right and center. They’ve got the internet tribe thing down pat, and their tribe buys their stuff.

One problem.

The business is based on low prices. The tribe is fixated on “getting a great price”. This business is vulnerable to competitors as that tribes loyalty, that took so long to build, is based on price - which is no loyalty at all. Perhaps they achieved their exit strategy, and did what they needed to do, but growing a massive and active internet tribe didn't prevent them being swallowed by a larger competitor. The larger competitor doesn't really have a tribe, but focuses on traditional channels.

Without getting the fundamentals right, a tribe, or any other marketing strategy, is unlikely to pay off. The danger in listening to gurus is they can be fadish. There is money in evangelizing the bright, shiny new marketing idea that sounds really good.

But beware of placing the cart before the horse. Marketing is a numbers game that comes down to ROI. Does building the tribe make enough money to justify serving the tribe?

Having followers is no bad thing. Just makes sure they’re the right followers, for the right reasons, and acquiring them supports a sound business case :)

The Rise Of Paywalls

Mar 7th
posted in

“Information wants to be free” was a phrase coined by Stewart Brand, a counter-culture figure and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog.

This was the context of the quote:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other

Brand talks about distribution cost, but not the production cost. Whatever our views on information freedom, I think everyone can agree that those who create information need to pay their bills. If creating information is how someone makes their living, then information must make an adequate return.

Information production is not free.

The distribution cost has been driven down to near zero on the internet, but it is the distributors, not content creators, who make most of the money. “Information wants to be free”, far from being an anti-corporate battle-cry, suits the business model of fat mega-corporations, like Google, who make money bundling “free” content and running advertising next to it. In this environment, the content creator can often struggle to make a satisfactory return.

So, content creators have been experimenting with models that reject the notion information must be free. One of these models involves the paywall, which we’ll examine today.

Content Disappearing Behind The Wall

More than 300 US dailies now have paywalls, and that number is growing. Big players, like the New York Times and the Financial Times, have reported increasing paid subscription numbers for their online content:

The FT reported that it has breached the 250,000 subscriber mark, having grown digital subscriptions 30% during the last year. The FT charges about $390 for an annual subscription to its website, which would indicate total digital subscription revenues of nearly $100 million if everyone was paying the full annual price. However, the actual total is almost certainly lower than that, since print subscribers pay discounted fee and not all subscriptions are annual. However, the performance is still impressive. The FT said 100,000 of those subscriptions are from corporations

Their paywall experiment appears to be paying off. However, critics are quick to point out that those newspapers enjoy an established reputation, and that lesser-known media outlets might have trouble emulating such success.

Certainly, this seems to be the case for the Rupert Murdoch owned “The Daily” which went belly-up due to poor subscription numbers:

The Daily, a boldly innovative publication – in the platform sense – is over. It’s never pleasant to see a newspaper of any form go under. However, there are lessons to be made from its birth, growth, and eventual demise that have wide implications for the content industry that are worth discussing.Here’s the raw truth: The Daily lost too much money and didn’t have a clear path to profitability, or something close to it. News Corp stated this succinctly, saying that the paper’s key problem was that it “could not find a large enough audience quickly enough to convince us the business model was sustainable in the long-term.

Even with the clout of News Corporation behind it, the Daily folded in less than two years. It was reportedly losing an estimated $30 million annually.

But was size was part of its problem? Did that paywall model fail due to high overhead and the relative inflexibility of a traditional media operation? Perhaps success involves leveraging off an existing reputation, innovation and running a tight ship?

Some smaller media start-ups have opted for the paywall approach. Well-known blogger Andrew Sullivan left the Daily Dish and went solo, offering readers a subscription based website.

Was this a big risk? Could Sullivan really make subscription content pay when the well-resourced Daily failed?

Sullivan did 333K in 24 hours.

Basically, we’ve gotten a third of a million dollars in 24 hours, with close to 12,000 paid subscribers [at last count],” Sullivan wrote today. “On average, readers paid almost $8 more than we asked for. To say we’re thrilled would obscure the depth of our gratitude and relief.

Sullivan doesn’t have the overhead of The Daily, so his break-even point is significantly lower. It looks like Sullivan may have hit on a model that works for him.

Another small media outfit, called The Magazine run by Marco Arment, started as an “IOS newstand publication for geeks”. Arment was known to his audience as he was the lead developer on Tumblr and and developer of Instapaper.

The Magazine publishes four articles every two weeks for $1.99 per month with a 7-day free trial. It started off as an app for the iPad but has since migrated to the web, but behind a paywall.

There’s room for another category between individuals and major publishers, and that’s where The Magazine sits. It’s a multi-author, truly modern digital magazine that can appeal to an audience bigger than a niche but smaller than the readership of The New York Times. This is what a modern magazine can be, not a 300 MB stack of static page images laid out manually by 100 people. The Magazine supports writers in the most basic, conventional way that, in the modern web context, actually seems least conventional and riskiest: by paying them to write. Since I’m keeping production costs low, I’m able to pay writers reasonably today, and very competitively with high-end print magazines in the future if The Magazine gets enough subscribers. A risk, but I’m confident. Here goes”

So how’s this niche publication doing?

Arment walked me through the numbers. He has 25,000 subscribers who pay $1.99 a month. Apple takes a 30 percent cut, leaving Arment about $35,000 a month.his cost of putting out the magazine is a bit over $20,000 per month. It comes out every two weeks, and each issue costs about $10,000. Roughly $4,000 goes to writers. The rest goes mostly to copy editors, illustrators, photographers and editors

Then there is Paul Carr, ex-Tech Crunch journalist who started NSFW Corporation, a web publication that has, up until recently, sat entirely behind a paywall. It’s a general interest and humor site that, by Pauls’ own admission, doesn’t need a ton of readers, just enough readers prepared to pay $3 a month for access so they can make money. He figures if he gets 30K paying subscribers, then that’s enough to break even.

Interestingly, he's announced that they are diversifying into print. He claims NSFW will be profitable by the end of the year:

They’ll curse at SEO-driven headlines and at a public unwilling to pay even a few dollars for journalism that costs many thousand times that to produce. .......Rather than mourning the loss of long-form investigative pieces, we’re combining an online subscription model with ebooks and even print to make that kind of journalism profitable again. Instead of resorting to cheap tricks to jack up page views to sell another million belly fat ads, we’re inventing sponsorship products that provide more value to sponsors as editorial quality (not quantity) increases.....

It’s probably too early to draw many firm conclusions on the paywall experiment, although it’s clear that some operators are making it work.

News is a difficult form of content to monetarize on the web. It’s ephemeral, time-sensitive and ultimately disposable. However, if you’re providing educational and consultancy content, then it should be easier. If you do publish this type of content, how much of this should you be giving away? And if you do, what return are you getting back? Do you have a way to measure it?

The answers will be different for everyone, but they are interesting questions to consider. Many publishers are making paywalls work. And these people are making money from web content without exclusively pandering to flaky search engines in the hope some traffic may come their way.

The free content in exchange for free traffic “deal” is simply no longer worthwhile for many publishers.

Paywalls Are Hard

Paywalls are difficult to get right.

When “The Magazine” launched, it placed too much content behind the paywall, in the form of an app, meaning people couldn’t link to it. This meant the conversation was happening elsewhere.

I hastily built a basic site while I was waiting for the app to be approved. I only needed it to do two things: send people to the App Store, and show something at the sharing URLs for each article. Since The Magazine had no ads, and people could only subscribe in the app, I figured there was no reason to show full article text on the site — it could only lose money and dilute the value of subscribing. That was the biggest mistake I’ve made with The Magazine to date

The Magazine is now offering one free article view per month. The casual reader will still be able to assess the value and conversation and interaction can still happen, whilst most of the valuable content sits behind a paywall, helping ensure content creators paid.

Taking a different approach, The Times of London erected a “Berlin Wall”, locking content inside a fortress. How did that work out?

Not so well.

While the Times once had 10m monthly unique visitors, figures in September show that it has only managed to attract 100,000 digital-only subscribers, although print subscribers are able to access the site as well. As a result, Murdoch was recently forced to capitulate and allow Google and other search engines partial access to his content

When it comes to paywalls, mixed models appear to work best. Some content needs to appear where everyone can see it. Some content needs to appear in search engines and social media. The question is how much, and via what channel?

Some sites use a free-on-the-web model, whilst charging for mobile access. Other’s use a freemium model where some content is free in order to entice people to pay for premium content. One of the more successful models, of late, has been a metered approach.

The New York Times allows you to view five free pages if you come via a search engine because they get some referral revenue from the search sites. If you come to the site via Facebook, Twitter, blogs or other social media it does not count towards your monthly allowance

People don’t like to be forced into paying for content, but don't seem to mind paying once the value has been demonstrated. One of the most successful apps in the Apple store, Angry Birds, enticed people to pay by giving the basic game away. Once they could see the value, people were more willing to pay.

Fred Wilson labels this “ex post facto monetization” — “you get paid after the fact, not before.” Under this strategy, you let people receive the value of your product first, then pay later — because they want to. Those who do sign up willingly are likely to be long-term, loyal customers. Those who never sign up probably haven’t discovered enough personal value and would have unsubscribed after a month even if they had initially been forced to subscribe

Paywalls can also be difficult to get right on a technical level. Some paywalls are porous in that the content can be seen so long as you know enough to jump through a few digital hoops:

When we launched our digital subscription plan we knew there were loopholes to access our content beyond the allotted number of articles each month. We have made some adjustments and will continue to make adjustments to optimize the gateway by implementing technical security solutions to prohibit abuse and protect the value of our content

However, even if some content does leak - and let’s face it, anything on the net can leak as a cut n’ paste is only a few keystrokes away - at least an expectation of payment is being established. The message is that this content has a value attached to it.

Another way of approaching it could be to make content available in formats that are more difficult to crawl and replicate, such as streaming video, or Kindle books. Here’s a guide on how to self-publish on the Kindle.

Think about different ways to make it difficult for scrapers to extract all your value easily.

Paywalls Are Strategic

Paywalls are not just a sign-up form and a payment gateway. Paywalls are also a publishing strategy.

How much are you prepared to give away for free? How does giving away this content pay off?

A consultant may publish far and wide for free. The pay-off is more consulting gigs. The consultancy “content” sits behind a paywall in that you have to pay for that service. Not many SEO consultants give their detailed analysis away for free. The content we see in the public domain on SEO is a tiny fraction of the information held by the professionals in our niche, and that information may want to be free, but the owners, wisely, hold onto most of it, else they wouldn't eat.

Be wary about giving away your labour in exchange for "awareness". Here's a story about how The Atlantic tried to get a journalist to work for nothing.

From the Atlantic:

Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!

From me:

Thanks Olga:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.....

Such arrangements suit the publisher, of course, but all the risk sits with the content creator. Sometimes, those deals can work if they lead to payment in some other form, but ensure you have a means to track the pay-off.

Another way of thinking about a paywall is a switch of channel. We’re seeing the rise and rise of mobile computing and, as it turns out, mobile consumers are much more willing to pay for content than people who browse the web:

The upshot: paid content, it seems, is alive and well, but some media categories are doing a lot better than others.Taking just the use of paid content on tablets in Q4 2011, Nielsen found that in the U.S., a majority of tablet owners have already paid for downloaded music, books and movies, with 62 percent, 58 percent and 51 percent respectively saying they have already made such purchases

Could your content be better off pitched to a mobile audience? Made into an app? Published and promoted as a Kindle book?

The Hamster Wheel

This is not to say leaving content out in the open can’t pay the bills. Perhaps you don't feel a paywall is right for you, but you're growing tired of running faster just to stay in the same place.

Brian Lam used to be the editor of Gizmodo, Gawker media’s gadget blog. Gizmodo was run on a model familiar to search marketers where you first find a keyword stream then capture that stream by writing keyword-driven articles.

He likens this approach to a hamster on a wheel as he relentlessly churned out copy in order to drive more and more traffic.

It led to burn-out.

He loved the ocean, but his frantic digital existence meant his surfboard was gathering cobwebs. “I came to hate the Web, hated chasing the next post or rewriting other people’s posts just for the traffic,” he told me. “People shouldn’t live like robots.

The problem with ad-supported media models, such as Adsense, is that they depend on scale. With advertising rates decreasing year by year as the market gets more and more fractured, content production increases just to keep pace.

Lam went in the opposite direction.

His new gadget site only posts 12 times a month, but goes deep. The majority of his income comes from Amazon’s affiliate program. He achieves a 10-20% click-thru rate.

Mr. Lam’s revenue is low, about $50,000 a month, but it’s doubling every quarter, enough to pay his freelancers, invest in the site and keep him in surfboards. And now he actually has time to ride them. In that sense, Mr. Lam is living out that initial dream of the Web: working from home, working with friends, making something that saves others time and money.....The clean, simple interface, without the clutter of news, is a tiny business; it has fewer than 350,000 unique visitors a month at a time when ad buyers are not much interested in anything less than 20 million.But The Wirecutter is not really in the ad business. The vast majority of its revenue comes from fees paid by affiliates, mostly Amazon, for referrals to their sites. As advertising rates continue to tumble, affiliate fees could end up underwriting more and more media businesses“

Is running on a search-driven hamster wheel, churning out more and more keyword content the most worthwhile use of your time? Lam is making more money by feeding the beast less in terms of quantity and going deep on quality.

Loss Leader For The Search Engines

But, hang on. This is an SEO site, isn’t it? Aren’t we all about getting content into the search engines and ranking well?

Of course.

SEO is still a great marketing channel, however this doesn’t mean to say everything we publish must appear in search engines. I hope this article prompts you to consider just how much you’re giving away compared to how much benefit you’re getting in return.

It all comes down to an ROI calculation. Does it cost me less to publish page X than I get in return? If you can publish pages cheaply enough, and if the traffic is worth enough, then great. If your publishing costs exceeds your return, then there are other models worth considering.

This article is mainly concerned with deep, researched, unique content that doesn’t have a trivial production cost attached to it. If the search engines don’t deliver enough value to make deep content creation worthwhile, then publishers must look beyond the “free” web model many have been using up until now in order to be sustainable.

Don’t let distributors suck out all your value so only they can grow fat. A paywall is more than a physical thing, it’s a strategy. If you publish a lot of valuable information that isn’t getting a reasonable return, then think about ways bundle that information into product form and ask yourself if you should keep it out of the search engines. Decide on your loss-leader content and create a sales funnel to ensure there is a payday at the end. The existence of content farms showed deep, free content often doesn’t pay. The way they made their content pay was to make it dirt cheap to produce and so useless that the advertising became the most relevant content on the page.

Content that relies heavily on search engine traffic is a high risk strategy. Some may recall a Mac site, called Cult Of Mac, that got hit by Panda. They were big enough, and connected enough, to have Google reinstate them, but the first comment in this thread tells it like it is:

It's great news that Google reinstated Cult of Mac although that will not happen to other smaller genuine blogs and websites..

True, that.

It’s not enough to “publish quality content”. A lot of quality content gets hammered and tossed out of the search engines each day. And even if it stays listed, it may not make a return. There are no guarantees. Instead, build a brand and an audience. And then sell that audience something they can’t get for free.

Content may want to be free, but free doesn’t pay. For many publishers, the search engines aren’t giving enough back so be wary about how much you hand over to them.

How To Prevent Content Value Gouging

Mar 7th
posted in

What are the incentives to publish high-value content to the web?

Search engines, like Google, say they want to index quality content, but provide little incentive to create and publish it. The reality is that the publishing environment is risky, relatively poorly paid in most instances, and is constantly being undermined.

The Pact

There is little point publishing web content if the cost of publishing outweighs any profit that can be derived from it.

Many publishers, who have search engines in mind, work on an assumption that if they provide content to everyone, including Google, for free, then Google should provide traffic in return. It’s not an official deal, of course. It’s unspoken.

Rightly or wrongly, that’s the “deal” as many webmasters perceive it.

What Actually Happens

Search engines take your information and, if your information is judged sufficiently worthy that day, as the result of an ever-changing, obscure digital editorial mechanism known only to themselves, they will rank you highly, and you’ll receive traffic in return for your efforts.

That may all change tomorrow, of course.

What might also happen is that they could grab your information, amalgamate it, rank you further down the page, and use your information to keep visitors on their own properties.

Look at the case of Trip Advisor. Trip Advisor, frustrated with Google’s use of its travel and review data, filed a competition complaint against Google in 2012.

The company said: "We hope that the commission takes prompt corrective action to ensure a healthy and competitive online environment that will foster innovation across the internet."

The commission has been investigating more than a dozen complaints against Google from rivals, including Microsoft, since November 2010, looking at claims that it discriminates against other services in its search results and manipulates them to promote its own products.

TripAdvisor's hotel and restaurants review site competes with Google Places, which provides reviews and listings of local businesses."We continue to see them putting Google Places results higher in the search results – higher on the page than other natural search results," said Adam Medros, TripAdvisor's vice president for product, in February. "What we are constantly vigilant about is that Google treats relevant content fairly."

Similarly, newspapers have taken aim at Google and other search engines for aggregating their content, and deriving value from that aggregation, but the newspapers claim they aren’t making enough to cover the cost of producing that content in the first place:

In 2009 Rupert Murdoch called Google and other search engines “content kleptomaniacs”. Now cash-strapped newspapers want to put legal pressure on what they see as parasitical news aggregators.”

Of course, it’s not entirely the fault of search engines that newspapers are in decline. Their own aggregation model - bundling news, sport, lifestyle, classifieds topics - into one “place” has been surpassed.

Search engines often change their stance without warning, or can be cryptic about their intentions, often to the determent of content creators. For example, Google has stated they see ads as helpful, useful and informative:

In his argument, Cutts said, “We actually think our ads can be as helpful as the search results in some cases. And no, that’s not a new attitude.”

And again:

we firmly believe that ads can provide useful information

And again:

In entering the advertising market, Google tested our belief that highly relevant advertising can be as useful as search results or other forms of content

However, business models built around the ads as content idea, such as Suite101.com, got hammered. Google could argue these sites went too far, and that they are asserting editorial control, and that may be true, but such cases highlight the flaky and precarious nature of the search ecosystem as far as publishers are concerned. One day, what you're doing is seemingly "good", the next day it is "evil". Punishment is swift and without trial.

Thom Yorke sums it up well:

In the days before we meet, he has been watching a box set of Adam Curtis's BBC series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, about the implications of our digitised future, so the arguments are fresh in his head. "We were so into the net around the time of Kid A," he says. "Really thought it might be an amazing way of connecting and communicating. And then very quickly we started having meetings where people started talking about what we did as 'content'. They would show us letters from big media companies offering us millions in some mobile phone deal or whatever it was, and they would say all they need is some content. I was like, what is this 'content' which you describe? Just a filling of time and space with stuff, emotion, so you can sell it?"

Having thought they were subverting the corporate music industry with In Rainbows, he now fears they were inadvertently playing into the hands of Apple and Google and the rest. "They have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions. And this is what we want? I still think it will be undermined in some way. It doesn't make sense to me. Anyway, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. The commodification of human relationships through social networks. Amazing!

There is no question the value of content is being deprecated by big aggregation companies. The overhead of creating well-researched, thoughtful content is the same whether search engines value it or not. And if they do value it, a lot of the value of that content has shifted to the networks, distributors and aggregators and away from the creators.

Facebook’s value is based entirely on the network itself. Almost all of Google’s value is based on scraping and aggregating free content and placing advertising next to it. Little of this value gets distributed back to the creator, unless they take further, deliberate steps to try and capture some back.

In such a precarious environment, what incentive does the publisher have to invest and publish to the “free” web?

Content Deals

Google lives or dies on the relevancy of the information they provide to visitors. Without a steady supply of “free” information from third parties, they don’t have a business.

Of course, this information isn’t free to create. So if search engines do not provide you profitable traffic, then why allow search engines to crawl your pages? They cost you money in terms of bandwidth and may extract, and then re-purpose, the value you created to suit their own objectives.

Google has done content-related deals in the past. They did one in France in February whereby Google agreed to help publishers develop their digital units:

Under the deal, Google agreed to set up a fund, worth 60 million euroes, or $80 million, over three years, to help publishers develop their digital units. The two sides also pledged to deepen business ties, using Google’s online tools, in an effort to generate more online revenue for the publishers, who have struggled to counteract dwindling print revenue.

This seems to fit with Google’s algorithmic emphasis on major web properties, seemingly as a means to sift the "noise in the channel". Such positioning favors big, established content providers.

It may have also been a forced move as Google would have wanted to avoid a protracted battle with European regulators. Whatever the case, Google doesn’t do content deals with small publishers and it could be said they are increasingly marginalizing them due to algorithm shifts that appear to favor larger web publishers over small players.

Don't Be Evil To Whom?

Google’s infamous catch-phrase is “Don’t Be Evil”. In the documentary Inside Google", Eric Schmidt initially thought the phrase was a joke. Soon after, he realized they took it seriously.

The problem with such a phrase is that it implies Google is a benevolent moral actor that cares about......what? You - the webmaster?

Sure.

“Don’t Be Evil” is typically used by Google in reference to users, not webmasters. In practice, it’s not even a question of morality, it’s a question of who to favor. Someone is going to lose, and if you’re a small webmaster with little clout, it’s likely to be you.

For example, Google appear to be kicking a lot of people out of Adsense, and as many webmasters are reporting, Google often act as judge, jury and executioner, without recourse. That’s a very strange way of treating business “partners”, unless partnership has some new definition of which I'm unaware.

It's getting pretty poor when their own previously supportive ex-employees switch to damning their behavior:

But I think Google as an organization has moved on; they're focussed now on market position, not making the world better. Which makes me sad. Google is too powerful, too arrogant, too entrenched to be worth our love. Let them defend themselves, I'd rather devote my emotional energy to the upstarts and startups. They deserve our passion.

Some may call such behavior a long way from “good” on the “good” vs “evil” spectrum.

How To Protect Value

Bottom line: if your business model involves creating valuable content, you’re going to need a strategy to protect it and claw value back from aggregators and networks in order for a content model to be sustainable.

Some argue that if you don’t like Google, then block them using robots.txt. This is one option, but there’s no doubt Google still provides some value - it’s just a matter of deciding where to draw the line on how much value to give away.

What Google offers is potential visitor attention. We need to acquire and hold enough visitor attention before we switch the visitors to desired action. An obvious way to do this, of course, is to provide free, attention grabbing content that offers some value, then lock the high value content away behind a paywall. Be careful about page length. As HubPages CEO Paul Edmonds points out:

Longer, richer pages are more expensive to create, but our data shows that as the quality of a page increases, its effective revenue decreases. There will have to be a pretty significant shift in traffic to higher quality pages to make them financially viable to create"

You should also consider giving the search engines summaries or the first section of an article, but block them from the rest.

Even if you decide to block search engines from indexing your content they still might pay others to re-purpose it:

I know a little bit about this because in January I was invited to a meeting at the A.P.’s headquarters with about two dozen other publishers, most of them from the print world, to discuss the formation of the consortium. TechCrunch has not joined at this time. Ironically, neither has the A.P., which has apparently decided to go its own way and fight the encroachments of the Web more aggressively (although, to my knowledge, it still uses Attributor’s technology). But at that meeting, which was organized by Attributor, a couple slides were shown that really brought home the point to everyone in the room. One showed a series of bar graphs estimating how much ad revenues splogs were making simply from the feeds of everyone in the room. (Note that this was just for sites taking extensive copies of articles, not simply quoting). The numbers ranged from $13 million (assuming a $.25 effective CPM) to $51 million (assuming a $1.00 eCPM)

You still end up facing the cost of policing "content re-purposing" - just one of the many costs publishers face when publishing on the web, and just one more area where the network is sucking out value.

Use multiple channels so you’re not reliant on one traffic provider. You might segment your approach by providing some value to one channel, and some value to another, but not all of it to both. This is not to say models entirely reliant on Google won’t work, but if you do rely on a constant supply of new visitors via Google, and if you don’t have the luxury of having sufficient brand reputation, then consider running multiple sites that use different optimization strategies so that the inevitable algorithm changes won’t take you out entirely. It’s a mistake to think Google cares deeply about your business.

Treat every new visitor as gold. Look for ways to lock visitors in so you aren’t reliant on Google in future for a constant stream of new traffic. Encourage bookmarking, email sign-ups, memberships, rewards - whatever it takes to keep them. Encourage people to talk about you across other media, such as social media. Look for ways to turn visitors into broadcasters.

Adopt a business model that leverages off your content. Many consultants write business books. They make some money from the books, but the books mainly serve as advertisements for their services or speaking engagements. Similarly, would you be better creating a book and publishing it on Amazon than publishing too much content to the web?

Business models focused on getting Google traffic and then monetarizing that attention using advertising only works if the advertising revenue covers production cost. Some sites make a lot of money this way, but big money content sites are in the minority. Given the low return of a lot of web advertising, other webmasters opt for cheap content production. But cheap content isn’t likely to get the attention required these days, unless you happen to be Wikipedia.

Perhaps a better approach for those starting out is to focus on building brand / engagement / awarenesss / publicity / non-search distribution. As Aaron points out:

...the sorts of things that PR folks & brand managers focus on. The reason being is that if you have those things...

  • the incremental distribution helps subsidize the content creation & marketing costs
  • many of the links happen automatically (such that you don't need to spend as much on links & if/when you massage some other stuff in, it is mixed against a broader base of stuff)
  • that incremental distribution provides leverage in terms of upstream product suppliers (eg: pricing leverage) or who you are able to partner with & how (think about Mint.com co-marketing with someone or the WhiteHouse doing a presentation with CreditCards.com ... in addition to celebrity stuff & such ... or think of all the ways Amazon can sell things: rentals, digital, physical, discounts via sites like Woot, higher margin high fashion on sites like Zappos, etc etc etc)
  • as Google folds usage data & new signals in, you win
  • as Google tracks users more aggressively (Android + Chrome + Kansas City ISP), you win
  • if/when/as Google eventually puts some weight on social you win
  • people are more likely to buy since they already know/trust you
  • if anyone in your industry has a mobile app that is widely used & you are the lead site in the category you could either buy them out or be that app maker to gain further distribution
  • Google engineers are less likely to curb you knowing that you have an audience of rabid fans & they are more likely to consider your view if you can mobilize that audience against "unjust editorial actions"

A lot of the most valuable content on this site is locked-up. We’d love to open this content up, but there is currently no model that sufficiently rewards publishers for doing so. This is the case across the web, and it's the reason the most valuable content is not in Google.

It’s not in Google because Google, and the other search engines, don’t pay.

Fair? Unfair? Is there a better way? How can content providers - particularly newcomers - grow and prosper in such an environment?

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