Links Based Economy? No. Passion Based Economy? Yes

Speaking at a conference for newspapers Eric Schmidt said:

"We've been careful not to bias it using our own judgment of trust because we're never sure if we get it right. So we use complicated ranking signals, as they're called, to determine rank and relevance. And we change them periodically, which drives everybody crazy, as or algorithms get better. ... The usual problem is you've got somebody who really is very trustworthy, but they're not as well-known and they compete against people who are better known, and they don't 'in their view' get high enough ranking. We have not come up with a way to algorithmically handle that in a coherent way."

So the big flaw in the algorithm there is "to be well known." SEOs have exploited that since Google first got on the web - buying, trading, borrowing, and stealing links as needed. Arianna Huffington claims that to succeed today you need to work in the links based economy

But what won't work -- what can't work -- is to act like the last 15 years never happened, that we are still operating in the old content economy as opposed to the new link economy, and that the survival of the industry will be found by "protecting" content behind walled gardens.

But the problem with that line of thinking is that the link based economy is quietly disappearing. Links are not flowing as well as they once would have. Take for example, this post - it covers a currently hot topic, is 8 pages long, contains multiple custom images, is easy to consume, and is published on a blog with over 30,000 RSS subscribers. The reward for such work? Less than 30 links so far, and maybe a total of 5 links if you back out the temporal social media links. (And some of those 5 links are on sites that routinely link back and forth).

Would you be willing to write for 4 or 5 hours to only get 5 links to a fairly non-commercial page of a site that already has over 1 million inbound links? No way...totally not worth the effort if we were operating in a "links-based economy."

A couple days ago I talked with a friend who works for some news companies, and they wanted to use rel=nofollow on their editorial selected links because they were afraid of leaking PageRank. To say that we are entering a links based economy is to ignore the corruption of nofollow and how "social" media is pulling editorial links away from those who earned it. But the web changes, and so must we, lest we become the mainstream media writing our own obituary each dawn.

We have moved past the links-based economy into a passion based economy.

In Someone Can Charge for News Content, but Who? John Andrews reminds us of today's most popular news programs:

Today Bill O’Reilly reports the news, and Jon Stewart reports the news. Very popular news shows, right? Think about it.

If the links are not counting in the algorithms then you need to get paid another way to make creating in depth high value content worthwhile. To do that, you need to publish content that is aligned with a particular passion, niche, and/or bias.

Call it tribe based or fan driven marketing. Your customers must play a critical role in your marketing for you to succeed.

Trying to maintain a false appearance of objectivity (as the media does) simply can't compete with deep rooted biases founded in passion, experience, and expertise. I would rather trust a known bias than fake objective with hidden agendas I later need to figure out.

  • The mainstream media sites can profitably build businesses if they focus on high value niches and create stand alone brands for each that are worth charging for access to.
  • The mainstream media sites can profitably arbitrage Google's organic search results by filling their sites up with eHow-like junk content that costs less than $5 per page to produce.
  • But doing what they doing, half-assed generic publishing while slowly trimming costs off huge inefficient organizations guarantees bankruptcies & consolidation. Their current strategy gives them neither passion driven content nor cost efficiency...they are wounded animals mindlessly roaming awaiting their death - the one topic they cover with passion.

Ironically, some of the best content online comes in the form of walled garden paid membership websites. But, it turns out, we don't need the media to figure out who shares our passions.

Published: April 10, 2009 by Aaron Wall in marketing


April 10, 2009 - 5:49pm

"Ironically, some of the best content online comes in the form of walled garden paid membership websites."
I agree. I also think the large media companies, more than anyone, are in a position to change the way people pay for content online, but they're looking in all the wrong places to do it.

What stops the average webmaster from charging for their content? Confidence is one thing you've talked about. That surely plays a big part.

There are also technical barriers: there are a lot of good writers and photographers blogging, but not all of them have the know-how to set up a subscription area. That's an opportunity.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there's the question of scale. It's pretty hard to justify selling subscriptions on just one website, especially if it's a one-person operation. But if you could somehow get together with 10 other like-minded webmasters, or 100, to offer joint subscriptions to all of their websites for one price, then that could be something worth selling.

Could a large company devise a way to co-ordinate the sale of subscriptions across hundreds of small websites, and a way of compensating the webmasters involved in a fair way? Because if they can, that could have far more impact than a few more big-name newspapers and journals deciding to charge for content. Imagine if every decent website had a premium subscription area, instead of just those with huge traffic. That would change the web as much as the introduction of Adsense.

April 11, 2009 - 12:07am

I don't see roll-up subscription packages as being successful unless the network of sites is owned by 1 company or a few companies. Why?

  • When I look at the various flavors of membership sites in the marketing space in many ways people subscribe to just the 1 or 2 they really trust. Very few of our longterm members are also members at other SEO oriented membership sites.
  • If people pay the site owner directly then they are more likely to value the content then if it comes as part of a package.
  • Whoever puts themselves at the center of a network will invariably grow greedy and tilt the network concept in their favor.
  • Brands rise and fall, and it is hard to keep the perception of fairness in dynamic changing markets.
  • Finally, if people get rewarded for how much of the package they sell then the sleaziest amongst the groups will offer thin low value membership areas and just hype hype hype maybe offer some "exclusive" bonuses if you buy through them...further skewing the numbers.
April 11, 2009 - 2:11pm

All of these are compelling reasons why no-one has tried this yet (at least on a large scale, that I know of). But they're not insurmountable. Point 3, that the network operator will grow greedy, doesn't take into account the competition factor. In effect anyone running such a scheme would be in competition with all other ways of making money from a site, including affiliate schemes and Adsense. Get too greedy, and your participants will just leave and try something else.

As far as value goes, and the perception of value, it's a matter of putting enough checks in place. A spider, traffic measurement, user feedback, manual checks and a complex algo could all be part of the equation. People buy packages for TV channels all the time: you don't have to make sure everything is perfect, so long as you find a way to recruit and retain the stars.

So I still think it's possible, in theory, to stuff the genie of free content part-way back into its bottle. But I also think that no-one will do it, because few companies have the motive and the means to risk an attempt.

April 11, 2009 - 6:45pm

Another factor is that a lot of services that look much different off the start end up looking much more alike over time, and that overlap is likely going to be seen as wasteful if people buy into a group package.

April 10, 2009 - 6:56pm

And the 'reward' (so far) for this post is only two comments. That really surprizes me. Where is the passion?
So a passion based economy may be where we are all going. The result may be lots of small brands with low overheads. That's ok for new entrants and small players but for the existing big boys its much harder to 'grow' smaller than it is to grow bigger.

April 11, 2009 - 12:01am

I totally agree. Their media's weight and scale is one of their biggest weaknesses.

Part of the reason there is not much discussion on the blog here is that many of the people who resonate the most with our site and brand do most of their talking inside our forums.

April 11, 2009 - 12:52am

I assume if natural linking is dying (I think you've hinted at that before (not sure)), Google & co won't really have any chance, but to move on to other additional ranking factors?

And/or maybe they might start new real links more than they used to? After all a new (and "real") link nowadays is a lot harder to come by than in the past....but then again if they went by this logic, people probably wouldn't be talking about old links being so much more valuable than new links (unless they're all wrong..which in this case seems unlikely)

April 11, 2009 - 1:24am

@patrick the beauty of Google's monopoly position is that it doesn't ever "have" to do anything. It has so much data access, that it can simply test and evaluate, and CHOOSE to pursue any path it desires to pursue.

Links will be used as long as links provide Google with meaningful data. Since Google has such an advanced crawling infrastructure, and is so trusted by webmasters, I suspect Google will always research better ways to extract meaningful signal from links. It has enough data to do that... which is a barrier to competition going forward. Google will know before anyone else the value of a link, link attributes, combinations of signals+links, etc etc.

Ever wonder how a search Engineer would make use of Reddit's home page or Stumble data, or Delicious data? Valuable supplements for qualifying crawl data, I bet.

April 11, 2009 - 11:13am

Spot on John. Add to that the informational bias of links and they really can claim that it is "just the algorithm" as they continue to fill up the organic search results with more informational pages while purging ecommerce pages. I thought when Matt Cutts mentioned in this video that users complain about seeing "too many commercial results or seeing too many products or too many shopping comparison sites" is quite revealing. It is interesting how often "user" preference coincide with the perspective of a search engineer and Google's corporate goals, particularly when you see how rarely the large shopping comparison sites get whacked.

April 11, 2009 - 5:34am

Nice post Aaron

The how "social" media is pulling editorial links away from those who earned it link is broken cuz of typo in the destination url.

http:// www. wwwobook. com/ how-twitter-can-be-corrossive-marketing-efforts

Fyi please.

April 11, 2009 - 11:03am

thanks...fixed it :)

April 11, 2009 - 10:37am

If links are getting harder to attain does it mean they should be worth more?

Since more and more websites are becoming aware of SEO it should naturally become more expensive. If a "good" link today costs about $200 of work to generate, I'd assume that over time as the SEO space becomes more crowded and it becomes more mainstream that the price of a link will increase too.

Unless Google starts using direct signals from social media sites I don't see how links can lose their strength as a signal.

April 11, 2009 - 11:04am

But some links are hard to buy. So some will chose to buy in bulk (by perhaps buying old sites that have more links). The harder is gets for a new person to compete on the web the more Google consolidates the web and favors old existing properties.

Alex Chudnovsky
April 11, 2009 - 1:09pm

The passion could in temporary retreat due to long Easter weekend :)

I think that getting 30 or even 5 quality relevant links is a very good thing - they can drive relevant traffic for a long time, if you factor in PPC costs of this traffic over 12-24 months then such links alone can be worth 3-5 hours effort, especially so if you are not very well known. Any additional effect on ranking can be viewed as bonus - not guaranteed but can be substantial!

Now when a site is already well known with lots of backlinks it may seem that writing such articles is a waste of time, it may well be if one thinks of links only however I think in this case having such periodic updates allows to maintain interest from existing customers even if you don't get many links in return.

April 11, 2009 - 1:54pm

Great article, but what's really interesting to me is how the heck are you managing to write to much good content is so little time ?

You write faster than a lot of people read :)

April 11, 2009 - 2:08pm

I consume more information than just about anyone I a side effect of that it is easy to have writing material.

April 11, 2009 - 2:40pm

could you elaborate on that?
I mean, it's also interesting to know which blogs/portals/etc. do successful people go to as a reference and as a source of triggers for them to write on ?

April 11, 2009 - 6:28pm

Most the information I have been consuming recently relates to investing and macro-economics...but if you know one field well and then read the right sources in the next it gives you further inspiration.

And books are great...I just wish I scheduled more time for reading them!

April 12, 2009 - 7:03am

@pimpy Aaron as usual defers to his sources, giving them credit. But seriously, people like Aaron stand out from the crowd. Ten people can read the same material and few if any will be able to synthesize the content into context as he does.

Every time he comments that is not as profitable as it should be but is his favorite project, remember that it is the context of SEOBook that enables Aaron to wrap all of the information he consumes into a coherent channel. That's why SEO is so interesting to me... as a practice it represents innovation, entrepreneurship, reward for action, and endless challenge, no matter where your specialized interests lie.

April 13, 2009 - 8:26am

I've always found natural links have been difficult to get, regardless of the value of the content. I mean that you WILL get more links by honing your content and working hard at it, but it's NEVER a commensurate payoff in terms of links won versus time spent on the content. But of course, we don't write content for links alone: I spend a lot of time on my content for converting visitors to sales and getting them to come back again.

What gets me is the lie Google tell (esp. Matt Cutts) when they say "write great content and you'll get loads of links". In fact the reality is this: you won't. They just don't want you to proactively link build, that's all - which is far more effective than doing nothing BUT writing great content. Instead it's better to write great content and actively link build (judiciously of course).

April 13, 2009 - 11:41am

Spot on Andrew. They manipulate the markets as they see fit for their own gain (even selling traffic to known scammers). And if anyone else manipulates *the natural order* in any way (without paying Google for the privilege) well then it is all spam.

April 13, 2009 - 11:50am

Interesting post.
It also sais that people create "nofollow" links to prevent leaking of Google Page rank...
I recently came across some information as a SEO forum that "nofollow" links are now treated differently by Google. I mean that now "nofollow" links have more linking powers as previously, i.e. almost the same as normal "do follow" links. Can enyone confirm or disapprove this information? I have created online tool that provides free website monitoring for changes. Therefore I would appreciate any current information about "nofollow" links in terms of SEO.

April 13, 2009 - 1:41pm

Personally I am enjoying watching big media die a slow and painful death.

A passion based economy may just be a dream at this point but it has a much greater chance to happen without the help or should I say intererence of the current media.

I believe each and every one of us should be able to pursue our own passion and make a decent living at it by sharing with the people who would be willing to learn what we know and offer to pay us for it.

My mission (after discovering the beauty of it) is to expose the simplicity of a membership model that can be accessible to virtually anyone no matter how small.

Small is where the action is and the only way BIG gets to grow is through buying up small successful businesses and adding their new growing profits to the bottom line of the stodgy old incompetant companies.

It's a great time to be alive and be idea and passion driven!

April 13, 2009 - 2:05pm

If your passion is to *expose* that then perhaps you could make a few improvements to that site. Your landing page...

  • has no name on it
  • has no page title
  • has no supporting blog or content that is easily publicly accessible
  • has a red headline and tons of yellow highlighting
  • offers no value to users until they give you an email address

To be frank, it looks like a sleazy scammy service that will email spam people. If your aim is to provide something of value then I think you are damaging your own credibility with such a format.

April 14, 2009 - 3:49am

@Realmike, if it's true that Nofollow is now being counted somewhat as having value, then it's easy to find out. Just write blog comments on some fairly high value pages that use nofollow with an obscure phrase for your commenter name (that's your anchor text) and see if the URL you're linking to starts to rank for that obscure phrase over the next week or so (since it's obscure, it should rank quickly). If it does, then you can bet the cause of that effect was the nofollow links you created as blog comments.

April 14, 2009 - 4:07am

@Aaron, regarding good content as a SOLE method of link building (which we both agree is a fallacy), as you point out in one of your newer posts, you give a great example of how this is a fallacy:

Seth Godin struggles to get decent rankings for his posts because he's not really doing much SEO-wise. Never mind that he's arguably THE voice small businesses should be listening to when it comes to business advice. Instead, lower quality sites with higher quality links outrank Seth. You can bet those links aren't naturally gained either, but are "proactively" secured via payment / bartering of some kind. This is the very activity that Google hates, yet rewards (because it can't distinguish very well between natural and paid/bartered-for links).

Since high quality links (which can be bought/bartered for) are the strongest influence to ranking, low quality content sites can still score highly from high quality links. The clincher is that low quality content sites with plenty of ads (that act as exit points) do very well financially.

April 19, 2009 - 5:14pm

Hi Aaron,

I like this post and the ideas in it!

However the SEOMOZ example you gave already has way beyond 1000+ links according to the query you gave...

IMHO the yahoo db was simply outdated when you wrote this post only 3 days after SEOMOZ's post


April 21, 2009 - 12:57am

Good point Christoph, but if you back out the links that came from this mention and the social media site links it is still maybe only a few dozen or so backlinks.

August 28, 2009 - 1:40pm

Very good post. I have a question to anyone who knows. I'd like to know if several (2-3) links from a single domain is beneficial or one link per domain is enough in terms of SEO. In other words is the second or third link from a single domain has has the same linking power as the first link or not? Sorry for lame question :)
Right now I'm doing SEO for a company dealing with legal support Ukraine and that's why I need to know. Thank you.

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