Reinventing SEO

Back in the Day…

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

Almost everything worked quickly, cheaply, and predictably.

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

Links, links, links.

Meritocracy to Something Different

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

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

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

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

Investing Big

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

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

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

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

Derivatives, Amplifications & Omissions

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

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

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

Measuring the Risks

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

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

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

Testing

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

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

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

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

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

False Positives

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

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

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

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

True Positives

A lot of SEMrush charts look like the following

What happened there?

Well, obviously that site stopped ranking.

But why?

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

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

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

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

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

  • deserved to rank
  • will keep on ranking

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

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

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

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

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

If nobody reads it then nobody will share it.

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

With that design, death is certain in many markets.

Many Ways to Become Outmoded

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

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

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

Ignoring the growing impact of mobile.

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

Stale content full of outdated information and broken links.

A lack of investment in new content creation AND promotion.

Aggressive link anchor text combined with low quality links.

Investing in Other Channels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Google Rethinking Payday Loans & Doorway Pages?

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

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

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

How about doorway pages.

These sorts of doorway pages are still live to this day. Simply look at the footer area of http://ift.tt/1rXbGWd

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

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

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

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

Today those sorts of stories are literally everywhere.

Tomorrow the story will be over.

And when it is.

Precisely zero journalists will have covered the above contrasting behaviors.

As they weren’t in the press release.

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

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

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

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

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

#MomentOfZeroTruth #ZMOT

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The (Hollow) Soul of Technology

The Daily Obituary

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

And it is getting worse by the day.

Look at these top performers.

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

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

Selling The Story

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

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

Video

Video will save us.

No it won’t.

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

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

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

Expand Internationally

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

Spread Across Topics

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

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

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

Native Ads

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

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

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

Get Into Affiliate Marketing

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

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

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

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

Charging People to Comment

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

Meal Delivery Kits

Absurd. And a sign of extreme desperation.

Trust Tech Monopolies

Here is Doug Edwards on Larry Page:

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

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

No they won’t.

You are probably better off selling meal kits.

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

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

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

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

Accelerated Mobile Pages and Instant Articles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever happened to Zynga?

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

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

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

Who then will fund journalism?

Dumb it Down

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

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

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

Yahoo’s journalists used to joke amongst themselves about the extensive variety of Kind bars provided, but now the snacks aren’t being replenished. Instead, employees frequently remind each other that there is little reason to bother creating quality work within Yahoo’s vast eco-system of middle-brow content. “You are competing against Kim Kardashian’s ass,” goes a common refrain.

Yahoo’s billion-person-a-month home page is run by an algorithm, with a spare editorial staff, that pulls in the best-performing content from across the site. Yahoo engineers generally believed that these big names should have been able to support themselves, garner their own large audiences, and shouldn’t have relied on placement on the home page to achieve large audiences. As a result, they were expected to sink or swim on their own.

“Yahoo is reverting to its natural form,” a former staffer told me, “a crap home page for the Midwest.”

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

Death by bean counter.

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

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

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

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

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

Adding Echo to the Echo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micropayments & Paywalls

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

There are a few big issues with paywalls:

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

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

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Time to Retire From SEO

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

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

SEO is dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is, if blogging still matters!

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

For a limited time, get $100 in free search advertising with Bing Ads* and start tapping into millions of potential customers searching for products and services like yours on the Bing Network.

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Google’s Big Brand Shakedown

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

Inorganic SERPs

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

Plenty of Room in Hotel California

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct Marketing Budgets vs Brand Ad Budgets

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

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

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

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

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

As long as Google is monetizing brand advertising budgets they can insert many layers of fat (really broad broad match, enhanced campaigns, mobile app clicks) into the ad stack.

Riding the Google Waves

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

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

Brand Building to Lower Risk

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

Just be Apple…

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

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

Heavily invest in the wrong trend & die.

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

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

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

  • Apple – the source of the original iPhone which Google worked so hard to copy
  • Samsung – the company which has remained profitable enough that Google publishes opposition research against them in spite of being a Google partner
  • Xiaomi – a priced-to-perfection startup in the Chinese market where Google has been prohibited from competing in

Adding Apple management to another company does not guarantee success.

The Financial Crisis & Brand

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

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

When Trends Take Off

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

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

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

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

The site is still torched by the Panda algorithm.

And they are still losing money. 😉

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

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

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

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

Copycats & Trademark Infringement

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

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

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

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

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

Monetizing Brand (Retailer)

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

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

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

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

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

“The Internet doesn’t change everything. It doesn’t change supply and demand.” – Andy Grove

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

Monetizing Brand (Financeer)

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

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

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

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

Good to great to gone.

Monetizing Brand (Affiliate)

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

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

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

Monetizing Brand (Search Engine)

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

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

Sophisticated vs Unsophisticated SEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning the Supply Chain

“The true victory (the true ‘negation of the negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language.” – Slovoj Zizek

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

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

Google owns English and Spanish and German and …

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

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

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

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

When does that stop being worth it?

During the next recession many advertisers will find out.

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How Google Search Works in 2016

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

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

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

“The biggest three challenges for us still will be mobile, mobile, mobile” – Google’s Amit Singhal

How Do Search Engines Work?

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