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.
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?
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.
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
A lot of SEMrush charts look like the following
What happened there?
Well, obviously that site stopped ranking.
You can’t be certain why without doing some investigation. And even then you can never be 100% certain, because you are dealing with a black box.
That said, there are constant shifts in the algorithms across regions and across time.
Paraphrasing quite a bit here, but in this video Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google Andrey Lipattsev suggested…
He also explained the hole Google has in their Arabic index, with spam being much more effective there due to there being little useful content to index and rank & Google modeling their ranking algorithms largely based on publishing strategies in the western world. Fixing many of these holes is also less of a priority because they view evolving with mobile friendly, AMP, etc. as being a higher priority. They algorithmically ignore many localized issues & try to clean up some aspects of that manually. But even whoever is winning by the spam stuff at the moment might not only lose due to an algorithm update or manual clean up, but once Google has something great to rank there it will eventually win, displacing some of the older spam on a near permanent basis. The new entrant raises the barrier to entry for the lower-quality stuff that was winning via sketchy means.
Over time the relevancy algorithms shift. As new ingredients get added to the algorithms & old ingredients get used in new ways it doesn’t mean that a site which once ranked
- deserved to rank
- will keep on ranking
In fact, sites which don’t get a constant stream of effort & investment are more likely to slide than have their rankings sustained.
The above SEMrush chart is for a site which uses the following as their header graphic
When there is literally no competition and the algorithms are weak, something like that can rank.
But if Google looks at how well people respond to what is in the result set, a site as ugly as that is going nowhere fast.
Further, a site like that would struggle to get any quality inbound links or shares.
If nobody reads it then nobody will share it.
The content on the page could be Pulitzer prize level writing and few would take it seriously.
With that design, death is certain in many markets.
Many Ways to Become Outmoded
The above ugly header design with no taste and a really dumb condescending image is one way to lose. But there are also many other ways.
Excessive keyword repetition like the footer with the phrase repeated 100 times.
Excessive focus on monetization to where most visitors quickly bounce back to the search results to click on a different listing.
Ignoring the growing impact of mobile.
Blowing out the content footprint with pagination and tons of lower quality backfill content.
Stale content full of outdated information and broken links.
A lack of investment in new content creation AND promotion.
Aggressive link anchor text combined with low quality links.
Investing in Other Channels
The harder & more expensive Google makes it to enter the search channel the greater incentive there is to spend elsewhere.
Why is Facebook doing so well? In part because Google did the search equivalent to what Yahoo! did with their web portal. The rich diversity in the tail was sacrificed to send users down well worn paths. If Google doesn’t want to rank smaller sites, their associated algorithmic biases mean Facebook and Amazon.com rank better, thus perhaps it makes more sense to play on those platforms & get Google traffic as a free throw-in.
Of course aggregate stats are useless and what really matters is what works for your business. Some may find Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest or even long forgotten StumbleUpon as solid traffic drivers. Other sites might do well with an email newsletter and exposure on Twitter.
Each bit of exposure (anywhere) leads to further awareness. Which can in turn bleed into aggregate search performance.
People can’t explicitly look for you in a differentiated way unless they are already aware you exist.
Some amount of remarketing can make sense because it helps elevate the perceived status of the site, so long as it is not overdone. However if you are selling a product the customer already bought or you are marketing to marketers there is a good chance such investments will be money wasted while you alienate pas
Years ago people complained about an SEO site being far too aggressive with ad retargeting. And while surfing today I saw that same site running retargeting ads to where you can’t scroll down the page enough to have their ad disappear before seeing their ad once again.
If you don’t have awareness in channels other than search it is easy to get hit by an algorithm update if you rank in competitive markets, particularly if you managed to do so via some means which is the equivalent of, erm, stuffing the ballot box.
And if you get hit and then immediately run off to do disavows and link removals, and then only market your business in ways that are passively driven & tied to SEO you’ll likely stay penalized in a long, long time.
While waiting for an update, you may find you are Waiting for Godot.
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Google Ventures Partner Blake Byers joined LendUp’s board of directors with his firm’s investment. The investor said he expects LendUp to make short-term lending reasonable and favorable for the “80 million people banks won’t give credit cards to,” and help reshape what had been “a pretty terrible industry.”
What sort of strategy is helping to drive that industry transformation?
How about doorway pages.
That in spite of last year Google going out of their way to say they were going to kill those sorts of strategies.
March 16, 2015 Google To Launch New Doorway Page Penalty Algorithm
Google does not want to rank doorway pages in their search results. The purpose behind many of these doorway pages is to maximize their search footprint by creating pages both externally on the web or internally on their existing web site, with the goal of ranking multiple pages in the search results, all leading to the same destination.
These sorts of doorway pages are still live to this day.
Simply look at the footer area of lendup.com/payday-loans
But the pages existing doesn’t mean they rank.
For that let’s head over to SEMrush and search for LendUp.com
Hot damn, they rank for about 10,000 “payday” keywords.
And you know their search traffic is only going to increase now that competitors are getting scrubbed from the marketplace.
Today we get
journalists conduits for Google’s public relations efforts writing headlines like: Google: Payday Loans Are Too Harmful to Advertise.
Today those sorts of stories are literally everywhere.
Tomorrow the story will be over.
And when it is.
Precisely zero journalists will have covered the above contrasting behaviors.
As they weren’t in the press release.
Best yet, not only does Google maintain their investment in payday loans via LendUp, but there is also a bubble in the personal loans space, so Google will be able to show effectively the same ads for effectively the same service & by the time the P2P loan bubble pops some of the payday lenders will have followed LendUp’s lead in re-branding their offers as being something else in name.
A user comment on Google’s announcement blog post gets right to the point…
Are you disgusted by Google’s backing of LendUp, which lends money at rates of ~ 395% for short periods of time? Check it out. GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) has an investment in LendUp. They currently hold that position.
Oh, the former CIO and VP of Engineering of Google is the CEO of Zest Finance and Zest Cash. Zest Cash lends at an APR of 390%.
Meanwhile, off to revolutionize the next industry by claiming everyone else is greedy and scummy and there is a wholesome way to do the same thing leveraging new technology, when in reality the primary difference between the business models is simply a thin veneer of tech utopian PR misinformation.
Don’t expect to see a link to this blog post on TechCrunch.
There you’ll read some hard-hitting cutting edge tech news like:
Banks are so greedy that LendUp can undercut them, help people avoid debt, and still make a profit on its payday loans and credit card.
Update: Kudos to the Google Public Relations team, as it turns out the CFPB is clamping down on payday lenders, so all the positive PR Google got on this front was simply them front running a known regulatory issue in the near future & turning it into a public relations bonanza. Further, absolutely NOBODY (other than the above post) mentioned the doorway page issue, which remains in place to this day & is driving fantastic rankings for their LendUp investment.
Update 2: Record keeping requirements do not improve things if a company still intentionally violates the rules, knowing they will only have to pay a token slap on the wrist fine if and when they are finally caught. All it really does is drive the local businesses under.
The massive record-keeping and data requirements that Mr. Corday is foisting on the industry will have another effect: It will drive out the small, local players who have dominated the industry in favor of big firms and consolidators who can afford the regulatory overhead. It will also favor companies that can substitute big data for local knowledge like LendUp, the Google-backed venture that issued a statement Thursday applauding the CFPB rules. Google’s self-interest has become a recurrent theme in Obama policy making
Those records (along with the Google duplicity on doorway pages) however confirm that LendUp are not the good guys! They were outright scamming & over-charing their customers:
Onine lending start-up LendUp, which has billed itself as a better and more affordable alternative to traditional payday lenders, will pay $6.3 million in refunds and penalties after regulators uncovered widespread rule-breaking at the company.
- Published in Uncategorized
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 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.
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.
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.
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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