Quality or Quantity?

June 17, 2011

In the last couple of days I have exhanged a couple of comment posts with the site owner over at howigotrich.net and the topic of conversation set me thinking as follows…

The topic under discussion was the use of automated link-building services to get your sites up the SERPs. Now I have no experience of this as apart from the odd occasion dabbling with AdWords I have never paid for a link in my life. However I don’t like these services for a couple of reasons.

Firstly I should restate that I have never used the services I am about to slate. Partly this is down to my natural reluctance to part with my hard-earned cash but I am also put off from even trying these services by a combination of suspicion and outright paranoia. The suspicion is about whether they are genuinely useful or not.

It seems to me that if I had a link building service there would be two ways of making money from it. Method one would be to push my own outstanding sites up the SERPs and make money through affiliate/advertising revenue. The second way would be to sell the service to others and make money that way. Now by all means call me paranoid (and I will be getting more paranoid shortly) but it seems to me if I had some kind of secret sauce that could help increase profits for internet marketers then rather than sell it to others I would build more sites myself. I know there’s the argument that one man can only do so much but if my method was that good I wouldn’t be one man, I’d start taking on staff and get other people to build the sites. The point is that the very last thing in the world I would do is sell it. I have heard the arguments (usually from people who are trying to sell me some system) that there is plenty of space on the internet for all and they can make money by passing on their knowledge/system without compromising their own sites but I really doubt it. For each worthwhile key phrase there’s only profitable room at the top of the SERPs for two or three sites. How galling would it be if I was making book from selling anything from pills, porn and poker through to pet insurance, popcorn and PC games, and then discovered that someone who had paid me $100 for the priviledge was knocking my sites down a place and losing me $1000s. I just don’t see the argument that the best way to monetise a good link building service is to sell access to it. The best way to monetise these services must surely be to use them yourself, unless they are not really up to much.

The ‘more paranoid’ I mentioned above is probably completely wrong but I have to say that the biggest advantage I could see to setting up some kind of on-line link building service would not be the cash it would generate, it would be the behavioural data I would gather from my customers. Each of them gives me a list of websites along with their preferred keyphrases in their niche and from the amount spent I can even see how profitable different niches might be. What an amazing way to gather intelligence on where I should be deploying my rather better, not-for-sale link building techniques. Now I am not alleging that any of the people offering link building services do any of this. I am more saying that if I was in their shoes, I’d be sorely tempted.

My second issue is about the whole approach to internet marketing that these services promote. When I first got into ‘making money online’ about five years ago I used to visit sites such as Syndk8 and WickedFire and I got caught up in the whole ‘outfox Google’ approach. This led me to dabble with a few different black hat technologies such as link farming, scraping, automatic content generation, automatic directory submission and spamming up people’s blogs with pretty low quality comments etc. My whole focus was on how ranking algorithms worked and how you artificially get your sites up the SERPs so you can start making $$$.

Sites came and went and I made a little cash but everytime I got a site into a position where it was becoming profitable it was not long before it got slapped down by the search engines and game over. I user to spend hours hunting out the latest tips or ideas on how to sculpt link love and track down dofollow blogs and, to be honest, I found the whole thing pretty frustrating. The only things that kept me going were the occasionally big but short-lived payouts from the affiliate programmes and the forum comments and blog postings from successful marketers that indicated it was possible to make decent money at this, even if it was clear that in many cases their intention was to sell their own particular brand of probably-not-so-secret-sauce.

A couple of years ago I had the luxury of being able to go full-time at this game and this is when I had my ‘road to Damascus’ experience and opened my eyes to what I was doing. Going full time meant I had to start taking my erstwhile hobby seriously so I stopped thinking in terms of putting up frankly s****y sites and building backlinks for money, and started thinking in terms of building some kind of long-term business.

Focus shifted from trying to fool the search engines into ranking my undeserving sites, to serving customers by providing a better experience than was currently provided by the top ranking sites in a particular target area. Along with this came a switch from targeting low-competition, long-tailed phrases to going after higher competition phrases with more searches, as long as I could see a way to produce web content that was a genuine improvement.

Of course one of the benefits of going for quality rather than quantity is that you no longer need to use automated link-building services. Nicely written and polite letters to the quality sites that already linked to my competition gained me backlinks from webmasters who could see that my site was not just some spammy landing page but something that they would actually want to recommend to their own visitors. These few links are not only permanent in nature but some of my sites with only 20 or so links rank higher than competing sites with literally thousands of backlinks from paid-for and free directories, auto-blogs and syndicated 400 word ‘articles’. Furthermore the shift from long-tailed to shorter-tailed and fairly obvious keywords meant that not only did I not have to concentrate of keywords anymore, but as I gained ranking for the couple of target phrases I selected for each site, traffic from the longer-tailed phrases that included my keywords came along for free.

The point I want to make is that in my experience and in my humble opinion it shouldn’t be about setting up websites and getting backlinks and making money online. If that’s what you are doing then you are following the ‘quantity’ approach and your business model is basically to outfox Google, beat the professional black hatters and to try to get your brief turn as the top-most fish in a very large and overful pond with bigger fish than you and some highly unpredictable currents. Your competition ranges from thousands of other individuals scattered across the globe from Nigeria to Thailand (Hi Bompa!) as well as massive businesses that are churning out more sites and content than you can possibly imagine (perhaps including the businesses that you are paying for all those lousy automated links). You are also working in a marketplace where the entire approach you are taking is being eroded by the search engine ‘regulators’ whose own businesses hinge on wiping sites like yours out of existence. Finally, if you find yourself searching for advice on which are the best link-building tools and for the latest tips on how to fool the search engines then wake up and realise that you have already decided that you are a runner-up: that there are people out there who you are in competition with who know a great deal more about how to do this than you do.

To put it another way, while I used to try and be a factory I now recognise that there are others with many more resources than me so this approach is not going to get me anywhere. However the fact that I can’t compete with the General Motors and Tescos of this world doesn’t stop me building a business as long as I adopt the business model used implicitely by small businesses and the self-employed ever since Grinling Gibbons first stuck a chisel in a plank of oak. My great insight was that I was tying to be a factory when I should have been focussing on doing what I reasonably could with the resources available, and that is be a master craftsman. Nowadays, instead of polluting the internet with temporary short-lived spam and instead of failing to make money, I aim to use my writing and technical skills to improve the internet wherever I can on the basis that people recognise quality and, while it still needs to be marketed, its an awful lot easier to sell. I am happy to report that while I have never received a five or six figure payout from AdSense or an affiliate program, I do make an adequate income and over the last couple of years my site traffic and earnings have showed slow but steady improvements. It may not be sexy and I may never be able to buy the yacht that I used to joke about but I am making a living. Not only that but I also have the satisfaction of being proud of the sites I put up and proud to tell people what I do.

So that’s my two objections to using link-building services. Firstly I suspect they are nowhere as effective as the hype and possibly not very effective at all. Secondly I worry that the whole approach they encourage of ‘make money online’ is not only unsustainable in the long term but is actually taking a lot of people in the opposite direction of their real goals, which I presume to be building a profitable business.

If you are an affiliate marketer then I hope this brief diatribe may set you to thinking about the approach you are following because worrying about ranking algorithms, researching keywords, writing lots of pointless ‘articles’ and building thousands of backlinks is all part of the ‘quantity’ approach, and if you are bury yourself in all this mechanics then you are probably wasting your talent. Find something good to do, do it, and while its true that “build it and they will come” doesn’t happen, you will find that if you concentrate on doing a quality job for your users you can leave most of the trivial minutiae of internet marketing behind.

As a final thought, as I was writing this I went slightly reflexive and thought to myself, “so what business model are the providers of automated link-building services following?” Well they have clearly invested in the engineering required to create a product or service that their customers want so I guess they are building a business as well. However I can’t help thinking that they are taking advantage of a deluded customer base that wants to believe they can make big money by spending a few dollars a month on what, in the long term, will almost certainly turn out to have been worthless garbage.

P.S. When you prove me wrong then next time you pass a pennyless tramp, don’t forget to toss him a pound for a cup of tea. You never know, it just might be me!

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Automating the Back End

December 8, 2010

When I first got into affiliate marketing a couple of years ago, my plan was to have thousands of sites, each earning a little and adding up to a lot.

About a year ago I changed tack and went for a few main sites with a lot of satellite sites that leached off the main site’s database and would feed links to it and provide link-love. This has worked out reasonably well but having established myself in a limited number of irritatingly seasonal niches, I am now back thinking about going for a broader approach and this led me to dig out my earlier plans and notes on how I wanted to develop this business.

If you are going to have a lot of sites then a key aspect of this is automation of the business processes operating behind the scenes. Having spent the last year copying and pasting sales data from affiliate program reports and occasionally taking the trouble to tie up the clicks with my server logs, I decided to do something about making this easier and I’ve just finished 2 weeks of development work integrating my web server log file database with my sales record database and adding what Commission Junction call an sId field (custom tracking option) so all my affiliate links now carry a 15 digit base-64 encoded value that carries the client IP, server date/time of the click and a code indicating the site the click came from. This turned out to be crucial as many programs (such as Commission Junction) don’t provide much in the way of useful data. In fact if you want a click date you cannot even get this through the CJ API and have to download an online report as a CSV file.

Another aspect of this was using as many APIs as I could so my system can now automatically retrieve transaction (sales) data from Paid On Results, Affiliate Window etc. which are then linked to the log file records giving a rich record describing not only the sale, but the page the click came from, the path through my site the purchaser took and the original referring url including any search phrase they may have used.

Was this worthwhile? I wasn’t sure before I started but having completed the exercise I have to say it was. I now have an integrated system where I can generate plots like the one above showing visitors to one of my sites (purple) alongside active visitors (orange: those clicking affiliate links) across a 12 month period, along with thicker and darker weekly and monthly trend lines. More importantly, I can now drill down and see which referring sites and search terms are bringing me actual purchasers rather than just visitors, and I can now reconsider doing some PPC as I can trace the origin of every sale and see whether my advertising is profitable or not.

If you are full-time into affiliate marketing and equipped to do something like this then I would say that this is definately worth setting up. It is going to save me in the order of 4-6 hours a week and gives me better intelligence on how my sites are performing than I’ve ever had before.

The only down side is getting the bl**dy APIs working. To help you along the way, here’s some comments on the best and worst APIs that I have implemented over the last couple of weeks.

Top of the heap for both the data and the ease of setting up is PaidOnResults. Their API is actually a system for retrieving a CSV file containing report data but it’s easy to parse and contains all the information I need. No problems with parsing or interpretation and you can fetch records based on the last time there was a change (so a search for sales yesterday will include repeats of records from 2 weeks ago that yesterday went from pending to confirmed).

Affiliate Window also gets a special mention for being both good and bad. The good side of their system is the quality and usefulness of the data they give you. The bad side is that their system does not properly support UTC encoded dates like their WSDL file suggests it will. To get this working in .NET (which supports and sends UTC dates) I had to replace the date objects called for by the WSDL with string objects, and then change the properties on the data carrying objects so these string could be populated with the non-standard date/time values required by the Affiliate Window web service.

I’ve implemented a couple of others but will only mention one more and that’s Commission Junction. Bottom marks here as it not only gives incomplete data (no click date/time) but you can’t query based on most recent update date (so you need to manually check old events to see when they go confimed), and you can only query single dates at a time rather than a date range.

Despite apparently having the best infrastructure to support API developers (extensive online documentation and even a dedicated API developers forum) their documentation has a number of silly errors and omissions that really throw you such as typos in attribute names and there is a maximum of 25 queries per second, as I eventually realised. You would think the forum would be a plus but in fact there’s no CJ input to it and it’s full of people who are just as lost as you are!

Finally I will mention the reason for this post. Given the scarcity of information on these APIs I am wondering about doing a CodeProject article describing the APIs as implemented in .NET. If anyone out there would realistically find this useful then let me know as this would probably be enough to prompt me into writing the article.

ArticlesBase goes NOFOLLOW

October 19, 2010

Don’t know about you but I use a piece of software that keeps track of my articles and website content including checking the article resource box backlinks, so I can take action against anyone who is profiting from my work (I don’t so why should they!)

On the 5th October all my articles on ArticlesBase were fine. On the 13th October it detected that one article on ArticlesBase had gone NOFOLLOW (rel=”nofollow” in the anchor tag) and by the 14th every article I had on ArticleBase was NOFOLLOW.

I emailed ArticlesBase on the 13th when the first NOFOLLOW appeared and received a nice response telling me:

We have taken the ‘nofollow’ action against “bad neighborhood” sites, but unfortunately it affects our good authors as well.

Please publish at least 10 articles on articlesbase.com, and drop me a note. We will then review the articles and remove the ‘nofollow’ upon approval.

I hope you find this solution satisfactory.

Well the answer is no, it is not satisfactory – I don’t want my work out there being plagiarised either by this article directory or its users. Note that their terms and conditions of use state that republishers must “keep” live, follow links but not that they must convert the nofollow links to follow, so republishers are now free to republish any ArticlesBase articles with “nofollow” in the links.

So what to do? My initial though was that if I made all my articles draft and then emailed ArticleBase, maybe they would be able to review me on this basis however when you mark an article as draft it saves it as a new draft copy and the existing published article is still available. Since this didn’t work I have now deleted all my articles from ArticlesBase and will be moving these versions to other article directories.

I appreciate ArticlesBase may have a problem that they need to sort out. ArticleSnatch were in the same position a short while ago however they at least had the courtesy to email me to tell me what they were doing. If I didn’t have software to check my articles then I would never have known that ArticlesBase have changed how they operate and their failure to notify me has made all the difference to how much I trust them with my work.

I know it can be argued that its good to have some “nofollow” back links but I actually get plenty of those anyway. I publish articles both for the traffic and for the link love so thanks, ArticlesBase, but no thanks and I’m voting with my feet.

Where is my eye-tracking KM switch?

October 4, 2010

For those that don’t know, a KVM switch is a device that allows you to switch a single keyboard, mouse and monitor setup between several computers. Really useful when you have a whole load of computers and you only need to connect to one at a time, such as a bank of webserver blades.

My setup is a little different. I have three computers that sit on or under my desk, each of which is attached to one or more monitors, all of which I want to be able to see at once. One machine is my product database server which also has Outlook open with my emails appearing, another is my source code repository and also has my RSS reader and Skype connection, while another is my development and main productivity machine with a couple of screens.

This means my desktop is cluttered with three mice (mouses?) and three keyboards, which regularly get swapped around and in a tangle. More than once I have been looking at one screen, started typing and then discovered that I have just managed to type the text of an email into the source code of a VB.NET class.

What I need is a switch which connects to a single keyboard and mouse, and then to all three (or more) machines, which then monitors my eye movements so as I look at a screen, the keyboard and mouse connect to the relevent PC.

I would develop this myself but I am only a humble cutter of code and occasionally malnourished affiliate marketer, so I put the idea out there in the hope that someone will run with it and just maybe, in a couple of years, I might be able to buy exactly what I need.

Of course if you do run with this idea and manage to produce something WONDERFUL then please don’t hesitate to send me one as a thank you gift for the idea (not to mention a token 1% share in your soon-to-be market leading company).

It’s Raining

October 1, 2010

It’s raining. A lot. It’s at times like this I wonder why, since what I do could be done from anywhere in the world, I am stuck in an office on an industrial estate in West London getting rained on every time I go out for a smoke and a coffee. I could just as easily be doing this from a laptop while sitting by a pool in sunny Spain, sipping on cocktails and watching the view.

Why not? Well I guess I haven’t quite made enough money to do this yet but when I do ….

Google’s Instant Search

September 17, 2010

We are at the end of the summer season when sales in my niches often drop off and it’s too early to see the gradual increase in sales that typifies the run up to Christmas, so this might be a conincidence but I am seeing a drop in sales and it seems to coincide with Google’s switch to instance search.

Note that traffic has not dropped off. In fact traffic has never been better due to the link building activities I have been engaged in over the last month or three. Now I realise that if you were to expect an effect from Google’s switch to instant search, that effect would be on traffic. All those long-tailed keywords losing value as people get half way through typing and notice the first item in the SERP is already what they want. It is possible there has been a shift from long-tailed to shorter, higher competition keywords (which I haven’t checked for)
but overall I am seeing no traffic loss yet sales have dropped to about half what they were last month, which is a more profound drop off than I saw last year in the same niches.

Curiouser and curiouser. As I said at the beginning, this may well just be coincidence and perhaps the economic climate is starting to bite but I will certainly be keeping a close eye on things over the next few weeks.

RayBan Aviator’s from Red Letter Days

May 28, 2010

nullThanks to Red Letter Days for the cool set of RayBan Aviator’s they sent me as an incentive/bonus. While I am not the world’s biggest fan of Tom Cruise, I’ve wanted a pair of these ever since seeing the movie ‘Top Gun’ at an impressionable age … and since they have always appealed to the childish bit of me that still yearns to be a fighter pilot/secret agent/mysterious in some way, the picture to the left was composed with this in mind.

Of course this is what makes them the ideal bonus gift – these are exactly the sort of thing that a secret part of me has always wanted but I would never have bought for myself. Thanks again!

Why Copyright Thieves are Stupid

May 5, 2010

Aaarrrgghhh! I HATE it when someone steals my content. I particularly hate it when some other commercial site steals content from one of my commercial sites. You would think the scumbags doing this would know better but, of course, they do which is why they are scumbags.

At present, I have a system where on about a weekly basis I do a search for sites publishing my articles (just search for a probably unique, short phrase in quotes) and based on this I add any newly appearing sites to a list in a little application I wrote. This app then scrapes the sites, checks the resource box is intact and if not, does a IP and domain name lookup and composes a nice professional looking DMCA notice on letter head ready for me to send (most people say it has to be on paper but, with the exception of Google, all the hosting providers I’ve dealt with have been willing to act on an e-mail). In the past I have usually then gone to the trouble of looking for a ‘contact us’ form on the site or email the (often fake) contact address on the whois information. Following the absence of response I then issue the DMCA notice to the hosting provider and name registrar concerned and I have to say it usually seems to work – I’ve had several sites that have stolen my content that are now just cyberdust (404 or 500 errors for the entire domains!).

Even so, it’s a hassle, it’s non-productive and I wish people wouldn’t do it!

Why oh why oh why don’t they just include the resource box – for the sake of including 1 whole unadulterated backlink they could save me the trouble of the 2-3 minutes effort it takes to check and send the DMCA notice and them the trouble of having a site that disappears within a couple of weeks of getting into the search engine indexes.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

(Rant over!)

No Pages Indexed in Google

April 28, 2010

Nearly had a heart attack this morning when I checked my stats in Google webmaster tools. All sites were the same:
Google SiteMap No Sites Indexed

I guess this is due to a glitch in Google’s webmaster tools code as I am still getting organic search traffic and when I did a search myself for my top keywords, my sites were comfortingly nestled in their usual positions. Even so … nearly needed a very stiff drink for a moment!

Teenagers, Ethics and Affiliate Marketing

February 2, 2010

Call me a grumpy old man but I’ve long been disturbed by some of the trends I see in affiliate marketing. Two in particular: the use of teenagers as affiliate ‘mules’ and the dismissing if not dehumanising view taken of customers.

Like many of you, I am a member of a lot of forums relating to affiliate marketing, many of which have excellent content and good attitudes towards the business we are in. However two in particular stand out where I am struck by the apparent proponderance of what seem to be teenage kids doing affiliate marketing as a way to make a quick buck. In fact you only need to take a glance at sites like Wicked Fire (with its frequent ‘boobs’ posts) and GoDadday (with its ‘GoDaddy’ girls) to realise that soft porn is being used to attract members and given the traditional target market for this kind of material it seems fair to assume that a large slice of the membership is made up of teenage boys.

These kids very much take a ‘screw you’ attitude towards their own customers (and indeed other forum posters) and it seems to me this is pretty common. On these ‘kids’ forums I often come across discussions where some action is being taken against unscrupulous practices (using Oprah for endorsements, knowingly hawking uncancellable rebills, selling illegal if not harmful pills) and the kids on there either get in a flap or try to out ‘cool’ each other about whether they are going to get caught up in these sweeps. Obviously I can’t be sure of the age of the anonymous posters but believe me, “dude” you can tell a lot from the “wicked” attitudes and “lame” use of language. These attitudes and also displayed in other typical posts on these forums, such as the often appearing complaint that some other webmaster has had their site taken down for copyright theft, along with a request for advice on how best to take revenge. Now I can imagine this sort of thing is irritating but surely if you are going to engage in copyright theft then the correct response is that you are occasionally going to get caught out and to accept this – rather than the immature reaction of believing you are entitled to do whatever you want and wanting to ‘get’ someone back when all they’ve done is take some modest and reasonable action to stand up for their rights.

These kids do understand the internet and they effectively have a lot of power as well. In the last year I’ve seen two campaigns in which forum members have successfully been encouraged to join in with cyber bullying campaigns, where someone’s real-world name is linked with defamatory posts intended to permanently ruin their reputation. In at least one case, this was because the telesalesman concerned had apparently been rude to someone on the phone. Now I am not really in a position to judge whether these people actually did anything awful enough to deserve the ruination that has been heaped upon them but given the narcissitic attitudes displayed by many of these teenagers I suspect not.

From a grumpy old man perspective I could leave it there and simply have a moan about the youth of today. However what really strikes me about this is that there are probably adults behind this making a s**t load of money out of these kids. It’s clear to me that if I want to sell some product that’s going to need some heavily dodgy advertising such as false claims and faked endorsements, one way I can distance myself from these activites is by setting up a boob-laden affiliate programme and getting a load of teenage kids who don’t give a monkeys about legal implications to set up the dodgy websites on my behalf. That way, when the excrement hits the fan, the damaged party or parties only have kids to take action against (which they probably won’t) leaving me to walk away with all the profits I’ve made – especially as I can be ‘shocked’ by the tactics used by these adolescent publishers and do the right thing by refusing to honour (i.e. keeping for myself) any outstanding payments to them.

Of course this is just one example of the kind of behaviour that I see reflected all over the internet. Overall I am in favour (how could I not be since I make my living on it) but I do think that the anonymity of the internet often brings out the worst in us and encourages behaviour that within a smaller and less anonymous social environment would not be tolerated or engaged in for fear of getting caught and effectively shunned.

The answer? I don’t have one. But to take my small step towards bucking the trend I’d just like to publicly state that while I realise I could probably make more money by engaging in what I view as unethical practices I actually don’t want to. As a result I don’t do rebills, I don’t do porn and I don’t do pills. I sell products that I think people genuinely want and that I would be happy to buy myself. Obviously I want to make money but I’m not in the business of lying to honest but occasionally gullible or naive prospective customers then sniggering with my forum buddies afterwards about how stupid they are (and implicitely how clever and superior we are).