All About Content

Paid Links Lose Value (Or: Google Says, I Told You So)

Posted by Melanie Phung on Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 3:39 pm

Google has been warning the SEO community it would put the smack down on paid links. The message started coming in loud and clear earlier this year with the Google guys and gals talking at conferences about how the GOOG don’t like no bought links, and that sparked a lot of debate on all the forums: Just how would search engines distinguish paid links from “natural” links?

Then, in case you weren’t listening, Google started a de-PageRankifying campaign that was sure to get the community talking: first it dropped the Toolbar PageRank of paid directories (presumably those that had been created for SEO purposes) and then, more dramatically, it stripped major general-interest sites like the WashingtonPost.com of their precious green Toolbar pixels.

“You listen’ now, punks?” asked Google.

That, all the savvy SEOs knew, was just a shot across the bough bow, because does WaPo really care about how many green pixels it gets in the Toolbar? Does that change the economics of their business? No. But…with the holidays coming and Google having a reputation for making big, disruptive algo changes right before the big shopping season, I for one warned that sites utilizing paid linking as part of their link strategy would see the effects soon.

And in three… two … one:

Here’s are the Google rankings of one site for its top keywords and keyword phrases — check out what happened to that site’s rankings since Friday (I was out of the office on Monday, so it might have happened as recently as yesterday). [ed. I should note that none of the affected pages themselves lost any Toolbar PR, because the TBPR thing is only symbolic. It's the rankings (and therefore traffic) that actually matter.]

Just eyeballing this chart, it looks like paid links were stripped of their link juice, but not that the buyers of those links were heavily penalized. In the example above, most of the rankings dropped only a page — that’s significant, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as bad as the dread Minus 30 penalty, or an outright ban. Unlike the Minus 30 penalty, there isn’t going to be an opportunity to beg forgiveness. The links that were devalued can be removed, but that won’t help get your rankings back up. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Google isn’t done with this update yet and that further drops in these sites’ positions will occur.

But not everyone loses out in this latest rankings shuffle, obviously. Some sites — those that didn’t participate in detectable paid linking — get to move up a couple of spots. (Well la-dee-da, lil’ Goody Two Shoes.)

But, you knew the “buy yourself top organic rankings” strategy wouldn’t last in the long run.

Or maybe I speak to soon… also possible that this was a one time index clean-up and not a permanent change to the algorithm, in which case you could continue to discreetly buy links on other sites that haven’t been outted yet. hmmm…. I’m not saying that paid links are the best value for your money right now, but people tend to overreact to changes in the search engine landscape. I really wouldn’t advise you to pull the plug on every paid link you have out there; knee-jerk reactions to an algo shift aren’t going to help. There’s no way that Google figured out every single link that’s been paid for on the entire Internet … point of the hyperbole: some of those paid links might still be worth quite a bit. The trick is knowing which ones.

I also want to know how this is going to effect business of the big text link brokers. Are people going to stop buying text links now? I for one still think there’s plenty of opportunity there, as long as sites selling links stop being so frickin obvious about it. Like the WashingtonPost – they put the same block of paid link on ALL of their tens of thousands of pages. Of course that was going to be detected!

How ’bout you? Are you changing your strategy? And how do you hope to make up for the lost rankings now that the paid links aren’t boosting your position (assuming you paid for links, that is)?

Updated December 7: May I Have This Google Dance?
Less than 2 weeks after I published the post above, a funny thing happened. All the rankings came back to what they were before and have been holding steady since. I think they listened to me when I said “good things come to those who don’t panic.” (Paid links are dead! Long live paid links?)

Comments (3)

Category: Google,Industry Buzz,Link Building,Monetizing

Disguising Affiliate Links on WordPress-Hosted Blogs

Posted by Melanie Phung on Tuesday, October 9, 2007 at 8:05 pm

In a post I did this summer, I mentioned that WordPress automatically strips out affiliate links (i.e., tags containing URLs it can identify as affiliate links) from blogs hosted by WordPress. Links from affiliate programs like LinkShare, for example, are pretty easy to spot because they pass through a LinkShare URL before taking the user to the merchant page. That’s for tracking purposes. (Commission Junction, on the other hand, masks its pass-through links so they are harder for WordPress to identify, and thus I’ve been able to add CJ links to my WordPress blog with no problem.)

If you’re a LinkShare affiliate and hosting your site on WordPress, getting those links into your posts is really simple. The truth is that you do not need to “copy and paste the code EXACTLY as you see it in the box” as LinkShare instructs.

You can simply disguise your affiliate links by using a service like urlTea (pronounced “Earl” like the tea) or tinyurl.com.

Replace each of the URLs in the HTML you’re supposed to copy and paste with tinyurls, including links to the tracking pixel, images, etc. and everything will work the way it’s supposed to. If you don’t know how to identify those in the code, just look for anything that starts with “http” – that’s the URL. Replace the whole address with the new shorter URL created via urlTea or tinyurl.

If you don’t care about tracking hits, only click-throughs, on plain text link elements, you don’t even need to do all that. Just identify the URL for the link, transform that URL with one of the above mentioned services, and use the new link in your blog posting with whatever anchor text you want (you don’t actually have to use the anchor text you’re given for the link to work).

Become a LinkShare affiliate
Create a WordPress blog.

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Category: Monetizing

eBay Affiliates No Longer Allowed to Compete in PPC

Posted by Melanie Phung on Tuesday, May 29, 2007 at 10:05 pm

According to AuctionBytes (an online publication for online merchants): As of June 1st, eBay will no longer compensate affiliates for “paid search traffic purchased from Google.com, Yahoo.com, MSN.com, nor from any of their content networks, such as Google AdSense, Yahoo! Publisher Network, and MSN ContentAds, if it is linked directly to the eBay.com, eBay Express, or eBay Store domains.”

As strange as it might seem for someone who spends as much time on the Web as I do, I’ve never purchased anything off eBay, much less set up an eBay affiliate account, so I can’t speak from personal experience the way I do some of the other affiliate programs; however, this move could have a big impact.

Based on discussions I’ve had with folks who run the corporate LinkShare Referral Program for a certain large electronics retailer, nearly all of the company’s active LinkShare affiliates send traffic via PPC ads, not from the links that are provided for inclusion on web sites.

Furthermore, I just learned that Google is starting to bar affiliates from bidding on PPC ads also — this isn’t restricted to just eBay affiliates. I can only assume that they mean affiliates are not allowed to bid on keywords for which the parent company is also bidding. Surely they’d be allowed to pick up non-competitive phrases. Otherwise that would be even more ridiculous “punishment” for affiliate marketers who ought to have every right to advertise.

Ironically, while cutting affiliates out of the PPC game might somehow arguably improve the paid results (even though affiliates often have distinctive pricing from the parent, so I don’t buy that argument!), this move might actually lower the cost of keywords for those players who get to remain in the game — it’s economics: less competition equals lower prices. That and seeing as a lot of business comes from affiliates and resellers, it seems Google may be cutting off a finger of the hand that feeds its money-making AdWords machine.

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Category: Contextual Ads,Monetizing,search marketing

An Advertiser’s Perspective on Blogsvertise, ReviewMe and PayPerPost

Posted by Melanie Phung on Wednesday, March 21, 2007 at 10:27 pm

Note: I wrote this post in 2007. The link landscape has changed since then, and am not recommending these tactics/services for link building now.

I’ve been paying a lot of attention to paid blogging services recently and thought it was time I shared some thoughts.

Several months back I signed up for the 3 major paid blogging services to evaluate one of the newer ways publishers have to monetize their sites (although I haven’t necessarily been too keen about what I saw as a lack of transparency). To give a balanced perspective, I decided to also sign up as an advertiser on each of these services — ReviewMe, Blogsvertise and ReviewMe. A 4th player in this game is SponsoredReviews.com, which I’ll give a short mention but haven’t had long enough to evaluate properly.

ReviewMe
ReviewMe is the paid blogging site you turn to when you’re looking for exposure on high-quality sites, but that quality comes with a higher price tag. ReviewMe was created by the same people who operate Text-Link-Ads.com, so if you’ve used TLA the interface will look familiar.

Once you’ve selected the blogs you want to approach and added these reviews to your cart, you’ll be asked for the link and instructions for each of blog — essentially this is your chance to pitch the blogger. It’s important that your pitch be well thought out since on 50% of your reviews (on average) will be declined by the bloggers; if that happens, you’ll have wasted your time researching the blogs and writing your pitches.

The same is true if the bloggers you target don’t get around to checking their email for a while; if a blogger doesn’t respond to your request within 3 days, the order is cancelled. Three days, in my opinion, is too tight of a deadline to require a response.

The advertiser admin interface is best suited for ordering between 1 and 5 reviews at a time since inputting a large number of instructions at the same time (assuming you’re not simply cutting and pasting) can get unwieldy.

Interestingly, ReviewMe does not require any text links within the body of the post, although most posts of any substance will include some.

Pros: Access to high-quality blogs/bloggers, you control who does the reviews
Cons: Higher cost, about half the bloggers you approach will decline, orders expire after a scant three days, no control over tone of the text or anchor text

Blogsvertise
Blogsvertise, of all the services, gives the advertiser the least control. To spin it another way, Blogsvertise is very low maintenance, which might be attractive to advertisers who just want links, links, links and don’t care where they come from. (Blogsvertise requires that each post contain at least 3 links to your site.)

Each time a blogger submits his post for payment, an editor at Blogsvertise reviews it to make sure it has met the criteria and then forwards an email to the advertiser with a link. In my albeit limited observations about Blogsvertise’s review process, they don’t have the tightest QA control since I’ve seen quite a number of Blogsvertise-initiated blog postings with broken links — something the advertiser obviously isn’t going to find worth his money.

The admin is surprisingly basic: you indicate what link you want placed and how many posts you want to buy. The price is preset for you. There’s also a space for notes to the bloggers — which the bloggers are instructed not to copy and paste, though that doesn’t seem to stop some of them — where you can request specific anchor text. There’s nothing else to do except watch the new links proliferate (although unfortunately there’s no way to pace the rate at which the new links are created so you’ll get the majority the first few days

You can pay by credit card or PayPal (for some reason, though, you can’t save your credit card info to your account and then pull up the card on file when it comes time to pay. A minor point, but an inconvenience nonetheless.)

Pros: Very low maintenance
Con: Low quality blogs, no control over pricing or targeting

PayPerPost
As the first of these services to go out and heavily promote text link ads, PayPerPost has also appeared to take the brunt of the criticism from folks like Jason Calacanis. (I even wrote a post called Pay Per Shill, when I first learned about it.) I don’t doubt that PPP’s strong and frequent reminders about disclosure requirements has more to do with that than with potential FTC scrutiny.

PayPerPost, in addition to being the first of these services to catch the Blogosphere’s attention, is also the most aggressive in terms of appealing to advertisers and is therefore probably the most well-known.

Of the various services, this one allows advertisers the most control. You decide how many posts you want, at what price, with which anchor text, and even if you want the blogger to use images in the post. My favorite feature is the one that allows me to create or add different link/anchor text combinations within a single opportunity even after it is already live.

Among the enhancements that have been made since launch is an easy way for advertisers to restrict who can take an advertising opportunity. The ability to segment by a blog’s link popularity, subject matter and PageRank also allows advertisers to offer bigger payouts to those bloggers who are more likely to generate a higher ROI (either in terms of link juice or eyeballs).

Pros: Ability to set prices, filter bloggers to target, specify number of words, specify anchor text for links
Cons: The overall quality of the blogs isn’t as high as you can find on ReviewMe.

SponsoredReviews.com
I only just recently began checking out SponsoredReviews (the latest entrant to the paid blogging game) and my initial impression is that the bloggers who are part of this network have an over-inflated sense of their own value to advertisers. The asking prices from many of the people who bid on the opportunity I posted were way too high, given that many of them had practically no link popularity, authority, history or readership.

One of the features that probably appeals to bloggers — the ability to barter over the price — turned out to require way too much of my attention and maintenance. For example, if someone offered to write a review for $40 and I replied saying that I thought their review was only worth $8 to me, I’d get trapped in this offer-counteroffer cycle that could go on indefinitely. It seems much more straightforward simply to use PayPerPost and just make the payout $7 across the board and not think about it again.

PPP vs. Blogsvertise vs. ReviewMe: And the winner is …
PayPerPost is my recommendation for paid blogging services because of the control the service gives to advertisers over the quality of blogs participating in their ad campaign, while at the same time being easy to use and not requiring too much work from the advertiser to begin a campaign. The latter is what makes PayPerPost scale much better for campaigns that are likely to grow fairly large.

So… should you go out and start buying blog postings by the bushel? Well, while the Web purist in my cringes at the thought, I do think the return on services like these is pretty good. But, as I always caution, moderation is key. This is something you should test for yourself.

Keep in mind that paying for blog “reviews”, if you decide to do it, should supplement a broader, more traditionally “white hat” link-building campaign. Don’t rely on paid blogs to replace natural links.

This has not been a paid post, but I do have affiliate links if you’re interested in signing up and trying any of these services:

My ReviewMe affiliate link.
My Blogsvertise affiliate link.
My PayPerPost affiliate link.

Comments (1)

Category: Monetizing,Paid Content

The Value of a CafePress Store ($5 or Whatever You Make of It)

Posted by Melanie Phung on Sunday, March 18, 2007 at 8:31 pm

I was taking a look at one of my company’s competitors recently and noticed they were using CafePress to sell merchandise with their logo on it. They’re a relatively small site, not one I’d expect to have a fan club, so I did a search on the company’s name to confirm a hunch and saw that the CafePress store ranked very well.

My theory is that the company is using the CafePress domain to help dominate the results for brand searches. I.e., In order to control what potential customers see when they search for your name, you want to dominate the top results and prevent any potentially negative sites from ranking. (Negative sites like that extortion scheme run by Ed Magedson — whom I like to call Ed the Maggot — that tries to pass itself off as a consumer advocacy website. But never mind, that’s a different story.)

I’ve also seen at least one individual do this, although I don’t remember who. But I do remember noticing that this person (or whoever was in charge of his “brand” management) advertised the CafePress store with Google PPC ads. Weird.

There are a number of ways to dominate the first page or two of search results on your own or your company’s name, and it appears creating a CafePress store is one such avenue.

Looking at the company’s CafePress store reminded me of two things: First, I set up a CafePress store many months ago just to see how it worked, and hadn’t checked how that was going for a while. And second, and probaby more interesting to my reader(s), there was a great series of articles in late 2005 by Search Engine Guide author Jennifer Laycock.

In the write-ups she chronicles how she sets up an online business from scratch with no start-up money whatsoever, using only the online marketing techniques she writes about on her blog. After weighing eBay and AdSense as options, she settles on CafePress as the way to go.

I’ve recommended these articles to a number of people who wanted to get started promoting their own projects online. Using only the techniques she shares freely with anyone who is interested, and starting with no special advantages, she proves that it really is possible for just about anyone to succeed in building a small income-generating business with nothing but a little elbow-grease.

As for my own CafePress store, I checked into my account and was surprised and just a little bit giddy to see that I had made five bucks even though I’d never bothered to promote the shop or any of its products. Someone bought a pack of cards. (whoohoo: $5!)

Use my affiliate link to create your own CafePress store — either to sell stuff or just to create another site that you can optimize to rank well for your name. Setup of a basic store is free.

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Category: Monetizing,search marketing