Content vs. SEO

Hamlet Batista, president and CEO of NEMedia, wants to change your content. He wants to change it so much that he can’t wait to get his search team cracking on it. It’s his bread and butter. And like any SEO outfit, he claims he can get your site optimized and ranking rapidly. But he also has a passion for words. He wants to respect your content – the carefully crafted articles, summaries and reviews you painstakingly labor over. “You have to write the content for the user,” he says. “If they don’t like it, they are going to leave.”

His mantra seems to echo throughout the Internet recently, especially as Google and other search engines keep refining how they rank your site. That means publishers have to keep toying with their optimization. There’s just no way around that, but it also means that some site owners will sacrifice the uniqueness of their content to get the rankings. So, the big question becomes, does doing good SEO cancel out the ability to have compelling content?

Batista points out that about 20 percent of queries people type every day are new keywords. He calls this the “invisible longtail” where there is always a set of new keywords publishers have to optimize for. He calls it a new opportunity. For some sites, just following the SEO 101 rules about using keywords in content and getting your tags and titles in order dilutes the single exclusive thing that makes a site unique – its tone of voice.

Taking a Tone

Attitude is often ignored as more search marketers chase the most recent algorithm changes in Google. But adjusting a site and content accordingly is always going to have only a short-term effect.” It’s important to understand the fundamental nature of how information retrieval works to really be able to get the most out of an optimization project,” LeeOdden, CEO of search and public relations consultancy TopRank Online Marketing, says. However, he adds that, “I often hear content purists confuse attempts at understanding how search engines work with gaming them and it’s just not the same thing. It’s the old debate about whether great content or great links gets you better rankings.”

Odden likens the question to debating which is most important, air or water. “Links and content are both necessary for competitive search marketing efforts. Emphasizing one over the other depends on the situation. Excelling at both is the ideal,” he says.

While understanding all that goes into making search engines tick – in terms of algorithms, methodologies and the importance of link building – is helpful to an overall optimization plan, Odden says that content is equally important.

NEMedia’s Batista goes one better and says that “Content producers don’t use the same words as a content consumer. “He says that users will write in terms of problems, not in keywords. If you’ve been robbed and you search for an alarm system, Batista says that most people will present the problem (“They broke into my house and stole my laptop.”) and not the solution (“I need an alarm for my 4 bedroom house.”). He likens it to the symptoms you relate to a doctor. Most people do not go into a doctor’s office and state, “I have a liver condition; I need Lipitor.”

Going Natural

That’s why some search professionals are advocating more natural language in content whether selling shoes or promoting CRM software. Write content naturally at first and do not worry about the page, suggests Batista, then go through it for keywords, adjusting tags, titles and link building along the way. Don’t get too focused on rankings for all the keywords on the page and neglect a sense of narrative. Batista says a lot of SEO people get too caught up in the technical side of optimization and ignore common sense. Lisa Barone, a senior writer at search consultancy, Bruce Clay, writes that content itself is changing. “It used to be that you go to a page, you open it, you parse it and you index it. Now, Web pages are increasingly based on AJAX. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. It’s all little fragments of XTML. Crawling it is a hard thing to think about.”

“Sadly,” says SEO and marketing consultant, Anthony Gregory, “a lot of SEO copywriting is not very charming for humans to read.” He says to “remember that the goal of effective SEO writing is not only to improve your searchability and search engine rankings but also to lure customers to your site.”

Keyword stuffing – the practice of repeating the keywords in content copy until it looks like a gorilla wrote it – is a rejected method these days. He says the search engines have become too smart and can recognize this pretty easily. A site could be labeled as a spam site and create a big headache when trying to get it ranked again. He says that a site full of badly written SEO articles makes the site owner “look greedy and desperate for business.” A talent for writing for the user and the search engines is a rare one, and not one that necessarily comes when hiring an SEO professional.

A Balancing Act

There are some things that an SEO consultant may know that a publisher doesn’t. SEO consultant J. Walker says some search engine algorithms prefer pages with higher word counts. The highest ranking pages in Yahoo averaged 1,300 words per page while Google’s high rankers averaged 900 or so. Not that word count alone will propel your site to number one. She says that unless a publisher is able to pour money into paid ad campaigns, they should hire a copywriter or learn the SEO techniques for themselves.

Some writers struggle with striking the balance and do all they can to help keep a piece of copy optimized – even through adversity. Shailey Motial, a writer for content provider Chillibreeze.com questioned herself when assigned to write copy incorporating the phrase “statistics of home schooled in kindergarten” a minimum of four times in a 500 word article.”Was I corrupting my art?” she asked. “Am I guilty of diluting the form of writing by inserting predetermined keywords? I toiled through my first piece, a little unhappy, and a little lost about what to do. I grumbled, as is natural for all of us faced with change. However, pragmatism soon took over and I realized that my writing was of no use, if it did not get any readers. It had to be noticed and hence using the selected keywords would distinguish my work from the clutter,” she says.

Motial adds that the task involves pleasing a human as well as an algorithm – a unique mandate, perhaps impossible to realize completely. But while she says that links can come and go and be dead tomorrow, good, useful content will never be stale. That’s also why firms test their pages as best they can, testing being another revenue source for SEO companies.

Robert Bergquist, CEO of testing and optimization company WideMile, says that with conversion rates currently at .5 percent to 2 percent, sites can’t afford to not test thoroughly. “What they haven’t learned is what to do once they come into the site,” he says. Batista explains that’s why he puts an emphasis on thorough keyword research and link building.

Beyond that, paying for syndicated copy to post on a site has proven popular for many, especially site owners with product-specific sites that can benefit from articles on their niche or theme. Outfits such as uclick.com, Content Infusion, and YellowBrix which bought out syndicated content pioneer iSyndicate, specialize in selling copy from cartoons to political columns to news of the day. Copyblogger.com also offers a handy list of tips to make you a better copywriter.

SEO and online marketing blogger Andrew Girdwood goes so far as to classify a distinction between SEO and “ethical SEO.” Simply put, ethical SEO is about allowing a search engine to see what your website is about as clearly as possible without any”black” arts like keyword stuffing, confusing URLs, or dubious link building. He quotes Google’s “evangelist” Adam Lasnik, who has said that “our algorithms want to see something that’s a happy medium cleanly between: Extreme A — Not listing relevant terms at all on the page. ExtremeB — Focusing on increasing keyword density to the point that your English/Writing teacher would thwap you with a wooden ruler. Hard. Repeatedly.”

That advice speaks to the difficulty of saying once and for all what is the right balance. Girdwood says some believe all you have to do is reach a certain percentage of keywords per page to rank well – anything over that gets labeled as spam. Lasnik has also said you can’t believe that. “There is nomagic number,” he says. Odden adds that “a combination of content as well as social networking, link networking, public relations and gaining editorial visibility as well as viral and individual link solicitations will all work together synergistically.”

Many believe that while good, natural writing is key, finding good writers is a dilemma. Affiliate marketer Kim Rowley finds good writing in family. She employs her two aunts to help her write fresh copy for her many websites and she keeps a pen and paper by her bed to jot down new content ideas. She keeps her blogs personal because it goes well with the kinds of sites she has on baby clothes, florists, coffee, pregnancy and coupons. She adds that some of the best content she’s received is by asking visitors to submit posts. This way, she says,”the content is true and unbiased.” She also builds content based on traffic stats and can write more for a particular site if there is a traffic spike.

Creating Compelling Copy

There is little consensus on how to write truly engaging copy while hitting all the SEO marks, but some of the key elements include:

  • Write naturally and try to add SEO elements later.
  • Use unique ideas for content instead of relying on cookie-cutter advice from SEO books.
  • Use consistent title and tag information – make it straight forward but descriptive.
  • Narrow keywords to the most strategic ones. Don’t over-stuff with keywords tangential to your topic or theme.
  • Think of the descriptive tag as a story and not just a spot to place keywords.
  • Make sure keywords match what people are looking for.

Matt Cutts, Google’s search guru, weighs in on his blog about content as well, warning that “if you put in time and research to produce or to synthesize original content, think hard about what niches to target.”

Cutts advises not to begin with broad articles about “porn/pills/casinos/mortgages” but with a smaller niche. “Look for a progression of niches so that you start out small or very specific, but you can build your way up to a big, important area over time. There are a lot of niches that just take sweat equity. You could be the SEO that does interviews” Or the SEO that makes funny lists. Or the SEO company that provides WebMasterRadio. Or the SEO that makes podcasting easy.”

The right balance may be yours to define. J. Walker says that “SEO methods are specifically designed to increase traffic to your website. Marketing techniques are designed to keep that traffic on your website, and encourage visitors to make a purchase. Your challenge is to find the delicate balance between them.”

Get Inspired

Has this ever happened to you?

It’s late evening and your weekly newsletter, which would normally be queued for delivery on your autoresponder and blog by this time, is still nothing more than the vast white expanse of a blank Word document. Not only haven’t you written a word, you also don’t have the first clue what to write about, or which product you should try to sell.

Although you are usually passionate about your topic – organic vegetable gardening – you begin to wonder what the heck you were thinking when you chose to build a site around a seasonal niche.

Throughout the spring and summer, your income spiked nicely every time you sent out your weekly newsletter. As temperatures started to drop however, so did your subscribers’ interest, sales revenue and the better part of your motivation.

A vision of the repo man coming to get your new truck convinces you to persevere into the wee hours if necessary – but before long, the thought occurs that you simply have nothing to say on the subject and now you’re paralyzed with fear.

Well, fear not. Inability to select a topic, last-minute crisis writing and paralysis are all symptoms of writer’s block; something most writers experience at some time or another. With some strategic planning, you can prevent writer’s block, spark your imagination and earn commissions in any niche – at any time of year.

The first step is to build a “swipe” file that is chock-full of ideas for future articles and which you can access whenever you are in need of inspiration – and contrary to what the name may imply, a swipe file is not for copying other authors’ content to publish later, a.k.a “plagiarizing.” We just want to collect ideas from their work, such as headlines that grab your attention or unique topic ideas, and then create our own work based on the concept.

You can build a swipe file using an Excel spreadsheet with columns named for primary topic categories, suggested article titles, notes, relevant products and proposed publishing dates. If you have a number of sites on different subjects, create a new worksheet within the file for each topic.

Another method is to draft a post on your blog whenever you get an idea for an article. The post may consist of as little as a title and a few bullet points, but each time you log in to your blog’s interface, the draft titles will jog your memory about topics you can develop.

One of my swipe files currently holds 672 entries of both “swiped” titles and a number of fill-in-the-blank title suggestions such as “5 Quick Ways to ________,” “5 Brilliant Strategies for ________” and “How to Conquer _________.” There’s also a long list of emotional trigger words within the workbook. I find both the trigger words and the fill-in-the-blank titles are especially helpful when I already have a topic idea, but need some help crafting a catchy headline.

To start building your own swipe file, consider the following suggestions.

Although organic gardening is used as an example, the suggestions apply to any mainstream niche.

Search article directories

Article directories such as EzineArticles. com, GoArticles.com and ArticleCity. com are idea gold mines. My search for “organic gardening” at EzineArticles.com resulted in 1,540 articles targeted to people of different regions, skill levels and interests. From the results, you could quickly build a list of generic titles such as “Organic Gardening Supplies to Help You Get Started,” “Organic Weed Control” and “How to Grow Organic Tomatoes.”

Visit Amazon

At Earth’s Biggest Bookstore, I dug deeper into the topic and found Mike McGrath’s book, “You Bet Your Tomatoes! Fun Facts, Tall Tales, and a Handful of Useful Gardening Tips” at the top of the search results. Key phrases under the main title included “compost tea,” “sunny windowsill,” “Georgia Streak” and “Tomato Head.” If “Sunny windowsill” sparks an idea for an article about indoor tomato gardening, put it directly into your swipe file along with a link to the book.

Use the “Search Inside” feature to scan tables of contents. Sometimes an interesting chapter title will present a unique perspective on a topic. In this case, the first chapter is titled “Picking Your Tomatoes: Do all of these things have funny, rude, mysterious names?” which prompts an idea for an article about the best types of tomatoes to grow indoors.

While you’re at it, swipe the “Listmania!” title “The Dirt Diva’s Picks: A List of ‘Green’ Books to Save the Earth!” as a reminder to put your own Top 5 or 10 list of recommended books together.

Items such as the AeroGarden Indoor Gardening Kit and Felknor’s Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Tomato Planter can be added to the file as potential products to sell.

Visit relevant forums

Dig up what gardeners are saying right now at forums such as GardenWeb. com and HelpfulGardener. com. The latest posts with the most replies are a good indicator of hot topics.

Set up Google Alerts

To get the latest scoop on tomato hybrids, Google will send you email updates of its latest relevant search results. You can elect to receive Alerts once a day, as it happens or once a week from news sources, the Web, blogs, video or groups; or receive a comprehensive Alert with news from all five sources. Sign up at Google.com/alerts.

Read trade publications

Now you can finally put those stacks of old magazines to really good use! Subscribe to publications to stay current, and don’t forget to check whether your favorite magazine publishes an online version.

Poll your readers

Create a weekly survey and ask your readers what topics they would like you to cover. Regularly invite your readers to leave a comment on your blog by asking a question at the end of your post. Answers to such questions as “What’s your biggest gardening challenge?” will provide you with plenty of grist for the mill. The free Democracy polling plug-in can be downloaded at http://blog.jalenack.com/archives/ democracy/ or use the service at SurveyMonkey.com.

Use merchant resources

Review your merchants’ sites and recent newsletters to find out on which topics and products they are currently focusing. And although I usually advise against using merchant copy – because it is so overused by affiliates that your subscribers will question your credibility as an expert when they see it for the 10th time in your newsletter – in a real pinch, you could check a merchant’s affiliate interface for a well-written advertorial to publish on your blog. Better yet, use it as a basis to write your own product review.

Repurpose your content

If you wrote “Organic Garden To- Do List: March” in 2007, republish the piece in 2008 and incorporate any new tips you’ve picked up during the year.

Share your experience

What’s happening in your garden right now? Get out there, take some pictures, share your news and don’t forget to throw in some emotion! People are far more likely to respond to “Yikes! Giant green-horned caterpillars are eating my tomato plants!” than to yet another “Tomato Pest Management” article.

Those are but a few suggestions to get your swipe file started. Try to add to it frequently so that you always have fresh article ideas at hand.

Ideally, it’s best to create a publishing plan and work at least two to three months in advance. For example, you should be planning for Christmas in September and writing your spring articles in the dead of winter.

Not only does having a swipe file with a plan completely remove the stress of “crisis writing,” but it frees you up to react swiftly when there is breaking news within your industry. Best of all, advance planning and preparation give you the freedom to get out in the garden without looming deadlines to spoil your fun.

Eastern Promises

Japan’s had it hard. After nearly a decade of stock market doldrums and an economy on the brink of disaster – just as the rest of Asia struggled too – Japan bounced back. Growth happened. Its economy is still a tad slow, but there are many industries looking way up. Online marketing is one of them.

Of Japan’s 130 million people, about 88 million are online. That’s about 68 percent of the population, according to Internet World Stats (Asia), compared with 210 million of the U.S.’s 300 million and 137 million of China’s 1.4 billion residents. Japan’s may seem like small numbers, but the momentum of online marketing and the ever-growing popularity of affiliate marketing in Japan make it a region everyone’s talking about.

Blogging, for example, in Japan is a popular way of getting products in front of the masses. Technorati Japan says that more than 85 percent of Japan’s bloggers write about companies and their products – and that over half of these bloggers have been contacted by companies to extol their wares. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications says that bloggers totaled about 8 million in that country, making for an in-blog ad market of about $60 million last year.

Expansion on the Way

In the 1990s, the Japanese did not use credit cards much for online purchases, as bank transfers and postal transfers made e-commerce slow and a waiting game. But by 1999, a tech-hungry culture emerged and online spending came with it. Pay-per-performance business models were not far behind.

A leader in this space is online retailer Rakuten and its affiliates – managed through LinkShare Japan, a U.S.-led affiliate company acquired by Rakuten in 2005. Rakuten is the leader in online shopping destinations in Japan, so their penetration made them a default major player. In fact, Rakuten plans to be in about 27 more markets by 2012, according to Atsushi Kunishige, a vice president at Rakuten. He says they will use LinkShare, for example, as a way to "expand our business into the international market. We want to open a full-fledged Internet mall [abroad]."

Rakuten’s 20,000-plus online stores and merchants did about $66 million in operating profit in the second quarter of 2007. With the company traded publicly on the Japanese stock market, that’s a market capitalization of more than $5 billion.

LinkShare Japan has about 68 percent of the top-selling merchants in Japan and is the leader in customer satisfaction, according to a survey by Japan’s Affiliate Marketing Association. Atsuko Umemura, director, corporate planning, of LinkShare Japan, says that their focus on per-sales kinds of merchants has helped make them a leader. "Affiliate marketing has proven to have the best ROI for us," she says.

Late Bloomers

While the U.S. affiliate industry can trace its beginnings to the mid-1990s, the first affiliate providers in Japan didn’t start up until 1999. The U.S. market has had a few years to evolve and grow, whereas the Japanese affiliate space is still considered a "juvenile." There are more than 80 affiliate networks in Japan that cover both Web and mobile platforms. Some of the more high-profile affiliate networks include Adways, Access Trade, LinkShare Japan, Fan Communications (A8), TrafficGate, ValueCommerce and Zanox Japan.

Anthony Torres, president of affiliate marketing program management company MetaFlo Marketing, which is based in Japan, points out that the key difference between the U.S. market and the Japanese market is that the "Japanese affiliate networks can service only Japanese sites. U.S. networks such as Commission Junction operate worldwide due to English being the most popular language for Web content. So, no matter how large the Japanese affiliate industry gets, it will never be as big as the English-speaking networks," Torres says.

He also notes that Japan is still behind the curve in tracking technology and commission sophistication. For example, U.S. advertisers have more choices in how they reward affiliates. Generally, U.S. affiliate networks allow merchants to pay affiliates based on subscription status of digital content and, of course, future sales even if buyer clicks go directly to a merchant store. The U.S. networks also have more payout choices. A small CPA, plus a larger percentage of future sales generated by the lead is a method that hasn’t made it to Japanese network platforms.

Torres notes that the cost of acquisition of a typical online customer is high in Japan. "When you add in customer service and all of the accumulated costs in the sale cycle, you are left with a lower margin per sale," he says. Merchants in Japan are just not used to paying high commissions or lifetime commissions on a customer, he adds. "As the industry matures here and the ability to attract online buyers becomes more challenging, we may see online merchants less reluctant to try more aggressive commission terms." Unique to the Japanese market seems to be the cross-investment of media sites and affiliate networks. In order to increase media coverage, many networks invest in or make their own in-house media sites.

Considered the real pioneer in Japanese affiliate marketing is ValueCommerce (Yahoo Japan took a sizable stake in the company in 2005), started by a New Zealander named Tim Williams. ValueCommerce has more than 50,000 websites and blogs in its network, with about 2,000 advertisers. The company has about $43 million in annual revenue and trades on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Goldman Sachs veteran Brian Nelson is now CEO, having come on in 2000 as COO. Nelson says that "we focused on our strengths, continued to hire great people, and launched new products and services that kept new customers, especially large brand name customers, coming in to work with us."

Consolidation is Coming

Nelson says that a large product database for shopping and their Web 2.0 applications have kept them in the No. 1 spot. It also doesn’t hurt that there is some consolidation going on in the Japan online marketing space now. "I have been telling people in the market for a long time that consolidation is coming " and it is in full swing now," Nelson says. LinkShare’s Umemura says, "It is a very saturated market right now. There is not enough room for everyone to survive."

Online marketing observers in Japan note that there are just too many networks trying to service the same advertisers. With about 1.3 million affiliates registered with the major networks and the majority of transactions driven by a group of search affiliates and "incentive media sites," there are not enough "quality" affiliates to take on all the offers out there. This means the networks are starting to look at new channels for ads.

One of those new channels is mobile, a platform that has performed very well for Japan. Because the Japanese adopted 3G standards fairly early, more than three-quarters of all cell phones in Japan have smooth Internet access. This means delivery of interactive content and ads to about 86 million cell phones (compared with 31 million in the U.S.). There are more than 48 mobile affiliate networks in Japan, with names such as Moba8, Pocket Affiliate and Smart-C. In 2005, the Japanese spent more than $3.8 billion on purchases over cell phones – 57 percent over the previous year. In addition, the CPA-based mobile affiliate provider model does much better in Japan than in the U.S., where CPC or CPM models prevail. It’s been said the culture in Japan plays a role in this since there are so many more commuters in Japan – leaving more travel time for the Japanese to experiment with their cell phones.

And with greater mobile traffic comes the opportunity to serve more Internet phone search advertising. Local search engines like Goo, Nifty and BigGlobe get a share of those eyeballs, but the leaders are Yahoo Japan (with about 63 percent of searches), Google Japan at 23 percent and about 14 percent left to split between MSN and the regional engines. Yahoo Japan is also the biggest local player in Internet auctions, Web email, mobile content and broadband.

Search Challenges

Japanese online marketing agency and search specialist Sozon sees challenges in the search marketing arena. One area in SEO that is unique to Japan culturally speaking, says Andy Radovic, VP of strategy and planning at Sozon, "is its variety in language used. Essentially, there are four methods of writing – kanji, the character system borrowed from China; hiragana, a more simplified form of kanji; katakana, the Japanese expression for foreign words; and romaji, which is the alphabet," he says. "Depending on what you intend to communicate, you may use just one or a combination of these. This greatly impacts the keyword planning stage of your SEO program. Another major difference is Japan’s reliance on Yahoo as the search engine of choice."

Radovic notes that Japanese-run companies are the leaders in services and customized solutions. "There are very few successful, market-leading international companies in the online space," he says. The international companies that operate in Japan tend to do so with a local partner. The exceptions, he says, are technology- dependent products, where some U.S. companies are in the lead, such as in search (Google) and bid management and Web analytics tools (like Omniture). "Some of the Japanese homegrown companies in the mobile, travel and insurance space are getting more sophisticated in their online marketing programs and are tracking to off-line sales," he says.

Scott Neville, COO of Sozon, says that, creatively speaking, ad messages need to really know their audience. "International ad concepts simply will not work most of the time," he says. "Text is definitely king here. More information is better and creative is often very busy with multiple propositions." He says you will need to provide as much detail as possible in your campaigns – that Japanese users will definitely read your privacy policy. He says that text email is the standard and somewhat limiting in terms of email marketing campaigns that may rely on HTML. Flash and graphic-centric sites tend not to work that well at either an advertising or a site-campaign level. He says that Flash campaigns "are not really supported by major portals for media buying and tend to be not that well received." Also, comparison campaigns are not generally used in Japan and "culturally not respectable to run."

While online ad agencies in the U.S. are slowly starting to synergize their off-line traditional ways and the brave new web of interactive display advertising, the Japanese banner ad companies are not doing too well. Two online ad agency leaders, Cyber Communications and D.A. Consortium, actually had negative growth in recent years.

The Network View

Aside from the few U.S. companies acquired or now run by Japanese companies, there are few pure U.S. players in this market and there are not likely to be more anytime soon. Observers note that U.S. networks just don’t have the Japanese-language support. While LinkShare and ValueCommerce have a bilingual platform interface, they are the only two out of dozens. One of the U.S. networks to gain a measurable foothold in Japan is DTI. They host affiliate programs for Japanese adult sites, but since most networks in Japan won’t handle porn ads, DTI has found its niche in this area. Some experts point out that one opportunity for U.S. companies would be to acquire small- to medium-sized networks and re-brand. LinkShare’s Umemura says that in Japan, U.S. companies could have come in at an earlier stage, but that "starting now from scratch would be pretty difficult whether you are a U.S. or European company. There are some smaller U.S. networks that do quite well here."

In terms of what hasn’t been popular in Japan’s affiliate programs are third-party management vendors. Currently, only a handful of the affiliate networks have management services, mainly because they are pushing their own media. However, experts say, tool and service vendors could eventually find a market in Japan. Keywords tools such as Wordtracker, recruiting tools such as Syntryx Executive Solutions and competitive keyword research tools such as the makers of KeyCompete could enter the market fairly easily.

Perhaps the best indicator that the online marketing landscape in Japan is maturing is the formation in May of 2006 of the Japan Affiliate Service Kyokai, an association that started to draw up guidelines, educate the public and monitor ethical behavior in online marketing. The six major networks in Japan founded the association when they felt that "shady affiliates" were starting to encroach on the growth of the business.

A learning curve, however, still applies. Sozon’s Radovic says that "everyone is struggling with how to market in a Web 2.0 environment. The Japanese blog and peer consumer trust are major drivers of consumer purchase. So this is an ongoing challenge." And solutions to the challenge will certainly add up to a better marketing landscape.

Avoid the Blog Drivel

I degraded myself as a content publisher twice last week. In both cases, after reviewing my Google Alerts and picking the day’s hot news item, I wrote a blog entry that included a quote, a few inane comments about the topic and a link back to the original post.

It’s a technique commonly used by bloggers to drive traffic to their sites through backlinks. Indeed, some bloggers use this pseudo-journalistic technique to play follow-the-leader every day, while others re-post scraped blog content exclusively – without added commentary.

Goodness knows that it would take a partial lobotomy to make me descend to that level, but how much further could I go? Would my compulsion to beat the competition to the punch with a you-heard-it-here second post turn me into yet another crap contributor? Could I sell my soul for a few blessed backlinks? Would I go so far as to risk my reputation in exchange for traffic?

Bar the notion! However, a quick check of my traffic and subscriber stats revealed that I was already sliding down that slippery slope. Although the backlink had produced some modest traffic, a few readers had taken exception to my “Blah, blah, BLAAAAAAH!” and unsubscribed from my feed.

Who could blame them? Just as I do my best to avoid those whose constant chatter gives me nothing but a headache, my now ex-readers clearly expressed what they thought of my drivel. I was grateful to them, actually. The experience reminded me that my success as a publisher depends not on getting eyeballs to the page, but on my ability to reach the hearts and minds of my visitors.

If I kept this up, those “Your conversion rates were through the roof on that latest promo, and you always convert five to 10 times better than our second-best-producing affiliate” notes from affiliate managers would disappear as surely as my commissions.

No longer would I be able to respond “Yes, the site does have a nice following,” and “Nice following” is an understatement. It doesn’t tell of long-term readers who eagerly await each blog post or check in personally when the newsletter doesn’t arrive on schedule. It also avoids speaking to the commitment professed by loyal readers who have “cancelled all but your newsletter” in a particular niche or those who wait to buy a new-to-market product until they’ve read your review.

As a shy person, I sweat great drops of blood while agonizing over every word to connect with those readers – until I realized that all they wanted was help from a real person who understood their problems. Now I was letting them down and ruining my business in the process. Aaargh!

So to help you to turn your visitors into faithful fans (and as a reminder to myself to avoid drivel), keep the following suggestions in mind when you write your blog posts and articles.

Give generously. Create good will by sharing your expertise freely. Give solutions to specific problems or offer a free e-book for download without expecting anything in return. That means posting information that doesn’t contain an affiliate link, a link to a product endorsement elsewhere on your site or requiring an email address in exchange. The only incentive you should have in mind is building loyalty that follows generous advice.

Affiliates who monetize their blogs only with AdSense or other navbar advertising thrive on this model. However, those that promote a variety of products will need to strike a balance between posting information versus promotional messages that keep their readers happy and away from the Unsubscribe button.

Be empathetic. People generally arrive at our sites with questions. When we immediately bowl them over with a laundry list of answers, they may find a solution to their problem, but it’s doubtful that the reader will feel connected to us.

Because we tend to bristle at those who “know it all” and tell us what we should do, it’s important to approach readers in a way that shows you understand and identify with their situation, feelings and motives. To show you clearly understand what it feels like to be in your readers’ shoes and foster a deeper connection, use words that evoke vivid mental images and strong emotions.

For example, “It was me, the cat and Dick Clark AGAIN”” is a better preface to an article about being single at New Year’s than “Here are 10 things you can do to feel less lonely.”

Be yourself. Don’t fake your persona or try to portray yourself as Mr. or Ms. Perfect, because readers won’t be fooled. If you’re Condoleezza Rice and you try to come across like Ellen DeGeneres, you’ll sound phony. Readers follow certain blogs not only because they enjoy the topic, but the blogger’s personality.

Let your readers know that you’re a real person with a family, friends, interests and hobbies off-line. Weave your life experience into your articles where relevant and don’t be afraid to share your joys and frustrations.

For example, after a tractor trailer rammed into a rental car that I was driving last summer, I used the experience to post to my business and travel blogs about bad customer service, a surprisingly great credit card company and an ergonomic chair that helped me cope with my injuries and speed my recovery. What hastened my recovery more however was the care and concern expressed by my wonderful readers.

Post your real photo. Sure, it might be tempting to paste your head shot on a Victoria’s Secret or GQ model’s body, or create a completely different (more favorable) public image of yourself. But do resist the urge, because when you become a famous blogger and get invited to speak at BlogWorld, it might be just a tad embarrassing to explain that the 24-year-old blond bombshell they expected is in fact a pleasantly plump 46-year old matronly mama.

Give hope. To get past the intimidation most people feel around highly successful people, share stories about your failures as well as your success. Exposing your shortcomings makes you “real” and therefore much more approachable. Moreover, talking about how you overcame certain obstacles gives people hope that they too can attain success, and makes them more likely to seek your advice.

Respect your readers’ time. Just because you can write a 3,000-word essay on a topic, doesn’t mean you should. Get to the point and then quit while you’re ahead. Some readers don’t have time or the patience to read lengthy entries, and splitting up a post gives you more fodder for the engines.

Invite reader participation. Allowing users to provide comments at the end of blog entries encourages discussion and helps build site content. If you are worried about inappropriate comments, be sure to moderate for relevancy and spam. But don’t cut out some comments just because they are critical. When you rise respectfully to a debate, or show that you’ve gained a broader perspective on an issue, your readers will respect you even more.

Return the love. Your regular readers will support you through thick and thin, so acknowledge and show your appreciation for their patronage. Where relevant, quote their comments in your posts and link back to articles on their sites. Your gesture might give someone a confidence boost and make their day, or tip the scales just enough to make their business fly ” and what could be more gratifying?

Here’s the bottom line: Treat your readers as you would your friends – with kindness, caring and respect, and they’ll show their appreciation in kind. And, the most important point to remember – no drivel, ever.

Rosalind Gardner is a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online. Her best-selling book is available on Amazon and www.SuperAffiliate-Handbook.com.

Kim Rowley: The Marketing Mama

Rowley is a successful affiliate marketer who runs 50 websites and also has her hands full raising four kids. Still, she found time to design her own house from the ground up and manages to shuttle between Nebraska and Denver to see her boyfriend every other weekend.

She has an easygoing manner, and carries the enthusiasm of someone just a few years out of high school even though she’s 34 and has been through a tumultuous seven years, which included a divorce.

Rowley says she didn’t have the best of childhoods. Her parents were also divorced. At the time it was scandalous for the tiny town of Pierce, Neb., (population about 1,700), which she describes as “very fl at.” She graduated in a class of 50 and she says that living in a very small town has its good aspects and bad. Her plan was to leave as soon as possible. She wanted to become a commercial artist, maybe make TV commercials, maybe light out on the promise of a track scholarship. But then at 17 years old, she got pregnant, subsequently married and stayed in Pierce.

Her oldest son, Taylor, is now 16. She has twin daughters, Macy and Mallory – who were preemies weighing 2 pounds each at birth – are 13. Her youngest son, Tatym, is 4. Taylor and Macy have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), something they inherited from their father, says Rowley. It makes for a busy household and Rowley says driving them more than two hours away to the doctor in Omaha can be trying. While OCD can be controlled with medicine, Rowley says she still gets great pleasure from raising her kids and designed a nice “bonus room” in her new house where her daughter can “rock her head,” her way of making sense of the day. The oldest can drive the younger ones to summer sports activities now and Rowley’s sister often helps out.

She says she feels more stable without her ex-husband, who she said liked to spend money a bit too much. “He basically remarried soon after our divorce was final,” she says. She learned his “mood swings” were OCD after the kids were diagnosed. He was a pilot by hobby and the plane she bought him went with him when he faded from town.

She says she’s the talk of the town, but not because people are peeking over the fence at her private life. In the time she’s been an affiliate marketer, she designed from scratch and built a brand new 4,000-square-foot house on what the neighbors call “snob hill.” She drew out the design on graph paper and turned it over to contractors to come up with a budget and then construct the home. She says she wants to do it again because there were so many things she wants to improve on already. While she designed an office for herself, she realizes now that it isn’t big enough because that’s where everyone tends to congregate.

A DIY Attitude

This speaks to her do-it-yourself attitude in nearly everything she does. In the beginning of her affiliate career she knew nothing of online marketing. One night in one of her first experiences with the Internet she typed “html” into Yahoo and, bam, a whole new world opened up. She taught herself HTML when she was a physician’s assistant in the local doctor’s office. She chased a college degree in business administration at night and completed it after nine years. Her first site was on Tripod.

PreemieTwins.com was her first affiliate site. As an avid coupon clipper, she started with coupons on her own sites and then realized she could actually get paid for doing it. At first, she says, it was still a hobby while working at the doctor’s office. Then in 1999 she started getting checks. Since 2001, she has supported herself solely off her affiliate sites. One of her first programs was with Staples, who at the time was with Be-Free. She thought it was win-win because customers get the savings and she gets the commissions. From there she signed up for a whole bunch – Amazon.com, LinkShare’s More.com drugstore and others. Now-defunct e-currency site Flooz.com once named her “best affiliate.”

Now some of her sites include AllBabyDeals.com, CoffeeAffiliate-Blog.com, EnterOnlineSweeps.com, FreeCameraPrints.com, Florist-Village.com, FreePregnancyCalculator.com, OneDayOnlyDeals.com, RxSaver.net, TopLineWatches.com and WorkInMyPajamas.com. She founded Shoeaholics Anonymous and launched a deal site at House- ForKim.com when she was building her new house.

Most of her sites are blogs, with frequent updates written by Rowley and her two aunts. Her older son chips in by swapping coupon codes and adding links to her ShoppingBookmarks.com. She’s trying to get him to learn to code in PHP so he can teach it to her. She says he is more technically inclined and wants to design computer games eventually. She’d like to get her boyfriend to work for her as well. She says she always has fresh ideas for new things and keeps a pen and paper by her bed to jot down brainstorms in the middle of the night, like an idea for a blog or a new domain name.

Blogging and the Personal Touch

If you go to any of her sites, the blogs are breezy and conversational. There is certainly no hard-sell here and that’s probably why she sees the traffic she does. A typical ShoppingBookmarks.com blog entry goes something like: “On Sunday, I wanted to go to Sam’s Club in Sioux City to stock up on some staple items (you know, lasagna, pizza pockets, crab rangoons), so asked my sister if she wanted to ride along. Sure, as she wanted to go shopping at the mall for some clothes.

My oh my, did she dink around at every store. I did buy a few tops at Deb’s to wear to Miami next month, but I mostly sat around and waited for her.”

Her personal touch includes posting a photo of herself every Friday wearing a different T-shirt she got for free. She’s just as likely to detail the pregnancy progress of her cousin’s twins or tell you what she found when she Googled one of her favorite authors. Blogs on Eva Longoria’s flip-flops come to her as easily as the need to quote the words to Reba McEntire songs on her PreemieTwins.com blog. She’ll chronicle exactly what novels she reads, having recently discovered the joy of reading. “I was not a reader at all. I never even made it to the end of a newspaper article.” Now she reads what she calls “chick flick” books – Match Me If You Can; 4 Blondes; Mine Are Spectacular and Be Honest – You’re Not That Into Him Either, among other titles.

A year and half ago she met a guy who grew up nine miles away but now lives in Denver. They didn’t know each other growing up but met when he was back in town for a visit. Now they have a nearly virtual relationship – they IM most of the day, talk on the phone at night and every other weekend she meets him halfway to Denver. Sometimes she’ll drive three hours, and then take a one-hour flight to Denver. Long term, she says, the goal is to move perhaps to Denver. Or maybe he moves back here, she says. Her son has been looking at colleges in Denver, so you never know, she says.

A Daily Dose of Reality

Rowley says that even though she thinks she clocks in about 12 hours in front of her computer, the day is broken up by daily life with four kids. The day starts at about 6:30 in the morning. The kids get lunch money (unless they want to make their own lunch). In her small town there is one elementary school and one high school. When the kids are off to school, she checks email and stats and sometimes forgets to eat. If her stats reveal more visitors around a particular keyword, she’ll build a page around that keyword. She really likes naps, so there might be a short snooze in the middle of the day.

In the meantime, there is also her son’s football practice; soccer and volleyball for her daughters; and dance classes. Her regular commitments include the PTA Booster Club, volunteering at SCORE to give advice to small business owners in the next town over and this year she’s president of the Kiwanis Club.

As involved as she is in the community, Rowley says the majority of people in town still have a hard time grasping what she does. “Nobody really knows what I do,” she says. “Rumors include that I was doing porn in my basement.” Once or twice a week people will come up to her and say they want to do what she does. And then they interrogate her with a million questions. So she set up WorkInMyPajamas.com to tell people about affiliate marketing – such as where to post a press release, good hosting firms, how to use templates and other observations of the affiliate world. She also runs ShoppingKim.com to introduce readers to couponing. If that weren’t enough, she set up her boyfriend, Patrick, with a blog and is helping roll out Foster57.com, a blog network named after the town he grew up in with a population of 57.

Staying on top of it all is now second nature. “I do what I can to read up and I go to forums,” she says. Her favorites are ABestWeb and WebmasterWorld.com. And if she can give a little back from what she learns, all the better for the affiliate community at large. She loves to go to the Affiliate Summit conference and has been to every one, she says. “The networking is great there.” In fact, she’d like to do more traveling and dreams of having homes all over the world. “I’d like to see every country.” But she’s not necessarily dreaming of living the high life, sipping champagne by the shore. She says she’d like to do missionary work in a third-world country. When she worked in the doctor’s office, they would donate surplus medicines to the nuns and saw what a little help can do for the greater good.

She readily admits that she is not the best housekeeper in the world and says pretty plainly that she doesn’t really cook or clean, but is still dedicated to running a happy house through her hard work and making sure her kids get what they need. “I can’t see myself retiring,” she says, and really has a very long time before that would ever be an issue. She has way too many blogs to update – and that PHP won’t learn itself.

Social Meets Business

An affiliate marketing experiment used Twitter to connect the community at a recent show.

As an idea, Twitter is nothing new – a method of communication between various parties. However, as a real and practical application, Twitter is revolutionary. It has the potential to reinvent communication between affiliates, networks and merchants.

Twitter was a side project of Odeo in March of 2006 and is a part of San Francisco-based Obvious Corp. Users of this new social messaging service are able to post messages 145 characters in length to answer one basic question, "What are you doing?"

These short snippets can be sent to Twitter through the Web, via instant messaging (Jabber, Gmail’s chat service, and AIM) or through text messaging on a mobile phone. When people that you have added as your contacts on the service post messages, you can also receive their messages via those avenues.

Even for the non-bloggers and nonforum participants, this invitation to share details about daily life and experiences seems to be too much to resist. According to Twitter’s creator Jack Dorsey, the service currently has about 20,000 daily active users and is growing by over 1,000 new members a day. While small in some metrics, those active users include some of the most influential bloggers and businesspeople in the online marketing world.

Interestingly, Twitter is expanding our own notions of instant communication. Companies such as the BBC, CNN, Technorati, 30 Boxes, Microformats, Ma.gnolia and even the conference Macworld have all begun to make use of Twitter’s ability to reach people instantly and efficiently with important news or service updates, wherever they happen to be at the time. Highly influential websites such as Technorati have begun to send out alerts of service outages or upgrades that were once only issued on the company’s blog.

Affiliate marketers and affiliate networks are beginning to notice the benefit of the service as well. For example, Brian Littleton, founder and CEO of ShareASale, recently began a "Twitter experiment" with his affiliate network in an effort to judge Twitter’s ability to transform network-to-affiliate communication. Brian announced the experiment both on the ShareASale blog and on ABestWeb and offered affiliates a chance to join Twitter and receive instant updates from him regarding network offers, payouts and other news from his network.

The ShareASale team has attracted dozens of affiliates to its Twitter network since the middle of January. These affiliates are regularly posting and communicating about industry news, offers and their own lives and they have created quite a unique community in just a few short weeks.

Here’s what Littleton had to say about his Twitter experiment: "Improving communication between affiliate managers and affiliates benefits both parties, as well as ShareASale, who stands in the middle. We are constantly looking for new ways that we can facilitate good communication, on a level playing field. Affiliates don’t like to be constantly harassed, and merchants often don’t know to what extent they should extend their help."

With the Affiliate Summit upcoming, we felt it was a great opportunity to get both parties interested in a new tool that could become a new way for managers and affiliates to communicate. We’ll be illustrating some of the instant effect of Twitter communication by giving away time-sensitive prizes at our booth as well as updating attendees on the whereabouts of various ShareASale team members. I think by the time we are done with this experiment you’ll see quite a few affiliate managers setting up little Twitter networks for their programs," Littleton says.

His comments point to what was the true tipping point for Twitter’s early adoption in the affiliate world: Affiliate Summit West in Las Vegas on Jan. 21–23. By the end of the summit, Littleton had over 40 influential affiliates who had signed up for his updates on Twitter. Those affiliates included some of the best and brightest in the industry. From the Friday before the summit to the days following, these affiliates were using Twitter as a way to find each other for meals, locate each other at industry parties, share information of where to find tickets to the events at night, critique speakers on the various panels and share interesting schwag finds at the booths. Dozens of "twitters" poured in through cell phones and IM clients at all times of the day and night. The web of communication and information sharing created was impressive and a unique experience.

Industry conferences provide an excellent demonstration of Twitter’s potential. Network representatives, affiliates, merchants and press reporters are constantly (and sometimes hopelessly) attempting to reach one another in the vast sea of faces and booths. While the cell phone is a great aid, it is often difficult to contact someone on a call during the heat of battle on a conference floor. Using Twitter, an individual would be able to post their location, schedule or need and have that message sent out to either just one person or a marketing team, or even a large number of contacts.

As for the ShareASale experiment, the company was able to effectively drive the affiliates on their Twitter network to their booths for special giveaways, prizes and news by sending out certain announcements throughout the summit. Littleton also used the service to locate members of his own team and arrange meetings with affiliates and clients. As an instant information sharing platform, Twitter met all expectations at the summit, and in some ways exceeded them.

However, the implications for affiliate marketing don’t end with conferences. ShareASale’s experiment with Twitter is an interesting start to what could become a revolutionary platform for instant, yet nonintrusive communication regarding offer updates, new payout structures, new coupon codes and just about any type of update a network could make aimed at participating affiliates.

Email correspondences between networks and affiliates have been lagging in terms of deliverability and the many snares and traps that an HTML email must avoid in order to reach the intended recipient. Along with that, changes in Microsoft’s new Outlook in the Vista OS will considerably hamper the use of affiliate newsletters. Some merchants have moved to blogging and reaching affiliates through such means as RSS feeds. However, affiliate adoption of RSS has been slow, and only about 30 percent of merchants and networks are blogging (with a much smaller percentage regularly updating their blog).

As more affiliate networks discover the advantages of using this type of communication to augment their existing efforts through email or RSS, I expect adoption by affiliates to continue to rise. Social communication, which blurs the pre-existing line between personal and business communication, will be this year’s hot topic in reaching and activating affiliates. Keep an eye on the growing group of affiliates using Twitter for social and business communication.

 

SAM HARRELSON runs CostPerNews.com, a weblog about online marketing, specifically CPA offers, programs and networks. He has held positions at Rextopia Network, PrimeQ and Aluria Software.

Santa in September

Kathy Eickenberg, who runs PurpleBearsShopnEarn.com, knows exactly what she is going to do this holiday season to ramp up her Christmas sales. One is start early; another is she has started a newsletter. She’s hopeful her Christmas ideas will help her move the teddy bears, arts and crafts, toys, children’s clothes and other collectibles and party supplies she carries on her site.

“I do try to read up on things and pay attention to various sources to find out what are considered the ‘hot’ products for the holidays and will definitely spend more time on the electronics, jewelry and toys sites since I assume they’re natural shopper favorites,” she says. She adds that she probably stands in the shadow of the “really successful” affiliates, but she’s proud and determined to learn as she goes. “I’m not really sure what to expect this year,” she says. “Sales have been improving, so we’ll see. Virtually all of my toy sales are around the holidays. It will be interesting to see how many toy sales will remain with Amazon or be done through Toys R Us, since they’re now separate.”

She also knows that any affiliate – with one site or one hundred – who sells gifts, clothes, electronics, books, toys and other retail goods is tested in the fourth quarter of the year when holiday sales could mean as much as 90 percent of an affiliate’s income for that year. Mostly, affiliates like Eickenberg are catching on to the techniques they need to rank higher in searches and keep the visitor interested – whether through content, coupons or presentation. What they want is to start as early as they can – for some, July is when they gear up – and to have the merchant weigh in, too.

There is do doubt holiday sales are big business – especially online. In 2005, holiday shoppers in the U.S. spent $30.1 billion online (that’s excluding travel) during the period of roughly mid-November to Dec. 25, according to a study by Goldman Sachs & Co., Nielsen//NetRatings and Harris Interactive. That spending is actually up 30 percent over the previous year. A separate report by comScore Networks put the Nov. 1 through Dec. 25 spending number at $19.6 billion (excluding travel, auctions and large business gifts) – a lower amount but still 25 percent more than its previous year’s total.

The Goldman Sachs & Co., Harris Interactive , Nielsen//NetRatings, study stated shoppers spent the most money on clothes, at $5.3 billion, followed by computer hardware and other peripherals at $4.8 billion. The ubiquitous iPod and consumer electronics in general made for a very fastgrowing category at 109 percent year-overyear, according to the study. This, they say, was due to demand for the iPod but also the lower prices in 2005 on laptops, printers and plasma televisions. The study also said shoppers bought $3 billion in books and $2.3 billion in toys and video games. And purchases didn’t necessarily stop the day after Christmas. Nielsen//NetRatings says while the number of unique visitors to websites in the week leading up to Dec. 25 totaled 60.2 million, the week after Dec. 25 to Jan. 1, 2006 totaled 61.2 million, as recipients proceeded to promptly spend their holiday gift cards.

AFFILIATES EMBRACE THE SEASON

Joel Bevil also knows the holiday season is an important period, but unlike Eickenberg, isn’t quite sure how to approach it. His BeachCombersCove.biz, DreamJewelry.biz, RoadTripVacations.net, and VarsitySportsStore.com will be experiencing their first Christmas this year. He says he plans to look into how to best market his sites in the next few months but that right now he’s actually just finished some back-to-school sales that did rather well for him. He says he primarily goes to ABestWeb.com forums on the Internet two or three times per week to seek out advice and to gather helpful hints.

Marilyn Olsen with American- Luxury.com has recently started a blog to help her sales. She also runs World- Luxury.com and French-Luxury.com, where she sells higher-end apparel, furniture, baby clothes and accessories, interior decorating ideas, gardening essentials and dog and cat gifts. “The fourth quarter is more a difference of magnitude rather than a change in what I offer to my clients,” she says. “Very special, handmade items, both decorating and gifts, sell as soon as they become available, which is usually in October.” For her the holiday season means working long hours to update the Web pages, which she does individually. “Since I carry everything at an individual item level, both image and text, this represents extra hours to add SKUs, and because of the faster sellthrough, I spend much more time checking for broken links or out-of-stock conditions,” she says.

Olsen says the blog adds a personal touch, which her buyers appreciate. She says the blog acts as a kind of newsletter to alert clients to “developing trends and to provide information about specialized luxury products to help them make informed buying decisions that meet their lifestyle needs.” She’d rather do it that way than to send email, which she says is too obtrusive. She does allow clients to set up an RSS feed to get only the information they want.

Marilynn Ferguson of GoodBulbs.com knows seasonal cycles. (Can you think of anything more seasonal than flower bulbs?) “I’m going to be promoting GoodBulbs with some brick-and-mortar advertising,” she says, “and some online ads, working to get the branding up … things like that. During the bulb-selling season, I’m going to fire up several ad campaigns. I’m quite excited about advertising on the merchant side, because I can go for branding and such and can afford to take a longer view when it comes to the ROI. Plus, a merchant site is a natural destination site.” She says that although she’s all for gearing up about two months before a high-selling season, “on the affiliate side, September is early enough for me,” she says. “Any earlier, and the ‘newly updated’ SE rank bonus dies before the season starts.” She adds that even with marketing pushes that some retailers start offering before Halloween, she doesn’t believe the selling season in actual sales numbers has changed in “20 years.”

What she calls the “actual” buying season for Christmas products should be anticipated by “SEOing” those items a couple of months in advance so that they get ranked at the right time. This is a different approach than any “regular” items you may have on your site, she adds. “Just tweaking the pages to show up in the SEs will do,” Ferguson says. “And if it’s a summertime item, they can pretty much forget it for Christmas; the ‘holiday’ for most summer items is Memorial Day – if there’s any holiday for them at all. There are some July 4 items, but other than that, summer stuff seems to not be connected to a particular day.”

As much as Ferguson is aware of the product life of her goods throughout the year, people like Bevil and Eickenberg want – and may need – more guidance from an affiliate manager. Fortunately, there are some who know they need to help make the sale, too. John Walter, affiliate coordinator at outdoor apparel and gear sites DogFunk.com, BackCountry.com, Tramdock.com and Explore64.com, knows that teaching affiliates a little SEO isn’t going to cut it. He says his sites do 50 percent of their sales in the fourth quarter and that he actively goes to the forum sites and advises affiliates to start their holiday work early – like August.

“We have a clear-the-warehouse sale then to get ready for the holiday season.” He says the 120-day cookie on his sites helps, as does the bi-weekly banners through Commission Junction so that affiliates don’t have to change that link. This year, they are gathering all the programs under one “mega-program” in CJ – so that will “diminish tracking errors across sites,” he says. “That’s less painful for affiliates.”

MAKE IT SIMPLE

Gary Marcoccia, co-founder of network AvantLink.com, says they go the extra yard for affiliates who need massive site updating for the holidays. They offer an automated data feed management tool that comes in handy when pages and pages of your site may need the necessary customizing to get them ready. Marcoccia says he noticed a fundamental difference in the kinds of online traffic some time ago.

“We recognized there were people either surfing or shopping,” he says. “We found out that we get a 10 times greater conversion rate from those shopping online. Those people are in buying mode. That said, we help affiliates make the sale by offering spiderable content. This way you don’t have to pay too much attention to it. It can take two to four hours per week customizing content manually.” This automation can be completed a few weeks before the beginning of the season so that spiders are sure to find it.

“We are focused on a shorter tail,” Marcoccia says, “not the thousands of affiliates who are just throwing up banners.” He says that while their affiliate selection process is very rigid, their platform can allow an affiliate to promote a feed so specifically that it is essentially syndicating affiliate creative. Even so, Marcoccia actively goes to forum boards and campaigns for early preparedness. He says affiliates have to go to their merchant sites in September to make sure the merchant inventory is still in stock and the price hasn’t changed. He says the best success is to devote one page to one item. But if summertime comes and the link stays up, then you have to go back to the static page, he says. And no one wants to manually check hundreds or even thousands of items.

For many, instinct and manual techniques are all they have at their disposal, especially if you’ve maxed out your SEO budget. To this end, the National Retail Federation’s Shop.org recently released a best practices and holiday trends study for holiday retailing 2006. The study’s highest-ranked advice is to start early. About a third of consumers plan to start their online shopping earlier than they did in 2005, so that means marketing campaigns will have to start earlier, too.

Secondly, the study found that the other two-thirds of online shoppers are waiting to shop later and later – 20 percent wait until 13 days before Christmas to start the bulk of their online shopping (compared to the 9 percent who leap in on the day after Thanksgiving). To facilitate the late shoppers, more than half of all online retailers were still offering free shipping during the last six days before Christmas. The study also commented that savvy online shoppers were expecting big online sales and promotions as early as Nov. 26.

With the ease of shopping online now a nonissue, customer satisfaction just keeps rising. Shop.org’s study cites an 11 percent jump in “very satisfied” online shoppers from the previous year. While 29 percent of online merchants began markdowns even before Thanksgiving, an equal 29 percent offered no markdowns all season and both groups came out ahead – 87 percent of merchants saw the same or improved profit margins.

SHOP + SEARCH = SALES

The Shop.org study also reiterated a basic truism: Search is still king. Even though some retailers were wary of spending so much money on paid search, the majority are still allocating budget moneys to it and even increasing their efforts in paid search this season. Affiliates also put search high on their list of effective seasonal strategies. Some will use search this year for the first time.

Ferguson at GoodBulbs.com would love to see the timing even up over at some merchants. They may want to help for the holidays, but she says sometimes the promotions are ill-timed. “It would be nice to start seeing the offers and new links and banners in September and October,” she says, “when there’s still time to do something with them, but not so darned soon that putting them up would give a reasonable person the idea that the ad was left over from last year.” She adds that some merchants email her the week before Christmas shipping ends (or even closer to the deadline) with some deal, “as if I’m going to be able to do a thing with it then.”

Her standard operations are to “fire up the PPC campaigns and tweak the SEO for my affiliate sites. Affiliate-wise, I aim for products that aren’t limited to Christmas interest, so rather than a ‘now or never’ type of cycle, the holidays just cause increased interest all around. A lot more buyers come out at the holidays, so sales rise accordingly. So, for me, it’s just a matter of making sure my pages are getting seen at that time.”

This year, Eickenberg says she will put “more emphasis on the gift cards that are available. I have only started to experiment with some pay per click and am still very much learning about it. I may devote some effort into that this coming holiday season. Probably everybody else will be, too, so not sure how effective that will be.”

Marcoccia at AvantLink loves to say that removing all the manual labor for the affiliate helps them execute “best practices.” It isn’t all just feeds; he says he lets affiliates know what feeds will be holiday-related and communicates that to them. In his network, though, the learning curve is a bit steeper. “With us,” he says, “if you’re not a little bit savvy, you are going to be challenged.”

Olsen of American-Luxury.com lauds the whole retail industry for embracing the online world. They may still be learning how to do things but clearly are in for the long haul. “I applaud online merchants who realize that truly unique items for which inventory could not be supported in brick-and-mortar [stores] can be offered successfully online to an audience that may be a small niche but is willing to pay full retail early,” she says. “This not only can give them important information on trends, but is also profitable.”

The Social Security

Sites that rely on user-generated content are altering the human fabric of the Internet and the way that performance marketers reach out to customers and merchants and communicate with each other. Online marketers are testing all of the new communication methods – blogs, social networking sites, wikis, and photo and video-sharing sites – to see if these platforms can help them drum up business.

And with good reason. The popularity of many of these emerging areas is seeing steady, if not explosive, growth. Blogs, which allow users to easily post new content to their site as well as effortlessly link to other sites, are on fire. Forty-four percent of American Internet users read and post on blogs, discussion boards and other consumer-generated media outlets according to a February 2006 Pew Internet & American Life project study. Technorati reports that approximately 70,000 new blogs are created every day and that the total number of blogs doubles at least twice a year.

But it’s not just blogs. Social networks, such as Bebo and MySpace, are communities in which an initial set of founders sends out messages inviting members of their own personal networks to join the site, and new members repeat the process, are a new national phenomenon. As of July, MySpace has 72 million members, Bebo has more than 57 million members and hi5 has more than 40 million.

In addition, there are single-use social networks where people share one type of topic such as YouTube.com for video, Flickr.com for photos, Digg.com for news stories, Del.icio.us.com for links and Wikipedia.com for encyclopedia articles.

All these types of collaborative platforms are the crux of the Web 2.0 model where the ease-of-use technology allows anyone the ability to contribute.

These sites are built to harness the breadth of experiences so everyone can benefit from the collective wisdom – they have the advantages of collaborative group input but because these services are online and can be anonymous (through aliases), users are not afraid to dissent, according to Jim Nail, a former analyst at Forrester covering the social networking space, who is now the chief marketing officer of Cymfony. “Therefore there is not concern about the dangers of ‘groupthink,’ when individuals intentionally conform to what they perceive to be the consensus of the group.”

And when it comes to growing social groups MySpace.com leads the pack. In July, Hitwise announced that MySpace.com, for the first time, was the No. 1-ranked website in the United States based on the number of visits. MySpace.com accounted for 4.46 percent of all Internet visits in the U.S. for the week ending July 8, 2006 and has propelled past Yahoo Mail. Bebo increased its market share of visits by 21 percent from May 2006, the largest percentage increase among the social networking websites.

THE SOCIAL BUTTERFLIES

So who’s hanging out at these social networking sites?

Nielsen has identified a group, called “My.Internet,” that’s especially likely to visit networking sites. Sixteen percent of Web users belong to this group, which has a median age of 32. Nearly all members of this group – 99 percent – visit blogs; 84 percent are members of an online community; 57 percent have their own blogs; and 22 percent use RSS feeds. Nielsen reported that “My.Internet” users tend to be highly engaged with most of the websites they visit, as measured by 10 factors, including whether they “liked” the site and were likely to return.

With all of the promising information about traffic and demographics, advertisers are eager to get their messages in front of the young and wired demographic that favors the social networking sites. Combined spending on blog, podcasts and RSS advertising skyrocketed 198.4 percent to $20.4 million in 2005. It is expected to grow another 144.9 percent to $49.8 million in 2006, according to an April 2006 report from PQ Media, a custom media research firm.

But advertising on social networking sites can be tricky, and marketers need to take strategic and creative approaches. The audiences skew younger, and often these younger audiences are exceptionally adept at tuning out traditional banner advertising – therefore pushing ads no longer works.

Mark Brooks, an analyst for OPW.com, says, “Interruption marketing is old school and not appreciated by the younger audience. Marketers wanting to use social networks need to put their thinking caps on and get creative.Case in point: Burger King is sponsoring downloads of episodes of 24. Very cool and very viral and plays to the MySpace demographic perfectly.”

In addition to advertisements and sponsorships, marketers know that the buzz generated on social networks is much more of a powerful endorsement than any form of promotion. In fact word of mouth is widely considered the most powerful form of marketing and the wave of the future for influencing sales. According to a December 2005 McKinsey report, approximately two-thirds of all economic activity in the U.S. is influenced by shared opinions about a product, brand or service.

Forrester Research’s 2004 study showed that over 60 percent of consumers trust product recommendations found in online sources like discussion boards. A 2004 RoperASW report, now part of GfK Group, found that over 90 percent of Americans cite word of mouth as one of the best sources of ideas and information. Further, they rate word of mouth twice as important as advertising or editorial content and put one-and-a-half times more value on it today than they did 25 years ago.

Dave Evans, moderator of the social networking panel at Ad:Tech San Francisco in May and co-founder of Digital Voodoo, along with Dave Ellett, CEO of Powered, examined the purchasing funnel of ACP (awareness, consideration, purchase). They saw that the majority of traditional advertising dollars, such as interruptive efforts like television commercials, is applied at the awareness point in the ACP. But because consumers are increasingly finding ways to block advertising through TiVo, spam filters and do-not-call lists, the impact of these types of traditional advertising has diminished. Now marketers are not only tasked with how to get their messages through to potential customers, but they must also worry that their potential customers are increasingly talking with each other and “comparing notes.”

To counter this problem, Evans says that, “When marketers reach out in the consideration phase, they contact consumers at the precise moments that they are thinking about a product or service. Through consumer-generated media and word of mouth, evangelists can actively impact consideration processes.”

The advantage of social networking for marketers is that it does not involve interrupting like an advertisement (which is in the awareness phase) does.

LEVERAGING SOCIAL NETWORKS

There are a variety of ways marketers are taking advantage of consumer-generated media and word of mouth. Social networks are having an incredible influence on how business is getting done. Organizations, ranging from movie studios to sneaker manufacturers, are changing the way they make decisions, connect with customers and market products because of the increase of new tools that enable people to express themselves more easily online.

“There is a new paradigm where consumers drive the conversation and have the control. Companies have to let go of the marketing speak and let people communicate with each other in an unfettered environment,” Geoff Ramsey, CEO of eMarketer, says.

One opportunity is for marketers to take ideas from social networking sites and apply it to their own business, he says. For example, GlaxoSmithKline is working on a social networking site for the weight loss community that lets users talk with each other and answer each other’s questions about how to lose weight, such as diet and exercise. GlaxoSmithKline is doing it for two reasons:

  1. To gain learning from these affinity groups – marketers can find out a great deal about how this group of people define and express themselves. They can use the language or phrases observed for purchasing keywords for search campaigns. They can apply the learning to sales copy in magazines, radio campaigns or on the Web.
  2. To participate at the site, the visitors must register there and provide some demographic information. Now GlaxoSmithKline has a list of consumers to market to when the weight loss product launches.

By listening in, marketers have an opportunity to hear how people really feel about their brand or product. With such learning, they could correct misperceptions in the marketplace or make effective changes to their products or customer service.

“Until you have demonstrated that you listened and responded accordingly, you cannot deliver hard-core messages to people,” Ramsey says. For this reason, there are many natural language processing companies that can determine what users are saying.

One company, Cymfony, offers a product that follows the flow of the message, tracks the positive and negative reactions to it and measures its influence on the audience. It scans and interprets the voices of users in blogs and social networks to determine how these discussions are impacting potential customers.

Nail points out, “In Web.1.0, the marketers’ job was to appear adjacent to that content but now that users are generating the content and are looking for a social engagement, marketers’ messages need to be part of the content.” To do this, companies need to know what their customers are saying.

Another way that companies can use social networks is to create profiles on the sites. For example, MySpace is currently charging upwards of $50,000 per month for big brands such as Pepsi, Adidas, Dell and Ford to build and promote profiles. Although this seems like something that members would dismiss as sheer commercial promotion – a quick look on MySpace shows that Jack Box, the character behind the Jack in the Box restaurants, has 130,989 friends (meaning that these MySpace members intentionally linked to the Jack Box profile). Of course, MySpace must be careful that selling these types of member profiles does not cause a mass exodus of its members.

Another way that marketers are leveraging user-generated content is by having consumers create their advertisements. The benefits are multifold: It gets consumers involved in the brand; the ads feel more authentic; it saves marketers money because they don’t have to hire an advertising agency; and if the ads are funny or interesting, they propagate themselves by being sent around on platforms such as YouTube.com or GoogleVideo. Companies like Volkswagen and MasterCard have harnessed the affection that some customers have for their specific brand by asking them to create and vote on ads, and created successful campaigns and tremendous buzz in the process.

AFFILIATES GOING SOCIAL

When it comes to testing the waters in burgeoning areas, affiliates are usually eager to dive in headfirst.

Rosalind Gardner has a blog called Net Profits Today, which she updates daily. She says: “I love my blog. They make posting new content to the web such a breeze. No uploading required. Just write and publish. It doesn’t take much to copy and paste a merchant offer and add a few of your own editorial comments. Another advantage is the free search engine traffic that blogs invite. Search engines love fresh content, so I’d highly recommend that any affiliate who isn’t blogging yet, start ASAP! Of course, the best benefit is that blogs are yet another way to enhance the relationship you definitely want to build with your visitors as an affiliate, especially in light of how difficult it is becoming to make sure the mail gets through nowadays.”

One social network specifically for affiliates is the Affiliate Summit Social Network. Consultant Shawn Collins, the Affiliate Summit co-organizer, says the network “helped Affiliate Summit by enabling attendees to network in advance of the conference, as well as to brand themselves through posts to their journals, sharing bookmarks, etc. This value-add assisted us in selling Affiliate Summit, and I think it is conducive to our goal of bringing the community closer together.”

He adds, “Now that the [July] show has ended, I will be focusing on getting more attendees to register after the fact. The ongoing network will benefit them, and we will be using it as a retention tool that ties to our mission of creating a unique educational environment and networking opportunity that facilitates the exchange of information about affiliate marketing.”

Affiliates are also testing the waters of mainstream social networks, such as MySpace. Collins has created a profile on MySpace, with the user name affiliate manager, and posts the content of his blog, AffiliateTip.com, on his MySpace blog. “My goal is to get more eyeballs for my blog. The goal is awareness – to get incremental readers – the ultimate goal is to recruit managers for affiliate programs. The first thing I talk about in my profile is that I am running these two programs and I have banners up to join them – PayLess Shoes and Snapfish.”

One clever affiliate whose social networking site has garnered lots of media in the past six months, including spots on CBS Early Show and Good Morning America, is 23-year-old IT manager Kevin McCormick. Six months ago he started DressKevin.com, a site that is a graphical database of his wardrobe, where users vote on what Kevin should wear on a daily basis and later comment on it. DressKevin.com inspired a second site, MyDrobe.com, a wardrobe management system for users. Both sites keep track of the last time an item of clothing was worn, the size, brand and style details.

On DressKevin.com, the clothes descriptions sometimes include a link to the merchant or affiliate program where it can be purchased – but not for every item. “If affiliate marketing did not exist, I would be providing uncompensated referral links anyway. I am trying to maximize it without comprising the integrity of the site. That is why affiliate marketing works well for me. I have Old Navy shirts on my site and they have links to Old Navy through Commission Junction. But I also have descriptions of my shirts from Hollister and Express with no compensation because I like their shirts.”

He attributes this growth and popularity to the credibility and authenticity of his site. McCormick says he started his site not to make money but to see if it would catch on and people would pass it on to their friends. “I was uninformed about CPC advertising, media, PR, affiliate marketing or even making a website.”

McCormick does not actively seek out affiliate agreements with merchants. He signed up to participate with some retailers such as Old Navy and Macy’s through Commission Junction. He appreciates the convenience that the network offers in terms of finding him appropriate merchants to sign up with, and the tracking and processing of commission paychecks.

McCormick’s other site, MyDrobe.com, offers more opportunity for generating revenue. It is a wardrobe management system that is a database for clothing, and enables users to manage their wardrobe and create a profile as well as enabling people look through other people’s clothes and to see what they are wearing. MyDrobe.com has 4,900 registered members and the demographic is heavily female, with a significant amount of girls between the ages of 13 to 16, followed by a concentration of girls in the 16-to-20 age range.

“Any website that focuses closely on brand-name products like clothing is a great candidate for utilizing affiliate marketing channels that will pay a commission on referral sales. MyDrobe’s clothing descriptions have ‘click here to buy this shirt online now’ for those who see a particular item of clothing that they like in someone else’s wardrobe and would like to buy it for themselves as well,” he says.

The site offers complete product catalogs that are provided by affiliate networks in “vendor showcases,” which are made for a single clothing company. For example, at the vendor showcase at MyDrobe.com/gap, users can browse through clothes currently for sale at Gap. Users can add clothing to a wish list, post comments and provide ratings and click on links that will bring them to Gap.com.

“Product feeds make this possible because MyDrobe will automatically update these vendor profiles based on what is currently for sale, so that my site does not need to continually manually enter new clothing into the site. XML technology makes this easy to implement for both the clothes manufacturer and site operators,” McCormick says.

Another property exploring how much social networks affect e-commerce is the brainchild of Lisa and Brian Sugar in San Francisco. In March 2005, they started a blog devoted to celebrity news called PopSugar and a community developed rapidly around it. By June 2006 they had 4,000 registered users chiming in about Jennifer Aniston’s new YSL bag or Britney’s second pregnancy.

In June 2006, they launched TeamSugar, which offers its readers a service similar to MySpace, providing registered users with their own profile, Web page, blog and the ability to send messages to one another. FabSugar, a fashion blog, launched in July with other sites devoted to topics like technology, home decor, and fitness to come subsequently. Brian Sugar, who previously was the chief Web officer at Bluelight.com and vice president of e-commerce at J.Crew, explains that “eventually, we will have 12 categories that sit on top of your social network which is called TeamSugar.”

Sugar’s goal is to get 100 million page views and 25 million unique users per month from the combined sites that will target trendsetting women between the ages of 18 and 35 and the advertisers that seek to reach them. He points out that, “TechCrunch and MySpace cater to guys, and DailyCandy is about fashion but without the celebrity gossip component. There is a massive crossover between InStyle and RealSimple and Allure and I don’t think the readers are getting served online from social networking and an editorial standpoint.”

FabSugar blogs about style and beauty products; for example, it contains an entry about the flats that Kate Bosworth and Sarah Jessica Parker are wearing, with links to two sites that sell them. Right now the site has text links with no merchant agreements yet but Sugar thinks that, “We definitely will be linking at Sephora and J.Crew. If they offer an affiliate program, we will sign up. If they don’t use affiliate programs, I think we will be able to broker the deals,” he says. “We have always believed that the majority of revenue would be from our advertisers.”

LOTS OF BUZZ

Another site that drives word-of-mouth commerce by leveraging the community aspects of a social network is MyPickList.com. The effort integrates a user’s profile and his or her favorite product recommendations into a networked community.

It works like this: Users create a list of their favorite items from multiple categories, called a pick list. They add the product, choose a preferred merchant for product sale, write a short product review and tag it. Only products that are sold through a retailer in the MyPickList network are eligible for a product commission. Once the pick list is created there are four ways to get a pick list viewed/distributed: Send to a userdefined buddy/email list; RSS feed; a banner ad creation (MyPickList.com badge/widget) that allows users to create custom ads to promote their pick list on websites and blogs and MySpace page; and direct from the MyPickList.com website.

Jeff Eichel, CEO of MyPickList, says it helps users become affiliates “by allowing them to recommend products and services under their MyPickList account. If a product that a user recommends gets purchased from the pick list, that user will earn a commission ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent. Most of these people would never get approved for affiliate programs on their own, but because they are under MyPickList there is no approval needed.”

Another social media platform for affiliates is Affilipedia, which, like Wikipedia.com, uses Wiki software to allow users to contribute articles and edit entries. Novices to experts can submit new information on affiliate marketing as well as edit the existing pages in the affiliate marketing encyclopedia if they disagree with the explanations of affiliate, merchant, commission or other affiliate marketing terms.

This egalitarian collaboration works – Cymfony’s Nail points out “Wiki in general is a collaborative platform and therefore they don’t have [to have] a centralized editorial staff. They are not limited to how much you can afford to pay.”

Although the sharp increase in content presents more prospects, it can be risky to be associated with some of the uncensored and often-critical material of user-generated content.

“You might come to the conclusion that this is not a ‘safe’ environment for advertising your product or service,” says eMarketer’s Ramsey.

If affiliates do decide to invest their time and effort into a specific social network, they should be aware that although members can be loyal to their favorite sites – studies find that users are driven to return often by ever-changing content and membership – audiences (especially young audiences) can be fickle and move on to the next great thing and online marketers need to be ready to move on as well.

ALEXANDRA WHARTON is an editor at Montgomery Research Inc., Revenue’s parent company. During her four years at MRI, she’s edited publications about CRM, supply chain, human performance and healthcare technology. Previously she worked at Internet consulting firm marchFIRST (formerly USWeb/CKS).

Optimize Your Blog for Search

Some folks compare organic search marketing to public relations, where you are trying to get free attention for your business. They further link paid search to traditional advertising. If the comparisons make sense to you, then maybe we can torture the analogy by comparing blogs to press releases. Your company can write a blog post or a press release to try to attract attention, and they are both free.

But that’s where the similarities end. Press releases are usually sanitized to the point of lacking any personal point of view. They are literally the voice of a faceless company, while blog posts must have an intensely personal approach to be interesting. Also, press releases don’t directly reach their audience. They are filtered through mainstream media, while blogs are read directly by subscribers and even commented upon in public.

So, blogs seem very nice, but what do they have to do with search marketing? Plenty. Let’s see how.

Get Indexed Faster

If you read blogs, you are probably familiar with the concept of a Web feed, with the most common ones being RSS and Atom. Web feeds automatically send all new blog posts to your subscribers, who use a blog reader, such as Bloglines or Pluck. For the purposes of search marketing, it doesn’t really matter which kind of Web feed you use, and your blogging software probably generates each type of feed anyway. What is important is what Web feeds can do for you.

Google, Yahoo and all of the mainstream search engines have started indexing Web feeds, and because blog information is so time-sensitive, they index them quickly. To make sure that your feeds show up right away, simply ping the search engines every time you post. You can instruct your blogging software to ping each one, or you can send one ping to a free service such as Ping-o-Matic, which can ping dozens of search engines for you. As soon as the search engine receives the ping, it dispatches its search spider to scoop up the new page.

But what about your regular Web pages? Well, Web feeds can distribute more than just blog posts. Why not create a Web feed from your product catalog? Get your programmers to produce a Web feed that sends the latest catalog changes to subscribers, pinging the search engines for that feed. Now you’ll see your product catalog changes reflected in the search engines as quickly as your blog posts. If you’re accustomed to waiting a month for search index updates, you’ll be thrilled to see changes show up in a day or two when you use Web feeds.

Get More Traffic

You probably know that the highest-ranked results garner the most traffic, and that search engines rank their results in part based on the number and quality of links to your pages. Blogs are a great way to get links, especially from other bloggers, helping your posts to draw traffic.

But blogs also have a special kind of link, called a trackback, which you can actually give to yourself. Trackbacks allow you to comment on someone else’s blog post with a post of your own. So rather than leaving a comment for a blog on the other blogger’s site, you can use a trackback to write your comment as a blog post on your site, causing the other site to automatically link from its blog post to your comment. Where else can you actually give yourself a link?

And blogs are useful for more than just links. They provide information that doesn’t fit elsewhere on your site. Let’s say you are an affiliate for satellite TV service. You have lots of information on your site about installation costs and all those great channels, but blogs allow you to do more. You can write about unusual channels that aren’t available on cable. Or discuss how satellite TV fits into a home theater system. By doing so, you will capture searchers who have not decided to buy satellite TV yet – they are merely video aficionados not sure what they want. You can draw them to your blog and possibly get them interested in satellite TV when they otherwise would have stuck with cable.

Blogs are not for directly making sales, for the most part. Blogs provide background information, customer references and deep information that attract potential customers. Strive to inform with your blog and allow customers to sell themselves. Instead of a sales-y come-on, do a soft sell and have confidence that it will be enough.

But remember that providing all this content in your blog is not enough. You need to make sure that you are optimizing your content with the right keywords in your titles and your body copy – even in the name and description of the blog itself if that makes sense. That ensures you get search traffic for your great blog posts.

Get Wider Visibility

So far, we’ve looked at how blogs help your search marketing with the mainstream search engines, such as Yahoo and Google, but you should know that new blog search engines, such as Technorati, are increasingly attracting searchers who’ll find you only through your blog. Visit these new search engines to see if there are ways for you to improve your blog’s search results. Technorati, for example, allows you to claim your blog, so that your own blog description can be shown to make your posts more attractive.

But search engines have come under fire for allowing new kinds of search spam, called splogs. Splogs are fake blogs created by splicing together purloined content with boatloads of links (to the splogger’s real websites) to artificially increase search rankings. To combat splogs, some blog search engines are using new criteria to rank search results. Ask.com (formerly Ask Jeeves) offers a blog search facility linked with Bloglines, its blog reader program, which ranks results in part based on the number of a blog’s subscribers rather than merely how many links are made to them. This usage data is much harder to fake than links are, so searchers may see better results on these specialized search engines (making them even more popular).

Now is the time for you to launch your blog, or take your existing blog to the next level. With the right content, you’ll reach your target customers in new ways, while improving your organic search marketing at the same time.

MIKE MORAN is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience. Mike is also the co-author of the book Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and can be reached through his website MikeMoran.com.

Going to the Mat

In the last two issues of Revenue magazine I’ve written about mistakes that affiliates make, highlighting common errors that most affiliates commit at some point in their affiliate marketing ventures as well as detailing my own outrageous faux pas. Turnabout is fair play, so in this issue we’ll look at an example of how affiliate managers prove that they too are only human.

Before I begin however, I must say that I have a lot of respect for most of the affiliate managers with whom I work. Theirs is an unenviable position. They’re doing a j-o-b for a network or independent merchant and must deal with entrepreneurs, many of whom do not understand the industry. More difficult still, many managers have the added responsibility of policing their programs and trying to ferret out those affiliates who violate terms of agreement and incur needless costs by using underhanded methods of traffic and lead generation.

All too often managers are trying to communicate with affiliates who, after years of doing a lucrative business on the Net without the requirement to carry or ship inventory, process orders or administer customer service, may be a tad lazy. Speaking from experience, many of us in that situation join programs, put up links and then go on vacation, making us almost impossible to contact through ordinary channels.

But here’s a tip for managers who want to get their affiliates’ attention in a hurry. Send an email with “Link Expiration” in the subject line, such as the one I received recently from Cheryl Averill, the affiliate manager at CardOffers.com.

The body of the message read as follows: “A representative from XYZ Bank has notified us that your account has been participating in email marketing campaigns known as Spam. Due to this, the card issuer has asked that you be excluded from marketing their products. We have expired your links for the XYZ Bank cards today. They have asked me to let you know that they have put your site on a ‘blacklist’ so that you cannot get their links from another source.”

Now, if you read the issue of Revenue in which I detail my foibles in the financial services sector, you know that I have little or no interest in my credit card site which is, and always has been, a waste of time from an earnings standpoint.

Regardless, when falsely accused of sending Spam – with a capital ‘S’ no less – I’ll stand by and up for my site and marketing methods until the issue is completely resolved. The last thing any affiliate wants or needs is to have his or her reputation as an honest broker ruined for lack of proper investigation.

To this end, I emailed Cheryl to say that in eight years as an affiliate, I’ve never spammed anyone and demanded that XYZ Bank provide proof of their allegations, which of course I knew they wouldn’t be able to supply.

To her credit, Cheryl has always been one of the most responsive affiliate managers with whom I’ve dealt, and is one of the few who makes the effort to get to know even her least-productive affiliates, a.k.a. yours truly. She quickly replied that she “did find it very strange that you would have come up in that list.” Also to her credit, she didn’t simply accept my “I don’t spam” explanation but chose to investigate the situation further by asking if I sent out “an opt-in newsletter or anything of the like that they may have confused with Spam?”

Although I had been quite peeved at being falsely accused of spam and moreover, having my “hammock time” disturbed, I did appreciate the suggestion that it was her client that was “confused.”

I explained that although there is an opt-in form on the site and a series of eight messages programmed into the autoresponder, that broadcast messages are rarely, if ever, sent to that list.

Cheryl then went to bat for me and said she would try to obtain proof from her client, prior to expiring my links. I found their response very interesting indeed.

Apparently, according to XYZ Bank, my site was “engaging in very active comment spam,” which is just one of many types of spam that warrant termination from their program. Cheryl then asked me, “Do you even have a comment area on that site? I can’t find it.”

Cheryl couldn’t find a comment area because no blog exists on my credit card site. Further correspondence with XYZ Bank would therefore be required to find out exactly on which site they found the offensive spam comments.

XYZ’s answer was that the comment spam was located on my “personal blog.” For some reason, however, they neglected to provide Cheryl with either screenshots or a URL for the site – in other words, PROOF.

Considering that I don’t write a “personal blog” and run only three commercial blogs, each of which is moderated and spam-controlled to the nth degree, I still wasn’t satisfied with XYZ’s lack of appropriate response to this very serious allegation.

Neither was Cheryl. In a later email chat she informed me, “Due to these issues we are now going to have to modify our T&C [terms and conditions] and send out a notice to all partners about it.” She went on to say, “I feel bad for affiliates ” there are so many rules. Don’t bid on these terms, don’t bid more than this much, etc. They are being resourceful and using other methods of getting traffic to their links and now those are getting shut down.”

There’s another good hint for affiliate managers. Show empathy for our increasingly difficult plight and we’ll be more responsive to your emails and requests – perhaps even forever grateful.

Judging by her next correspondence, I suspect that Cheryl was now becoming as frustrated as I was by the inconvenience of this needless accusation, and probably just wanted to wrap things up.

“Here is the final word. We do not have to expire your links. Yesterday it was explained to me that partner links would have to be shut off if those links were posted in a blog. Today when I told them that another partner produced 717 sales for XYZ Bank from their blog page and it didn’t seem like good business sense to cut them off, they said that people could post them in THEIR OWN blog, but not in OTHER people’s blogs.

“After they clarified that for me, I asked them if I would have to expire your links since you posted them in your own blog. They said no I didn’t, which brings me to the question that I will most likely never get the answer to … Why did they even bring this up if you were not posting in someone else’s blog?”

Yikes! But I DIDN’T post anything to my blog, and I thought the issue was about an unmoderated blog with comment spam!

Oh well, occasionally you just have to let some things go. Especially when your affiliate manager wraps up her assessment with the best solution possible.

“I have told them, the next time there is a problem, we would like to have proof such as links where the violation was found and/or screenshots,” Cheryl explains.

Eureka! Just as I’d requested right from my first reply to the false accusation, the burden of proof rests with those making the allegation. Fortunately for Cheryl, unlike other affiliates who might have ditched the program, I’m not so overworked as not to have time for affiliate managers with whom I have a good working relationship, and was therefore willing to see this issue to the (almost) bitter end.

More to her credit, Cheryl ended with “Sorry for all the stress this has caused.”

Actually, I wasn’t stressed at all. I was out lounging by my pool, soaking up a few rays, while responding to all those emails, so no harm done, other than a few finger cramps induced by more typing than usual.

ROSALIND GARDNERis a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online. Her best-selling book is available on Amazon and www.SuperAffiliateHandbook.com.