Lights, Cameras, Action!

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Blendtec. I bet you are familiar with Blendtec and I bet I know how you first heard of their blenders – from their viral video series called “Will it blend?” That series, showing iPods and other unusual items being reduced to powder by a powerful blender, serves a strong branding message: If it can annihilate an iPod, it will make quick work of your smoothie.

Whatever people conclude, the videos are certainly working. Blendtec’s sales have quintupled since the start of the campaign. Total cost of all this marketing: a few thousand dollars for video equipment plus the cost of the objects destroyed. Every video viewed was the result of people passing them to their friends or finding them through search.

Videos provide the richest way to send a message to your customers, and they might cost less than you expect. Online videos can be targeted at far smaller audiences than TV commercials and cost nothing to distribute, unlike mailed DVDs. Online video is especially important to marketers targeting younger audiences – 42 percent of individuals between 18 and 34 watch video online at least once a week.

So how do you go about making your own online video? Here are five tips for making great online videos.

Keep it short. The shortest videos seem to be the most watched, with the highest viewership for clips between one and three minutes. Some popular video podcasts are five minutes long, and many are ten. Don’t make yours 30. Better to do a weekly 10-minute show than a monthly hour.

Use tight shots. Some people will watch your clips on iPods and other small screens, and even those that watch on their computers generally do it in a small window. So, when you shoot your video, use close-ups with your subjects. And forget widescreen mode – stick with standard mode.

Don’t move. Talking heads work best. Many fast-motion sequences will be lost on an iPod’s small screen.

Write big. When you add on-screen titles to your video, remember that text that looks fine while editing your video on your computer could be unreadable on the tiny iPod screen and small computer windows. Use text judiciously and in a large point size.

Watermark it. If your video is well done, people will share it, which is great. But if you don’t identify the site it’s from, people won’t know where to go for more.

You can’t expect to reach people with online video as easily as you would with a TV commercial. With TV, you merely choose the show that matches your target market, plunk down your cash, and your commercial runs. On the Web, customers usually find your video through search, so search marketing is crucial to getting your message seen.

The best way to do that is to optimize your videos for search. Google’s Universal Search and other blended search result pages have made it more important then ever to optimize your video clips for search.

The good news is that if you know how to optimize Web pages, you already know a lot about optimizing videos, because search engines don’t see the actual video images and can’t hear the audio soundtrack. So the page containing the video carries a lot of weight with search engines.

Place each video on a separate webpage, so that you can optimize that page with the keywords that best match the clip. As always, use those keywords in the title, the description, and the body (especially in headings). Include a short summary of the video’s contents within the body, or, even better, post a transcript of all the words spoken.

But there’s more. You must get the videos themselves indexed by search engines.Some search engines crawl videos, so place all your videos in the same directory, as close to the root directory as possible. If you’re producing a steady stream of videos, set up a Web feed for them, pinging the search engines each time you add a new clip. You can also use a Video Sitemap (sitemap.org) to get the same treatment for your videos that you get for your Web pages.

And don’t stop there. You can improve your search results further by following these four tips:

Use keyword-rich file names. Name your video files to show the search engine what they are about. If it is a demonstration of a product, name the file after that product, such as ipod-nano-demo.mpg. Don’t drone on with keyword after keyword in the name – keep it short, with just a couple of keywords.

Optimize your metadata. Videos can be encoded with metadata keywords within the “properties” of the video file itself, by tools such as Autodesk Cleaner (www.autodesk.com). Video search engines frequently rely on this information when deciding which videos to show in the search results (and in what order).

Submit your videos. Video sharing sites, such as Google’s YouTube (www.youtube.com), allow you to post your videos right on their site. But you should reach farther than YouTube. Use TubeMogul (www.tubemogul.com) to submit your clips to over a dozen sites simultaneously and to track their viewership. Use keyword-rich titles and descriptions on those sites – they’re just as important as on your Web pages-and tag them with keywords, also. Some video sharing sites allow a linkback to your Web site, so take advantage of that, too.

Publicize your video. If your clip is noteworthy, submit it to social bookmarking sites, email people who would be interested, and link to it from your blog or another Web page.

If you follow this advice, you’re sure to improve the visibility of your online videos.

But it’s not enough to optimize your videos for search, however. Just as getting a #1 ranking for a Web page does not get that page clicked, your video must be watched, not just found. How do you get people to watch what you’ve created? Learn to share. Ensure that videos posted, especially to social networking sites, are marked “public” rather than private.

Give your videos “curb appeal.” Some video sharing sites allow you some control over the image selected as its thumbnail image – the picture shown before the video is played. Select an attractive thumbnail. Emphasize what works. Pay attention to viewership metrics, so you can repeat techniques and themes that have succeeded with your customers in the past.

Video has become a force in Internet marketing. If you produce compelling videos, optimize them for search, and get them watched, the force will be with you.

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.”

Poaching Prohibited

What’s in a name? According to Shakespeare’s Juliet, not much, but if the name is trademarked it has value worth protecting. Successful companies spend millions developing a brand name and promoting their Web domains online. Some publishers, however, treat others’ trademarks like their personal ATMs by generating commissions through misleading ads.

This practice has become alarmingly present during the past few years and is often referred to by a variety of names: trademark poaching, trademark bidding, domain name poaching and PPC domain name bidding. Kellie Stevens, president of Affiliate-FairPlay.com, says it’s a difficult issue to discuss because the terminology is still not clearly defined or even completely understood.

Some in the industry say it’s actually misleading to call it trademark poaching or trademark bidding. Instead they refer to it as PPC domain name poaching because it’s really a subset of a merchant’s trademark-type words, namely their domain name. Some industry watchers say that using the phrase “trademark poaching” or “trademark bidding” has connotations of it being a legal issue under existing trademark law, but it is really a violation of the terms of services contract between the merchant and the affiliate.

Regardless of the various terminology (which is often used interchangeably), in its most conservative definition, this practice involves a keyword search on a trademarked term or the merchant’s domain name that triggers a pay-per-click ad. The ads use a merchant’s trademark in the copy, and through clever coding, the display URL appears to consumers to be from the merchant.

The way it works is that consumers type an address in places other than the URL bar – such as the desktop Google bar or into their favorite search engine – and are taken to the merchant’s site or an affiliate site via an affiliate link, thus giving an affiliate a commission when none is deserved.

The basis that this commission is unwarranted is the idea that if a consumer types in a merchant’s URL or domain address, it is clear they were seeking that merchant and the affiliate provided no added value in getting the potential buyer to that destination. Therefore, the affiliate should not be compensated.

The origin of today’s trademark poaching problem dates back to 2004, when Google changed its AdWords policy to allow keyword bidding on trademarks and associated Web domains. Cunning individuals began joining affiliate programs and designing PPC ads to appear to come from a well-known merchant. When clicked on, the ad directs the consumer to the trademark owner’s site through a link that inserted the affiliate ID, therefore generating a commission for any resulting purchase. Voilà! No website is required – the ad creates a straight path to easy commissions.

WHY IT’S ATTRACTIVE

Trademark poaching is attractive because of the low barrier to entry. For just the price of a PPC ad, publishers can quickly generate handsome commissions without the usual affiliate administration overhead, and reducing the steps from click to purchase increases the likelihood of a purchase.

One PPC affiliate, who asked not to be named, says there is a “pack of about 30” PPC affiliates that closely monitor the list of new merchants at every network and “crank up campaigns on them all” in order to profit from this behavior.

The anonymous PPC affiliate says “it takes less than four minutes to create a new campaign for a new merchant,” and that this pack of rogue PPC affiliates “don’t read the terms of service” from the merchants and they “don’t care about size – they cover them all.” He says it’s like a competition among this “pack” and that they do this for hundreds of merchants.

“There’s a trickle of others trying it from time to time as well, but the way Google and most search engines work, historical performance and clickthrough rates determine who gets the spots. They’re all competing for the one spot that lands on the merchant’s domain,” the PPC affiliate explains.

He went on to note, “That’s a ton of commissions paid out for almost nothing. If a merchant can easily do this PPC themselves, why pay an affiliate a large percent commission for doing it? It’s the branded traffic the merchant has earned; giving it away to a lazy poaching affiliate is just ignorant.”

Scott Hazard, who runs the website Cooperative- Affiliates.com, says ads that mask their origin in this manner confuse the marketplace and take money away from the merchant and the affiliate channel.

“It’s more of a problem for big brands” with recognizable names, Hazard says, as the popularity of the name as a search term will generate the high volume of traffic needed to create sizable commissions.

However, another school of thought says that although big brand merchants are often targeted more – thus losing more money overall – it’s a problem for merchants of all sizes. In fact, many smaller merchants are less aware of the issue and how to police it, making them easy marks.

While determining exactly how widespread this practice has become is difficult since it’s hard to track throughout the entire industry, a PPC consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, says, that “in some smaller programs I have worked with, as a merchant consultant and/or as a PPC consultant, as much as 40 percent of their registered affiliate sales are coming from this poaching.”

The only penalties for being caught poaching is getting kicked out of an affiliate program and having your commission withheld. That’s a small price to pay compared with the upside of undetected revenue. (See the “Trademark Ads in Legal Limbo” sidebar on page 048″ for details on other potential penalties.) Trademark poaching challenges merchants because as quickly as affiliates are kicked off, others are ready to take their places, according to Hazard.

Hazard launched the website TrademarkPoachers.com in August of 2007 to provide advice and education about the practice. While his site has increased awareness of the problem, “It doesn’t seem to be happening any less,” he says. Some say that they have anecdotal evidence that nearly 50 percent of pay per click is based on trademark poaching.

Chuck Hamrick, an affiliate manager for AffiliateCrew.com, started noticing trademark poaching in mid-2006. He could see that it was impacting overall revenue for some merchants because after he removed the poachers, the affiliate channel earnings went down, while organic and paid search revenue increased by larger amounts. This showed that trademark poaching “was cannibalizing our other efforts,” he says.

In the last two years, Hamrick caught a number of well-known affiliates poaching. He gave them “two strikes and they were out” of the program. If they didn’t take down the offending ads, he would reverse their commissions. “If it happened again, it was not by accident,” he says.

TRACKING THE POACHERS

Still, merchants that do not protect their trademarks from poachers are like retailers that allow customers to walk out with the price tags still on the clothes – if you’re looking the other way, someone will inevitably take advantage of you. Although networks can help with detection, it is the affiliate manager’s responsibility to function as the security guard and prevent these losses.

Fortunately for merchants, tracking this nefarious activity is relatively simple. Reviewing commission reports is one effective method for identifying trademark poachers. High conversion rates or affiliates who rise too quickly in volume of referrals are signs of potential trademark poaching, according to Dave Osman, senior vice president of operations at Commission Junction. “[Trademark policing] is one of the biggest challenges that the affiliate channel has had,” Osman says.

Managers can bid on their trademarks through Google AdWords to see the affiliates that are also bidding as another method of identifying potential poachers. Checking data for the location and time of day where commissions are generated can also help to identify poachers. To head off potential poachers, merchants can specify with AdWords that bidding not be allowed on their trademark or the trademark as part of their domain name.

Google will take down ads from affiliates or competitors that include domain names or URLs if the trademark holder complains, according to the policy stated on the AdWords website. However, Google will not block keyword bidding on trademarks and will not otherwise mediate disagreements over trademark poaching.

THE CASE FOR AND AGAINST

However, there are some merchants that will ask their PPC affiliates to do trademark bidding. AffiliateFairPlay’s Stevens says that there are pros and cons to this tack and merchants that allow it employ the rationale that they would prefer to see their affiliates ranking higher in the search engines than their rivals.

However, these merchants often fall into two categories – those that understand the issue and allow it to happen; and those merchants that are not aware of the implications.

When a merchant understands it and still allows domain name bidding, it’s usually because the affiliate manager can make themselves look good to superiors by showing lots of sales; or the merchant wants to inflate their EPC and sales volume to make their program’s metrics look attractive; or the merchant has made a deal with someone – such as a legitimate consultant – who in exchange for the sweet, low-hanging domain name fruit, obligates themselves to do something else, like pump those margins into deeper product and general keyword PPC on the merchant’s behalf, according to a PPC expert.

For those who don’t completely understand the issue, the reasons to allow it are slightly different: The merchant believes these posted sales are the result of “power” affiliates’ magic and doesn’t understand they’re allowing their brand, via their site name, to be leveraged by someone who does only that; or they have no idea what’s happening and believe these are actually their best affiliates; or someone such as a PPC agency or an outsourced program manager has them hoodwinked into believing this is a good practice.

However, there are instances when this type of bidding can be helpful, according to some PPC experts.

If a merchant has chosen to have coupons, then a search for “merchantname coupons” will be filled with SEO coupon affiliates ready to meet that need in the engine’s natural organic listings. The same principle works for reviews of merchants’ product or services. Most often, consumers seeking reviews don’t want to visit a merchant’s site. Instead, they want a supposedly unbiased view. Therefore, allowing an affiliate to bid on MerchantNameReview.com might be desirable to the merchant.

The Big Decision

One search expert, who asked not to be named, says there are two questions a merchant must ask before making the decision on domain name bidding.

No. 1: Do I allow my affiliates to bid on “MerchantName.com” where they send people directly to MY MERCHANT website and where they earn a commission?

No. 2: Do I allow my affiliates to bid on “MerchantName.com” where they send people directly to THEIR AFFILIATE website and where they earn a commission if someone clicks through to my merchant site from their affiliate site?

Most observers say the answer to the first question, should be – “No way, this is the merchant’s traffic and they earned it. It’s fat with ROI (often a 19x return) and it’s theirs.”

On the second question, the answer is not as clear. Allowing affiliates to do this might keep competitors from squatting on the name with their PPC ads. Search engines could see the merchant’s ads as more relevant because the domain name is the same word as the keyword, meaning that the merchant should be able to still occupy the top search spots with ease.

The Role of the Networks

Networks including Commission Junction offer trademark policing as a value-added service, and specialist companies such as Trademark Tracker and Name Protect can search out poaching ads as part of their broader trademark protection services.

While the industry is in agreement that trademark poaching is unacceptable, there is little consensus on related trademark use by affiliates in their advertising efforts. From keyword bidding on trademarks to the use of trademarks in ad copy, merchants, ad networks and affiliate networks each have their own rules and perspectives on what is permissible, and often those vary depending on individual contractual relationships.

“Ultimately, trademark poaching is in the eye of the beholder,” says CJ’s Osman. “The burden is on [affiliates] to learn each of their [merchants’] rules and to receive permission before incorporating trademarks into their ads.”

Buying a trademark as a keyword in conjunction with other words, such as “iPod and covers” is often allowed or encouraged because search engines do not want to exclude “broad match” terms. With the permission of the trademark owner, trademarks are also permitted as part of the affiliate’s display URL (e.g., www.affiliatesite.com/coupons or /reviews).

Through statistical data and the ability to observe dozens or hundreds of merchants at the same time, the networks have the power to stop this practice, but some think they don’t go far enough in their efforts.

“Good networks will show the referral URLs to the merchant, making it easy to find these poachers if they look, and reverse their orders [don’t pay them] and remove them from their affiliate program for violating the rules,” one PPC expert says.

According to one PPC consultant, who asked not to be named, the networks don’t ban this bogus practice for a variety of reasons – all related to money:

  • Merchants who want to shine their metrics (and show their bosses how well their programs are running) would go to another network.
  • Unscrupulous OPMs (outsourced program managers) would suggest alternative networks for new clients.
  • Unscrupulous OPMs would migrate programs to other networks, and when the reported sales went up, they’d be proven “right” about suggesting the migration.
  • Some merchants would not be able to make deals with their PPC consultants or agencies, and a new network that allowed this practice would be the only alternative.
  • Many less-than-savvy merchants would accuse the network of firing their “best” affiliates.

Because merchants have a right to run their own program, networks don’t and shouldn’t take an all-encompassing stance against it, the PPC consultant says.

Commission Junction’s policy is not to allow the use of trademarks in third-party ads without the express permission of a merchant, according to Osman. The rules that each merchant sets depend on their individual objectives, with some opting to be more flexible in allowing trademark use, he says. “All [merchants] do not view their [affiliates’] use of their trademarks in the same light: They have different marketing needs and therefore make allowances when necessary. For this reason Osman says, “I don’t think consistency [across the industry] is possible.”

Affiliates bidding on a domain name and sending the traffic to their own sites is seen by some but not all in the industry as trademark abuse. “One type of trademark poaching – typo squatting – is the intentional use of a misspelling of the trademarked URL, and is considered trademark infringement by most marketers,” says Osman. In recent years, companies Dell and Lands’ End successfully sued affiliates for generating commissions through typo squatting and direct linking.

Merchants can best protect their trademarks by spelling out what is allowable in their contracts with affiliates and by educating their network partners. Network ShareASale provides a dedicated area for posting banned keywords and text explaining the merchants’ choices, easily available referral URLs marked on every sale so the merchant can see the details, a feedback system for merchants to tag terms-of-service-violating affiliates to others, and other mechanisms making implementation of a merchant’s choices easier and more effective.

“Each merchant has different ideas when it comes to this issue, so our goal is to try to make as much information as possible available to both the affiliates and merchants on our network so that they can run their programs as they wish to run them,” says ShareASale President and CEO Brian Littleton. He encourages merchants to upload their individual agreements as well as a list of prohibited keywords so that all parties are clear on what is allowed.

One observer says that merchants need to ask the networks different questions instead of just asking for advice on whether or not they should allow domain name bidding in their programs. Rather, the merchants should be posing questions to the networks such as: What will the networks do for me? What tools will they give me to support and facilitate my choices on these issues? How will they help me police a decision to disallow it and what repercussions/tools will they give me to stop people who do it and won’t stop?

Domain name poaching is not going away anytime soon, but search experts promoting best practices say that savvy merchants and affiliate managers that educate themselves on the complex issues will realize the practice is a shortsighted path to profits, and ultimately bad for the entire industry.

Skinflint Search Marketing

I admit it – I’m a skinflint. Call me a tightwad, a miser – I don’t care. Basically, I’m cheap. And even if you’re not cheap by personality, you might need to conserve cash by necessity. If that’s your situation, don’t despair. The Internet is tailor-made for you. Internet marketing, and search marketing in particular, is the land of the free. So step up, you skinflints, and let’s see what you can do for nothing.

Organic search is always free, in the same sense that public relations efforts are free – you don’t pay anyone to run advertising to get your message out there. Instead, you come up with a good story and run it by the gatekeepers – the ones between you and your target markets.

For public relations, the gatekeepers are reporters, editors and other folks with their grip on the media that your audience consumes. It doesn’t cost you any money to get coverage in these media outlets, but it definitely costs time and ingenuity to come up with an idea and persuade the gatekeepers to pass it through.

Organic search marketing has the same elements as public relations, except the gatekeepers are Google and the other search engines. You must “persuade” the search engines to show your story – by giving it a high ranking for a search keyword – before it reaches your audience. That’s a big part of what organic search marketing is all about.

The problem is that organic search requires so much work that you’re tempted to automate a lot of it. That’s where the costs can come in.

Can Free Search Optimization Tools Be Enough?

As with many questions, the answer to whether free tools will be enough for your search campaigns is, “it depends.” What’s clear to me, however, is that free tools are the place to start. It’s best to see how far you can go with the free thing before you lay out a bundle of cash for a high-end tool.

We don’t have room in this article to list all the leading freebies, but let’s look at some of what’s out there. You can find a more comprehensive treatment on my website (at www.mikemoran.com/skinflint) with links to these tools and more.

Forecast your campaign. Good direct marketing principles start by identifying the criteria for success. My website has a free spreadsheet that helps you identify the value of search marketing, even before you begin your campaign. You can project your extra traffic and see how much more revenue it brings – just the thing to justify your plans to the boss.

Get your pages indexed. If your pages aren’t indexed, they’ll never be found. You can use MarketLeap’s free Saturation Tool to check how many pages you’ve got indexed on the leading search engines and then use the free Sitemaps protocol to get more of your pages indexed. You can also use free tools to check your robots settings and validate your HTML, helping you eliminate some common causes of pages being ignored by spiders.

Plan your keywords. If you don’t know what your audience is looking for, you can’t tune your pages to be found for the right words. For years Yahoo’s Keyword Selector Tool was the best free offering, but it spent most of 2007 showing January’s numbers when you’d expect updates each month. Trellian jumped into the void with a free version of its Keyword Discovery tool that helps you find keyword variations along with the search volume you can expect for each one.

Optimize your page content. Analyze your keyword density (the percentage of keywords in your content) and keyword prominence (the importance of the places where they appear) with free tools from Ranks and WebCEO. The results can help you decide how to change your pages to improve your rankings.

Attract links from other sites. Use Backlinkwatch or PRWeaver to analyze the links to your site and to identify where you might prospect for more. The results can form the start of a link-building campaign if you carefully approach the right people with valuable content on your site that their readers care about.

Measure your results. Use free rank checkers from Digital Point and Mike’s Marketing Tools to see where you stand. Then use Google Analytics or the Deep Log Analyzer to count the traffic from search engines keyword by keyword. Google Analytics can also measure your conversions – the number of folks who bought from you or responded positively in some other way.

Will these free tools work in every situation? No. Some tools are limited in scope or in the volume they can handle, and many are limited in features. Perhaps the biggest drawback of free tools is lack of integration – you’ll need to manage all of these free tools and often move data back and forth between them to manage your campaign. It ain’t seamless. But what do you want for nothing?

If you do need to move up in class, some of these free tools are actually the starter versions of more comprehensive fee-based offerings. Regardless, you’ll have gained valuable experience in using the free tools that will help you target the exact features that you need to pay for when you decide to take the plunge to spend money for a tool.

Free Paid Search

I know that “free paid search” sounds like an oxymoron (or perhaps an oxyMoran when I say it), but there are a few free ways to get paid search traffic.

One way is to submit your product to Google Base (you’ll show up on Google Product Search also). Neither of these properties produce a huge number of sales – other product search sites (the ones you pay for) are the leaders in this space – but there’s a lot to be said for free revenue. You might try out your shopping search feeds on these sites and open your wallet to the big guys when you have worked out the kinks in your content.

Another free way to do paid search is to use other people’s money. Can you steal some money for paid search from the sales budget or from other marketing budgets inside your company? Can you work on cooperative advertising with a complementary product? Perhaps if you agree to run the paid search campaign, you can get others to foot the bill.

Regardless of how you do it, search marketing is ideal for marketers with empty pockets. See my website (www.mikemoran.com/skinflint) where you’ll find more free ideas for doing search marketing, plus links to the tools described here. You’ll also see how to apply the skinflint approach to other kinds of Internet marketing campaigns. And every idea is your favorite price: free.

Mike Moran is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. Mike’s books include Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and Do It Wrong Quickly. He can be reached through his website (mikemoran.com).

Search Marketing Is Direct Marketing

When I say the word “marketing,” what do you think of? Probably some kind of advertising – maybe a TV commercial for Coke. That’s brand marketing, and it’s gotten the lion’s share of attention from marketers for decades.

Far fewer people are direct marketers – the folks behind the catalogs and mail solicitations that fill our mailboxes. If you know any direct marketers, you may want to hire them to run your search marketing campaigns. Let’s look at the basics of direct marketing to find out why.

The Name of the Game Is Response

Direct marketing is truly measurable marketing. Unlike most TV commercials, every direct marketing message is designed to evoke a response, such as “call this number now” or “mail your order form today.” The return on direct marketing investment is based on how many customers respond to those messages. A very successful direct marketing campaign might sport a 4 percent response rate; a failure, less than one-half of 1 percent. Direct marketers make their money by increasing response rates.

Think about it. It doesn’t cost any more to mail a catalog that drives 4 percent response as one that drives 2 percent. The creative costs, paper costs, printing costs and mailing costs are about the same for each mailing, so smart direct marketers focus on raising response to bring more return from the same investment. Direct marketers spend their time figuring out just what causes more people to respond. A different offer on the outside of the envelope might get more people to open it. A different picture and product description in a catalog might cause more people to order. A yellow sticky that says, “Before you pass on our offer, read this” might cause a few people to do just that.

But how do direct marketers know what worked? They measure the response. They measure changes in response to every small variant of their sales pitch. And they keep the changes that work and throw the rest away.

When credit card marketers send out a million pieces of mail to sign up new customers, they don’t just write a letter and mail it out. Instead they write 10 or 20 different letters and mail them to 1,000 people each. Then they mail the version of the letter that generated the best response to the rest of that million-person list.

Direct marketers constantly tweak their messages to become more persuasive. They continuously experiment with new ideas. It may seem picayune to focus on raising response rates from 2.2 percent to 2.6 percent, but just such increases mark breakthrough direct marketing campaigns.

Another way to increase return is to cull your mailing list. If you know that certain customers never seem to buy, you can eliminate those addresses from the list and add new ones that might prove more profitable. Your mailing costs are the same, but your responses will go up.

You can see that the basics of direct marketing revolve around experimenting with your messages and your mailing list to drive more and more sales for the same cost. You can apply those basics to Web marketing, too.

Web marketing, done well, is the biggest direct marketing opportunity ever, because the Web is infinitely more measurable than off-line direct marketing. Off-line direct marketers can measure only the final response – the mail order or the phone call, for example. They can’t tell the difference between those who threw the envelope away without opening it and those who read the entire message but still did not respond. If they could, they’d know whether to change the message on the outside of the envelope or change the letter itself.

The kind of measurement the Web offers is the stuff of direct marketers’ dreams.

Getting a Reputation

If you didn’t see it, you probably read about Snickers’ Super Bowl advertisement, “The Kiss,” which featured two men unintentionally kissing after they were both eating the same Snickers bar. Immediately after the Super Bowl, much of the feedback in the blogosphere was that the ad was funny. But the next day two gay civil rights organizations denounced the ad as homophobic. The blogosphere reacted again, much of it negative about Snickers. By that evening Snickers pulled the ad and took down its website. The day after that, Snickers issued a statement expressing that they did not intend to offend anyone. For the remainder of the week, much of the mainstream media coverage was negative for Snickers and there was much debate back and forth on the Internet.

For weeks, the conversation raged online, which affected search engine result pages (SERPs). Meanwhile the press, including The New York Times and USA Today, picked over Snickers’ bad judgment and missteps. More than two months after that commercial aired at the Super Bowl, four out of the top 10 listings for the search term “Snickers” in Google’s SERPs were about “The Kiss” and three of them were negative.

“The Kiss” is the latest high-profile illustration of the long-term repercussions online conversations have on a brand’s reputation. The content of what is written on the Web not only affects the people who read it, it affects the rankings on the search engines and what the media chooses to cover.

The advent of consumer-generated media (CGM) has transformed the concept of brand management. Nowadays it is possible for a consumer to never encounter information created or endorsed by a company, but instead to rely completely on CGM for recommendations and insights. The bottom line, explains Rob Key, CEO of Converseon, is that “you no longer own your brand – your customers do.”

CGM includes community scoring programs like eBay, feedback rating systems like Yelp, opinion sites like Epinions, social networks like MySpace sites, and blogs. Blogs range from the very influential and highly trafficked, like TechCrunch and Jeff Jarvis’ BuzzMachine, to millions of average blogs that in the aggregate can reach tens of millions of readers.

When a company does something considered egregious, such as produce an offensive commercial or provide bad customer service, bloggers often react harshly and create a far-reaching buzz called a blog swarm, which can cause damage to a company’s reputation. In 2006, there were blog swarms that had serious long-term consequences for companies including Dell (dubbed “Dell Hell”), which started when Jarvis complained about Dell’s customer service on his blog, and another surrounding AOL, which began when a subscriber posted his phone conversation with a rude AOL representative to his blog.

Key explains that because blogs are spidered well (due to their large amount of refreshed content and inbound links) they can rank higher than other sites, including corporate sites. In the past, a brand could control the placement of their site with tags and by the way it designed the site’s pages. But Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer of market influence analytics company Cymfony, says that currently corporate sites are getting outranked by consumer-generated sites “and frequently those are the ones that are negative.”

However, it’s not just the first or second listing on SERPs that brands should be worried about. Holly Preuss, principal of Granular Solutions, an online customer acquisitions services company, says companies should be managing the top 10 and particularly the top five because “above the fold is crucial.” Key agrees. He says it’s similar to how companies must manage their brand on the shelf in the supermarket: Companies must manage their top listings – “their shelf space” – to maximize their brands’ positioning.

Brands have to make their top listings a priority. An April 2006 study conducted by iProspect found that when users perform a search, 62 percent of them click on a result within the first page of results, and a full 90 percent of users click on a result within the first three pages.

Andy Beal, creator of the site Marketing Pilgrim, says sometimes companies find a negative post and think, “it’s only one blogger; it won’t have a long-term impact.” But then a blog swarm begins and the negative buzz ranks high in the SERPs. Then the issue reaches a whole new audience as mainstream journalists increasingly use search engines to research new story ideas.

Because consumers rely heavily on the Web as an authoritative source of information, managing a brand’s online reputation has become a top priority for companies. Strategy consultant Amanda Watlington says the participatory environment of Web 2.0 requires companies to monitor and measure their public perception so they are able to take necessary actions to preserve brand equity and maintain a brand’s personality. This necessity has spurred the development of new strategies, tactics and tools.

Monitoring Tools

Agencies like Converseon and Nielsen BuzzMetrics have tools for monitoring social networks, blogs and communities. They measure the volume of buzz, track the source and gauge the emotions of a comment – whether positive, negative or sarcastic.

But monitoring systems don’t need to be expensive or complicated. Granular Solution’s Preuss recommends that companies “think like a customer” and Google themselves. Companies can create RSS feeds based on keyword searches and narrow down the results to a specific domain with tracking systems like Technorati and Feedster. Sites like BlogInfluence.net and SocialMeter. com provide a snapshot of the credibility of any blogger by showing the audience-reach and popularity for the entered blog URL.

New tools are popping up all the time. Pronet Advertising launched Serph, a tool to find what is being said on social media websites. Do The Right Thing is a community that rates companies positively or negatively. Its goal is to hold big businesses accountable.

Once You Monitor, Then What?

Converseon’s Key says that once companies mine the conversation for detractors, they can separate them into two groups. Some are “reasonable” – they have a bad impression or a company had a bad experience with a company, such as poor customer service. And some are “determined,” such as the site StarbucksSucks.com, which feels Starbucks is ruining independent companies.

Catherine Seda, Internet marketing expert and author of the book How to Win Sales & Influence Spiders, says there is nothing a company can do about determined detractors, so companies should focus on the reasonable ones. There are a variety of ways to do this.

Companies need to reach out to bloggers. The sooner they react, the better it is to prevent potential longterm damage, says Marketing Pilgrim’s Beal. Preuss adds that when there is a complaint about customer service, the company needs to fix the problem and then engage the customer immediately by responding to that post.

Noah Elkin, vice president of communications at interactive agency iCrossing, says his company offers “proactive customer engagement” for their clients by responding to posts with helpful information, such as a link to a technical support page. Elkin stresses that they always indicate they are representatives for a company – “the No. 1 rule is to be honest about who you are; then you can participate in the discussion.”

An option for promoting a company’s brand online is to pay bloggers to evangelize it through a service such as ReviewMe. PayPerPost.com offers this service, but is requiring writers to include a small graphical button that denotes that a post is being sponsored. One of the tenets of Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s (WOMMA) code of ethics is that bloggers must disclose for whom they are blogging. To help craft disclosures, affiliates can seek advice at DisclosurePolicy.org, which was created and funded by PayPerPost.

Some experts recommend monitoring the buzz instead of trying to manage it. Cymfony’s Nail explains that there is no controlling what people say and the best you can hope for is to have your side of the story told. He says that “The Kiss” exemplifies this. It created an ebb and flow on the Web of people that started out attacking the ad and then started defending Snickers. Due to that, Nail says Snickers did not need to issue a statement.

For matters that require a timely response, some experts recommend using paid search (pay-per-click links). Preuss says that on the plus side, PPC links can show up in a couple of hours and they let the public know the company is aware of the situation. The downside, says Seda, is that people who might not have been aware of the problem will likely find out about it.

Some experts say that paid search is underused. For example, searching on the term “Wal-Mart sucks” yields negative results for the first 10 listings. Cymfony’s Nail says it is “foolish” that Wal-Mart does not have any paid links to sites where it could tout Wal-Mart’s economic benefits.

“For a company to protect its brand, they should be buying those words,” Nail says. But Marketing Pilgrim’s Beal warns that paid search “is a Band-Aid” and does not replace reaching out to bloggers directly.

An affiliate could mine blog buzz through a monitoring tool such as Relevant Noise’s pingMe notification system – so when someone posts about a product that an affiliate sells, the affiliate could buy relevant keywords.

One tactic for dealing with negative buzz, such as a product recall, is to issue a press release that addresses the concerns. Press release distribution companies such as PRWeb send releases to journalists’ email boxes and optimize press releases, which helps to increase the rankings in news engines such as Google News as well as in the general search results. When a press release ranks high in a search engine, it is one more spot a company’s competition or a negative listing won’t get.

Knock Out the Negative

Issuing a press release is one way that company information can gain a top search engine ranking, and when this happens, negative sites move lower and get moved off the page. Converseon’s Key describes this as pushing detractors off the “visibility cliff.” There are other ways to try to do this.

Post to top-ranking sites: Postings to sites such as Wikipedia or Squidoo can help a brand or affiliate push negative results down and get more exposure. When an affiliate posts to advice sites like LifeTips.com, it allows them to be seen as an industry expert on the things they are attempting to market. Granular Solution’s Preuss says if an affiliate blogs about cars and posts affiliate links on their site in a CPL deal with automakers and has rev shares with accessory retailers, then they could post on LifeTips.com a top 10 tip list for shopping for a new SUV.

Create a blog: Another tool for creating a positive listing and monitoring a brand is to create a blog, which can humanize a company and present its side of the story. If the comments are enabled, companies can get in touch with their most passionate visitors.

Optimize your site and create multiple domains: Author and IBM search expert Mike Moran explains that search results never contain more than two listings from any one domain, so brands should make sure their pages are optimized for the legitimate two listings (#1 and #2 are ideal). If the company has multiple domains (i.e., for subsidiaries) a brand can ethically optimize those sites for the company’s target keywords. Many companies have mini-sites, for which each has its own URL; for example, Starbucks has one for music, one for locations and one for its online store.

Use affiliate programs: Affiliate programs are a way that brands can get additional positive listings on SERPs. But affiliates pose risks because they can threaten the control of a brand. Watlington says brands have to make sure that affiliates, who are custodians of their brand, are in step because “companies spend a lot of money creating a brand and if an affiliate does something like use outdated creative, the brand is then altered.”

If a merchant does decide to have an affiliate program, it’s imperative for a merchant to monitor affiliates and make sure they are compliant with a program’s terms and conditions. For this reason, Converseon’s Key recommends that merchants start with tightly managed and honed programs.

The Merchant Mind-set

Merchants will need to decide if they are going to allow their affiliates to bid on their trademark terms, which tend to convert very well. Benefits include having offers for different types of users on the SERPs, keeping competitors off the SERPs and keeping competitors’ affiliates off the SERPs. 77Blue’s David Lewis says that merchants need to evaluate what is right for their brand and find trusted partners who will work with them to protect their brands through trademark bidding.

Many merchants are so wary of affiliates bidding on their trademarks that they completely forbid it for all affiliates. Super-affiliate Colin McDougall recalls an instance when an affiliate manager admitted that McDougall’s bidding had made a huge difference for their sales but still would not make an exception to the company policy – it was the “if we let you do it, then we would have to let everybody do it” mind-set.

This mind-set might be changing, however. A 2007 Marketing Sherpa study reports that merchants have become more lenient with the use of their trademarks in keyword campaigns. In fact, 29 percent of merchants say they allow bidding on use of their trademarks and 36 percent say they place some limitations on trademark bids.

Companies no longer have an option about whether they should participate in online communications. These conversations are going to take place regardless if the company is involved or not. For this reason, reputation management has become one of the most talked-about topics among merchant and affiliates. Just this spring, Neo@Ogilvy, Ogilvy Group’s digital and direct media unit, acquired GSI Consulting Group, which specializes in brand reputation. TNS, a provider of strategic advertising intelligence, acquired Cymfony.

The good news is that there are tools to monitor buzz and ways to push negative conversations from the eyes of the masses. Creating a blog, optimizing a company’s website, buying PPC, issuing quality press releases, contributing to high-traffic forums and becoming a part of the conversation on user-generated content sites are all methods whereby an online reputation can be managed.

The Ingredients That Go Into Spam

“Never watch sausage being made,” folks say, lest you would find the process so unappetizing that you’d never eat it again. Regardless of how you feel about Spam®, the venerable luncheon meat, all search marketers must understand the ingredients that comprise search spam.

In our last column, we explored the dangers of spam, which include bad publicity and getting banned from the search engines. We also looked at a spam technique called cloaking, in which spammers feed a different page to the search spider than what they show to real people.

This time around, let’s look at stupid content tricks. The goal isn’t to teach you how to use spam techniques, but rather to help you spot them on your site (oh no!) or on your competitors’ (so you can report them). Content spammers generally employ two kinds of tricks: page stuffing and doorway pages. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Page Stuffing

Content spammers treat their Web pages like a Thanksgiving turkey. They stuff as much extra content into each page as possible, hoping they’ll include something that search engines like. Let’s look at the three major types of content spamming tricks:

Hidden text

Don’t use tricky techniques to show the search spider text that is not seen when a reader looks at your page. In the old days (two years ago), content spammers tried displaying text with the same font color as the background color. Today the trendy spammer uses style sheets to write keywords on the page that are then overlaid by graphics or other page elements. Whatever the technique, if the search spider sees your words but people never do, that’s spam. The only exception to that rule is HTML comments, which are ignored by both the spider and the browser.

Duplicate tags

In times past, the use of multiple title tags (and other meta tags) was rumored to boost rankings. Although few search engines fall for that trick nowadays, spammers have adjusted. The same style sheet approach that can hide text can also overlay text on top of itself, so it is shown once on the screen but listed multiple times in the HTML file, adding emphasis for the repeated keywords.

Keyword stuffing

Also known as keyword loading, this technique is really just an overuse of sound content optimization practices. Do emphasize your target keywords on your search landing pages, but don’t overuse them. Dumping out-of-context keywords into an <img> tag’s alternate text attribute, or into <noscript> or <noframes> tags, are variations of this same unethical technique.

Search engines have gotten much better at detecting page stuffing in recent years, but the cat-and-mouse game continues. Each year, spammers develop new content tricks and search engines try to catch them.

Some extremely clever and hardworking people really can fool the search engines with advanced versions of these tricks. Most of the time, however, spam techniques are like stock tips: Once you hear the tip, it is probably too late; the stock price has already gone up and the search engines are already implementing countermeasures.

What should you do instead of page stuffing? Write your pages for your readers. Yes, use the popular keywords on your pages, but don’t repeat them endlessly like mindless drivel. Write engaging and informative pages that use the right keywords and you’ll attract the search engines. Moreover, when a reader gets to the page, your copy will persuade them to take the next step and buy something.

Doorway Pages

A few years ago, doorway pages were all the rage. Every search marketing “expert” was explaining how to create pages whose sole purpose is to appeal to search engines. The idea was that searchers came from the search engine to your site through a “doorway.” Some called them entry pages, others gateway pages, but the idea was the same. If your page exists only to get search rankings, it’s probably a doorway page.

In a sense, doorway pages are doors that only open “in” because they are not part of the mainstream navigation of your website. Doorway pages link to other pages within your website, but none of your other pages link to them.

Spammers use various techniques to get high search rankings for doorway pages, such as cloaking (which we discussed in our last column), page stuffing, and link spam (which we’ll tackle in our next column). Search engines have tightened up their detection mechanisms to avoid high rankings for doorway pages, but a smart spammer can still slip them through.

What should you do instead of doorway pages? Create search landing pages that are optimized for both search engines and people. Like doorway pages, search landing pages are designed to be the first page a searcher sees on your site when coming from a search engine. Unlike doorway pages, search landing pages are legitimate pages intrinsic to your navigation that are linked both to and from many other pages on your site. In fact, they are designed for people first and for search engines second.

Some paid search landing pages can be legitimately designed to be closer to doorway pages. Because you may want to target many more keywords for paid search than you can optimize for organic search, you can create paid-placement landing pages that are not part of the mainline site navigation – with links leading into the site only. The difference between these pages and doorway pages is they are not being used for organic search at all. (In fact, you should use a robots tag or robots .txt file to block them from organic search.) Because you are not fooling the organic engines with these pages, they are not spam.

For any pages that you want to optimize for organic search, just make sure they are heavily linked into the main navigation path of your site. That will ensure that the search engines treat them as landing pages rather than doorway pages.

Comedian Buddy Hackett joked that his mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it. The search engines’ terms of service (their rules for you to follow) are similar. Search engines decide which techniques are spam and there’s no higher court for an appeal.

Those who engage in content spam run a grave risk of having their sites banned by the search engines. So don’t be reckless. Stick to writing for readers and you won’t go wrong.

That’s it for content spam. In the last part of the three-part series, you’ll bone up on link spam, so that you’ll recognize the tricky link techniques that might fool the search engines.

Mike Moran is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. His books (Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and Do It Wrong Quickly) and his Biznology blog are found at MikeMoran.com.

More Ways to Search

Search powerhouse Google has ascended not only to the No. 1 starting place for most Web searches, but the name has become part of the popular consciousness, even spawning the use of its name as a verb. To Google is to discover the globe.

That’s all about to change and the world of search is about to bust wide open.

Not to say that the top three search engines – Google, Yahoo and MSN – will topple. Far from it. But there are search technologies that have recently launched and some just on the horizon that aim to give searchers new ways to find what they want, especially in niche areas.

The recent growing popularity of video search and search via mobile phones are just the beginning of innovations to come. Some predict that search by image, natural language search and search by speech are the next improvements to the search experience.

As sophisticated as Google is at what they do, it is still an engine that relies on text – text is matched with text and results come from weighing the quality of the potential matches with the text you submitted. And there is slowly growing dissatisfaction with the relevancy of search results. A survey by Outsell stated that “search failure due to irrelevant results” of Google users grew from 28 to 30 percent in the last two years.

Start-up companies have perceived an opportunity to look beyond text search. And some companies believe they have novel methods for using text search to get more specific results.

Beyond Text

Moving completely away from text, Riya – based in San Mateo, Calif. – recently launched Like.com, what it calls a visual shopping search engine. The engine recognizes likenesses – in faces and in clothes, shoes and jewelry – based solely on visual cues. “In some cases words work just fine for search,” says Riya CEO and co-founder Munjal Shah. “But take a tie or jewelry pattern. There are things [for which] words fail us. We introduce the photo as your search start.”

Riya isn’t just going to help you shop for clothes. Using their technology will help families with Flickr accounts organize their vast digital photo albums by allowing users to “train” the Riya system to get better at recognizing people photos and to know when similar faces do not belong with your albums.

Perhaps most importantly, Shah says they now have a business model to go along with the cool technology. “Look inside the photo search paradigm,” he says. “The way it makes money is questionable. Face recognition software isn’t going to make much money. But now we have CPA from some merchants and CPC from some merchants.”

Part of their push is to get merchants to upload high-resolution images since better-quality pictures allow Riya to better differentiate the details of a belt buckle taken from a full-body shot.

With this model, Shah says that he isn’t in the business of competing with Google, but rather any other visual search engine to come. “Our belief is that it is too hard to win [with text],” he says. “We want to think off the map. That big of a paradigm shift is needed.”

Right now Riya is sticking with soft goods – a $30 billion sector – but Shah doesn’t rule out furniture, garden or china patterns eventually. He’s decided soft goods are the “beachhead.” They also have a mobile application that is coming soon and right now people can search Flickr photos of people using Riya’s technology.

Shah is thrilled that the technology is regarded as cool, but is continuing to look for revenue streams. “I’ve changed strategies once; I’ll change it again,” he says.

No Searching in Tongues

Still in extreme beta but looking to launch a public beta in 2007, Powerset, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is a natural language search engine. Barney Pell, CEO, sets it up like this: If you put a stream of text into a search engine, the engine will only find the same characters, he says. “It forces people to do their work on the computer’s terms. You have to figure out what the right terms are for your search.” He says that you are out of luck if you use the words in the wrong way.

Pell says, “Natural search is a complete mess.” You spend a lot of time just trying not to be a spammer, he notes. “The sites that are winning are not the ones that have the best message or solution.” He says the Powerset engine reads all Web pages and matches all words for context, not just keywords. “It can tell the difference between optimized search engine babble and content,” he says. He adds that a ranking on Powerset will rise by focusing on the quality of your site.

Marketers, he says, will love it because advertisers won’t have to anticipate the words people will use. Pell says that for Hawaiian handbags, for example, a user may type in “Hawaiian bags” or “tropical bags” and still not find what they want. “There’s a whole industry around trying to guess the right words and at what price,” he says, adding that with Powerset, marketers won’t have to get up every morning and decide which words to buy that day.

Early adopters will get dramatically better results, he says, because the public beta will probably involve a tool where you can submit according to organized categories and submit to the engine in advance. This way, users can help define the context before the engine officially launches.

Making Search a Snap

While some technologies are focused on the back end, others want to change how the users view search results. Launched in the middle of 2006, Snap.com wants to take advantage of the pervasiveness of broadband to bring the user a more detailed search experience. The Snap.com search engine essentially gives users home page preview panes for the text results when they plug in a search term. Users can rate the relevancy of each result so that the engine gets to know how to better serve keyword results.

“Our search isn’t for everybody,” says Snap CEO Tom McGovern. “We’re not trying to out-Google Google or out-Yahoo Yahoo. Savvy users like the preview feature and it gives us recognition.”

The visual results are meant to make it easier and faster to get to the right information. McGovern says Snap offers a different kind of advertiser experience as well, with a “risk free” CPA pricing model. Advertisers pay only for a predetermined action such as a sale, a lead, a download or other user engagement. The advertiser dictates the desired action and agrees to pay either a fixed rate or a variable percentage. Advertisers also choose the landing page or creative so that they pay only when they get the action and not on clicks. Click fraud is reduced this way. McGovern says their CPA model will be the standard in five years.

When users enter a search word in the field, a list of popular search phrases using your term is already populated in a drop-down window. The preview home page images are not screenshots from last week, but fairly up-to-the-minute captures, which comes in handy when cruising for news sites or video sites (the images are about a quarter of your monitor’s screen – big enough to read larger newspaper-headline- style type but not much else).

Snap – owned by Idealab – has an image search function as well, which still relies on title tags and not visual similarity, but the results are presented in nice thumbnail sizes that scroll horizontally. The site has also launched its Preview Anywhere function that offers blog visitors a preview of hyperlinks.

Other interesting features include the ability to type “movies” with a colon and a search term and it finds that term on the Internet Movie Database. Also, “fact” plus colon and search term brings up Wikipedia, and “define” plus colon plus search term brings up the Dictionary. com definition. With slight variation these features are also in Google except for the Wikipedia element.

“We want to win with the end users,” McGovern says. “They come to us because they like the technology.” He says they know they are not going to displace Google. “We want to be the secondary search engine of choice.”

The Human Touch

Helping users find exactly the right thing from their search is what motivates all these start-ups. ChaCha.com, currently in beta, is no different, but it approaches the problem from a less-technological angle.

ChaCha.com uses human guides to help users find results. Search queries are sent to “a staff of experts” who then chat with the user to help narrow the search. Users do not have to use a guide. They can use the search field just like Google, but the results are custom- culled based on the index of questions that have been asked thus far, so the more questions the guides receive and the longer the search engine exists, the better it gets.

“The vast majority of people do not go past the third page of results,” says Scott Jones, founder and CEO of ChaCha.com. That means, “people never look past the top 30 results even though the top search engines are theoretically returning thousands or millions of results. Therefore ChaCha’s model of returning the very best results on the first page is vital. Users don’t really want millions of results in a split second. They want the answer as quickly as possible.”

There is still plenty of technology at work on the back end. In its first year, ChaCha.com filed 18 patents. Jones was also the brains behind Boston Technology, where he invented a voice mail system that is basically the telecommunications standard, and built Escient, now known as Gracenote, the music recognition software that is used by nearly every music-ripping program and MP3 player on the market.

ChaCha.com has grown its workforce to 25,000 in its first four months of operations, signaling that the company plans to play it big. “Obviously,” Jones says, “when a search company achieves a $100-plus billion market cap in less than a decade, it creates a lure for all those who think they can do it better,” referring to Google. However, he notes, competing with Google is probably not a smart move. “Actually, we consider ourselves a collaborator with Google,” he says. “We are happy to have them around. And we’re happy to have all the other thousands of deep repositories of information that Google doesn’t even know about.”

ChaCha is free and gets its advertising dollars no differently from first-generation search engines. Because of the “very targeted keyword handling,” advertisers, Jones says, can get much better bang for their buck. The site also has its ChaCha Underground, a kind of social site where users and guides can gather together. Targeted display ads go there. Also, it can show targeted video advertisements when searching with a guide.

A Slice of Google’s Pie

While every new search engine touts its originality, many seem to be trading in on the text search market that Google pretty much has cornered.

Some other interesting search variations include Trexy.com, which is a browser toolbar that saves a trail of where users searched and what they found along the way. Users can save the information found so that next time they plug the search term in to the toolbar, it goes right to the page set as the preferred destination – kind of like favorites.

Indeed.com is an engine for job seekers that culls listings from all over, adding more than a million new jobs each week. Users fill in the fields for job title and location and the direct links to the jobs on the hirer’s websites are displayed. And Eurekster.com is built kind of like a wiki, called Swickis, which are search engines generated by individuals and used by groups. The groups then learn from users how to deliver more targeted results.

On the horizon is Jimmy Wales, who started Wikipedia, and his announced venture into a wiki-inspired search engine, but details are scarce at this early stage in Wales’ project.

Everyone is coming after Google, but the search behemoth is not standing still. John Battelle, search guru who wrote the book, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, thinks a voice-driven search engine is the next innovation. He says that Google is working on search based on the engine’s understanding of a user’s previous search history “in a way that makes sense.” And while not Internet search, Battelle would like to see a desktop search capability that is intelligent.

What all these new search engines are really offering is a multiple search engine world, where users choose the engine based on what kind of information they need. And observers say that finding an engine that works for each user is about to get easier and easier.

Overcoming Your SEO Fears

Ask nearly everyone and they’ll say that search engine optimization is intimidating. Search engine optimization – SEO for short – should be a familiar term and practice for anyone or any commercial company with a website. SEO is what you do to your website to get a higher ranking on search engines,particularly Google,Yahoo and MSN.The higher you rank the more likely someone will click through to your site and buy your stuff. Lately, information and tips on just how to do that can fill a library.

“I don’t think you can be in business without realizing that search is a big part of the tool you need – you need to have a strategy to be found,” says John Battelle, search guru and author of the book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.

And yet being found is still perceived as some sort of magic formula. “SEO is not sorcery or deception; just something that requires diligent research and staying on top of changes to the way search engines do things,” says Joe Balestrino, who runs the Mr. SEO website.

If someone enters the term pizza into Google, for example, the first results are most likely the product of SEO. Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s have all made an effort to rank in the top three spots on Google. Whether they remain there is something search engine marketers will need to stay on top of. Search engine marketing – SEM – are the tactics employed in order to rank higher, be they through paid search or other nonpaid methods. It could be by transforming a website’s look and feel to gain higher ranking.

Many Search Marketers Fail to Measure Results Take the term iPod and plug it into Google. What you get is a sponsored (or paid) search result for Apple. The first nonpaid result is also Apple. Not a coincidence. The Apple brand is so strong that it ranks very high on unpaid results, and paying for a sponsored result is just bet hedging.

People who are new to selling on the Web can get very confused by the “science” behind SEO. Talk of relevant keywords, algorithms and cost per click can terrorize Web sales newcomers. It’s an issue that continues to frighten brand-name companies as well. Since the concept of SEO is only about eight or nine years old, most companies have typically hired a chief marketing officer with as little as two years’ experience in matters of SEO.

Companies are also realizing that search engine marketing is a full-time job and have created executive positions just to monitor and enact SEM strategies. Companies that will do your SEO for you are growing as well. Books and conferences continue to provide advice whether you are a newbie or have been practicing SEO for awhile.

While trying to demystify SEO for people who have gone to a few dozen websites and have not been able to understand it, we can’t ignore the advancements in SEO and how big the market has become. Search still finished first in online ad spend in 2006, to the tune of 40 percent of total online advertising revenue, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers. This trend of 40 percent is predicted to continue through 2010, according to eMarketer.

Back when there wasn’t a name for SEO, the tried-and-true way to rank high on search engine results pages was using as many keywords as you could in your content. If you sold cigars, putting the word cigar in your articles and written materials as many times as humanly possible would probably get you a pretty high ranking. With the ascension of Google and its algorithmic rankings, that doesn’t work so much anymore. Not to look too far under the hood, but the Google algorithm that ranks pages basically looks at who is linking to whom on the Internet and the quality of those pages. The more high-quality pages linking to you, the higher you get.

Most marketers employ a combination of SEO and paid search, also called pay per click, which results in a sponsored ad when someone searches for certain keywords. For example, that’s why searching for iPod brings up Apple’s URL in the sponsored position and as the first search result – or the “natural” search result.

Getting there has been considered by some as rocket science. And there is a current debate in the industry over whether SEO is too hard for the average Joe to execute effectively. Some consultants who do SEO say, of course, it’s a very difficult science. Critics claim that search gurus want to keep SEO sounding complicated so that they will continue to get your business.

“SEO is a new-school-of-marketing thought – switching someone’s beliefs is nearly as difficult as converting someone’s religion,” says Todd Malicoat, who consults on SEO from his StuntDubl.com site.

“I think that there’s a complete misnomer that SEO equals top position on the search engines,” says Dave Taylor, tech blogger at AskDaveTaylor.com. “In fact, smart SEO is much more about being findable for the specific keywords and phrases that will drive customers to your site, rather than just a more simplistic popularity contest.”

Job Functions Performed by Search Engine Marketers in the U.S. - 2006 That said, there is no denying that SEM efforts continue to grow. Forty-two percent of advertisers say that their SEM budgets are new, says the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), in its recent annual survey of marketing executives. The survey also found that 83 percent of advertisers prefer organic (or natural, nonpaid) search, while 80 percent put paid search at second place. Respondents stated that sales was their primary goal for SEM – 59 percent said this. Fifty-three percent said brand awareness was the primary objective and 48 percent said lead generation was the goal. SEMPO’s 2005 survey stated that the North American search engine marketing industry grew to $5.75 billion. That’s a 44 percent jump over 2004.

“Search engine marketing is growing at a faster rate than television, than radio, than print media,” pepperjamSEARCH.com CEO Kristopher B. Jones said at a press conference in August 2006.

While brands are becoming more adept at SEO, a battle is still ongoing behind the scenes between traditional advertising and search marketing. “I think the big brands are starting to get it, but yes, at a snail’s pace,” says Mr. SEO’s Balestrino. He says that while a few of the “heavy hitters” have been looking for SEO people to get them started, most still rely on the word of their SEM. “As you might imagine, few SEMs are into SEO because it can greatly reduce the need for PPC over the long haul.”

Balestrino adds that some companies are starting to see PPC “for the losing battle it can become,” especially among highly competitive retailers and service providers. “The company who is willing to spend the most can rank the highest, but the ROI is dwindling because PPC costs are rising faster than inflation,” he says.

StuntDubl’s Malicoat says that “I no longer try to claim that ‘branding is dead,’ but that certainly won’t keep me from kicking it while it’s down. It’s amazing how often I see a big brand completely blow top search rankings that could have been achieved with a little understanding, some initial planning and very little additional budget.”

Keywords are Key

The camp that believes SEO is not an intricate science say the first thing any SEO beginner needs to do is figure out what your relevant keywords are. Since the major search engines are organizing results based on the word or words people type into the engine, knowing how to organize your keywords is step one. Plus, coming up with all the applicable keywords for your site helps you understand much more clearly what it is you sell.

You can find these keywords by writing down as many as you can think of, or you can survey your core audience. You can also buy software to help you come up with words. There are sites and software to help you find the value in the keywords you have come up with, such as Overture.com (now known as Yahoo Search Marketing) and WordTracker.com.

Statistics associated with your keywords will help you decide what words get more traffic than others. Companies such as Trellian offer SEO software tool kits that help manage keywords, check your rankings, edit your meta tags and create PPC bid comparisons, among other things. For your cigar site, for example, “Dominican cigars” may get far more traffic than “Mexican cigars.” In fact, the latter may do so poorly as to warrant omission when it comes to keyword bidding.

What you are shooting for is a site that can be easily indexed by a search engine. Search engines send out automatic programs that look for new content and create an index based on the words on each website page. That means that attention to Web design and quality writing will boost your site’s chances of getting high rankings. For example, try to keep each Web page small in size, have no broken links, use correct HTML, a server that is up all the time, no identical Web pages on your site and good, clear navigation. All these elements help the site get indexed by search engines.

Some believe that little things such as title tags can make a difference in your site’s rankings as well. Title tags are the one-sentence descriptions coded into the HTML that are displayed at the top of the browser when you visit a page. Organizing your site in URLs that make sense also may contribute to rankings (URLs that show the structure of the site in words as opposed to a series of numbers). Something as simple as a sitemap page helps when you are being indexed.

Especially in Google the more sites that link to your pages the higher your ranking will be. This is called backlinking and is very effective when “high quality” sites link to you – and is even more effective if the link text itself contains one of your keywords. This may mean you will need to put on a public relations hat and send information or press releases to other sites. Joining industry Web forums can help get the word out as well.

This is how SEO has operated over the last few years. There have been many nuances along the way and those degrees of execution are what make SEO seem very impenetrable. In recent years, companies and website owners have opted to buy SEO from firms that do it for you – pepperjamSEARCH.com, Prominent Placement, Fathom SEO, SEOInc.com, EngineReady.com, Adoofa.com and iProspect, just to name a few.

SEMPO’s annual survey indicates that more companies are interested in outsourcing their SEO, but the overall numbers are still small. Only 26 percent of advertisers plan to outsource half or more of their paid-placement budgets for 2007. About two-thirds said they plan to do all of their organic SEO in-house. Only 10 percent said they would outsource all of their SEO needs. The high tech sector is also not immune to the difficulties of search. Among top software firms surveyed by marketing research firm MarketingSherpa, 25 percent were not “sufficiently optimized for search engine visibility.”

Brand Awareness

Some search pundits and bloggers continue to believe that big companies are slowly awakening to the power search brings to their brands. “Big companies are doing too little, and many small companies are too focused on SEO at the price of good content production. The magic bullet is just to produce lots of good, fresh unique content; not to play SEO games and trick people into linking to you,” says Taylor.

Having everyone on the same side of the fence would solidify search as a must-have for all companies. Currently the jury is still out about what constitutes the best approach to search. Some critics have written that SEO is a “one-time fix” – that once a site is optimized, you won’t have to touch it again. Counterarguments are that sites have to change as search engine algorithms change. “I think there are more than a few [SEO firms] that give companies the indication that over-thinking an SEO strategy is necessary, when in reality, it isn’t,” says Mr. SEO’s Balestrino. He says that most companies budget SEO expenditures pretty low, but not necessarily too low to be effective. He says to be wary of the “overly grandiose implementation.”

Others predict that the future of SEO is specialization – broad-category specialists who see SEO as “just plain marketing” and people who will specialize in areas such as keyword research, link building and analytics.

Search engine marketers are still having a hard time because so many of them working for mid to large companies are not focusing exclusively on SEO. A JupiterResearch/iProspect survey found that 88 percent of SEMs are doing SEO; however, 58 percent of them are doing website design, 26 percent do public relations, 44 percent do market research and 22 percent do direct mail. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many hats for overworked SEMs.

This is where legitimate SEO firms hope to gain ground. While MarketingSherpa research stated that SEO firms were still mostly “mom-and-pops,” staffs are growing at these firms and client accounts have doubled. MarketingSherpa says there are a handful of SEO firms reporting more than $10 million in revenues from SEM work and there are at least a few companies reporting $20 million in SEM revenues. The research reveals that most of these businesses have only been in operation for about four years at the most.

Some say that the buy-in from companies who could use search isn’t complete. SEMPO’s 2005 marketing survey stated that only 37 percent of companies said that executives were “moderately interested in search engine marketing practices.” Even companies who would like to outsource their SEM appear to be intimidated by the choices. “The biggest mistake is not doing enough homework on who is reputable and what works,” says StuntDubl’s Malicoat. “Companies should search names, company names, past company names and really be diligent in learning what is going to work best for them.”

Battelle is straightforward when it comes to telling companies what they need to do. “It is hurting companies that don’t use search,” he says. “It is our user interface. It is like a listing in the Yellow Pages.”

Google Hates Affiliates

Back in January 2005 Google changed its Adwords policy to read, “We’ll only display one ad for affiliates and parent companies sharing the same Display URL per search query.” Consequently, affiliate arbitragers who used pay-per-click advertising to send traffic directly to their merchants’ sites saw their ads disappear overnight. Those who hadn’t diversified their incomes by building their own affiliate sites and/or subscriber lists suffered serious hardship when their affiliate commission checks also disappeared – a very bad result, indeed.

The other result (and the reason for the policy change) was more positive, however. Well-informed shoppers who make use of Google’s Sponsored Listings could run a search for “computer” and choose from a variety of merchants’ ads, which was a huge improvement over seeing hundreds of Dell advertisements, as per a comment from a U.K. poster at WebmasterWorld.com.

A spin-off benefit went to affiliates with content sites. As the arbitragers’ ads went by the wayside, content affiliates’ Google Adwords’ listings rose in the ranks and their advertising costs decreased.

Despite the benefits to users and content affiliates, “Google hates us” became a popular refrain on forums throughout the affiliate community, as affiliates who were struggling to cope with the new policy voiced their outrage. Much discussion revolved around ways to exploit loopholes in the policy.

For example, some smart affiliate noticed that the algorithm seemed to be casesensitive, and had failed to remove duplicate ads that shared the same display URL but were capitalized differently, i.e., xyzmerchant.com vs. XYZMerchant.com or xYzMeRcHaNt.COM. Affiliates frantically revised their Adwords campaigns, but the tactic lasted only a short time before the “Google Cashers” were sent back to the drawing board to figure out new loopholes.

Around the same time, affiliate sites were dropping like flies from the Google index. An explanation for the “problem” emerged in June, when Henk van Ess, a Dutch journalist, reported that a Google employee who had broken a nondisclosure agreement with Google confirmed that Google employed human raters to ferret out low-quality sites. The report also stated that raters worked according to specifications laid out in Google’s “Spam Recognition Guide for Raters.” Based on the raters’ findings and recommendations, Google was continually tweaking its algorithms to expedite removal of “thin affiliate” sites from its index. Here is a snippet from the guide:

“Thin affiliate doorways are sites that usher people to a number of Affiliate programs, earning a commission for doing so, while providing little or no value-added content or service to the user. “we’re attempting to identify sites that do nothing but act as a commission-earning middleman.”

Affiliates’ response to the news that Google employed humans to assess affiliate-site quality was phenomenal, with related forum threads spanning dozens of pages. A few suggested that affiliates should work in accordance with Google’s editorial guidelines to improve their sites. The predominant theme again however was that Google hates affiliates.

Affiliates who did not throw in the towel to look for 9 to 5 jobs after their sites were de-ranked and/or de-listed, sought solutions. Software developers responded with improved content-generating software that would create “unique” content pages, complete with RSS feeds and AdSense ads, and all at the simple push of a button. All anyone had to do was give the software an article and a list of keywords, then hit “Go” and like magic, you had thousands of unique article pages to feed and satisfy Google’s spider bots. That solution worked for all of two seconds before Google caught on and proved yet again that it hates affiliates.

But wait – it gets worse. In August 2005, Google Adwords launched quality-based minimum bids. If an Ad Groups’ maximum CPC (cost per click) did not meet the minimum bid, keywords were deactivated and ads would not appear in the Sponsored Listings. Then the big, bad and very mean Google made the process even more complicated in December when it threw a landing page Quality Score into the mix. Both changes resulted in higher minimum bids for Adwords advertisers with poor Adwords Quality Scores.

Fast forward to April 2006 when Google sent affiliate marketers into yet another tailspin with what affiliate Scott Jangro referred to as “some spring cleaning on the Adwords side of the business” in his April 5, 2006 blog entry at Revenews.com.

Google had jacked up the landing page Quality Score algorithm and some advertisers whose ads had previously cost 10 cents to 15 cents suddenly shot up to 50 cents, $1.00, or in some cases, $5.00 per click – and Google showed no mercy.

A July 7, 2006 post on Google’s Adwords blog (http://adwords.blogspot.com) stated, “We realize that some minimum bids may be too high to be cost-effective – indeed, these high minimum bids are our way of motivating advertisers to either improve their landing pages or to simply stop using AdWords for those pages””

Although name squeeze pages (designed to collect an email address before the visitor can see what they were promised), single-page sales letters (merchant) sites and AdSense sites were also targeted, according to the buzz on affiliate forums, ads that linked to affiliate sites were hardest hit by the change.

Developers rushed in again to the hard-done-by affiliates’ rescue, this time with “white hat” push-button software solutions. A flood of new information products promised to reveal the “real secret” to creating Googlicious landing pages.

Affiliates whose Adwords campaigns had improved with higher ad placements and lower advertising costs shared their strategies for success with Adwords. They pointed to both Google’s AdWords Editorial Guidelines and the basic Webmaster Guidelines as the best sources of information for creating quality landing pages.

Yet public expressions of angst and outrage continued into late August. There are even discussions about possible class action lawsuits, and the chorus of “Google Hates Affiliates” grows louder and more shrill.

If you’ve been listening in and think that “Google Hates Affiliates” is a catchy tune, let me warn you – don’t get caught up in the lyrics. Apart from a few good sites that always seem to be caught in the crossfire, most of the sad refrain comes from those who are mad that their free ride on the Google gravy train has come to an abrupt halt.

Google does not hate affiliates. Google couldn’t care less about affiliates, other than to get rid of those who continually spam the index and Adwords with useless stuff that detracts from its users’ experience.

Google is a business. Its first loyalty is to its users, a point that is repeatedly emphasized throughout its various guidelines. Not even advertisers who spend $10,000, $20,000 or $50,000 a month surpass the value Google places on its users – because without users, there are no advertisers.

Affiliates who are now determined to get off the push-button bandwagon and succeed as professional affiliate marketers should take their first clue from Google.

Do business the way Google does business. Put your visitors’ interests before your own. Here’s a really simple formula: First create a page of useful and unique content, and then suggest a choice of relevant products to solve your visitors’ problems. Send traffic from Adwords to the first page and Google will both love and respect you.

Revenue magazine offers more clues. You won’t find the successful affiliate marketers and managers who write for this magazine advocating push-button software, crazy keyword density formulas or other quick fixes. That’s because those aren’t solutions and there are no quick fixes.

Authority content sites have always been, and still are, the best way to earn your visitors’ respect; and quality landing pages make for a smooth ride with Google.

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.SuperAffiliateHandbook.com.