The Tangled Web of Link Spam

In my last column, you were warned to “Never watch sausage being made,” lest you find the process so unappetizing you’d never eat it again. But even if you find sausage links tasty, you’ll want to spit out those spam links every time.

Last time, we explored the consequences of content spam, which include bad publicity and getting banned from the search engines. This time around, we’ll explore link spam techniques so you can avoid them or notice when your competitor stoops to them.

Before we do, let’s review why legitimate links are so important to your organic search rankings. Suppose you have a page that you’d love to be the No. 1 result for the search query “digital cameras.” Tens of millions of Web pages contain the words “digital cameras,” with millions of those pages featuring those words in the title. Search engines distinguish the quality of each of these pages by checking how many other pages link to them. Think of each link as a vote for the quality of the content. To get your page ranked No. 1, you’d need to get as many links to your page from as many other high-quality pages as possible.

Links are extremely important in determining search rankings for “digital cameras” and other highly competitive queries. So it’s no surprise that spammers have come up with a bag of tricks to fool search engines about their link strength. Link farms are the most popular technique, so we’ll tackle them first.

Link Farms

Link farms are the name for a spam technique in which spammers set up dozens or hundreds of ersatz sites to be crawled by search engines. Spammers create link farms just so they can put in thousands of links to other sites that they want to boost in search rankings. Search marketers need to be able to tell the difference between link farms and legitimate directories, so they can spend their time soliciting real directories for links, rather than sites that will do them no good.

Here are a few ways you can spot a link farm:

Links R Us. Each directory category has dozens and dozens of links – more than any visitor could ever use. Your suspicions should grow if the URLs seem to be strings of hyphenated words. Or if an IP checker reveals that many of those URLs come from the same “C” block (the same set of IP addresses in the network). Or if the pages from these sites are all from companies you’ve never heard of, and those pages resemble each other.

Odd Lot. The sites linked seem irrelevant to the directory topic or seem like a set of odds and ends with no central idea. You see links about baby care and the petroleum industry on the same page. Link farms are often thrown together haphazardly, most often by automated programs that spew the links onto pages with no rhyme or reason. A cousin of a link farm, a “free for all” site, allows anyone to post a link on any topic. It’s similarly worthless for improving your search rankings.

Dollar Store. None of the links seem very valuable. They consist of pages with nothing but advertisements, or content that makes no sense. Don’t be fooled if these pages have high Google PageRank values shown in the Google toolbar. Some spammers can artificially inflate a site’s PageRank for a while, but Google eventually catches on and adjusts the value.

Before requesting a link to your site from a directory, look it over to see if it exhibits the tricky business listed above. If it does, it’s probably a link farm. Search engines recognize more and more link farms every day. When they do, they stop counting those links toward a page’s ranking, so there’s no point in you getting your site listed there.

More Spammy Links

Although link farming is the most prevalent tactic for link spam, many other tricky techniques abound:

Hidden links. In my last column, we discussed hidden text, a spam technique that hides words from people but shows them to the search engines. Spammers hide links the same way, such as overlaying the links with other content, allowing them to boost the search rankings of pages with hundreds or thousands of invisible links.

Blog and guest book spamming. Some spammers use programs to automatically add links to blog comments and trackbacks, or to guest books. Most sites have eliminated guest books in response. Many bloggers now block readers from posting comments, or they approve each comment and trackback manually.

Tricky two-way links. Some spammers try to trick you instead of the search engines. When people agree to trade links with you (linking to your site if you in turn link to theirs), make sure they are playing fair. Some spammers add the link to your site, but code that link using JavaScript to hide the link back to you from the search engines. So you see the link back to your site, but the search engines don’t. Why do spammers go to all that trouble? Because the search engines believe that you’ve added a far-more-valuable one-way link to the spammer’s site. Check out the linking site with JavaScript turned off to make sure the search engines see the link back to you.

While not strictly a spam technique, search engines are not big fans of paid links, where a site sells links to other sites. Search engines ask that those links be tagged with a “nofollow” attribute, telling the search engines that these links are not unbiased votes for the quality of the content. My advice is that paying for links is fine, but you should do so for the traffic only. Pay for a link when the visitors that click on that link are worth the cost. (This is exactly the same calculation you make with paid placement ads.) Search engines work harder and harder each year to recognize paid links and to devalue them, so I don’t recommend buying links to improve your search rankings.

This wraps up our three-part series on spam. If your site has been banned or penalized for using these techniques, you can clean up your site and request reinstatement, which is usually granted (although reinstatement sometimes requires an extended period of explanation and begging).

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.

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.

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.

Spiders Don’t Eat Spam

It’s the headline any search marketer would dread: “Google Bans BMW for Search Spamming.” For well-known companies, such bad publicity is reason enough to stay away from deceptive search practices. BMW’s plight was published in leading newspapers worldwide. But even small companies have reputations to uphold, because the blogosphere can trash a carefully cultivated image for ethics in a heartbeat.

On top of the public relations headaches, getting banned from search engines hurts your bottom line. Perhaps large companies can say their “mea culpas” and get reinstated quickly, but small companies may wait months to get back in Google’s good graces. What if your search traffic suddenly stopped?

Whatever the consequences, you must understand the terms of service of the major search engines. Google’s guidelines are located at www.google.com/webmasters/ guidelines.html (and other search engines have similar rules). Sure, a few people make a living fooling Google, but you’re not likely to be one of them.

Even if you think you can fool the search engines now, they increase their vigilance each day. Moreover, tricky techniques leave you vulnerable to being reported to the search engines by your competitors, causing an investigation. It’s safer and less work to know the rules of the road and abide by them.

Is Your Site Banned?

If your site’s pages are highly ranked in one search engine, but missing in action from another, your site may have been banned, or at least highly penalized. When search engines detect your use of spam techniques, they may ban your site (completely remove its pages from the search index) or penalize your site (remove some pages from the index, or lower your rankings from normal levels).

You should suspect a ban or penalty when:

  • Your home page can be found only by a direct search on the URL – queries for words on the page don’t work anymore.
  • The number of your site’s pages included in the search index rapidly decreases. To check, do a search for site:www.yourdomain.com to check.
  • The search engine shows fewer and fewer links to your site each month, maybe decreasing to zero. Search for link:www.yourdomain.com to find out.
  • Your site’s search engine referrals have dropped drastically in a short period of time. Use your Web metrics software to detect this situation.

If you suspect a problem, you first need to diagnose the cause. Let’s look at the technique that tripped up BMW. We’ll explore others in columns to come.

The Old Bait and Switch

BMW was caught using a spamming technique called cloaking. Cloakers employ tricks to show the search spider one version of their page and show searchers another, in a high tech version of the old “bait and switch” scam.

In BMW’s case, they coded a JavaScript that showed their normal Web pages when people looked at them with their Web browsers, but the script delivered highly optimized pages full of search keywords when spiders came to call. Google detected BMW’s use of JavaScript cloaking, but more clever methods of cloaking are harder to spot.

Some cloakers use a sophisticated technique called IP delivery, in which the spider’s name (called the user-agent name) and its IP address (the unique identification of a computer’s location on the Internet) are used to switch the page. The cloaker creates a program to dynamically serve a Web page, but that program checks the user-agent name and the IP address to decide which version of the page to show.

IP delivery is a bit more difficult to detect than JavaScript cloaking, but one clue shows up in the “cache” link in the Google results. That link shows the page as Google actually crawled it. If the cached crawled page looks significantly different than the actual page, you may be seeing a cloaker. Clever cloakers code their page as “nocache” so that Google does not show the “cache” link, but “nocache” could be a sign of funny business.

It’s sometimes acceptable to use cloaking techniques, as long as the effect is not to show one page to visitors and another to search engines. One ethical use is to deliver pages to spiders that require cookies (which spiders choke on). If you use IP delivery, make sure you present essentially the same content both to spiders and people.

My SEO Made Me Do It

BMW didn’t blame its incident on a rogue search engine optimization consultant, but many spam violations are indeed caused by unethical consultants. Understand that the search engines hold you responsible for your site’s spamming regardless of how it happened. If you want to stay out of Google jail, ask yourself some questions about any firm you are considering hiring:

  • Do they guarantee top rankings? Reputable firms don’t. Expect ironclad guarantees to be fueled by cheating, and expect those ill-gotten results to be fleeting.
  • Do they promise that you won’t have to make big changes to your site? Be suspicious of link spam if the only changes needed are weird links to other sites hidden on your pages. Those other sites are your consultant’s other clients, whom they also coerce to link to you. If it seems fishy, well, it is.
  • Do they talk about special techniques that give you an edge? Pay attention to the old bait and switch, or suffer BMW’s fate.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be working with a spammer. One way to trick the trickster is to pretend that you really want to hire a firm that does spamming. See if they promise they will. Ethical companies will try to talk you out of spamming instead.

What if you catch competitors spamming? Turn them in to the search engines. Google and the other search engines investigate each spam report and take action when warranted. When you report a spam violation, make sure you include the search term you used, the shady URL from the search results, the exact spam technique you suspect (with whatever evidence you have) and why it’s bad for searchers for this violation to continue unchecked.

We looked at cloaking today, but many spam techniques are in use that you need to be aware of. In my next column, we’ll examine content spam techniques, and finish up our three-part look at the dark side of link spam. Whatever the technique, spam leaves you vulnerable to negative publicity and outright ban by search engines, so steer clear.

MIKE MORAN is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. Mike is also the co-author of the book Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and can be reached through his website MikeMoran.com.

Colin McDougall: The Timekeeper

This past summer, super-affiliate Colin McDougall traveled around British Columbia with his family in his newly purchased travel trailer. From mid-July through Labor Day weekend McDougall worked a grand total of about 10 hours from the road. The rest of the time he spent paddling his kids around in an inflatable kayak, feeding the ducks, building sandcastles on the beach and simply enjoying his free time.

Filling up his free time by enjoying hiking and camping is something that McDougall does a lot of these days. Recently he moved with his wife and two young daughters, ages 3 and 6, to a house on a mountain in Chilliwack, British Columbia, where their backyard is literally the vast expanse of Western Canada about 80 miles outside Vancouver.

McDougall loves the natural beauty of British Columbia’s mountains, rivers and lakes. He moved there to attend college after growing up more than 3,000 miles away on the St. Lawrence River in Brockville, Ontario, which is dubbed the City of the 1000 Islands.

In many ways, McDougall lives up to some Canadian stereotypes – he is remarkably polite and friendly. He’s a skier, climber and fisherman. He loves to drink Sleeman beer with friends and is a huge fan of the Canadian rock band Rush; such a fan that in 2004 he bought expensive second-row tickets on eBay to Rush’s 30th anniversary tour concert in Toronto, Ontario, and treated the friend who first turned him on to the band.

And McDougall has been engaging in his country’s national sports pastime – hockey – since he was 7 years old and still plays in a weekly league so he can get together with his pals.

For someone who is so affable, it’s surprising that McDougall doesn’t mind the often-solitary life of an affiliate marketer, which usually means working all day alone at the computer. He claims that when he needs to focus, he takes the new trailer that is typically parked in his yard, tows it to a nearby recreation area and spends hours working alone with no distractions.

McDougall admits being an affiliate can be a bit lonely, and combats this by getting together for coffee with other self-employed workers, primarily affiliate managers from the Vancouver area that he’s met at industry shows, which he enjoys attending.

Now that his business is going well, he works when he wants to and when he is most effective. For many years, however, McDougall did not have the freedom of working when and where he wanted and it was his frustrations about lack of free time and working at inconvenient times that motivated him into the affiliate game back in 2001.

Previously for 10 years, McDougall worked as a systems administrator – first for seven years at Nortel Networks, and then for three years at BC Hydro. Although he liked his job, he didn’t like the time that he was expected to work. As the computer guy, he was expected to be first guy in the office and last guy out. Often he would be paged at 2 a.m. and would then have to go into work. The grueling hours, in addition to more than two hours of commuting time from the suburbs of Vancouver into the city each day, put an incredible strain on him.

In March 2001, McDougall was playing hockey with a friend, Chuck Anderson, who is the ex-business partner of James Martell, author of the Affiliate Marketers Handbook. Anderson offered McDougall work writing code and building tools to manage the publishing of content for a handful of websites within Martell’s business in return for some “measly checks.”

One day Anderson approached McDougall with an idea: instead of receiving a check for his coding work, Anderson would teach him the business of affiliate marketing as payment. Because McDougall had an idea about how much money Anderson was making through his website, he agreed immediately to the deal.

Just months later, when the time came for McDougall to put his knowledge into practice and build his own affiliate site, he wasn’t sure how to determine which industry would be profitable, so he opted for credit cards because that was what Anderson was doing.

By late August 2001, McDougall was hard at work building a website for credit card merchants such as American Express and Chase. He was garnering high rankings on Google with all kinds of credit card-related terms, and his business was based entirely upon natural search. He was making lots of money, and by November 2001, just nine months after he started learning the affiliate marketing ropes, his affiliate income was about 2.5 times more than his full-time job at BC Hydro.

In February 2003, he took the nine-month parental job leave allowed to men in Canada and tacked on an extra six weeks of vacation from BC Hydro. He used that time to focus completely on his affiliate business. However, due to ranking fluctuations in Google, McDougall experienced some setbacks. His training with Martell and Anderson had focused primarily on how to make money directly from affiliate commissions by ranking high in Google. McDougall was quickly finding out – the hard way – that producing sites that were built solely to rank in the search engines with little thought to visitor experience was not a long-term business strategy.

Then a major shift occurred at Google’s that caused every one of McDougall’s sites to lose their ranking. The search giant began basing its coveted rankings on visitor experience factors such as visitor duration, quality of the site and depth of the site as opposed to easily manipulated factors such as inbound links from highly page-ranked sites. McDougall realized he was headed for trouble.

He experienced a severe drop in income over the span of a few months. For August of 2003 he earned $60,000. In September 2003 his commissions were down to $20,000. By October 2003 he’d dropped to $12,000 and when November rolled around, McDougall’s income from commissions had plummeted to around $6,000.

This substantial decrease was particularly alarming because McDougall had bought lots of expensive items based on his higher income, such as vehicles, a new house and lots of toys.

Decision Time

The diminishing income forced him to make a tough decision – either return from his extended parental leave at BC Hydro or quit and revamp his affiliate business. McDougall and his wife had started a family during his full-time transition to affiliate marketing and he was feeling the pressure of additional responsibility as well as hearing doubting comments from his friends. Still, he says it was an easy decision for him to leave his job because he felt it was no longer an option. Although his wife was worried about him leaving a position with excellent benefits and vacation time, she supported his decision.

But McDougall knew that in order to make this business really work he needed to turn to others for some new direction and decided to go directly to the horse’s mouth – Google.

So, in January 2004, he flew to the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York City.

While at the event he timed it so that he would “accidentally bump into” a high-profile senior Google engineer who was presenting (Matt Cutts).

During the encounter McDougall went through every step of the process that he was using to rank high in Google, and with every point, Cutts indicated when McDougall was on the right or wrong track and he took copious notes.

Right then McDougall decided that relying on Google as a primary source of income was a fool’s game. So he came up with a new business plan to focus only on a smaller number of sites and build multiple streams of traffic to them and work hard to establish their brand. His goal: a long-term sustainable business.

Part of his current business is The Visitor Enhanced Optimization Report, or the VEO Report. It’s an e-book McDougall sells through his website that began as pages and pages of a Word document that explained how to achieve rankings in Google. He sent these notes to a few friends who were also affiliates in an effort to save them from having to go back to real jobs. One friend suggested that these notes could be turned into an e-book and McDougall started writing the book when he wasn’t working on his affiliate sites. By late 2005 he sent it off to editors and currently it’s in its third revision.

To date, McDougall has done no traditional marketing for his e-book; its sales have largely been the result of word of mouth and mentions from influencers. He was eventually asked to write a blog for Revenews.com, do an SEO radio show and speak at some conferences.

At the July 2006 Affiliate Summit in Orlando, several people asked McDougall if they could pay him $3,000 a month to mentor them, which would entail his talking on the phone with them for two hours each week. He claims he could only ignore these types of requests for advice and information for so long. That’s when he decided to create some training programs such as the VEO Mentorship Program, which he plans to launch by January 2007.

It’s not only the lucrative benefits that drive McDougall to create training programs. He wants to share his knowledge with others. By training affiliates on how to effectively promote products, how to get traffic and how to build a business, he’s teaching them how to “build on rock rather than quicksand.”

He greatly benefited from receiving advice from top people in the field, such as Williams and Campbell, along with Rosalind Gardner (a fellow Canadian superaffiliate and author) and he wants to return the favor. “I didn’t learn this business all by myself. My philosophy is that 1+1=11.”

McDougall says that people often tell him that being an affiliate sounds like hard work. “There have been too many quick solutions where affiliates think they could make potentially thousands a month by slamming up some content with auto-generation site tools, then just sit back and push buttons, scrape content and provide results.”

Quality Time

McDougall claims if you care about your brand, you’re not going to risk that by spamming Google. He believes that behavior is giving affiliates a bad name. He warns there’s a real problem for affiliates who aren’t willing to provide quality content, which adds value for the visitors to the sites.

Quality content that serves McDougall’s visitors well in turn does well in Google. “I think the future of affiliate marketing is affiliates who provide quality content and work on branding themselves. If you’re not focusing on doing those types of activities, it’s going to be tougher to make a run at affiliate marketing.”

McDougall admits to having a lofty goal of creating some kind of advisory committee that puts together a code of ethics to which affiliates must adhere – similar to the licensing system for realtors because, “quite frankly, marketing is sales, and sales is cutthroat.”

That sort of regulation is just a dream, but McDougall says that following his dreams and keeping a positive attitude have enabled him to reach his goals. “When I saw that my friend Chuck was making three times as much as me and working a third as hard, I became very motivated to change my life.”

But the biggest motivator for McDougall has been the freedom that being your own boss provides; something he has wanted to do since he was 10 years old. When he was in his late teens, he tried to start a window-washing business because he wanted to be able to set his own hours. These entrepreneurial feelings never left him during jobs at Burger King, Godfather’s Pizza and Save-on- Foods grocery store in his school days. He also credits his college karate teacher, who inspired him to follow his dream.

He feels so strongly about working for yourself that in 2005 he wrote another e-book on the topic called The Positive Mind, which outlines everything a person needs to know to become their own boss.

Today McDougall has five sites, with 90 percent of his efforts going into two of them – VEOReport.com and Crediteria.com. He’d prefer not to reveal the other three sites because they are very niche and he does not want to create competition.

Based on his hard-won experience, McDougall has managed to carve out a very full life comprised of success and lots of free time. In early November, McDougall was in the process of buying another house so he could relocate his family to Langley, BC, to be closer to friends and relatives. The town of Chilliwack is so wary of outsiders that they are often unfriendly to newcomers and that included McDougall’s family. But thanks to affiliate marketing and some good timing, he can prioritize his family’s happiness over concerns about carrying two mortgages. That, for him, is the best example of money offering the kind of freedom that he cherishes.

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.

Optimize Your Blog for Search

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

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

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

Get Indexed Faster

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

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

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

Get More Traffic

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

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

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

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

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

Get Wider Visibility

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

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

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

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

Santa in September

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

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

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

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

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

AFFILIATES EMBRACE THE SEASON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKE IT SIMPLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHOP + SEARCH = SALES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search Marketers Target iPod Users

Discover how your business can leverage podcasts before it’s too late.

Everyone’s talking about podcasts, those audio files downloaded from the Web and played on demand using an Apple iPod or any MP3 media player. Many podcasts are just for fun, but marketers are discovering they’re also a promising new way to deliver advertising.

In a sense, there’s no difference in what you can do with a podcast than with radio airtime. You can record a speech, an interview, a commercial or any other audio. But podcasts are used differently than radio because of their immediacy, low cost and flexible time duration.

First off, podcasts can cover the most unusual subjects. If, for example, you want to target a few hundred people, it’s cheap enough to do with a podcast, whereas a radio broadcast or a mailed CD would be unaffordable. Go ahead and record a podcast interview with a famous photographer about digital cameras. Mention your company a few times as the sponsor. Maybe you’ll sell a few cameras to serious photographers.

Many marketers use podcasts to reach the seemingly unreachable. Folks listening to iPods are walking around or stealing time they’d otherwise use to sleep on the train – time when they are beyond the access of most advertising media. Podcasts are also favored by those under 30 years old, who are becoming harder to reach through traditional print and broadcast advertising.

In addition, podcasts provide longform messages that were previously possible only with infomercials or public relations opportunities. And you can make one fast: Record it today and stick it on your website and your message is out there. For these and many other reasons, podcasts are the cool new way to deliver your marketing message.

The Search Marketing Angle

By now you may be asking, “What does all this have to do with search marketing?” Sure, podcasts broadcast your message, reach market segments that are tough to access, help your company seem trendy and keep your teeth flossed and pearly white, but they don’t benefit your search marketing, right? Wrong.

Podcasts are a great way to get links to your site, and search engines just love links. They especially love one-way links – links from websites to your pages that are not reciprocated. Those links seem to be the most unbiased votes for the quality of your content, telling the search engines to rank those linked pages highly for searches that match the pages’ words.

To get those precious one-way links, you need to offer content that causes other sites to voluntarily link to yours. Podcasts are a great way to do so. Audio is naturally more engaging than text and your podcast can contain up-to-the-minute, fresh information from experts with a strong point of view. Done well, podcasts act as link magnets for your site.

You can also use podcasts to give yourself a link. If you submit your podcasts to specialized directories, such as Podcast.net, you’ll automatically get a link back to your website. Every little link adds up to help your search ranking.

Podcasts and Search Engines

Podcasts attract links as we’ve seen, but that is just one of their many talents. Podcasts are also full-fledged members of the content community, so why can’t searchers find your podcast and discover your site that way? After all, you create Web pages to attract links, but search engines easily find those pages. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t really “see” your podcasts yet.

You’re probably familiar with Google’s image search, in which you can enter a keyword and find pictures that match that word. Enter “zebra” and see pictures of zebras, but Google does not truly recognize those pictures as containing zebras. In fact, Google is using occurrences of the word “zebra” to find the pictures. So it will find pictures stored in files named “zebra.gif” and it will find pictures that are described with alternate text that contains the word “zebra,” but Google has no clue whether the picture is truly that of a zebra. That’s why you can sometimes see weird-looking results in image search.

For Google and many mainstream search engines, searching for podcasts is much like searching for images. Google can find a searcher’s keywords on the Web page that describes a podcast, but can’t find podcasts that contain those same words in the spoken audio. That means that a searcher will find your podcast from words in the title or the description that you place on your landing page, but not from any other words said inside the podcast audio file.

Some podcast search facilities, such as Podcast.net, allow you to provide a title and description to their directory. Similarly, Odeo.com lets you claim your podcast and offer a description. No matter the mechanism, make sure you provide the right search keywords so that search engines find the landing page for your podcast. You do that the same way you’d choose which words to use when optimizing any Web page: by choosing the most popular relevant keywords and ensuring they appear.

Audio Search Engines

You might suspect that trying to find 15- to 20-minute podcasts using only the words in their titles and descriptions would leave a lot to be desired. Search engines are just beginning to expand their bag of tricks to look for the actual words spoken in the podcast audio. To do so, the engines translate those spoken words into text.

Nexidia.com company executives claim that the best way to make speech searchable is to convert it to phonemes, the speech sounds that correspond to each syllable spoken. While experts agree that the phonemic approach can be useful for proper names, many believe that true speech recognition (converting audio speech into the actual textual words) provides far better searchability.

One of these experts, Marie Meteer, the vice president of commercial speech for BBN.com, says searching for the name “Stern” might match the phonemes for the words “best earnings,” even though searchers would find this a strange result (it occurs because combining the end of “best” and the beginning of “earnings” results in a sound similar to “Stern”). Speech recognition techniques avoid this kind of error by matching the audio to the words “best” and “earnings.” Nothing is ever 100 percent accurate, but useful audio search engines based on speech recognition technology are beginning to appear.

Podzinger.com is a new search engine that uses the BBN speech recognition technology to find the words inside the podcast audio (for a full interview with the BBN crew behind Podzinger, visit MikeMoran.com and check out the June issue of my newsletter).

SingingFish.com, owned by AOL, also uses speech recognition techniques to find words spoken in audio and video files, including podcasts. Despite this interesting technology, however, none of these audio search engines draws many searchers.

What are the mainstream search engines doing? Yahoo Podcasts is a beta offering that searches explicitly for podcasts, but offers no speech recognition capability yet. Reports are rampant that both Google and Yahoo are hiring speech recognition experts, so stay tuned. Before long, the major search engines may be finding the words inside your podcasts just as they find the words on your Web pages. When they do, expect your podcasts to require the same attention to search optimization that you provide your Web pages today.

So get ahead of the game now. Perform keyword research before your podcast so that you use titles and descriptions on your search landing page that reflect what searchers are seeking. Moreover, carefully choose the vocabulary of the podcast to reflect searchers’ keywords. That way you’ll be ready for the speech recognition techniques from audio search engines as they become mainstream.

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

The Search Tug of War

The balance of power between merchants and affiliates is shifting.

Welcome to my first column – Mary O’Brien set a high standard that I hope to live up to. I’ve been working in search technology since the 1980s, so I can help you understand what lies behind some of the search advice you receive. I initiated IBM’s search marketing program back in 2001, and I also understand a merchant’s perspective on affiliate marketing. Search engines are complicated beasts, but a little knowledge can give you a leg up on your competition.

Let’s dive into the topic at hand: the issue of branded keywords in paid search marketing campaigns. In the earliest days of affiliate marketing, most merchants didn’t understand the importance of search marketing or, if they did, they didn’t know how to succeed at it. In those bygone days, merchants were happy to – in effect – outsource their search marketing.

How times have changed. Search marketing is big business now – the prime way that affiliates attract visitors to their websites. But it’s also one of the biggest ways that merchants drive traffic to their sites. And those merchants are no longer asleep at the switch. They are keenly aware of the competition their affiliates pose for searchers’ clicks, and they are starting to take action.

The Organic Search Front

Merchants are beefing up their organic (also known as natural) search marketing efforts. Some were embarrassed to find that their affiliates ranked ahead of them even for searches containing their own brand names. Merchants have many organic search improvement techniques at their disposal, but one is symptomatic of the tug of war between merchants and affiliates: the search-friendly affiliate tracking system.

Affiliate tracking systems are at the heart of the relationship between affiliates and merchants. Each affiliate codes a link on its site to the merchant’s site that transmits the affiliate’s identifier. When a visitor clicks the link, that identifier is transmitted and the merchant’s affiliate tracking system credits any purchases made by that visitor to the affiliate, so that the proper commission can be paid. So far, so good.

What makes this more interesting is that search engines have their own agenda for links. Google and other search engines raise a page’s authority based on its incoming links. Search engines calculate authority by analyzing the number and quality of links to the site from other well-respected (high-authority) sites. Pages higher in authority tend to rank higher than other pages in an organic search. For search queries that match many pages on the Web, a page’s authority is often the most important determinant of where it ranks, so search marketers care deeply about acquiring those precious inbound links to their pages.

It would seem that merchants would benefit greatly from all those inbound affiliate links. But, mostly, they don’t. That’s because traditionally (if any business this young can have a tradition), affiliate tracking has been performed using links that search engines don’t assign any credit for. Some affiliate tracking systems use JavaScript links that can’t be seen by the search spiders that constantly scour

have increasingly sought to control their affiliates’ paid search campaigns by adding new restrictions to their affiliate agreements, banning the use of the merchant’s trademarks and other brand names in any paid search marketing campaigns by their affiliates.

Studies by MarketingSherpa indicate that this practice is on the rise. Just 21 percent of merchants restricted their affiliates’ paid search campaigns in January of 2005, but that figure had zoomed to 39 percent by August of the same year.

Just 21 percent of merchants restricted their affiliates’ paid search campaigns in January of 2005, but that figure had zoomed to 39 percent by August of the same year.

pages on the Internet. Other tracking systems use temporary redirects (also known as 302 redirects), which are designed to shift a page’s URL for a short time – and search engines don’t credit any authority to a page that may soon disappear. Only permanent redirects (also known as 301 redirects) transmit their value to the linked-to merchant pages, because the search engine expects each permanent page to have a long life – making it a strong candidate for a search result.

As you can imagine, savvy merchants are beginning to migrate to these “search-friendly” 301-based tracking systems. So far, this trend is just a trickle, but you should expect to see more and more merchants wake up and “think links.” As they do, those merchants’ organic search rankings will get a boost, making it that much harder for affiliates to outrank them.

The Paid Search Front

This is a two-front war, with organic search in many ways the less hard-fought of the pair. Over the past year, merchants

These merchants argue that searchers using trademark names have already made a brand decision, and should be brought directly to the merchant’s site. They see no reason to pay an affiliate a fee for bringing them a customer who was trying to come to the merchant in the first place. These merchants are happy for affiliates to conduct paid search campaigns using generic keywords devoid of brand and trademark names – those keywords are bringing the merchants customers that might have gone to competitors.

You can see the trend here. Merchants began with a laissez-faire attitude about paid search, allowing affiliates free reign to use any keywords in their campaigns, happy to make the extra sales. Now, merchants are increasingly clamping down because they want those sales for themselves. Not only do they save the fees they’d have to pay to the affiliates, but they may be able to bid lower for their branded keywords because they’ve reduced the number of companies that can bid against them.

Unfortunately, no matter what a merchant does to block its affiliates from buying branded keywords, competitors can’t always be blocked, because the merchant has no control over them. The merchant can buy just one ad per branded keyword, but the search engines always show several ads on each result screen. Although the merchant might have the top paid spot, who has the rest of the spots?

Before that merchant began blocking its affiliates, the bulk of those other ads were likely from its affiliates. Searchers who clicked on those affiliate ads (and bought) were still buying from the merchant, even if the merchant had to shell out higher fees than if the searchers had purchased without coming through an affiliate.

But Randy Antin, search marketing manager of Travelocity, notes that when his company restricted its affiliates from bidding on branded keywords, “the spaces in the bidding were soon replaced by our competitors’ affiliates.” Searchers clicking anything other than Travelocity’s single ad might end up buying from a competitor. Yahoo has recently changed its policy to block competitors from using trademarks, but it remains to be seen if other search engines will follow suit.

Some merchants believe they should treat search results the same way they would treat shelf space in a grocery store – by filling it with their product. Those merchants might decide not to block affiliates from bidding on branded keywords because they want every paid search result to sell their product, whether it is direct from the merchant or through an affiliate. Although merchants and affiliates must work together to be successful, it’s inevitable that they’ll have channel conflicts – especially in search marketing practices.

MIKE MORAN is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and the manager of IBM.com Web Experience. Mike is also co-author of the book Search Engine Marketing, Inc. His website is www.mikemoran.com.