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Demand Media and the Decline of the Content Farm

December 19, 2013

An article in Variety, “Epic Fail: the Rise and Fall of Demand Media” can be read as a cautionary tale for the search engine optimization and content marketing crowd. Just a few short years ago, the newly-public, five-year-old company out of Santa Monica saw its market capitalization top $2 billion. Now, however, writer Andrew Wallenstein contrasts that success with the company’s status today. Demand Media is now worth about a quarter of its peak value, and was forced into several rounds of layoffs this year.

The company is prudently turning its focus to its successful side—domain registrations—and Wallenstein predicts the media side will soon be sold off or taken private. What went wrong? Well, we’ve always maintained that a building a business, nay an industry, around gaming Google‘s search engine was just asking for trouble.

The article recalls:

“Early on, Demand used [its domain-name registration service’s] 1 million generic domain names (such as ‘’) to serve up relevant ads to people searching for specific topics. These ‘domain parking’ pages were immensely profitable, generating north of $100,000 per day, according to a former Demand exec who requested anonymity. ‘That’s $35 million-$40 million per year without doing any work,’ the exec said.

But the tactic was fundamentally a bait-and-switch. Users landed on the pages expecting to find information on a subject and instead found an ad. To try to drive up traffic, Demand shifted its strategy, populating the sites with thematically related content….

Demand then continued to build out the content-farm strategy, treating the domain-name registration business as largely separate from the content-production arm. Paying contributors comparatively little — usually less than $20 for a single article or video — it built up a stockpile of content against which it sold targeted advertising.”

This tactic (responsible for much of the useless content populating the Web) exploded and was adopted by copy-cats. Since then, however, both users and Google’s algorithm have wised up, making content farms much less profitable. On the bright side, this means less incentive to fill websites with baloney. Hooray!

Cynthia Murrell, December 19, 2013

Sponsored by, developer of Augmentext

Vocus Hits the Big Time: The New York Times That Is

November 25, 2013

Who cares about news releases? Apparently quite a few folks do. I read “Swatting at a Swarm of Public Relations Spam.” I thought the write up was interesting, but it seemed short on facts. Here’s the key passage in my opinion:


I liked this part. Also interesting was this passage:

But this one step seemed insufficient. P.R. spam is fed by companies that hire P.R. companies that pay database companies like Vocus, or their handful of competitors. So if you want to focus on root causes, you must ask: Why would any company spend money to blanket reporters with email they didn’t ask for and almost surely don’t want?

We have tested one of the Vocus systems and discovered some interesting factoids. Keep in mind that your mileage may vary:

ITEM. I did a story for based on my research for an uptown investment back. We submitted a short news release to PR Web, a Vocus “property.” The publicity professional I use reported that PR Web told her that I was not a recognized authority to PR Web. Furthermore, the information about Google’s investments in synthetic biology were not known so the news release would not be distributed. I found this interesting because the investment bank who commissioned the initial research published a report and the Citizentekk story generated some buzz and follow on commentary.

Is PR spam a food? Image source:

ITEM. One of the editors for the Search Wizards Speak series of interviews tracked down the co founder of Silobreaker. This is an intelligence oriented online system that has a very strong following among the police and intelligence services in the European Community. We were told that my publicity person had to verify who she was and then provide two phone numbers for me and a valid email address. This was after PR Web had my Visa card and the short news release highlighting two key points in the interview.,

ITEM: Vocus pays its president $5 million per year. (Source: Hoover’s Company Records). At the same time, the October 23, 2013 quarterly financial results reported declining revenue ($45.217 millio0n against $46.615 million a year earlier). The net loss was $3.85 million against a net loss of 3.851 a year earlier. (You will need a subscription to Reportlinker to view other details or you can dig out the numbers at

ITEM: Vocus is involved in a legal matter with an outfit called BWP Media USA doing business as Pacific Coast News. I am no attorney so the matter may be without merit. The dispute seems to involve copyright violations. Source: US District Court, Maryland, Case 8:13-cv-03322-RWT. I would reproduce the image attached to the legal document I saw but I found it unsettling.

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Attensity Backtracks To SEO

November 21, 2013

While SEO is a game changer for companies in Internet searches, it is not as big of a major player as it used to be. The SEO Journal highlighted, “Attensity, Amdocs, TOA Technologies Provide A Glimpse Into The Future Through A Catalyst Demonstration At Tm Forum’s Digital Disruption 2013” and that came as a big surprise. Attensity is a respected and recognizable name, so why are they publicizing themselves in the SEO arena? Is the company struggling to brand its identity?

Anyway, Attensity was one of ten companies that collaborated on a demonstration to show the lifecycle of digital services from design to making a profit. There is a spiel about how it is important to understand a client’s needs and that big data analytics are part of that understanding process. The demonstration did point out that people who only use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with providers makes it hard to track data. Attensity has a product called Attensity Respond to translate social media data.

The article states:

“The Catalyst team demonstrated a new solution showing how to proactively monitor, detect and interpret technical device, data and network experience issues and drive effective issue resolution while also monetizing the collected data to drive smart cross/up sell across channels. The team followed the industry standards developed by TM Forum enhancing the Customer Experience Lifecycle Model.”

Attensity did show off a usable product, but the concentration of SEO is still bothering us. Does this relate to a bigger change that is on the horizon? If this is the case, it is a troubling idea.

Whitney Grace, November 21, 2013

Sponsored by, developer of Augmentext

Primer That Leads to Adwords

November 7, 2013

If you are into search engine optimization, you will need this Google publication: Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide. Useful for those whose jobs depend on traffic. There are some challenges in getting SEO centric traffic. My observation is that following the Starter Guide is a bit of a detour. Just buy  Adwords. That’s the future of traffic, gentle reader.

Stephen E Arnold, November 7, 2013

Tips in the SEO Struggle against the Hummingbird

October 24, 2013

Hummingbird, the latest iteration in Google’s continuing quest to improve its search-engine results, has the SEO crowd concerned. Everything PR offers these folks some advice in, “What Content Strategies Work for Google Hummingbird SEO.” SEO professionals, who have built their careers by exploiting vulnerabilities in a service that is being constantly updated, can be tenacious. The article points out that, with Hummingbird, Google is now keeping back what used to be one of SEO’s primary tools, the keyword:

“Although keyword data is no longer provided, it doesn’t mean that Google stopped using keywords as a signal for its algorithm – it just means that you don’t know about it. You cannot know which keywords perform, how customers find you in search… Creating content seems an impossible guess work, that may, or may not lead anywhere.

“In fact, things are not that complicated. As always, instead of focusing on general keywords, focus on the ‘long tail.’ Optimize for the most relevant phrases likely to be used by searchers to find information. Hummingbird seems a bit more intelligent than Google’s previous algorithm, allowing the search engine to parse full questions (as opposed to parsing searches word-by-word).”

The write-up explains that Google’s changes are in pursuit of a more conversation-like interface, and recommends making one’s content “conversation-worthy.” Here’s a thought—perhaps content written to communicate ideas and information is naturally more conversational than content crafted as a search-results ploy.

Cynthia Murrell, October 24, 2013

Sponsored by, developer of Augmentext

Number One on Google: A Darned Amazing Sales Push

October 4, 2013

It is five pm eastern time. I am still trying to figure out who called me from 916 219 9230 and made a startling assertion even for an under employed Sacramento outfit.

Our system can deliver a number one position for your company on a Google results list.

My understanding is that Google uses a number of factors to determine what displays in response to a user’s query. Google personalizes results using a user’s search history. Google crunches hundreds of factors to determine relevancy. Google may, according to some disbelievers, consider advertisers and their advertisements.

Now I get a telemarketing call promising me,, a number one ranking. I needed only to press one on my telephone keypad.

Well, I pressed one and was connected to a telemarketer who refused to answer my questions about the relationship of the company making this pitch and Google. When I asked which Google office was working with the firm calling me, the young man said, “Do you even know where Google is located?”

I probed on the method and the telemarketer promptly disconnected me.

Several observations:

  1. SEO folks must be struggling to get work. Calling me in rural Kentucky is probably not going to result in a sale. I don’t care about traffic, and I don’t care about SEO.
  2. If Google is involved, which the caller hinted was true, has the automated advertising system failed to keep the ad revenue flowing. The premise of the ad system is that a human does not get involved unless the advertiser makes a goof with the product advertised or with the language used in the ad. The human system does not get exercised too strenuously if the reports about Google’s approach to certain types of products is indeed accurate. But telemarketing? That’s interesting.
  3. Perhaps the positive economic news flooding from CNBC and similar sources is not 100 percent accurate.Telemarketing reminds me of the Popeil Pocket Fisherman and fly-by-night window companies trying to get 70 year olds like me to buy a storm door after a no cost, no obligation assessment.

I wanted to document my first SEO telemarketing call. Maybe this is a trend? Maybe it is a new way to boost online advertising? Maybe it is an easy way for scam artists to hide behind a phone number like 916 219 9230.

I enjoyed the call. I like it when telemarketers get frustrated with me and hang up. Desperation from telemarketers sounds like failure.

Stephen E Arnold, October 4, 2013

Struggle Continues Between Google and SEO Field

September 19, 2013

ZDNet has caught our attention with the provocative headline, “Did Google Just Kill PR Agencies?” Alas, we doubt that anyone can “kill” PR. However, Google’s new link and keyword rules do limit some of the tools in the public-relations toolkit. Specifically, anything Google views as outright PageRank manipulation will be considered part of a “link scheme,” and a violation of their Webmaster Guidelines. The PageRank police seem particularly concerned about those who seed pages with irrelevant links and optimized anchor text.

Writer Tom Foremski cries foul. He expects that, for example, press releases that repeat the use of an important word will be penalized for keyword stuffing. He also takes issue with the prohibition against links within anchor text distributed to multiple sites, since pushing press releases and other promotional content to a range of sites is a common practice. In short, the industry is being punished for methods that have become routine. Foremski summarizes:

PR agencies face three big problems:

– Their current and former clients could become very upset with them because of perfectly acceptable prior PR practices designed to promote their business — instead of the viral, organic growth based on happy customers, which is what Google now wants to see.

– PR agencies could be held liable for the damage they caused to the online reputation of client businesses through the execution of normal practices. It could lead to legal action and compensation claims on millions of dollars in lost sales.

– PR agencies have to wake up to the fact that Google is now their competitor. How do they promote a client when Google punishes any form of paid online promotion? Good luck with that one.

Sigh. I’m sorry, but from here this all feels very American MBA-ish. Will PR companies really throw in the towel in the face of this evolving challenge? Somehow, I think they will find ways to adapt. In fact, they will most likely devise methods even more intrusive than those Google is working to banish. So, no worries.

Cynthia Murrell, September 19, 2013

Sponsored by, developer of Augmentext

Boom Coming in SEO Opportunities

September 14, 2013

I know that relevance, precision, recall, and the other oddments of information retrieval are toast. With certain European academics pumping “good enough” search, the future of findability looks less than sunny.

There is a bright side I suppose. I read “Report Suggests Nearly Half of US Jobs Are Vulnerable to Computerization.” The idea is that software and gizmos will allow people unprecedented free time to practice high value crafts.

Here’s the passage I noticed:

The authors [Oxford researchers] believe this takeover will happen in two stages. First, computers will start replacing people in especially vulnerable fields like transportation/logistics, production labor, and administrative support. Jobs in services, sales, and construction may also be lost in this first stage. Then, the rate of replacement will slow down due to bottlenecks in harder-to-automate fields such engineering. This “technological plateau” will be followed by a second wave of computerization, dependent upon the development of good artificial intelligence. This could next put jobs in management, science and engineering, and the arts at risk.

My take on this is that the search engine optimization industry may be a good place to offer one’s expertise as a “thought leader.” SEO work may be as gratifying as working at a fast food joint. It may also be easier and pay more. A back up to consider is content management consulting. That’s a sector where success is elusive and tomfoolery not unknown.

Stephen E Arnold, September 14, 2013

Search Engine Optimization and the Google Search Rewrite

August 4, 2013

I read an amazing article called “In Mastering Machine Intelligence, Google Rewrites Search Engine Rules.” For a person who takes a casual interest in Google, the write up appears to be “about” artificial intelligence and search engine optimization or SEO.

For a Google watchers, the article contains a number of gem-like assertions and a couple of factoids that warrant discussion.

First, let’s look at the gem-like assertions.

Artificial intelligence. The article highlights the Google[x] Labs’ self-driving vehicle. This is a project nominally under the direction of the person who created an online learning system. The idea is that a self-driving vehicle demonstrates prowess in “artificial intelligence,” a term which is not defined. Another example is Google’s voice-to-text capability. The article emphasizes “artificial intelligence.” In my work, the performance of Google’s voice-to-text is more dependent on knowledgebases and brute force methods than “artificial intelligence.” The third example is embedded in this passage:

Google has finally started to figure out how to stop bad actors from gaming its crown jewel – the Google search engine. We say finally because it’s something Google has always talked about, but, until recently, has never actually been able to do.

The idea combines “artificial intelligence” with figuring out how search results have been shaped by search engine optimization experts. The idea behind SEO is that when a user enters a query, the search system displays the link to the Web page that the SEO expert is boosting. Relevance to the user? Well, maybe not so much. The result is that “relevance” is not longer precision and recall. Relevance is what I interpret as a spoof, a trick, or a cheat.

And what about SEO? Forget that I think SEO is a stepping stone to buying online advertising or paying money to appear in a results list. A more subtle version of this is the filtering that some news release vendors do to ensure that nothing enters the stream which is negative to a certain gatekeeper. Each of these actions contributes to distortion of search results. Users may get information which is incomplete or presented to advance a specific agenda such as the SEO expert’s client.

Here’s what the article says about SEO:

Google chasing down and excluding content from bad actors is a huge opportunity for web content creators. Creating great content and working with SEO professionals from inception through maintenance can produce amazing results. Some of our sites have even doubled in Google traffic over the past 12 months. So don’t think of Google’s changes as another offensive in the ongoing SEO battles. If played correctly, everyone will be better off now.

What’s between the examples of Google’s “artificial intelligence” and the blunt “factoid” that SEO is really important?

The answer is a series of tips about content. The idea is that a Web site which must render correctly on any device has to contain certain characteristics or features. I don’t want to repeat what’s in the source article, but I can flag three points that I found interesting:

  1. Keep sites simple. The author’s phrase is “clean, well-structured site architecture.” Now how many legacy sites are “clear and well structured”? In my experience, exactly zero. Legacy sites are everywhere. Anyone who has tried to reengineer a legacy site knows that the work required is like plastic surgery on an unattractive person — expensive and almost certain to disappoint. Talk is easy. Remediating a legacy site is something that few organizations in today’s financial environment embrace eagerly.
  2. Content: interesting, open, and original. Who creates knowingly uninteresting, closed, and imitative content? My thought is that SEO experts, marketing managers who do not know what makes content sing or just stand without stumbling, and folks who think they are a combination of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen. Remember college freshman English? Remember how many students cranked out disappointing essays week after week? Are those folks doing Web content? Some are.
  3. Markup. Yep, the glory of unstructured content sucks up processing cycles. The future belongs to tagged content which conforms to the guidelines promulgated by some large, irritable gorillas. Author tag? Insert it, now. Follow the rules or the “artificial intelligence” will give you a lower grade just like that college teacher grading those English 101 personal experience essays.

My reaction to this article is positive. Here’s why:

First, the summary of the problems with Google’s Web search system are clearly articulated. The author of the article has first hand experience dealing with queries that generate results which are surprising or unexpected.

Second, the article illustrates how the general perception of Google’s preeminent position in search has become part of the furniture of living. Even facts about flawed results do not tarnish the belief that Google’s artificial intelligence is outstanding and getting better.

Third, the unwavering support of SEO is exactly what the SEO experts need. Many firms have spent large sums of money on SEO only to see no significant impact. Some SEO activities make clients really happy? Is this because clients were clueless in the first place? Other SEO activities produce cancelled contracts. Is this because a particular site was demoted or removed from the index?

I urge you to read the article. Spend much money on SEO. Follow the guidelines for “better” content. Life will be good. Remember. One can buy traffic or use online advertising to produce visitors to a Web site. Are the visitors going to buy? Well, that’s not part of the source document’s analysis. Hire and SEO expert to explain the details.

Stephen E Arnold, August 4, 2013

Sponsored by Xenky

Endeca Does SEO

July 9, 2013

Web services firm Thanx Media reveals, within their Site Search solutions menu, the existence of a product we find quite interesting: apparently, Endeca has entered the search engine optimization (SEO) space. The description tells us:

Oracle Endeca’s Search Engine Marketing (SEM) technology provides a proven method for accelerating the optimization of websites and improving natural search results. The technology automates the process of exposing your content to Web search engines in a highly consumable and search engine friendly format.

Your business can boost the value of your Oracle Endeca investment and benefit from:

  • Higher website traffic.
  • Increase the number pages indexed by search engines by more than 500%.
  • Improved quality of indexed pages.
  • A 60% reduction in development hours spent optimizing landing pages for SEO.
  • Improve Natural Search sales by as much as 50%.

A curious move from Endeca. The module generates sitemaps as well as optimizing and redirecting URLs. Even before it was snapped up by Oracle in 2011, the company was at the fore of the faceted search field, with hundreds of customers in areas from ecommerce to intelligence. Endeca was formed in 1999, and is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Cynthia Murrell, July 09, 2013

Sponsored by, developer of Augmentext

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