March 18, 2012
Free High-Quality Content Online - How Much Longer?
Based on hundreds of conversations I've had with regular people who use the Internet on a daily basis to find things, most really have no idea how many websites exist, stay in business, or operate.
I've come away with the feeling that most people think the websites are just there and that some invisible gnomes produce the content or turn the crank to ensure the website stays running.
That's not the case. Websites like my primary website, AsktheBuilder.com, are full-time businesses and just like a bricks and mortar store, there are bills to pay every day.
What's about to happen in my opinion, because of major underlying changes on the inner workings of the Internet - all invisible to the casual person using the Web, is that many websites that offered free high-quality content are not going to do it for much longer.
Many of these websites are going to disappear because the traffic they used to get is going to vaporize. The websites that can adapt to recent and continued harsh changes will survive because they'll start to make visitors pay for the content in several different ways.
In the Beginning
When I launched AsktheBuilder.com in the fall of 1995, I was selling ads myself directly to building product manufacturers. It was very hard to do, because most manufacturers of building products back in the late 1990's didn't have websites.
Those that did just pushed the content from their printed brochures onto their website. Virtually none of them did any type of online sales, so it was impossible to track how well an online ad converted at the bottom of the sales funnel. This made it harder to sell ads because the manufacturers felt the ads were doing no good.
But as time went on, the tools got better, technology improved and other ways to sell ads came along. However, it wasn't until mid 2003 that there was a tectonic shift in the Internet allowing just about any content website to easily monetize visitors.
The Google AdSense program empowered millions of websites to serve ads to the visitors of the websites - ads that were directly relevant to the content found at those sites. Visitors to the websites found these ads very helpful as they related to the problems they were trying to solve. If you were at a website about improving your tennis game, you'd see ads for tennis rackets, tennis balls and elbow and knee pain medication, not ads for roofers and plumbers.
All the website owner had to do was get approved and then place some simple code on the website pages. Google did the rest. Google sold the ad to the advertiser, Google collected the money from the advertiser and Google handled all the technology that allowed the ads to magically appear on a website page. Believe it or not, the individual websites got the lion's share of the ad money paid to Google by the advertiser.
This money was like crack cocaine to many of the website owners. The website didn't have to hire salespeople to sell the ads, they didn't have to have an accounts receivable department waiting to get the checks from the advertisers, they just had to have visitors come to the website and click the ads they saw inside the content. Google magically mailed the checks to the website owners or did direct deposit into the website's bank account.
Each time a visitor clicked an ad, the website made money. Some websites made millions of dollars per year.
But just like the old saying, "The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away", Google did the same thing. Some websites started to get greedy and successfully gamed the system. Google would do their best to eliminate them. But it got worse.
Massive corporations set up systems that would disgorge tens of thousands of low-quality articles onto the Internet each day to take advantage of this mammoth fire hose of money aimed at the websites. The websites these corporations set up were called content farms.
The content farm websites would pay people $5 or $10 for a column. The content farms handed out the assignments and the writers would go to websites like AsktheBuilder.com and direct copy a certain portion of my content using the Fair Use Doctrine. This allows a person to legally copy a certain percentage of the content from a publication without permission. All the writer has to do is cite the place it came from.
You can see that a writer could visit four different home improvement websites and produce a column for the content farm website in about 10 minutes. Seriously, that's all the longer it takes to cobble together a column by using the copy/paste feature in a computer.
The columns produced by these content farms began to rank higher in search results than my work. It was insane, as I was the original creator of the content. The content farms were using writers that had no actual experience in the topics they were compiling.
Google Changes the Landscape
In February 2011, Google did another tectonic shift called the Panda Update. This change to the search algorithm - the mathematical formula that produces the search results you and I see - was supposed to punish these content farms and reward the creators of original content.
It's my belief that this was a Trojan Horse. I say this because there are still many content farms in existence that have used my content. The columns I see still rank higher than me in the search results.
On that dark day in February of 2011, AsktheBuilder.com lost 50 percent of its traffic overnight. It's never come back, even though I was supposed to be rewarded according to Google's official press releases.
Here's the exact text from their now-famous blog post announcing the Panda update:
"This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites--sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites--sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on."
You can't get more original than me. There are but a handful of us home improvement people online that have decades of hands-on work experience that create original content. My content is so original, that the content farm ehow.com has cited me over 13,000 times. My content is copied constantly by them.
Yet as of today, over a year after the Panda update, thousands of pages on ehow.com are still on page one search results of Google outranking my original columns that were copied to create the ehow.com pages. If that's not a trojan horse - meaning the Panda update is really something else, I don't know what is.
Well, I have a hypothesis. Over the years I was invited to the Google campus many times. I sat in on meetings and I heard the top management folks talk on numerous occasions.
One of the favorite words in the Google lexicon is 'scale'. Google loves things that scale - which mean gets big fast. I can't scale. I can't write hundreds or thousands of high-quality columns per day. That's what Google needs, and guess who can do it? All those content farmers.
Google needs a perfectly matched column with a title tag that's an exact match for the things people type into Google. That way they can serve up a column that the visitor THINKS is what they want.
Content farms can disgorge thousands of low-quality columns per day. Imagine if Google were actually feeding them secretly the exact keyword phrases that people type into Google! You don't think this is possible? I can tell you for a fact that Google does share the keyword phrases with certain companies.
And if Google doesn't share them with the farmers, the content farms can buy them from all the ISPs around the USA. You access the Internet through an ISP. Read their terms of service. They "see" everything you type. They capture the keyword phrases you type into Google and store them. They sell these to companies like WordTracker and Keyword Discovery. It makes sense that a content farm could buy all the search terms too.
It's All About Money
Here in the USA the top management and board of directors of corporations are charged with making the most money possible for the shareholders. If they don't, the shareholders can actually take legal action against them.
If you go back in time to 2010 or even 2009 and look at the annual reports that Google is required to file for the shareholders you'll discover an interesting thing. The vast lion's share of Google's income is derived from the advertising you see on Google's website.
Believe me, they've squeezed as much blood from that turnip as they can. Just read up on Quality Score with respect to AdWords accounts and you'll see that Google can easily manipulate what each advertiser pays them. Certain advertisers pay MORE to Google than other advertisers, even though they're bidding on the same keywords.
But what about the AdSense side of the business? Well, for years, I believe, not much changed there. Google, back in 2003 when the AdSense program launched, pretty much paid all websites running AdSense the same money.
Remember, when you put AdSense ads on your website, you're just brokering an ad for Google. It's just an AdWords ad that you'd see on the Google website. Google was not transparent for years on what they were paying websites like AsktheBuilder.com, but eventually it came out. Websites like AsktheBuilder.com got 68 percent of the ad revenue that the advertiser was paying to Google. Google kept 32 percent.
Can you imagine this conversation at a private board meeting at Google back in early 2011?
"We need to make MORE money for us and the shareholders," mumbles board member #1.
Board member #2 exclaims, "Hey, I've got an idea! We're already making as much as possible on the AdWords side of the business, but not AdSense. I did some research and discovered that the massive content farms now have enough columns to cover 97% of the searches done on Google.
I suggest we go make a secret deal with them. Instead of us paying them the 68 percent cut, we pay them only 45 percent. That increases our revenue by an astounding 72 percent!!! (Remember, Google got 32 cents of every dollar on an AdSense click, but now would get 55 cents per this board member's suggestion.)
But to make sure the content farms still stay in business supplying US with the content results WE NEED when people search, we'll make up the lost revenue to them in volume.
We'll put MORE of their pages on Page One of our search results and everyone's happy."
Well, Mr. Board Member #2, not everyone. The tens of thousands of websites like AsktheBuilder.com who got put in the back of the bus aren't happy. Don't forget, we're the one's supplying the *original content* to the content farms. If we go out of business, where do the content farms get their material?
And I can assure you that millions of consumers are not happy as the quality of the Google search results has diminished. Don't believe me? Just do a survey.
Let's get back to the whole content farm situation.
If a content farm is scaling to satisfy Google's appetite, then Google and the content farm win. I know this for a fact, because it happens at my website every day. Just like the sun going up and down each day, a certain percentage of people click ads each day. This generates revenue. In Google's fantasy world, they WANT a column written for every single phrase that's ever typed into Google. More columns means MORE MONEY for Google.
Content farms are the only ones that can do this for them. This, in my opinion, is one reason you've not seen the content farms disappear from the Google index.
In April 2012, another 20 percent of my traffic evaporated. I'm not alone, as tens of thousands of other content websites of all different types have suffered a similar fate. You don't have to be a CPA to see what happens to a website's revenue if it loses 65 or 70 percent of its traffic.
Think what happens to a regular business on one side of a bridge when the bridge washes out. The traffic that used to pass by each day disappears going to the detour instead. Right now tens of thousands of visitors that used to stop by my AsktheBuilder.com website are using Google's detour to stop by ehow.com and the other content farms that are helping Google.
Social Media Equals Social Proof
One of the yardsticks that the search engines seem to be using to help determine what's a good webpage and what's not are social media votes. You may see graphics like this one at websites.
It's very important that you vote by clicking those buttons. It tells the search engines that you value the content. That it's worthy of the attention of others.
Don't overlook this very important, but often misunderstood, tool.
It absolutely will help sites like AsktheBuilder.com survive in the new Internet order.
Pay to Play
People I talk to on a regular basis have been telling me they think the quality of the search results is getting worse. I tend to agree. That could be happening for a number of reasons.
But one thing's for sure. There exists a vast marketplace were millions go each day to get paid content for any number of reasons:
I'm sure there are other reasons, but those stated above work for me. Keep in mind that millions of people don't trust the information they see on websites. Much of the content on the Internet is not produced by experts in the field.
Believe it or not, many articles you read online are written by people with little or no training in the topic they are writing about. Don't believe me? Then make sure each time you take tips from a forum post, a website, or Facebook that you go read the detailed biography about the author.
In my own field of home improvement, you'd be shocked to discover that only a very tiny handful of writers, video stars, etc. have any real hands-on field experience where they had to collect pay checks from real homeowners like you.
Each day I go up against hobby bloggers who have never been on a real job site, they don't know how to use power tools and they've never had to do a job for a paying customer.
But with a fancy website, they trick you into thinking they're an *expert*.
All of a sudden this free information thing online isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially when you're using that information to invest thousands of dollars in your home. Are you one who trolls around the Internet hoping that you find the correct answer? Don't forget, hope is the emotion of last resort. You hope for things when you can't control the outcome.
When you purchase content from a trusted source that has the background and experience, you don't hope. You know you're getting great information.
My First Ebook - 1999
I wrote my first ebook about crown molding in 1999 at the urging of two friends who had spent years working in the dead-tree publishing industry. Both of them saw the need for the instant transfer of information from a seller to a buyer in need. A person at 10 pm at night can't wait for two days for that book about How To Unclog a Toilet (I will probably have a short ebook about that soon). They need the information NOW.
Smartphones, tablets and devices like the Kindle, Kindle Fire, Android tablets, and Kindle software for computers have broken down the barricades to buying content and making it work for you.
Steve Jobs helped crack the code by selling individual songs for 99 cents. The explosion of small apps that are being used on smartphones and tablets has also trained millions of consumers to pay small amounts of money for things that help them.
That's where I'm at now. Content that's lived on my website for free for years is migrating just like animals across the Serengeti Plain in East Africa. It's starting to slowly move into high-quality eBooks and to enhanced downloadable pdf files you'll see for sale at the AsktheBuilder.com store.
Visitors to my site and the vast stores on Amazon and iTunes will be able to purchase solutions to their problems in a matter of seconds. I started an experiment on YouTube six weeks ago that's also working. You can watch two videos of a four-video set for free. But if you want me to show you how to finish the job, you have to pay. People are paying each day.
I uploaded my first ebook, How to Grout Ceramic Floor Tile, to the Amazon Kindle store six weeks ago and it's selling well.
Sure, you may be one who feels that information should be free and you'll see ice cream sold in Hell before you pay for content. Well, so be it. I'm not trying to change your behavior.
All I'm trying to do is satisfy those who understand that another old saying rings very true when it comes to information on the Internet - you know the saying - "You get what you pay for."
Well, since there's no traffic and advertisers to pay the bills, the money is going to have to come from some other source. I predict that it's going to come from savvy consumers that value the hard work and effort put in to create first-class content.
We'll just have to wait to see. Kenny Chesney said it best in his hit song, Only Time Will Tell, But It Aint Talkin'.
Posted by Tim Carter at March 18, 2012 5:27 PM