SEO Question: Hello, How do site suchs as: ____ and _____ work with flat fees Where everyone else charges us up the wazoo.
Do you offer such a program for my business. – Thanks, Paul
Short answer: “Laws control the lesser man. Right conduct controls the greater one.” – Mark Twain
Some People Provide Value, Others Steal Money
Long answer: Believe it or not, at one point in time I was an SEO client who bought a trashy scammy service. The site I was trying to market was terrible, they offered no link building solutions for it, and instead suggested I create copies of pages on the site with hidden links pointing back and forth to try to rank well for some obscure 5 word phrases that nobody searches for.
Now those people could have told me that my site was a poor website and I can improve it by doing x, y, and z. But they didn’t care about the actual outcome of the work. They just wanted $149 and they got it. That was over six years ago, and they are still scamming people today.
Many Big Organizations Sell Scammy No-Value SEO Services
Most SEO buyers are allured by the prospect of free traffic and that free price-point sets their anchoring for the price. Further their first introduction to SEO comes from non-SEO. Many web hosts, domain registrars, clueless web designers (who talk up web standards but do no actual SEO research), and sleazy telemarketers offer low priced flat rate packages that have no value. Some of the domain registrars and web hosts run on such thin margins that they would be bankrupt without selling stuff like the scammy bolt on no value SEO packages. To highlight such scams I created dollarseo.com to show how they did not work.
Which Creates a Market For Lemons Effect
John Andrews also highlighted this issue in the past, in a post about a market for lemons, comparing the market for SEO services to the used car market:
As non-selling good cars were removed from the market, masquerading “lemons” dominated, setting the tone for the used car market, and further blocking actually good used cars from appearing. In the end, the used car market becomes a market for lemons, not a used car market.
It seems SEO has the same problem. As “boiler-room” SEO firms cold-call companies and pitch ridiculously low prices for SEO contracts, based on old and incorrect SEO information readily accessible to consumers, high quality SEO firms start looking “too expensive”. Consumer research into SEO does not reveal better information, since that knowledge comprises a significant portion of the value SEO consulting, and is thus not freely published. The entire market for SEO services starts to become a market not for actual search engine optimization, but more a market for “snake oil SEO” than true SEO.
Consider the Baseline
To further put the economics of SEO in context, any great SEO should be able to profit from marketing their own websites about their own interests. If I was still interested in baseball cards (like I was in high school) I have no doubt that I could make 6 figures a year promoting a website about baseball cards. That interest faded. But any interests I have I can attempt to monetize. That sets the barrier kinda high for client services. Why would I market someone’s thin affiliate site selling Viagra cheaply when if I poured the same effort into my own sites which I love I would make far more profits?
Competent SEOs Have Many Options
Because of snake oil SEO salesmen (and people who want to buy something cheap) the SEO market is very hard to extract money from in service based businesses unless…
- you run your own publishing business (monetized through affiliate ads, contextual ads, lead generation, direct ad sales, creating & selling your own products + services) and optimize your own websites (which we do)
- you sell information and/or tools that others can use to apply to learning SEO (which we do)
- you sell other niche services (like keyword research or link building) that help clients, but are only a piece of the overall strategy (we do not do too much of this, but sometimes do)
- you have very few select high end client relationships (which we do)
- you hire a bunch of salesmen to sell worthless trash to the bottom 80% of the consumer market. (which we do NOT do)
This site is about 90% of my labor and about 30% of our profit. But we still run it for a variety of reasons…
- it is one of my favorite hobbies
- income diversity
- running this site (and interacting with hundreds of smart SEOs) helps give us more feedback on international markets and inform some of marketing strategies
- there are a lot of ways to make money online that are somewhat dirty, but this site is pure as snow and helps thousands of families put food on their tables.
Some Markets Are Competitive & Expensive
Anyone who is selling flat rate SEO services is selling a service priced without exploring the market and learning how competitive it is. Ranking well for credit cards might be worth millions of dollars. But it might also cost that much to rank. Ranking for Salem, Oregon bus rental is far easier and can be done using less than 1% of the capital investment.
Worse yet (for the consumer of a flat rate SEO service), SEO is a winner take most market. Most people click on the first page of the search results, with most those clicks happening on the top few listings. So lets say one of the flat rate companies was surprisingly not a scam and actually gave a crap about your business. This is doubtful in most cases, but lets just consider it. Well if they under-price the flat rate and rank you on page 2 or 3 you still are not going to get very much traffic, and (in spite of them trying their best on limited resources) you still probably lost money because page 3 of the search results = fail.
Is Google Flat Rate?
And here is another way of looking at it. Google AdWords doesn’t sell their keywords for a flat rate. The words live in an auction that rises and falls with consumer demand. At the same time, advertisers who are paying Google over $10,000,000,000 a year are starting to put some of that budget into organic SEO. With the average SEO employee earning roughly $80,000 a year it is hard to believe that an outsourced discount flat rate package can compete.
Flat Rate Dream Homes Located in _____ for Only $5,000
I am not sure who came up with this analogy. I think it was Danny Sullivan (he is always great with those), but how many contractors do flat rate home building? Probably 0 legitimate ones. Everything is important from the foundation, to the number of rooms, to the materials used, and any special requests need to be considered.
Knowing if the house is on the side of the mountain, if it needs rocks cleared away, if it is in a swamp and could sink is important. Likewise legitimate SEO consulting aims to know the direction of the market, understand the brand, evaluate domain name selection, survey the market, and assess strengths and weaknesses.
Only AFTER all that work has been done to establish a foundation then you have to establish a well researched market strategy and keyword strategy. Then you need to do push marketing and other forms of marketing to build links. You might need to build 100 or 100,000 to compete. No matter how perfect your site is optimized, you generally are not going to rank for competitive keywords until AFTER some link building has been done. On-page optimization has a glass ceiling.
Rarely, if ever, do flat rate SEO service providers build quality links. And if the do buy them, then it is generally to some prescribed generic schedule rather than a specific plan catered to your market and your website. And while the provider is stuck working within that flat rate someone else is subscribing to sites like this one, learning SEO, and aggressively reinvesting their profits to further build a competitive advantage.
It is very hard for an outsourced discount service to compete with a self-interested business owner.
In the markets worth being in, pre-defined flat rate SEO rarely gets it done.
Posted by R.W. Casandra Date: Sunday, August 23, 2009
Are you making enough money from your website?
There are a number of ways to monetize a site. Aaron covers the options in extensive detail in the “Monetization” members area , however today we’ll take a close look at just one aspect of monetization, Affiliate Marketing.
What Is Affiliate Marketing
Affiliate Marketing is a marketing method whereby one business rewards another business for sending customers, visitors and/or sales.
Mostly, affiliate marketing rewards come in the form of revenue share on a sale. Site A (the affiliate) funnels visitors to Site B (the merchant). If a transaction is completed by the merchant, the affiliate receives a commission on the sale. Do this numerous times a day in a high-margin area, such as loans, and both the affiliate and the merchant can make a lot of money.
Affiliate marketing is nothing new.
In the carpet markets in Turkey, you get pestered by salesmen whos job is to tempt you off the street and across the threshold of a carpet shop. He – its invariably a he – might get paid for bringing you to the door (the online equivalent is equivalent to cost-per-click), or, if you buy a carpet he receives a commission (cost per action). Or perhaps a mixture of the two.
The benefit to the merchant is that he doesn’t have to pay the full time wages of the salesman, and he only pays him on performance. The benefit to the salesman is that he doesn’t have to own a shop, carry merchandise, deal with transactions, or any of the other costs associated with running a carpet shop.
In 2006, MarketingSherpa estimated online affiliates worldwide earned US$6.5 billion in bounty and commissions
The Players & How It Works
The Affiliate Marketing industry consists of three core players:
- The Merchant
- The Affiliate
- The Prospective Customer
As the affiliate model became big business, further levels emerged, including sub-affiliates and affiliate networks. We’ll take a look at the role of the networks shortly.
The Pros Of Affiliate Marketing
Easy To Set-Up – You simply need to select a program, sign-up, add the tracking code to your site, and you’re good to go.
Focus On Your Core Skills – If SEO is your key skill, you can focus 100% on rankings and traffic generation. You leave all the customer handling, sales, returns, legal issues and transactions to someone else.
You’ll also be amongst esteemed company. The top affiliate marketers who use SEO to generate traffic typically rank amongst the highest-skilled SEOs. They live or die based solely on their ability to rank well in highly competitive areas.
Low Startup Costs – setting up commerce delivery online can require a lot of start-up investment. The affiliate need not invest anything other than some time. If one area doesn’t work out, the affiliate can quickly move onto another area. The merchant has to too many sunk costs to do likewise.
Multiple Income Streams – once you’ve honed your sills in one area, you can apply them to any area you choose. There is no limit to the number of merchants you can work for, so you are free to develop multiple revenue streams. Some merchants will give you ongoing revenues based on customer activities, too.
Cons Of Affiliate Marketing
Low Level Of Control – Unless you have a close relationship with your merchant, you have little control over offers.
If their competitors are offering better services and/or lower prices, you can’t counter unless the merchant changes their offer in line with the market. You’re also pretty much stuck with the same standard offer available to every other affiliate you’re competing against, making it difficult to differentiate.
There are exceptions.
Sometimes super affiliates – those affiliates who consistently put through high sales volumes – get offered special deals. It’s unlikely you’ll know what these deals are unless you become a super-affiliate. Some programs allow pricing control, but mostly, you’re dealing with cookie cutter offers.
Customer Base Not Locked In – The merchant keeps the customer.
Typically, you deliver the customer, the merchant pays you a one-time commission, then that customer remains theirs for all subsequent purchases. The value of the merchants business increases the more customers they have.
As an affiliate, you don’t tend to have lock-in on the customer. Some affiliate deals offer you on-going revenue, however.
High Competition – One of the pros of affiliate marketing is that is is easy to sign up and get started.
This is also a negative.
If it is easy for you to sign up, then it is easy for everyone to do likewise. There are new affiliate hordes arriving each and every day. The incentive for the merchant and affiliate network is to sign on as many performing affiliates as they can, so they don’t really care if you face ever increasing levels of competition.
This is why top affiliates look for private deals. More on this shortly.
PS: As I stated above, you’ll be amongst esteemed company. The top affiliate marketers who use SEO to generate traffic are typically very highly-skilled SEOs. They live or die based solely on their ability to rank well in highly competitive areas. These people will also be your competitors
Pay On Performance – This is a great option for the merchant. They only pay when they sell something. What this does is transfer all the advertising risk to you.
You may spend weeks or months on SEO and make no sales. This might not even be your fault. You get great rankings and traffic, but the merchant has an uncompetitive offer, or loses customers at the point of sale.
Middlemen – As the affiliate area has grown, so too have the number of middlemen.
The biggest middleman in the chain is the affiliate network. The affiliate network is the go-between linking the merchants with the affiliates. Commission Junction is one example.
The network often provides valuable reporting tools and tracking, as well as affiliate and merchant support. Of course, all this costs money and places an additional layer between the affiliate and the merchant. Whilst the network may provide benefits in terms of reporting and support, it also reduces the level of control and contact the affiliate has with the merchant.
Limited Growth Potential – Because you can’t lock in your customers or adapt deals to suit changing market conditions, growth potential is limited. Like the carpet salesman, you rely on a new stream of visitors each and every day with no way to grow what you do, other than by adding sub-affiliates.
There is a solution to many of these problems, however.
There are many affiliates making very good money following the model I have outlined above.
However, as affiliates get more and more successful, they often look to partner direct with merchants. This way, they cut out the middlemen – leaving more profit for the affiliate – and gain a closer relationship with the merchant.
Some affiliates structure the entire deal, and take a percentage of the merchants earnings over time. Whilst this approach requires upfront organization, the long term payoffs can be huge compared to the traditional network-driven affiliate model.
But how do you do it?
First, you need to look at areas where there is high returns and low levels of competition.
Make a list of merchants who have a web presence in your chosen area and have the ability to take online orders or inquiries. Approach these merchants directly. It’s a good idea if you can demonstrate potential traffic levels and sales, so come armed with this information.
Look to sign up exclusively i.e. you’re the only affiliate working with them. Also try to get a cut of ongoing revenue i.e. if the customers becomes a repeat customer, you receive repeat commissions. The bonus to the merchant is that you’re a salesman willing to work on a commission basis. There is little risk involved for the merchant, and most will be only too happy to at least consider your proposition.
These types of deals require a high deal of trust and transparency, so it’s unlikely you’ll get everything you want right away. Suggest a trial run to prove your worth, then negotiate favorable terms once you’ve proved yourself. If the merchant turns you down at that point, then you simply go to his/her competition, with your accumulated data, and make the same offer.
This way, you should be able to build up a private label affiliate system. You can bring on your own hand-picked sub affiliates to work with you, too, and if you’ve selected your market correctly, you should face little or no competition. As you have a close, direct relationship with the merchant, you can work on structuring product and service offerings that remain competitive. It becomes more of a partnership that can be nurtured and made valuable over time.
Some of the biggest money-making affiliate opportunities you’ll never hear about. That’s because they involve private label deals.
Posted by R.W. Casandra Date: Sunday, August 23, 2009
Recently I saw Barry Ritholtz mentioned that he was selling video recordings of a conference he put on for only $69, and some of the people who commented on his site wrote garbage like this:
These people have enough capital to try to trade the markets, but spending $69 for one of the most in depth and most current pieces of information about their livelihood is completely out of the question. Imagine having the gall to register on someone’s site to leave a comment like “where can we steal your work from.”
And yet this is normal (and expected) behavior on the web, even in fields directly connected money / finance / investing!!!
Every day I get some non-customers who acts that way as well. The noise does wear you down, and it really does highlight the problems with free. When some people get hooked on free they have no end to the demands, and no respect or appreciation for the work.
I personally handle all customer correspondence, which is why I recently had to increase prices to slow down our rate of growth. I am only 1 person. Customers rarely wait as long as a day for a response. This guy never sent in 3 requests, was rude and demanding and demeaning, is not even a paying customer, and expects free phone support for software worth hundreds of dollars that we give away for free.
Why would I care if that guy used our tools for free? Since he is rude I hope he can’t use them, such that any competent competitor interested in SEO has a competitive advantage over him. And that guy’s rudeness shows that he probably lacks the social skills to be successful on a large distributed social network.
When you chose your customers you are picking how much you will enjoy your job.
There are a lot of potential bad customers like that, and you don’t even want to suggest they become a paying customer. The only ways to handle people that are that rude are to either ignore them or tell them off to let them know they are not welcome in your business. If you play nice with a person that treats you like a doormat then it will only get worse in time.
The person who needs a lot of support BEFORE becoming a paying customer rarely becomes a profitable long-term customer. The person who needs a price break today expects a larger one tomorrow. They keep squeezing margins until you are a commodity and the model no longer works. It is just a path to self destruction because if you cater to such people you do not raise them up to your level, you lower yourself down to their level.
This reminds me of an important business lesson from a Dan Kennedy book called The Ultimate Success Secret that a great friend recommended I read about a year ago.
When I first started in the “success education business,” one of the few people in the country who was consistently effective at selling self-improvement audiocassette programs direct, face-to-face to executives and salespeople, gave me what turned out to be very, very good advice – he said: “Don’t waste your time trying to sell these materials to the people who need it the most. They won’t buy it. You should focus on selling to successful people who want to get even better.”
Over the years, I’ve demonstrated the validity of this to myself a number of different ways. And I’ve developed an explanation for it. There is what I now call “the self-esteem Catch-22 loop” at work here: in order for a person to invest directly in himself, which is what buying self-improvement materials is, he has to place value on himself, i.e. have high self-esteem, but if he has such high self-esteem, he is probably already doing well and does not have a critical need for this type of information; he will get marginal improvement out of it; but the person who needs it most does not place much value on himself, i.e. has relatively low self-esteem, which prohibits him from buying, believing in or using self-improvement materials.
I used to be all about making everything (or as much as possible) free because I liked helping people, but really most people won’t act on advice or respect it much unless they pay for it. Human nature is what it is, and there is no point fighting it.
At some point we may need to test moving from offering any tools for free to making everything paid just to filter out that noise. Such a move would likely cost us exposure, but most of that exposure is not leading to any tangible business anyhow.
Posted by R.W. Casandra Date: Sunday, August 23, 2009
The FTC recently announced guidelines for bloggers that requires that they disclose financial interests, freebies and paid reviews. This decision is seen as a shot across the bow of pay per post networks and bloggers who are monetizing through affiliate programs. The FTC has decided that compensation is the reason bloggers choose to write about a particular topic and that readers deserve to be informed about the financial relationship. The FTC logic is simple, “As much as those bloggers who receive these gifts would like to claim this isn’t the case, freebies like free laptops, trips, or gift cards are likely to influence a writer’s opinion of a product.”
On its face, the policy is defensible. As crusaders against Virtual Blight, we applaud the intent of this decision. Anything that raises the barrier to online scams, fraud and abuse even a little bit is a good thing. The FTC provides guidelines for responsible bloggers and theoretically eliminates a couple of the perks for bloggers, but it does virtually nothing to protect against fraud.
Going after bloggers’ compensation to fight online fraud is reminiscent of the RIAA attacks on individual file sharers and is just as likely to succeed. The absurdity of the power and inertia of a government bureaucracy combating individual bloggers is only matched by the ludicrous assumption the government could ever move fast enough to keep up with professional scammers who jump from domain to domain, host to host and country to country with a few mouse clicks. Prosecution could only be effective against mainstream bloggers with an established brand that are stationary targets, but these bloggers are not the right target.
Getting a proverbial free lunch in exchange for a presumably positive review may create the appearance that some bloggers are shills who lend their prestige and celebrity to their sponsors. That perception is not unreasonable, but the same charge could be made against almost every athlete, actor, musician or American Idol runner-up who profits from our celebrity culture.
Giving items to celebrities or other tastemakers in return for public exposure is a practice older than the printing press. If the FTC really wants to send a message about compensated endorsements and freebies, the answer is not to go after the mommy bloggers who get a free 42-pack of diapers. If the FTC were serious, they would begin arresting every actress wearing a designer gown to the Academy Awards and then round up the studio and network executives who rake in cash for product placements in movies and television shows.
Focus On Fraud
The statistics for online fraud are both staggering and predictable. Instead of being distracted by the sizzling, sensational charges of payola that re-appear every generation, the industry needs to focus on the billions of dollars of online fraud committed each year. According to the Center for American Progress, Internet-related consumer complaints are among the top ten in consumer complaints in 2008 and the number one complaint in four states. These complaints run from auction fraud and non-delivery of ecommerce items to reverse billing scams.
By any definition, the perpetrators of online fraud are not bloggers. If a review constitutes fraud because the reviewer was provided a free product or had some undisclosed relationship with the company who produced the product, then every journalist with a 401k full of mutual funds needs to hire a good lawyer. Indeed, if bloggers are guilty of anything it is tabloid journalism — writing low quality content with sensational headlines designed to attract visitors to their site in order to collect advertising revenue. This may not live up to the highest journalistic standards, but the only crimes are against facts and the English language.
Criminals are the people and companies who create pyramid schemes, networks of spam blogs to sell diet products like Hoodia and Acai Berry cleanse, Google money trees and the myriad so called “free” offers that create recurring charges on your cell phone or credit card.
Criminals are the people who target kids’ sites to distribute Trojans, spyware and adware that infects our computers and tricks people into buying phony anti-virus products. Most of us have either experienced malware nightmares ourselves or heard a friend’s sad story. When online fraud is so prevalent, predatory and destructive, why are government resources being committed to pursue advertorial content?
Ad Networks Are the Key
The biggest thing these criminals have in common is that they perpetrate their scams by buying advertising through ad networks. These networks have achieved the scale that makes it efficient for legitimate advertisers to reach millions of consumers and that makes them an ideal vector for scams, abuse and deception.
In an unregulated auction-based advertising market place, fraudulent offers can often pay the highest bids for keywords. In FTC Going After Bloggers – Epic Fail, Aaron observes that ad networks that syndicate ads based on “maximizing yield efficiency“ are well suited to syndicate fraud. Advertisers of scams can afford to pay top dollar for ads because their profit margins are nearly 100%.
Ad networks are morally responsible as collaborators in interstate and international frauds perpetrated upon hundreds of thousands of victims each year. Google, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft and many others are far more culpable in consumers being defrauded than any blogger or network of bloggers.
In False and Deceptive Pay-Per-Click Ads, Harvard’s Ben Edelman estimated that as much as 70% of the revenue generated by some online scams actually wind up in the hands of the search engines. He estimated in 2006 that Google and Yahoo were making over $200,000 a month from advertisements for screensaver software which contained spyware. As of July 15, 2009, the top paid search results on Google for “screensaver” contain “add-on features” which include spyware, change your default browser settings, ad toolbars and otherwise aim to monetize by deceiving users. Adding insult to injury, Edelman observes that many of these adware tools monetize by sending traffic through AdSense and DoubleClick, making Google a silent partner for adware companies like WhenU and Smiley Central.
Fight the Problems that Be
Scams and fraud not only harm the consumer, they foster the perception that the internet is not a safe place, hindering the growth of online business and delaying the transfer of marketing dollars from old media. Instead of waiting for government agencies to step in and create regulations aimed at yesterday’s scams, as an industry we need to become proactive and develop a cooperative framework for mutual self-defense, a neighborhood watch designed to keep consumers safer while helping law enforcement focus resources on the most serious trouble makers.
The war on online fraud is going to be a huge struggle and one we are unlikely to ever declare victory. The issues are complex, but the industry could significantly reduce the problem by creating a transparent mechanism to collect user feedback about advertisers. Search engines and ad networks are quick to endorse behavioral targeting and social recommendations to boost earning per exposure. For some mysterious reason, they have not applied these innovations to getting user feedback about advertisers.
If the Internet is the cesspool that Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google says it is, one way to start cleaning it up would be to create a public reputation system for advertisers. This would simultaneously reward honest companies while helping consumers protect themselves against the bad guys. eBay created public reputations for buyers and sellers many years ago. Why are advertisers free to operate without scrutiny?
It seems straightforward to build an advertiser rating system to share relevant statistics and user feedback. Why not provide the tenure of the advertiser, normalized click volume, the percentage of users giving feedback and a ratio of clicks to complaints along with a link to detailed reviews that could surface fraud, misleading advertising and scams? If comparison shopping engines can do it, why can’t ad networks?
We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we see the problem and its sources. Government agencies need to ask the ad networks why they accept money for promoting fraud. Ad networks need to grow up and behave like responsible businesses.