Week in Review: Link Warnings, Ad-Free Twitter & More
Warning! Don't do something or something might happen, maybe?
Google’s Link Warnings Run Amok
On July 19, like many other sites, we received a warning email from Google Webmaster Tools that Google had detected potentially harmful, unnatural links pointing to our site. The sequence of emotions went something like this: panic, fear, confusion, relief, irritation, then back to confusion.
The “relief” phase came when we realized the warnings went out to a huge number of sites – including SEOmoz, which I think of as squeaky-clean and unimpeachable. According to Ruth Barr, SEOmoz does “virtually nothing in the way of active link solicitation.” In other words, they have a huge and active community and they focus on churning out good content daily, so, as Ruth says, the links build themselves. So why did Google find unnatural links in the SEOmoz link profile? Probably because a while back, Rand challenged readers to try to take down their site with a negative SEO attack – he didn’t believe it was possible.
This points to the essential problem with penalizing sites based on the quality of individual links – site owners have limited control over who links to them. If Google can look at a site with an enormous number of natural, high-quality editorial links, like SEOmoz or, frankly, us, and get their proverbial panties in a bunch over a relatively small number of spammy-looking links, then everyone is screwed. I mean, if sites that have devoted five or more man-years to building a high-quality, super-optimized website can get dinged because a few spammy networks decide to link to them, then small businesses seemingly have no hope.
But do sites actually have to worry about this latest warning? Was it a mistake of some kind? On July 20, Danny Sullivan wrote that “Google’s war on bad links officially became insane today.” Many site owners are panicking and even paying to have links removed – including natural, high-quality editorial links from authoritative sites – exactly the kind of links that have always figured majorly into Google’s ranking algorithm! To say that Google’s recent actions have sent mixed messages is an understatement. Here at WordStream – where we spend a huge amount of time (and budget) on SEO activities – we’re not even sure what to do. I worry for the tiny businesses out there with much less knowledge, experience, manpower, and money to throw at the problem.
Imagining a Better Twitter
Dalton Caldwell, an old high-school friend of mine and a serial entrepreneur (probably best known for founding the now defunct imeem), has been getting a lot of attention for his latest project, a sort of reimagining of Twitter. He is tired of potentially awesome platforms getting ruined by advertising. He wrote a post about the disappointments of Twitter on July 1:
When Twitter started to get traction, a year or two into their existence, I decided that Twitter was the Best Thing Ever. I realized that Twitter, because of their API, actually was a real-time protocol to connect various services in a novel way. I had debates with my other tech-nerd friends about whether Twitter could be one of the fundamental building blocks of the Internet via their powerful API. When reporters or investors asked me what I thought the most exciting company in the valley was, I would invariably answer “Twitter”.
As I understand, a hugely divisive internal debate occurred among Twitter employees around this time. One camp wanted to build the entire business around their realtime API. In this scenario, Twitter would have turned into something like a realtime cloud API company. The other camp looked at Google’s advertising model for inspiration, and decided that building their own version of AdWords would be the right way to go.
As you likely already know, the advertising group won that battle.
And the overwhelming response to that post has inspired him to try to do right what Twitter did wrong. In other words, with App.net, he wants to build an ad-free version of Twitter – he believes people would rather pay for a clean service than get a free app polluted with ads.
Mathew Ingram summarizes the debate over free versus paid on at GigaOM:
Caldwell rails against what he calls the “advertising-supported monoculture” that prevails in much of Silicon Valley, where apps and services are created that see users as content rather than partners — a model that is summed up by the popular phrase ”If you aren’t paying for it, then you are the product.” Massive networks like Facebook and Twitter, and Myspace before them, focused primarily on getting as much scale as possible and monetizing that user base later, and the most common method for doing so happens to be advertising […]
[VC Fred] Wilson, however, says that as irritating as advertising-driven services might be, a model that is free to users is the one that makes the most sense for social- and consumer-focused businesses, simply because that is the only model that is going to appeal to the greatest number of users.
Ingram agrees that this version of Twitter would be better for developers – but would it really be better for users? Unlike, say, a streaming video service, the value of a social network depends on who is using it. This is one of the fundamental problems with Google+: even if, in some ways, it’s more appealing than Facebook as an application, it’s worthless if none of your friends are there. It’ll be interesting to see how this project plays out.
More Web Marketing Highlights
While we’re on the topic of Twitter (which, as I write this, is down…):
Matt McGee reports that Twitter is getting closer to being able to offer users all their tweets for download. However, despite some recent upgrades to Twitter search capability, full-history Twitter search is a long way away. (Sigh.)
Mat Honan at Wired explains why he decided to declare Twitter bankruptcy, unfollowing all 1,625 of his tweeps in one sweep.
Onto search and such:
David Iwanow talks about the diminishing value of keywords at Search News Central – for a single high-traffic keyword, CPC may rise even as volume for the keyword goes down.
Michael Gray offers some tips on preventing negative SEO.
SEOmoz published a big group interview on the state of content marketing, featuring content luminaries like Peter Meyers, Cyrus Shepard, Rhea Drysdale, and AJ Kohn on the cost of content marketing, content “recycling” and much more.
Link cleanups – should you even bother? Julie Joyce is on the case.
Have a good weekend, folks.