Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Dilution of the World's Knowledge Base By the Crassest Form of Commerce

The internet is being diluted by bottom-feeding commercial ventures known as ‘affiliate marketing.’

Perhaps you are aware of it. Perhaps this is the first you’ve heard of it.
For the past 18 months I’ve been surrounded by it.

I work in an office where people have time – even are encouraged – to pursue additional projects outside of our business in tandem with their daily paid work.
Eighteen months ago two brothers who work in my office began evangelizing about how they were going to make a bajillion dollars and retire by age thirty. They had by sheer luck stumbled upon affiliate marketing and were going to use it to make their fortune.

They tried to recruit me to the notion too, but I was up to my ears in making a movie – something which in theory could actually make me my fortune, but more importantly was something that I was actually interested in spending my time doing, to the degree that even if I NEVER make a fortune at it, I’ll be happy to keep at it and never retire. Admittedly, my contempt had already begun.

So, what is Affiliate Marketing?
It sounds kind of like multi-level marketing – which calls up specters of Pyramid Schemes doesn’t it?
To the best of my understanding it falls short of being that loathsome, but it’s social affects are at least as insidious.

In short, how A.M. works is that you, the Affiliate Marketer picks a product.
It could be something semi-specific like Barbecue Equipment; or it could be something very specific like Coleman Barbecues. In any case it seems that you need to pick fairly specific items in order to be successful. “Food” is simply too broad.
You build a website about your product and utilize various techniques to ‘optimize’ how various search engines (Google being the Holy Grail) perceive your website. The hope is to make sure that any time anyone does a search for any of a number of related words that your site comes up on the first page of results – preferably as the number one hit.
There are various techniques for accomplishing this goal, all of which essentially centre upon taking advantage of the algorithms Google (and others) use to rank their pages. With your site optimized, you then (in tandem actually, but for simplicity lets pretend that these things happen in sequence) add a Google AdSense account to your page with all the ads tailored to the product category in question. But the real kicker is, you also source out merchants who offer kickbacks to anyone who essentially recommends their product on the web. Essentially you put links to their websites on yours and anyone who ‘clicks through’ to their site from yours and buys a product (sometimes just getting people to their site is worth money to you) puts a portion of the money spent in your account. The amount of money varies and there are other factors which I am leaving out for simplicity.

Let me be clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. This is perfectly good commerce on the surface.

For the people who began this form of marketing in the first place it was practically free money. They were able to create sites about items that paid big money for referrals and click-through sales. (Credit Cards and Porn are VERY high on this list.) They were also able to corner the market on maximizing the relevant words. They made metric fuck-tons of money for very little work. I think they actually probably had to burn money ‘cause they ran out of places to put it. But there is a law of diminishing returns as all the best products and words get used up and competition rises for all search words. More than anything, the competition has made it so that the days of building a site and walking away from it while it makes you oodles of cash are over. You need to constantly be updating, always trying to stay ahead of the competition for your words and always adjusting to the tweaks in the Google ranking system.

For at least nine months the boys struggled, hoping that through sheer force of will they would soon ‘rank-up’ for their selected product. They did see gradual advances, and a trickle of money. But the amount of time they were investing was grossly out of proportion to the cash they made. They were (understandably) losing faith.
I honestly don’t know what they did that changed their fates – I just haven’t ever listened closely enough when it has come up. I’m not prone to deliberate eavesdropping, but we’re all in the same room and sometimes the conversations get… loud and unavoidable. In any case one day everything changed. They had been on the admitted verge of giving up. They had tried everything it seemed.
With only a few tricks left in the bag they came upon a tactic which worked.
Suddenly they were on the first page for Google and Yahoo. I think they were even the number one hit for many of their words – though I’m not certain.

Suddenly they were making enough money that it actually made sense to be putting time into the project. (Still not a job I could be bothered with as I, for one, have always felt like I had a higher calling in my art, money or no.) And in very short order it caught on in the office. There are now no less than five people in the office building their sites to make their millions. As friends I do wish them well, but all the discussion (apart from being painfully boring to me) has illuminated the uglier side of the business. I don’t know that there is anything that can be done, but if more people have it in mind, then more can be thinking in terms of opposition to it.

The competition in the A.M. industry is diluting the internet.

Here is what happens.

One of the best ways to get search engine ranking is to develop links from and to other sites… the search engines can’t distinguish between a site that is yours or a site that is someone else’s – so it doesn’t really matter whose site it is. Blogs – especially well read ones – get plenty of links to them.
People link to their articles on Digg or Delicious or Stumble Upon or their own blogs or whatever.

So, I want to boost the traffic to my affiliate site on Barbecues. I write an article in my blog. I link to my site. (Or perhaps the Blog IS my site.) I also Digg myself on Digg and the other social bookmarking sites. If things go well, other people do too. I may even PAY people to link to my article. This is all technically legit, but it is delving into the realm of morally dubious.

Tomorrow I write another article, and I link to the first article – as well as all the linking I did in the first case. The next day I do it again. But perhaps I’m not really a writer – perhaps I don’t even really care about Barbecues (they are just a means to an end for me) and can’t even put my heart into writing a lame article every day (or even every week or so). So I take an old article and ‘re-write it.’ In this case, by ‘re-writing’ I mean I do a find/replace command on the article and my article about broiling t-bone steaks is now about broiling chuck steaks. Sure there are differences in technique, but they’re going to be nominal right? They’re both steaks! But then a month down the road, I’m feeling lazy again (or, as this is human nature we are talking about here, “lazier.”) so I replace “Chuck steaks” with hamburger patties. (After all they are both cow. Right?) The next month the article is about cooking salmon steaks – they’re both steaks, right? The next month; chicken – it’s all meat, after all. And so on.
This is clearly just propagating bad information now. Reductio ad absurdum you can soon enough be “writing” articles about barbecuing play-doh patties.

But there’s another technique which can not only lead down the same road, but is actually bad bad bad form. These ‘writers’ (and if they really were writers they would understand the crime (literal or figurative) of this) will find articles related to their products elsewhere on line (possibly even from other A.M. sites) and ‘re-write’ them using the same techniques. If you have made money as a writer, you probably just gasped in horror. Not only have I been in the room to hear the planning of this kind of plagiarism, I actually know someone to whom it has happened. When it happened right in front of me I couldn’t believe my ears! I am patiently waiting for it to happen again so I will have a fresh example in front of me so I can verbally rake the perp across the coals in a polite and well-considered way, with his crime staring him back in the face from his computer screen.

Let it be said – there ARE sites out there that are A.M. based businesses which are regularly disseminating good information. But they are outnumbered by the ‘bad ones’ and the bad sites are growing in number. I see it all the time where simple Google searches bring me to pages filled with information which is at best written by someone who could care less, and often severely faulty.
More and more the bad sites are better optimized for their relevant search words – ‘cause THAT is what the operators are spending their time doing.
People publishing good information are spending their time researching and writing relevant material.

It makes me mad and I wish there was a good answer to this. I suspect there isn’t. Commerce will rule the day, and the good information on the internet will continue to be diluted by dollar-hungry scum-bags who in many cases don’t even realize that they are behaving like scum bags.

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