Inbound marketing, content marketing, search-engine optimization, these are all recently coined terms for some old tricks. They fit the era of Google GOOG -0.02%, Facebook FB -3.31%, and Twitter, but particularly Google, when a handful of platforms have the power to transform frogs into princes. Particularly Google because no other company ties together everything on the Internet the way Google does.
Facebook has its billion users, and it can plumb its content geyser for interesting bits to sell to advertisers, but in the end, it’s just a narrow slice of life. Not everything on the Internet happens on Facebook. And Twitter is similar, if smaller. With a mere 200 million users, Twitter represents an even narrower slice. Interesting, although hardly enough to drive the entire world of online marketing.
But the concept of ranking the entire Internet — billions of pages — by importance is an idea that just keeps on giving — to the founders, employees, and shareholders of Google, of course, but also to the advertisers who are able to reach their chosen audiences and, yes, even to those poor, hapless, monetized folks who use the Web for everyday tasks and form the source of all revenues for the monetizers. It’s true. The users do get actual value in exchange for their attention. That’s what makes Google’s model so powerful. It’s not a magic trick. It’s real math. Such math is so tantalizing that Microsoft MSFT -0.41% has spent billions of dollars trying to replicate what Google does. Many others have tried and failed: Yahoo YHOO +0.22%, AOL, Alta Vista.
And in the 15 years since Google started its search engine based on a single powerful idea — PageRank — many pilot fish have swum around this whale, attempting to siphon just a smidgen of its rich harvest. A ten-thousandth of one percent would be fine, enough to get rich beyond their wildest dreams.
And along with the mathematicians, a number of charlatans have managed to slip into the arena, hawking every kind of means to game the system. An imaginative one was recently highlighted in the New York Times. Mugshot Websites gather arrest photos from local sheriff’s departments and such and republish them. Because of the nature of this content, human nature, and the way PageRank works, these sites rose high in page rankings related to those individuals. So, if someone has the misfortune to be arrested, whether, guilty or not, anyone Googling their name will see the mugshot reference on the first page. A whole little cottage industry sprang up around this confluence of technology and human nature. Mugshot Website operators forced people to pay sometimes exorbitant fees to take down the shots. But as Google giveth, so it taketh away. The Times exposé caused Google to change some math, pushing the sites’ rankings off the first page. It also caused most important payment processors — American Express AXP +0.18%, MasterCard MA +0.85%, PayPal, Discover, and others — to halt these extortionist payments. So, good on the reporter, David Segal, and the New York Times.
But for every scam that gets blown up there are hundreds of others in operation or waiting in the wings. And not all are illegal or completely unethical. Many fall in the gray area. Content marketing is one of those in the middle. The idea of content marketing is a lot like hiring your own claque, paid attendees who sit in the front row at your show and cheer wildly as you strut and fret your hour upon the stage, attempting to influence the opinion of other attendees, who are not in on the game. This trick, which is at least as old as Shakespeare, relies on a simple piece of human psychology. People look to others to help gauge their own opinion about something. No one wants to be the only fool clapping. As you hear the front row erupt in whistles, yells, and foot-stomping, you think, “Actually this show is pretty good, now that I think of it.” Very powerful stuff.
And so the content marketers set up fan sites that all point to your page. Whatever traffic they generate based on often bogus, cheap, or borrowed content goes to your site, and it appears to the search engine that the Internet must love you. Of course, as in any arms race, Google has tweaked its math in response to the content marketers, attempting to mitigate at least the worst abuses, sniffing out this activity and down-ranking the content marketing sites. But there are still plenty of charlatans making a good living advising people on this topic and setting up supporting pages. Search-engine optimization (SEO) is a rather polite term for another way to game the system. The idea is that certain words and phrases on a Web page will raise its ranking. Stuff your page with them, and your visibility on the Internet will rise. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Aside from the cat-and-mouse game played between Google and the SEO mavens, there’s the dynamic aspect of it. Fresh content does better than stale content, and so the SEO devotee needs to keep changing what’s on the page. Again, a large cadre of SEO specialists are willing to help out for a fee. So, my question here is: In the Internet age, is all marketing hogwash? Is everyone just trying to outsmart Google?
This is where inbound marketing comes in. I like the concept of inbound marketing because it relies on product quality. In other words, why should your page rank any higher than it does? If you don’t have something good to offer, why should anybody visit your site? My friend Dan Lyons knows something about inbound marketing. He created Fake Steve Jobs, a blog that at its height (while Steve was still alive), drew more than 1 million fanatically devoted readers each month. His content was fresh (he updated constantly), funny, and good. And he really did channel Steve Jobs, an amazing feat, as if he lived inside Jobs’s head. Top quality content drew millions of views. And in a jujitsu of anti-marketing prowess, Lyons tried to hide, posting anonymously through multiple layers of security until he was outed by yet another clever New York Times reporter. With no outbound marketing at all — no hey-look-at-me hucksterism — Fake Steve Jobs gathered a rapt audience of highly influential people.
In a recent posting on Facebook, Lyons highlighted BatDad, a new video sensation, noting the elements that he thought made the meme work. The character is quirky and funny and yet delivers solid parenting messages, a topic of interest to a potentially huge audience. So, what does inbound marketing even mean? It’s closely related to viral marketing, the idea that a really good idea takes off by itself as people pass it along to one another, eventually spreading it everywhere.
And again, the charlatans enter, trying to game the system, hiring good-looking teenagers to pretend to like some T-shirt so that other teenagers will buy it. But at bottom, inbound will only work if the product is good. Effectively, the Internet is a fantastic channel to give an idea a chance to make it in the wild, but the virus only spreads if the content justifies the buzz.
Site : forbes.com/sites/rogerkay/2013/10/07/seo-and-other-web-marketing-techniques-tools-or-tricks/