SEO is no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups

Many of the today’s most successful informational sites such as Yelp, Wikipedia and TripAdvisor relied heavily on SEO for their initial growth. Their marketing strategy (whether deliberate or not) was roughly: 1) build a community of contributors that created high-quality content, 2) become the definitive place to link to for the topics they covered, 3) rank highly in organic search results.  This led to a virtuous cycle where SEO drew more users, leading to more contributors and more inbound links, leading to more SEO, and so on.  From roughly 2001-2008, SEO was the most effective marketing channel for high-quality informational sites.

I talk to lots of startups and almost none that I know of post-2008 have gained significant traction through SEO (the rare exceptions tend to be focused on content areas that were previously un-monetizable). Google keeps its ranking algorithms secret, but it is widely believed that inbound links are the preeminent ranking factor.  This ends up rewarding sites that are 1) older and have built up years of inbound links 2) willing to engage in aggressive link building, or what is known as black-hat SEO. (It is also very likely that Google rewards sites for the simple fact that they are older. For educated guesses on which factors matter most for SEO, see SEOMoz’s excellent search engine ranking factors survey).

Consider, for example, the extremely lucrative category of hotel searches. Search Google for “Four Seasons New York” and this ad-riddled TripAdvisor page ranks highly:

(TechCrunch had a very good article on the TripAdvisor’s decline in quality).

In contrast, this cleaner and more informative page from the relatively new website Oyster ranks much lower in Google results:

As a result, web users have a worse experience and startups are incentivized to clutter their pages with ads and use aggressive tactics to increase their SEO when they should just be focused on creating great user experiences.

The web economy (ecommerce + advertising) is a multi-hundred billion dollar market.  Much of this revenue comes from traffic that comes from SEO. This has led to a multibillion-dollar SEO industry. Some of the SEO industry is “white hat,” which generally means consultants giving benign advice for making websites search-engine friendly. But there is also a huge industry of black-hat SEO consultants who trade and sell links, along with companies like content farms that promote their own low-quality content through aggressive SEO tactics.

Google seems to be doing everything it can to improve its algorithms so that the best content rises to the top (the recent “panda” update seems to be a step forward). But there are many billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people working to game SEO. And for now, at least, high-quality content seems to be losing. Until that changes, startups – who generally have small teams, small budgets, and the scruples to avoid black-hat tactics – should no longer consider SEO a viable marketing strategy.

The interoperability of social networks

Google recently added a caustic warning message when users attempt to export their Google Contacts to Facebook:

Hold on a second. Are you super sure you want to import your contact information for your friends into a service that won’t let you get it out?

Facebook allows users to download their personal information (photos, profile info, etc) but has been fiercely protective of the social graph (you can’t download friends, etc). The downloaded data arrives in a .zip file – hardly a serious attempt to interoperate using modern APIs (update: Facebook employee corrects me/clarifies in comments here). In contrast, Google has taken an aggressively open posture with respect to the social graph, calling Facebook’s policy “data protectionism.”

The economic logic behind these positions is a straightforward application of Metcalf’s law, which states that the value of a network is the square of the number of nodes in the network*.  A corollary to Metcalf’s law is that when two networks connect or interoperate the smaller network benefits more than the larger network does. If network A has 10 users then according to Metcalf’s law its “value” is 100 (10*10).   If network B has 20 users than it’s value is 400 (20*20). If they interoperate, network A gains 400 in value but network B only gains 100 in value. Interoperating is generally good for end users, but assuming the two networks are directly competitive – one’s gain is the other’s loss – the larger network loses.

A similar network interoperability battle happened last decade among Instant Messaging networks. AIM was the dominant network for many years and refused to interoperate with other networks. Google Chat adopted open standards (Jabber) and MSN and Yahoo were much more open to interoperating. Eventually this battle ended in a whimper — AIM never generated much revenue, and capitulated to aggregators and openness.  (Capitulating was probably a big mistake – they had the opportunity to be as financially successful as Skype or Tencent).

Google might very well genuinely believe in openness. But it is also strategically wise for them to be open in layers that are not strategic (mobile OS, social graph, Google docs) while remaining closed in layers that are strategic (search ranking algorithm, virtually all of their advertising services).

When Google releases their long-awaited new social network, Google Me, expect an emphasis on openness. This could create a rich ecosystem around their social platform that could put pressure on Facebook to interoperate. True interoperability would be great for startups, innovation, and – most importantly – end users.

* Metcalf’s law assumes that every node is connected to every node and each connection is equally valuable. Real world networks are normally not like this. In particular, social networks are much more clustered and therefore have somewhere between linear and exponential utility growth with each additional user.

You need to use social services to understand them

I don’t know if Malcolm Gladwell is right when he claims “the revolution will not be tweeted,” but I can say with certainty that the Twitter he describes is not the Twitter I know. Gladwell’s central argument is that Twitter creates weak ties but social movements require strong ties. I’ve made more strong ties through Twitter (and blogging) than I have through any communications medium I’ve ever used before. The relationships start off weak – a retweet, @ reply, or blog comment – but often strengthen through further discussions and eventually become new friendships and business relationships.

I can see why Gladwell gets this wrong – he doesn’t seem to really use Twitter (he does blog occasionally). I barely tweeted or blogged for a long time too. I read blogs basically since their advent, but social services are fundamentally participatory: reading blogs/tweets is to social services as watching TV is to a real life conversations. I finally relented at the insistence of Caterina, who had the foresight to insist that everyone at Hunch blog, tweet, contribute to open source projects, etc. I now get some of my best ideas from responses to tweets and blog posts, and have developed dozens of strong relationships through the experience.

I made some jokes on Twitter the past few days about Kleiner Perkins’ new social fund.  These were meant to be lighthearted: I only know one person at KP and from everything I’ve seen they seem to be smart, friendly people. But underneath the jokes lies a real issue: the partners there don’t seem to really participate in social services (something they only underscored by announcing their new fund at a press conference that targeted traditional media outlets).

I’d love to engage in a debate with smart people like Gladwell about the impact of the social web on culture, politics, activism and so on. I also think it’s great to see savvy investors like KP allocate significant resources to the next wave of social web innovation. But it’s hard for me to take them seriously when they don’t seem to take their subject matter seriously.

Online privacy: what’s at stake

It is widely believed that a flourishing democracy requires an independent, diverse, and financially solvent press.  With print newspapers set to disappear in the next few years, the future of quality journalism is highly uncertain. This year, the online version of the New York Times will generate about $200M in revenue, a number that will need to approximately triple to support the current Times newsroom.

Most people who understand Internet economics believe that the best hope for online journalism is online advertising. Luckily, online advertising has significant room for improvement. Most of the revenue of the Times’ online business is generated through display ads. The main metric used to price display ads is derived from the rate at which users click on the ads, a rate which today is dismally low.  Thus the Times could continue to support its current newsroom staff if display ads became even moderately effective.

Lots of smart people are working on improving the efficacy of display advertising. Large companies like Google and Microsoft are investing billions in the problem. As usual, though, the best ideas are coming from startups. Companies like Blue Kai and Magnetic are bringing search intent (particularly purchasing intent – the core of Google’s profits) to display ads.  Companies like Media6Degrees are using social relations to target ads based on the principle that “birds of a feather flock together” (Facebook will likely start doing this soon as well).  Solve Media turns the hassle of registration into an engaging marketing event.  Convertro is working on properly attributing online purchases “up the funnel” from sites that harvest intent (search, coupon sites) to sites that generate intent (media, commerce guides). All told, there are a few hundred well-funded ad tech startups developing clever methods to improve display advertising.

Many of these targeting technologies rely on gathering information about users, something that inevitably raises concerns about privacy. Until recently, online privacy depended mostly on anonymity. There is a big difference between advertisers knowing, say, users’ sexual preferences and knowing users’ sexual preferences plus personally identifiable information like their names.  Like most people, I don’t mind if it’s easy to find my real name along with my job history, but I do mind if it’s easy to discover other personal details about me. When I’m not anonymous (e.g. on Facebook) I want to control what is disclosed – to have some privacy – but when I’m anonymous I’m far less concerned about information gathered for marketing purposes.

Before the rise of social networks, online ad targeting services (mostly) tracked people anonymously, through cookies that weren’t linked to personally identifiable information.  Social networks have provided the means to de-anonymize information that was previously anonymous. Apparently, the wall has been breached between 1) my real identity plus my self-moderated public information, and 2) my anonymous, non-self-moderated private information.

The good news is that the things users want to keep secret are almost always the least important things to online advertisers. It turns out that knowing people are trying to buy new washing machines or plane tickets to Hawaii is vastly more monetizeable than their names, who they were dating, or the dumb things they did in college. Thus, there are probably a set of policies that allow ad targeting to succeed while also letting users control what is associated with their real identities.  Hopefully, we can have an informed and nuanced debate about what these policies might be. The stakes are high.

Note:  As with almost everything I write on this blog, I have a ton of conflicts of interest.  Among them: I’m an investor, directly or indirectly, in a bunch of technology startups.  Some of these – including some companies mentioned above – are trying to create new advertising technologies. I am currently the CEO & Cofounder of Hunch, which among other things is trying to personalize the internet through an explicit user opt-in mechanism.