Cracking Down on Garbitrage

Internet giant Overstock.com has had enough of typosquatters profiting off misspellings of their URL. Via Internet Retailer, “Adept online shoppers aren’t all great typists. One slip of a finger can send a shopper to sites registered to others who want to use that accidental traffic for their own purposes, such as advertising or collecting keyword payments on the errant clicks. To clean up its affiliate program and reduce the negative effects of such “typosquatting” on URLs close to its own, Overstock.com has been using the beta release of a new hosted service called Typosquasher recently launched by technology vendor CitizenHawk Inc.”

What a great concept. I love this. Typosquatting makes up a large percentage of PPC garbitrage traffic. Not all such traffic is bad for advertisers, especially if you’re a reseller of the brand in question. However, typosquatting on trademarked domains is frustrating, and borders on deception, in my opinion. We’ve seen a few typosquatters on our domains, and it’s annoying to realize we just paid for those clicks via our PPC ads, instead of getting the traffic directly for free. And it definitely confuses visitors. My 10-year-old daughter recently was looking for a kids web site she’d seen advertised on TV. She didn’t remember the exact URL, so she tried typing a few into the address bar. She called me over to look at what she’d found, and there it was – a page full of garbitrage, and not all of it child-friendly. (For those of you who are wondering: yes, we had a repeat performance of the “internet safety” chat after this little escapade.)

I’m curious to see how things pan out with CitizenHawk. They have a tool on their site where you can test the service for free. It told me that there are 72 potential squatters on our MagazineLine.com domain, and at least some of them are monetizing the traffic. I think CitizenHawk has a great business idea. Let’s hope it pans out for them.

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More Examples of MSN Not Getting It

I know I’ve been picking on MSN lately, but I just can’t help it. A couple things crossed my desk as I was catching up on some industry reading on this quiet Friday afternoon that I just can’t let go…

From the New York Times via Search Engine Guide, “What do you do if you’ve spent tons of money over the last few years attempting to build a product that will compete with the recognized leaders of the industry only to find that no one wants to use it? If you’re Microsoft, apparently you start writing checks….” Apparently, MSN has resorted to paying companies to install their search tool on their desktop computers. This made me laugh out loud. Paying people to use your product is even more lame than giving away your product for free, which I’ve said for years is not a sound marketing strategy. Talk about devaluing your product! My favorite quote from the SE Guide article: “What it ultimately boils down to is this… if you’ve got to pay someone to use your product or service, it’s probably not a very good product or service. ” Reminds me of Philipp Lenssen’s comment in my earlier post about MSN.

And another goodie, which I’ve seen several places, including Search Engine Guide and Search Engine Roundtable, is MSN’s announcement that they’re shutting off advanced queries like link: and inurl:. Any SEM worth their salt knows what these are. They’re basic research tools that are critical for doing research on your own site, as well as those of competitors. Well, MSN can’t handle the load, so they just shut the features off. Stoney deGeyter’s comments on SE Guide are the best: “It must really suck to be a third place search engine and have people actually using your site to gather research.”

And finally, this gem from my own research on my adCenter ads. I’m trying to figure out why we’re not getting any traffic on some popular search terms. I typed in “childrens magazines” (no quotes) to Live Search, just for grins. I got this:

(OK, I know it’s kinda hard to read, but humor me.) What a joke. We’re in 7th place. Look at the garbitrage sites in spots #1-#5. How are those ads even relevant to this query??? The “good” ads don’t start till #6 – everything above that is just pure junk. How can MSN claim they have an ad ranking algo that takes CTR into account? Who on earth is clicking on those crappy ads??? How are these garbitrageurs getting away with this? Who even searches on MSN, anyway? By the way, this very same ad is a top performer on both Google and Yahoo, so it’s tried and true. So I’m really not crazy. Is it just me, or is MSN falling further and further behind the curve here? With results like this, they’ll never be able to catch the big guys.

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Is Panama Really Better?

At the end of February, comScore published data showing that CTRs were up with the new ranking model in Yahoo’s Panama sponsored search. Mind you, the report compares one week to two weeks, the week before the new ranking model vs. the two weeks after. I contend that this comparison is not totally statistically significant. Variations such as this can occur from week to week even without changes in ranking models or other major factors, and does not necessarily indicate a trend. With Valentines Day falling in there, I contend that the numbers are even further skewed.

All that said, most experts are agreeing with the statistics. Mona Elesseily from Page Zero Media has a good writeup of their experience at Search Engine Land. Everybody seems pretty happy with Panama and the new model.

Everybody except me. I am happy with the new interface – it’s light years better than the old Direct Traffic Center, with features that even Google doesn’t have, such as the Alternate Text for keyword insertion. However, our stats since the new ranking algo don’t look so rosy.

Looking at our data for the same time frame as comScore, our CTR is actually down 20%. There’s a caveat to that, though. We enjoyed almost a 50% increase in CTR when we converted to Panama from the old system. CTRs post-new-algo are better than they were under the old DTC. Mona claims there were problems with CTR calculations in the DTC, though, so who knows. All I know is, our CTRs plunged with the new algo.

Mona also talks about improvements in average CPC. Again, looking at the comScore time frame, our CPCs are up, not down. They’re up from DTC levels, too. Cost per conversion is up significantly, as well. I attribute this to the loss of the auction and rules-based bidding. Many of our competitors weren’t bidding very intelligently in the auction, which allowed us to use bid management tools and rules to get good positions at very low costs. With that gone, we’ve had to pay a lot more to maintain our position in the landscape. This is one reason why I wasn’t in favor of the new algo in the first place!

Let me end by saying that I don’t dispute the claims made by comScore or by Mona. I met Mona at SES Chicago – I’m the one who asked her how we could get rid of Canada – and in addition to being a really, really nice person, I think she’s one of the top experts out there on Yahoo Search Marketing. I just think the new system isn’t all roses for every advertiser or every sector.

I also realize by crunching our numbers that it’s probably time for some creative testing. We’ve done extensive testing in Google, but not Yahoo, since it wasn’t available pre-Panama. Now that it is, it’s time to make use of it.

In that vein, Yahoo, when will you launch your own version of AdWords Editor? (wink, wink)

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MSN Doesn’t Get It

Lots of chatter over MSN’s ill-fated test, where they prefilled the search box with sponsored keywords. Search Engine Land summarizes the story, and the feedback MSN got, which apparently was extremely negative.

The best part about the SEL post is the comment by Philipp Lenssen: “If you need user feedback and click statistics to figure out this is a bad idea, you’re seriously in trouble as a search engine, because your team misses certain people with a good common sense understanding of the web.”

That about sums it up. I’ve commented in several places, including on this blog, about MSN’s foibles with adCenter and PPC in general. They just don’t seem to get it when it comes to search and PPC. I’m not even sure they listen to their users, even though they say they do. It takes them so long to make fixes and improvements to adCenter, I wonder if they really believe what we say. Or are they just so big and bureaucratic that it takes forever to make simple changes? Or both?

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Google Adwords Pay-Per-Action: Early Thoughts

Google Adwords seems to have all the bases covered in online marketing. They have the core product, Adwords, going strong on a CPC model. They have site targeting for Adsense advertisers on a CPM basis (and CPC too, currently in beta). And now, they’ve announced that they’re beta-testing a pay-per-action (PPA) program via Adsense, as well.

Coverage of this new move abounds: Barry, Ben, and Chris discussed it in Search Pulse, and Barry also has screen shots and some good reader comments at Search Engine Roundtable. Brad Geddes, aka eWhisper, has posted a step-by-step guide to creating PPA campaigns. Discussions are happening on all the major search engine forums. Some people are ecstatic about this program, and some are fearful that it’ll unseat the current leaders in affiliate marketing and lead to further world domination by Google.

All speculation aside, here are my thoughts on the program initially. We’ve been part of the beta for a while now, but I’ve just started setting up campaigns and ads. One thing I learned from my Adwords rep is that I have to get out of the PPC mindset when choosing keywords. I’ve worked with PPC for so long that I instinctively stay away from high-volume, generic-type keywords that I know will drive tons of traffic and few conversions. In PPC, obviously, this doesn’t work. But PPA is a different animal: since we don’t pay for clicks, why not fill the bucket with as many visitors as possible? Even if only one out of 1,000 converts, we only pay for that one!

So, with that in mind, it’s been fun creating these ad groups. For example, for our Playboy Magazine PPA campaign, I’ve been able to pick keywords like “playmates, bunnies, girls next door, centerfolds” and a myriad of other fun keywords that I’ve actually negatived-out in our CPC campaigns! Same thing with high-volume keywords for other, tamer magazines like Family Fun, Birds & Blooms, and Guns & Ammo. (OK, maybe Guns & Ammo isn’t tame, but you get the point.)

I will say that traffic from these campaigns, so far, has been underwhelming to say the least. We’ve had a few impressions, but no clicks yet. Unlike a traditional affilate program, I have no way of knowing which sites, if any, have picked up our ads. I don’t so much care about specifics, but I’d at least be curious how many sites are showing our ads.

This lack of transparency, at least initially, is one reason why I don’t think traditional affiliate programs are doomed. Google’s program is a great way for advertisers who might want to try out this type of advertising, since it’s self-serve and runs on the familiar Adwords platform. For advertisers like us that already have affiliate programs, it will (hopefully) provide a good source of incremental business. For the affiliates, it’s another way to monetize their web sites. But I don’t see it replacing the giants like Commission Junction, LinkShare, or even Adsense’s CPC program. It’s just one more option for advertisers to choose.

I’m curious to see what other beta testers’ experiences are. Is anybody getting decent traffic? Is any of the traffic converting? Post your comments!

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SMX Advanced Agenda Announced

As reported at Search Engine Land, the agenda for SMX Advanced (Seattle, June 4-5) has been announced.

There are still a couple sessions listed as TBA, but wow, what a lot of meat in there already. It looks like Danny has outdone himself, putting together a conference that is truly geared toward the advanced searcn marketer. The agenda is packed with deep-digging sessions on advanced SEO and PPC strategies and tactics, as well as provocative roundtables and panels that should prove interesting at a minimum, and “lively” at best!

Networking hasn’t been forgotten, either. The conference kicks off on Sunday night, June 3, with the “SMX Bash,” a networking reception at the Bell Harbor. Then, on Monday night, there’s a networking reception at the show (most likely on the exhibit hall floor), followed by “SMX After Dark,” where the networking continues. These after-hours events are always highly anticipated by search conference attendees – in addition to being a great place to have a drink and relax, they’re the source of some of the most productive networking at the show. I’ve made many of my best contacts at these type of events in the past, and I’m sure the same will be true at SMX.

So, even though SMX officially only lasts two days, you’ll want to get there early enough on Sunday to catch the Bash. And you won’t want to miss any of the Tuesday sessions, which end at 5:45 p.m. – so unless you’re nearby, you’ll want to wait till Wednesday to fly home. Either way, it promises to be a great few days of search talk!

Disclosure: I was lucky enough to win a pass to attend this conference. That said, I really, truly, honestly believe the show will be a great one – I’m not just trying to butter up Danny and crew. Really!

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Trademark Trials and Tribulations

A trademark is defined as “A name, symbol, or other device identifying a product, officially registered and legally restricted to the use of the owner or manufacturer.” Trademarks are a good thing. They allow businesses, manufacturers, and others to protect the names of their goods and services, without worrying about other people using the name illegitimately. Many companies trademark their business names, as well as the names of the products they manufacture.

All the PPC engines have policies concerning the use of trademarks in advertisements. There’s a good summary of them here. These policies, as far as I can tell, are written to prevent deceptive use of trademarks: for example, to keep out ads like “Looking for Pontiac? Honda’s Better! Find Out Why at Honda.com” or, worse yet, “Pontiac – Great Automobiles Here – Honda.com”. Clearly, ads of this nature are a deliberate attempt to mislead the consumer and draw clicks away from competitors. I think most people would agree this should be prohibited.

But what about authorized resellers? Distributors? Legitimate businesses selling trademarked products?

Well, if you want to advertise on Google Adwords, and the trademark owner has filed a trademark restriction, you’re out of luck. In the US, you can have ads on trademarked keywords, but you can’t use the keywords in your ad.

So, for illustration purposes only, let’s say you’re a Honda dealer, and you want to advertise the Honda Odyssey on Google. Let’s say Honda has filed a trademark restriction on “Honda Odyssey.” Guess what, Joe’s Honda? You’re screwed. You’re relegated to ad copy like, “Reliable minivan from a top manufacturer, see it here.” How lame is that? How many people are going to click on that ad?

Not many. I can tell you from experience. We’ve got almost 50 magazines whose names we can’t use in our Google ads, due to trademark restrictions filed by the publishers. Click-through rates on the ads we’ve tried, without the name of the magazine in them, are pathetic. And of course, what’s one of the biggest factors in the Adwords Quality Score? CTR. So it’s a double whammy – your ads look and sound stupid, and your Quality Score gets hammered. Not a good combination.

What I don’t understand is why this is such a big deal in the search space. I mean, can you imagine JCPenney running a newspaper ad for Levi’s or Carter’s or Samsonite or any of the hundreds of other brands they carry in their stores – without using those names in the ad?? How silly would that look? And how many people would be compelled to shop for “great brand name jeans” or “cute brand baby clothes” or “super durable luggage” after seeing such an ad? Where would all the grocery store circulars be without using brand names and logos? What about TV ads for just about anything? What about magazine ads??

There are already laws on the books which prevent bait-and-switch and deceptive advertising. As I said earlier, everyone agrees this is a bad thing. Why not just enforce these laws? Why hamstring legitimate advertisers with this silly trademark policy?

Lawsuits and deep pockets, that’s why. Google has been sued over this, and therein lies the difference between search engines and traditional media. Traditional media have huge sales staffs who oversee the ads placed there. I sold radio and newspaper advertising for over 7 years. It was at least partly my responsibility to make sure the ads I sold were accurate and the businesses actually sold the products they were advertising. Google’s self-serve Adwords platform makes it impossible for them to oversee every ad that runs there. So, it’s probably easier (and definitely cheaper) for them to just enact this policy rather than subject themselves to lawsuits every day.

So really, the bottom line lies in our legal system and litigious society. Instead of invoking FTC guidelines and going after the advertisers themselves, people go after the Google Googlianaires. Sad.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know that legit advertisers like us are getting squeezed by this short-sighted policy – and the short-sightedness of the trademark holders who fear what they do not understand.

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SMX, Here I Come!

I guess I can’t say I never win anything. I won an iPod nano at SES Chicago in 2005, and it’s earned a permanent spot in my purse (or, in my pocket/ears while I’m working out). And now, I’ve been lucky enough to win a ticket to the inaugural Search Marketing Expo, commonly known as SMX, in Seattle in June.

First off, I have to thank the crew at SMX and Search Engine Land for allowing me the opportunity to attend the show. I was hoping to go, but it wasn’t in our budget, so I figured I’d have to settle for reading about it on the forums. But now, between being the lucky winner and moving a few dollars around, I’ll be able to be there after all.

Being the first SMX, I’m not sure what to expect. However, I know Danny Sullivan and his crew are more than capable of putting on a great event – after all, Danny’s been chairing SES for a number of years, and we all know he has the best connections in the search marketing industry. On top of that, this is SMX Advanced – with sessions aimed at those already well-versed in search marketing. As the SMX site describes it, “If you’re fluent in search marketing, SMX Advanced is where you can converse with others who speak your native language.”

I can’t wait to go “speak SEM” in Seattle. It should be a great show. Thanks again to everyone at SMX for allowing me this opportunity. See you all there!

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SEM Word of the Day

Crapulent: adj., low quality; lacking substance; emulating crap; e.g. “This is a crapulent content network site – we didn’t get a single conversion.” Usage: commonly occurs with “fraudulent,” e.g. “we didn’t like the content network because of fraudulent or crapulent publisher partners.”

Hat tip to Andrew Goodman at Traffick for the best laugh I’ve had all day!

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Adwords Fiasco #2: Geotargeting Problems

In the midst of the $10 minimum bid fiasco, SEW Forum moderator Discovery discovered another problem: Geotargeting seems to be broken in Adwords. I had noticed this too, but hadn’t had time to dig into it.

Well, now I have. And the news isn’t good. All our campaigns are set to US only, since we can’t sell outside the US. Prior to this month, we’d gotten virtually no foreign traffic from Adwords. However, as of early this morning, we’ve gotten over 1,000 clicks from non-US countries, and the percentage is rising. Yesterday, only 90% of our Adwords traffic was from the US – the rest was foreign, or “unknown.” Hmm.

I’ve emailed my rep about this, and haven’t heard back from her yet, so I don’t know if we were actually charged for these clicks. However, this traffic throws off our analytics metrics – conversion rates look worse than they actually are. And we shouldn’t be getting this traffic if we’ve asked not to – right? Cmon Google, you’re wearing me out with all this stuff! How ’bout a little break?

I’ll post an update once I hear what’s up. In the meantime, Barry at SE Roundtable has a writeup on the issue.

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