Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things

I have recently received half a dozen offers of placing links in my blogs to reputable companies’ websites.

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it’s done, and it made me realise that the early dreams of a blogging utopia on the web are pretty much dead.

Here’s how this kind of product placement works. If I can persuade you to link to my product page in your blog, then my product will appear more popular and rise up Google’s search results accordingly. Simple.

An ad wouldn’t work. Google would see it was an ad and discount it. So one increasingly popular approach is for you to pay me to include a link in my blog. I mean, right in it: not as a link, or a ‘sponsored by’, but as a sentence, embedded, as it were, inside my copy.

I had some problem getting my head around this, so I’ll walk you through it. I add a sentence into my blog, and then turn one of the words in it into a link to the company’s website. For my trouble I get $150. The company, if it gets enough people like me to do this, will see their web site rise up through the Google ranks.

This is what the Internet, and blogs, have become. A somewhat seedy enterprise where companies–and we’re talking reputable companies here–hire ad companies to hunt out people like me with blogs that are sufficiently popular, and vaguely related to their line of business, to insert a sentence and a link.

If you’re not sure what’s wrong with this, I’ll tell you.

First off, it’s dodgy. If Google finds out about it it will not only discount the link in its calculations, but ban the website–my blog, in other words–from its index. Google doesn’t like any kind of mischief like this because it corrupts their search.

That’s why a) the blog needs to look vaguely related and b) it can’t just be any old sentence that includes the link. Google’s computers are sharp enough to spot nonsense.

That’s why kosher links are so valuable, and why there’s business in trying to persuade bloggers like me to break Google’s rules. If I get banned, my dreams of a profitable web business are gone. For the company and ad firm: nothing.

Second, it’s dodgy. It works on the assumption that all blog content is basically hack work and the people who write it are for sale. I think that’s why I loathe it so much. It clearly works: When I got back to one company that approached me, I was told the client’s request book had already been filled.

With every mercenary link sold they devalue the web.The only thing that might make my content valuable is that it’s authentic. It’s me. If I say I like something, I’m answerable for that. Not that people drop by to berate me much, but the principle is exactly the same as a journalistic one: Your byline is your bond and not a checkbook.

Power to the Consumer. (Is That All?)

Akasaka, 2008

Jan Chipchase, roving Nokia researcher, as ever inspires and provokes with this piece on the psychology of the coffee cup:

This Akasaka coffee shop includes a row of accessible power sockets (running a long the edge of the window) primarily to support laptop use – though over the course of an hour a number of people charged their phones (yes people here sometimes carry petite phone chargers). Recharging mobile devices in coffee shops is nothing new – but to what extent does the explicit nature of the infrastructure lead to new behaviours? Like? Well, maybe plugging in a printer? Or setting up a server. Or, or…

Jan points to the issues raised by offering power to consumers:

In some ways customers that don’t use the power socket are subsidising those that do – after all they pay a the same for a cup of coffee. Or do power using power-users spend more money either on more items or on items that will last longer? What if the electricity socket was a stand-alone working micro market? As you plug into the socket your devices authenticates itself to the system, negotiates how much power (or fuel-cell fuel) it needs and charges away. As with the explicit presence of the socket to what extent does the explicit presence of a micro-market for power this extend existing behaviours? And given the relaxed ambiance that this coffee shop is trying to create is it desirable to create a market in this context?

It fascinates me that the average high street these days is as likely to have as many coffee shops as it is other kinds of outlets. And that people work, live, play, cry and get divorced in them. Why do we need the hustle and bustle of others to be productive?

But for me the biggest mystery is why these outlets don’t bother to try to sell something more than just coffee, crappy CDs and bad finger food to these customers. Selling power to them might be a cheap shot, but let’s face it, you’re not really selling them coffee. You’re selling them a place to work. A noise, an ambience. You’re selling them the chance to feel cool. To show off their Air. To furtively check out members of a sexually appealing gender. To have physical proximity. To engage with engaging staff. A chance to get away from the office/family/silence.

That’s what they’re buying. But what about what they’d like to buy, that they just haven’t considered yet? A chance to meet the people around them? A way to build an informal network with other users? To be able to print from their computers? To arrange pick up by FedEx? An ATM machine?

To me, Starbucks is never really about the coffee. Well, it is for the people who go in there, queue and then take it with them (and then, I think for a lot of them it’s about delaying arrival in the office, or having something in their hands as a sort of weapon to take on the day; if it’s halfway through the day it’s a chance to get out of the office on an errand that is acceptable.) But for the people who stay in Starbucks, they’re buying something else. And who knows what else they might buy if you try to sell it to them?

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Behaviours Reflected

Sponsoring Theft

Are companies like eBay knowingly peddling stolen goods? Surely not, but I wonder about their advertising strategy.

I get confused about how sponsored results work. You know, those textual ads that appear alongside search results or on a webpage. I mean, I thought I knew how they worked: someone buys a word and when that word appears they get their ad next to it. But when I look for “laptop stolen” on Yahoo! Answers, I get this:

So what keyword are eBay, DealTime and Shopping.com sponsoring here? Or do they really have good stolen laptops for sale? And if so, wasn’t I told? Or these poor folks, whose tales of woe appear right next to these add:

Interestingly, trying the same search but for “laptop vomit” throws  up no sponsored ads at all. So “stolen” must be a sponsored word? (It does throw up, so to speak, cases of people feeling unwell over their keyboard. I guess that’s the Yahoo! Answers type of crowd. )

Technorati tags: , , , ,

Dud of the Week: eBay Anniversary

I shouldn’t boast too much about this, I know, since you’re all going to get horribly jealous, but I just received a very exciting email, courtesy of the nice folks over at eBay, congratulating me on an impressive year (or is it 10?) of dedicated custom:

Now my friend Jim says this is the lamest bit of spam he’s seen in a long while, and points out that since I haven’t actually sold anything on eBay the sentiments expressed therein are as genuine as the Microsoft Office on his computer, but I think he’s just green with envy. Not least because the email contained a picture of the eBay Green-Pants Wearing Party Dude (pictured below for your convenience):

 I think it’s a great idea to send congratulatory emails to your customers on the anniversaries of their signing up. Everyone could do it – ‘This is Microsoft here, congratulating you on the anniversary of buying Windows 98! Oh, and buy the way we don’t support it anymore, so you’ll have to buy Vista real soon! Have a good one!’ or ‘Hi! It’s your friendly cellphone company here. Congratulations on the 3rd anniversary of using our service! You’ll be pleased to know that with all the hidden fees and ridiculous per-kilobyte charges we tag onto your bill we’ve been able to send all our kids to finishing school in Switzerland! Keep talking and downloading and not looking too closely at your phone bill!’ It might clog our inboxes but it’ll be worth it to feel wanted.

And I think I’m going to make the Green Pants Dude my Dud of the Week emblem. After all he’s already wearing a dunce’s hat.

The Real Conversation

We all keep talking about the idea of conversations — the “market as a conversation” (as opposed to the companies shouting at us to buy their stuff) and, nowadays, as the blogosphere as the manifestation of this. The problem is: A conversation between whom and whom? And, more important, what happens when the conversation starts getting spun, as all conversations do?

I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

(Because there’s so much out there already on this, I should probably point out the facts as we know them: A couple hoping to drive across the country , BusinessWeek reported, discovered that Wal-Mart allows Recreation Vehicle users (RVers) to park in their lots for free, so they decided to do that every place they stopped. They sought the approval of an organisation called Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization set up by Edelman to fight bad press against the chain. The organisation decided to sponsor the couple’s entire trip, paying for the couple to fly to Las Vegas, “where a mint-green RV would be waiting for them, emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo.” The group also paid for gas, set up a blog site, and paid the woman a freelance fee for her entries. The final post on the blog discloses all this, including the connection between the couple and Edelman. But until then the only evidence of a link to Wal-Mart was a banner add for the Working Families group.)

This is how I’d put the issues:

  • Can a blog written by someone with an interest beyond merely informing the reader be ever considered something other than promotion for that interest, however well-concealed or unconscious? We get all upset about PayPerPost (rightly so) but far more insidious are blogs that earn their wages in less obvious ways.
  • What happens to a conversation when it turns out to be between people who aren’t who they pretend to be? The conversation, in this case, appears to be between, not two ordinary folk casually mentioning how good Wal-Mart is on their travels, but between the PR company and their employer.
  • When is a spokesperson not a spokesperson? How should we regard Edelman’s Steve Rubel if the one thing he’s not really covering in his blog is the issue about his own company? At the time of writing the story’s been out there for three days already, and not a mention, even a “I can’t comment on this at the moment, let me get back to you.” Given that Steve is well-versed in these nuances, I’d expect him to be quicker off the mark in this case, company sensitivities and procedures notwithstanding. (Update: Steve has now, on the fourth day, posted something.)

Why do I sometimes feel we’re caught in a kind of Groundhog Day in the blogosphere, where we are doomed to repeat ourselves until we learn the lessons our forebears learned? Are we so arrogant that we think we’re smarter? The lessons are:

  • The Chinese Walls aren’t just for the Chinese. They’re for us: to protect us against conflicts of interest, snake-oil salesman, shysters and shills. These walls were built over centuries, and we shouldn’t think we’re so smart we don’t need them, however imperfect they are.
  • You write to promote your company, however tangentially, and you speak for that company. It’s not a cherrypicking job. You can’t just ignore topics you don’t like the look of. If you don’t know what the line is, find out and tell your audience asap. If the story is wrong, get your version out asap.
  • Define the conversation, and the conversationalists. Too much talk about conversations, already. It’s a nice, neutral, inclusive word. But it’s not really. Because most of the time we don’t know who’s talking, and what their real purpose is. When PR firms with clients, or venture capitalists with an interest in seeing their investments rise in value, or whatever, start to get involved they naturally want to steer the conversation a certain way. Nothing wrong with that, except they must accept that they remain on one side of the conversation. They can’t claim to be on both sides. Journalists learned this a long time ago. It’s time we all remembered it.

Asia’s Obsession With Lists

Last week the WSJ asked me to dig around for sites in Asia-Pacific that are building on the new Obsession with List making, as reported by Katherine Rosman. Here is the result (subscription only), and are some of the sites I came up with. I’d love to hear more from readers, as I’m sure I’ve missed lots.

  • China’s answer to 43thingsAimi — looks a lot like it, right down to the colors and design. Compare 43things
     
    with Aimi:
  • Japan has been more creative, with some pretty cool looking sites including Ultra Simple Reminder, check*pad and ReminderMailer.
  • Australia’s reminder service Remember the Milk is Big in Japan — 15,000 active Japanese users have signed up since its launch in July. Omar Kilani, the guy behind it, tells me “the service is also available in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese and we have a soon-to-be launched Korean version as well.” I’ll keep you posted on that.
  •  Jon Anthony Yongfook Cockle, a 26-year-old Briton based in Tokyo, has developed a very cool, simple reminder page called OrchestrateHQ, where users can enter quick reminders in either English or Japanese. He’s also about to launch a suite of simple Web-based applications called Jonkenpon (nothing up there at the time of writing).
  • Lastly, from the guys at Alien Camel, a new service called Monkey On Your Back which allows users to make a to-do list for things that they want other people to do:
     
Technorati tags: , ,

MySpace Cleansing

Highlight of my Monday morning so far:

Hi jeremy,

You have been invited to join the Colon Cleansing Treatment group on MySpace.
 
Click the link below to see the group:
http://groups.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=groups.groupProfile&groupID=103939131

Feel free to join on my behalf.

The Commuter’s Shopping Impulse

A good piece that explores the point I was trying to make earlier about the commuter element in cellphone service adoption, from Reuters’ Sachi Izumi (via textually.org).

Someone needs to look closely at the link between flat free pricing for mobile browsing and m-commerce (yeah I don’t like calling it that either, but it’s there to differentiate between buying online and buying on the mobile. I’m sure the distinction will blur eventually). Japan’s burst in mobile commerce ahead of the rest of the world is impressive, and it’s all to do with people being stuck with their phones for company for long periods. Jun Hasebe, an analyst at Daiwa Institute of Research: “Impulse shopping accounts for most of the purchases done on mobile phones, and that would not usually happen unless users are on flat fee-based services.” Phones, in a word, have become more like our friends than our friends are.

The only thing holding this back? Fear of fraud. Most people don’t like punching in their credit cards to their phones, although this may have as much to do with where they are (public places, public transport) than it is about actual fraud. One reason I think facial recognition as authentication will play a big role.

Dancing Queen and the End of Popular Music

The other night, as I lay sweating in my mum’s flat in boiling England in the early hours, a crowd of 20 somethings spilled out of a nearby club. The usual hubbub of indistinct chatter ensued as they prepared to disperse. Then the females (I assume; I couldn’t actually see anything) started singing something together, and, gradually the song they were singing emerged: “Dancing Queen”, by Abba, released as a single in 1976. The lassies, who can’t have been born when it first came out, all knew the words (no big surprise, perhaps, given it’s been covered by 20 other artists and was rereleased by Abba in the early 1990s) and sang it long after I felt the moment had passed and they should all go home.

Apart from keeping me awake, I realised something more important: I was listening to the last hurrah of popular music. And today marks, at least in the UK, the death of this era. That’s because today is the last edition of BBC’s Top Of The Pops, the long-running television show that broadcast (usually mimed) performances of the top selling single artists of the week. Everyone here in the UK is waxing nostalgic about the show, which first went out in 1964, and has been running pretty much every week ever since. But perhaps its greatest significance will be in its demise, as it reflects the end of popular music as a unifying force.

Ironic, really, given that folk like me weren’t allowed to watch ToTP as kids, at least with the sound on. Even as a late teenager my dad would make a point of walking in to the lounge when I was watching it, to mess about with the grate, or the wine cupboard (necessitating a move of the TV) and would make some sarcastic remark about whoever was on — and his entry always seemed to coincide with a particularly outrageous display by Roy Wizzard or Noddy Holder or Gary Glitter (turns out he was right about him, come to think of it). ToTP was a divisive force in our household, but nationally, culturally, it united. In an era when pop music remained fringe — only a couple of radio stations played it, one of them pirate, and there was scant pop music on TV outside ToTP — the program was a Mecca for anyone who wanted to know what was what. We really cared about who was number one; seeing bands and artists play on ToTP was sometimes the only chance we got to put a face to the voice we heard on the radio. And then there were Pan’s People, the dancers who “interpreted” songs to help fill up the show. They, dancing to the Chi-Lites’ “Homely Girl”, were my first glimpse of sensual womanhood and for that alone I’m hugely grateful.

The point about ToTP was that it gave everyone a cultural reference point. Watch ToTP and we knew all we needed to know to bond with friends, chat up those we wanted to chat up and to sing along at parties. We all knew who The Rubettes were, and while we may have hated ‘Sugar Baby Love’ we all knew it was number one, and hearing it on radios as we went on holidays or tried to steal a French kiss or two at a party, provided a cultural anchor that would forever make that the soundtrack of the summer of 1974 (or was it 1975.) The point? ‘Sugar Baby Love’ meant different things to different people, but it meant something. Listen to it now and I am transported back to the smell of hay (yes, those kinds of parties), feel the excitement of flashing lights and the electrifying presence of females through the gloom.

Of course, a lot of people will see the demise of ToTP as a good thing, the victory of the Long Tail of pop music (or whatever we have to call it now, given it’s not really popular any more.) They’ll say that the Big Head of mass commercialisation of popular music, where a few acts get disproportionate air play, promotion and media interest to the detriment of others, was never what people really wanted, and that now, with the Internet fostering better distribution and an increasingly sophisticated medium of recommendation, we can now listen to what we really want to, rather than what big business wants us to.

That’s true. But when are we going to be able to stand in car parks at three o’clock in the morning all drunkenly singing “young and sweet and only 17” because we all know the words? Or commenting on the silly hats that the Rubettes wore, or complaining about the number of appearances of Status Quo? And it’s not just about the Water Cooler culture — where we all stand around discussing last night’s TV, where we all saw the same thing because there was only one thing to watch — but of something else: cultural reference points that provide a shared soundtrack to our lives. Not a reason to keep Top of the Pops, necessarily, but perhaps food for thought about the world we are entering without it.