I had a very real brush with Google Death recently and I thought I would share my experience out of interest.
I run pokerdiy.com, a social network for poker players that allows you to manage your poker league and find local poker games and players. You do not play poker on PokerDIY, it is a service for connecting poker players with league management (think Facebook + Craigslist for poker). All this is free of course.
My prime revenue stream is online advertising. I just want to state now that I do not ever want to be an affiliate-driven poker site – i.e. I send someone to an online poker room and I get $50 (they probably lose $500) – most of the large poker sites operate on this model but my long-term vision is to have a successful social network and provide a respectable, useful, free service (I started PokerDIY because I kept sending our home poker league scores on a spreadsheet with mass emails). I personally do not play much online poker (playing live poker with a couple of mates and a few beers is one my favorite pastimes) and I really dislike the spew of keyword-rich poker sites with masses of affiliate banners of them offering no real value to the net visitor. I have tried MANY different types of online ads – ranging from AuctionAds, AdBrite, Adsense, Affiliate Ads, etc. and the most lucrative (as-in, keep me afloat lucrative) has always been the custom, flat rate ads (i.e. Not CPC or CPM – a webmaster contacts me, we agree on a rate and I put up their banner or text-link for a set duration of time).
Why not Google Adsense? A year ago the great Google god (GGG) decided that PokerDIY does not comply with their guidelines (no gambling or casino sites) so they disabled my Adsense account. (For the record, I completely disagree and have appealed this decision as my site is a social service, not a gambling platform – you don’t play poker on PokerDIY!). I hope to hear back from them soon and will keep you posted. I think contextual ads (as opposed to untargeted, content-insensitive ads) are of course better for everyone.
So; my point – Every now and again I experiment with different ads and options but I have repeatedly found text-links always give the best ROI (note, this depends on so many factors like your site’s target market, UI, traffic etc. This is merely my experience).
The reason for this is PokerDIY’s good PageRank. For a few years the home page has been a PR5 and all the major subpages either a PR3 or a PR4. This directly translated into good ad rates for text-links and the advertising income made the time spent on the site worth it. This has all changed over the last year as Google have made their guidelines quite clear regarding bought and sold links. In a nutshell, they say that buying a link to increase your page-rank (incoming links count as “votes” towards a site’s worthiness) is a no-no and any site caught buying or selling links will be penalized. I won’t go into detail on this – it caused an ongoing, massive debate in the SEO and advertising world and this post is merely the affect it has had on me, the little guy.
Firstly – I should state that I do agree with this conceptually. I don’t want to be able to move up the rankings in Google because I have money (or lose out in the rankings because my competitor has more money). I want a fair race where your web visitors are the judges and a sites ranking depends on its usefulness and the value it offers in its respective field.
However, we have to be realistic – I (and most web entrepreneurs) rely on online ads to make money – if you remove this revenue stream a webmaster has to either secure an alternate stream if possible (we are in a recession in case nobody noticed) or shut shop. I fear for most people like myself “who just get by” and have no major backing behind them this is almost a death blow. Let me show you the tangible effect this has had on me:
Two weeks ago I noticed that my Page Rank on my homepage had dropped from a PR5 to a PR3. Several potential advertisers inform me of this fact (almost gleefully) and suggested I reduce my ad rates and moved on.
I did some research and although I can’t be sure I got the impression that Google was starting to “slap” webmasters on the wrist who were involved in the illicit link trade business. This had happened to many sites over the last year and seemed to be on the increase. But I never thought it would happen to me though (I’m the little guy!). I dropped everything and did some serious research on their guidelines – suddenly my worst fears had become a reality overnight with that casual PR drop. You might argue that PR has no influence on SERPS and or whatever (there’s endless discussions on this too) but it definitely has an effect on my revenue stream and the reactions of the advertisers whose payments I rely on.
So, I had to make a big decision –
Let me give a brief bit of background on why neither of these 2 choices thrilled me:
Either way, my ad revenue is going to drop – it’s just a matter of time. In the first case, I could keep my ad rates the same for the next 6 months or so, but I would definitely notice a drop in re-buys (90% of my advertisers periodically re-purchase their ads and I have a good relationship with every one of them (PokerDIY grows stronger every month – we are now in the Alexa top 100k, although of course this is no real indicator of a site’s success as I could have written a bot to hit the site periodically if I didn’t have better things to do)). Over time though the Google slaps would get harder and PokerDIY would wither up and die in the long run. Who knows what GGG is capable of when you risk his wrath – let’s see – PR0, lower SERPS and worst of all, the Google Death Blow – de-listing from the index). I therefore decided that whatever happens I want to stay on the right side of Google (Matt Cutts take note!) like a good little dog.
But… if I play by the rules it means I keep my PR and traffic, but then I have to do things like a) not sell links or b) sell links that rely on eyeballs and not SEO – ie. Add the “nofollow” tag to them so Google does not think you are bigging-up the site you link to. Again, I see their point. If Paddy’s Poker Palace buys a link from me I should not be telling the world that PokerDIY endorses them (with link juice), I am merely saying – here’s an ad, click on it if you like and make your own mind up.
Adding a “nofollow” tag is the only real option but boy, this is where the problems start. I have to either refund the advertiser (the value of their purchase has diminished) or offer them an alternative. Refunding is not an option as I cannot suddenly raise the money to pay back all my advertisers at once. So I am working on an ad package of an equal value (with a bit more thrown in for the trouble and hassle this has caused!) to make sure they get value for the remainder of their ad time. For example, if they had a direct text-link I will now offer them a 125*125 non-direct banner.
Someone might argue that I could just leave the ”nofollow” tag off until the end of their advertising, but besides killing PokerDIY PR and traffic this would have a negative effect on their site anyway – not only because of the loss of traffic and PR, but Google would penalize the target site too for engaging in the despicable practice of ad purchasing for PR gain (it’s no secret that this is why people buy the little text links that no one clicks on). Out of interest, I had one existing advertiser contact me and request that I PUT the “nofollow” tag on as soon as possible (their site was being penalized for purchasing links), which I did.
*UPDATE* A few days after implementing the “nofollow” tag on all text-links my PageRank was restored to a PR5. I believe this shows that Google is using algorithms and bots/spiders to automatically handle this affair (as you would expect). If this has not affected you then I would imagine it is only a matter of time – take action now so you don’t have to face the mess I am in.
The other very tangible affect is that I have literally slashed my ad rates by more than half. In one day my potential forecast has more than halved with a single action from Google. A big company or firm might be able to budget for this kind of drop and have a contingency action plan built in, but for a many web entrepreneurs this is a serious blow. It could very well lead to a mass of small players dropping off the face of the web, leaving a clear web-class divide between the big players with money and the rest of us. So in a way even this action allows the big players to get to the top of SERPS – they’ll be #1 if there are no competitors with the financial backing to compete. Is this perhaps what Google want – a clean sweep of the web riff-raff to improve the quality over time?
I will save the details of my Advertising Rethink for another post as this is getting a bit long. I thought I would share this story as testament to Google’s power and how it affects me, the little guy…
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