Trying Out Neeva

“…advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results.”

– Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in a 1998 research paper while they were doctoral students at Stanford

I’ve been trying out the search engine service Neeva lately. You can read more about the founding of the company by ex-Googler Sridhar Ramaswamy here (it’s a fascinating story).

I come from the time when the web was still in its primordial stage. Thought technologies such as web browsers and search engines were still young and completely exhilarating. I paid for Netscape (and I was amazed when I got to college in 1996 and walked into the computer lab with 8 machines running Netscape, WordPerfect, Office, and the Corel suite). Browsers and search engines and minute-based access to the web were something you paid for (unless you stockpiled AOL disks like I did).

Neeva is definitely a different service. I’m still wrapping my head around it, but it feels like a good mix of “old school web” and what we’ll eventually get to once we exit this period of advertising-based “free” services that have been the predominate business model on the web for the last 15 years.

The search interface is clean and fast. There are no ad trackers. The company is looking to make money by offering subscriptions. That’s intriguing for me. I’ve never been a big fan of the saying “if you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product” and all, but it does ease my mind to exchange money for what I consider valuable services on the web (Pinboard for bookmarking comes to mind).

Google is such an intimate part of all of our lives, whether we care to admit it or not. Our memories, correspondence, social graphs, birthday reminders, calendars etc are all wrapped up in the service (at least… much more than that for “power users” like myself). But we need alternatives.

I’ll continue experimenting with Neeva to see if it’s one of the dandelions that pops up to spread seeds across the ecosystem of the web or if it’s just a one-season deal. But it “feels” like it has staying power. And for that, I’m excited. Will report back here about my usage as it accumulates in the coming weeks.

Why Are Lyrics Sites So Profitable? (And How Bob Dylan Wins)

rapgenius SEO mistake
Dumb SEO Mistake

Lyrics searches area a major deal, especially in search advertising. Do a search on Google or Bing for your favorite song with “lyrics” attached and you’ll see a number of results. Companies such as AZLyrics, Sing365, MetroLyrics, SongMeanings, Lyric Freak etc all tend to out rank even artist sites as they compete with each other for the very profitable first or second position.

Despite their shady legal status, intense competition, inability to do much in the way of paid search, and dubious marketing tactics they are thriving.

Why are there so many of these sites and why are they so profitable?

It’s a matter of simple economics. Despite the rise of social media like Facebook or the presence of “old school” avenues such as newspapers or billboards or television spots, Google has created and maintains the easiest and (far and away) most profitable advertising channel ever developed by humans… its search index. While modern marketing and advertising agencies might try to sell you on other channels, Google search is still the money maker and can be a make it or break it for your company whether you’re making money by CPM (ad placements, impressions etc) or via CPA (visitors actually have to do something on your site like click a link or buy a product or subscribe to a service for you to make money).

Things are further complicated when you consider that there are two main ways to “advertise” on Google and it’s a fairly democratized process if you’re willing to get over the initial hurdle of learning how to work with tools that Google provides freely and in all earnestness such as Webmaster Tools or AdWords. Combine those with Google Analytics on your site, and you’re 80% of your way to being a full blown marketing agency. It’s not hard and Google intends to make these tools as pedestrian friendly as possible on purpose. If more people are spending just a few dollars a day on rankings, not only does it add to Google’s bottom line directly but it also encourages companies like mine to spend more and more (money and time and attention) to stay relevant and profitable.

It’s a fantastic growth strategy that shows no signs of slowing down while newer companies such as Twitter or Facebook still struggle to get their advertising platforms off the ground. The difference is that Google’s search advertising is a very impersonal yet highly engaging experience for both advertisers and users.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram etc are all using very antiquated notions of brand advertising and cost-per-impressions to lure in larger brands for initial investments while alienating users with more billboard-style advertisements. Until these social media companies figure out the magic that has made Google’s advertising such a success (with future proofing beyond anyone’s recognition as Google continues to tweak its algorithm and suck us deeper into its advertising infrastructure with great products, services, phones, wearables, cars, robots etc), they don’t stand a chance. Simply put, you can’t do cost per impression advertising with any large scale success in 2014 and beyond (and only Google and Amazon get this on the web).

Democratization is profitable.

Lyrics sites, in particular, are easy to set up and advertise. The content has already been generated and is fairly easy to obtain (legally or illegally). The long tail potential of this content to keep generating pageviews overtime is immense. Google any song you can think of and you’ll see the first four pages are completely filled with lyric sites. Add to that the understanding that if a user visits your lyric site, they’ll probably be spending anywhere from 3-5 minutes average on your site reading the lyrics or singing along to their googled song. That’s incredibly valuable in a world where the average page view on a content site is somewhere in the 1.5 second range over time (median). More time = more money in the algorithmic world of internet marketing because those people click things, buy things, sign up for things and/or go places linked on your lyrics site generating you all sorts of income channels. It’s a win-win.

One of the few artists who “get it” happens to be Bob Dylan. If you google any song by Bob Dylan, you’ll see a collection of lyrics sites but you’ll also see Whoever is in charge of Dylan’s site and licenses to his music understands this economy and has listed every single Dylan song along with full lyrics (themselves a trademark). Instead of going after lyrics sites with trademark and copyright takedown letters, Team Dylan has successfully put themselves at the top of the lyrics search. Well done, Bobby.

Lyrics sites aren’t the only type of site that fall into this category and the entire affiliate marketing industry has been riding this understanding for over a decade and shows little sign of slowing down (despite Nexus laws in states looking to charge tax on these types of transactions which does make things a little more cumbersome but not crippling).

With a little knowledge of python scripts combined with basic HTML to create a site, you could launch a lyrics site in a matter of minutes. You’re a millionaire! Congrats. Oh wait… you’ve got to get people there.

The trouble comes with the traffic question. This is a very difficult question for many businesses and the reason why I have a company. I help businesses solve this problem by figuring out the “now what” part of making money on the internet. It’s fascinating, challenging and difficult work that is part counseling, part robot engineer, part luck and a lot of statistics and higher level math logic. At least that’s what I make it out to be. Your mileage my vary depending on your time and willingness to succeed.

Generating traffic is seemingly easy. I make a great site based on great content and Google should send its fleet of robots over to properly index my lovely site and send that information back to the mothership. In no time, I’m on the front page for “Justin Bieber Fan” and I’ve got a million page views daily. Wrong. Because of the ease of construction, the fairly easy-to-stomach “costs” associated with getting reliable content (there’s a canonical version for every song’s lyric), and the continual replenishment of highly valuable and sought after information (Bieber, Beyonce, Miley, Jay-Z, Kanye etc are pretty consistent in putting out albums every 12-15 months and the labels space them out so as to not have two hit albums hitting the streets on the same week or even month), there’s little disincentive to start a lyrics site (beyond the legality and all).

Getting traffic to a lyrics site is the main hurdle to economic reward. Of course there is Twitter, Facebook etc available for getting folks to a lyrics site, but the main route of traffic flows from Google.

Within Google’s search platform there are two main ways to “advertise” and get eyeballs and hopefully clicks. The first is organic search. As the name suggests, this type of search and traffic is generated naturally. While not the same metaphor as organic milk or butter, organic search is generally thought of as where you naturally fit into Google’s algorithms based on content’s intentional or unintentional search engine optimization (SEO). If I create a new site for a real estate client, I have to wait a few days for that information to get properly indexed by Google’s robots that are constantly crawling the web like tiny information scavengers. I can help that out using Google’s Tools but if I’m making highly valuable (to Google) content such as a personal blog, that information will surely get indexed and put in the right place. For instance, if you Google “sam harrelson” you’ll find this blog in the top spot. I’ve done a few SEO tweaks but all of that indexing by Google is because of organic traffic. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been linked to by the New York Times, major blogs, etc but I haven’t “paid” for any of that. Organic traffic can be your best friend if you’re doing the hard work of churning out content. Google likes to reward those who feed their machine with this soylent green of human capital.

On the other hand, there’s what we call paid search. Using paid search effectively is seemingly more intensive and difficult than just putting up blog posts and waiting for Google to send you money. That’s partly true but not the whole story as paying for search is an art in itself but no more of an art than properly doing organic search (with intention) the right way. The difference is that paid search does require money. You pay to be listed in the wonderful tiny little text ads along the side (or top) of Google search results or in YouTube results or in GMail inboxes etc that have launched a thousand companies. Those text ads are incredibly efficient and responsible for both Google’s success as well as the success (and failure) of many companies. Writing ads that fall into the strict guidelines is nothing short of an endeavor that has tested the patience and humanity of many a marketing professional. But they work. Oh boy do those text ads work.

However, they can be expensive. It’s not uncommon for a large advertiser such as Wal-Mart or Target to spend over 300 million dollars a year on various paid search campaigns. National or regional business commonly spend thousands of dollars a month on search ads within Google. Whole companies run their businesses based on these ads. For instance, back to the affiliate marketing industry, there are many companies that exist just to get traffic from these ads within Google to large retailers such as Amazon or Overstock or REI, and in-turn get a small cut of any transaction that a person makes. Those companies probably have a site but the emphasis isn’t on keeping visitors on the site as much as getting them to make what’s called a conversion (buying something or subscribing to something). Making these text ads work is one of the underpinnings of my business so I am paid to care about these details and make sure I’m keeping up with my homework as the algorithms and keys to success withing a paid search campaign are constantly evolving with Google’s brain as well as the web.

Where does all of that money go? What are businesses paying for? In a nutshell, if you do paid search you are in an auction of sorts. It’t not as much fun as a Storage Wars bidding feud, and there are no collectibles or antiques to be had. Instead, you’re bidding on words. We call them keywords, but they are effectively just a collection of letters.

It has always been fascinating to me that the most incredible and effective method of advertising ever created by humanity is based on the very simple premise of bidding on ancient technology created sometime around 4,500 years ago in a small and dusty population center by merchants looking to make sure they knew how many barrels of beer to send down the Tigris river from Sumer to Ur or Uruk.

Here’s a better explanation than I could make of how Google uses its “Adwords” platform to house the auction for these letters and words:

How does Google AdWords work? - infographic
Infographic by Pulpmedia Online Marketing

It’s neurotic and fun work. But it works and will continue to work for both advertisers, businesses and especially users. Some say search is dead, but I say it’s only evolving and will continue to be more effective than social media ads.

With this knowledge in hand, let’s go back to our lyrics site. While these sites are major spenders in Adwords and have a very competitive keyword space. It’s not uncommon for keywords such as the title to the latest Miley or Jay-Z hit to be in the hundreds of dollars. However, these ads have been controversial since Google got into the ad business 10 years ago and don’t appear in most searches because record labels and attorneys see this as Google profiting from the work of illegal (or non-copyright compliant) lyrics sites. It’s a tricky issue with many parameters.

As a result, lyrics sites resort to organic search as the main current of traffic flow. There are various SEO tactics to help them and the highest ranking sites are doing an enormous amount of behind the scenes work to make sure their lyrics to Hotel California show up above a competitor.

Another tactic to increasing their organic search placements is to get links from other sites. Sometimes these are paid for but mostly they are acquired freely. Getting links has been one of the double-edged tools that Google has long loved and hated for ranking sites properly. PageRank itself (one of the first algorithms used to index sites and named after Google co-creator Larry Page, not a reference to webpage as widely thought) is based on the recognition that who links to you matters:

Google has invented many innovations in search to improve the answers you find. The first and most well known is PageRank, named for Larry Page (Google’s co-founder and CEO). PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.

When Google became the most used search engine sometime in the early 2000’s, it became critically important to rank well (unlike Yahoo or Alta Vista who ranked sites in a more hierarchical index format that had less recognition for inbound and outbound links). Google PageRank was a real and incredibly important development for how we process information and has quite literally changed the world (for the better in my opinion). In the early 2000’s, SEO became the hot ticket as a result of this recognition of Google’s growing power on how people find, discover, and ultimately visit sites.

Being humans, we always look for the shortest path to riches. Thus was born link building. Google now has very strict rules about swapping, buying, asking for, and trading links as they continually try to best the blackhat SEO gamers.

However, with the rise of blogs in the early 2000’s came the rise of the hyperlink. Getting and giving links to other blogs you read or enjoyed was common. Blog software such as MovableType, WordPress, Userland Radio etc all included easy ways to add links to what came to be known as a blogroll. Including a link to a friend or colleagues blog in your public blogroll was akin to favoriting them on Facebook or +1’ing them on Google Plus today. We all did it and it benefited us with both recognition and traffic. Google liked blogrolls because it helped them see who was connected to who and which sites were seen as more valuable than others. Very quickly, this time of link economy became much more valuable to Google than something like the number of views a site might have gotten. It’s still the reason that blogs like this can compete with major sites like the in search results.

Yet, there was an ugly underbelly of paid links and link begging from companies and marketers looking to circumvent the system. Even though Google cracked down on the practice, it continued and it’s still going strong today in a number of forums, email groups, and sites that I won’t link to here.

So it was shocking to see a somewhat reputable company (at least in Silicon Valley) resort to link begging on Facebook in order to get more organic links for the newly released Justin Bieber album…

Their business depends on their search engine ranking position SERP’s on Google. Hyperlinks connect the web and determine SERP’s. Thus, the most powerful weapon RapGenius can deploy is a series of powerful hyperlinks. You can see in Mahbod’s email that he is asking for hyperlinks from high-page rank sites personal blogs with anchor text that mentions tracks from Bieber’s most recent album.

via RapGenius Growth Hack Exposed – John Marbachs Blog.

Search Engine Land and TechCrunch has more on Rap Genius and here’s the fun Hacker News thread for your reading pleasure.

I wouldn’t call this a “growth hack” at all.

RapGenius quite literally made a stupid mistake that shows either a complete lack of understanding for how Google and marketing works or a naivety akin to my 6 year old daughter’s understanding of the internet. I cannot fathom how a company with $15 in funding from very reputable venture companies would make this sort of either blatant or unintentional mistake. Cautionary tale indeed.

In any case, this is a lucrative market that shows no sign of slowing down. Despite the shady legal status of the whole idea of a lyrics site, the inability to do much in the way of paid search, the intense competition based on democratization, and the dubious tactics of its biggest traffic generators, lyrics sites have evolved with the underbelly of the web and thrive.

Some of them just need better marketing.