Astroturfing, PPC, Blogging and SEO

Paid Search Marketing Jun 11, 2006

It is approaching two years now that I’ve been in my role as a vice president at Connors Communications, heading up the online outreach and search engine optimization group. When I came onboard, my focus was massively on search engine optimization, as it was my specialty from my previous life. I quickly learned that online PR also meant corporate blogging to some, and a shadowy practice called buzz marketing (or less flatteringly astroturfing) to others.

Now, I was no stranger to blogging in the sense of journaling experiences on the Web in a search-optimized fashion and letting search engines do the rest. But I was somewhat new to the “blogosphere” that was growing up around David Sifry’s Technorati site, with the pinging and the RSS feeds. In the blogosphere, you kept on top of mentions of your name, or the name of your company, product or industry within minutes of the post being made, instead of the weeks (or months) of traditional search engine optimization. In this way, you could keep on top of the online discussions, and engage in them when necessary.

And that’s what brings us to the two approaches to engaging in the discussion. First, you can run your own corporate blog in an official sense. Or second, you can post comments in other peoples’ blogs, attempting to sway the discussion in the direction you desire. The later approach can be done in an open and honest fashion, or it can be done by disguising yourself as not being a representative of your company. And in some cases, companies encourage their customers to do this sort of posting on their behalf. And in other cases, the companies hire third parties who specialize in boosting such word of mouth buzz. Several of these behaviors can be described as astroturfing… the very same dishonesty that gives PR a bad name, but applied online.

I’m using this article to propose that blogging combined with search engine optimization and the HitTailing process is by far the most efficient and honest approach to online marketing available today. The astroturfing alternative in addition to being disingenuous, can be downright dangerous for a company’s reputation. Think how easily it can backfire when you pose as someone you’re not and post somewhere for the first time with a contrary opinion out of the blue. The people who run blogs aren’t stupid, and they often times know manipulation when they see it. It’s worth mentioning that astroturfing in addition to the inherent dangers, is also an obsessive and time-consuming process–not at all as efficient as everyone finding YOU when THEY search.

This is not to say that it’s bad if someone else picks up your message and starts repeating it. In fact, if they do, it is likely they will be speaking with a genuine voice, and posting in locations where they are already known, active participants. In those cases, your message has a much higher chance of being well received, and not called out for being astroturfing. It is the sign of a promising viral campaign that can carry its own weight. The difficulty there is that your product or service actually needs to be good enough to inspire such word of mouth promotion (or the viral gimmick/freebie needs to be brilliant).

For the very best example of an online PR success story that was pure word-of-mouth (including email), which used no gimmick, no freebie, no blog, and no SEO, you need look no further than Google. Google spent almost nothing on advertising, and didn’t have to encourage its users to pass around links in email. It just happened spontaneously. It was a true viral organic process. If you were to map out the dissemination of the Google “word”, and how it weeded its way into our everyday lives, you would have a textbook example of the truest and best sort of online PR win. The product has mass appeal… literally everyone on the Internet is a potential user (customer?). And its value proposition is so compelling that everyone felt the need to tell everyone they knew. And in a very real way, everyone paying for AdSense advertising is riding Google’s massive online public relations success.

But for the rest of us, for online marketing, we’re faced with choosing among pay-per-click advertising, banner ads, natural search engine optimization, a corporate blogging strategy, and astroturfing. This article proposes that pay-per-click advertising and astroturfing indicate the weakest posture. They are both activities that must be “resorted to” because the “better way” does not seem open to us, or perhaps not instantly rewarding enough. Pay-per-click and astroturfing can have their uses when extremely cautiously and tastefully applied, but only to get over the hump of launching a site from scratch. Once you start to make ANY ground at all, switch quickly to a stronger approach.

A corporate blog strategy means different things for different size companies. If you are large and known, it usually (and should) mean opening a frank and often gritty communication channel with your customers. Macromedia did this very successfully as one of the first examples of corporate blogging, opening the product development process to the users in a candid way that would scare the bejezus out of most companies. The GoogleGuy, who started out posting in forums was eventually “outed” as Matt Cutts, who started a pseudo-official Google blog. Robert Scoble did the same for Microsoft. Many large companies started doing official corporate blogs, sort of short-circuiting the traditional press release process in PR. And when you’re big and have stockholders, people will hang on your every word, and blogs carry a different purpose.

For the rest of us in small and medium size business, corporate blogging isn’t quite so effective, because the masses don’t hang on our every word, no matter how we might like to think so. But the mission is different as well. We’re mostly just trying to find new customers, keep those we have, improve sales, and accelerate company growth. And blogging in that regard is more of a shotgun approach. You don’t know what to blog about in order to specifically achieve those goals. And when you do blog, new issues flare up, the search hits may not be what had hoped for, and blogging gets to feel a little to self-indulgent. Consequently, a wet blanket gets prematurely thrown on the whole endeavor. It’s just so much easier to find the discussions that already exist, and go astroturfing with fly-by posts — or to sink more money into AdWords.

But for small and medium sized business, it’s imperative to stick with it. The topic selection for the posts needs to become smarter, and as you see incremental improvements in search hits and conversions, the self-indulgent feeling of blogging will subside. It will quickly become core to the company mission, because what else is there really besides your relationship with your customers? Even if that relationship is an imagined one, in is still key to the mission of any business: to get and keep customers.

So, I clearly advocate creating a corporate blog, identifying the best “voice” in the company to represent you, to give them the freedom to blog in good taste, knowing you have the ability to pull down the post if you ever need to, and to begin selecting your subject matter so that it serves the universal mission of all companies: to get and keep customers. I advocate keeping this up over a significant period of time, even if it doesn’t feel like its having the intended effect at first (at least two months), and to watch the data that’s coming back through BOTH analytics and HitTail. HitTail will help you choose your next blog topic, transitioning you from the shotgun approach that you had to adopt to get started, to a more sniper-like approach that will zero in on more and better phrases and customers.

Avoid disingenuous and disguised posts on other peoples’ blogs or forums. If you’re not ashamed of what you’re doing, just post as yourself. Products deserve to be announced, and if you choose you’re venue correctly, they won’t drive you away as an astroturfer. But don’t disguise yourself, and only do enough to get started. Watch who starts to pick up and repeat your message. Some will be aggregators who are just republishing your posts. But some will be genuine advocates. There’s nothing wrong with thanking them for recognizing you, and asking to use their quotes. This is an honest, and somewhat traditional grass roots approach to starting an organic word of mouth campaign online.

And, it’s OK to buy some keywords through AdSense, Yahoo, or the alternatives. Its something everyone should do just for the experience if nothing else. It will help you collect some information and think like an online advertiser. But don’t over-invest here. Just think of it as something you have to do to cover for the slow period that follows activating a new website, while the HitTailing process picks up momentum.

This momentum-building period should be thought of as getting the snowball effect started. The snowball effect is very real. Get a snowball rolling on a steep hill, and it will eventually pick up enough mass to keep itself rolling. But anyone who has tried this on a shallow incline with poor snow, knows how frustrating it can be. This metaphor precisely reveals the importance of choosing good products to market as raw material for HitTailing. Some markets are steep hills full of keyword-rich snow that serves as good packing material. If you make good choices, and put enough effort into getting the snowball rolling, the keyword suggestion tool will kick in, and your corporate blogging strategy will pick up momentum. In the best cases, your biggest problem should be keeping up with the suggestions.

And the final thought is the triple-whammy effect of when this all comes together just right. Blogging is a friction free way of publishing, solving many of the problems we encounter when you ask the Web or IT team “can you put this on the site?” Most blog software (Blogger, Movable Type and WordPress) are inherently well optimized, taking care of the mechanical problems we encounter when you ask the Web or IT team: “can you get rid of the parameters and get the terms in the URL, headline, title and links?” And because your posts are search-optimized (and pinging the world as news), your pages will start to produce the occasional search hit that feeds data to HitTail to mine for suggestions. If you have the determination to stick it out, you should start to see the magic of this triple-whammy marketing method. It’s a much more efficient and honest way of reaching your potential customer-base worldwide than the astroturfing and keyword-buying alternatives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *