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The wisdom of the crowds

 

This post is based on the excellent session, “Crowdsource Your Success”, that was given in Affiliate Summit East 2010 though I expanded it and added my own perspective.

 
Crowdsourcing is becoming increasingly popular these days. According to Wikipedia, Crowdsourcing “is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open call“.

 

Using Crowdsourcing, you can submit a job description and get multiple bids each already satisfying the specifications you desire. Since you get multiple people trying to create what you want, the results are potentially diverse and can be surprisingly creative. Of course, this is usually more expensive than just using regular outsourcing sites such as oDesk or Elance – but the disadvantage of those is that no matter how good your contractor, you are ’stuck’ with a single design.

 
Crowdsourcing works because of the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ principle: the idea that a crowd – a collection of individuals – is much more likely to get the right answer than a single individual.

 
A good example is the game show “Who wants to be a millionaire?”. Asking the audience for the answer is more likely to result in the right answer than asking your friend or Regis Philbin.

 
This principle has been adopted by computer science as well (and probably other fields). In my academic career I used to create multiple artificial neural – instead of a single one – networks that solved a problem. The right solution was determined by taking the solution that the largest number of networks ‘voted’ would work best.

 
Here are some suggestions given at the talk to get the maximum from crowdsourcing:

  1. You reap what you sow: define your project properly or you may get something very different from what you had in mind.
  2. Tight deadlines are very effective as people like discovering quickly whether they’ve won a bid.
  3. Don’t be a jerk: Designers thrive on feedback, give feedback and recognition.
  4. The project has to require your involvement: a crowdsourcing project is not ’set and forget’.
  5. Keep it simple: be realistic in your expectations and ask for what is reasonable.
  6. Don’t be too cheap: most people aren’t going to be paid, so keep this in mind.
  7. Announce there will be multiple winners to boost designer participation (assuming that is the case!)

Until the talk in Affiliate Summit, I (naively) thought crowdsourcing is limited to graphic design/web design and 1-2 other types of applications. I was mainly familiar with 99design.

 
The following is a list of crowdsourcing resources given at the talk. I had no idea there were so many! When I’ve done a Google search I found even more though it’s hard to tell which are good. If you are familiar with anything that is not included and is a good resource, please let me know and I’ll add it.

 
Note that I’m still looking for a place to crowdsource copywriting (sadly, not my strength!) – so if you are familiar with a good site for that purpose, suggestions would be welcome.

 
Banner, landing page and graphic design
99designs: the most well known resource for Crowdsourcing.

 
Landing page optimization:
FiveSecondTest: allows you to get quick feedback on landing page designs.

  • Are your calls to action standing out? Get people clicking on hot spots
  • Can visitors understand what the site is about?
  • Give viewers a memory test: what can they remember about the landing page?

 
PPC management
Trada: Allows you to turn over PPC management to a group of AdWords qualified professionals.

 
Ad copy
BoostCTR: allows you to outsource your ad copy so that your CTR is boosted. Guaranteed improvement!

 
Videos
GeniusRocket: professional videos and animations.

 
Product development
Quirky: submit new ideas for products or influence products currently in production (and earn cash)

 
Feature Requests
UserVoice: a giant suggestion box. You get a lot of comments which are prioritized. Best ideas are voted to the top.

SuggestionBox

 
Software development
TopCoder: an excellent resource for software developers.

 
Find JV partners
Jigsaw: a massive crowsourced database of contact information

 
Content writing
Spudaroo: useful for web content as well as resumes, leases, etc.

 
Beta Testing
UserTesting: usability testing for your website.

CrowdFlower

 
Ideas/Names
Amazon Mturk: Although the Amazon Mechanical Turk is not exactly a crowdsourcing resource, by offering to pay a small amount for ideas, you can effectively crowdsource names. An example was given of a person who paid $27.50 to get name ideas for his iPhone app (the result was iReadFast). Note that there used to be a site (which I vaguely remember) that was used for this purpose but has been apparently closed.

 

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Cheap Traffic sources

Originally I told this story as an amusing anecdote to friend, but last week, following a conversation, I realized this could actually be helpful to my readers.

 
A few months ago I was promoting a lot of auto insurance offers. Now, these usually have a good payout, but in terms of PPC are extremely competitive and consequently, very expensive. It is really hard to make a profit, but I was managing. However, I was constantly on the lookout for quality – yet cheap – traffic sources.

 
At the time I was just starting to explore Media Buys. I heard of an network that offers this service (hint: its name starts with “Ad..”) ;) ), however, when I actually went to register, I got confused and registered to another network that does the same thing, but isn’t nearly as good. But I didn’t know this at the time. The names were just very similar.

 
The site required that I give them, I think, about $25, and showed me many sites divided according to niches with traffic statistics. The idea was that you can select a site, and place a banner/ad for a specified amount of time for a price. I picked five sites, and placed an ad to my auto-insurance offer. All seemed like very appropriate sites and nothing looked out of the ordinary. I paid $1 for each, and the ad was supposed to run for a single day on every one of those sites.

 
The next day I got the statistics:

  1. Two of the websites didn’t send me even a single visitor. Clearly the site’s statistics were simply fraudulent (I think each claimed 7,000 unique visitors a day or something like that)
  2. Two of the websites sent me two visitors, none converted. Again, fraudulent statistics.
  3. One site sent me a pretty good number of visitors – I think around 50. Normally I’d have to pay quite a lot to get 50 clicks using PPC for Auto Insurance offers! In Google Adwords this would literally cost me hundreds of dollars! The odd thing was that none of them converted, and I was very familiar with this offer – it normally converted very, very well.

 
The strange thing is that that one site kept sending me traffic the next day. I didn’t pay an additional dollar, but it still sent me traffic. Awesome, I thought. Again, the numbers were not bad at all, but 0 conversions. After two days this was starting to look suspicious. I examined the IPs and they were all very different – so I didn’t think it’s the same guy clicking my ad again and again.

 
The next day my ad was still running. I have no idea what the guy was thinking, but I didn’t mind. Again, decent traffic, zero conversions. Ok, now I started getting really suspicious. I sent him an email requesting that the ad be redirected to one of my own sites. I assumed he’d probably cancel the ad (reminder: I paid $1 for a single day! That’s it!) but this was simply too suspicious to continue. To my surprise, he agreed. No further charges.

 
The next day I started getting the same traffic to my site and then I discovered what was going on. All the traffic was coming from Asia. 95% from China and some from Singapore and Vietnam. Well, that explains why I got zero conversions – the offer was for US traffic only.

 
The thing is I really couldn’t guess this is what I’d get from the site – it looked perfectly American to me. And nowhere did the network or the site imply it may be a target for Asian visitors mainly (it just wasn’t mentioned anywhere, and I, naively, didn’t suspect anything – I still believed I’m using a good network at the time).

 
At this point I thought: well, the traffic is coming from whatever reason, I don’t mind. Maybe they’ll buy something? Maybe they’ll see something they like in the ads? Who cares, free traffic.

 
And the traffic kept coming… there were zero conversions but I definitely got some ad revenue which immediately made up for the $1 original cost.

 
This lasted for about 1-2 weeks until one day, some visitor went and clicked on all the ads on my site. 19. I heard Google likes banning AdSense accounts for exactly this type of suspicious activity, so decided not to risk it. I went to their site, there was an option “report suspicious activity”, I sent: “I don’t know who, someone clicked on all my ads, this is not me, feel free to take the income back, I don’t want it, kind, benevolent, great Google!” (well, I didn’t phrase it exactly like that, but that was the general spirit of my letter).

 
I got no response from Google – which is typical, maybe 10% of the emails I sent them got a response, and even those were usually automated, and neither was my account banned, so I figured – good, end of story.

 
However, I noticed something peculiar – that my ad revenue from all my sites significantly dropped. It was then I discovered what ’smart pricing’ means. It means that for 1 to 4 weeks, your entire AdSense account (and you are not allowed to have more than one) will get about a tenth of its revenue because Google suspects your traffic sources. Highly unfair – why should it affect my other sites!?

 
This was starting to become a problem. I didn’t want to just ask the person to remove the ad (free traffic, still), so I sent him an email asking him to redirect the traffic to another one of my sites (my book site), one which doesn’t have any ads. I figured, at least there the visitors can’t do any damage. If they buy something, great, if they don’t – I don’t mind. Clearly this traffic is not stopping any time soon.

 
This continued for a few more weeks (again, I remind you: I paid $1 for all this!). And then during a lunch with a friend he gave me an idea I can’t say is anything less than genius. “Why don’t you join a Chinese affiliate network?”. What a smart idea. Absolutely brilliant!

 
I started looking for some, and indeed found a couple. Several were all in Chinese, so I just couldn’t join them (even though I did guess what the various boxes represent), but one was not. So I joined (they were a bit baffled and interviewed me why I would want to do so). After being accepted, I applied to everything which I saw. Of course, half rejected me (why would a jewelry advertiser want to advertise on a book site?) but a surprising number approved me.

 
I started putting a few banners in Chinese in one page in my site, which must’ve looked pretty odd to my usual visitors, but noticed that the visitors almost never visit that page. The problem was that I didn’t want to overdo it because really it was making my site look odd. It’s a niche site, so I knew people would still visit it because of the content, but I didn’t to go to far… even with a just few banners my site was looking too weird for my taste.

 
So then I thought of a really good idea. I put all these banners on one page and made it hidden, so you could only access it using a direct link. Then I sent yet another email to the site owner and asked him to direct his traffic to that specific page. Perfect, no? Best of both worlds: it doesn’t affect my site, and I get good traffic to the one specific page.

 
After two days the traffic stopped. I think the person realized what I was doing and decided he’s not going to give me free traffic anymore. I must’ve received about 2 months of traffic for that $1 I paid. I decided I’m not renewing this ad anymore (he’ll probably charge me daily now). And that’s where things are left. Still have a hidden page filled with banners in Chinese.

 
I think this is an amusing story. First, because why would I get so much traffic for so little? Second, because clearly the traffic was not what I thought it would be. Later the auto insurance offer was canceled because someone was sending it “problematic traffic”, I quickly contacted my affiliate manager and inquired – this wasn’t me, my traffic was a drop in the bucket of the traffic they got, and I only sent it for 3 days. However, just the thought that I could have endangered my relationship with that network unwittingly wasn’t something I found pleasant.

 
Let this be a lesson to you all ;) Since then I’ve learned much on gauging the quality of traffic and am significantly more careful. But just thinking about this makes me laugh about this weird scenario and how naive I was back then with regards to Media Buys.

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Industry Review

Last month many AdWords accounts were banned for life for allegedly promoting scams (“Google Money Tree”). Although I’m sure many of these people were in fact promoting scams that preyed on the innocent, many others did not promote “Google Money Tree”. In fact, many of those were not even associated with anything related. If you have a doubt of this, check out this interesting thread on Google’s own forums. There are many other articles online about this topic.

 
Full disclosure: my own AdWords account has been banned despite having to do nothing with “Google Money Tree”. I promoted a “make money from home” offer once, for a single night, which I thought is perfectly legitimate (hey, *I* make money from home!), it passed Google’s editorial approval and there was nothing wrong or immoral with it in my opinion. Had Google told me that I shouldn’t be doing this, I would’ve immediately stopped. However, one day I get an email that informed me my account, and any other I ever create, is banned from this moment on. A phone call and three emails did not help, and in fact clarified that banning accounts is not limited to “Google Money Tree”. I’ve been promised no AdWords account, ever. Fine, it’s Google’s right. I was barely using my account anyway (I’m doing primarily SEO).

 
Two weeks ago significant Google changes were made that appear to have a major effect on affiliates running review sites. Here’s Perry Marshall’s excellent article about this.

 
Quick change of topic: Lately I’ve been receiving a lot of emails about the new product Zero Friction Marketing. I won’t go through the sales letter, though one point in particular drew my attention. “…No Google Ads, no experience, no selling…”. “A few short months ago I stumbled onto a Google-free method that created instant money streams so fast and so insanely powerful…”.

 
Is it my imagination or not using Google is actually being touted as a good thing? As one of the major selling points?

 
(Note: yes, this was an affiliate link in case you were wondering. Hey, if I’m introducing a product and it sounds good to you, I may as well get some credit ;) Though the goal of this blog is NOT affiliate advertising and this has not changed).

 
This makes me wonder: have some people decided that Google is simply too capricious, and even though it offers superior tools and it is the market leader, maybe it’s better to focus on the softer, more easy going, competitors? Are we going to see many more products whose selling points are being “Google-Free” from now on? I’m wondering whether this is the beginning of a trend… of drifting away from Google. Only time will tell, I guess.

 
Personally I find this fascinating and am really curious where we are going. We shall see soon!

 
Please leave a comment if you have something to say, or just tweet me. I’m curious to hear your opinion.

 

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