Trust Me, I’m Lying isn’t actually a “playbook for the dark arts of exploiting the media.” It’s more like a straight description of everyday PR work that failed to shock me, even if it did contain some clever ideas for how to trade a story up through a media system that performs no quality control. I don’t recommend this book as an instruction manual. I would warn against using some of the techniques that he the author (likely using a pen name) describes. Fraud always decays in the long run. As a 20-something working in the field, I know that I need to build a reputation that’ll last me for the next ~50 years of my working life, and doing so on a foundation of half-truth isn’t a sensible career strategy.
I should also note that Holiday confesses to many, many violations of FTC regulations in this book, but none of the reviewers that I’ve noticed have brought up this fact. Agree or disagree with the nature of those laws, one can’t help but remark on the fact that an author can brag about flouting regulations without anyone (indeed, even the author himself) noticing.
One observation that I agree with wholeheartedly is that the CPM system that major blogs use as a performance for advertisers is wholly misleading, and even dangerous to brands that rely upon them. From the book:
These advertisements are paid for by the impression (generally a rate per thousand impressions). A site might have several ad units on each page; the publisher’s revenue equals the cumulative CPM (cost per thousand) multiplied by the number of pageviews. Advertisement × Traffic = Revenue. An ad buyer like me buys this space by the millions—ten million impressions on this site, five million on another, fifty million through a network. A few blogs produce a portion of their revenue through selling extras—hosting conferences or affiliate deals—but, for the most part, this is the business: Traffic is money. A portion of the advertising on blogs is sold directly by the publisher, a portion is sold by sales reps who work on commission, and the rest is sold by advertising networks that specialize in the remaining inventory. Regardless of who sells it or who buys it, what matters is that every ad impression on a site is monetized, if only for a few pennies. Each and every pageview is money in the pocket of the publisher. Publishers and advertisers can’t differentiate between the types of impressions an ad does on a site. A perusing reader is no better than an accidental reader. An article that provides worthwhile advice is no more valuable than one instantly forgotten. So long as the page loads and the ads are seen, both sides are fulfilling their purpose. A click is a click. Knowing this, blogs do everything they can to increase the latter variable in the equation (traffic, pageviews). It’s how you must understand them as a business. Every decision a publisher makes is ruled by one dictum: traffic by any means. (Kindle Locations 422-434).
Sounds reasonable, right? Actually, paying by page view doesn’t make much sense, and neither does paying by the action for brand ads. ‘Holiday’ describes an online media fixated on delivering pageview metrics at the expense of validating whether or not the information they provide has utility to readers.
As far as advertisers are concerned, a view that doesn’t increase propensity to buy the product being advertised is money wasted. These publishers are designing content that maximizes the amount of wasted advertising spending. ‘Views’ with no regard to promoting and sustaining long term purchasing habits are wasteful, particularly when ‘views’ can be purchased through advertising on Facebook, Twitter, Stumbleupon, and elsewhere at lower CPM rates than those offered by advertisers themselves.
As a search engine marketer, I see some clear parallels to some of the problems that have developed over time in search. In the pre-Panda/Penguin days, agencies that optimized for number of links built prospered in the short term, because PageRank naively tends to assume that all links are created close to equal, and it’s possible to inflate the value of web pages doing the linking beyond the informational value that they provide to real readers. As PageRank has improved, it’s become more challenging to manipulate the algorithm.
I’ve written already about my predictions for Google Authorship and how I expect that it’ll change the media environment. Reading this book sharpened my convictions. I doubt that many of the temporarily successful media companies that have built empires on bad measurement through CPMs, which treat every “view” as if it were equal, will be able to sustain their brands in the long run. Holiday’s conclusions as to the likely future of the market are similar to my own in this: paid media is the only system that provides incentives to media companies to perform quality control.
While Google has traditionally penalized paywalls, I expect that more loopholes will be opened to make it possible for more publishers to charge for access without forsaking search for distribution.
The technological infrastructure to support more reputation-based systems is currently, I speculate, being built out a couple miles away from me at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. Most of the modern media companies that rely on the post-first-verify-never model aren’t structured to be capable of weathering the volatility that these technical changes will impose on their editorial and advertising models.
As authorship signals work their way into changing search results, it’ll severely damage media promotion models that rest on the ‘quality-control free’ method of daisy-chaining links together from the anonymous muck up to high ‘authority’ publications. While I’m unsure of what methods that Google will use to determine what information is valid and what’s not, I’m confident that it’ll be a much more significant trend than almost anyone gives it credit for.
Workers in the anonymous web have become complacent, because so little has changed in the fundamental nature of tasks like link-building for such a long period of time. The hype around identity and reputation technology has risen and fallen over the last several years, but I expect that some of it is going to ripen soon.