As one widget goes, another appears

The next time you visit TheWayoftheWeb, you may notice a slight change to the site. Following the decision by Google to shutter Google Friend Connect, that widget will have disappeared, along with the 82 lovely people who chose to support the site via that method.

GoogleFriendConnectonTheWayoftheWeb

Thankyou for your support Friend Connect people!

Obviously since the launch of Google+, and the focus that it now has within the company, it was fairly obvious that Friend Connect would no longer be supported (Incidentally, you have the choice of following me on Google+, or TheWayoftheWeb Google+ page). And I’ve already included the Google+ icon in the sidebar to hopefully allow the site to benefit from direct search and anything else Google decides to roll out.

The loss of Friend Connect doesn’t bug me as it did when Google killed the useful and effective social features of Google Reader – Friend Connect hasn’t really ever done very much since it launched in 2008. But it’s reinforced my perception of how Google views social connections, and how that differs from Facebook and Twitter. There doesn’t appear to be any information on how I could transfer or suggest to Friend Connect followers that they should migrate to Google+, or a confirmed date for when Friend Connect ends. And it feels as if Google still sees connections as just relationships between organised information nodes which will reform as needed.

Whereas I can’t imagine Facebook or Twitter would necessarily remove a social connection features without providing some way to switch – for instance, the move to allow subscriptions to the profile of an individual didn’t mean that they just deleted any Facebook page for an individual overnight. As much as you can deride Facebook for obscuring and messing with privacy, they do seem to understand that people take time to move, and some people will intend to do something and forget for a few days, or not get around to it. Whereas Google don’t seem fussed that I have no way to contact my former followers or friend connections should I not immediately figure out how to get them to move across. Or that I have no way of knowing whether some of them will want to follow everything I post on Google+, or would want a filtered circle of some kind?

 So what’s being added to the sidebar?

Instead of Friend Connect, or reducing the sidebar to allow my site to load slightly more quickly, I’m conforming to blogging stereotypes and immediately filling the space with something else. But it’s something a little different, as I’ve finally got around to signing up for Flattr. It’s been around for some time as a micropayment system for bloggers and other projects, which allows you to ‘flattr’ a site with a small donation if you like what people do.

I don’t imagine most of you will donate, and that’s fine, but the option is there if you feel so inclined. And I’m interested to see what happens with it, as a potential way of rewarding content creation which has existed for a while but so far hasn’t necessarily grabbed mainstream traction in the same way as something like Kickstarter has done.

I’m also installing it in support of their plan to make November 29th, ‘Pay a Blogger Day. It’s slightly self-promotional, but also hopefully helps to raise the question of how bloggers and other content providers support themselves in the minds of more readers and subscribers.

 Cash and blogging:

Definitely worthy of a follow-up post, but put simply, the mainstream media model of advertising-supported publishing doesn’t work for the majority of people to make a living by blogging. The amount of inventory available and the resulting low advertising rates requires hundreds of thousands or millions of readers to be your sole source of income (Although as you rise through the stages, you will probably find the available networks open up a bit and you do get a higher ad rate as a result).

Most bloggers also attempt to make money via affiliate links, but again, you need a decent amount of traffic, and you also need a decent conversion rate to make these worthwhile. And although that works in some areas, and with writers who are also natural salespeople, it isn’t going to work for everyone.

So then you come to using content as a driver for an actual business – selling information products, consultancy or whatever else you might think of. In my case, the money I make from this blog is tiny, but it’s vitally important in helping me secure consultancy and freelance work in content and digital marketing.

But again, not everyone wants to be a consultant or spend their time trying to hawk their latest eBook – it works for a certain number of bloggers, fails for a certain number, and some don’t want to go down that road.

So Flattr is the most sustained attempt at providing an alternative. A previous attempt was made by Scratchback, which closed a while ago, and which is actually deleting user accounts this month, in a strange coincidence.

So please do support the site via its new home on Google+ (Or the old ones on Twitter and Facebook), and do think about whether you might want to reward your favourite bloggers (I don’t necessarily have to be one of them!) in a more direct way via something like Flattr.

How I handle affiliate links and monetisation

Recent changes have meant that I’ve had a bit more time to think about the ways and means I run my personal projects, and how I go about setting up things in the future, particularly when it comes to monetising them.

Affiliate links are a big part of monetising websites, and you may see more appearing on my sites in the future. It’s part of my attempts to balance the costs of running my websites (financial, time) and hopefully providing value to you, but I wanted to outline a simple rule I’ll be using whenever I use an affiliate link.

I’ll only ever recommend something via an affiliate link if it’s something I’ve tried or used on a regular basis and can honestly recommend without hesitation. The simple reason is that this (and all my sites) are built on the idea of providing valuable and trustworthy information, and I wouldn’t do anything to change that.

For instance, for the majority of affiliate linking, I rely on Skimlinks to automate most referrals – for the likes of Amazon etc. They cover around 12,000 affiliate merchants, and their WordPress plugin works for both blogs and RSS feeds etc. It means in general, I don’t have to think about whether there’s an affiliate scheme for a site, and I can concentrate on just recommending great links.

Occasionally, I will link to something specifically, and it tends to be something I really rate. For instance, when it comes to professional WordPress themes, I really like and trust Studiopress, and I’ve been using their themes on sites like OnlineRaceDriver for a while. I’m actually in the process of planning when to upgrade my sites to their new Genesis framework, as soon as I can find some time…

Or when it comes to search tools, I’ve used SEOmoz for ages now. Their free tools are useful to start with (and their Firefox plugin saves loads of time), but their paid tools are really good and save loads of time and effort when you’re doing SEO work. And the bulk of SEO work is really about time and effort!

And don’t think this means I’d recommend an affiliate link over a better and free alternative, for instance, Google Analytics. If I do, please do call me on it and let me know – it might just be something I wasn’t aware of, and as I build up a shared list of recommendations, I want to make sure it’s as valuable as possible…

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The easiest way to manage affiliate links?

Whether or not you’re trying to make money from publishing content online, most people have wanted to use affiliate links for products and services at some point. Either to earn money, or to raise cash for charity, for example.

Money pic by AMcGill on Flickr (CC Licence)

Money pic by AMcGill on Flickr (CC Licence)

The problem is that it can be a hassle to grab the affiliate links from just one merchant, and then implement them in a decent way, let alone allowing using several – and how do you know which shop someone prefers to use?

And although this particular site isn’t designed to make money, both www.140char.com and www.onlineracedriver.com are more conscious efforts to experiment with how online content publishing can work.

If you look in the bottom right, you’ll see a handy disclosure widget which reveals I’m now running Skimlinks on my main blogs. Put simply, it matches any links to merchants I post with the merchants in the Skimlinks database and tracks when anyone clicks through and makes a purchase, without me having to visit all the different sites, sign-up for all the different programmes, and find all the relevant affiliate codes.

Which is handy.

So far it’s only been live for a week or so, and the purchases can take a while to feed through as the affiliates need to report back to Skimlinks after users have paid the deals have been sealed. But already it’s been useful for seeing how many people are actually going through affiliate links on each site, and what links I’ve been using without monetising them, for example. And it’s all automatic.

So if you’re someone who isn’t going to micromanage every single affiliate link, then I’d highly recommend Skimlinks. They’ve also got some interesting additional products to use, and set-up is either as simple as installing a WordPress plug-in, or just pasting one line of Javascript into your page template (s). You can also specific pages and individual links it should ignore, for example.

The main alternative is Viglinks, which I’m also using on some of my other sites – so far it’s performed in a similar way, but the main difference is around reporting and tools which aren’t as comprehensive or detailed with Viglinks.

Interestingly Viglinks is backed by Google Ventures, and has a number of big names involved, including backing from Angel Investors such as former LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman.  Meanwhile Skimlinks also has significant investment, and CEO and co-founder Alicia Navarro is known as one of the few female tech entrepreneurs in London.

But putting patriotic loyalties aside – both services are well worth using rather than missing a load of links, especially for larger sites (And because they’re managing so many links, they can arrange comission rates which are still an improvement on the normal rates, even after they’ve taken a cut). And if you fancy trying them, I’ve love you to use the following links:

Skimlinks

VigLinks

And they’re both free and easy to remove/disable if you decide you don’t like them…

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Not sure how to monetise your eyeballs?

While newspaper and magazine owners are still trying to decide whether or not they should aim for eyeballs or paywalls, there are several other companies who are happy to take up the challenge.

For instance, online social media publisher Mashable has signed a deal to syndicate content to Thursday editions of Metro in the U.S. Mashable founder Pete Cashmore is already a regular on CNN in the U.S, and Mashable and CNN. Plus Mashable has partnered with CNN for the Mashable Media Summit 2010.

It’s interesting to see that mainstream publications and online publications are increasingly merging, but the ‘digital natives’ seem less worried and more sure that they’ve already got the monetisation aspect under control.

One reason is that by the time the likes of Mashable and Techcrunch have reached their current scale, they have already had to answer the questions of how to fund an online business. But as they grew from relatively humble beginnings, they’ve tackled it as they’ve grown without having to worry about legacy systems and overheads.

And by the same token, if you look at the staffing levels – Mashable lists 20 staff, and Techcrunch lists 21.

Compare that to the epic lists of staff at most magazines, for example, and you can see a big contrast.  There are print magazines run by smaller teams, but none that have the scale of the leading blogs (Or at least what started out as blogs).

So how do you produce so much content with a small team across all our properties? Simple, count the guest posts and the open offers to submit work to the likes of Mashable and Techcrunch.

Then consider a quote from the 2010 PPA Conference from the Chief Executive of Future Publishing, Stevie Spring:

“Advertisers are scared of the prospect of seeing their ads next to user-generated content. This won’t change. All it takes is one bad example to put brands off.”

That’s why sites which benefit from user-generated content are filtering and curating that content to get value out of it. There’s a reason why there are successful businesses based around user-generated content, but 4Chan isn’t one of them.

New reputable way to make money by blogging

Sponsored Post

It seems like a lot of schemes offer ways for bloggers to earn money. But most of them don’t work unless you’re attracting huge traffic numbers. Monetisation often means having a few ad networks scattered around your site, rather than doing something more meaningful.

The good news is that Ebuzzing is a platform to bring together advertisers and bloggers – and having launched in 2007 to a predominantly French market, it’s now available in the UK, allowing you to serve advertiser campaigns either via a dedicated video player, syndicated video players and banners, or by allowing sponsored posts about brands and services. It’s also quick and easy to register on ebuzzing.com

Ebuzzing video campaign with the dedicated player

I’ve actually used the service already, resulting in a post on the Small Rivers blog network tool. Importantly you can choose whether or not a campaign is suitable, and apply or decline on a topic basis, so you don’t have to cover anything your readers would find odd.

Equally importantly it’s an ethical platform, requiring the “sponsored post” disclaimer for all articles, advertiser names alongside all videos, and all links are ‘no follow’ links to avoid being mistaken for paid links – not only do you submit your article for approval, but they’ll also check it’s appearing correctly when it’s published on your site. And more than 600 brands have proposed campaigns so far..

Ebuzzing video campaign with the syndicated player

The financial rewards are at a good level, and registration is quick and simple – and there’s no obligation to post anything if you don’t find a suitable topic – you can also set your own price. Plus it was recently acquired by the WIKIO group, so there’s enough backing to know it shouldn’t disappear overnight. Take a look at ebuzzing and see what you think.

Twitter continues to expand the team…

Twitter has been making some more hires recently – first up is Robin Sloan, who joins to handle media partnerships. Sloan previously worked as a strategist and executive at Current TV. During the first presidential debate of 2008, Sloan built an application to overlay tweets on the bottom of the screen. Spookily he was also the author of Twitter’s 5 billionth tweet.

Also joining is user experience designer Mark Otto, who worked at ZURB, an interaction design firm whose listed clients include TinyPic and CC:Betty. And finally Dan Webb, the London web developer behind Twaudio, which brought MP3s to Twitter through direct uploads or recording.

(Hat tips to Venturebeat and Louis Gray)

Louis estimates the total number at Twitter to be around 158 following a regular weekly pattern of hiring. It seems as if the desire to evolve and most importantly monetise, will be the main drivers. After all, the user experience of the Twitter website hasn’t changed in great detail for some time (The main added features have been the new Retweets and Location), and meanwhile 3rd party clients are constantly finding new ways to improve on the default experience.

Beyond the UI for consumers, this could really be about improving the experience for the monetisable advertisers, marketers and customer service teams. Big businesses are generally used to working with well-polished, expensive systems, and polished controls/dashboards for business use will add to the draw for mainstream business.

Listorious is quick off the mark to find best Twitter Lists

With about half of Twitter users able to access Twitter Lists as they’re rolled out to everyone, independant Twitter list directory Listorious has been quick to launch and offer curated lists on a range of topics.

It’s interesting to see whether the relatively peer-led recommendation of Twitter lists will displace directories of individual users grouped by category such as WeFollow and Twellow. Obviously there are concerns about both the follower-inflation that everyone has seen from the Suggested User List presented to new users, as well as individuals worried about being pigeon-holed and lists becoming reciprocal favours rather than recommendations.

It’s also likely to diminish the value of the longstanding Twitter tradition of #followfriday.

From a business point of view it makes utter sense for Twitter to have some input/control of listing users – all the examples above have been relatively successful. What’s the betting that an option to promote a specific list could be in the monetisation plans? Spend some cash and your list could be promoted to everyone, or possibly replace the Suggested User List for a period of time?

Suddenly they’d have a route for grabbing sums like the $250,000 offered earlier this year by Jason Calacanis, without it being flagged up as obvious in a list of just 20 or so people.

And obviously list pages themselves offer individual sponsorship/promotional oppportunities…

As a user of Twitter, I’m undecided whether lists will be a positive thing on balance, but as a Twitter observer it’s one of the biggest steps they’ve made in a long time towards making money.

Mashable monetizes Twitter in an innovative way

One way to monetise Twitter seems to be using feeds/information outside of the site itself – good news for sites and businesses, if not for Twitter directly.

Probably the best use so far is by Mashable, revealed today. In conjunction with viral scientist, Mashable contributor and Twitter uber-analyst Dan Zarrella, the site now has a widget displaying ‘Twitter Brand Sponsors’.

Quoting from Mashable:

‘Twitter Brand Sponsors is a small step towards our sociable ads goal. Here’s how it works: a limited number of brands (and one charity!) looking to engage with the social media community can have their latest Tweets syndicated into the Mashable sidebar, and interested visitors can choose to connect with those brands on Twitter.’

The first sponsors are Jetblue and Mailchimp, indicating that there’s interest at launch – it will be interesting to see how many companies are engaged with a suitable Twitter presence to benefit.

And it also removes the questions around the previous example of Glam’s Twitter feed widget, which displayed moderated #Oscar tweets in a widget with advertising:

Is it right to profit from user-generated content created on another site, and without the awareness of those creating the content?

Would advertisers, even those related to the target audience/subject get enough value from display advertising around Twitter content.

Instead, the Mashable approach allows people to see interaction from businesses (and charities), and decide whether or not to engage.

I have to admit, I’m wondering whether they’ll white-label the Twitter widget, as I’d be keen to run something similar!

Did Twitter play a part in Facebook rolling back Terms of Service?

An interesting post on the Twittown apps and widget community blog suggested Twitter ‘Took on Facebook’s Zuckerberg and Won‘.

It tracks the timeline between Facebook updating the Terms of Service for the social network, and rolling back to the original terms due to the outcry over ownership of content uploaded.

And while I don’t believe that Twitter outcry alone led to the decision to move back to the original terms and consult users about updates – Google blog search shows the outcry through full length blogging – the Twittown post does suggest that Twitter opinions had a significant effect.

And I would expect the Facebook team to be monitoring Twitter alongside all other channels – especially as FB considered Twitter important enough to try to buy it!

And it shows how monitoring and responding to probably the largest, and certainly the quickest online focus group makes sense for adding value and monetisation, whether it’s by Twitter, or third-party applications like Tweetdeck.

Twitter is rich, even before monetisation

There’s a lot of coverage of the new funding Twitter has received – despite not actively looking for more money.

For a sample of the coverage:

Venturebeat. Techcrunch. Mashable. ReadWriteWeb. Fred Wilson. Wired. Twitterati. Techcrunch again.    Oh, and the official Twitter blog.

And those are just the some of the sources in my RSS feed! What echo chamber?

But does it affect anything?

Mark at Twitterati suggests Twitter could now fund its 20 employees at $100,000 a year for the next 15 years with current funding – that’s a healthy window!

Plus there are the options to fund new services, buy existing external services etc.

But the biggest implication may be that the team behind Twitter are unlikely to ever sell – after turning down an offer from Facebook, and Ev’s sale of Blogger to Google, I get the feeling this one is a keeper – perhaps showing a move from the almost traditional start-up route of planning around an exit strategy.

And with discussion around real time information perhaps becoming a threat to Google, it’s entirely possible the Twitter team might be aiming to evolve into a longterm internet property (playing with Google, Yahoo, Myspace, Facebook etc).

I’m really interested to see what comments and suggestions come out of this for possible innovation and acquisition – should Twitter buy Tweetdeck for example? Will this fund radical new services? Or is this just additional breathing space before the problems of monetisation might kick in?

Most importantly – is this more evidence to back up Ev’s statement that the current access and functionality of Twitter can remain free?