The Independent Webmaster’s Manifesto

  • If knowledge is power;
  • If information is knowledge;
  • And if Google is organizing – and, more importantly, distributing – the world’s information;

Then isn’t Google the single most powerful organization in the world?


If you like this post, get my RSS feed. When Google went through update Florida, hundreds and thousands of webmasters lost rankings. They saw their earnings cut overnight. The sad reality of competitive webmastering today is that many webmasters depend on Google – and on search engines generally – for traffic. Independence Day July 4 New York City

Independence Day in New York City courtesy of Insky at 23HQ.

Being the best SEO in the world is not a substitute for a business plan.

It is time for webmasters to become independent from search engines. Google has far too much power over the internet’s economy. If the internet is the information superhighway, then Google is its expensive tollbooth.

Here are the 5 actions that webmasters can take to regain their independence and return balance to the web’s power equation [insert Star Wars joke here].

1. Use alternative search engines for your own searching.

2. Find alternative sources of traffic.

3. Develop alternative sources of revenue.

4. Create sites you’re passionate about.

5. Look at offline tie-ins and monetization opportunities.

6. Bonus (always underpromise and overdeliver): Block Google’s robot.

1. Use Other Search Engines.

Webmasters made Google. It’s important to remember that. When I say made, I mean spread the word and built its share of search. Case in point: My best friend in high school, a webmaster, introduced me to Google and was like yeah, this search engine finds you what you want (big improvement over Altavista!). I made it my homepage and got others using it. (While it’s true that I rank for Google sucks, I used to love that SE.)

So to begin with, webmasters can also ‘make’ other search engines. Become a brand evangelist for Yahoo (whose very cool Brian Gil I got to meet at SMX!), MSN (likewise Kevin Hagwell and Kemp P) or Ask . Actually, I’ve been using Ask increasingly lately; my spammer buddy here has the hardest time with their algo, so you know that their results are likely to be the best. And additionally, Ask can be very good for doing SEO research and footprinting. (On a related note, you may care for the 5 growth opportunities for MSN’s share of search.)

Moving beyond these guys, the local space has plenty of players, whom Greg Sterling does a great job of covering. An important one that doesn’t get its fair props is MapQuest, which Google Maps largely ripped off (driving directions? wonder where that idea is from).

Update: Apparently Ask is being killed. Well, Yahoo’s still pretty good. Besides, when Google’s spamming Google, who’s left?

2. Find alternative sources of traffic.


Social media news sites can deliver a ton of visitors – my own primary traffic sources are StumbleUpon and Sphinn, in that order. Both deliver multiples of the traffic Google sends and more targeted traffic too! You should see some of the comments and/or bright people that visit here from Sphinn!

Likewise social bookmarking can deliver floods of traffic, though I personally have less experience with that. Another very interesting option is social video hosting sites. If you can search for Blendtec video, you’ll see the commercial potential, but sticking strictly to traffic, ReadWriteWeb also had an excellent piece on a coordinated campaign that took over the whole most popular section at Youtube for a period of time, resulting in millions of views and corresponding traffic.

Blogs, though they seem less buzzy than social media lately, are also huge. While we can’t all give away branded MSN Spaces blogs Ice Scraper branded Ice scrapers , there are dozens of ways to drive traffic using blogs. A favourite thing I read was this case study on Marketing Sherpa where a new, unknown author built relationships with bloggers in her niche and then got links, traffic and sales by pitching them free copies of her book in exchange for reviews.

Blogs apparently need marketing too courtesy of Mygdal at 23hq.

Similarly, Marketing Sherpa cited me (the citation came before I read their case study) in their Wisdom 2007 PDF on the importance of networking for linkbuilding. That is, linkbuilding for the traffic. Remember 1998? When you would find new sites through links on other people’s sites? Well believe it or not, but people still do that. And the sites giving those links aren’t doing halfbad…

Another thing you want to be mindful of is to be generous with your links. Ann gets it, and she’s alluded to it in a post on linking out at Dave’s. The more you give, the more you’ll get.

Directly Paid For Traffic

No, I’m not referring to PPC. I’m talking about buying domains for the traffic. Try Namepros for a great starting location, then branch into the specialized blogs and forums to learn more and do more research. A growing trend is IDNs, or domains that use non-latin characters (think accents, etc.).

I’m talking about distributing press releases in the places where influential people read them and come by to followup. Do this when you have fresh, noteworthy ideas. And then, of course, network with the relevant journalists.

I’m talking about buying banner ads. Those miserable web 1.0 inventions don’t work? Actually, at least if you’re buying them for retargeting/remessaging, they do. This, per a $30,000 adspend (admittedly larger than most indie webmasters, but then it depends on your goal, niche and ROI) that boosted branded search 20%, all according to Kelly Gillease, of Viator. She gave one of the best presentations at SMX West (yes I realize I keep saying that but there were so many outstanding ones that I can’t help myself), which is where I have this info from. And what’s more, you get bonus marks for building brand awareness and making your property defensible.

3. Develop alternative sources of revenue.

I’m not an expert on monetization by any means (though I do pull my weight at selling SEO services), but then identifying the options available to you doesn’t necessarily take the most advanced online money maker to lay out. First point: CPM and even CPC advertising is largely a business model that works if you’re big. Until then, find something else.

Affiliate Marketing with CPA – Cost Per Action – You can be the salesman on commission of the web. Find a product and promote it for less than your commission. Then boost your conversion rate and/or send more traffic through. Note: You can do affiliate marketing selling clicks, not just actions. And CPA can also stand for cost per acquisition, which is the advertiser’s point of view on the thing; it can also be used as a PPC success metric (“Our adCenter CPA was under our yellow pages CPA”).

Site Flipping I used to run a site flipping blog until I realized that writing several blogs means writing nothing. The bottom line is that you shop through Sitepoint’s forums for decent sites that are lacking tender loving care, nurse them to health, and sell out once the revenues have grown. Peter Davis knows his way around this market rather well. This is a service-as-a-product business model, bundling services (your design, coding, seo, monetization or other webmaster skill) into a product (the site).

Become a Microlender – Long story short, you form a syndicate with other people and lend $50 – $200 per person, which in aggregate works out to a loan of a few K. You make a lot of loans, spread the risk and take the interest. Netbanker does a great job blogging this space, and Jim’s generous answering emails. (And as a domainer, I picked up and have plans for its development ;) .) This one isn’t strictly webmaster stuff, but so much of it s happening online that I had to include this.

Namepros Domainer Community and ForumsDomaining – Buy and … hold! Or buy and develop. Buy and sell is for the short term folks; domain values are increasing annually (though Google stock’s recent dip should make for interesting effects on the domain aftermarket). Domains with natural type-in traffic, as alluded to above, can earn you good money with either CPC advertising on them or through CPA offers. My favourite community, and a place I still go when I’m in the market for the good stuff, is Namepros (Namepros screen capture by GRhawkins). Friendly, helpful, smart and with some really awesome sticky threads, the community there is one of the best.

Sell Services Freelance – If you’re reading this, do I really need to explain to you how this works? Blog, network, and you’ll get gigs. You can also start with the eLance, guru, scriptlance, craisglist, odesk and other classified sites of this world.

Advertising – This is the last resort. The others will give you a better ROI, provided you’re active and work hard. Advertising can have you be active and work hard and still pay crap. Believe me – I did AdSense for 9 months on my first (fairly popular) blog and made like $33. And apparently my account is dead as none of my gmail addresses let me login, so Google even took away the $33. But anyways, there’s direct ad sales, there’s CPM ad networks, CPC and many more. No need to put more money into the Goog.

Hat tip to Shady (again!) for laying out your options to monetize with CPC and CPA.

Many of you reading this will be better versed in monetization than I am, I’m sure, so please share your suggestions in the comments. Self-promotion is fine if it’s relevant.

4. Create sites you’re passionate about.Todd Malicoat, Gab Goldenberg, Michael Gray

This is something that’s been said several times, and which Todd Malicoat (now at Clientside SEM)and Mike Gray repeated to me at SMX West, during our interview (coming soon!). Incidentally, they’re also largely inspirational to this post (I was also a little starstruck, but we won’t tell anyone lol). Todd Malicoat, Michael Gray and Gab GoldenbergTodd Malicoat, Michael Gray and Gab Goldenberg

Todd Malicoat, Michael Gray and Gab GoldenbergLet me share a story. My friend Jon Villiard has a humour and jokes site. Besides networking with yours truly offline (hence me knowing about him and linking), he has followed up repeatedly by email and kept in touch (another reason for the link). But what’s really key here is that his site is succesful because he’s passionate about it and puts consistent effort into it. He’s got 600 subscribers, a good chunk of traffic (largely return visitors as I understand it, and thus fairly defensible) and makes fair money off of it. It’s ugly as sin (he says so himself), but it’s also a labour of love and that’s why he’s been succesful.

You can succeed without being passionate, it’s true. But it’ll be a lot more expensive as you hire out writing and networking functions and be less fun, as you turn into a glorified project manager (unless that’s what you enjoy, and in truth that can be fun too). And yes, I did mention networking because that’s a crucial part of linkbuilding.

5. Look at offline tie-ins and monetization opportunities.

Despite all the hype about Google buying billboards or selling newspaper and radio ads, they still aren’t the far-reaching conglomerate that a GE represents, for instance. If you convert offline, it’s much harder for your business model to be copied or destroyed by aggregators.

Suppose you have a credit community site. You develop a credit program called “Rich and Famous Credit” and make it by invitation only. Initially, you give invitations to some of the best community members who represent the safest bets for repayment. Then they invite friends.

Also, to make it exclusive in a way that can’t be automated, reject 1/1000 applications. In most people’s minds, that’s approximately the threshold between winning the lottery and popular acceptance programs.

The result of all this is that your business ends up largely revolving around offline conversion. Additionally, you have a brand/coolness asset built up from being exclusive (making it harder to ban you if you do shady stuff a la BMW), and even cooler, there’s a circle of trust. Members will only want to invite people who represent good credit risks, lest it reflect badly upon them and get their acceptance in the group questioned. All of which brings us back to motivation.

Here are some other offline oriented ideas to avoid easy replication by intelligent coders.

– Google cannot, short of abandoning its whole business model, sell you a cup of coffee. “Cup of Coffee” AdWords ads as yet do not pop out a fresh-brewed cup of mocha from your PC, last I checked.

– Don’t build on others’ platforms. It’s unclear whether the lawsuit against Scrabulous will have any effect, but if it turns into a lawsuit against Facebook, you can bet that the settlement will kill off the popular app in favour of an ‘official scrabble game’ app. Building on others’ platforms is not a long-term business model.

– To the extent possible, brand yourself. Engines can’t ban you lest their results become ridiculously poor for branded search terms. That said, if you brand yourself as someone breaking Webmaster Guidelines (think TLA), you’re between a rock and a hard place.

– Get patents and preclude the engines/aggregators/smartypants programmer-entrepreneurs of the world from copying your stuff. You can also look to use intellectual property (IP) to the extent possible. For instance, computer programs are protected as literary works, here in Canada (at least, that’s what I understood from my IP class; no that’s not legal advice). Some further resources to check out on that score are Sarah Bird, SEOmoz general counsel consigliere; Dozier Internet Law (nice meeting you at SMX West, Lew er, Ted, and likewise Darlene);

6. Bonus: Write a robots.txt that blocks Google’s robot.

The less relevant its search results, the more you redistribute power as people choose alternative engines to power their searches. I’d like to claim this idea as my own, but I learned it from none other than the grandmaster of search himself, Danny Sullivan. I can’t find either Sphinn comment (he said it twice on separate occasions), but if someone has it and links to it in the comments, I’ll update this post and link to the industrious commenter as well.

For yourself, blocking Google might lose traffic in the short run, but if you’re building defensible sites, that traffic should be a minor percentage of what you get. To be fair, this is a tough tactic to recommend, especially as an SEO. I recognize it isn’t for everyone. While I can’t block Goooglebot here on SEO ROI because it would be a credibility bomb (there’s another domain I own:, I am planning to do just that with other sites that are in development.

7. Extra Extra Bonus: Here are further resources to help you on your way to independence.

A. The inspiration for this post largely comes from Andy Hagans, aka Tropical SEO, whose ten point defensibility quiz is a must. Also, you could do worse than read his post: How to build a site that you can sell for $1M. See also his: “Are Your Sites Defensible?

B. Another inspiration is the indefatigable Aaron Wall, who has been generous with his time more often than he should. While widely regarded as a genius for his SEO knowledge, the man’s business acumen is also very strong, and between his sharing his time and business acumen, he also gets acknowledged for inspiring this.

This post on search engines becoming aggregators shares a case study and encapsulates much of his recent thinking on business models. Bottom line: Don’t build something that the SEs/platform you’re on can knock off easily. See also Google Isn’t Indexing the Web, they’re Creating their Own, by Shady. About Facebook, Aaron wrote similar stuff to his opinions on Google, though I can’t find the post, and returned to the idea recently, in discussing destinations. For a related read on the future of directories, see my article The New Directory.

C. For all my bashing of reliance on search traffic, if we’re talking about the bigger webmaster picture here, then why not look at these 3 SEO Strategies (Not Tactics) To Make You Think? And while we’re talking about doing what we feel like, rather than what the engines attempt to dictate, consider this on link buying with the best anchor text idea EVER (see also the great comment by 5ubliminal).

D. Somehow, I forgot to mention Rae’s affiliate evolution in all this. She’s an independent webmaster that can teach all of us a lesson or two. (Like how affiliate recruiters should respect their affiliates’ privacy, and PPC marketers should make the local relevance clear, especially with regards to shipping.

E. Extra Kudos to Jim Hedger of Markland Media, Webmaster Radio and Metamend for bringing clarity to all of this by stating [during our interview for Webmaster Radio] succinctly and very pithily:

“We [webmasters] make the environment we live in.”

If you as a webmaster only take away one thing from all this, ask yourself the following. “What is my business model and how can I eliminate any dependence on search engines, and Google in particular?”