Recent waves in online business world

By “recent”, I mean maybe up to the last couple of years or so. Let me start a little earlier than that.

When blogging became hip, there were programs (read: paid products) that teach you how to blog, how to write effectively, how to get your blog to be read.

And on the last note, website traffic became important. So there were programs (read: paid products) that teach you how to get traffic to your website. More importantly, how to get targeted traffic, because casual passers-by were next to useless for business purposes. Just look at all the traffic from Digg and StumbleUpon and Reddit and other social media sites. People come, look at your post, then leaves. That’s pretty much useless.

So creating an email list became imperative. You want to capture people’s email addresses so you can talk to them. If they sign up, then they want to hear from you. This is what Seth Godin would call permission marketing. But beware! There were some WordPress plugins that set annoying pop-ups that has a sign up box for people to put their email addresses. This pop-up happens either on finishing reading a post, or worse, on leaving a page. That would be “annoyance marketing”.

Then came teaching programs (read: pai… ok, you get the idea), that teach you how to teach a topic. The main one is Teaching Sells. The idea is that people will want to pay to learn something useful (and probably turn it into something profitable).

And on that note, videos were becoming popular, what with the increased bandwidth that most people have. And that some people like to see a person talking to them, instead of reading text or hearing audio files. So there was this product called Video Boss (I think). It teaches you (see previous paragraph) how to shoot, edit and upload a video. There were all sorts of information in that product, going so far as the minute details such as making your video visually interesting and lighting setups and so on.

Then there was the app craze, popularised by the iPhone. “Create apps. Become millionaire.” says some paid products (or to that effect anyway). If you’re a developer (which you probably are if you’re reading this blog), then be aware of what you’re creating. Create and sell apps if that’s your thing and that it’s working for you, not because someone says it’s the in thing.

Then there was the Kindle revolution, changing how people read. You can now self-publish on Amazon and push your ebooks out to millions of Kindles in the world. And make a bit of money from every ebook you sell.

The app thing and the Kindle thing have two things in common. They both relieve you of payment processing, and they both let you leverage an existing platform. Apple’s App Store for iPhone/iPad, Windows Store for Windows apps, Google Marketplace for Android devices, BlackBerry App World for Blackberry devices. And Kindle for well, Kindle devices.

Somewhere in those times, there was a need to know how to launch your product. I’m not talking about hype (or just hype anyway). I’m talking how to get sales from your product launch, how to get maximum impact. There’s this product called Product Launch Formula (by Jeff Walker) that teaches you how to do this.

I subscribe to many of these people’s email lists, so I get emails whenever whatever. Some are useful, some are interesting, some I just delete because it’s an obvious sales email (after you receive as many emails of such nature as I do, you can tell from the subject line or within a couple of sentences in).

There’s a point to all this. And I’ll tell you in the next post.

Internet browsing with awareness

Some time ago, a friend asked me for advice on online businesses and online marketing and stuff. You know, because I started learning how to feed myself without relying on a job over 3 years ago. That’s also about the time I started writing here, which is what every Internet marketer will tell you to do, start a blog. Then I went ahead and wrote about maths and programming, which probably isn’t very lucrative. It hasn’t earned me enough to buy a cup of tea in any case. You don’t read much about my perilous journey in the online marketing/business world, because I haven’t thought it useful or interesting to write. Well, I thought maybe I should start telling you about it now.

Back to my friend. I was explaining how Google works (generally, because my friend might collapse from information overload). Out of curiosity, I asked him how he did searches. He said he types in the search term, hits the enter key, and clicks on whatever is on the screen. Galloping galaxies, he doesn’t even look?!?

I told him some of those links he clicked on probably cost some person out there 50 cents every time he clicked it. I’m more concerned with the unfiltered, unthinking, undead way he went about browsing the Internet. Perhaps Nicholas Carr was right, maybe Google is making us stupid.

My friend wasn’t technologically inclined. Then again, I know some programmers who were frightfully stupid in tech stuff… I am going to assume you know the general safety tips for browsing the Internet:

  • password safety (but it’s moot if you use the same password on every online account)
  • anti-virus software is set up (even supposedly impenetrable Macs and Unixes/Linuxes were compromised before)
  • be careful about revealing sensitive, personal information

Now, I’m probably going to anger many Internet marketers, because in the process, I’ll expose some of the tricks they use to entice people to buy, join, sign up, and generally act on something. That’s assuming they even read my stuff. Maths and programming blog? I don’t see it happening soon.

But all that is unintentional (hey I do know the meaning of the word!). My aim is for you to browse the Internet with some awareness of what you’re doing.

The big takeaway is trust. As you probably gathered, I have a healthy amount of distrust. 3 years of studying marketing strategies and tactics, and having bought certain Internet marketing products (and felt cheated after that), and experimenting with the methods (my first significant outsourcing turned out to be a fun adventure) did that to me. This is going to be a series of articles, and I will start with the basic concept of the Internet:

Links

Links can be open about where they lead. For example, http://polymathprogrammer.com/ is direct enough.

Links can also be disguised. For example, Get Awesome Delicious Chocolate Chip Cookies For Free! (hey don’t click that, you’ll spoil my search engine optimisations…)

This happens on a web page. What you may not know is, links can also be disguised in PDFs and emails. I understand that when you click on a link in a PDF, Adobe Reader puts a prompt before directing you to that link. Due to routine, habit, or just laziness, you might not take a look before confirming. Same thing with email, because we now have HTML emails.

The way to safeguard yourself is to hover over the link (but don’t click it yet). The actual URL will be displayed somewhere. On a web page, it might be displayed at the lower left corner of your browser. In a PDF or email, it’s probably hovering in a box close to where your mouse cursor is. It’s easy, takes just a couple of seconds to check, and can potentially save you tons of headaches.

Affiliate links

Alright, here’s where all the Internet marketer hate will be directed. First, I want to say there’s nothing wrong with affiliate links. There’s nothing wrong with trying to earn a little bit of commission. I have affiliate links to products and services I believe in (and I can’t remember all the places where I put them, even though there aren’t many…). Usually Amazon book recommendation affiliate links. If you buy using my affiliate links, I get a small commission (which helps feed me and keep this blog running). If you buy directly, you pay the same price anyway, so I’d appreciate it if you buy using my link.

The point is transparency. I’m not talking about disclosing the relationship you have with your advertiser or sponsor right beside the link (or in the article/post, or in a privacy policy). I’m talking about deliberately cloaking the link so the actual URL is misrepresented.

Here’s a “tip” I learnt from an Internet marketer (I’m not saying his name). You create a PDF ebook and give it for free or sell it. You write useful content, and give a recommendation on something, say web hosting. You deliberately do not name the web host. Just say something like “Here’s a good web host”, and transform that phrase into a link.

Here’s where it gets sneaky. You create a page on your website such as http://polymathprogrammer.com/recommends/webhost/ and use that page as the link in the PDF. On this page of yours, you do a URL redirect (using meta tags, JavaScript, or PHP) to the recommended web host, likely as an affiliate link.

Now, the PDF is already out there in the open. What happens if you no longer want to be an affiliate of that particular web host? Ah, just change the redirection to another web hosting affiliate link. The link in the PDF remains intact, clicking the link goes to your page, which redirects to the new web host.

This is why you should try to glimpse at the destination URL first. With URL shorteners nowadays, this gets a little harder. You’ll have to trust the URL shortener service. I suggest you trust those that allow you to glimpse at the resulting URL (such as bit.ly). You still need to look at the unravelled URL though.

Which brings us to…

Uniform Resource Locators

Look for the complete domain name. http://polymathprogrammer.com/ is not the same as http://polymathprogrammer.com.sleazysite.com/ (I hope you appreciate all this search engine doubtification I’m doing…) Look for the first forward slash that’s not part of http:// or https://

Now look at the domain name. Do you trust it? If you don’t, then do you trust the source? Was it a search result? Do you trust the search engine (results can be manipulated somewhat to a certain extent)? Did it come from your friend? Do you trust your friend (it’s a weird question, I know)?

My point is for you to cultivate independent thinking. I mean, we’ve already got problems with cross-site scripting. Don’t make it easy for the bad guys by rampantly clicking on links.

Here’s a bonus. Look at the full URL link. Look for a question mark or some shortened form of the person’s name or website in URL. For example, http://somesite.com/?r=1234 (by query parameters) or http://anothersite.com/polymathprog/1234/ That’s usually an indication of an affiliate link. I would deduce that “r=1234” means 1234 (“r” probably stands for “referral”) is the ID number of the person, or a product ID.

That’s it for now. Let me know what you think in a comment, and I’ll see you soon.