Earned media – third-party content that profiles and links to your business – is search-engine gold … even when the writers don’t exist and the reviews are fake.
Try Googling “menopause aromatherapy.” Somewhere in the first dozen results, on a health blog for menopausal women, you will find a short article by Meriel Blake. Blake is a blogger and “supplement enthusiast,” says a footnote, who is excited to help other women like herself. But she’s not. Meriel Blake is a fiction, the creation of Vancouver entrepreneur Erik MacKinnon.
MacKinnon’s company, Gravytrain Marketing Ltd., specializes in an advertising technique called guest blogging. A client hires MacKinnon to promote a website – one that sells, for example, aromatherapy products, travel packages or even health insurance. MacKinnon and his staff of 15 writers create dozens of short articles on the topic, each article including a link to the client’s site. Finally, he convinces bloggers around the web to host the articles as a free way to increase their traffic.
MacKinnon sees the business model as win-win. Many professional bloggers run sprawling, magazine-style blog sites listing thousands of articles. Gravytrain provides free content, no strings attached. The few bloggers that spoke about their involvement with MacKinnon don’t seem to mind that they’re essentially serving up a series of Google searches strung together as sentences. One blogger who runs a health blog says he takes Gravytrain’s accuracy on faith. Gravytrain clients draw in web traffic from readers already interested in a target topic. And Gravytrain collects a fee – about $65 per article. Want a dozen blog postings about menopause? Gravytrain will write and distribute them.
“That traffic is the most well qualified, directly referred traffic in the history of traffic,” MacKinnon says. “You can’t get any better than that. Even if you bought advertisements, they are still not going to be that targeted.”
The Meriel Blake article, for example, links to a web page hawking Kühl Care, a product promising “safe, effective, hormone-free relief of menopause symptoms.” The reader does not know that Meriel Blake is not a helpful menopausal woman, but rather a 32-year-old, six-foot-two pharmacy major from Vancouver who will never experience menopause. MacKinnon also churns out articles offering tips for travel in Thailand or advice on luxury cruises. He has done neither. “We don’t pretend to be journalists,” he says, in defense of his articles.
MacKinnon is lean, energetic and impeccably bald. He doesn’t slouch or stutter, and he wears the word “fearless” in broad Japanese characters stamped on his right shoulder. He volunteers at a Kitsilano community centre. When he narrowly lost a UBC student election because of outspoken rants on a personal blog – allegedly containing racism, sexism and homophobia – the campus newspaper wrote, “For Mackinnon, being an asshole was not a flaw but a platform point.” The paper’s editors admired his iconoclasm so much they endorsed him anyway.
In 1999, MacKinnon and a colleague, Dan Barnes, launched Dustcloud, a search engine for media files. It sold a year later to eUniverse for $300,000, and MacKinnon and Barnes stayed on board. In 2001, after Sony stepped in to rescue eUniverse from bankruptcy, Dustcloud was dumped amid a flurry of anxiety over the copyright lawsuits striking Napster.
MacKinnon moved on to Internet marketing and search engine optimization. EUniverse went on to recover, rebrand and buy a small startup called MySpace. MacKinnon smiles and shrugs wryly as he remembers how close he came to being on board. In 2008, he started writing website content, just as the phrase “guest blogging” rose over the digital horizon. Early this year, Gravytrain’s client list grew too large for one pharmacy student to handle, so MacKinnon incorporated and started to hire writers.
The idea behind Gravytrain is simple: no matter the vicissitudes of search engine algorithms, useful blog posts will always draw traffic. If businesses want readers, they must produce readable content, and someone has to write it. The secret, MacKinnon says, is to write mundane but basically useful material. It isn’t art, but it’s good enough to keep people clicking. “What it is, is high-quality crap,” he says. “But what isn’t, online?” Most importantly, he says, it appeases the recent Google algorithm tweak that cracks down on content farms that do little more than increase a site’s search ranking.