Guest Blogging | BCBusinessNeed a beauty writer? Erik MacKinnon will adopt whatever persona you ask him to.
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.
Along with guest posts, Gravytrain’s writers will ghostwrite a client’s blog, even pretending to be a real employee. They will fill websites and produce writing on any subject under the sun. One client asked for several hundred thousand words about shark teeth. MacKinnon never asked why. Until this July, most of Gravytrain’s freelancers had never even met. They work on their own time, at their own pace, for as many hours as they like. MacKinnon emphasizes high speed, no errors and simple research. A few entries on Expedia are a good enough source for one of Gravytrain’s many travel articles. Gravytrain pays a McJob-like $12 for about 500 words.
Chris Williams, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau Canada, a non-profit representing the digital advertising industry, says that guest blogging is effective, but only if the writing is high quality. “If you generate a great blog, then it will work,” he says. At its worst, however, Williams says guest blogging is little better than spam. “It comes down to the content at the end of the day.”
Matthew Gibson, who runs Flewid, a web design company in Minneapolis, has been a client of MacKinnon for years. He testifies to the quality of MacKinnon’s writing. “He has a super quick turnaround time compared to anyone else, and his quality is way above the other people in his price range,” says Gibson. “It’s pretty top notch. After he did one of my sites, conversions went up, we got a lot more readers and emails,” he says, adding that his site that reviews electronic cigarettes went from 300 to 1,000 unique visitors per week after Gravytrain’s involvement. “That must have been the content, because it’s the only thing that changed.”
Leo Widrich is an inspiration to MacKinnon, and another example of the power of guest blogging. A co-creator of the social media application Buffer, Widrich only advertised with guest posts and drew in over 100,000 users, making him a star in the blog-marketing world. The difference between Widrich and MacKinnon’s guest posts is that Widrich makes it clear he is, in fact, the co-founder of Buffer. MacKinnon keeps his writers anonymous, and freely invents fake personas, but Widrich says that transparency leads to more sales.
“A lot of people think it’s about the traffic, or they think it’s about the SEO or the backlinks, but at the end of the day it’s the relationships,” Widrich says. “That’s so much harder to understand, but it’s so much more powerful as well.”
David Silver, the chair of business and applied ethics at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, also says that faking the source of an advertisement – even just to attract viewers – crosses an ethical line. “There’s really no mainstream view of business ethics that I know of which allows for that kind of practice,” he says. “If you look at all the theories that are out there, from the most right wing to the most left wing, you do not engage in deception.”
MacKinnon, however, says the Internet has its own rules, web pages are full of anonymous content, and readers want information, not the identity of the author. “The reader is interested in facts and knowledge. If that’s what we’re presenting, what’s the problem?” he asks. “I’m not a woman. I write in a woman’s persona all the time. So it’s lying, I guess. But it’s writing. And yes, it works, or we wouldn’t have any clients. You’re right, that’s fabrication. But that’s what we’re paid to do. That’s what marketing is.”
Professor Silver disagrees. “Deception is still deception,” he says. “If people didn’t care, then why would they try to deceive people? But people do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t engage in deception.”
But MacKinnon sees 150,000 new websites launched daily, each one in need of unique and attractive content. “Browse the Internet,” he says. “What are you reading? Content. All of it. Written by someone who writes content. It’s not written by a machine. It’s written by people.” And that content won’t write itself.