The Red Herring of Social Media

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A big red fish

While many of us feel comfortable with Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising, something like Pay Per Post (PPP) and Pay Per Vote blogging would probably make us feel quite uncomfortable and could disturb our sense of social media authenticity. Most of us have a blogroll we trust and turn to for wisdom on a regular basis. Could we still trust blog posts if Pay Per Post blogging could potentially corrupt social media?

Because blogs and social media web sites generate a lot of traffic, adopting social media tools has become a magic pill for increasing online rankings and amping up revenues.

But is adopting social media tools a magic pill or a red herring? And is a company that seeks lucrative deals in the black market of social media jeopardizing its reputation and creating mistrust among its stakeholders?

A recent article in Wired magazine about and StumbleUpon, two popular community-based news sites, has raised questions about the legitimacy and transparency of social media content. Up to now, the top 10 most popular stories/blog posts on such sites achieve that distinction based on user votes. The new Pay Per Vote online services described in the article allow paying for votes, and so could guarantee any story/blog post a spot on the front page in no time. As we have already seen on some sites, the result is often a disappointing one, “…a pointless blog full of poorly written, incoherent commentary…,” which triggers a number of angry comments from community members who question the legitimacy of the story. Since social websites like Digg and StumbleUpon currently succeed because members and their stories can be trusted, the Pay Per Vote strategy could cause reputational damage to any author in the long run.

The success of any story, according to Pay Per Vote algorithms depends on the number of votes/clicks that an author is ready to pay for. Click metrics may be considered one of the key measures of online success, but most of the time they can be a major source of distortion for a company as it figures out the right business strategy on line.

A study on online advertising has shown that click performance is the wrong measure of the effectiveness of a brand-building campaign in the long run. According to the study, 6% of the heavy clickers called “Natural Born Clickers” account for 50% of all display ad clicks and cannot represent the total U.S. online population.

Another popular way to influence online rankings of blogs is to apply various keyword research tools. Keyword research, like any other market research, provides information on the words and language people are using on line to refer to a particular topic and helps bloggers target their posts by using the right keywords. Designed to organically improve the process of blog search and generate online collaboration and genuine conversation, keyword research tools are often promoted as a way of manipulating search engines and generating more traffic. And here is why it works. According to Copyblogger, “… targeting a post at the right keywords can bring you 10,000 visitors, where one that you write off the top of your head might bring you 100. How much is each visitor worth? Or each subscriber? If only 1% subscribe to your blog, that’s an extra 99 subscribers a month.

But if a blog makes it to the top 10 with a little help from keyword research, it could still quickly drop from readers’ radars if its content has no value. When a blog lacks authenticity and a strong foundation, it can create more reputational harm than positive exposure.

Social media is still in its infancy. And the current ethics guidelines for setting up blogs aren’t mandatory and allow for many interpretations. More often the value of blogs is measured by their return on investment and seldom by their return on reputation. On top of that, in system as open and expansive as the World Wide Web, the possibilities for gaming the system are boundless, especially for people who are pursuing self-serving short-term outcomes. Unfortunately, short-term outcomes based on sophisticated new algorithms could be a red herring for those who think seriously about establishing a long-term online presence and building a strong brand name. And for those of us who are interested in fostering genuine and open communications, the new online gaming possibilities could create disturbance and compromise the integrity of blogs and their authors.

We will undoubtedly hear more about notions of Pay Per Post and Pay Per Vote blogging, black market media and social media corruption in the future and it will be interesting to watch how social media communities will respond to these issues.

But still I’d like to think that the recent stories about the negative impact of black market media will discourage bloggers from pursuing short-term results and prompt them to engage their moral compass to sell themselves from a more genuine and holistic position. After all, a genuine and holistic position is what will increase brand awareness, strengthen online reputation and contribute to a more meaningful future for online communications.

Photo credit: A big red fish by Dukal

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