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Why Black Owned Websites Fail

A few days ago a friend came across an article in, WhereItzAt Magazine. In the magazine was an article, “In defense of Black Bookstores,” which addressed the loss of Black bookstores and why it matters.  This is an issue I’ve covered extensively.  Indeed, I have published a directory of Black owned bookstores for as long as I have run this site.  My current coverage of Black owned bookstores is probably the most extensive coverage available on the web today.  So it goes without saying that I applaud WhereItzAt Magazine’s coverage of this important issue.

My friend took a photo of the article (shown below) and shared it with me, because this website was mentioned, in the last paragraph, as a resource where one my find a list of Black owned bookstores.

Of course I was interested in sharing this article, but I decided to look for an online version which would make it possible for others to more easily read.  I found the article, but noticed that the online version did not mention AALBC.com at all?!

This just struck me as simply dumb.  Why would the website not mention, and link to an, online resource  to help readers discover the remaining Black owned bookstores–the very thing they are purporting to support?  They were obviously aware of the resource; why would they decide to exclude it on the online version of their article?

I still shared the article, because the subject is important.  In fact, I even added WhereItzAt Magazine. to my listing of Black owned magazines (even though I have not yet verified that they are still in print).  I also added their website to my Huria Search engine which allows people to search Black owned websites exclusively.

Now, while I’m using WhereItzAt Magazine as an example they are the norm–and this is our biggest problem. Stated plainly, Black websites do not link to each other.

To illustrate this point, lets run a Huria Search on “aalbc.”  Again Huria Search’s only goal is to elevate Black websites by making their content easier to find.  In fact, the websites I own, including AALBC.com, are not included in the hundreds of sites that are indexed in Huria Search.

If you examine, the top results you will see that most are two years older or more.  There are none from the largest Black websites.  The one search result from a top Black website was Black Enterprise Magazine, where they credited AALBC.com for an image that they copied from my website.  Even here Black Enterprise they did not actually link back to the the AALBC.com page where they grabbed the image (looking at the page today, Black Enterprise even removed that reference).

You’ll also see from that query that there are 13,000 results.  Which may give you the impression that there are many links back to AALBC.com—and there, but they tend to be older links.  The problem I’m describing is relatively new.

When the web first started Black-owned websites were very likely to link to other sites. We all recognized that by helping visitors discover other interesting websites, that added value to our own websites.  In fact, before search, this was the primary way we discovered other Black websites.  This is why I continue to link to other websites and may be the reason I’ve been able to keep this website viable for 18 years

What changed?

Well some webmasters have been convinced that linking to other websites hurts their website: Some feel linking to other websites encourages people to leave their website. Others feel by linking to a potentially lower “quality” websites, hurts their website in terms of search engine optimization (SEO).  Of course there is the problem of the site they link to removing the page in the future, creating a broken link on their website, which is bad for SEO and the experience of their visitors.

But all of these reasons can be addressed—particularly by webmasters interested in the health and vibrancy of the Black web.  Relying on social media, or search, to elevate our sites and make them discoverable, is simply not working.

To compound this problem, when webmasters started linking to other websites, they began linking aggressively to social media websites. The result is that collectively we are uplifting social media and marginalizing our own websites.

This problem is further exacerbated by Google (who handles the majority of searches), whose search algorithm looks at our behavior, of linking to social media and not linking to Black websites, and makes the reasonable conclusion to elevate social media over Black websites in search engine results.

All of this has had disastrous results on the ability of websites to generate traffic and survive.  As a result, the web is far less rich—particularly as it relates to content generated by and for Black people.  We have lost some terrific website and potentially great ones are discouraged from even starting because of the difficulty of attracting visitors.

If you have read this far, I suspect this article has resonated with you.  If so, there is something you can do: Take every opportunity you have to link to another website.  You don’t need to have a website or blog to do this.  You can link to and share links to websites from your social media sites—a hyperlink to a website is much better for a website, than tagging or liking that website on a social media platform.  If you read an article which has a place for comments, and feel another website offers a related resource, link to that website in the article’s comments section.

Of course if you appreciated this article share it by linking to it or using the social media icons shown.

Footnote:
Immediately after publishing this article, I connected with the publisher of WhereItzAt Magazine; not only will they update their “In defense of Black Bookstores,” article to add a link to our bookstore database.  They have also expressed an interest in collaborating.

I’m pleased WhereItzAt Magazine received the article as intended.  I also look forward to working with them in a more constructive, and mutually beneficial, fashion.  As a result, you the reader, will be much better served.

Serious Problems With Facebook Promotion

Writers, if you are using Facebook to promote your work—especially paid promotion— invest 30 minutes of your time to watch these two videos, and read the article.  It will probably change the way you think about Facebook and save you some time, energy, and money.

 

AALBC.com’s Last 3 Million Visitors

As a content publisher, marketing is part of the job.  As an independent publisher, with limited resources, it is critical I use my resources wisely.  My website’s analytics is an important tool for me. Below is a Google Analytics report which shows the source of AALBC.com’s last 3 million visitors.   last-3000000-visitors

Organic Search Brings AALBC.com 75% of Our Visitors

Ranking high on Google and Bing’s search engine results contributed to bringing AALBC.com more than 75% of our last 3 million visitors.

Creating high quality content, results in higher rankings in search engine results¹. The creation of high quality content is perfectly aligned with AALBC.com’s goal.  No writer or content producer could reasonably argue against a system where the creation of higher quality content results in more visitors.  Visitors, of course, are a primary driver of revenue for a website.

Direct Traffic is Not Too Shabby Either at 13%

The source of our direct traffic is trickier to nail down precisely, but it does result from visitors who come to AALBC.com, by clicking a link on my emailed newsletter, through a bookmarked page, typing an AALBC.com page directly into the browser, and any instance where referral data is not passed².

With all the hype surrounding social media, and Facebook in particular, many writers are ignoring time tested marketing techniques, like a solid mailing list.  Our mailing list has just under 11,000 subscribers, and 100% of them have opened an email within the last 6 months (we actively remove subscribers who haven’t).  Open rates for a typical mailing is at least 20%. This means every mailing will be opened by at least 2,000 readers.  In addition, many of our subscribers are generous enough to be paid subscribers. We also send a mailing, once a month, that is sponsored.  Not only is our eNewsletter an effective way to reach our audience, it is a revenue generator.

Approximately 90% of our traffic is generated directly and through organic search.  The remaining 10% comes from other websites including social media.

Facebook Brings AALBC.com 1% of Our Visitors

It is interesting to note that Wikipedia and Rottentomatoes (RT, a film review aggregator website) sends us just about as many visitors as Facebook.

Publishers have the ability to post links back to their websites on related Wikipedia articles. In general this practice is considered “promotion” and is purportedly against Wikipedia’s guidelines.  Despite that, I’ve followed the lead of major corporations and posted links back to related AALBC.com content.  As the report shows the tactic works as well as engaging on Facebook, but with a fraction of the effort.

Side Bar: I actually stopped posting on Wikipedia over a year ago; the last straw was a battle I had with one of Wikipedia’s editors who seemed hell bent on promoting Zane’s tax liabilities and marginalizing her numerous achievements.

I post interesting AALBC.com content on Facebook almost every day (I’ve shared this article on Facebook too). Again, Wikipedia, where I have not posted a thing in over a year and is free, drives as much traffic as Facebook where I post almost every day and have paid for promotion.

If I add Facebook mobile, Facebook made up just 1.3% of my overall traffic (40K of 3M+ visitors). Of course it is better to have those visitors than not, right?  Well that depends on the effort it takes to get those visitors, and what those visitors do when they visit AALBC.com.

Facebook Zero: Considering Life After the Demise of Organic Reach³

Facebook Zero: Considering Life After the Demise of Organic Reach

One major problem with Facebook is that the quality of your content is of little significance. Facebook controls who sees your content. Search engines control who sees your content too, but search engines are motivated, and rewarded, by giving visitors quality search results.  Facebook, on the other hand, is motivated by maximizing their revenue and engagement on their website.

I have watched AALBC.com’s Facebook page “likes” quadruple over the last couple of years, while organic (free) post engagement has dropped substantially.  This is Facebook’s way to create an incentive for marketers to pay for post promotion.  I have experimented with paying for post promotion, but I have yet to reach the level of engagement I enjoyed organically, a few years ago, with far fewer fans.

facebook-boosted-post

AALBC.com Last (and Final) Promoted Post Statistics

Despite having more than 20,000 fans and almost 5,000 friends, I reach less than 300 people organically with a typical post.  If I spend $7, I can increase this to 2,000.  But still, this is less than 10% of my fan base and I have to pay to reach them.

Keep in mind this is an audience that I built through my efforts of actively engaging with people on Facebook.

Again, I used to achieve this level of reach without having to pay for it. But those days are over as Facebook has made it clear that organic reach is a thing of the past³ .

And of course all of this assumes you can trust the data the information being provided to you from Facebook.  As the videos above assert there is a lot of click fraud occurring on Facebook.  Are the 2,310 people I paid to see my ad real?  Are the 19 who clicked the link real?  If you ask me, I’d say, “no.”

Take a look at a report (below) which shows the “people” who clicked on my Facebook advertisement. The ad ran for 7 days, from October 1 to October 7, 2015. You will see that the Avg. Session Duration is 00:00:00—this is ZERO time spent on the website!  Whatever clicked the link on my Facebook advertisement didn’t even wait for the page to load.  Needless to say, my content could not have possibly been read, nor could a book purchase have taken place.

The average session time for my websites is measured, not in seconds, but minutes.  A zero second session time is absurd.  Even someone visiting a page by mistake, will take second or two before realizing it, and leaving the page.

session-refferal

Sadly, there is no shortage of social media marketing “experts” who promise to help you maximize the effectiveness your advertising campaigns on Facebook.

Few of us are sophisticated enough to evaluate the effectiveness of these experts or the effectiveness of a Facebook advertising, particularly when the data supplied by Facebook is suspect.  Indeed, many social media marketers would claim, “We got you 2,310 views for only $7.” When in reality, what I got, in this case, was ripped off.

Someone looking at this report may notice that all of the Facebook referrals came from mobile users (m.faceboo.com/) and claim, well Troy your website, AALBC.com, is not optimized for mobile displays.  That is true, but the page I was advertising is optimized for mobile displays.  In fact the link is to a newly redesigned version of AALBC.com which will be officially rolled out in early 2016.

For writers and other content producers managing their own websites, with limited resources, adding the additional effort of maintaining a Facebook page comes at the expense of maintaining and publishing content on your own website.  A compromise that few of us can really afford to make.  That $7, I wasted with Facebook, could have gone toward paying a writer for content that a reader visiting my website would enjoy, and that another website link to.

Why would I continue to take precious resources away from the production of quality content on AALBC.com, which is responsible for 90% of our visitors, and generates revenue, and redirect those resources to Facebook, who we have to pay, to bring of 1% of our visitors, many of whom are probably fraudulent?

On top of that, by promoting posts (a form of advertising on Facebook), I’m literally paying Facebook to provide them with free content.  Continuing to do this defies all reason and logic, so I have stopped.

As mentioned in the first video above, the YouTube social network pays content producers for publishing videos on their platform.  This is the way it is supposed to work. Facebook should be paying us for publishing content on their websites.

Independent Websites Send More Visitors to AALBC.com Than All of Social Media

otherwebsites-linking-to-aalbcIf you were able to scan further down the list of the sources of AALBC.com last 3 million visitors, you would to see the impact of other websites.  If all of the visitors, from hundreds of others sites, that link to AALBC.com were added together they easily exceed all of social media referrals—not just Facebook!  Here is a google search showing other sites with links to AALBC.com, excluding Facebook and Twitter.

Individually, none of these sites (see a short sample listing on the right) are sending as much traffic to AALBC.com, as Facebook, but collectively they send much more—and therein lies our potential.  We just need to recognize the power we have and use it.

Often, the only effort on my part, to get another website to link to AALBC.com, is to publish content that the website’s owner feels is valuable enough to link to.  AALBC.com links to thousands of other websites; rarely do we publish a document that does not link to another website.  Sites linking to each other naturally (organically) is the true nature of the World Wide Web.

Another strategy get referral traffic from other websites is to engage on their discussion forums or comment on their articles.  To be clear, I’m not saying spam the comments section of websites with unrelated promotional material. What I am saying is look for articles related to what you may have written and comment in a meaningful or helpful way. A properly curated and managed site, welcomes this type of interaction.

There are websites however that don’t recognize our collective strength and actively avoid linking to other websites. Once I ran into a problem with Ebony Magazine, posting in their comments, and got my feeling hurt 😉  But websites that react the way Ebony are exceptions and definitely not the rule.

AALBC.com has operated a discussion forum for over 15 years. Authors are encouraged to post information about their books  and engage with readers. However, author have turned to my Facebook page instead of using my website.  I’m seriously considering removing the Facebook page as it is cannibalizing visitors to AALBC.com.

Posting information about one’s books on related Facebook pages or another user’s wall is a strategy many use.  This has resulted in many groups degenerating into a places where writers make “drive by posts,” sharing content from their own pages without even visiting the groups that they are posting to.

Even if many people engage with your content on Facebook, this serves to highlight Facebook’s site, not yours.  A very small fraction of people will actually leave Facebook—and why should they if you are constantly posting on Facebook.

Unfortunately, a Facebook page is becoming the ONLY web presence for many writers and even businesses—they don’t maintain a website at all.  Even a simple website is far more feature rich than a Facebook page can be.  If we factored in Facebook’s invasion of our privacy, selling our personal data, and controlling access to updates; the choice between a Facebook page and a website should be a no-brainer.

If this trend continues the world wide web will be a far less rich place as folks migrate from maintaining websites to creating Facebook pages. Profits generated on the web will be concentrated at the top, greatly reducing the potential for independent websites to grow and for new ones to get started.

For a content producer having a Facebook page as your only web presence is a mistake. Because you are limiting your audience, not just to Facebook users, but to the Facebook users (real or otherwise) you pay Facebook to show it to.

Many writers will tell readers to “follow me on Facebook” and fail to mention their own website, or blog.  Some writers even put the Facebook logo on their business card and marketing material.  Even AALBC.com has Facebook icons on virtually every page.  We give no other entity, save Twitter, as much free promotion as we give Facebook.

All of this attention paid to Facebook reduces attention paid to websites.  In fact many excellent writers, have just given up blogging, or their blogs languish in obscurity, because they not getting enough visitors to make it worth the effort to maintain.  Engaging more aggressively on Facebook, to increase blog readership, is not helping.

The Facebook Game is Rigged

Some might suggest that if you are only getting 1% of your traffic from Facebook, then you must be doing something wrong.  Well you are not.  The game is simply rigged against you as I hope my reports, these videos, and perhaps your personal experience has demonstrated.

Now if Facebook was sending AALBC.com thousands of visitors, who spent time on the website, this article would not have been written.  If there were countless stories of bloggers, magazines, newspapers and writers who realized tremendous success and an increase of readership through their efforts on Facebook, this article would not be necessary.

Instead what I’m experiencing, witnessing and learning in my research is a very different story. It is also a story that is not being told, especially in the Black community.

There is Hope

AALBC.com’s time, energy and money will continue to be directed to two primary activities moving forward;

  1. Producing Quality Content
    I first started AALBC.com exactly 18 years ago today (October 10, 1997).  Providing a platform to connecting readers with books about Black culture is what attracts people to this website. Our planned website upgrade will allow us to share information on books in a way that no other website is currently doing.
  2. Advocating, Sharing , and Collaborating with Other Independent Websites
    Spread the word about websites you enjoy.  Figure out ways to collaborate with other websites.  Post comments in the comments section of those websites. If we don’t have an network of strong, independent websites working together, none of us will survive, and our only option will be a Facebook page (or a page on whatever platform has the most power at the time).

    Despite all the caution described about Facebook, we can, for now at least, make Facebook work for us, rather than the other way around, without spending a penny, by simply sharing content on the platform.

If you found this message helpful (or not), please comment below and share it with others.

Notes:

¹ Of course this is a simplification.  There are other strategies one can employ to rank higher in organic search engine results, without producing high quality content.  Search engines are engaged in a constant effort to defeat those that “game” the system, to rank higher in search results, with lower quality content.  Search engines don’t always get it right, but it is a very difficult task.

² I really should take advantage of tagging URLs.  This will help me identify of the “Direct” traffic in my analytics reports. In fact, I’m also contemplating paying writers by the traffic they help generate to the website, through the use of tracked URLs.

³ In 2012, Facebook famously restricted organic reach of content published from brand pages to about 16 percent. In December 2013, another round of changes reduced it even more.  By February 2014, according to a Social@Ogilvy analysis of more than 100 brand pages, organic reach hovered at 6 percent, a decline of 49 percent from peak levels in October. (All of the detailed data, analysis and practical recommendations are in their white paper.)

 

Join the Fight for Independence on the Web

Join the Fight for Independence on the Web

This article is intended for writers and other content providers, who are active on social media and have a goal of generating revenue from their content.  However, people who use social media to share photos and thoughts with friends and family can benefit from reading this article too.

The best way to experience AALBC.com’s content is not through the peep hole of a 140 character tweet or a stripped-down, plain text post on a Facebook wall, but by visiting the website and enjoying our curated, multimedia content.  This may sound obvious to anyone reading this blog post.  However, given the energy I’ve invested posting content on a variety of social media platforms, it might not be obvious by observing my behavior.

As a publisher of book reviews, interviews, videos and articles, I generate revenue by attracting visitors to this website.   For over 16 years I’ve been pretty good at it, particularly when you consider the content, books written by or about Black people, is not the most popular subject on the Web.

After years of experience using social media to market AALBC.com, I’ve noticed several adverse trends.  As a result, I’ve decided to not allocate my increasingly limited resources to social media.

“So Troy, why bore us with the details?  Why don’t you stop whining, take your marbles and leave social media already?”

Well this is issue is much bigger than me or AALBC.com.  In fact, I’ve been doing relatively well, compared to my peers, using social media to drive traffic to my website.  Consider a snapshot of the insights of an AALBC.com Facebook post highlighting the work of Peniel E. Joseph (less than 24 hours old at the time of this writing):

Peniel Insight Image

There is nothing unusual about this post. Some of my posts perform better, and others perform worse, depending upon the metrics considered.  As you can see (click the image for a enlarged view), the Peniel post was viewed 1,827 times in less than 24 hours and the link was clicked six times.  While this may not sound like a lot of clicks, the ratio between the number people who saw the post, and the number who clicked the link it contained, is relatively good.  Besides, it only took about 10 seconds to share the information.

“Now I’m really confused Troy.  If Facebook is working for you, then what are you complaining about?

The popular belief is social media is a mandatory tool for anyone interested in promoting their business.  The vast majority of us have brought into the hype without question.  The reality is everything we do on Facebook, to drive traffic to our websites, enriches Facebook and depreciates our websites.  The minor, short-lived, benefit some of us might extract individually is simply not worth what we give up collectively.

everythEverything we do on Facebooking-we-doPrior to the popularity of social media, generating traffic was much easier.  It was very common for a writers to refer visitors to other writers’ websites.  We had related links pages, web-rings, blog rolls and other ways of promoting and supporting each other online.  Today there better tools that could allow independent websites, acting together, to be much more effective at promotion that Facebook can alone.

The more power we give to Facebook, social media in general, the less control we have over what is seen on the Web.  I suspect you have already noticed the effect of social media’s dominance of the Web; scandalous or celebrity driven content is recycled and dominates what we see; sponsored content (paid advertisements) masks itself as news and editorial; and advertisements are embedded everywhere you look.

Another profound and troubling problem is the ongoing weakening of platforms dedicated to promoting Black books and authors.  In a 2011 article, Black Book Websites Need Love Too, I noticed that we were losing Black book website’s at an alarming rate.   That trend has continued; the remaining sites are receiving fewer visitors and generating less revenue as a result.  With less revenue, the ability to create content and attract visitors is diminished, furthering increasing downward pressure on revenue.  Pretty soon the website is no longer a viable business—assuming it ever was.

It is an extremely hostile environment for independent websites today.  Despite social media new websites have virtually no chance to build an audience.  So not only are we losing what we had, new websites are discouraged from ever launching.

Ironically, these conditions tend to drive people to social media even more, because it is much easier to establish a web presence on a social media platform than launch and maintain an independent website.  But the result is more people competing for attention on that social platform and everyone ends up being heard by fewer people.  The writers and potential readers are the losers.  The social media platform is the only winner.  Indeed, the more we struggle to be heard, by being more “social” or paying to promote posts, the more the social media platform profits—whether we connect with our readers or not.

If what we are losing from independent websites was compensated by equivalent content on social media, it would not be so completely tragic.  Not surprisingly, social media has failed miserably in delivering the richness and variety offered by individual websites.  This is understandable as the goal of social media is to maximize revenue for their owners.  Independent websites, on the other hand, are primarily driven by their mission.

Social media is seemingly an impossibly tough opponent in the competition for visitors.  As writers and owners of websites we can not continue to exacerbate the problem by fueling our competition with content and sending traffic directly to social media with every “Follow me on Facebook” request.  The trick is to exploit social media, not to allow social media to exploit us.

AALBC.com is not immune to these pressures.  I’ve been able to grow and monetize my eNewsletter, obtain concessions from vendors, use my time more effectively and leverage the support of partners in creative ways.

Actually, I’m not pulling up my social media stakes completely.  I plan to continue to share some of AALBC.com’s updates with on social media, but posts will executed remotely from AALBC.com, using AddThis.  For automated social media updates I’ll use Twitterfeed.  I suspect my remote and automated updates will eventually be shown less frequently by social media and therefore become less effective, but I will continue to adapt my strategies as I have done over the last two decades.

I will only engage with readers on independent platforms.  Engaging with readers on social media platforms about AALBC.com content is the activity that saps the most of my time and provides social media the most value.  In the past I often found myself engaging with readers on AALBC.com and multiple platforms over the same content—I can no longer afford to do this.

Today writers struggle over the effective management of their social media.  This is understandable as they are often judged more by the number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers than the quality of their writing.   Again, many say social media is a requirement—in fact I was one of these people.  When you consider the fact, the majority of top earning authors barely use Twitter and many don’t even have an account, you have the question the value.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  This is a tough problem, but not an intractable one.  If we do nothing, diversity on the World Wide Web will continue to decline.  In exchange, we will be left with a handful of social media platforms algorithmically determining what we see and how we see it, invading our privacy and profiting from the content we provide.

My goal is not to get rid of social media (though personally, I would not miss it for split  second).  My goal is to ensure that independent websites not only survive, but thrive.  The last thing I want to see is a world where the presentation of Black books (our culture really) is controlled, owned and operated by a corporation, solely driven by profit.  With the closure of the most of the Black owned bookstores over the past decade, we are essentially at a place today where Black books can only be purchased online from Amazon.

Remember, as writers it is our content that provides the most value to social media.  It is time we work together to reap the fruits of our labor and stop the digital sharecropping.

I’m working with others to develop strategies for us all to utilize our collective websites, to share and promote our content.  If you are interested in learning more, sharing your experience or joining our effort, email me at troy@aalbc.com or share your ideas in the comments below.

Finally, if you are a writer with a website send readers to YOUR website and encourage them to engage you there.  If people are desperate to find you on a social media platform, they know already how to do it.  Social media does not need any additional promotion, but our websites certainly do.

Join the fight for independence on the Web.

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