In the past, my colleagues and I have had "big ideas" that we tried to turn into reality. Unfortunately, we never found that one idea that took 5 minutes to create, and made millions overnight. I think that's everyone's goal, but is rarely reality.
I've decided to shut down two big sites that I thought had a great shot at success, but never quite reached critical mass. As a tribute to these sites, I'm going to dedicate a post to each, talking about their history, and the lessons that were learned. This post will cover NaturalLinkExchange.com, and the next post will talk about RankTrend.com.
A few years ago, people started realizing the power of "backlinks", or other links that pointed to your page. Sites started taking advantage of this fact by doing link exchanges. Basically, you would offer to link to another website in exchange for a link from their site back to yours. Of course this was a tedious job, and people were looking for a quick way out.
Along came sites like PowerLinks (which later renamed to LinksMaster). Basically, they link every site in their system to your site, and in exchange, you link back to every other site. The problem then, and even more so today, is that Google is known to be able to detect reciprocal links. To make matters worse, Google has been known to penalize for this behavior. The goal of Google is to determine relevance by examining quality, organic links. PowerLinks would instantly give you 10,000 links, not exactly natural. Currently, their site seems to have degraded into a pyramid scheme, and is still plagued with the problem of being a really bad idea.
A few colleagues and I knew there had to be a better way. The result was NaturalLinkExchange.com. Basically, it worked like PowerLinks, except that it avoided reciprocal links. Any site that you would link to would not link back to you. The other major feature was that instead of adding thousands of links instantly, they would grow naturally over time. Basically, we were mimicking what would happen if you went out and got the links yourself, but we were making it completely automated.
Our concept was sound, and I personally saw the backlinks help boost pages in the search engines. Even with over a thousand users at its peak, it never reached critical mass. The growth rate was there, but only with constant, expensive advertising. The system relied on mass numbers of users to join to keep making relevant links.
An interesting problem we ran into with a lot of users that visited the site was that it would be blank in their browser. Norton Internet Security didn't like our site, because they decided to block any site that ended in "LinkExchange". LinkExchange, was a website from the early web days that allowed you to put a banner ad on your website and receive reciprocal banner ad on another site pointing back to yours. Norton was apparently blocking it because they consider it spam. We contacted Symantec, and they refused to change the behavior of their software.
- Critical mass is vital to the success of your site. This may take a boatload of money to buy advertising, an existing army of followers, or it might take a concept so profound or new that it spreads virally. Once we quit advertising, the site began to die a slow death.
- The better product doesn't always win. Once people understood how our system worked, they were sold. The problem is that in the 10 seconds we had to sell the service, we failed. There are many other factors more important than having the best product. Part of the problem is that it isn't always clear which product is better. To sell a service, I recommend really examining how you'll be marketing it, especially in our current era of social networking.
- Simple is better. We live in the real world, where we just want things done without any work. Many users simply didn't understand the advantages of the site, others had a hard time using it. I learned that if something is going to be successful, it needs to be so easy that I don't have to think about it.
- How smart are your users? For many services, the reason users use it is because it solves a problem they don't understand. Our users typically didn't understand SEO, but knew it was important. They didn't understand the benefits of our system, and wanted a quick fix (even though one didn't exist).
- Users want instant gratification. PowerLinks had the advantages of getting thousands of links instantly. Once the user saw that happen, they would sleep better at night. With our service, users didn't feel satisfied when there were days that they didn't get any backlinks (remember, the site was designed to mimic human behavior). If you can charge money, and instantly give users something of value, they will be happy.
- Choose your enemies wisely. In effect, we were battling against Google. We decided to outsmart their system. The result was that we had to avoid doing what we thought they would detect and penalize. Think about the future, and understand if you have a realistic shot of winning.
- Software is hard. It seems like I have to relearn this on every project. You're not going to write this stuff overnight. Doing it well is going to take time, especially if you also have a full-time job. You need to determine for yourself if it's even worth taking away from your personal time, and potentially family time for this venture. Conclusion
Even though the site never made millions, I don't regret the time spent on it. It certainly made me a better developer and architect, and the lessons learned will always be with me. The amount that I learned was something I could have never learned without having a vested interest and passion for its success.
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