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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Is Helium.com About to Lose Their Author Base?

Note: This post has been edited upon receipt of several emails from Helium staffer Stephanie Silverstein. See notes below in red where applicable.

With popular 'knowledge site' Helium.com blindsiding their authors with massive changes right before Christmas, many of the site's freelance writers are looking for other websites that might give them a better deal for their 400+ word informational articles.

Let’s take a look at how Helium has changed over the past few years. The site was originally set up to allow multiple articles to be written to a particular title, and members of the community 'rated' articles in pairs to organize them (hopefully with the best articles ending up on top of the heap).

The payments offered were revenue share only, and articles could never be deleted, but the authors were welcome to publish them elsewhere, having only given Helium ‘non-exclusive rights’.

The first major change came when stars were instituted. Each writer now had a ‘writing grade’, which was based on how many articles they had written plus their average ranking for each article compared to others in its title.

Upfront payments were also offered, with 50 cents being awarded for each writing star an author possessed. This was soon revised to enforce a 'first five' rule, meaning that only the first five writers to post to a title obtained an upfront.

Those who wrote the very first article to an empty title received an extra dollar as an ‘empty title bonus’. Many ‘five star’ writers began to achieve considerable monthly earnings at $3.50 per article written to an ‘empty’, plus ad revenue from their rapidly growing portfolios.

In addition to these earning possibilities, Helium also ran contests, and brought in outside buyers to post projects on the ‘Marketplace’. Multiple writers could submit articles; any the buyer did not select and pay for would ‘transition’ to the main site with a ‘kill fee’ from Helium based on the author’s writing stars.

Writers gave up all rights to articles sold to these outside buyers. They retained ownership of the articles which ‘transitioned’, granting Helium only non-exclusive rights as before. In rare cases, articles would not transition, and would be returned unpaid for to the author who could publish them elsewhere.

Helium’s latest change has undercut the basis of their former program and left writers floundering. Upfront payments have been discontinued for titles on the main site. The second, fourth and fifth writing stars are rendered irrelevant, with the first and third stars allowing access to certain marketplace projects.

A handful of staff and volunteers have been charged with filling the marketplace with several thousand titles a month - most of which are product or 'how to' oriented and designed to attract large advertisers. Silverstein says that they plan to offer a wide range of titles and they just haven't had time to load them all yet.

Anyone who submits an article to these titles agrees to hand over exclusive rights to Helium - meaning authors can’t use the material anywhere else, ever. The top article (as graded by staff and volunteers and ratings, says Silverstein) will receive a small payment of $0-5. The next four will receive a $0-3 payment. Yes, those ranges start at ‘$0’. Silverstein says that the ones marked $0 will not have exclusive rights taken. Silverstein says "We expect the top end to be much higher; currently, we anticipate the range of $2-$15 for selected articles and $1-$10 for non-selected articles that transition. " As of this update, three titles have been added at $15/10, four have been added $10/7, and five at $8/5.

The chosen articles will transition to Helium proper, and also receive ad revenue. The rest of the articles will transition and receive no upfront, but will receive ad revenue. (correction...?: Silverstein says "No article would transition without earning an upfront payment or transition credit unless it was submitted to a title listed for a $0 upfront payment." Comments made on the Helium boards indicate any article not chosen for an upfront payment will either (A) transition and be eligible for ad revenue without exclusive rights being taken by Helium; or (B) will not transition and will be deleted with all rights retained by the writer. Apparently the most articles rewarded with an upfront or transition payment in a title will be five - one at top rate of pay, and four at the lesser rate.) Once an article is submitted to marketplace, the author cannot refuse the payment offered and take back rights to their article.

What does this mean for five star Helium writers? Instead of a $3.50 guaranteed payment, they must cross their fingers and hope their article is selected for an upfront, which unless they ‘win’ the contest like setup, will max out at $3 (correction: max is now $10 for a non 'winning' $15 article) and could be much less.

Helium’s reaction to writer outrage has been condescending (from the point of view of this writer and many Helium members who have spoken out on the boards and elsewhere or contacted this writer directly.). “Trust us!” has been the main mantra, along with “Everyone will make more money off ad revenue - stop being greedy.” Writers disagree, and many feel unable to write effectively to the range of titles presented - which they say lean heavily towards product reviews and away from true ‘knowledge titles’.

A quick scan of the marketplace reveals numerous financial / business titles such as 'how to use market intelligence to enhance supply chain management', as well as plenty of technical titles, pet titles, video gaming titles, auto repair based titles such as 'how to change a power steering pump', and controversial health titles including 'link between chemicals in cosmetics and ADD' as well as pharmaceutical titles. (Again, Silverstein promises a wider range will be available soon, stating: "Our current or first pass is probably not a great example set.")

Be that as it may.... Many writers are either disgusted at the narrow range of titles offered, insulted by the low payments proffered for exclusive rights, or offended at being forced into a ‘contest’ for upfront payments after having already proven themselves on Helium’s platform.

Many Heliumites are looking for a new place to earn money - and even channel managers are walking away, vowing to limit their future Helium participation to 'rating only' in order to continue receiving ad revenue. These members say they can get a better deal on upfronts elsewhere, like AC (recently acquired by Yahoo Contributors Network).

Note - This was originally written not in first person. Since I've been directly contacted by a Helium employee and assured that my input is important to them, I'll add some commentary here.

I won't recant what I said about the condescension showed on the boards. I was appalled by some of the stuff that was posted by mods and volunteers against writers who questioned the system. I'm still not impressed with the marketplace titles yet, either - I feel a grave mistake was made in rolling this massive change out half baked and on the weekend with obviously incapable forum mods and volunteers left to address the fallout.

(I just received another email from Silverstein stating the announcement was made on Thursday and they thought that would give them plenty of time to address all issues. I don't know about others but I received my official email at Friday, 4 PM EST, just before close of business for the weekend at Helium.com)

I firmly believe that this would have run much more smoothly IF a competent person had been asked to prepare a post to accurately address anticipated questions and concerns, IF Helium STAFF had been present in force to provide CORRECT answers to questions, IF the change hadn't been introduced on a WEEKEND at the beginning of December, IF the marketplace had been fully ready to go and organized, and IF the ability to propose titles to the new MP had been in place.

We'll see. I consider myself fairly unbiased because I am not as invested in Helium; I'm a full-time professional freelance writer and I don't do rev share sites as a rule - Helium was a springboard for me rather than a home as it has become to so many.

Next week: Alternatives to Helium.com

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let's talk about keywords

Everyone has been waiting for a little pep talk about keywords. So they let's admit right away it isn't the sexiest sounding subject in the world, but if you really plan to earn long term income on ppm/ppv sites, you have to get in the groove with them as depending on sheer luck to grab traffic isn't going to work out for you too well most times.

Keywords at their base is SEO. Knowing what a keyword is and sticking it in your article is all fine and well, but what really counts, and what far too many SEO writers really don't get is that density matters and writing SEO friendly content that doesn't read like ad copy is not only possible, it's really pretty easy.

The mistake too many people make is choosing the wrong keywords to target, and then overly saturating that keyword. I'll be upfront and admit immediately that SEO pros disagree on the best density and most are full of crap anyway. Some will say you need a 6% density, others will say 2% gets the job done, I say hovering around 2%-3% is about right. But hey, what do I know right? I mean I did eat kitty litter once as a child because I was curious. I avoided the clumpy portion, I'm not that weird. Sheesh...you guys....

To discuss keyword density and keep things simple, let's just focus on optimizing your article for only one keyword. If you get that concept down, you can go hog wild and expand to two or three on your own using the same principles. Let's suppose we are all optometrists and we are all writing copy about our clinic we own and are wildly successful in. If we're going to play pretendsies, let's do it right!

Our need is to get good page rank so that we can generate traffic that may lead to more clients. As optometrists, let's say that "Optometrist" is the keyword we are going to focus on -get the connection..optometry...focus....? Learning can be fun!

We want to use the word optometrist 3 times every 100 words to achieve a density that everyone agrees is minimally sufficient, but at the same time won't be so overused it turns a reader off. Nobody likes having the same keyword jammed down their throat when reading. Using Optometry in that density is no problem, but it also isn't too effective. If you google optometry you get about 830,000 returns which means being located on that word alone is going to be one heck of a challenge. If it's going to be that tough, it all comes down to luck and time on the web to get page rank, right? BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!! Wrong answer! It is only that way if you let it be that way.

"So what's the secret oh divine goddess-like waif I worship?" is what you're thinking -and even if you aren't let's pretend you are since I'm doing this for free. The secret is using that keyword of optometry better. We use it better by creating keyword phrases and long tail keyword phrases. The reason we are going to do this is because it makes the results returned more niche which means we have better search results. So how do we niche?

We accomplish this by creating relevant specific two word phrases to beef up "optometry." What are examples of keyword phrases that work? The examples are only limited by your imagination. Our keyword phrases need not be complex, try things like:

A) Indiana Optometry
B) Muncie Optometry
C) Best optometry
D) affordable optometry

That's not so tough to do, and using example D for instance, we have cut the search results returned on Google to about 224,000 words. Going from a result of around 830,000 to 224,000 is a huge deal. As good as that is however, it can be better. How do we make it better? We go long tail. Long tail keyword phrases are 3-5 words long ideally, I like 4 words, and they allow you to accomplish the following things:

A) Get niche which means less competition to get page rank which means you have a better chance of getting found quicker.
B) It allows you to keep up your density without appearing to be needlessly and painfully repetitive.

Let's try expanding to a 3 word key phrase and see how things go. Let's build off of our two word key phrase list to keep things simple and try "Affordable optometry Muncie." Why Muncie instead of Indiana you wonder? Two simple reasons, 1 being it is more specific, and two being "Indiana" is one of those weird words that even Google garbles a bit and will spit out returns related to "Indians" and "India" which means you are needlessly fighting for rank against content that has been misplaced. See, there was a reason I chose Indiana and not Iowa! Getting back to our three word Muncie keyword phrase, we get a return of about 33,000. It's good, but it could be better.

Let's go to 4 words and try "Best affordable optometry Muncie." It narrows a bit more to about 27,000, but if we go to a very specific phrase like "best affordable optometry Muncie Indiana", voila! We have a return under 3,500!

So now you say, "Ahhh...I see the key! The more specific and longer the keyword phrase the better!" Absolutely not true. There is a reason 5 words is considered the ceiling and it is because going to the sixth word, that tiny little change screws everything up way too often. How does being more specific screw you up is what you're wondering and the answer is simple - computers and software are designed by people, but they aren't people. They process the words, not the context. For example let's say our phrase of "Best affordable optometry Muncie Indiana" is tweaked by adding what should be a somewhat niche word like "gay" to the phrase because you have a gay friendly business. The return is now up to 15,500! Why is that? It is giving you returns related to not just "gay optometry", but "gay Muncie", "gay Indiana", and "best gay." It goes back to thing about to many cooks in the kitchen.

So when you write your article about your gay friendly optometry clinic in Muncie, Indiana, that you think is the best, what kind of keyword phrases can you use to be niche, get good rank, and also be broad to a degree while maintaining a good density that doesn't read like crap? You would try keyword phrases like these:

A) Gay Muncie optometry
B) Gay Indiana optometry
C) Gay optometry
D Affordable Indiana optometry
E) Cheap Muncie optometry
F) Inexpensive Muncie optometry

The list goes on and on....The thing is you want to avoid "Spamming" the same phrase, but you want to get as many instances of the word optometry into your article without being overbearing, and the variety of phrases is how you do it. You can easily write a 500 word article using "optometry" 15 times in varying combinations one to two times each and not sound cruddy.

What so many people fail to realize is that the long tail keywords don't just help you in the short term with niche rankings, going back to that basic single keyword of "optometry", which had about 830,000 returns, your article will climb those results based on that keyword because it is getting hits as a part of the long tail keyword phrase. The jump isn't going to be overnight or dramatic, but it will be positively influenced.

Once you get working with one keyword down you will be ready to expand into using similar words and phrases like "Optometrist', "eye care", "eye care clinic" and weaving in the other goodies like "cheap", "affordable", etc... to have the most optimized possible article to nail nearly every worthwhile keyword phrase possible. To help you do this, there are tools available, but if you want to know what they are you have to go to this gratuitous article link . The tools listed there are free by the way.

The odds are that it is going to take you some practice, and at first it is going to be a pain in the butt probably, but once you get the hang of it you can greatly increase your view earning income. You don't have to go crazy with it, even just the inclusion of a few good keyword phrases in the right place is going to make a difference - especially if it is something you never focused on before. If you're not a believer, try writing two optimized articles and watch how they earn over the course of a 60 day period. If they are not doing better than your submissions normally would over that period time I would be greatly surprised. Keep in mind that writing a good article is the most important thing, and that the topic has to be something people actually have a need for.

In case you were curious, the density of "Keyword" in this post is 2%, and "optometry" is 2.1%.