The US (and global) economies are in sharp decline after a period of growth that was largely fueled by speculative (and fraudulent) loans that increased money supply way too quickly. While carnage is wide reaching offline, it is simply a phenomena that has not really touched our publishing business.

The Illusion of Safety

There is an illusion that if something is physical that it has a sense of permanence to it, but this year the US government has had to bail out banks, automakers, insurance companies, and credit cards. Residential real estate has dropped hard and commercial real estate is also in the hurt locker (if retail is off 10% in some areas then many businesses operating on a 5% margin will go bankrupt – leading to vacancies and lower prices).

Much of the residential real estate decline is simply due to excessive capacity and various flavors of mortgage fraud (appraisal fraud, loan application fraud, principal-agent problems, malfeasant regulation, etc.), but the commercial real estate slowdown is due to the residential slowdown, global economic slowdown, and the existence of better and cheaper alternatives – namely onlineretail.

Investing in Growth

The Tribune Company recently filed for bankruptcy and the New York Times is reporting dropping ad revenues. Amongst the carnage reported record numbers. In a lot of ways some of the offline decay is just a shift toward more efficient online business models.

Fred Wilson highlighted how many publishing, finance, and retail business models are all being destroyed by the web

I had breakfast last week with a person who has been in retailing for more than 30 years and has been operating at the highest levels of the industry. He said that he expects every category to be winnowed down to one dominant retailer with all the others going by the wayside. This too has the internet as an underlying cause. comScore says that online holiday shopping this year has been flat with the year before and I’ve seen reports that offline retail is down 6-10pcnt. The fact is that consumers have finally come to the realization that shopping online is easier, cheaper, and often a better experience. Physical retail will survive, but it will be a smaller industry in the next decade and those that do survive will need to give consumers a very strong rationale to get in the car and come to their store.

The information age is killing many traditional arbitrage based business models (or thicker business models that are heavily reliant on local monopolies as a big part of their business). Companies that thrived when there was no competition are simply folding like Origami.

Search is the Primary Growth Engine of the Web

Not only is the web growing during the downturn, but much of the online growth is driven by marketing and search. SEO exist as the intersection of those two points, and SEOs that approach the topic from a holistic marketing standpoint have a significant advantage at building distribution and growing capital. Give me an average passionate player, add SEO, and I can help them rank #1 in most markets.

When you back out inflation and opportunity cost professional investors are lucky to gain 5% a year. With smart market research and effective SEO implementation many businesses can outpace that by a factor of over 400! Being in SEO today would be like being in coal, oil, or railroads in years past…you help connect supply and demand.

Trimming Profit Margins

Outperforming the market by hundreds or thousands of percent presents an opportunity that will draw lots of competition – and one that will not last long if not evolved. If you get a #1 ranking which provides amazing profit margins it is best to look for ways to thicken out the site even if those strategies lower short-term profit margins. Search algorithms will change, and the thicker and more interactive your site is the more sustainable your rankings will be.

Thickening up may require giving away tools and software, public relations strategies, becoming the media, providing a platform for others to use, and/or creating the community water cooler.

Additional expenses can be offset by refining conversion process to increase visitor value and lifetime customer value.

Another thing to consider is the use of advertising to build other quality signals. Awareness leads to conversion. And if you can get advertising to pay for itself and gain other signals of quality as a side effect of user interaction with your site then you will end out ahead in the long run. I love recycling dollars because it costs nothing, builds free credit card points, and builds up a website’s online footprint.

Making Online Businesses More Sustainable than Offline Businesses

If you are an online marketer and publisher then you become a market researcher, learn how to track trends, and change with the market.

If much of your online revenues revolve around a thin SEO centric approach then it helps to create at least 1 or 2 aggressively branded sites that hedge against the risks algorithm shifts present. The net effect of building a brand is that you are not overly-reliant on any search engine or any physical market. If people talk about you and recommend you then you win. This site has members from dozens of countries all over the world, so even if the US Dollar collapsed we would still have a diverse income stream.

Helping Others

Once you are doing really well you can give back in a variety of ways – donate money to charities, donate services to charities, and/or give income-producing websites to family members. You can give away featured content and tools that help others knowing that in the end it will also come back to help build your business. You can also pour thousands of dollars into building non-profit sites that may also be able to pay you back in exposure, credibility, and link equity.

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