Digital Sharecropping is Still Bad

It’s Labor Day weekend in the US, so you know what that means: a long weekend off work!

spit take
“Day off”? I’m unfamiliar with the term.

Hopefully you got a good chuckle out of the idea of a weekend off too 🙂

In light of all the changes Facebook is making, I thought it would be good to address the concept of digital sharecropping.

In case you don’t work full time keeping up on all of the latest trends in social media, here are the three big changes Facebook recently announced:

  1. Like-gating will no longer be allowed. If you had a custom app for a contest or coupon that required Facebook users to Like your page first, that won’t be allowed effectively immediately for new apps and November 5 for existing apps.
  2. Click-bait headlines will be penalized. Yep, Upworthy and company ruined it for everybody. “PADI just introduced a new program, you’ll never believe what happened next!” is, and always has been bad. People clicked on it, but it was always such massive pandering and now it’s being penalized.
  3. Sharing images with links in the description will be penalized. Many savvy marketers (yours truly included) discovered that by sharing a big image with some text and the link to whatever it is we’re talking about got more clicks and engagement compared to just sharing a link and allowing Facebook to automatically generate a link preview. It did so well, Facebook realized people were doing that instead of paying for ads, so it’s been penalized.

Since keeping up with the constant changes on Facebook is a full time job itself, it’s easy to miss these changes. Another recent change that appears to continue being overlooked is “like-baiting”. Not to pick on Huish Outdoors and Zeagle since I love their products, but back in April, Facebook started penalizing “Like-Baiting”, so posts like these should be avoided:

Why does Facebook keep banning all of these techniques to boost Page likes and engagement? It’s simple business: they make no money off of us using these techniques, they make money off ads.

Penalize everything we can do without paying, and the only option left is to pay.

That’s the business/marketing/advertising world, best get used to it. But it also brings up a relatively old concept we refer to as digital sharecropping.

What Is Digital Sharecropping?

Digital sharecropping is a concept originally addressed way back in 2006. I know the dive industry tends to be quite far behind when it comes to online marketing, so if you’ve never heard the term, don’t feel bad.

Copyblogger did a great write up about why digital sharecropping is bad back in 2011, here’s the basic description and history:

…anyone can create content on sites like Facebook, but that content effectively belongs to Facebook. The more content we create for free, the more valuable Facebook becomes. We do the work, they reap the profit.

The term sharecropping refers to the farming practices common after the U.S. Civil War, but it’s essentially the same thing as feudalism. A big landholder allows individual farmers to work their land, and takes most of the profits generated from the crops.

The landlord has all the control. If he decides to get rid of you, you lose your livelihood. If he decides to raise his fees, you go a little hungrier. You do all the work and the landlord gets most of the profit, leaving you a pittance to eke out a living on.

Put simply, digital sharecropping is spending your online marketing efforts (and budget) into someone else’s site.

Unfortunately, many advocates for digital sharecropping are also snakeoil salespeople
Unfortunately, many advocates for digital sharecropping are also snakeoil salespeople

As demonstrated by the Facebook changes I mentioned above, these other sites exist for their own interests, not yours, and will change the rules to make you serve their interests.

Why is Digital Sharecropping Bad?

In case you haven’t figured it out already, digital sharecropping is bad because your success is fully at the whim of an outside entity that doesn’t really care about your success.

The big problem is there are plenty of people, both in and out of our industry, who will try to convince you of how important sharecropping on their digital property actually is.

Guest Blogging

I was just having a conversation with a friend who said they were going to submit a guest post on a SCUBA blog. I asked her why she wouldn’t just put the post on her own blog and share the link across her social media accounts. She said, “For the exposure.”

Here’s the harsh reality: guest blogging doesn’t have a very good ROI in most cases.

When I worked in the real estate industry, I was an author for one of the most well-known multi-author blogs in the industry. I even had a top visited article for a while. I could count on both hands the number of clicks through to my site from those articles I wrote.

I wrote for a well-promoted electronic magazine in the dive industry. I received an embedded link back to my site as payment. Clicks through to my site? Easily counted on one hand.

Even the people who have written here don’t receive many clicks. I hope they are still happy they wrote because they got to cover a business topic that wouldn’t make sense on their dive business websites, but the click-through honestly isn’t worth it.

You may receive a link which helps a very tiny bit with search engine optimization, but even Google is devaluing links from guest posts.

If you have a great article, put it on your site and share it across your social media accounts.


Forums are awesome for engaging with your customers. They’re also awesome for getting your happy customers to be brand advocates for you.

From personal experience, due to a lot of hard work changing the brand perception of my employer on one busy dive forum, we went from frequent complaints when I first started to a point where I can rarely get on to explain ourselves before multiple other customers have done it for me.

Forums are still digital sharecropping though, regardless of how ethical the forum owner is.

You may hear “SEO experts” tell you that forums are valuable for SEO. While a well-optimized forum will rank for an almost endless supply of longtail keywords, the traditional SEO benefits of a forum for your website are minimal.

If you do like many people do (including myself) and put links to your business in your forum signatures, you run a high risk of being penalized for what’s known as lack of anchor text variation. If you have 100 links to your site and 99 of them have the link text “best dive shop ever”, it looks like spam and you’ll actually be penalized in search results for “best dive shop ever”.

Furthermore, search engines look at number of linking domains more importantly than total links. It’s better to have one link each on 100 sites (assuming they are relevant and decent quality) than it is to have 100 links all on one site. It’s kind of like the Law of Diminishing Returns: that first link to your site is great, the next couple are cool, but anything beyond that is worthless for SEO.

Engage with your customers on forums, and encourage them to write reviews of you there too, but get those reviews for your site first, then share them elsewhere.

Social Media

Social media is the most extreme form of digital sharecropping.

While Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, and others can be incredible marketing tools, keep in mind that all of these businesses have investors.

Business school 101 tells us the only responsibility of a corporation is to return value to the shareholders.

All of these social media outlets started out as startups with investors, and those investors want a return on investment. Social networks make money by selling our data. They sell it to advertisers or market research people or whoever is willing to pay within some ambiguous set of ethics.

Digital sharecropping is simply wasting time
Digital sharecropping is simply wasting time

What’s Best?

The same thing I’ve been advocating since the get-go: focus on your hub, promote along the spokes.

Your hub is your website.

The spokes are forums and social media (and if you want a backlink from another blog, just write a comment and save the article for your site).

If you think of something you want to post on Facebook, post it on your site first, then share that post on Facebook. Or Twitter, Google+, or forums.

Another brand I admire and plan to purchase from soon is Dive Rite. Take a look at their blog. Bonus points for having a blog since 2007 that has been updated more than once. This year though, only one post so far. Now go look at their Facebook Page. Nine posts this month alone. All of their posts are excellent and tell a story about the brand. Their posts are so excellent, they could easily be expanded to 300+ words on their blog, then share across social media, building less dependence on digital sharecropping.

If you are regularly generating content on your own site, you’ll be found by search engines without needing to pay. If you consistently share that compelling content on social networks, you can choose to pay for ads or not, all while driving people back to your site.

Market for yourself, not for anybody else, and avoid digital sharecropping at all costs.

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