But is it SPAM?

Many marketers promote a naive worldview where things are black and white, but few profitable marketing methods are ever clearly black and white. The largest areas of profit are usually somewhere in the gray. You take the brand of something really white and good and you use that to gain enough leverage to monetize it using shadier or more aggressive margin rich ideas.

Using AIDS to Market Your Products:

Want an example? Werty was recently pissed off about product Red being a scam. Charge twice as much for a product and share HALF of the PROFITS with AIDS related causes.

While still on the topic of AIDS, did you know that last year Bristol-Myers Squibb got a bunch of media coverage for a site called Light to Unite, where they donate $1 to the National AIDS Fund each time someone lights a candle with the click of a mouse*. There have been nearly 1.8 million candles lit, but Bristol-Myers Squibb used the asterisks and small print to cap the payout at $100,000.

You take a corporate agenda, give a few crumbs to a non-profit, and have them market your story for you. Is that spam? Is that legitimate marketing? Not sure.

Is it biased ans self-serving? Absolutely, but then all marketing is.

Ads as Content:

I told my girlfriend that Obama will accidentally be called Osama because it was too easy to make that accident. Turns out it has already been happening for years.

Language is intentionally used and misused in specific frames, formats, and various levels of preciseness or vagueness to push the agenda of the author or originator of the story. Public relations is still going strong today.

Why do the media keep running stories saying suits are back? Because PR firms tell them to. One of the most surprising things I discovered during my brief business career was the existence of the PR industry, lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Of the stories you read in traditional media that aren't about politics, crimes, or disasters, more than half probably come from PR firms.

Brand Duplication:

In most fields, most profitable businesses are arbitrage plays.

Why does InterActive Corp need Expedia, Hotels.com, TripAdvisor, Hotwire.com, and then even niche brands like ClassicVacations.com all in the travel vertical? What is the significant value add and mark of differentiation between each of those brands?

Yahoo! has search results, paid ads, local listings, their directory, Yahoo! Shopping, Yahoo! Answers, and Yahoo! News. Those cover virtually every vertical, but then they have content in other large verticals like auto, sports, tech and travel. Some of these leverage content from one another. They extend that content further with spam aggregator ideas like Yahoo! Brand Universe, plus they own automated content networks and niche brands like Del.icio.us, Flickr, and MyBlogLog. Do they really need that many brands competing with each other? They are already the most popular site on the web and they STILL are avid link buyers. If they already have that much traffic do they still need to buy links? And why are they selling these links on their homepage?

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So that is mortgage / credit, education, credit cards, and credit reports. In SEO those are generally considered spammy fields. Why? Because they are high profit / high margin fields where there are a ton of duplicate brands which do not add much value to the web.

Google is no better than any of the other companies. How much web spam is paid for by AdSense? Why does Google recommend publishers blend the ads with the content (unless they are selling links, in which case it is a sin of some sort)? Why does Google sell ads for software they recommend avoiding in their webmaster guidelines? Why do they syndicate ads on Warez websites? Why do they recommend bidding on keywords like bootleg movie download?

Having an automated ad network that pushes just about anything does not make it any more humane. It just increases the margins, so Google can push it further. But blindly profit seeking algorithms cause people to push the envelope to stay competitive. Is it any surprise that the UK is enacting laws to make fake reviews illegal?

If Google is so worried about noise that they have to quality price many ads off the page to keep it clean, why are the Google Checkout buttons so graphically large and aggressive on a virtually all text search result page? Does Google really need to push their checkout product this hard?

Doesn't that look a bit spammy, or tacky at the least?

What is Relevancy?

In The Search Engines Are Killing SEO Mark Simon predicts that in an attempt to have relevant results that search engine optimization will be rendered largely useless by improving technology:

Searchers want relevant results. They’ll reward or punish engines according to the relevance they provide. Advertisers, meanwhile, go where the searchers are. And so in order to keep the advertisers, who make the engines money, the engines need to make sure their search results are as relevant as possible.

I would argue that branding and marketing have more to do with search market share than relevancy. Google destroys the competition in marketing savvy.

In most highly profitable commercial markets there is not much difference between one company and the next. What can a bank offer but money? And if they operate on smaller margins they have less they can spend on marketing, and they lose market share.

Look how hard Google is fighting to try to marginalize Paypal, to collect marketing data and make their market knowledge more complete. Google is making their own SERPs look spammy to try to win another market, and failing hard. With Checkout, Google is telling a story nobody cares about.

Google Ranks Garbage:

What does Google consider as an authoritative quality website? Why are sites like Yahoo! Shopping, Bizrate, Nextag, MSN Shopping, Dealtime, Pricegrabber, and Shopping.com all ranked in Google as being more valuable than most smaller retail sites? Because they have some editorial guidelines and they spend a ton on marketing. But they all offer similar content, with little differentiation between them, and no value add from one to the next. If Google is so good at determining relevancy why are they ranking so many sites with similar content and similar user experience?

If Google dislikes double dipping on AdWords ads then why do they have so many similar low value sites ranking at the top of the search results for so many search queries?

Google Has to Trust Something:

Maybe search will close some of the easy loopholes, but the search engines have to trust something to create relevancy. Whatever they trust people will manipulate. So search engines will start trusting end users and popular opinion more. So SEO will be more holistic, focusing on users more than engines, but it won't go away. There are too many high margin markets with little brand differentiation, and that means that those who can differentiate or get people to talk about them will win marketshare.

It doesn't matter if you were early to a market and your market growth was slow and organic, or if you are new to the market and are better at marketing. Google has to rank something, and staying stale isn't how they are going to have the best relevancy. People expect to find the results that people are talking about. If your brand is well known Google will rank it highly. They have to in order to be relevant.

Every Market is Gamed:

You can differentiate by showing your message over and over again in hopes that someone cares (like Google Checkout), you can partner up with PR firms and non profits (like Gap and Bristol-Myers Squibb), or you can try to connect with people by sharing information about your topic or creating some other type of real value.

Anyone who thinks the search results will stop being manipulated is a person who fails to see how much the mainstream media is gamed everyday. And so is Digg. And so are most blogs. All authority systems are gamed by marketing.

People tell themselves certain lies to make the world make sense. Microsoft is bad. Apple is good. etc etc etc

The web is more targeted, more viral, and more reactive to marketing messages than other channels. Search will get gamed faster and harder as search commoditizes many thin arbitrage plays, the system teaches people to mesh ads and content, and the easy search algorithmic holes are closed.

SEO will never die. It will just continue to evolve with the market. Some self promotional gurus will associate SEO with dying low value spam, but as long as search companies are hiring SEOs I don't think we have much reason to worry about the future of SEO.

Published: February 15, 2007 by Aaron Wall in marketing


February 15, 2007 - 12:18pm

Anyone who claims SEO is dying either doesn't understand SEO or is using a very narrow definition of the term. SEO is isn't a very specifically defined term, so it's common to see people using a super narrow definition on some sites while others lump most internet marketing tasks under the same acronym.

I completely agree with your statement that every market is gamed, but I'd go further to say that no fair or pure systems exist, and it's the very "gaming" of these systems that improves them and enhances their value.

Take spammers for example. You may think spammers are really annoying (I do) and causing a lot of harm (I don't), but by exploiting the holes and taking advantage of the system, they push or actually force the system to improve. They force or facilitate innovation required to fix the problems or the gaming and in the end everyone gets better results.

The internet can be manipulated. Because of the nature of web, manipulating the internet populous requires using technology and understanding marketing & people. The techniques will change as the market adapts. As things progress the "gaming" SEO consultants do becomes less and less spammy and increasingly builds more and more value, thus resulting in better, more relevant results for everybody.

Anyone who hasn't read Seth Godins book "All Marketers are Liars" should. I highly recommend it and it goes over some of the things Aaron points out in this post.

February 15, 2007 - 12:26pm

I also wanted to add, trying to game a network is fun. It's like playing a game of chess - you use your resources to move and your opponent counters, you attack he defends, he attacks you defend.

Trying to figure out how to get those most value from a market is creative and drives innovation on both sides. I believe it's one of the core ingredients to a thriving competitive marketplace and results in better things for everyone. Ok I'm climbing off my soapbox now.

February 15, 2007 - 12:53pm

Hey Aaron, it has been a while since I posted a comment, but great post! You are so right about "gaming the system" and PR and the candle lighting thing. I have never thought of it in that way. The brand duplication part is on point as well. Finally someone is talking about something new...all the "SEO is Bull" and "SEO is not rocket science debates" are getting old. Unfortunately my blog post is out of date now on these topics, but I'll post it anyway.

Hope to see you around!

February 15, 2007 - 11:34pm

This is a great post. I think each one of those sub points could be made in to a post all of their own. I especially like the points about Google's checkout icons and Google ranking garbage. I work for a smaller ecommerce site (smaller in comparison to Bizrate, etc.), and it takes a lot of work for us to get noticed among all of the big names in the business. Now that I'm seeing that the checkout link keeps getting bigger, it makes me think that my adwords will soon be unnoticeable if they don't have the checkout logo at the bottom.

February 16, 2007 - 3:00am

In my opinion, as long as the concept of online search remains valid, and there is a realized value in having high search visibility for strategic keywords, that leads to traffic generation, leads, customers and sales, there will be a market for SEO. It leads to understanding the trends online that drive traffic and users and figuring out who wants to buy any given product/service and where those prospects are going to be. As long as people are searching for things, good SEO's will figure out the ways to get their message across their computer screen.

A friend
February 16, 2007 - 4:51am

Awesome post because it really brings home the point. I thought it would be smart to do an answer post to a related controversial statement made on this matter at Search Engine Journal, but I haven't had the time lately. I nominate your post instead - you could literally cut it, paste it in an email and send it to Loren.

February 16, 2007 - 11:19am

Well written and well thought out.

February 17, 2007 - 1:14am

I find something kind of interesting and funny about that 'Barack Osama' thing.

February 17, 2007 - 6:06am

I always wonder about the people who bash on other companies. What is their real intent - to warn about bad stuff or promote their own business? I've seen companies like ripoffreport.com who allow people to talk bad about whatever business. The funny thing is, in order to get off that site if your business has been reported, you have to PAY a wad of dough! Interesting strategy! I agree, SEO is here to stay; all the idiots who try to talk it down as spam are just jealous about what Aaron and other SEO gurus are teaching the internet marketing world. Thanks for all the great info!

February 19, 2007 - 8:17pm

Yes, it is a great post.
As long as SE exist SEO would always exist.
And harder ranking just make more work and more clients for SEO.

February 21, 2007 - 5:34am


And on the SEO stuff...the arrogant stand tall and look down at the pleabs only to realize they are chopping with axes.

Google was build on chopping...err, it was called hacking then.

Without hackers and reverse engineering there is no fun. There is no good. There is just evil.

Wait, what is Google's moto? Do no evil?

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