SEO: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Jun 12th

SEO is a dirty word.

PPC isn’t a dirty word.

Actually, they’re not words they’re acronyms, but you get my drift, I’m sure :)

It must be difficult for SEO providers to stay on the “good and pure” side of SEO when the definitions are constantly shifting. Recently we’ve seen one prominent SEO tool provider rebrand as an “inbound marketing” tools provider and it’s not difficult to appreciate the reasons why.

SEO, to a lot of people, means spam. The term SEO is lumbered, rightly or wrongly, with negative connotations.

Email Optimization

Consider email marketing.

Is all email marketing spam? Many would consider it annoying, but obviously not all email marketing is spam.

There is legitimate email marketing, whereby people opt-in to receive email messages they consider valuable. It is an industry worth around $2.468 billion. There are legitimate agencies providing campaign services, reputable tools vendors providing tools, and it can achieve measurable marketing results where everyone wins.

Yet, most email marketing is spam. Most of it is annoying. Most of it is irrelevant. According to a Microsoft security report, 97% of all email circulating is spam.

So, only around 3% of all email is legitimate. 3% of email is wanted. Relevant. Requested.

One wonders how much SEO is legitimate? I guess it depends what we mean by legitimate, but if we accept the definition I’ve used - “something relevant wanted by the user” - then, at a guess, I’d say most SEO these days is legitimate, simply because being off-topic is not rewarded. Most SEOs provide on-topic content, and encourage businesses to publish it - free - on the web. If anything, SEOs could be accused of being too on-topic.

The proof can be found in the SERPs. A site is requested by the user. If a site is listed matches their query, then the user probably deems it to be relevant. They might find that degree of relevance, personally, to be somewhat lacking, in which case they’ll click-back, but we don’t have a situation where search results are rendered irrelevant by the presence of SEO.

Generally speaking, search appears to work well in terms of delivering relevance. SEO could be considered cleaner than email marketing in that SEOs are obsessed with being relevant to a user. The majority of email marketers, on the other hand, couldn't seem to care less about what is relevant, just so long as they get something, anything, in front of you. In search, if a site matches the search query, and the visitor likes it enough to register positive quality metrics, then what does it matter how it got there?

It probably depends on whos’ business case we’re talking about.

Advertorials

Matt Cutts has released a new video on Advertorials and Native Advertising.

Matt makes a good case. He reminds us of the idea on which Google was founded, namely citation. If people think a document is important, or interesting, they link to it.

This idea came from academia. The more an academic document is cited, and cited by those with authority, the more relevant that document is likely to be. Nothing wrong with that idea, however some of the time, it doesn’t work. In academic circles, citation is prone to corruption. One example is self-citation.

But really, excessive self-citation is for amateurs: the real thing is forming a “citation cartel” as Phil David from The Scholarly Kitchen puts it. In April this year, after receiving a “tip from a concerned scientist” Davis did some detective work using the JCR data and found that several journals published reviews citing an unusually high number of articles fitting the JIF window from other journals. In one case, theMedical Science Monitor published a 2010 review citing 490 articles, 445 of them were published in 2008-09 in the journal Cell Transplantation (44 of the other 45 were for articles from Medical Science Journal published in 2008-09 as well). Three of the authors were Cell Transplantation editors

So, even in academia, self-serving linking gets pumped and manipulated. When this idea is applied to the unregulated web where there is vast sums of money at stake, you can see how citation very quickly changes into something else.

There is no way linking is going to stay “pure” in such an environment.

The debate around “paid links” and “paid placement” has been done over and over again, but in summary, the definition of “paid” is inherently problematic. For example, some sites invite guest posting, pay the writers nothing in monetary terms, but the payment is a link back to the writers site. The article is a form of paid placement, it’s just that no money changes hands. Is the article truly editorial?

It’s a bit grey.

A lot of the time, such articles pump the writers business interests. Is that paid content, and does it need to be disclosed? Does it need to be disclosed to both readers and search engines? I think Matt's video suggests it isn't a problem, as utility is provided, but a link from said article may need to be no-followed in order to stay within Google's guidelines.

Matt wants to see clear and conspicuous disclosure of advertorial content. Paid links, likewise. The disclosure should be made both to search engines and readers.

Which is interesting.

Why would a disclosure need to be made to a search engine spider? Granted, it makes Google’s job easier, but I’m not sure why publishers would want to make Google’s job easier, especially if there’s nothing in it for the publishers.

But here comes the stick, and not just from the web spam team.

Google News have stated they may remove a publication if a publication is taking money for paid content and not adequately disclosing that fact - in Google’s view - to both readers and search engines, then that publication may be kicked from Google News. In so doing, Google increase the risk to the publisher, and therefore the cost, in accepting paid links or paid placement.

So, that’s why a publisher will want to make Google’s job easier. If they don’t, they run the risk of invisibility.

Now, on one level, this sounds fair and reasonable. The most “merit worthy” content should be at the top. A ranking should not depend on how deep your pockets are i.e. the more links you can buy, the more merit you have.

However, one of the problems is that the search results already work this way. Big brands often do well in the SERPs due to reputation gained, in no small part, from massive advertising spend that has the side effect, or sometimes direct effect, of inbound links. Do these large brands therefore have “more merit” by virtue of their deeper pockets?

Google might also want to consider why a news organization would blur advertorial lines when they never used to. Could it be because their advertising is no longer paying them enough to survive?

SEO Rebalances The Game

SEO has helped level the playing field for small businesses, in particular. The little guy didn’t have deep pockets, but he could play the game smarter by figuring out what the search engines wanted, algorithmicly speaking, and giving it to them.

I can understand Google’s point of view. If I were Google, I’d probably think the same way. I’d love a situation where editorial was editorial, and business was PPC. SEO, to me, would mean making a site crawlable and understandable to both visitors and bots, but that’s the end of it. Anything outside that would be search engine spam. It’s neat. It’s got nice rounded edges. It would fit my business plan.

But real life is messier.

If a publisher doesn’t have the promotion budget of a major brand, and they don’t have enough money to outbid big brands on PPC, then they risk being invisible on search engines. Google search is pervasive, and if you’re not visible in Google search, then it’s a lot harder to make a living on the web. The risk of being banned for not following the guidelines is the same as the risk of playing the game within the guidelines, but not ranking. That risk is invisibility.

Is the fact a small business plays a game that is already stacked against them, by using SEO, “bad”? If they have to pay harder than the big brands just to compete, and perhaps become a big brand themselves one day, then who can really blame them? Can a result that is relevant, as far as the user is concerned, still really be labelled “spam”? Is that more to do with the search engines business case than actual end user dissatisfaction?

Publishers and SEOs should think carefully before buying into the construct that SEO, beyond Google’s narrow definition, is spam. Also consider that the more people who can be convinced to switch to PPC and/or stick to just making sites more crawlable, then the more spoils for those who couldn’t care less how SEO is labelled.

It would be great if quality content succeeded in the SERPs on merit, alone. This would encourage people to create quality content. But when other aspects are rewarded, then those aspects will be played.

Perhaps if the search engines could be explicit about what they want, and reward it when they’re delivered it, then everyone’s happy.

I guess the algorithms just aren’t that clever yet.

Published: June 12, 2013

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Comments

June 12, 2013 - 8:27am

SMEs really have NO chance in Google if they're in any niche that has big brands competing. My clients (I'm a web developer) that do well are in really narrow niches - repairs of obscure products, making and selling bespoke products etc - because they're not niches suitable for big brands. Many others in niches where brands exist are seeing Google as dead loss. And yet, the vast majority of the private sectors in any western country are made up of SMEs.....Google isn't reciprocating value back to the market that gave Google value (as you detail in your GoogleMart article) - but if Google don't reciprocate, they ultimately erode their own value as SMEs start looking for - and promoting - other traffic sources outside of Google. And of course, the less diversity in the SERPs, the more frustrated searchers will get, and the more likely they are to simply bookmark the familiar brands that keep popping up in the SERPs and avoiding the increasingly-unnecessary disintermediator that is known as Google.

June 12, 2013 - 10:23am

...and that is local. As Google keeps dialing up on localization I am seeing more local businesses ranking on keywords that do not have a local modifier in them. That is great if you are a business that is primarily local & is tied to a location, but if you are a small business not tied to a physical location I agree with you 100% that with each passing day you need to be in a more obscure market.

About the only alternatives beyond that would be having a business that has sufficient margins to be able to compete on AdWords across a broad range of keywords, do a great job of public relations outreach (like chocomize), go deep into the tail to catch people in different parts of the cycle where brands do not yet participate, or build word of mouth & virality into the core of the product (like bacon salt or similar).

June 12, 2013 - 12:01pm

I have worked for/with newspapers and magazines and learned along the way that the line between advertising and editorial content not crystal clear either. Advertisers oftentimes get more / easier editorial attention in the publication they advertise in.

June 14, 2013 - 12:46pm

I look forward to your rebrand to "Book.com".

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