Spying on Customers & SEO Data Aggregation

We Do Not Spy on Our Customers

I have had a very well known SEO company dust one of best link building strategies (outing it directly to a Google engineer) because I was trusting enough to mention how effective it was inside our training program, thinking that a competitor would not out it, but I was wrong! At least I know what to expect, and can use that knowledge to mitigate future risks.

One of the common concerns about the SEO Toolbar is something along the lines of "does it phone home" or "are you spying on us" or "what data is it sending you". Some SEO companies offer a huge EULA and do spy on the people who use their toolbars, but we do not do that for a number of reasons

  • I felt rather angry when that well known SEO company outed my site (and haven't really trusted them since then)
  • I never really liked the idea of spying on customers, and going down that path could harm our perceived brand value
  • knowing that information is kept private adds value and builds trust
  • we are already under-staffed (running quite lean) and have more projects to work on than time, so we are not in need of new projects
  • With all the great competitive research tools available now (like Microsoft Ad Intelligence, Google Search-based Keyword Tool, Compete.com, SEM Rush, and many others) it is easy to get a lot of keyword data quickly, and I see little value add in spying on our users.

Why Give Away so Much Value?

It is pretty obvious that the trend in software (since the day I got on the web) is that open source software is commoditizing the value of most software products and tools. Providing tools that require limited maintenance costs and provide access to a best of breed collection of SEO tools makes it easy for us to evolve with the space and help our customers do so, without building up a huge cost sink that requires raising capital and having to listen to some icky investors. :)

The reason we can (and do) provide so many free SEO tools is because I feel doing so...

  • makes the web a better place (Tim O'Reilly says you should create more value than you capture)
  • offers value to the community
  • extends opportunity to more people around the globe (anyone who is just fresh starting out like I was ~6 years ago could use the help)
  • commoditizes the value of some bloated all-in-one SEO software (many of those products generally lack value and misguide people)
  • makes it hard for con-artists to sell hyped up junk (by commoditizing the value of their offerings to all but the most desperate of get rich quick folks)
  • helps to educate potential future customers (when we did a survey recently about 80% of our customers have been practicing SEO for over a year)
  • is an affordable distribution strategy for brand awareness
  • builds trust by delivering value for free (rather than trying to squeeze every penny out of potential customers)
  • is a big differentiator between us and most SEO websites

In addition to all the above points, most of the tools we create are tools I want to use. So the cost of building them would still be there even if we did not share them. Sharing them gets us lots of great user feedback to improve them, and does not cost us much relative to the potential upside.

Small Industry, Lightweight Strategy

Rather than centralizing things, we like to rely on a distributed software strategy which has a much lower cost structure.

That strategy allows this site (with a popular blog, an array of tools, some videos, training modules, and an active community) to run on 1 server. We find the Plenty of Fish story inspiring, though doubt we will need his distributed computing skills anytime soon given how small our industry is. After 5 years we are still millions of visitors and over a billion monthly pageviews behind Plenty of Fish :)

Though we are doing ok in our little corner of the web :)

We have analytics on our website to help us see where we are getting coverage, and to measure and improve conversions (an area ripe for opportunity given our brand exposure and site traffic). We may add relevant affiliate links and offers to some of our SEO tools to help pay for the 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars we spent developing our various tools (for example, see how we integrated a link to our Wordtracker keyword guide and the Wordtracker keyword research service in our keyword tool). But we have no need or desire to spy on users who download our tools. Spying and outing are poor strategies for professional SEOs to employ....they erode trust and value.

Published: January 22, 2009 by Aaron Wall in seo tools


January 23, 2009 - 12:33am

Personally, I think you and your staff are all successfully smart people who do not need to spy on your users. Keep up with the great info and new tools!

Always looking forward to the useful info you put out there. :)

January 23, 2009 - 1:05am

Everyone that uses GA is guilty of this in one form or another.

As far as being "outed" by a competitor, you have little to worry about. Your reputation as a pro will hardly be tarnished by the latest BS.

Keep up the great work, I still rely on your original SEO Book and will subscribe to your premium services as soon as is feasible.
Thanks Aaron!

January 23, 2009 - 1:25am

I seriously doubt the value of the SEObook Toolbar gathering data on my midget mud-wrestling websites...

But seriously, I wonder if Linkscape saves all queries...

January 23, 2009 - 4:26pm

I started reading you Aaron because you were fiesty, and weren't afraid to challenge the "big" guys. A couple years later, I still find the same spark in your work, but now you seem much more assured, and your information has improved with each successive post...more analytical perhaps. You have taught me a lot, and your willingness to share is unmatched. Too bad silly people think outing you is going to help them...but keep doing what you're doing. You and your staff have earned your place, and many of us appreciate you.

January 24, 2009 - 1:56am

I truly believe that your toolbar was the ultimate blow on Linkscape & SEOMoz. Checkmate my friend checkmate. Keep up the goodwork and remind me not to ever make you angry :-). I may say this for all SEOs. I think you are currently the most likeable character in the SEO world.

January 24, 2009 - 5:19am

I think you are getting (and deserve) quite the payback by giving out and doing all this for the community. Just imagine how many downloads the toolbar already has. That certainly was (mostly, as I can guess) from referrals, friends and the audience. I mean it wasn't that 3,000 saw your toolbar listed in organic results and came for it. We didn't need to.

The crux: You've done enough to make your site safe from Google. And it seems Google needs you more than you need Google now. Think of someone searching for 'SEO firefox extensions' and he doesn't find your add-on. It would rather make Google look stupid.

January 25, 2009 - 10:17pm

First Off shame on the company that takes their communities data and uses it against them, second off shame on you Aaron for not shouting out their names so others can also do the same, I think you owe it to the community, or more specific your followers to tell us who your talking about.

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