SEO

Eliminating the Profit Motive in Unethical SEO

Over the past couple months a lot of buzz has been generated regarding unethical business practices in the search marketing industry.  We all know the deal – if it’s not spammers claiming the age old claim of guaranteed first page rankings, it’s “independent authorities” selling rankings for profit, lead generation businesses selling badges that let buyers claim they’ve been “rated” as being the best in our industry.  Of course these are just a couple examples of an entire dark side to the business and there are countless more.

Back in January I wrote about my desire (shared by many) to see the clean-up of the SEO cesspool.  Given how we’re an industry made up mostly of a bunch of renegades and everyone has an opinion, (okay, maybe not everybody – but clearly I do, yeah?) reality has a massive wall between current industry ugliness and one where mainstream society actually sees us as a respectable and accepted business model.  But maybe it’s something else altogether.  Maybe, as I’ll attempt to explore here, it’s a more fundamental problem altogether.  One that would require a complete sea change – a total upheaval that radically transforms what it means to even be in the business.

Aaron Wall wrote this past week a great article entitled “How to fix the broken Link Graph“.  In it, Aaron discusses the concept of how Google has so completely shaped the web in recent years.  Both in terms of the devolution of quality content and in the radical change in why and how links are used to point people to other sites.

I definitely think that he’s right on target with the concept in general.  Sure – Google started out providing relevant search results with legitimate business sites coming up in the SERPs.  Yet in fact, they’ve built their entire business empire on their ability to manipulate content production (for the purpose of promoting sites (regardless of quality) that in turn, display adsense ads, which are then in turn, clicked on, profiting site owners and Google.  Aaron’s point that the web is now polluted with more garbage than ever, and that said garbage is as a direct result of people focused on clicks for their adsense, is both highly accurate and at the same time, missing the point altogether.

I’m not saying Aaron misses the point of his article – in fact, he hits the target dead-on center, as far as the message he’s sending.  What I’m referring to here however, is how that very portion of the web overflowing with trash content adsense sites actually fits into the greater issue that I am referring to here – ethics, or the lack thereof, in our industry.

The search marketing industry is not unique in this issue.  Obviously, any industry that allows for profit opportunities is subject to infiltration by people who are blinded to ethics.  And the greater the financial reward opportunity, the more such people will infiltrate, entrench and proliferate.

What’s different about our industry as compared to others, however, is that the original purpose of our industry was to help legitimate business owners become found online.  While some people in our industry have found the ability to profit through black hat techniques applied to legitimate business sites, an entire sub-culture has evolved here that’s truly unique to the web.  People who create sites, networks of sites, and just as much, throw-away domains purely for the purpose of driving adsense revenue. Heck – many people considered leaders in our industry have done at least some of that themselves.

I’ll even readily admit that early on, I too experimented with some of the very techniques I deem deplorable, if for no other purpose than to find out how competitors were dominating the SERPs and to help me understand ethical ways to overcome them.  Fortunately, I focused on overcoming such garbage and have been fairly successful at it.  Yet ultimately, there’s some serious gray area work that goes on if for no other reason than the search engines condone them.

Add on to that, all of the unethical businesses that exist selling vaporware, pie in the sky get rich quick dreams, acai berry cure-alls, and a plethora of other deceptive, immoral or otherwise unethical sales schemes, and it just becomes this insanely massive mess of megalomaniac driven revenue streams.

Sure, Google has, for their own financial gain, given birth to much of the scum that oozes out from web browsers worldwide.  And of course, Yahoo, Microsoft, and just about every other search engine have, to one degree or another, helped fuel that growth as well.  But just as much as the search engines have been parents to those who laugh at the very notion of ethics, the truth is that a new search engine isn’t likely to prevent that which already exists in such abundance from continuing, let alone killing it off sufficiently enough to actually restore the web to a quality medium.

No – honestly, I think, it’s too late to save the web from the scum.  Or is it?

Aaron, in his article, proposes that the way to save the web is for Google to put more emphasis on outbound links, as compared to inbound links or garbage robot generated content.  Or even that either Google will change their business model or another new engine will come along and do it themselves.

This concept, however, presupposes that spammers, black hats, scammers, and scum-sellers won’t eventually find a way to manipulate that next model.  Which is, in my opinion, a fatal flaw in Aaron’s view.

Every single new method that Google uses to determine ranking has, ultimately been compromised and manipulated.  It’s a never ending cycle that won’t end just by shifting to outbound links.  Because outbound links and ranking itself, is, at the end of the day, left to bots and algorithms.

As long as the service providers who provide the results people seek are based on profit, and where the core web itself is cataloged and given mathematical weights for determining relevance, and as long as those processes can’t in fact, ultimately judge what is ethical vs. what is unethical content, no matter what the method, there will be unethical people working round the clock to find ways to game the system.

What I think just may be the only answer is to completely eliminate the financial gain aspects of both search engine usage and just as much, sites being found high up in search results.

If someone can not buy their way to the top of a search engine, if someone can not place search engine driven ads on their site, then the financial motive that drives the scum to the surface will be gone.  Because it is obviously the financial gain that drives it all.

Financial gain drives the lead generation “rating” services.

Financial gain drives the robot-generated article generation model.

Financial gain drives the inbound link business.

Financial gain drives the pie in the sky get rich quick offerings.

Financial gain drives in-text links that are nothing more than worthless ads

Financial gain drives it all.

Oh sure – many of you are already probably laughing cynically about this concept.  Yet some of you, at least, I’m sure, are thinking – Oh. My. God.  He’s right.

Back when I first got into this business, 15+ years ago, that very first day, I saw how the web was a place that would excel at helping spread the free flow of information.

Note the operative word “free” in that statement.

And while unethical people will always do what they can to take advantage of a free flow of information for their own profit, the truth I see is that in a truly free and open web, there would be much less financial gain to be had by unethical people.  Simply because THEY would be drowned out by quality content.  Quality information.  Truly worthy non-profit content sites.  Legitimate business offerings.

No – don’t ask me how this could come about.  I am not an Information Retrieval genius.  I have no clue how the web could prosper in terms of ensuring the most relevant information comes to the surface.

Except when it comes to quality content.  High quality content.  Protected by non profit organizations that have high quality review processes in place.  With checks and balances.  With a clearly defined and highly enforced dispute resolution system.

Kind of like what DMOZ COULD have been, but never was.

Sure, it’s nearly insane to think this could ever be achieved.  The obstacles are most likely exponentially more challenging than even trying to get a non-profit SEO industry trade group launched and succeeding.

I don’t think it’s a Yelp, or an Angies List, or crowdsourcing for that matter.  Yelp and Angies list are both based on fees for listings.  Vulnerable at scale, to the unethical.  Crowdsourcing – relying on recommendations by people you’re connected to in social networking is unrealistic at scale as well.  Not only because it’s too easily gamed, but more fundamentally, because I couldn’t possibly build a network big enough so as to ensure what I’m looking for has been previously vetted by the people I trust.

I could never truly build a big enough network of trust-sources for that to work at scale.

No – this has to be some sort of hybrid model, though I honestly have no clue as to what it would look like, as I’ve said already.

Yet it’s what I think is needed, nonetheless.

12bcd73262dd3dcb8597e6d4f9884119 64 Eliminating the Profit Motive in Unethical SEO
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors a month. A noted industry speaker, author and blogger, his posts are quite often as much controversial as they are thought provoking.
12bcd73262dd3dcb8597e6d4f9884119 64 Eliminating the Profit Motive in Unethical SEO

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18 thoughts on “Eliminating the Profit Motive in Unethical SEO

  1. It sounds like your saying that Google has painted themselves into a corner with all of this.

    Which is why they are doing everything that they can to be the center of all data streams on the internet.

    From dns, to broadband and analytics and everything else in-between, without all of this information they have no way of seeing what websites are truly authentic and which are not.

    In my mind all of the things that Google has been doing as of late point to 1 inevitable conclusion; the massive devaluing of links.

    1. Yes – once they own all the data across the stream, (or a lot more of it) then they will probably further devalue the link itself in favor of other factors – social signals, Google TV viewing habits, the surfing habits of users who unsuspectingly make use of Google broadband…

      Google is most definitely going to have to do this because it's in their DNA to shift in that direction. Yet that data is ultimately just as wildly inaccurate as any data ever to come out of compete.com, alexa.com and all the other extrapolation based analytics providers as well…

  2. I totally agree with you that Google has done harm to themselves. I do think they cannot see legitimate websites, which is why true SEO professionals don't promise instant results. When the results are instantaneous, it is obvious that they are using techniques that would get them called “scum” by your article. I totally agree with everything you say. I just wish that in our profession, more and more people would be honest and use real tactics to get their customers the results they deserve.

  3. It's no secret that Google SERP's for competitive terms are either non relevant or reputation based (i.e. biased by profit makers or biased by G with Wikipedia and known brand results).
    In my opinion, even relying on Facebook's likes would be a better, less flawed system then the current (and now ancient, maybe obsolete) Google'e in link system, which let's be honest, is probably 95% of a any given site SERP position.

    1. RspSEO – interesting – at least with Facebook's like system, it's supposedly tied to a human being's profile. Which means the people “liking” something are real individuals. And from that regard, it's a LOT more difficult to game the system than can be done with bot-generated auto-links across ten-thousand page sites. Still vastly flawed in the ability for people to game the system (like paying people 20 cents an hour to set up phony FB profiles all for the purpose of having legions of them “like” something).

      Yet it is a concept toward improvement from what Google does.

  4. This is gonna hit me, but I gotta disagree.

    DMOZ failed because of a fundamental issue – the lack of profit motive. What makes one result more relevant than another? How do you define quality?

    You and I would probably define quality far differently.

    Mahalo is trying that model. Google has been trying that with their wiki solutions.

    If you notice, Google goes after every angle a startup goes after, and just models it after a few months to a year (or buys them out).

    Think Google Squares vs. Wolfram Alpha.

    There's no objective way to figure out what is more relevant than an algorithm that sees which objective opinion is more relevant (which is pretty much the concept of link-based value).

    The algorithm works fairly well.

    Granted, there are usability issues from the adsense type sites.

    But overall, search works.

    You use it to find & learn about stuff, I use it to find and learn about stuff.

    If you want something editorially managed, Yahoo, & to a lesser extent Bing (the decision making engine) are the way to go… but they are not gaining the traction they could.

    No, it's not about dropping the algorithm. It's doing damn fine. It's about tweaking it. Visualization, Social Graph nput, Personalization, Editorial ratings scraped from review sites.

    Google is working on some of it, startups are working on other pieces. The pace of innovation is exciting, and valuable.

    It's about finding yet another way to help us users find what we want, and find what we want is objective.

    1. David,

      Where do I begin?

      Google Squares vs. Wolfram Alpha? Uh, have you read my “Google on Crack” article?

      As far as “It's doing damn fine”, well, I think we are in serious disagreement here. I can't tell you how many hours of my life have been wasted scanning through, and quite often having to click through to garbage before I find what I want over the years. And every year, it gets worse, not better.

      It gets worse because Google keeps “enhancing” the results. It gets worse because more people follow Shoemoney and StomperNet than ever and they go out and become minions of the cesspool kings.

      It gets worse because the crack addicts at Google think it's perfectly acceptable to expend more money on things not specific to search, which distracts them from focusing proper energy on improving search, all because they want to own every aspect of the data flow.

      There are millions of pages out there that are very high quality, that get left to waste because it does not work damn fine. And that only gets worse as well.

  5. So true. Although I love Google they are certainly designed to profit for themselves through AdSense and even AdWords to a degree.

    On the other side of the coin, no matter what they do there will be those that try and exploit it. Nothing on the web is perfect. Still, if your business does produce great content and is seen as valuable by other related industries you can take advantage of its algorithms in a legitimate way.

    1. “take advantage of its algorithms in a legitimate way”. While I agree with that notion, the fact is it's an irony and not without pitfalls. If there are only 10 organic entries on the 1st page of Google, and 11 legitimate pages that all deserve to show up, we have a problem already. Someone is going to get burned.

  6. I've read a whole lot of rubbish posts on similar subjects to this recently and this and “how to fix the broken link graph” are the only one's I've read that seem to be by people who see a bigger picture of how the 'net works. So many bloggers and social media douches who think 'everyone is on Twitter' and are caught up in their own little worlds.

  7. Miles,

    some days I don't know if being a “bigger picture” person helps me or harms me – either way, I'm stuck with that reality and happen to be grateful that others are as well. Hopefully there's enough such people that the issues we face will improve over time.

  8. “take advantage of its algorithms in a legitimate way”. While I agree with that notion, the fact is it's an irony and not without pitfalls. If there are only 10 organic entries on the 1st page of Google, and 11 legitimate pages that all deserve to show up, we have a problem already. Someone is going to get burned.

  9. David,

    Where do I begin?

    Google Squares vs. Wolfram Alpha? Uh, have you read my “Google on Crack” article?

    As far as “It's doing damn fine”, well, I think we are in serious disagreement here. I can't tell you how many hours of my life have been wasted scanning through, and quite often having to click through to garbage before I find what I want over the years. And every year, it gets worse, not better.

    It gets worse because Google keeps “enhancing” the results. It gets worse because more people follow Shoemoney and StomperNet than ever and they go out and become minions of the cesspool kings.

    It gets worse because the crack addicts at Google think it's perfectly acceptable to expend more money on things not specific to search, which distracts them from focusing proper energy on improving search, all because they want to own every aspect of the data flow.

    There are millions of pages out there that are very high quality, that get left to waste because it does not work damn fine. And that only gets worse as well.

  10. RspSEO – interesting – at least with Facebook's like system, it's supposedly tied to a human being's profile. Which means the people “liking” something are real individuals. And from that regard, it's a LOT more difficult to game the system than can be done with bot-generated auto-links across ten-thousand page sites. Still vastly flawed in the ability for people to game the system (like paying people 20 cents an hour to set up phony FB profiles all for the purpose of having legions of them “like” something).

    Yet it is a concept toward improvement from what Google does.

  11. Yes – once they own all the data across the stream, (or a lot more of it) then they will probably further devalue the link itself in favor of other factors – social signals, Google TV viewing habits, the surfing habits of users who unsuspectingly make use of Google broadband…

    Google is most definitely going to have to do this because it's in their DNA to shift in that direction. Yet that data is ultimately just as wildly inaccurate as any data ever to come out of compete.com, alexa.com and all the other extrapolation based analytics providers as well…

  12. I've read a whole lot of rubbish posts on similar subjects to this recently and this and “how to fix the broken link graph” are the only one's I've read that seem to be by people who see a bigger picture of how the 'net works. So many bloggers and social media douches who think 'everyone is on Twitter' and are caught up in their own little worlds.

    1. Miles,

      some days I don't know if being a “bigger picture” person helps me or harms me – either way, I'm stuck with that reality and happen to be grateful that others are as well. Hopefully there's enough such people that the issues we face will improve over time.