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.