Would you report a competitor to Google?

SMS Text

I was recently involved with an interesting situation with (yet another) large brand falling out of the good graces with Google. For those playing along at home, this time it was Overstock.com (via the WSJ) walking the path that J.C Penney and Forbes had before it in previous weeks. Fun stuff all around.

Borne from some conversations with my peeps at the SEO Dojo, I got to thinking about these recent ‘outings’ and how SEOs that I know feel about them. We shall have a look at the two main camps I’ve seen and then you can tell ME what you think…

Sound like fun or what? Sure…..


Fight Club

The first school we are going to look at is; Fight Club. And the first rule of fight club? (all together now) Don’t talk about fight club. These folks believe that SEOs are a fraternity and while we may disagree at times, we should never ‘rat’ each other out to ‘the man’.

For starters, the term ‘ratting’ is troubling because it shows the venom. It is more appropriately named ‘reporting’ and I guess ‘rat’ makes those doing it hopefully feel scuzzy or something. The folks in this segment carry super-secret SEO decoder rings and believe we should keep it amongst us.

This is interesting as a few old school folks told me that they’d even hammer each other privately when one was spamming the SERPs. Like a sports team, it was dealt with ‘behind closed doors.

The Little Guy

On the other side of the conversation we have the little guy. From here is the stance that a smaller retailer can’t compete against the big brand. They don’t have the budgets nor the leverage. Furthermore it seems that Google often gives a brand more leniency with the rules than the small enterprise. This is due to search quality issues and a conversation for another day.

The little guy believes that if he can find an advantage against the behemoth, that they will damn use make the most from it. If that large brand giant, with resources and budgets to burn, still feels the need to ‘cheat’, then they should reap the whirlwind that may come with risk adverse strategies.

Let the Battle Begin

There are nuances to these lines in the sand, but that’s often shades of these same colours. What can be missed at times within these conversations is the root of the problem. What is or isn’t gaming the search engines. Very few SEOs I know believe the hard line of the Google guidelines are how the game is played. Fair enough.

There are a lot of common tactics that are employed by SEOs that given hard scrutiny, wouldn’t stand up. I have spent the last few days staring at Google guidelines and certainly there is a lot of wiggle room for interpretation and what was acceptable last year, may not be today. This can be frustrating to SEOs. If Google opened up a channel for us to honestly ask if a tactic was viable, would we use it? LOL… oh… hold on.. gotta wipe the tears away.

The adversarial relationship between SEOs and search engines, fuzzy guideline interpretation and enforcement, have all played into creating the canyon between us.

What About Me?

I know… you care right? I thought that it was best, before I turn it over to you, that I make my own case. And hey, sorry to dissapoint, but I can see it from all sides. There is a big difference between doing SMB SEO and Corp/Big Brand SEO. I have done both over the years.

The little guy? I can see it. Come on, I am the fellow writing; the Art of War – SEO Style. When out numbered, one must think laterally and take advantage where it is available. Do I believe in reporting competitors as a strategic element? No, I don’t. Do I believe that they have every right to use that advantage? I sure do.

Fight Club? While these folks are a little aggressive for my tastes, I can see things from that camp as well. Just do your job, beat them honestly. Keep the dirty laundry in house. The only question I do have on this end is; are these folks doing questionable link building? Is that why the aggressiveness?

There is an argument from both sides that the other is hurting the image of the SEO industry. That part, we can debate. I’d like now to turn it over to the commentary here, on social channels, wherever this story leads, let’s have this out for once.

To get things rolling, I asked a few folks in the SEO Dojo Chat room, here’s some responses;

“Yes there are some gross exploitations of the algorithm however I am of the persuasion that not all paid links are bad links (just because I don’t pay google for them) further to that the bucket loads of SHIT content thrown out by SEO’s to Optimise sites is far more harmful to the perception of seos as a while is much more amateur and less useful to users as a whole makes googles job in general more difficult as a whole compare that type of ‘whitehat’ SEO activity against a targeted text link from a relevant newspaper page for example where it has been acquired on a demographic targeting perspective and tell me which ones better for users, for perception and for SEO” – Pete Young; Holistic Search

“I’m a realist. We all have to expect our competitors to do what it takes to win, whether it’s a big brand or small business. Small businesses entering certain markets need to expect to compete with brands that have been around for a long time, who have enormous marketing budgets. Big brands using these budgets to fund risky techniques should expect thier smaller competitors to look for these tactics to report, and eliminate them as competition.

I personally choose to find creative ways to compete rather than report a competitor. At the same time, some of the larger brands are treated like a star quarternack in a small town. We all know they are "juicing", but they are too important to suspend from play. This not only sets a bad example, but stacks the deck against the second string players who have been working hard to get in the game.” – Jeff Sebring

"Personally, while I don’t like the idea of one firm or individual ratting out another, and have no intention of participating in it, I also don’t feel sorry for anyone that gets caught with their paws in the cookie jar. They either knew the risks, or they should have!

So I’m inclined to say, play your game any way you choose, but don’t come whining to me if you get caught bending the “rules”. Report anyone you want, too. I won’t be doing it, because I’m just not put together that way. And if I find out you’re doing it, I may have to reevaluate my opinion of you. But in the long run, I think our industry needs to have some level of transparency, if we don’t all want to continue battling against ever-increasing distrust.” – Doc Sheldon

Now it’s YOUR turn. Where do you stand on this? And why…

David Harry
David Harry is an SEO and IR geek that runs Reliable SEO, blogs on the Fire Horse Trail and is the head geek at the SEO Training Dojo.
Get the latest news from Search Engine Journal!
We value your privacy! See our policy here.
  • http://twitter.com/Bofu2U Bofu2U


    • http://www.huomah.com theGypsy

      …especially the ones I work for!!! hehe…

  • http://www.thepraveen.com Praveen

    When push comes to shove, i would. Its a cut throat world you see ūüėČ

  • http://twitter.com/VillageAdsSeo Tim Biden

    I have to look at the outing other SEOs as a double edged sword. While it may help you or your clients to achieve a higher ranking, it’s also doing a disservice to the reputation of SEOs everywhere. Many people already think of us as slimy cheaters so why we need to add to that reputation? For a better ranking? To look better to our employers or clients?

    None of the recent large outings have affected my clients or their competitors so at this point I haven’t gotten into the fray. And I tend to look at things from the fight club perspective so I don’t talk about it, at least I won’t talk about it outside the club. What another SEO chooses to do, or talk about, is up to him. But I won’t be outing a competitor anytime soon.

    • http://www.huomah.com theGypsy

      This is why I said there is a case that BOTH approaches hurt the reputation. Being a secretive club that are afraid of the world looking at our tactics probably hurts as much being called out. For the record, I am not someone that outs people for such tactics. I do agree with Donna (below) that cases such as hacking for links, I have no problems smashing. But this is where I draw the line.

  • http://www.dazzlindonna.com/blog/ dazzlindonna

    I teased you in a recent email implying I would “out” you if I knew something worth outing, Dave, but anyone who knows me knows that I’m completely against outing. I see it more as a karma thing, I guess. Or a “don’t throw stones at glass houses” kind of thing. Hey, just because we use whitehat methods all around, doesn’t mean a competitor mad at us for outing them won’t find a way to out us back, even if we’ve done nothing really wrong. In any case, I just think it’s bad form, so put me in the fight club pack. (Exception to the rule: outing is fine is the company is defrauding or hacking, rather than merely bending seo guidelines. So if it involves illegal stuff, then it’s fair game. Don’t hurt my fellow peeps, or I’ll hurt ya back!). ūüôā

    • http://www.huomah.com theGypsy

      hee hee… yes dear, my brain cells are working just fine. As we discussed via email, I also draw the line where people are getting hurt (hacking, fraud). Ok, sure, I smack down the odd idiot via SEOBS, but even then, it’s the blantant stupidity. I am hesitant because of the ‘glass houses’ you mentioned, even though I consider my approach on the up-and-up, Google might change something tomorrow and all of my tactics are now against the TOS.

  • http://www.kansascityrealestate411.com Ken Jansen

    It might be a question of severity of the ‘offense’. Would you report your neighbor if they were abusing their kids or putting their dog on a BBQ? Yes, at least you should. What if they built a deck without a permit? meh, not very likely.

  • http://twitter.com/PaulChaloner ReDeYe

    Personally, I’d like to see google sort out the spam sites which constantly sit at number one for terms like “buy xxxxx” but are either SEO spam sites filled with the keyphrase found in the url 5billion times or simply amazon affiliate sites and therefore not really fitting with the “quality” objective of Google…

    Do you report someone else for questionable tactics? Depends what it is surely. Anything goes in SEO it seems and those with a moralistic attitude are usually shouted down if they say they’d report rather than try and compete, but is the answer really to just do what the other guy did because “if they did it, it must be ok”. That’s just burying your head in the sand and hoping for the best.

    I’d rather bring us closer to being respected by the search engines for doing the right thing than fighting each other.

    • http://www.huomah.com theGypsy

      I also believe that the SEO industry needs to evolve and gain more respect. But you also made another good point. Just as we’ve seen with the ‘content farm’ debate, it would be lovely if Google could just do a better job and we’d not be having these conversations. ūüėČ

  • http://twitter.com/webaddict Joel Mackey

    The truth is, this really doesn’t seem like it’s about big brands to me. It’s just the media realizing what SEO is and it’s SEO’s being slimier than usual by crafting ways to get these “reveal sessions” to the media.

    My dad can beat up your dad. My dad throws a football further. My son is cuter than yours. Really it’s all so incredibly subjective to me. I get sick of pompous whitehats and blackhats standing around thinking their opinion is what is right or wrong. The truth is no one really knows because it’s not laid out that way.

    In this day in age in SEO what is right is what has you at #1 and what is wrong is what has you at #100. If a tire company sponsors the Monster Truck races and they get a link back from every Monster Truck drivers website, that is deemed okay because it’s “corporate” and professional in the old school advertising sense. But now if that tire company gives discount tires to these Monster Truck drivers for putting a link on their website is BAAAAAD. If they go and create 100 articles written on tires and distribute them through automotive websites, it’s baaaaaad. If they go to each site individually and offer to pay them for a link it’s baaaad. Where does this subjectivity end? Where do the suits and the seo mechanics on the ground agree?

    If it supports big business it’s whitehat. Whitehat is typically yesterdays blackhat. The high ground moral touting SEO’s drive me crazy because often they’re doing stuff that is shady as well, it’s just approved shady tactics or it’s more screwed towards some type of approved agreement, sponsorship, relationship or old dusty domain.

    The only discount Google approves of for you to provide customers is if you’re paying for your links through their ad distribution system. If it doesn’t fill their coffers then you’re wrong, period.

  • http://twitter.com/webaddict Joel Mackey

    Was talking with a friend of mine and he stated, “You would think that they would want to keep a lower profile in order to monitor the SEO (black and white hat) tactics that are currently being used to improve their overall algorithm.” Seems right on the money, Google seems to be acting before thinking at this point.

    • http://www.huomah.com theGypsy

      Well, in the case of Overstock and JC Penney, it was the media that started it all. Google had to act publicly because that’s how it went down. I am sure they prefer to work on these issues in a less public manner.

  • Jessica

    Eventually everyone will be reporting everyone and reporting your competitors unjustifiably will be the new blackhat. It’s like penalising people for paid links… What’s to stop me paying for some dodgy links to my number one competitors’s site?

  • http://www.kevin-pike.com Kevin Pike

    I guess big brands are playing with higher stakes so success comes at every cost. For smaller/local sites, I still like the Fight Club approach.

  • http://twitter.com/DavidWallace David Wallace

    My one word response to the question, “Would you report a competitor to Google?”


    • Ken Jansenn

      Karma in which direction? Karma for not helping the greater good by helping consumers find better results or Karma for being the guy that ‘rats out’ his competition. I think the Mafia did some good re-branding on what it means to speak up to the authorities. Ratting out or stand up citizen. hmm…

      Big smiley face for the above.

  • http://docsheldon.com Doc Sheldon

    Surely Sun Tzu must have had something to say about the stability of an army experiencing infighting, David. Aside from the debilitating internal effects, it certainly doesn’t help our image any.

    Combating a perception of being a sleazeball industry can’t be helped much by acting like sleazeballs. For those that are hurting their clients or taking advantage of their ignorance, hell YES, I’d out ’em! But for practicing smart marketing techniques such as what OS was apparently outed for? Meh! Not me!

  • http://twitter.com/MarjyMeechan Marjory Meechan

    No – there’s no point. It generates bad feelings and Google ignores you anyway. (I found that out when I was younger and more naive and actually reported somebody – I would not do it now.)

  • netmeg


  • http://twitter.com/adammm Adam Melson

    It comes down to this: who pays your bills & keeps your shop in business? If a client came to you and said “My competitors are doing some pretty sleezy things that you, a more Google fearing SEO company, do not suggest replicating. If we report them, they have a chance of getting bumped and my rankings/traffic/conversions could go up. Why aren’t you reporting them?”

    I would burn a competitor using sleezy tactics in a heartbeat if it meant my client would benefit. Who’s going to try to save face in the community and play nice? Risks come with everything and being reported is one of those risks.

    The idea of karma from David Wallace & others above is solid from both sides. If you cheat, you might get reported. If you report, you might be reported. If you’re squeaky clean, great. If a tactic is a little off-color, you have the responsibility to let the client know about potential risks like penalties & getting reported before telling them to run with it.

  • http://www.crearecommunications.co.uk/ KJ

    I’m with the no vote but you have to draw a line at some point. Seriously bad behaviour in any industry deserves a slap. Karma doesn’t always play out the way it should.

  • Dan Olsavsky

    Yes, absolutely! In fact, this is a small part of our strategy. As for Google not responding, persistence is key. Nothing makes us more proud than seeing our clients “ethically” positioned at the top.

    For those that said no, please reconsider! The only way to fix the sleazeball perception on our industry is to blow the whistle. Don’t let a few rotten apples spoil the whole pie!

  • Greg

    “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

  • Winooski

    Count me among those who prefer not to narc on a competitor for karmic reasons, although, like others in this thread who’ve said the same, I wouldn’t hesitate if I thought the site in question was in the business of hurting people.

  • http://www.seo-writer.com David Leonhardt

    I am not opposed to outing a gross violator, one who does things on the JC Penny scale (whether they are big or small). That being said, I don’t spend my time looking for ways to trip up the competition. What a dreadful life that would be. I think I’ve reported once or twice in my life. I am of the firm opinion that my mix of fairly white-hat tactics is a winning mix, and therefore I don’t need to out the black-hat folks who set themselves up to eventually be smitten by the hand of God (oops, I mean Google) whether I report them or not. Over the long-haul, patience has been the best way to deal with the cheaters.

  • Anonymous

    You are giving nice example.. Thanks for this post..

  • Barrie

    Never done it myself – but if a competitor overtook me using underhand tactics and I couldn’t get back above them ethically, I think I would consider it!

  • Weebobbydazzler

    Outing seems “de rigeur” for you anyhow – you certainly seem to do plenty of it on a certain site!

  • Weebobbydazzler

    Outing seems “de rigeur” for you anyhow – you certainly seem to do plenty of it on a certain site!

  • http://www.watchmovietime.com watchmovietime.com


  • http://hubshout.com Adam

    I say “NO”. Since the guidelines are so poorly defined, and full of contradictions anyway, it’s very hard to know you are ‘in the right.’

    BTW – @Joel Mackey’s comment up there is AWESOME! So right on dude!

  • http://www.worldsbestinformation.org/ pettersmith

    Its very difficult to come in any conclusion for this.

  • http://www.nevermoresearch.com Mike Wilton

    I have never outright “outed” anyone. I did however, recently set Matt Cutts and his hounds on the path of a competitor recently. I never openly named the site, but lead Matt to some pretty solid evidence of some serious gaming of the system.

    Would I do it again? Probably not. The only reason I got involved in this one is because the site was ranking across the board for a number of terms and providing terrible content, user experience and the like and was blatantly abusing multiple networks and systems and cramming it full of crap in masses.

    I think for me its a quality thing, if it was a quality site, with quality content, but was gaining an even greater edge by using questionable techniques I would have probably ignored it.

  • Erik Miller

    Has anyone ever used spam narcing (reporting) function that Google offers and seen a site drop out of the SERPs?