Urban blight is easy to recognize: seedy liquor stores and payday lenders on alternating corners, trash-strewn lots and front yards, graffitti-covered buildings, crumbling sidewalks, broken glass, and billboards everywhere you look. Websites afflicted with virtual blight are just as easy to spot: banners promising hot sexy singles and cheating spouses, pornography and Viagra, payday loans and OEM prices on Adobe’s Creative Suite 3, all bombarding us with offers that are ethically suspect and often illegal.
The devastation of urban blight is well documented. Residents flee, businesses move out, and property values plummet; the only people left are the ones who cannot afford to live anywhere else. The damage done by Virtual Blight goes well beyond the devaluation suffered by the site owner. The real damage is in the perception of the Internet as a trustworthy medium, a safe place to do business and promote your brand. Americans spends more time online than watching TV.
Internet users are more educated and affluent than TV viewers. Despite these statistics, total online marketing investment in the U.S. is less than 10% of the amount spent on television. One of the obstacles to more money flowing to online marketing is the public perception that the Internet is filled with fraud, deception, and unscrupulous people. The public is bombarded with sensational stories of scams and hackers, the allegation that the web is full of disinformation, scams, viruses, and criminals. These messages are reinforced by the evidence of blight we are presented with every day.
Consumer opinion about a brand or medium is generalized from a few specific data points. This point was illustrated in last week’s aptly titled Media Post article, Identity Thieves Also Steal Brand Equity, about brick and mortar retailers who have been hit with high profile thefts of customer information.
From the article: “These thefts zap trust,” says Ken Banks, of KAB Consulting, a marketing and brand consultant in Seminole, Fla. “If people feel they can’t trust a store with basic financial transactions, why should they trust it on anything?”
Do senior executives see the Internet as a safe place to associate with their brand? Is this perception preventing U.S. marketing dollars from flowing online? The public is skeptical of advertising claims made on television, but there is a common belief that claims made on TV pass regulatory scrutiny. Television is able to transfer belief to the viewer and provide advertisers with credibility.
To compete with the power of the subconscious influence of television, online marketers have to be diligent about where they place their brand. Current ad networks, both search and display, offer many opportunities for embarrassing or damaging brand placements. Faced with the possibility of seeing their ad on a blighted site or being tarnished by association with a casino or adult site sharing a page view, brick and mortar marketers limit their investments in online advertising.
What does this have to do with search?
Search marketers share the blame for a lot of the blight infestation. Google created the link economy nine years ago. Ever since, site owners have been trying to find ways (and short cuts) to find quick, cheap, and easy ways to dominate Google results. Link farms, comment spam, and blog spam were once the newest “tricks” to getting top rankings.
Fighting web spam is a major effort for all of the engines. Eventually, enough people discover a technique designed to improve organic ranking and suddenly, the hottest trend is labeled web spam. The savvy search marketer moves on, while others continue to spin their wheels with outdated advice, pursuing a strategy that is dead. The collateral damage from these skirmishes between marketers and engines is countless thousands of sites blighted by link hunters, spammers, and affiliate marketers; once vibrant destinations become ghost ships, depopulated sites with outdated content that link to sites that have been removed from the index.
Content targeting, which is not search marketing but usually falls under the responsibility of search marketers, also deserves a lot of blame for blight. AdSense, by providing instant monetization, did more to drive the proliferation of scraper sites and splogs than any other factor. Running your ads on thousands of sites and letting the algorithms match our message to the content of another site may sound like a great idea, but we owe it to ourselves to spend at least some time thinking through your distribution partners and making sure we are comfortable with the match.
Display advertising and affiliate programs go beyond the definition of search marketing, but many of us have responsibilities that extend into these arenas. Whatever your role, it is essential that we understand that the money that drives the creation of most forms of blight is coming from our marketing budget. If we fail to police our affiliates or monitor the distribution of our advertising networks, we are responsible for the impact of the campaigns just as surely as if we had programmed the comment spam bot ourselves.
Jonah Stein is founder of Its The ROI, an SEO/SEM company focusing on the art of SEO and the science of PPC and creator of Virtual Blight, a site dedicated to organizing netizens against online spam, scams & scoundrels.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.