Be ready, because there’s a new wave coming: competitive sabotage through SEO due diligence and outing.

Competitive analysis will always be fundamental to search engine optimization. SEO, by nature, is a competitive pursuit: a site climbs the ranks on the backs of other sites, and there’s only room for one URL at the top. Because of the large amount of money at stake, and the dramatic increase in CTR a top position grants, every SEO professional worth their salt will undergo deep competitive analysis if they hope to compete. It is a cornerstone of the work.

And yet, some companies are tempted to push it even further and engage in risky strategies and competitive sabotage in order to get an advantage.

Matt Cutts tweet on Chrome spam report plugin

It is not a leap to say that Google has both created and enabled the popularity of this practice. I am not making judgements, simply stating fact.

For years, Google has pushed for its users to issue spam reports, and recently they’ve made submitting spam reports even easier while proactively requesting them at times.

Some outspoken opponents have denigrated this practice as Google policing the Web. While that certainly has an element of truth, the whole picture is not quite so tidy.

Rather than police the Web, Google would seek to police its index. The problem, it seems, is that Google’s index has become more or less synonymous with the Web.

Old Guards & SEO Outing

The old guard of SEO – some of the early professionals when the industry was still comparatively small a few years back – has always practiced according to a certain code. Outing competitors for shady practices was wrong, they said, it undermined the profession. It introduced a corrosive element to SEO as a marketing channel. Outing other SEOs deteriorated the perceived quality of the service and helped create a market for lemons.

Part of search marketing’s evolution has been the natural rise of SEO from webmasters, programmers, and affiliates, to a more corporate and business-like core. Sure, there are still lots of the old guard still practicing out there as well.

As SEO has grown and its constituents have become diversified, the closely held moral codes have begun dissolving. With this has been the play of upstarts such as Digital Due Diligence who bring high-profile SEO outing to the mainstream press. My prediction is that this practice will become more prevalent in the coming years.

Money & Morality

With a distinct moral component this issue can be quite polarizing, and most of the folks I talk to fall in one of two camps. They either feel it is flat-out wrong and against their principles, or they feel it is a legitimate competitive technique.

For me, outing another company’s SEO practices falls outside of the ethical and efficiency standards that I feel comfortable working in. Accordingly, my policy is to never engage in the practice.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of good, bad, and downright ugly SEO. And yet I have never submitted a spam report on a competitor. I feel my time is best directed on giving our clients the best possible service and recommendations. While submitting a spam report takes relatively little time, it takes focus off the core of what we’re trying to do. It puts too much focus on competitors. Much like Facebook’s ugly attempted PR smear on Google, petty spam reports take your eye off the ball and are not time well spent, in my experience.

The Wild West of SEO

As for straight outing a competitor publicly, that is an abysmal practice that could over time contribute to a market for lemons effect in SEO. Additionally, it is disrespectful and insensitive to the realities professional SEOs face.

Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, unless an SEO technique is illegal, immoral, hurts the web, and/or harms users, it’s more or less valid.

While Google has to a large extent made their business interests a moral issue, SEO is not about morality. It’s about money. And SEOs are working hard out there to make companies (or themselves) money practicing tactics that work. It’s still early in the game (relatively speaking), and it’s still in some sense the Wild West.

Evolving SEO Accountability

However, I do feel a higher level of accountability is in order. As a whole, SEO has grown lazy. Its grown fat on links as a free pass to ranks. Its grown fat on domain authority as a free pass to ranks. There are exceptional SEO consultants and agencies doing great things, but they are rare. The bell curve largely features middle-of-the-road practitioners doing fairly rote work and cashing their checks, with little creativity. And worse, there are SEOs doing harmful things and putting companies at undue risk.

Outing, in some sense, helps this. It pushes the field to improve and catch up, or fall behind. But it must be done right. While I absolutely do not agree with the recent outing of the flower industry to the New York Times, the company behind that story writes a compelling piece defending why due diligence is good for SEO. Any attempt to create information symmetry in the space is welcome, but not at the expense of SEO as a whole.

The Future Of SEO Is Shining White

Get ready for the next wave, because it’s coming. Can you imagine a time when your link profile is a competitive advantage, not only because of its obvious SEO value, but because it contains no paid links a competitor can out? Can you see the value in having a squeaky clean SEO footprint that no competitor could prey on? Be ready, because in the future competitors will not only report you to Google, they’ll report you publicly.

Every algorithmic change and evolution of the Web reinforces the value of white hat SEO. Every time. It is the only sustainable, long-term, and quality approach to SEO, if you care about those things.

How I Feel About Competitive Analysis & SEO Outing

My company, AudetteMedia, engages in due diligence on behalf of its clients. However, we follow an ethical standard as follows:

  1. Respect the Work of Others. Above all else, we respect the work of other professional SEOs and know it was executed with the company’s best interest in mind. That point of view could change once research into a site has been undertaken. But it’s the point of departure.
  2. Never Disclose Competitors Publicly.We are not interested in giving mainstream media fuel to create buzz and pageviews. We are not interested in creating buzz for ourselves by outing other companies.
  3. Business is Business. Ultimately, SEO is about business. It’s not about morality. We don’t presume that our principles and ethics should apply to other search marketers.
  4. Competitive Insight is Confidential. Beyond outing to the press or in public, competitive insight and analyses are not for outside eyes. It is confidential information to be used for SEO purposes.
  5. Rare is the Perfect Site. Most sites have some sort of baggage to account for. Legacy paid links, media buys that appear to pass manipulative PageRank, thin or spammy content, there are many examples.

Conclusion

While I hope that this phase of SEO outing passes, I’m quite sure it won’t. We are embarking on yet another new chapter in SEO, and, combined with the Panda change, it will take many months to see how it ripples across the Web.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength

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About The Author: is the Chief Knowledge Officer at RKG, where he blogs regularly. You'll find him speaking at conferences around the world when he's not riding down mountains on something fast. Follow Adam on Twitter as @audette.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.morepro.com/ MorePro SEO Tips

    While I don’t agree with publicly outing competitors either, I think the biggest benefit, if the industry goes that direction, is the cleansing of a decade’s worth of manipulated links & PageRank. It wouldn’t happen overnight or solve every problem, but “resetting” some of the most egregious sites’ authority/rankings wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing IMHO.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    The quality of the outing will determine whether it’s an effective strategy. So far, I haven’t seen anything but low-quality outing. This technique has a long way to go before it matures into anything like a valid marketing practice.

  • http://www.beacontechnologies.com Eric Westerman

    I agree with most of that. Contrary to what they may say about their algorithm’s ability to detect spam – I still believe that the vast vast vast majority of Google’s penalties come from user reports. [I believe JC Penney and Overstock would still be trumping along if not for a NYT article and a Webmaster World thread.]

    As such, because Google can rely on users outing each other, I think that discourages them to focus on improving the algorithm to successfully filter spam content (as impossible a task as that may seem to be).

    I have no problem with Google ‘policing’ the web – so long as they are doing the policing. Creating a system where it becomes beneficial for select parties to report on others is a short term way of thinking.

  • http://www.DrMAS.co.uk Dr M Ambler-Shattock

    Excellent Article. In the end the short term ‘gamers’ and cheats all suffer the same fate at the hands of improved filtration. White Hat is the only way to gain and maintain ongoing presence with Meritus and similar ethical and organic techniques, being the only sustainable methods. Anything else is using driven by laziness or lack of talent.

  • http://www.rickbucich.com/ Rick Bucich

    I’ll admit I’ve filled out a spam report. Very infrequently mind you, and it was touched off by a site’s use of bots to link spam forums and comments in the tens of thousands. I don’t even think of this as SEO although it certainly was done for the benefit of organic search rankings.

    When one’s efforts at SEO literally destroys the value of another site through this type of spamming, I get mad enough that the gloves come off and I’m not afraid to say so.

    Would I turn someone in for e-mail spamming? Yes, for the same reasoning. I have no kinship with such individuals.

  • http://intermobimarketing.com Chris

    I have to agree with Adam and his ethical standards guideline. I have come across a ton of ‘SEO’ firms using very questionable tactics. I have never filled out a spam report BUT I have used articles relating to black-hat techniques, which show how they can damage a websites SER, when reviewing a website with a client. It can help close the deal.

  • http://www.languagearmy.com Chris Mortimer

    Excellent article Adam and I think your stance on not reporting is also correct.

    One key reason shady SEO and marketing is bad is that almost per definition it’s short-term with a definite long-term downside – someday you’ll get caught. And then both you – but especially your clients – will get caught, lose business and maybe even go out of business. Along with a good dollop of reputation.

    Long-term solid strategies which are honest and of benefit are always the correct and ethical route to wander and will build a client’s business and reputation. And as you say, the wave is coming. Because over time the bad tactics get caught from both a business and technical perspective, and good practices will be more and more rewarded by a squeaky clean link profile.

  • Ian Howells

    There’s various levels of “outing:”. We’ve got…

    (1) “Outing” to a new/potential client. This happens when you’re just starting with a new client, or trying to win their business. There’s likely education needed in these stages, and if they were being put at risk by their previous agency/in-house person they need to know about it. It helps establish trust, and lays out the ground rules for what you will and won’t do – and more importantly, what they are and are not comfortable risking.

    (2) “Outing” to Google. You worked your white-hat fingers to the bone and are still stuck below sites blatantly spamming their way to the top. After doing everything right wand watching others take shortcuts, you decide to do Google’s work for them and out the site using shady tactics. Maybe Google takes action, maybe they ignore it.

    And, lastly – (3) “Outing” to major media outlets like the New York Times.

    Number 1 is, in my opinion, pretty defensible. In the past, I’ve had sites hit with penalties immediately after they fired their old agency and came on with us. And by immediate, I mean within two weeks, before our full tech and content audits were even done and no “work” was done to the site. If stuff like that is a possibility, you need to get it out up front.

    Number 2, while bad in the sense that it makes Google lazy and perpetuates an environment that allows their algorithm to be completely open to manipulation, does not harm the industry as a whole in the public-facing sense.

    Number 3, however, is horrible for everyone. Outing to the major media, in my opinion, is a big mistake. We know how the media works – everything turns into buzz words. The more this happens, the more it gets drilled home that SEO = Spam. Period.

    While Digital Due Diligence wrote a pretty lengthy article defending themselves and stating why they’re good for the industry, *none* of their points necessitate outing to Tech Crunch or NYT.

    Yes, by all means, keep your clients from investing in unstable businesses. But – that doesn’t mean you need to put it in front of the world.

    If you catch your neighbor’s kid doing something wrong, you tell his parents – you don’t go the the middle of the town square and scream about him being a degenerate.

  • http://www.ecreativeim.com BrianW

    I’m concerned that an increased focus on outing sketchy SEO practices will end up driving even worse practices — outrank your competition by buying thousands of the cheapest, crummiest links to them and then report them, or even to “out” them publicly in the press.

    The more responsive search engines are to these kinds of reports, the more effective blacklinking your competition will become.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    @BrianW: “I’m concerned that an increased focus on outing sketchy SEO practices will end up driving even worse practices — outrank your competition by buying thousands of the cheapest, crummiest links to them and then report them, or even to “out” them publicly in the press.”

    That fear has been expressed many times through the years. Google seems to handle such attempts to discredit Websites through bad links pretty well, in my experience.

    People should stop raising this straw man argument from the dead.

  • Ian Howells

    @Michael Martinez Would you mind elaborating on your experiences with Google being able to identify spammy links as having come from a competitor trying to Google Bowl someone else out of the SERPs?

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    I’m a card carrying Link Narc, but only under a very specific scenario where I feel the offender has done something that impacts search quality and I can be sure it was done purposely.

    Subjective? Maybe, and sorry, but hey, what the hell would you expect from LinkMoses?

    When I receive a spam email that tells me the sender has a database of thousands of sites/blogs which he sells links for, and provides me with a spreadsheet of those sites with their Pagerank and the pricing, then I

  • http://www.ericward.com Eric Ward

    Sorry, hit send by accident. To complete that comment, when someone sends me a spreadsheet with thousands of urls with links for sale, I have mixed emotions. What if it’s fake? Attempted sabotage? Do I send it to my contacts at the engines? Do I delete it like it never happened? Usually I just delete them, because I don’t think random massive lists of urls with links for sale are sneaking by engine radar anyway.

  • Ian Howells

    @Eric Interested to get your take on “whitehat” pages/sites that provide great content and good user experience but use “blackhat” link building methods to rank. In those cases, search quality isn’t at risk.

    …also, totally agree on the last point. Any link seller that sends you his entire network list won’t be in business for long anyway. If they’re that sloppy, they definitely didn’t create their network in a way that would prevent them all being tied together by Google in the first place.

  • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

    Adam,

    I respect you for so many things. This article is not among them.

    It just blows my mind how everyone who uses kindergarten language to describe the public reporting of known questionable SEO tactics is completely lacking in the vision department, at least when it comes to this topic.

    Just because something can be used as a “weapon”, does not mean that is the reason the reporting is conducted. It’s a bullshit justification of sensationalized fear mongering. Warnings of doom and apocalyptic mayhem.

    There is every reason under the sun to publicly report on these issues that have NOTHING to do with competitive sabotage. And have everything to do with a desire to clean up the SEO cesspool.

    All these articles are no better than this past week’s claims of Rapture.

  • Ian Howells

    @alan

    “Just because something can be used as a “weapon”, does not mean that is the reason the reporting is conducted.”

    No. But it can be. And making the “Digital Due Dilligence finds bad links, reports to NYT, insta-90-day-ban” a regular event is a dangerous precedent to set.

    “And have everything to do with a desire to clean up the SEO cesspool.”

    How? There’s no way of proving who’s doing the spamming, and if outing picks up more steam the incentive to try and “frame” your competition increases tenfold – that’s the opposite of cleaning things up/

    I can just as easily Xrumer spam your client’s pages, and there is *no* way for you to prove that you weren’t the one that did it. Is that what we want? Because that’s where outing publicly will lead.

    Now, as I mentioned, outing to the impacted website or outing to Google are completely different. However, outing on your blog is an attempt at getting attention for being a white knight, and outing to the major media is (a) another grasp for attention and (b) bad for the industry as a whole. It doesn’t clean anything up – it just drives home the point that we’re dirty to people who know essentially nothing about the industry as a whole.

    When outing is used as the way to clean things up, it runs the huge risk of only making things worse. I’m very interested in hearing how outing publicly to major media outlets who will ignore all nuance and paint the SEO industry with broad strokes is going to help clean anything up. If there’s something I’m missing here, or some way this won’t turn into a frame-game, I’m absolutely all ears.

  • http://www.audettemedia.com Adam Audette

    I have to agree with Ian’s response, Alan. How does outing clean up SEO? Who needs to clean up SEO, and why? It’s all about business, and all about self-interest. Paid links WORK if you’re willing to accept risk. My agency chooses not to use them. But that doesn’t mean we’re so naive we think companies engaging in paid links should be outed, reported, and that will make SEO a better, happier place.

    Keep your clients interests at heart, first, and get them results. Leave the outing for the birds. It offers zero competitive advantage, anyway. Filing spam reports is a waste of time when you’re dealing with real competitors in competitive markets.

  • http://newmediaservices.com.au Gloria Katrina Bea

    The idea of not resting on other websites to optimize page ranking might be a great idea–or rather utopian. Adam’s comment might be quite harsh though that’s the reality for most businesses who do SEO.

  • http://www.dcfinder.com/ Thomas Rosenstand

    I love your 5 “rules” of ethical standards. We couls all learn from them. Thumbs up!

  • http://www.netbuilders.org willspencer

    If you don’t like this practice, the only real way to defeat it is with huge numbers of fake spam reports — complete with self-generated spam.

    Buy your competitors some links and then report them. It’s the most effective way to spend $20 on SEO.

 

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