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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.