“See No Evil” Is No Way For Big Companies To Deal With Search Spam
It started innocently enough. A client, whom I’ll refer to as BigCo, asked a question about the success that one of their divisions was having with a different search consulting company. I wasn’t familiar with the company, so I asked a few questions and then started to investigate them. What I found disturbed me.
It was breathtakingly clear that the secret to success was blatant black hat spamming techniques. This wasn’t some kind of borderline “it depends on how you interpret it” situation. No, BigCo was being assisted by companies paying for links and even posting references of other companies it had “helped” right on its website. At this point, I knew what I had to do.
My client, who worked in the TinyProduct Division of BigCo, listened impassively as I recited all the problem areas that I had found and made sure that the impact on BigCo’s search marketing was understood. I expected my client to spring into action, but instead, the response was closer to, “That’s a shame. It really seems like that stuff is working for them.”
Clearly I had my work cut out for me here. I tried again to explain the dangers of spam—how the moment the search engines detect any spam techniques, BigCo runs the risk of losing everything it has worked so hard to achieve in its search program. Not to mention the embarrassment that the bad publicity could cause (anyone remember the big headlines when BMW was banned by Google?)
My arguments seemed to be working. My client realized that there was too much risk here to pursue these kinds of tactics. So, I asked how I could be of help in working with the BigCo’s offending division, and was told that no help was needed. “So, you can get this stopped on your own?” I asked.
“It’s really none of my business,” my client replied.
Uh oh. I was running into one of the biggest problems in large companies today, the “not my job” syndrome. It’s natural, actually. I mean, human beings really weren’t built for organizations as large as a Fortune 500 company. Our tribal instincts force us to identify with a smaller group than that.
The problem is that we are challenged by these large organizations to outstrip what our instincts have prepared us for. I know it’s hard. I know that it doesn’t feel natural. Or normal. But we have to help our entire company, no matter how big it is, to succeed.
It feels overwhelming at times. I mean, how can any one person make the difference in an organization of thousands of people. It’s understandable—no, it’s inevitable—that we retreat from that kind of awesome responsibility. Unfortunately, that retreat is what all of the other employees in BigCo are doing, too. And when they do, we end up in this difficult situation where someone knows what’s wrong, but is actively deciding not to do anything about it. And no one else does anything about it, either.
The problem with all of this, to bring us back to our original problem, is that Google will do something about it. No, maybe not today, but someday. Someday, Google will figure out what’s going on. Someday Google will identify exactly what kind of trickery is afoot here. And when they do, it won’t be pretty.
Because, you see, Google doesn’t really care which division of BigCo was the offender. Google really isn’t interested in whether your division was at fault or not. BigCo gets penalized, across the board. So, one dopey decision by one person at BigCo can bring down the whole company. And, though it seems collegial to allow freedom of action on the part of your fellow employees, what they do affects you and your little tribe, not just some abstract corporation.
And if this was only about spam, maybe it wouldn’t be that important. I mean, even the cautionary tale of BMW’s spamming ended happily. They weren’t banned very long. It really didn’t turn out to be that big a deal.
No, the bigger problem is the way that we all perform this kind of mental gymnastics in our big companies every day, not just when it comes to search, but when it comes to our customers. We look the other way when BigProduct Division screws our customers, because we are not responsible for what they do—we can only control what we do in TinyProducts.
But, in the end, it doesn’t work out that way. Because everything anyone does at BigCo reflects on BigCo. And everyone outside of BigCo looks at the whole company through one lens, whether it is Google or our customers. Until we decide that it is up to us to confront our fellow employees on bad behavior, we shouldn’t expect our corporate ethics to be any better than they’ve been.
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