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October 07, 2007

Is "Outing" Unethical SEO / SEM Practices, Ethical or Just Fodder for Linkbait?

By Li Evans

Ethics_cartoon I have to hand it to Rand Fishkin, he knows how to bring fury (and controversy and snarky cartoons) upon him like a woman scorned.  However in this latest case, it's more like a few webmaster's scorned.  So this got me to thinking, is "publicly outing" websites for buying links, cloaking, scraping or hidden text or numerous other "unethical" practices search marketers know that can game the system - ethical in its own right? 

Lets face it, we all know of sites that are doing things that cross the guide"lines" of the search engines.  We all probably know of at least 1 or 2 major sites that are doing things that could get them tossed from the search engines' indexes if they were not the big time retailer, muti-media conglomerate or news sources that they are.  But because these are major sites, probably sites that are actually very relevant for their terms, do we really think the search engines are going to toss their sites from the index?  Look at what happened to BMW - isn't that enough to make people think twice?

That's a rhetorical question, of course I don't have any answers, just my own opinions.  Will I ever "out" what I know to a search engine rep or in a blog post here on SMG where I know a few people from the search engines come and read?  I may pose a hypothetical question in a private email, just to make sure I'm right in my thinking, but, "outing" someone just brings on a heck of a lot more trouble than you may think.  Especially a public outing such as what happened with the Google Payola post.

I know a few search marketers who have no problem reporting sites to the search engines for their unethical practices.  However, that's blatant, intended unethical tactics.  That type of reporting or "outting" is done in a private fashion, not on the public spectrum of a blog.  In that way it makes it anonymous in how it's reported, the site in questions likely would never know who "turned them in" and in that case, no clue who to turn their scorn on.

While I like Rand as a person and I believe Rand is a nice guy and I want to believe it wasn't ill-will that he publicly outed these sites (and then retracted the outing), I find myself, once again, questioning the motives. I questioned his motives back in June when he publicly started the rumor about SES and the exclusivity that just wasn't true.  We're back in a similar situation now and I find it very hard to believe that Rand did not realize how much in the way of traffic and controversy/drama that these types of posts would bring to SEOMoz. If there's one thing Rand isn't, it's dumb.  He's a savvy search marketer and knows what brings links and traffic - humor (comics), information (his lists), and controversy (rumors, outting websites, only telling half the story). 

Ethical_seo_tacticsIn both cases Rand came back shortly after and apologized and expected that to resolve everything. It does take a lot to admit one's mistakes and apologize for them and for that, he should be commended.  However, had this just happened just once, sure, I think it could be plausible he didn't "think" about the full repercussions for everyone involved, before he hit the publish button.  Unfortunately, here we are again, with more controversy and drama, and another apology that's just suppose to make everything "right".

When it comes down to it this time, I question that proverbial "ethical" line Rand just crossed with the post, just as many of you are.  There's no doubt he's made a lot more enemies than friends.  He's also got a lot of search marketers scratching there heads and wondering just what was going on in his mind when he wrote what he did.

Do I think that Rand has daily morning meetings with Matt Cutts?  I find that notion ridiculous.  Do I think Matt Cutts reads the SEOMoz blog and Rand knows that?  Of course.  Was it "ethical" for Rand to write what he did knowing Matt comes and reads the blog regularly and after the furor launched, would definitely read it? I don't believe it was "ethical".  Does it make me "hate" Rand?  No.  Does it make me scratch my head a lot in bizarre wonderment?  Yes and it just makes me question the amount of respect I had for his savvy marketing abilities.

So, what do you think?  I'm curious - is it ethical to "out" websites on a very public and very well subscribed to blog that's read by search engine reps?  I'm asking for you opinions on the "ethical" nature of what was done, so lets start a conversation! :)

*10/8  edited:  I've updated this post, changed the picture, because although at first I felt the cartoon posted at ToonRefugee would be "OK" to use since Rand commented there, in retrospect, it put too much emphasis on the wrong topic.

Please also note (I originally had this statement up, but deleted, because I thought people would be professional, but it looks like it is needed):

--I will not allow through comments that blatantly and vulgarly attack Rand.  Those types of comments are just not conducive to the conversation.--


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Li - I'm struggling with what to say here. I think that if I try to defend my position or claim that I was simply clicking the stumble button and finding lots of paid links, you'll take it as being defensive and unable to accept criticism.

Certainly I can see Donna's point (and others) about not "outing" paid links, and I know that I fuck up when I blog sometimes. This wasn't the first time, I have no doubt I'll do it again.

Come Monday morning, I'm sure this post will be popular on Sphinn, and others will pick up on it and link to it. In the last few months, I've been taken to task across the blogosphere and on UGC sites like forums and Sphinn for blog posts - usually around directories or paid links or some aspect of that.

I guess I just wonder where I went wrong - how I lost not only your trust but friendship and any "benefit of the doubt" on questions like this. Obviously, it's not just you, either - there's quite clearly a number of folks who watch my writing very carefully and actively seek to discredit that which they disagree with (in content or style).

I guess I feel a little lost... a little sad... a little confused. Maybe we can connect over email? I think I have your email - although I mistakenly thought it was someone else's - sorry about that. I'll try to ping you there, too.

Personally, I don't believe it's either ethical nor unethical; it's simply a personal choice whether to "out" stuff or not.

I agree with Rand. If he keeps quiet, the angry mob points out that he has "yet to respond to this scandal" or that his silence condemns him; yet, when he tries to explain his perspective or his reasoning behind his actions, people think he's just being defensive. It's often a no-win, damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, which I'm sure is quite frustrating for Rand because no matter what he decides to do (be vocal or keep silent), he'll still alienate or downright piss off some people.

Rand, why not just make the point you wanted to make instead of outing the websites?

Why not just say that "Okay, I have been stumbling and found 8 of 16 sites that were selling links. If Google penalizes paid links, most credible websites will be hurt.

The websites that provide useful content and experience for the users. Will it be good? Will Google find the way to stop this?"

That's a good point to make, really.

Instead, with your post you clearly helped Google notice these particular websites and maybe penalize them (in fact, G might have penalized them already, I don't remember the site names to check now, obviously).

You'd still make a point Google should think about w/o outing the sites, but you chose to out them, because you wanted "a more informational blog post".

I’m inclined to agree with Rebecca. And really, why are we still talking about this?

Is your writing a blog post “outing” Rand and questioning his behavior/character/motives any different from Rand “outing” sites he believes to be buying paid links? Sometimes people get excited about the topic they're writing about and say or do things they shouldn't.

It's a new week, let's start fresh. No more of people trying to capitalize off one person's very public misstep. There are plenty of other things to be talking about today.

Rand - thanks for posting, and actually, I tend to try to give people the benefit of the doubt, until they have proven me otherwise. If asked, and answered truthfully, I'd have accepted what you said.

Jill - thanks for your input - that's the type of answer I was looking for. I'm interested in people's opinions, and that certainly is one.

Rebecca - was looking for an opinion on whether outing is ethical or not. Although I know you feel the need to defend Rand, that's well and good, and perhaps should be commended for your loyalty to him. But what would be contributory to the conversation would be your own opinion on the matter.

Yuri - great points, thanks for contributing. Obviously you're not in favor of naming names? Is that what I take away from your comment as well?

Lisa - Conversation is to really be about whether you feel it's ethical or not to "out" websites. I didn't "out" Rand for anything that hasn't already been out there, I'm asking the question if you (the audience) feel it was the right thing to do or not, whether it's to drive traffic to your own site, or maybe stop competitors from doing unethical SEO practices.

I realize you feel the need to defend Rand and agree with Rebecca because you are friends. Totally understandable, but I don't blame you once bit for taking this post the way you have. Totally your choice how to read it, and we all disagree at times.

The only mistake Rand made was not "outing" more high profile sites who sell links and do so for search engines for the most part. Nothing wrong with outing at all. After all; sites who do their best to trick the se's are actually cheating other sites out of positions on those se's, even if the spam sites don't deserve to be there, and are there because of the spam to begin with. If you look at it this way, if 5 sites listed on the first page for a term were dropped because of spam, 5 other sites on the second page would be on that first page. I call anyone who spams the se's and goes against the stated guidelines as cheaters and stealing. It can't be anything else.

Is it ethical to name names? Heck yes it is. Otherwise we have an industry running a muck with no self-policing whatsoever. Is that a good thing? You be the judge. As it is right now, people outside the industry think of SEO in bad terms anyhoo, so it's easy to see why they think that, since many in this industry do NOT want to out anyone at all.

Rand's other mistake was to back down to "some" in this industry who whined about his posting about this link selling crap. Backing down shows weakness imo.

Liana, honestly, I think it's wrong of you to dismiss my and Lisa's comments as simply being "loyal" to Rand because we work for him/are friends with him. We're friends with loads of people in this industry, so I think it's a bit cheap to write off our opinions and comments as nothing more than "defending a friend." I don't always automatically agree with Rand simply because he's my boss and I'm a Stepford Wife-esque subservient employee. I agree with him when I agree with him, and I don't when I don't. It all depends on what we're talking about.

My opinion of the matter is that yes, I think Rand screwed up by specifically identifying the sites that had paid/sponsored links. However, he didn't do it maliciously and did change the post after people pointed out his mistake (I know that by then the damage had been done, but you have to at least give him a little credit for trying). Rand made a mistake, and everyone's content to remind him of this as if he may forget between now and ten minutes from now.

I agree with Lisa too, not because she's my friend, but because I think she's right. It's a new week, and I'm sure we all have better things to do than to obsess over the umpteenth Sphinn and blog posts that offer the exact same input as last week's umpteenth posts on the matter.

Opinion desired, opinion given: outing websites for things that may be likely to bring punitive action against them (IF there is no relevant value added to the discussion by naming them specifically) is not a good idea.

I don't think it's evil, and I don't think it's unethical (he didn't lie, didn't slander--unlike some folks who've been making a mountain out of this--he only cited accurately and correctly) I just think it's not necessary and probably a bad judgment call in this particular case.

As for how big a deal has been made out of this, I'm a bit surprised: it's not like he gave up Anne Frank, people. He made a mistake and, once it was pointed out that it was a bad idea, apologized and did what he could to correct it. This wasn't a cold, cunning and calculated marketing effort. He wrote a commentary about the Forbes article AGREEING that Google's stance on paid linking is a bad idea. In doing so, he cited some references he found without stopping to consider that, in this case, disclosure and accuracy could potentially cause harm to those sites. It was a bad idea that most people, myself included, now see as such.

However, the industry-wide discussion that has since ensued (some petty attacks aside) does have tremendous value in that, hopefully, it's made it quite clear to everyone that unnecessarily divulging a site for non-ToS-compliant practices is generally considered bad form. Some will say that's obvious, but judging from the commentary over the last several days, it wasn't obvious to all. Now nobody can ever claim they didn't know what they were getting themselves into.


One thing the SEO community learned last week is that Rand-bashing generates traffic. So on one hand spammers are moralizing over whether its ethical to rat on other spammers while on the other, SEOs are monetizing on Rand's misstep and potentially harming his business.

Why didn't you just talk in general about "outing" sites instead of mentioning Rand Fishkin? Just because everybody else is already doing it doesn't mean you need to join the party.

Rand did the right thing in blogging openly and honestly about a topic. His mistake was forgetting that the majority of his readers are involved in the link economy. It's a little bit like Tom Cruise talking openly about Scientology. Most people aren't scientologists, so whether he is right or wrong he ended up alienating viewers.

Rand made a marketing blunder in not catering to his target audience. But do you want his open, honest views or do you prefer manipulative, "controlled" messages?

If the outed sites get banned or penalized, should Rand apologize? For what? The outed sites deserve whatever that's coming to them.

wow .. you SEOMoz folks all look like Rand *chuckle*... that plugin thing from MyBlogLog needs to figure out who you all are. :)

Rebecca - didn't mean to sound totally dismissive of Lisa, but it wasn't contributing to what I asked. As I understand the desire to want to "defend" or "bash" (and hey it can go either way - and for the record I haven't allowed the two totally bashing, mean, and rude not contributing comments through).

I wanted Lisa to know, while I understand where she came from and how she could form her opinon. However, we are all friends and we can disagree - acknowledgment, and acknowledgment of disagreeing - not dismissive. Simply was looking for her opinion of the question I asked.

Halfdeck - Now C'mon, if I hadn't done it this way, I would have gotten hung out to dry for not coming out and saying "Rand". Everyone would have said 'she didn't have the balls to do it' (well I don't have the balls, but you know what I mean).

Actually though, I am taking down the pic from Toon Refugee. I actually at first felt it was o.k. to use, because Rand posted over there on the post with it. But in retrospect, that wasn't a good judgment call. And it will be removed.

As for your comments, great points, good point of view, and thank you for contributing to the conversation. :)

Ha, you two are on a panel together at SMX next week. Fun.

That's all I'm contributing because I have money to make. For my clients. :)

Awesome point, Lee. I'd love a tally of the money various SEOs haven't made due to them spending time on this.

Sorry for replying a bit late. It's near impossible to remember and visit the places you have left comments ;)

Anyway, my point is mostly about making a focused point, not splattering it with details, turning a useful post into linkbait (Rand did say he considered not including the sites, but he thought it to be non-blog-worthy).

If Rand simply made a concise point that Google will be penalizing pure white hat sites, if it starts penalizing for selling links, then it'd be much better.

It's not about naming names, but about sticking to the point vs turning a post into linkbait by sacrificing the point.

Then again, Michael may have another point of view: http://smackdown.blogsblogsblogs.com/2007/10/07/guys-rand-didnt-do-it-for-linkbait/

It seems that there is no objective morality; usually our morality is whatever we need in order to defend our pride or financial position. I have never been the type to run to mommy/teacher/etc because I pride myself on my independence; but others who have built a worldview around their recipricol relationships with authorities will tattle all day long.

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