SEO: The O Is For Outing

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Hello, SEO friends and colleagues. It’s time for us to have an important conversation.

Recently, I read two posts by Larry Kim which detailed an email outreach campaign by Hotels.com in which they apparently solicited paid links from travel bloggers. After reading both articles, it occurred to me that we’re long overdue for a conversation about the concept of “outing” in the world of SEO.

Quick disclaimer: I have no affiliation with Hotels.com, and Larry Kim is one of my favorite people in the SEO industry.

A History Of Outing

Larry’s posts are just the most recent in a long line of articles wherein SEOs and/or websites are busted for grey-hat and/or black-hat SEO strategies, typically for paid links. While I don’t disagree with the idea of writing blog posts that critique SEO strategies, I am not an advocate of “busting” other SEOs.

Furthermore, I thought the headline implied Hotels.com had been hit with a Google penalty (i.e., “Busted for Buying Links”), which I found unfair and misleading. With a headline like that, I guarantee that a significant number of people who saw that headline in their Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn feeds immediately jumped to the conclusion that Hotels.com had actually been penalized by Google.

In reality, the only thing that actually happened was that Larry publicly outed Hotels.com for reaching out to influential bloggers and offering compensation in exchange for text links.

My intention here is not to ironically bust Larry for busting Hotels.com. Larry is an awesome guy, and he hasn’t done anything wrong by writing about a paid link program.

Clearly, buying links is against Google’s Quality Guidelines (Link Schemes), and if Hotels.com is paying for links, they are obviously violating those guidelines. I’m not arguing that point.

Larry has every right to bring this information to light, and I’m sure there are several other industry bloggers who are pissed that they got scooped on that story. But does it have to be that way? Is there a better way?

The issue here is the power of certain SEO topics to create far-reaching negative consequences for a variety of parties. Such topics include:

  • Website W was caught buying links
  • Website X got penalized by Google
  • Website Y got hit by Panda
  • Website Z got hit by Penguin
  • SEO is dead. (Beaten to death, but I’m sure we’ll read it again soon.)

Any one of those headlines has the power to send our industry into a frenzy. In some cases, it’s all fun and games. For example, let’s say I write an amazing post declaring that SEO IS DEAD! If I write it in a clever way, I will get the SEO industry buzzing while generating some follows, shares and likes for myself.

I can build even more buzz and more followers if I’m the first to break a story about a site being penalized by Google. I’ll get extra points if it’s related to Penguin or Panda.

Back in 2011, I thought the NYTimes had turned that idea into a minor hobby. After those articles were published, we can assume that the following days were not all sunshine and rainbows for some of our SEO brethren.

The Consequences Of Being Outed

Those stories can also create a PR nightmare for SEO agencies and consultants which have been accused of unethical behavior. Given a big enough brand, those articles can have drastically negative consequences that affect peoples’ livelihoods, jobs, families, etc.

I’m not saying that we should stop writing about sites that have been penalized. I’m not saying that we need to hold a Hands-Across-America SEO lovefest.

But, shouldn’t there be some sort of “Code of the Schoolyard” when it comes to accusing SEOs of being evil, black-hat or ne’er-do-wells? Perhaps such a code can be a component of the SEO Congress that industry folks are contemplating.

I’m not a fan of SEOs outing other SEOs for using grey-hat or black-hat techniques. for several reasons. When an outing story goes viral and gains traction in the media, it hurts our industry, as it only perpetuates the idea that SEO is some sort of black magic brimming with unethical characters and strategies.

There is no doubt that our industry has a seedy underbelly, but the fact of the matter is that most professional SEOs are hard-working white-hats which are doing their best to abide by Google’s webmaster guidelines.

If the world could peer into our collective cubicle, all they would see is a nerd-tastic kingdom of rule-followers with gigantic pivot tables, massive code libraries, and extra helpings of creativity. Sure, there are black-hats are out there — but I doubt there are any black-hats sitting in a room at the Hotels.com office, scheming up black-hat SEO strategies.

Each time one of these outing stories shows up in my newsfeed, I know that clients are going to see it, read it, and then ask me about it – while at the same time adding an extra layer of scrutiny to any current link-building strategy on the table.

You thought it was hard getting buy-in for that amazing link outreach/partnership idea you had today? Now, it’s even tougher. Every time “paid links” shows up in the LinkedIn newsfeed, getting buy-in becomes more and more difficult, as people become even more skeptical of link building in general.

Even if the outing is done with the intention of alerting Google to some state-of-the-art black-hat technique, I think publicly outing a fellow SEO hurts all of us. SEO is hard enough without having to look over our shoulders for axes being thrown at us by our colleagues.

#LetsStickTogether

SEOs need to support each other. Instead of outing each other, I would really love it if there was another way. Developers tend to reach out to each other when code is not working. Why can’t SEOs do the same when it comes to questionable SEO tactics? That option would be better than throwing each other under the bus.

And let’s be realistic here — I’m sure if we started digging into the inner workings of every major website, we would likely find something that is questionable (and possibly a little shady) on every single site.

Perhaps it is something intentional. Perhaps it’s a mistake made by an SEO noob. Perhaps it’s something that was done long ago, when a now-black-hat tactic was considered white-hat. Or perhaps it’s an issue caused by the platform or CMS. (It’s not out of the ordinary for platform issues to cause SEO problems.)

Creating and maintaining a website is hard work. Nobody does it perfectly. Just look under the hood at your crawl errors in Google Webmaster Tools – we’ve all got them.

So, the last thing I need is someone publicly pointing out that my client’s platform is creating duplicate sites on the non-www site and www versions. And please don’t focus on the fact that it has wildcard subdomains enabled and there are literally thousands of subdomains with the same site mirrored on each one. I know about it. You know about it. There is no need for a blog post calling me out for it.

How bad would our lives be if we had to constantly wonder if some SEO influencer/authority was going to uncover all the warts on our site and/or in our SEO campaigns? Is that the world you want to live in?

Honestly, I think I’m getting old. Ten years ago, I would have been super amped to write an article about some sites that were doing shady stuff. The SEO world was like the Wild West back then, so anything was fair game.

Today, even though it’s still SEO, it feels different. It is different. All the Google algorithm updates have scared us into being responsible and respectful.

In light of that, it would really be awesome if we had a different way to discuss some of the questionable SEO strategies we’re seeing nowadays. Right? Or am I the only one who thinks that?

If you disagree, and you would like for everything to stay as-is, I could be open to that. Just let me know. In fact, I could probably churn out a few articles outing some major sites in the next few weeks… I mean, if that’s what you want. Otherwise, let’s build a better world for ourselves – one where we can reach out to help our fellow SEO.

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