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On linkbaiting, SEO’ing and all that other crap

[UPDATE: Due to the subject matter of this post, many comments submitted seem to have been eaten up by Akismet. I’ve also received over 200 spam comments in the 8 hrs since I wrote this post, so you’ll understand that I have to keep Akismet on I’m afraid. I’ll manually de-spam comments as they come in.]

I guess I must be a blog puritan. A naive, day-dreaming, quasi-utopian blog puritan at that.

There’s been a lot of discussion about Jason Calacanis calling bullshit on the SEO industry (I’m not going to get into that echo chamber, go read Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineLand if you’re not across it already).

But I just get so disappointed that every day there seems to be more and more gaming of the blogosphere and subversion of the social mechanisms within it. It’s a beef that’s been boiling up inside of me for sometime, and this is perhaps a good a time as any to vent it.

Rigging the peer-recommendation nature of the blogosphere

Back in Sep 2005 I called out Hugh MacLeod for ‘pimping his crappy wine‘ on the blogosphere back. I actually hold a lot of respect for Hugh and sure, what he was doing was not the end of the world. But I made as big a stink about it as I could because I could see that the perceived ‘successes’ of such a project would evolve into the abomination that is PayPerPost.

Perversely, at the time I actually ended up privately bouncing ideas off of friends about the way such a company could work – mainly to legitimize my concern. In the end I decided not to blog about at the time as I didn’t want to give anyone ideas. However I alluded to this in my comment on his post which ended with:

“I just think this is the slim end of the wedge, and wonder where this is all going?”

Even today most people don’t realize how terrible PayPerPost is. Forget the individual reviews that might as well be a load of bull in return for the payola, the carefully orchestrated linking policies instructed to “Posties” has an amplification effect that dilutes and devalues aggregation sites such as TailRank. You can’t just link to the random front page of the company, oh no. They want a specific, agreed url so that link clustering can occur in these aggregation sites.

I wonder whether Hugh realized his project would be a major foundation to the business plan of PayPerPost?

Linkbaiting – diluting social media

Last week I read a fairly lengthy blog post tutorial on SearchEngineLand on how to perform ‘viral link building’ (which I guess is the gentleman’s term for linkbaiting) for your clients with ‘unsexy’ products such as pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. I kid you not.

In it the author, Nick Wilson, wrote proudly how one could linkbait sorry, viral-link-build around anything given a little lateral thought and of course his “2007 guide to linkbaiting(précis: “let’s bait widgets!”).

(BTW yes, I know I’m kinda falling for the very linkbaiting of his work now, too)

It was the kind of crap that makes by blood boil — it’s insulting to me, the user/consumer/reader — to shove this disingenuous crap under my nose purely to gain linkshare and hopefully market your product to me. If I want to buy agricultural chemicals my decision on which ones to buy is certainly not going to be influenced by whether I read about your product during, of all things in this example, a list of tips on helping the environment. Even more proof of the level of disingenuousness of it all – since when did pesticides offer positive benefits to the environment?

Blackhat SEO’ing – diluting search engines

OK this is just me being naive but the whole SEO business simply disappoints me beyond belief. And Blackhat SEO – subverting the search engines and social media mechanisms such as Digg – must be called out, not congratulated as it seems to be in some quarters.

As consumers we use Google, Digg (and other services) because we assume it will return the most relevant pages based on proven quantitative measures such as keyword analysis and the quantity & quality of pages linking in. I call that ‘innocent use’.

There’s nothing wrong with advising your clients on what makes your pages more relevant (Aaron Wall has a nice response to Scott Karps request for 10 good whitehat SEO tips).

But the concept of ‘optimizing’ a given site to perform better against another purely through the creation of faux sites, link bombing, disingenuous lists, astroturfing, etc is simply disgusting.

Where is this all going?

All of these practices are actually putting the legitimacy and usefulness of the tools we love and rely on at risk. The search engines, I’m less bothered about. They’re big enough to create some tollerance against these practices,

But it’s social media I feel is at most risk. It’s decentralized, it ultimately relies on the principles of honesty and integrity, and because it’s a grass-roots thing it doesn’t have the backing of a few large companies to coordinate counter-measures. That’s why we need to rally together to call this stuff out – and soon before it’s too late.

At the end of the day, don’t people realize we’re ultimately shitting in our own nest? Can’t people see there’ll come a point when there’s just too much shit?

Theoretically if we all SEO then the effect is simply drowned out. But that’s not going to happen. Instead, it merely makes the challenge of legitimate sites to get noticed naturally steeper and steeper. As users that manifests itself as search engines and social recommendation tools becoming less and less relevant to us.

It’s no different to spam – email would simply be unmanageable for most of us if it wasn’t for the fact we can employ anti-spam techniques on our incoming mail. Sadly in the SEO world that’s a lot hard to circumvent.

Ultimately do we really want our experience of social media to become as painful as using an email account without any spam protection?

Published in Media2.0 News


  1. hugh macleod hugh macleod

    Heh, I remember the crappy wine meme. It was fun.

    I agree with your concerns about PayPerPost. But I find it so lame and uninteresting I don’t really give it too much thought. If it works, I’ll be highly surprised.

    As you know, I have no trouble with people pimping their stuff, as long as they’re upfront about it. This goes for South Africans in London selling their wine, or Brits in SF selling their tech/geek services 😉

  2. hugh macleod hugh macleod

    PS. Though I disagree with the “purist” tag you’ve awarded yourself [if you were indeed a purist, you wouldn’t need both a “Corporate” online identity and a “Wild n’ Crazy n’ Down with The Kids” online identity], I do applaud your efforts to weed out the rascals etc. You’ve got some great thoughts on the subject.

    Hope all is well in SF….

  3. > it’s insulting to me, the user/consumer/reader — to shove this disingenuous crap under my nose purely to gain linkshare and hopefully market your product to me.

    Read it again, Ben. Read more of what Nick’s written. He’s been pretty clear you can’t just “trick” people with lies and stuff. He’s very strong that you need to have good content, compelling content — and that particular article is about how anyone can potentially make compelling content. What’s wrong with that? What’s black hat about people thinking about how they can attract visitors and others through various medium? Surely television ads should cut out things like music and nice visuals, ’cause that’s very misleading. And what’s up with people sending press releases to newspapers. Clearly word-of-mouth should be enough to grab a reporter’s attention.

    And let’s clarify the example he was making — purely made up — but still since you turned it into a pushing pesticides type of thing. He actually said:

    > Let’s say that your client is an industrial, environmentally friendly pesticides manufacturer whose target market is the agricultural community and government food agencies.

    IE — let’s say perhaps you are a small company that is coming out with a way for farmers and others to control pests with little harm to the environment but you can’t get attention easily because you don’t have the budget like a big bad pesticide company. Hey, perhaps social media is a channel you should consider.

    Anyway, sorry your blood boiled. I read it differently and saw nothing blood boiling about it. That’s because ultimately, I think the various networks are just find in making a collective decision of what they like or dislike.

  4. Further to my earlier comments (which may have been eaten or lost due to spam filtering)

    You’re failing to understand that at the core of what Nick talks about is that some content needs to be deserving of attention in some ways.

    IE — you can have a great story, but if you fail to communicate it properly, no one might notice. Take the headline of your article. You could have called it something like:

    Linkbaiting Concerns Me

    But instead, you’ve gone with one that’s designed to attract attention. Are you gaming the system by doing this? I don’t think so. You’re simply understanding how particular mediums operate.

    When you write that “the whole SEO buisness simply disappoints me beyond belief,” I’m just saddened that you did read my article but still come away thinking SEO is linkbaiting and “subverting.”

    Honestly, I’d really love to have you come to a conference some time and sit on a panel where people have to answer questions about SEO issues in terms of site design. I’ve done that for years and years now. A huge part of SEO is making a site search engine friendly, solving some of the problem that actually do come up and aren’t easily solved by many people.

    You do address this in part. But when you talk about “disingenuous lists,” that’s also called content. Who are you to judge that someone making an interesting list to appeal to the Digg masses is disingenuous. In case you haven’t noticed, that tends to be what they like. And people are writing to that new audience. If it’s crap, the audience will know it.

    Indeed, you say you worry less that the search engines will make tolerances. Of course — and they have, and they’ve done that in part with the help of the SEO community that’s often so slammed. It also serves as an incredible check-and-balance on search engines when they don’t operate in the way that they say they should.

    And that was the concluding part of my article. The social media optimization industry that’s growing isn’t one to be feared. You’re not going to shove it back into a bottle. You can complain, and should complain, about abuses you have in social media. But having people who understand social media doesn’t mean shitting in the nest. It can actually mean having people who also help keep the nest clean.

  5. Ben

    Excellent post, you summarized what a lot of folks are thinking and feeling. I do suspect that the ‘people’ together and collectively will figure out how to filter out the crap from the gold. People like you will help lead this, thanks.

    Excellent post

  6. Nick Wilson Nick Wilson

    Ben, I wrote the viral link building article. I can’t quite work out why you would think that making truly remarkable, tailored content aimed at those with a genuine interest in the subject matter would be a bad thing?

    It seems you either didnt read it, or in your zeal missed the point.

    Feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss it, I’ll be happy to explain it to you on the phone/skype/email/im or however you choose.


    ps: Im credited with inventing the term linkbait from back in 2004, but recently (as you ntoiced) have stopped using it as its started to pick up the wrong vibe. Really good viral link building is all about building stuff that people find so cool, so useful, so remarkable that they naturally link to it.

    Really, where’s the problem with that?

  7. pocoyoyo pocoyoyo

    i don’t understand this post at all can someone explain it too me? it sounds like someone’s been drinking from his own fountain a bit much. maybe some hair dye slipped in? keep moderating the comments, kid

  8. Ben Ben

    Hey Danny,

    So yeah because of the keywords etc your comments ended up in Akismet, but I fished them out this morning (SF time). It’s only been 8-9 hrs since I published that blog post but I had to wade through almost 300 spam comments to find yours I get that much spam… 🙁

    Arhh so where do I begin.

    Most of your first comment I appreciate and understand where your coming from, I just disagree.

    The idea with social media is that people write stuff, make stuff, create stuff, whatever and then, on it’s own merits, the network decides whether to Digg/whatever it or not.

    You/Nick/SELand seem to think that creating content specifically targeted for those networks is fine, I don’t. It’s not organic and whilst many could argue the ‘wisdom of crowds’ should bury it if they don’t like it, unfortunately that over-hashed concept isn’t applicable-in-all cases and in this Digg environments we get more of the ‘herd mentality’.

    That’s an issue us practitioners of social media need to try to address better, but it’s ultimately human nature.

    You close your first comment with:

    I think the various networks are just find [sic] in making a collective decision of what they like or dislike.

    I actually think it’s a great example of a line which many people in this industry are scared of refuting.

    Digg, for example, is not a collective decision of what people like… it’s a collective decision of what a specific, non-representative demographic of people like who end up being influential as many more people use the site in a ‘read-only way’ to get news, links etc. Of course, we should try to encourage everyone to participate in Digg (and other social media services) to redress the balance but it’s not in every one’s nature to – that’s the first fault in the system the SEO/LinkBaiting crowd are able to subvert. But unlike a search engine, that’s not something that’s easily fixed. My mother is simply never going to use Digg.

    There are better examples of social media working, but I raise Digg because it’s one of the popular propositions with the linkbait industry (because it’s so easy to subvert). I’m also not a big fan of Digg, mainly for that reason.

    In your second comment you asked whether I was ‘gaming the system’ by titling my post “On linkbaiting, SEO’ing and all that other crap” and not simply “Linkbaiting Concerns Me”.

    I can honestly say that I came to my headline in a very organic way, like I do most of my post titles. I simply say to myself “what is this post about?”. And I wrote “linkbaiting, SEO’ing and all that crap”. I admittedly added “on” and “other” to round off the title.

    The use of the word crap maybe considered ‘hype’ but if you’ve ever heard me speak, I’m known for my use of such ‘fruity language’ in normal conversation.

    huge part of SEO is making a site search engine friendly, solving some of the problem that actually do come up and aren’t easily solved by many people.

    Maybe I’m missing out on a trick but I actually don’t do any conscious optimization of my blog. I try to write does-what-it-says-on-the-tin headlines and I ensure that my templates are well-formed HTML (that’s how I originally got into this business). But I don’t stick specific things into specific h1, h2 tags etc – I just let the search engines make their natural decision

    When I worked at the BBC we never did any SEO on our pages. Sure, you could argue that the BBC doesn’t exactly need a leg up on the search engines but equally many of it’s competitors do. At BBC News Website, where I spent most of my coding days, it was just something we never thought about, and looking through the HTML on the site now they still seem to be using the same templates that I helped build when I was there.

    Again, it’s not an area I’ve ever been compelled to pursue in any of my sites – both personal or business.

    On search engines you write:

    “It also serves as an incredible check-and-balance on search engines when they don’t operate in the way that they say they should.”

    I simply don’t believe you guys are doing what you are doing ‘to address the checks an balances in the search engines’ – sorry for being a broken record but to say so sounds once again disingenuous. Equally, who’s holding the checks and balances against you, esp in social media?

    The social media optimization industry that’s growing isn’t one to be feared. You’re not going to shove it back into a bottle.

    Those two sentences jar for me – and that’s direct quote from your comment, not spliced from two separate parts.

    So look Danny, of the people I know of in the SEO world you seem to be one of the good guys and from what I know of you from your writing you seem less inclined to explore the more shady parts of the industry. I also thank you for responding on behalf of the industry.

    If you do have an SEO conference, I’d love to come along – it’s a whole area I’d love to grok more and equally attend as an advocate of the social media space.

    Thanks for reading my blog post,


  9. hugh macleod hugh macleod

    Good response, Ben.

    It took me a few years to get gapingvoid to the point where I was happy with both the size and quality of my “audience”. Most marketing dorks don’t have that luxury of time, so I can see why SEO would appeal to them…

  10. Jason Calacanis I do consider all the ideas you’ve introduced on your post. They’re very convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are very good for beginners. May you please lengthen them a bit from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

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