Posted by: Marshall Sponder | May 31, 2008

Ethics and SEO

I meant to write a post about this earlier – often I read or hear something, but it’s not the whole story – I have an emotional response, but haven’t had the time to really process it (because, in my gut, I know that I don’t have the whole story).

A couple of days ago I read about Ethics in Social Media and Online Marketing in Chris Garrett’s blog and I got to thinking what are the limits of ethical behavior in Social Media, and by extension, SEO?

The story goes something like this. Writer creates fictitious story, gets it to the front page of Digg, which leads to mentions in tabloid newspapers and Fox News.

Apart from the “fictitious” aspect, this would be considered by anyone a major victory. One count puts it at 1500 fresh inbound links. Unfortunately it is the truth/fiction aspect that has people up in arms. Variously the story is being called “fraud”, “hoax” and “satire”. People are getting emotive which is often dangerous.

I am not going to pass judgment because I do not know the intentions or brief behind the campaign and I do not want to know. The writer still has my respect, after all these are the sorts of link bait results we dream of if you ignore the story itself and the backlash for a moment!

…Would I create a false story to gain attention? No. Do I think it is wrong to plant a false story? Yes and no. Yes because as I said, I wouldn’t do it myself, and no because, well, tabloids and Fox News are also partly to blame (hello, fact-check anyone?) and are not exactly well known for being pristine purveyors of the absolute truth are they?

While I don’t think it’s Google’s role to regulate false stories, someone, some entity does need to regulate it (might this be a legitamte function of “Goverment”)?

Bruce Clay’s newsletter and blog chimes in – and fills in the details I was missing via Lisa Barone in a post titled  Google Is Not the Government, Nor My Mother

f you haven’t been following the story, here are the important nuggets: Lyndon Antcliff posted a fake news story on his client Money.co.uk’s Web site without labeling it as such. The satirical story was then picked up by several mainstream news channels, including Fox News, and received a serious amount of links and about a gazillion diggs. Proud of his accomplishment, Lyndon blogged about what had happened and his success (the post has since been removed).

Cue all hell breaking loose as search marketers come out from corners everywhere throwing rocks at Lyndon for manipulating the Internetz.

I’m going to openly state that I don’t agree with link bait at any cost. I don’t think that creating a fake news story in an attempt to get links is a smart business decision. I’m not going to get into the ethics of whether it’s right or wrong, because really, my opinion on that doesn’t matter to anyone but myself. I just don’t consider it an effective strategy in that I’d be really fearful of breaking the trust of your audience.

Even so, the idea that Google would suddenly start penalizing those who did is borderline ludicrous. It’s not Google’s job to be your mother and slap you on the wrist for telling a long tale, and any attempt at doing so would be completely unscalable and mind numbing. Google already has one unscalable nightmare with the paid links debacle. Do they really want to get into the battle of protecting the integrity of the Internet by only ranking “truthful” articles? What the heck is truth on the Internet anyway? Where do you draw that line? A search for [2008 president campaign] would bring up zero results.

Sure, it’s Google’s index and they have a right to take action against things that are “deceptive”, I just question whether or not the line should be drawn this close. I’ve seen link bait far more “deceptive” than what Lyndon offered up. And is something deceptive just because some people don’t pick up on the joke? Maybe we should ban April Fools day or other satirical news sites? Personally, I read Lyndon’s story when he Twittered it and giggled. I didn’t take the story as fact, but I can see how others may have had they only skimmed it. It’s certainly not Lyndon’s fault that Fox didn’t take the time to validate any of the sources or make an attempt to prove its truthfulness. Just like it’s not anyone else’s fault when someone reads a fake news story on April Fools Day and then blogs about it later as truth. You should have done your homework.

Just as there needed to be regulation in financial and stock institutions, I see a need for there to regulation – to some extent – even if it’s just a slap on the wrist – in Search and Social Media, just as there is supposed to be truth in advertising.

The problem is, there isn’t … but it’s not the search engine’s job to decide what is spam and what is not.   The problem is, they’re stepping up to the plate because no one else has or is willing to take on that role.

But I don’t think we should let Google decide what is Spam, what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong.

We…., we should decide that – not Google.

Now we have to create an entity that would examine and enforce ethics, along with the penalties that go with it (you have to have penalties or else you can’t enforce anything).

That’s my opinion.

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