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June 26, 2008

Are SEO Ethics Different than Social Media Ethics?

By Li Evans

Ethics I've been chewing on some thoughts lately.  These thoughts circle around social media and search marketing professionals claiming to be experts in this vast huge universe that involves social news, forums, micro-blogging, blogs and many, many more channels of engagement.  I was dismayed at some things that were presented on the Social Media Success panel in Toronto at SES.

Along with that, I was just flabbergasted at a submission on Sphinn about gaming Twitter for "do follow" links.  It wasn't so much the fact that someone wrote this post.  Nickycakes is a great programmer and does come up with some time saving ideas, so naturally if he sees opportunities from his frame of mind (being a reformed black hat and all) he's going to write about it. 

However, what really made my jaw drop was who all Sphunn this article to put it to the front page.  People who I have greatly respected and thought they were pretty honest when it came to doing things in social media.  But here they were promoting something that pretty clearly is something that would "spam" a social media channel.

I asked David Harry why he sphunn it, and he said that "social media spammers that proudly OUT their Twitter spamming tactics won't be around long if we PUBLICIZE the exploit."  David makes an excellent point there, perhaps a few are of like mind with him.  But I still couldn't get over who sphunn this up after it "went hot" and was well publicized. 

It all just has my mind churning, and I still do not get why people need to game social media. 

Take the tactic of "Vanity Baiting" for example.  This tactic, used by SEO's, made me stop and question everything that was said to me in the past by SEO's who now seem to be "overly gracious" with their comments.  Have I been "baited" for months with this vanity baiting tactic?  How can I trust anyone who uses this tactic, that they are being truthful with their compliments going forward? Was any of that real, or was that to get me to stumble, read, sphinn, and link to them?  If it was, it worked in the past because I have done all of that, now though I will have to think twice, because the trust that was there, is now gone.

What about gaming Twitter for backlinks?  Seems harmless?  Think again.  If you get found out as a spammer on Twitter (and now Plurk), the community bands together and not only reports your to the respective services, but the community shuns you.  Sure you may have your other spammer friends to follow you, but will anyone else?  Likely not, then what good is gaming Twitter?

What about multiple accounts on social media news and bookmarking services?  Think it's all about the "avatar"?  Think again.  It's about the human, and again, if you are found out to be building fake accounts - i.e. claiming to be a 43 year old mom of 3 who loves cooking, scrapbooking and knitting, when you are really a 30 something man, who's spamming the scrapbooking folks with your fake profile/avatar, all hell's going to break loose when those people you befriended through the bot you created, figure out your spamming them.  But hey! What's a few profiles to burn down, right?  Trouble is all that time spent "faking it" could have been spent being real and making real connections that gain you much more than links.

Want to know what's the saddest thing about all of this is to me?  None of these tactics are ever discussed in the social media channels where social media practitioners are active.  In fact, most of them are horrified that people not only do this, but strategize for their clients to do this.  They think of people who suggest such things, and tell people and clients to do these things are Spammers and Manipulators. 

The_plague These tactics are pretty much only discussed and promoted in the search marketing sphere of online marketing.  That folks, really saddens me. 

I don't believe a lot of SEO's want to manipulate Social Media or be likened to a spammer.  Unfortunately with tactics and blog posts like I demonstrated above, that are not only being presented, but promoted within the Search Industry, the people outside of the Search Industry are lumping us all together.  Think of that, the next time you meet someone at a social media event and say "I'm a search marketer" and they seem to not really want to associate with you, or look at you like you have the plague.

Hattips to Jennifer Laycock, Elizabeth Able, Mack Collier and David Harry for helping me out with this.


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Fairly recently, I asked fellow tweeters what they thought of using a pseudonym or pen name, and most thought it was perfectly fine, as long as it wasn't intended for causing real harm via fraud, etc.

As an example, I recently had a guest blogger whose "name" is obviously a pen name, and I'd guess the person might be someone we all know as someone else (tho I'm not sure). But I don't see how that makes anything "bad". The post was quality. Does anything else matter?

If I want to create a site using a pen name, and write it based on who I was 20 years ago (i.e. from that point of view), does that necessarily make the site unworthy?

I guess I just am not sure that this issue is necessarily cut and dry or black and white. The world we live in is often infused with lots of shades of gray.

I think the post in question could have been toned down some and been perfectly valid for anyone, not just blackhats:

1. Create a twitter app because of the backlink possibility.
2. Forget about the rest of the post.

I have played in the black hat arena, but not with social media. I eventually realized that I have enough interests that I don't need faked accounts. I could have valid accounts if I stopped chasing trends and starting monetizing my interests.

Black hat is fast and automated. A human touch adds so much more. I saw the main reason I have used any black hat techniques was because I was unsure of what I was doing, so I didn't want to spend to much time on it.

Plus, it's just better to know you're representing yourself out in the open.

All's fair in Social media (love) and SEO (war)...

We all do what works... one mans spammer is another mans search guru - The ones who are great spammers don't get caught and they produce some amazing results... The bad ones though, well, they get blogged about and outed.

thanks for a very interesting post!

i agree with wingnut, it's all pretty grey. i personally have been on twitter for over a year and frequently get followed by people who follow a gazillion people. i rarely follow them, only if they have something interesting to say (which they rarely do).

social media is such a new thing. we need to learn so much about how to behave in this new environment. what may seem like distasteful practices to me may just be the bungling babysteps of someone trying out a new medium.

i like to remember that behind every spammer there is a real human being.

"Trouble is all that time spent "faking it" could have been spent being real and making real connections that gain you much more than links."

I couldn't agree more. Gaming any of the social media sites only pollutes the experience for those who are using these services legitimately. We construct elaborate filters to avoid having to deal with spam via email and it's only a matter of time before similar filtering options will be available on social networking sites. Spam in any format is still spam, an interruption, an annoyance. Being real and making real connections adds value - seems a much stronger marketing strategy to me.

"Black hat SEO" versus gaming social media: IMO, the expectations are different for those visiting a website and social networkers. It's like the difference between walking in to a store versus meeting a friend for lunch. If a salesperson in the store hard sells you, you may be annoyed... but if it turns out the person you thought was a friend was simply using you to get introduced to someone else, you feel angry, betrayed, maybe a little embarrassed. Your feelings, and your response are likely to be much harsher when you've been taken for a ride by someone pretending to be your friend.

When it comes to website SEO, frankly I'm not big on "hat colors." I think it comes down to a matter of risk -- there are high risk tactics and there are lower risk tactics. Which ones you recommend for a client depend on the client's situation and their tolerance for risk. As long as you've fully disclosed the potential consequences and the client agrees, then as far as I'm concerned you can have at it. Smart "high risk" practitioners don't lie about what their client's sites are about -- they simply use more aggressive tactics to bring the sites to the attention of others.

But "blackhat tactics" in the social networking world are a different matter. You're breaking the fundamental social contract. Substituting automated bots for human interaction. Deceiving people into thinking you're something you're not. Lying about yourself and what you're about. Pretending to be a friend.

Aggressive marketing is okay, IMO. Lying, deception and cynical manipulation are not.

I'm going to come at this from the POV of someone that's up to his neck (happily so) in social media, and that has little understanding of the search world.

I don't know what exactly is and is not acceptable in the search world, but on the social media side of the fence, most of us have pretty highly-refined BS detectors. We become very pissy very quickly if we think someone is even considering being less than authentic in how they use these sites and tools.

If rankings are the currency in the search world, then trust is why makes the social media world go round. Lose that trust and you're done here.

nice article

I'm pleased to see you taking this on, Li, but I'm amused by this line from your post: "...I still do not get why people need to game social media." I'd add "...or cheat on their taxes or run red lights or cut in front of you in line at the movies."

There will always be black hats, which means all of us in white hats need to be more vigilant, more bold, more active in educating our clients and the public about the legitimate uses of media in generating conversation and interaction between businesses and consumers.

I was recently interviewed by our local business weekly about burying bad news in search results pages. I railed against the practice on both ethical and practical grounds, but my voice ended up only a small one in the published article. So in response I published my original notes to the journalist on my blog. I'm sure none of it is news to the readers of this blog, but it's another voice "for the good guys." http://parkandco.com/blog/?p=105

Hi,Choosing between Pay-Per-Click Marketing and Search Engine Optimization is not a matter of measuring return on investment. There are major differences between the two approaches and the choice between one or the other is based on different factors.

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