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Search Marketing's About People and Principles, Not Just Algorithms, Part 2

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More coverage of Danny Sullivan's keynote address at Chicago's Search Engine Strategies conference, continued from yesterday's Search Marketing's About People and Principles, Not Just Algorithms, Part 1.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 5-8, 2005, Chicago, IL.

As the industry has matured, forums, conferences blogs, mailing lists, organizations, and other forms of community have kept the social fabric strong, contributing to healthy debate and learning. Sullivan listed some of the more prominent ones. A maturing industry needs better communication, with members showing a more transparent "public face."

When a member of the community, Ian Turner, went missing following a conference, posts appeared immediately on several blogs and forums, sounding the alarm. Google's Matt Cutts pitched in with a post. (Turner was tracked down, safe and sound, and his family was grateful for his colleagues' concern.) The community has begun to rally around "its own," in good times and bad.

Sullivan went on to cite a variety of examples where members of the SEM community have begun to take a stronger stand against the very worst practices perpetrated by members "not in good standing." Sullivan believes in a broadly inclusive community, save for those who refuse to accept the basic rules of society—these, Sullivan seems to think, should be banished from the loop (clearly Danny's been reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

And as with J.S. Mill (and Edward R. Murrow), Sullivan is all about free speech, and countering "bad speech" with better speech. He doesn't believe in draconian measures or top-down government, but rather, realizes that a range of social-pressure-type punishments can be effective against those who act anti-socially. (Mill, for example, believed strongly in the power of speech-oriented sanctions, such as open disagreement and shunning.)

Increasingly, visible members of this community have appealed to spammers to have some sense of perspective and decency. A few affiliate dollars aren't worth ignoring all social conventions, are they? Mike Grehan, for example, had pleaded with spammers to have some decency when they adorned his late friend's memorial guestbook with junk links. Following up on this theme, Sullivan recently tried a search for "memorial guestbook Viagra" and came across scores of spammy guestbook entries. When an established member of the community runs across this kind of behavior, first they get sad. Then they get angry. Even the lowliest rookie player in the minor leagues must have accountability, Sullivan implies. Or they can put aside any hope of cracking the starting lineup.

What outsiders need to understand, then, is that the starting Dream Team of search marketers aren't shady characters living in a swamp, figuring out how to dupe innocent robots. They're professionals with a strong professional ethic and strong social ties.

On the lighter side, Sullivan cited Barry Schwartz's marriage proposal "via search engine," the first of its kind, and facilitated by the folks at Ask.com. And friendly rivalries have emerged amongst search engines; for example, the cheeky SERP "never run out of beer" that came up on Yahoo Search in summer 2004 in response to the query "SES party rule #1." The Heineken flowed freely all night long from taps at the Google Dance 2005.

Sullivan tipped his cap to the little "rewards" that the search companies have offered to long-suffering search marketers of good conscience: "weather reports" by Yahoo Search, offering guidance on major algorithmic updates; Google Sitemaps, making it easier for sites to get indexed, and Google Sitemaps stats, extending the exchange of information between sites and Googlebot; and last but not least, Yahoo Site Explorer, which consolidates site indexing information in a handy format for webmasters. To which Sullivan said simply: "love it, but of course we want more." Briefly, he pleaded for improvements in communications with the search spiders, and a need for search advertising reps at Google and Yahoo to act as friends, not foes, to search marketing agencies.

Sullivan senses the tide turning in terms of public acceptance, predicting that ongoing education by experienced community members, and a rising bar for what constitutes minimum professional standards, will eventually win the day in the battle for more positive PR (and we don't mean PageRank) for the search marketing industry. While acknowledging the slant in some recent pieces, he cited a glowing piece about Lucas Morea, a search marketer who is portrayed as an innovator with a cool job, and the "normalcy" of David Karandish as portrayed on Martha Stewart's The Apprentice, to the point where he's seen on camera telling Stewart that she could do better in search engines on some flagship keyphrases. The moral of the story? Search marketers will be seen as "normal people with normal jobs" only if they continue to work at being good people who do a good job.

Sports halls of fame are sometimes categorized to honor those who shone by building the game, rather than playing it. In the Hockey Hall of Fame, legendary coaches like Scotty Bowman and commentators like Foster Hewitt are called "builders." In any industry you can think of, come to think of it, there are those who step out on a limb, who accept special responsibility not just for winning on the playing field, but for putting the teams together, helping the stadiums get built, drawing the crowds, cheering on the teams, and debating standards. Sullivan's role as an SEM "builder" shouldn't be underestimated. The SEM "players" enjoy the rewards of community, such as Yahoo weather reports, Google Sitemaps, and industry cocktail parties and roundtables; but builders of Sullivan's status actually play a role in facilitating and lobbying for such rewards.

Legendary Washington Redskins running back John Riggins could fall down drunk at a gala and tell a Supreme Court Justice to "loosen up." But he was just a player, and players get judged mainly by their stats.

As a "builder," as opposed to a mere "player," Sullivan isn't about to stand up in front of a crowd and tell marketers that "anything goes." Thus the strong moral stance against the bottom-feeders who have reflected poorly on the rest of the SEM community by trafficking in stolen content, participating in link spam schemes that don't even stop at memorial guestbooks, and engaging in fraudulent schemes and boiler-room deception. In defending the community as a whole (save the worst exceptions), by rallying it together, and by refusing to needlessly criticize any particular tactic or camp (save for the 0.2% of the most destructive), Sullivan's case against the worst abusers becomes that much stronger.

You heard right: Sullivan concluded his keynote by lightheartedly rallying the "troops" against the evil forces that would drag this successful industry down, indicating to any search engine reps listening that they should consider "us" as "foot soldiers" in the war against spam, stolen content, illegality, and the most insidious forms of deception. That offer comes in the form of an implied bargain, though: if they want the "foot soldiers" in the SEM community to continue to promote search engines, the search engines should themselves act as members of the community, and treat their colleagues with respect. (If not? We'll be armed with jelly doughnuts, distributed by Danny.)

Given Sullivan's leadership track record at Search Engine Watch Forums (to say nothing of the conferences), thousands of members of the SEM community already know that he takes a pluralist's view of what "the community" means, and would have us expel or censure a member only when their actions are so vile that they threaten to ruin it for all. Search engine marketing practices can always be debated, but basic decency and sociability aren't negotiable. Without these, the industry would deserve every slur (cockroaches? worthless? criminals?—please!) hurled its way.

Sullivan's willingness to squint through the haze, dig in his heels, and stand up for the good guys—while defining "good guys" as broadly as possible—puts one in mind of Edward R. Murrow himself. As one of the stars of Good Night, and Good Luck (Frank Langella) recently put it: "The most American thing you can do is speak your mind."

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