Over the weekend, The New York Times continued what is seemingly becoming a monthly affair of alerting the general public to questionable search engine optimization (SEO) tactics, this time reporting on the problems that exist in Google Maps and on Places pages.
The Times was assisted once again by Digital Due Diligence, which recently outed flower companies for attempting to game Google for Mother's Day as well as startup Milanoo – and DDD's Doug Pierce also was a key figure in the outing of JCPenney, the Times story that started this new wave of SEO exposés and outings back in February.
Despite how the New York Times tries to paint the SEO industry with its scandalous headlines, none of these "outing" stories - or even Overstock.com's run in with Google – involve any broken laws or insider trading, only breaches of Google's terms and conditions.
While it is commendable that the New York Times is looking out for fairness in the marketing space, why were these companies chosen and why weren't others who were also ranking high for the terms? There would have been paid links of one sort or another going to a few, if not all, of the sites also ranking for terms Overstock and JCPenney were profiting from.
This outing has been discussed by many in our industry lately.
Aaron Wall, founder of SEOBook, points out that this type of outing undermines the search industry:
"The core issue here is professionalism. Should we let people who screw other people over get ahead while trying to paint themselves as the good guy? I don't see how there is any hope left for the industry if that becomes the new normal. Every time there is a high profile outing SEO investments become perceived as being more risky and the whole of the industry looks less professional."
The New York Times story about lead gen sites monopolizing Maps and Places shows a problem that exists with Places. There may be some people gaming the system, but in this case there are also national brands that have an edge at times.
“We’re aware of the gaming practices happening in the locksmith industry — practices which long predate Google and have affected the Yellow Pages for decades," a Google spokesperson told the NYTimes. "We’ve implemented several measures to combat this issue, including improving our spam-detection algorithms and working with the locksmith industry to find solutions.”
John Andrews, a well-known Seattle-based SEO, notes:
"I do wonder though why we spend effort on these discussions. Clearly, companies like NYT are chasing scandal in hopes of tabloidal attention. Clearly, wise and experienced SEOs know the attention game, and don't need to read this (nor participate). Clearly naive middle-tier, client-serving SEO consultants will engage such discussions, for various reasons (mostly having to do with the low levels of monetization of their attention).
If NYT has a bagman in the Digital Do Dilly Gents or whomever, so what? The more they trust such a source, the worse it will look for them down the road, right?"
I have been approached to do competitor analysis by companies that see this as the way to rise in the search results. One, such company was copying the tactics of their competitor but wanted to find out the links and methods they had yet to discover. I have turned down a few of these and it seems there are a lot of people who now see SEO as outing your competition.
These companies, along with the New York Times, need to use tools like Link Research Tools, they can find all they need and more. The more would be ways to do solid SEO themselves. The fact that the New York Times does not know anything about such tools does not bode well on their ability to verify any of the facts for these stories.
In support of what they do, Digital Due Diligence wrote an article about why they are good for the SEO industry. The article closes with:
"...there will always be black-hat SEO. It's a game theory kind of thing; the more people abandon it, the more it pays off for the folks who do it right. We're not on a crusade to get rid of link-buying or anything else, but we do think that the value of an online business is in some way related to the way it built its traffic, and to how long that traffic will last. As long as we do our job right, people will get the right rewards for the traffic they generate—whether it's white-hat, black-hat, or some as-yet-determined shade."
Obviously, the company doesn't want black hat methods to go away, they would lose their business. They see many online marketing methods as "martingale bets' - bets that win until a catastrophe occurs. Triple D is using a martingale bet of their own - as long as there are gamers of the SEO system they have work, but they are also the catastrophe for many companies.