The Metaphysics of SEO Ethics

by on October 20, 2010 | posted in SEO Theory

Within SEO, there exists a trinity of potential stances on linking. Those three stances are paid vs non-paid links, disruptive links vs. non-disruptive links, and manipulative links vs. content-driven links.

Before going into the deeper implications of how they blend together, let’s break down the differing ideologies to give you a better background on what the world of search thinks – and what that means.

Paid Links vs. Non Paid Links

This is the neo-classical SEO debate, and, to me, the most naive. Paid vs. Non Paid is about as straightforward as it sounds – in one camp, the frustrated white-hats pant wildly against the cash transaction of links – while the other side, that with money or the willingness to bend the rules, will throw their money down on red in a prohibitive game of chance – or, at least, that’s how the non-paid linkers see it.

This cognitive stance comes most often from a simplistic mindset of those people stuck in a “non-paid” thought process. Those who follow a dichotomy such as this have one or more of the following characteristics – 1) a lack of monetary resources with which to invest, 2) an incessant paranoia that the “man” will get him, or 3), a shallow view of SEO’s intricacies and minutiae.

This triumvirate of reasons give pretty clear implications as to why I see error in this stance. I go into some intricate detail in my post Death to the “Paid Link”, but for abbreviations sake, let me say that viewing the purchase of links as the only currently spamtastic practice is inane. When you ask your friend to give you a blog archive link deep in your site to your porn domain or you use your business relationship to pry a sitewide anchor text link out of a powerful internet brand to your terrible website because you can connect that person to an investor – that kind of exchange is more manipulative than any $20 blog link could ever be.

And for that reason, I believe this “paid vs non-paid” imagining is the most transparently terrible of the three edges of the ethical link trinity.

Manipulative Links vs. Content-Driven Links

I went into some decent detail of this stance in my recent post on Content Link Efficacy. In this dichotomy, one receives links either through content-driven practice – that is, from the pure value of their website’s content or product offering, or, simply doesn’t. This can mean submitting to link directories, having a friend give you a link, buying a link, or something else.

The difficulty with this dichotomy is that it is almost never cut-and-dry – unless you sit back and let your website be discovered, rarely will you obtain a purely content-driven link. Almost always, there’s some kind of accessory value proposition as well – such as your wit in pitching your website. Even if the times where you offer your friend a link without it, seemingly, being content-driven at all – some piece of their website’s content goes into the equation – if you run a porn website or have a geocities site from the 30s, there’s a decent chance they’ll draw the line somewhere. So, this, much like the Paleo diet, often gets broken – at least as far as the yin and the yang are concerned. But what matters, here, is how often you waver near the originating point – if you choose a content-driven ideology or a manipulative-driven one.

The problem, though, with this “hang around the edge” mindset is in Content Link Efficacy – many sites are simply incapable of deriving a good amount of links from their strong content practices, so it is in their best interest to undergo manipulative link procedures to best benefit their site’s search rankings.

So what does that say for this ideology? I’m not entirely sure. In many ways, this trinity is like theology – there isn’t necessarily an answer to what’s right or what’s wrong, but intelligent people can often summarily agree that certain practices – like Paid vs. Non-Paid Links – are an absolute joke. But we might not be able to outright prove it.

Yeah, that makes sense.

Disruptive Links vs. Non-Disruptive Links

The disruptive link stance puts user-experience at the forefront. Yes, paid links happen. And yes, manipulative links happen. It’s part of this wickedy wild internet. But what matters, ultimately, is how they impact user experience. If your friend gives you a link in a situation where only if you were his friend he would give you a link – but it’s on a topically relevant site and it doesn’t offset the user – that’s non-disruptive.

But if suddenly you post a link with the anchor “online dating” on a seafood site, shit just got real. Because it shocked me. And it probably made me bounce from the site. And that domino effect means that eventually, your site value is at risk. Many a site has been disrespected or ignored because they had obtrusively obvious anchor text links in their blogroll, content, footer, or the person who ran it had a bad haircut.

There’s varying levels of disruption – if a link simply exists on the page and doesn’t visually interrupt the surfing experience of the user, it has passed one level of acceptance. If you can click through and it’s still not a site that doesn’t deserve to be linked from Google’s homepage, it’s passed a second. Generally, the second tier is harder to uncover. But the first, undoubtedly, is the one that causes websites to sink like an anchor in the eyes of their visitors – and also, is the kind of link that Google has working algorithmic characteristics to uncover and bury the site.

Establishing the Correct Positioning

Ethics are debatable. As such, so, too, are SEO ethics. Because they’re hard to prove. So I’ll use sustentative opinion and some approximate rationale to show you where I think you should fall on the scale.

Since Google is the white knight, it is proper to imagine them on the “positive” side of the scale for each appropriate category – non-disruptive links, content-driven links, and non-paid links. The thing is, Google states that any link that is given for the sole purpose of PageRank manipulation is the kind that’s against their guidelines. So, that means that a few pieces of this puzzle don’t quite fit. Since sometimes disruptive links occur simply due to the ineffiencies and ignorance of webmasters (after all, many are instinctually terrible as designing a strong user experience environment for their visitors), Google’s stance as against disruptive vs. non disruptive links poises them as more frequent adherents to a more content driven, non-paid driven model, and weighs them more effectually towards that scale. To quote Google, “Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank”. If we look at this trinity, we know Manipulative Links and Paid Links are 100% meant to do exactly that – while disruptive links, sometimes, do not.

The problem, of course, is this is the exact opposite of what Google does. Google has forms where you can report spammers and paid-link buyers, but for all intensive purposes, recent suggestion and popular opinion is that this form is, for all intensive purposes, effectively a black hole. The reason the black hole exists is because it pays for Google to waver to that end – if it wasn’t even ambiguously perceivable that they were taking action against spam given webmaster requests, webmasters would rage and fuel against them, but what they must say and what they must do is dramatically different. It is not a mistake that Google’s Better Business Bureau rating is not exceptional.

Manually checking spam, after all, doesn’t scale. There are billions of websites on the internet, and for them to pick apart every paid link and manipulative web practice simply can’t be done. And to do it manually when only an adept webmaster is intelligent enough to detect and report it really isn’t fair – it’s like only policing the neighborhoods of the rich kids while the poor neighborhoods go down in gas-driven flames.

But what DOES scale, and what matters, is that certain manipulative practices are actually detectable under an effective algorithm. This means that what Google must do, despite their outward PR efforts, is weigh heavily towards an elimination of the disruptive model. The reason for this is that it is the only scalable and absolutely detectable spam process available on the web.

Google can’t tell if I hand a 20 dollar bill to a webmaster on the city streets in exchange for a link – even if it’s in one of their automated cars. For this reason, paid versus non-paid is not an efficient model to judge the web. Similarly, manipulative vs. content-driven is such a gray area of ethics, and as I discuss in my content efficacy post, some parts of the web simply can’t operate without manipulative practices. And on a web that’s driven on pure randomized model where links are obtained insanely rarely on their content value, against a resource driven, frequently manipulative-link practice model, the latter will always end up with better search results. And that’s what Google wants.

For these reasons, asking to judge a paid link or a manipulative link, in the purest form, is so tough for Google to judge holistically that it becomes in their best interest to absolutely ignore manual requests to remove these blips on the web. Instead, they can aim to purely eradicate the value disruptive links have – because these are the absolutely algorithmically detectable links on the web. If you use thousands of keywords that are clearly in competitive environments (based on things like adwords data, or otherwise, the competitiveness of the SERP based on algorithmic conclusions) on your page, you’re signaling to Google that you run a disruptive link environment. And if you link to a dating website on your seafood page, you’re doing the same. And often times, these cross-blend with manipulative or paid link tendencies – so Google, in practice, hopes to solve – or hold off – their PR problem at the same time. But since these links don’t always fall into an area where they are algorithmically detectable, Google can’t always solve this issue — because it’s impossible for them to do so, especially in a way that doesn’t become something of “opinion” rather than fact. That gray area, that Google can do nothing about besides policing only the rich neighborhoods of the web, means that they will forever get slack for what flies and what doesn’t in the SERPs. But, whether or not they say it, a SERP devoid of disruptive links that pass value is the kind of SERP they aim for.

Disruptive links, like a dating site anchor posted on a seafood site, is not saying that much for the value of the dating site – even if it’s wasn’t manipulatively gained, or paid for with money – because the person is likely not a domain expert in that area. SO, Google moves to completely ignore the paid and spam link form on their website (except to better inform algorithmic changes), and instead moves steadfast towards a model that ignores the gray, confusing tribulations of paid link and manipulative link assessment and towards a better, more definitive “disruptive” link evaluation process that will better, and more totally, judge the web.

Thinking More Intelligently About “Spam” Practices

So, what does this mean for the webmaster? It means that they should start thinking about the web, and spam practices, a little smarter. When an intelligent SEO understands the above realities of the web, they should stop crying and start accepting what that means for their broader strategy. By moving towards a plan that avoids non-disruptive links, they establish a link building process that passes the most value and also, almost certainly, is the most sustainable. If they instead worry about how their opponents are buying links and spamming the internet, they confirm a misguided, and losing, position.

In a perfect world, the entire web would be decided by a content-driven model. The best content, purely, would win. But this is not a perfect world. The social world devalues those verticals that don’t share their social genetics – and, similarly, it is impossible to “drug test” every website on the internet for paid links – so, for the best interests of the web, meritocracy is not an ideal model. What seems ethically correct is not, because it is impossible to achieve. What is correct is an algorithm that rewards a holistic strategy – one driven on consistency, marketing ability, talent to allocate marketing dollars, and the creative ability to wiggle out value-passing links in whatever method possible.

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