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September 11, 2011

Deceptive Marketing: A Necessary Evil for Search Marketers?

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A few years ago, I read a good article by Canadian SEO Melanie Nathan called “The Reciprocity Link Building Method” in which she outlined a technique she sometimes used to build up high-quality links for her clients’ websites. The gist, as I understood it, was to first find a website that would be good for your client’s site to link to. Then you’d click around to see if any of their current links were broken (went to dead pages or sites). If you found some, you’d use this information as an opening to start a dialogue with the site owner or webmaster, and eventually mention your client’s site as a substitute for one of the broken links. I thought it was a very clever idea, a great way to make contacts in your client’s industry, and a win-win for everyone involved.

More recently I saw another article on this topic by Nick LeRoy, a search marketer in the Minneapolis area. Nick talked about the same basic technique Melanie had mentioned, and added a real-life example email he had used. In his example email, he mentioned to the webmaster that he had a favorite site from which he liked to buy stuff for his son on birthdays and holidays. Nick again mentioned “his son” in a follow-up email, saying that he liked the products at this particular website because they made his son think.

All sounds good so far, right? Except that Nick doesn’t have a son!

I made the following comment on the post:

“Nick, I didn’t know you had a son (as per the emails requesting a link). If indeed you don’t, are you suggesting that people create a trust relationship with these webmasters by lying to them?”

Lots of comments ensued, which I encourage you to read over at Nick’s site. For me, what he did was certainly not ghastly, but the situation does bring up a ton of questions.

Was it necessary to lie? Isn’t that sort of thing exactly what gives marketers in general (not just search marketers) a bad reputation? Couldn’t he have done things exactly as he did without the lie?

I contend that he could have.

Nick claims that telling the webmaster that you’re looking for links on behalf of a client has less of a success rate for securing the link. It would certainly be interesting to test that theory, and it may very well be true. But even if you get fewer links out of it, that doesn’t justify lying in any aspect of business–or in life. (Are they really two different things?)

Lying in any form is deception.

Even if it’s just a tiny white lie. Even if it gets you more links. Even if it gets you more business. Even if it makes you look better in the eyes of your boss or client.

Which brings up another point: As the boss of someone using this technique, how would you feel about it? If your company culture is one of honesty, then any form of deception within your business should be a no-no. I can tell you that if I found out that an employee of mine did this, I would be very disappointed in them and explain why we don’t use deceptive practices. I would also wonder why I had to explain such a concept to an adult.

And what about the client?

Did they know that their search marketing company was using deception in order to obtain links? Is their company culture such that it’s not a problem for them? Or did they not even know exactly how their links were being obtained? If you’re being deceptive on your clients’ behalf, one would hope that you get their permission and written sign-off so it doesn’t come back to haunt you at some point.

Personally, if I hired a company to perform a service for me and they did it in a way that involved any form of lying, I would wonder what else they were doing that was deceptive. Were they overcharging me? Did they even have the skills they claimed to have?

Not to mention the unsuspecting webmaster on the other side who gave out the link.

How would they feel later to find out they were duped? Would they have a bad taste in their mouth for not only the marketing company, but for the company they were linking to? What if they felt so duped that they decided to go public on social media with the information? How would the client like the technique if they ended up with a reputation management nightmare?

Surely I’m being dramatic here, because we’re only talking about a little white lie. But does the size or color of the lie make it any less deceptive?

And we are talking specifically about link building here. There’s a reason that I dislike it and don’t do it. As far as I’m concerned, link building in and of itself borders on being a deceptive practice because it’s usually done to secure a fake “vote” for a website. It’s an industry that shouldn’t exist, and wouldn’t exist if Google didn’t place so much weight on links. If it weren’t for that aspect of Google’s algorithm, we’d have website owners giving and getting links for the right reasons, with a lot less deception (and payment) going on behind the scenes.

We can debate ethics forever and never come to a consensus because they are often seen as situational. What might be unethical in one situation might not seem so unethical in another situation. Certainly, life-or-death situations are not the same as marketing ones. If a lie is going to somehow save someone’s life, then by all means, please lie your head off!

But marketing isn’t a life-or-death situation.

Lying and deceiving to seek someone’s favor is generally agreed upon by most cultures as being wrong.

This is not a “black hat vs. white hat” issue.

It has nothing to do with hats. When it comes to search marketing, I don’t care what techniques you use or what methods you use to gain more targeted search engine visitors. I don’t believe that there are techniques that are more or less ethical than others. I don’t care what Google puts in their Webmaster Guidelines, because there’s no reason to need to know. If you fundamentally understand that all Google cares about is that your website isn’t being deceptive in some manner, then you can’t run afoul of them. They have to know that they can trust the information contained on your site and the information that you provide to Google. Nothing more, nothing less.

So many ethical conundrums come down to one simple question:

Is it deceptive or not?

I worry about search marketers who believe that deception is a necessary part of their job if they are going to get results. It’s not only incorrect, but a sad commentary on our industry and perhaps our world.


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen.

If you learned from this article, be sure to invite your colleagues to sign up for the High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter so they can receive similar articles in the future!

11 Responses to “Deceptive Marketing: A Necessary Evil for Search Marketers?

    I never really know much details about deceptive marketing and thanks for sharing the info…

    Online Business Virtual Assistant

    avatar Amelia says:

    It’s difficult to be 100% honest when link building. I have implied that a site I’m telling a potential link partner about, is ‘mine’. This could be construed as lying, or I could turn it around and say that I think of all my clients’ sites as ‘my own,’ for while I’m working on them, they do feel like mine… When you regularly update a site with relevant and well researched content, do you not take a bit of ownership of the site? I do. to me it’s natural to take ownership of the work you do.

    Back to your original example – I went and read the blog post you reference and the comments. The guy clearly told a fib, and it got him what he wanted. Someone in the comments pointed out that he would have probably got what he wanted (the link) without lying. Whether this is true or not, we’ll never know.

    In answer to your question: Is it deceptive or not? – well, yes, clearly there was deception involved. But, I have to admit to have been guilty of similar deceptions – whether it’s to imply that a site I’m link building for is mine or when I’ve gone on forums and pretended to be interested in the subjects being discussed – it’s simply a means to an end. If you’re being paid to do a service, but you can’t do it to the best of your abilities because you can’t tell a ‘white lie’ to a complete stranger, then should you accept the payment for the service?

    I agree that lying is wrong, but I also realise that it is to some extent necessary to achieve results. I guess I’m saying it’s a grey area. Whilst I would never make up a child (as per your example), or pretend that I have an incurable disease, I would pretend that I am really into a certain product (or service) just because my client produces it – even if I have no interest in such a thing outside of my day-to-day work related activities. I take the time to learn about the product (or service) so I can talk on authority about it. This isn’t a ‘lazy’ way of working. It’s not about cutting corners either. It’s about taking the time to learn about something that previously you’ve never really knew about – and this happens all the time!

    I’m no plumber, but I’ve written reams of content about plumbing – why, because that was what was required. I put the time in, I learned more than I ever wanted to about the subject, and my client (though I’ve since moved agencies so the plumber is no longer my client) was a happy bunny because he got more work out of it!

    Would you say that is lying, too?

    avatar Tom Shivers says:

    Hi Jill,
    Last week I had to assist a new client who had been duped by a marketer in his industry. It seemed like the marketer had made it his practice to deceive customers when I checked out his name and company reviews.

    I know times are tough for some, but lying is sometimes a prerequisite for stealing. There are a number of businesses who are filing legal proceedings against that company.

    avatar Joe says:

    I think you’re dead on Jill. There is so much lieing and deceiving on the internet that I trust almost nobody. I had a client that when I first met him, seemed to be a great guy. We shared many of the same views of corporate America and the dishonesty and back stabbing. We both had a background in the corporate world and both left it in favor of trying to make an honest living.

    Well, after about 2 years he started doing all the black hat things you can think of and then some. The items that really got my undies in a bunch was when he started running rigged contests and creating fake reviews on his site as well as review sites. He had a huge list of email addresses he used to post the fake reviews.

    I used to laugh when he would get so angry that his site was not making enough money. For some reason he thought that his site should stand shoulder to shoulder with sites that spend hundreds of thousands (even millions) of dollars per month on marketing. He spent zero. And, he rigged contests, created fake reviews, and hired a company to do black hat SEO. Who does he think he is?

    I too started to think the same things Jill mentioned. Things like; If he is willing to do this, then what is he willing to do to me? What is he lieing to me about? And then one day it happened.

    He sent me an email berating me on something I supposedly did wrong and ccing the president of the company to make me look bad. It was a complete fabrication and I found emails to prove it. So, I replied to all with the proof and my resignation.

    Humans are funny. We say one thing and do another. I hope I can set a better example for my children.

    You may say it’s deception but they call it tactics. As for cheating marketers…that’s bad. A need to clean up things like making a body of certified companies may be needed

    Thank you very much for this post. It makes light of a lot of decisions and practices that marketers undertake, and the lack of understanding by the consumer.

    I have been working on a site that focuses strictly on all things related to marketing. As well as modifiers such as social media marketing, lead generation, and email marketing just to name a few. Its definitely worth a look over, and feel free to let me know what you think. Thanks.

    avatar Reality says:

    Not sure whether to laugh or to cry; or, whether or not I’ve ever read anything that so misapprehends the nature or purpose of marketing.

    99.9% of everything on the Internet is complete and utter bullshit. That grown adults would sit, banter and type to the contrary is more disappointing than the fact, itself.

    Jill, you smear your Dudley Do Right, pure-as-the-drivel-snow, holier-than-thou clueless internet ethical mumbo jumbo all over the web and to be frank, its starting to rot and stink up the place.

    Your beef is with GOOGLE, not with webmasters and website owners that do what they have to do to get things done as per what Google wants to see.

    Oh, and an ‘SEO’ company that doesn’t build links? What on earth do you do after you optimize on-site? lol what a gargantuan joke: optimizing for Google IS link building!

    Further: “If you fundamentally understand that all Google cares about is that your website isn’t being deceptive in some manner, then you can’t run afoul of them.”

    ^This is a MONUMENT to how ghastly incorrect so called and self-purported SEO professionals are and can be. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with this rank drivel aside to say that I sincerely hope that you continue to pump out these myopic articles that you clearly believe to have some bearing on reality.

    I’m reminded of what a Japanese newspaper once adeptly reported about Noam Chomsky: “No room for grey in Chomsky’s black and white world”.

    How terribly ‘corrupt’ everything must seem to you, Jill.

    avatar Ying Yu Jade says:

    I get requests for links often, but never from a relevant source. This article helps me realize that I want to continue my no link practice

    avatar Adrian Head says:

    I agree too Jill but I also agree with one of the comments above that really Google has a lot to do with encouraging these tactics particularly with their publicized emphasis on links. Links should be natural, i.e. a link from one site to another which is a benefit or useful to the visitor of the site from which the link is provided. For example we know that 95% of our clients come from the U.S. and will need to fly so we provide links to the main airlines. We do this to help a potential client easily find a flight not because we are giving a vote of confidence or boost to the airline or it’s website. Google’s promotion of “link” value to ranking has promoted the development of the Link Building industry, if it can be called that. The next step, of course, is going to be the Google + button as they have already stated it will become a ranking factor once it is established and it already features in their Webmaster Tools statistics. On that basis we can all look forward to Google + campaigns as well as Link Building and similar practices coming into play in regard to this.

    avatar Lisa Ellis says:

    I’m with you here, Jill. I’m no Pollyanna, but as a small business owner I’m repeatedly amazed at the deception employed by SEOs. I find your voice and view refreshing. Thanks.

    avatar Wesley Wise says:

    Marketing has its tactics.. Its a dirty business, because fooling people is always present. I guess it depends on the marketer on how he handles different kinds of situation. If deception is one of his tactics, well then I guess sooner or later his business wont push through.

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