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When Did We Become The Bad Guys?

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 11th May 2012

Globe In HandHi, I’m Mike. I work in Internet Marketing, I’ve never scammed anyone and never plan to. I’m proud of my industry, so why does the web want you to hate us?

My Five Nightmares
Much like Tony Stark, I have five nightmares, that in all honesty are becoming reality faster than I ever would have thought possible.

I love this industry, all of the (ethical) people in it and know it will survive any debate, but these are real issues that affect us all, which I have to speak out on.

I’m not naive enough to think that the world has always loved “SEO’s” but this past 12 months it feels like we have taken a beating. High profile industry blogs have always had positive and negative articles about SEO, and I was fine with that, it was a nice reasoned debate.

The problem is that now the public (i.e. not web developers, SEO’s or industry persons) are being given an incredibly bad view of the industry from a few high profile websites, and that we simply don’t have a voice that can be heard outside of our own blogs and conferences.

Nightmare #1: Everyone Is Scared Of Us

“The term Internet Marketing describes both a particular business model used to sell fraudulent products and services online, and the community or subculture that embraces it.”

Thanks The Verge because that isn’t possibly going to give people the wrong idea? Danny Sullivan looks at this in more detail, but in essence it’s articles like this that give our industry a bad name.

The problem is that every time someone offers a bad SEO service, whenever negative SEO surfaces and every time some scam artist rips someone off, it rubs off badly on all of us.

Worst of all, it doesn’t wash off again. For every 100 mainstream industry articles on spam and scammers, there’s probably one (if that!) on the things Internet Marketing does well. There’s loads on industry blogs, but the public don’t read them and that’s the issue.

They only see the bad, day after day after day.

Fight For SEOI made a video in January on how people could make the web better. I wrote for the Guardian on how to defeat eBook spam. Countless others fight every day to make the web better and now we are labelled with the same brush as every scam artist we fought against?

That is not ok.

Nor is it ok for professional people, in a growing industry to be labelled that way either. If Internet Marketing was the dodgy, back alley industry that it is often painted as, you wouldn’t have:

Amazon recruiting a global head of SEO
Ebay seeking a global head of SEO
• Millions of businesses using SEO every year
• An industry that grows year after year
Public outings of scammers – why would we out people if we had things to hide?

Nightmare #2: Everyone Is Scared Of Cookies
CookiesTake the EU cookie law. 89% of the public think it’s a good idea. If ever you needed a clearer indicator that we are seen as bogeymen up to no good, then that’s it.

89% of people think that we want to take people’s data and do bad things with it.

That’s clearly not the case, and it’s been very well argued on many other places that having cookies makes the web better. In some cases without them the web will cease to function. So why do people feel that way?

It’s because the cookie law is fundamentally negative in its stance. It paints the very clear picture that cookies are bad and something to be afraid of. The simple truth is the public want as easy an online browsing experience as possible. If a pop-up asks them if they want to be tracked they are likely to either turn it off or move on to another site in fear.

What do people expect? “Yes, I love to be stalked” – because that’s the view people are given of cookies right now.

Nightmare #3: Everyone Is Scared Of Websites
Both of these possibilities are very worrying. The even bigger issue is simply that it’s revealed a part of the web to Internet users that is only going to cause unnecessary concern. Here’s what they hear when people talk about the cookie law:

“Every time you view a website companies track your every move, what you click on and your buying habits.”

If I didn’t work with the Internet day in, day out, I would be scared by that, and it’s easy to see why such a simple thing as this can cause mass panic. Given the choice no one would want to be tracked online. Forget our view that it helps us make the web better and is necessary for lots of online services – it’s a scary thing that most people given the choice would do without.

It’s also likely to make them wonder exactly what has been tracked in the past and why. Suddenly the nice warm blanket of safety given by the Internet is at risk. It’s not like we can sit everyone down in a room in groups and explain to them how cookies work and why they are of benefit.

For every person that is educated there’s going to be someone who is a little more scared of the Internet than they were before May 26th.

Nightmare #4: Everyone Is Scared Of Adverts
If internet users think cookies are a bad thing, then it’s probably good that they don’t really understand the way that online advertising works. For example:

• Facebook adverts can be targeted by demographics, the pages you’ve liked and actions you’ve performed

• If you leave a website, the owner can follow you around the web with adverts (called remarketing)

• Mail services such as Google Mail read your emails and provide adverts related to what you have read and written

Writing that right now it sounds terrifying, but in perspective Facebook adverts mean you get reached with offers specific to your needs. Remarketing helps website owners keep in touch with people after they leave a site.

Plus whilst Google Mail is creepy, it’s a computer reading your emails – it’s no more intrusive than your pet looking over your shoulder whilst you type. It’s not as if Google employees watch the machine and have a good laugh at your expense.

However, every few weeks a friend of mine will post something about their surprise with Facebook adverts. For example one friend was disgusted she was being shown adverts for “wedding dresses” after changing her relationship status to engaged.

Why? It’s exactly the type of advert that is relevant to her at that time. However it illustrated to her that adverts are suited to fit her, and therefore created a fear that Facebook knows more about her than she would ever want it to know. In fact 40% of people dislike Facebook ads, and they probably don’t even understand the full extent of tracking options.

I could sit here screaming “But it’s a computer not a person!” until blue in the face, but at the same time I do sympathise, and it’s completely realistic to assume that someone outside of the industry would be naturally fearful.

That curtain is only going to get pulled back further. More and more people will learn about this type of advertising (it’s not like we keep it a secret, or would ever want to) and as above, without clear discussions it leads to a bad overall view.

Nightmare #5: Everyone Is Scared Of Data
No analysis of my fears would be complete without (not provided).

Aside from the fact it makes us very hard to do our job without accurate keyword data for the people who visit websites, I’m more annoyed by the misconception that is being shown by the people in charge of this change. Once again, it’s another move that makes us look like villains.

Here’s Google’s official explanation. The worst part is Google provided this data in the first place, and we are the bad guys for looking at it? What?

Firefox took this a step further with their blocking of keyword data by default:

“Enabling HTTPS for these searches shields our users from network infrastructure that may be gathering data about the users or modifying/censoring their search results.” Firefox Blog.

What is the average Internet user supposed to think? Firefox are in a ridiculously powerful position, and this type of comment without any perspective does nothing to help the Internet grow. There’s no mention that all the data is depersonalised, and simply numbers on a grid. No. Instead people get the view that we are out to raid their personal data like foxes going through bins.

Here’s the thing, I don’t want to see anyone’s personal information. I never have. If you fill in a form and choose to pass on data then that’s great, otherwise all I want to do is see why people found a website and then make that website better. Oh, and deliver adverts to people that suit their needs.

I don’t want their name, or address, or their favourite colour. It’s never data that has been given to me and never will. Yet from reading any of the above points that seems to be the view that is being shared.

It’s wrong, damages our industry and reduces trust in using the Internet.

It’s bad for everyone, except the people who pretend to care about privacy in order to promote their own products. Or the sites who publish controversial headlines, that don’t show the full picture.

They look great, we look awful because of misconceptions and the bad actions of a few.

My Dream: Education
One solution to all of this is to educate the public. Industry blogs or talking about it in conferences are great but they don’t educate the real people we need to reach.
The only way any of this will get better is if we speak out in the mainstream press. That means The BBC, The Guardian, The Times, TV News, Radio, well respected blogs and anything the public reads on the regular basis.

I’m not suggesting we stop writing about it on our own blogs, or trying to build bridges at conferences, but the real difference will only come when the people outside of our bubble are reached.

Our message needs to be simple – people exist who try to make the Internet easier for you to use.

Yes, there are bad people who try to make it worse, who want to con you. We can’t pretend they don’t exist, but at the same time there are people who want to know what you like online and deliver it. We aren’t the bad guys.

The opinions in this post are my own on an issue I feel passionately about. Therefore they may not reflect the views of Koozai or their partners.

Image Source

Globe In Hands via BigStock

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...


  • Iain 11th May 2012

    Well said. I think that the public image of SEO makes it incredibly difficult to sell, particularly at a local level to small businesses who are sceptical of anything that costs them money.

    Challenging times, but the industry is full of creative people and we’ll find solutions one way or another.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 11th May 2012

      Thanks Iain. It’s very much an “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” scenario.

      On the one hand SEO has never been as respected than now. Almost all of the biggest firms in the world are looking at SEO and other internet marketing solutions.

      I also think thanks to industry transparency, once people take a look at SEO, it’s easy to see there are lots of reputable firms doing good work.

      I’m worried that from a user perspective there’s a real risk of misinformation damaging the view of the Internet. Especially if only negative articles continue to make the mainstream media.

      That’s a much harder audience for us to reach and educate.

      Reply to this comment

  • Stephen Logan

    Stephen Logan 11th May 2012

    Whilst I agree with the sentiment Mike, I do think that the wider Internet Marketing community has become a little too precious about how we are portrayed.

    When TheVerge decide to erroneously use the term “Internet Marketing” to describe con artists, it isn’t going to filter into the mainstream. Okay, so it’s not helpful, but it is a technology-based news source – it has a readership that is probably online-savvy and clued in on what they are trying to say when using the term “online marketers”.

    Sure, SEO has made an appearance in a few damning news reports in recent years, but I don’t think this has seeped into the wider public consciousness to the extent where the industry is vilified by Average Joe on the street. In fact most of the time we’re worried that nobody has ever of Internet Marketing, let alone think that it is the root of all evil.

    There are probably plenty of bankers (including this guy http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15059135) who think we’ve got it pretty easy. Just because banks have a bad reputation at the moment, it doesn’t mean that people are going to stop using them. Just like Internet Marketers, bankers and the companies they represent provide a service – some are good, some are bad others are awful.

    There is a bit of a persecution complex evident in some of the things I have read in recent times within the SEO industry. Whilst I think we should certainly be worried about what legislators are doing with regards to laws, including Sopa and the EU Cookie law, I think we have to give some credit to the general public and their ability to understand Internet Marketing and how things work online.

    I still have to explain, time and time again, what it is that I actually do to most of my friends and family, so I certainly wouldn’t say that we are in danger of being buried under a mountain of negative press. Perhaps paranoia is more dangerous than anything else – on both sides.

    Reply to this comment

  • Katie Saxon 11th May 2012

    Yes to all of this. It makes me sick the way internet marketing gets portrayed – especially with regards to advertising. Here’s my own rant on that particular subject from a couple of months ago http://www.boom-online.co.uk/google-privacy-policy-changes

    Unfortunately I don’t think it’s a new attitude: even before the internet people were suspicious of marketers (Douglas Adams had only bad things to say about marketing in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that’s decades old). I don’t know where that leaves us, other than maybe fighting our corner and making sure we work with some great PR pros that can help us get our side of the story out there!

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 14th May 2012

      Thanks for agreeing Katie. I think people will always suspect marketing – the fundamental concept being to sell people things which they may or may not need / want. Or even PR – the fundamental concept being to present a company in the best possible light, regardless of what occurs.

      It’s tricky. As Alec (@koozai_alec) summed it up to me – plumbers can have a bad reputation if you hear about a bad plumber once. So the mistakes of one damage the reputation of many.

      However people still use Plumbers so the people who do a good job must be winning :)

      Reply to this comment

  • Sii Cockerill 11th May 2012

    Like Stephen, I’m forever having to explain my job to my friends and families.

    Incidentally, every person I’ve met this week has looked at me blankly when I’ve mentioned the term SEO. I explain, “Search Engine Optimisation” and they nod, apparently knowingly. What does that tell you?

    In any industry, there are going to be folk who play by the rules, enjoy what they do and have the very best intentions. Then, of course, there are the others, and then the others still, who label the whole group as gangsters – just look at the politicians.

    A month from now, I expect uproar from the Public about the Cookie Law. Not because they are suddenly any less worried about their privacy, not in the least, but because on every website they visit, they will have been hounded to “please, please, let us store cookies” – just so that we can get on with business as usual. (I bet we’ll hear about that on the BBC).

    When asked how people feel about an issue, they may answer one thing. But when you explain what their part of the deal could involve, they will often weigh up the pros and cons and decide to answer differently – the easiest route is often the route most travelled.

    And so it is with the internet as a whole.

    All of us who work online, whether it be in Digital Marketing or Website Development, are working to make life easier for our customers. We will continue to do exactly that and given enough time, the Internet will be a better place for it.

    We don’t need to worry about what we’re called. We’ll just keep doing our jobs and prove our worth every time one of our customers has a better experience because of us.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 14th May 2012

      Thanks Sii, for such a detailed and insightful reply.

      You’re right, the public are happy with business as usual, and unnecessary change will always be met with resistance and frustration.

      What’s very troubling is that a lot of sites (possibly the majority) will do nothing when the cookie law comes in. Therefore those who do comply will be the ones who annoy customers. It’s a very frustrating scenario – obey the law and annoy customers / lose money OR break the law and get happy customers with the risk of a fine.

      I really like your last 2 paragraphs. Ultimately the industry has grown every year, no matter how much rubbish is thrown at it. We can survive anything if we’re happy to put up with a bit of name calling.

      Reply to this comment

  • Mike Curtis 11th May 2012

    I’ll be honest. Anyone who bases key strategic marketing decisions on a Verge expose is probably not a client worth having.

    The problem is, the community ‘outed’ here do genuinely identify themselves as ‘Internet marketers’. I don’t think this article was meant to pass comment on the SEM industry as a whole, and I think that’s pretty obvious as you read it – it was using the language the community it was discussing uses.

    I’d say ‘everyone needs to calm down’, but I know that doesn’t result in a good headline for inbound.org

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 14th May 2012

      It’s true that they do use the term “Internet marketers” however it’s such a perfect term to be synonymous with ethical online marketing too that it doesn’t feel right for it to be only associated with scam artists.

      Reply to this comment

  • Kyle Lelli 11th May 2012


    Just FYI. The first “quote” from the Verge is misquoted in your article above. I do agree with your overall statement, but I do want to point this out, as it’s not really helping your cause here.

    You have “The term Internet Marketing describes both a particular business model used to sell fraudulent products and services online, and the community or subculture that embraces it.”

    When in fact, the article states “The term Internet Marketing in this context describes both a particular business model used to sell fraudulent products and services online, and the community or subculture that embraces it.”

    Thank you for the informative and thought provoking piece.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 11th May 2012

      Thanks Kyle,

      To clarify the quote has since been changed by The Verge – I took my quote from the original article and as can be seen by Danny’s piece the content is the same pre edits.

      However, it is good that they have added the clarification, as those three words make everything a lot clearer. It doesn’t resolve the other issues, but it’s a nice start :)

      Reply to this comment

      • Kyle Lelli 11th May 2012

        Ahh! I never got to read the original article. Those few words do make a difference. I did notice the quote in Danny’s article too. Wasn’t sure if the purpose was to make a stronger point or if I missed something. Now I see that I did. Thanks for the update and clarification as well as a thoughtful article.

  • Steve 11th May 2012

    Very well said, Mike. In my experience, when we are viewed as bad guys, it’s usually down to misunderstanding (mostly a result of innocent, harmless naïvety) but also when someone has a bad experience.

    For the former, I’m reminded by a social media marketer speaking at a social media marketing conference who described all SEO as “dark arts” and “illegal,” which to me just comes across as ignorant (to be fair, I don’t think the guy knew much about social media, either!)

    For the latter, I’ve seen us compared to paedophiles (seriously). When a friend of mine – a disgrunted developer who’d probably been pissed off by a bad SEO – RTed that tweet, I was appauled, and he was immediately unfollowed.

    As Stephen points out though, it’s very easy to take it to heart and take it personally. There’s crooks and fools in every industry, just as there are heroes. However, it’s always hurtful when someone picks on the industry as a whole (or in The Verge’s case, makes very sweep accusations affecting the whole industry, regardless of their intention and whether or not it’s accidental or on purpose).

    But look at it this way… When such accusations are made, who jumps to the industry’s defence, the crooks and fools, or the heroes? It’s always the latter.

    Reply to this comment

  • Keith 12th May 2012

    Sure, most people also instantly hate or think SEO is spam due to the 5 / 10 poorly written spam emails they get per week offering SEO in about 5 different text colors.

    Reply to this comment

    • Sii Cockerill 14th May 2012

      Oooo. Getting emails in 5 different text colours makes me happy ;-) Bleurgh.

      Reply to this comment

  • Tony G 18th May 2012

    I have to disagree with you almost entirely. Objections are opportunities for education. They are your foot in the door. Look at insurance, NOBODY wants to pay for it, yet everyone has to have it. SEO is very similar.

    You have the chance to either win them over via PR and damage control or you can PROVE your worth. Bad press will only help to weed out the weaker SEOs. Don’t be a victim.

    Reply to this comment

  • Maciej Fita 22nd May 2012

    If you are a true professional and stick to your morals and provide a good service with a friendly demeanor you will end up on top you just have to give it time. The power of attraction is amazing once applied to your own business and marketing.

    Reply to this comment

  • Chab 22nd May 2012

    You’ve described a problem non-specific to the SEO realm. A few bad apples make the whole tree look bad. Food for thought:

    Pit Bulls
    1. The news reports a Pit Bull attack on a person.
    2. The news misclassified the dog (it might have been another breed), and the dog had irresponsible owners.
    3. People become afraid of Pit Bulls and assume they’ll all rip out your throat.

    If you’ve ever met a Pit Bull, you know they’re excitable, over-friendly, and love people. One might lick you to death.

    1. A guy with an ichthys on the back of his car cuts me off and gives me the finger in traffic.
    2. Grandma calls me a heathen for not believing in God.
    3. I become a hater of Christians and think the world would be better off without them.

    Note: I actually love Jesus and was only using me as an example.

    Reply to this comment

  • likerye 23rd May 2012

    I don’t think the issue is if it is bad or good but rather how much and how intrusive can/is “marketing” be.

    The industry needs regulations and openness towards internet users and anybody who seeks information. The websites and service providers should be very open about what they do what they collect and how they use it and not have closed doors like most analytics, seo, etc tools where you have to fill out data just to see the information brochure. This way you can’t get a bad view or articles if you talk, are open and understanding.

    Targeted adverts, remarketing/retargeting, etc. can sound great for some users but not all especially if you consider there is no opt-out.

    “Every time you view a website companies track your every move, what you click on and your buying habits.” This is a fact and every serious internet company does this and even more if they have tools like omniture, kissmetrics, etc.

    All things I wrote can sound negative but they are not, because this is what is currently done and implemented and will be even more with new technologies like local storage, mobile devices etc.

    I think it is very urgent that companies do the same as google has, providing a simple service that informs you what they have tracked, or any other informative service.

    Reply to this comment

  • Furore 23rd May 2012

    Well said. There are so many cowboys in internetmarketing that are ruining it for the ‘white-hat’ guys like us. But if you continuously keep on doing whats good for your clients, in the end only the good ones will survive. Excuse me for my bad English :)

    Grtz from Holland.

    Reply to this comment

  • MJH 23rd May 2012

    I’ve been talking about the importance of cookie education for the last year now. It’s incredibly important to our future as marketers. And we need to mention how many people actually shop online, and the ways in which we make that easier for them at every opportunity we get. +1 for this article.

    Reply to this comment

  • John Moore 23rd May 2012

    I can relate to your general feelings that the “bad press” from the hacks and fly-by-nighters can and do create a bad reputation for your industry. Professional web developers, like myself, have been suffering this increasingly over the last 10 years. I can’t even begin to count the junk I see pawned off on the uneducated business owner. Problem is, as you indicate in your profession, the customer no longer trusts ANY web developer.
    As far as SEO.. (Not my main expertise, but I do keep up..) I do see a LOT of of what I consider dishonest promises and scams. Your industry does have a serious problem in this area. Sometimes the scam is very subtle, like having a customer pay for a complete rebuild of their site when a few adjustments are all that are needed. Basically padding the bill. (Had that happen to my customers).
    So, good luck and sadly “join the club…”.

    Reply to this comment

  • Viagens 27th May 2012

    Nice article and indeed true.


    But I can not lose my feeling that author uses the funkcionality a bit as excuse, because this will hurt the ad revenues in the first place. How will affiliate marketing with 3rd party!!!! OMG cookies look like? I am also not happy about this, be we should be streight -> this will kill competetivness of honest websites. Another reason to outsource. It is stupid because of THIS.

    As for the friend that is engaged… what if people are simply upset with the perfection? What if they DO NOT want it this way? What if they do not care if it computer or person who is watching them, but they simply do not want it. They want to go to choose wedding dress when they want. For me is nightmare to imagine something that will maybe happen in future… that something that I need will be offered right under my nose. All Billboards will show me thru G-glasses tea in the morning and toilet papers when the case is empty in the evening. This is just human nature – we really want to be alone when we ARE alone.

    Reply to this comment

  • Dimitri 26th July 2012

    Great article, but your nightmares (I hope) will remain as nightmares. Many large and medium sized companies live and make the money on the Internet; I think that we won’t not see such radical situation in the near future. I hope.

    Reply to this comment

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