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Mike Essex

When Did We Become The Bad Guys?

11th May 2012 News | 25 Comments


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

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Mike Essex About the author

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...

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