Stephen Logan

Is Publicly Outing Competitors’ Black Hat SEO Unethical?

10th Mar 2011 SEO Blog 5 minutes to read

It’s been a funny couple of months in the world of SEO, well, perhaps not if you’ve got a vested interest in JC Penney, Overstock, Forbes or Mahalo. Rarely have so many companies fallen foul of Google’s penalising wrath, and so publically too.

However, it’s not so much the fact that these sites have been relegated that has caught the attention, but more the way they have been outed. Whilst the content farms bought about their own demise to a certain extent (although I’m sure the constant coverage helped sway Google into their recent update), those engaging in the darker arts of link building have (largely) been exposed by competitors in major publications.

Some might view this as dodgy sites getting their comeuppance; others though may be more inclined to believe that something far more sinister is afoot – a witch hunt if you will.

Polarising Popular Opinion

It would be fair to say that it has had a polarising effect within the online community. Two sides divided by a significant difference in opinion.

There are those who perceive it as poor form to air your dirty linen in public. Many believe it’s an unwritten rule to carry out any such investigations in private – if at all.

But of course the sites in question were cheating. They’ve been caught red handed and are bang to rights. Therefore others would argue that they’re fair game and it is in the public interest to uncover the lurid truth of their SEO activities.

The Backlash and Criticism

This issue reared its ugly head again yesterday, when Econsultancy published the rather alarmingly titled “Busted: major newspaper group caught selling paid links“. In it, Patricio Robles unearthed some highly suspicious links appearing on MediaNews Group websites. Clearly paid, clearly dodgy. But again, it was the reaction that this attracted that was of particular interest.

Below is just a small snapshot of the kind of conversations that this story provoked (courtesy of SebastianX, sznq (Suzan Gray) and peteyoung).

There was an equally mixed bag of responses in the comment section of the blog itself. This even prompted a detailed explanation by Chris Lake of Econsultancy, in which he outlined the justification for the piece.

Profiting from Others’ Misfortune?

It’s a dangerous subject to broach. Many will accuse authors of trying to profit (through the gaining of links) from a public flogging such as this. Others will welcome the honesty and potential consequences for the perpetrators. Econsultancy certainly experienced both in equal measure.

Even Webmasters World got a ticking off from contributors who felt that they went against their own principles by investigating Overstock. The fact that their findings were published by the Wall Street Journal and the site got a huge demotion in rankings certainly didn’t help keep it on the down low.

Whilst they openly admitted to breaking their own rules and suggested that this was a mistake not to be repeated, their findings were no less valid. A website was breaking the rules. They had used a discount scheme as leverage to get links on dozens of educational websites. It’s even possible that they would have gotten away with it if they hadn’t callously used obvious anchor text.

But the fact that people were so concerned by the nature of this particular outing, shows just how divided the online community really is. The simple fact is that there must be thousands of companies benefitting from artificially increased rankings as a result of black hat techniques. So why are these the only ones to be hung out to dry?

The risk is pretty obvious. SEOs could become far more focussed on destroying competitors than they are at promoting their own site. A quick examination of a link profile can throw up all kinds of dodgy goings on, which could lead to a penalty – particularly if you reveal your findings to a major news outlet.

Forcing Google to Act

You see, once a black hat SEO story gets widespread attention, Google has to act. Their hands are effectively tied. Once it’s in the public domain, they have to do something about it. Usually this will equate to a manual penalty, as well as promises of ‘lessons learnt’ – aka an algorithm tweak. This isn’t natural, but it is effective and should help improve future results – which is a good thing, right?

The counter argument is that Google should be allowed to discover these issues and dish out punishments where required. Their algorithm should pick up irregularities and then index the offending site appropriately. By exposing them through a news story first you effectively prevent this from happening.

But maybe it is Google that needs to get their act together. The issues that were highlighted in these high profile cases were all long-standing and were picked up by users with relative ease. Why are their spiders not picking this up?

The question of whether it is ethical to publically out a website is tied into to the motive of doing so. If I just want to outrank a competitor, then there are better ways of going about this. However, if I see a company clearly profiting from illegal activities, which in turn is damaging others, then it is probably in the public interest to do something.

Rankings and the profit they can provide is often motive enough. If you were devious enough, you could do your competitors a huge favour and buy a whole load of links and then write an exclusive to announce your ‘findings’. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility and would only take someone with the required desperation to carry it off.

Google has to shoulder some of the blame though. If their spam reporting system was more effective and provided worthwhile feedback on individual cases, people may be more inclined to use it with greater regularity. Equally, if they could identify issues on their own, a lot of problems would be solved.

So whether it is unethical or not is down to opinion only. There are pros and cons for both sides of the argument and I’d certainly encourage you to share your views in the comment below.  As for me, well I’m sitting on the fence for this one.

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