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January 21, 2008

SEO & Linkbait: When Is It Unethical?

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Kelvin Newman asks When Is It Ethical To Criticize Other Companies For Linkbait?

Hmm, it’s a good question and one that’s constantly being brought thanks to bloggers who decide to launch into personal attacks for apparently no reason other than links. We see it happen all the time, but is it right?

Last March I wrote a post entitled Calling It Linkbait Doesn’t Make You Less of a Jerk and I stand by that post. Doing something that you wouldn’t do offline or partaking in behavior that you’d criticize someone else for doesn’t suddenly become ethical because you’re in the quest for links. It doesn’t give you the right to be "that guy".

In this post last week, Kevin argued that it’s okay to use linkbait to criticize your competitors when:

  • You think they wouldn’t respond without the fuss.
  • They’ve called out people in the past.
  • The public needs to know.
  • You’ve exhausted other options.

To me, that sounds like a cop out.

Kelvin uses the whole Danny Sullivan/John Andrews melee to start the conversation about what happens when a company publicly criticizes another to attract links. However, that really wasn’t the best example. You have to consider the intent. Danny Sullivan definitely did not write that now infamous Search Engine Land post as a linkbait attempt. He was trying to highlight an error on Wired’s part, not start a flame war. There’s no way he could have predicted what would happen as a result of that blog post and he certainly didn’t want (or deserve) it..

If you ask me, if you’re trying to sell yourself as a legitimate business, I don’t think you should ever openly criticize your competition in hopes of getting links. Personal pettiness and vendettas simply have no place in business. Keep them out of your search engine optimization campaign, and if you can, out of your life. At some point linkbait has to mature in something much more than flame wars and top ten lists. It’s time we start demanding that it does.

However, there are plenty of people who subscribe to the line of thought that any press is good press. They’ve made a good living and whole bunch of money by calling people out publicly and getting everyone all worked up. That’s really not something I care to participate in. Not because I think I’m above it, but because I just don’t have the stomach for it.

You have to identity your own line of conduct. You have to know what you’re willing to do and not willing to do in order to be successful. Most know on a basic level where their line should be. They know that the ugly pang they just felt in the pit of their stomach is a sign that they’re about to step too far. You’re about to publish or say something that you shouldn’t. However, we often ignore it for possible fame, love, money, or even more importantly, links!

The best part of the whole thing is that there’s really no need for you to be calling out your competition. If they’re really doing something stupid, there will always be someone else to do the flaming for you, so why go soiling up your own pristine reputation? This is especially true if what you’re about to criticize your competition for is their flaming of you. Let your customers and supporters fight that battle for you. You’ll win much more praise and respect for taking the high road.

You have to ask yourself: Is it going to make you look good to your target audience for them to see you engaging in school yard bullying and name calling? If your audience has the smallest bit of integrity, then no, it’s really not. If you have a problem with one of your competitors, go to them directly. If it doesn’t work, keep trying. If that doesn’t work, perhaps a post about how companies can’t just stick their head in the sand is in order (email them the URL). Eventually they’ll get the message.

There’s only one time when it’s somewhat ethical to call out or publicly criticize a competitor-when the concern is genuine. There’s a difference between pointing out an issue that people should be aware of and engaging in a flame war because your PR dropped another point. There’s a difference when someone takes a stance over actual emotional or concern and when they’re doing it just to get links. And your audience can tell the difference. They’re not stupid. People don’t want to do business with vapid, petty people who don’t have anything better to do than nitpick and name call. Keep that in mind before you write your next blog post.

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5 responses to “SEO & Linkbait: When Is It Unethical?”

  1. identity writes:

    Excellent points Lisa. It never ceases to amaze how the web has changed so many things, yet so many things remain the same.

    When companies attack or knock others, it is often taken with great reservation by the receiving audience…I don’t think that really matters whether you are on or offline. We tend to view such moves with great skepticism.

    While the general public may not fully understand the concept of linkbait, they also don’t have to…if the message isn’t something they identify with or resonate as “true,” then the net effect may be zero, or even less than zero (great book/movie…but I digress) and more damaging than the traffic gained.

    It also won’t take too long for the web to finally get caught up with other legal status…opinion vs. libel.

  2. kelvin newman writes:

    I’ll agree with you Lisa that the recent SEL/Wired situation perhaps isn’t the best example, but it was the stimulus for my thoughts on the subject.
    I hope it didn’t come across in the post that I’m suggesting people should go out on a slander frenzy. In most circumstances it will reflect badly on the company.
    But a lot of people are using there blog to criticize people, some are more subtle than personal attacks and I just wanted to give people a bit of an idea when thats okay.

  3. Andy Beard writes:

    So Google shouldn’t have to give us a response clearing up the grey area of paid links, we should all just listen to Doug ;)

    Truth be told, if Google would finally come clean and give a level playing field that can be looked on as Gospel for all parties, I would happily redirect all those links I have received for the paid links debate to a charity site, possibly using a single static page inbetween explaining why I am transferring the juice.

    Sure the links are good for traffic and getting the word out, but I don’t honestly care too much about long-term rankings, even for terms such as PageRank that I could monetise.
    If I ever launch an SEO product or service, there are plenty of other ways to get traffic.

    One important aspect overlooked, not all posts are popular with core readers, and it is possible to statistically prove it.

  4. Michael VanDeMar writes:

    There’s a difference when someone takes a stance over actual emotional or concern and when they’re doing it just to get links. And your audience can tell the difference.

    Mmm… Lisa, not always. I have spoken up on issues in the past, calling people out merely because I believed they were doing others wrong, and yet was accused of doing it for link bait. People will often project what their motives would have been when reading what others have written, which may indeed have nothing whatsoever to do with the authors intentions. They voice their opinions on the purpose of the post, and then others will read those comments and the sentiments can spread. It’s not always a cut and dried issue.

  5. Rebecca Kelley writes:

    I gotta agree with Lisa here. The inherent purpose of posting anything is for visibility and links. Calling someone out or taking a personal vendetta to your blog is, in my opinion, probably the least confrontational and most indirect way to resolve something, and that’s a real shame.

    We have had plenty of SEOmoz haters/critics who, rather than take a direct approach and call or email us with their issue, they’ll just write a post and will either get mad if we respond to that post or get mad if we don’t respond to that post. I’ve been guilty of getting sucked into a thread and slinging retorts back and forth, but ultimately I’ve found that direct communication works best, and unfortunately not many people in our industry choose to take that approach.



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