A couple of weeks ago I published a post that brought up serious issues that I felt needed to be addressed by SEOmoz and Rand in particular. Despite my best efforts to focus on actions rather than character or motives, I felt the main points were largely ignored in the flurry of discussion that followed. To Rand’s credit though, he contacted me and initiated a discussion which eventually evolved into the following discussion between Rand, Pops, and myself. Rather than interpreting or paraphrasing the discussion, thus allowing room for error and disagreement, we decided to publish the discussion for all to read and digest. While I don’t think this is a “flowers and puppy dogs we’ve kissed and made up post” I do feel it was a productive discussion and Rand addressed each issue I brought up. The post is rather long so I’ve broken it up into the 5 categories you see below. Hopefully this will make it easier to navigate or jump directly to the issue that interests you.

The Aviva Issue
The Employee Comments Issue
The “Outing”
SEO Refugee’s Role and Blogging Ethic
Lessons

The Aviva Issue

skitzzo: The first topic I’d like to discuss is the Aviva issue. Rand, you left this comment in response to Michael’s criticism of your post about directories:

Your other concern is that I glossed over the critiques of my methodologies - I’d say again that I still believe that the rankings I pointed out to you over email and those I discussed in the V7N thread and the SEOmoz blog are indications that Google has some issue with Aviva. You’re certainly free to disagree, and you’ve brought up many searches where they perform adequately. I think the best way to determine whether Aviva passes value is to buy some links there, point them to some test sites in relatively non-competitive fields and see if the links can help to raise the rankings. If they can, then my arguments are baseless and your points are validated. Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t go this route to help prove me wrong - no evidence would be more damning. In any case, I’ve done so tonight - bought a couple links to different pages and we’ll see what the results look like. Hopefully I’ve addressed your concerns - let me know if there are other pieces you’d like to see me respond to.

The part that really bothered me was the last bit. If you think that buying some links and testing it was the best way to determine whether Aviva passes value, why didn’t you do that BEFORE saying they did not in fact pass value? Furthermore, IMO it shouldn’t be up to Michael to test it to prove you wrong, you should have done that first to prove yourself right. And last but not least, why haven’t you updated your post on this topic? I realize SEO can be slow to see results at times but it’s been nearly 2 months since you left the comment. Surely some sort of update would be in order, right?

[editor's note: We agreed confidential information would not be discussed]

Rand: I think this is the first of probably many errors on my blog post. It’s meant to be opinion, but perhaps it wasn’t stated as such. In that blog that first mentioned Aviva, I just started going through the normal process I go through to check out what Google thinks of a site. As I mentioned in discussions here and elsewhere, others are free to use their own methodologies and certainly free to disagree with me. There’s no reason why the content I put on the SEOmoz blog, especially when I’m just illustrating my own tactics for reaching a conclusion, should be considered gospel. Hopefully the new disclaimer will help out with that a bit. As far as afterwards - I did indeed buy some links at Aviva, but after connecting with Jeff, who owns the directory, I was asked not to disclose the information I derived from that effort. I also had talks between myself, some folks far smarter than me about these issues and Jeff - he also asked that I keep those talks quiet, which I’ll certainly respect. I am also under NDA with the “smarter-than-me” folks, so I can’t really discuss that angle publicly, either. Of course - that makes me sound like an asshole - if I can’t discuss all these issues, why blog about it in the first place, right? The sad answer is that all of those events occurred AFTER the blog post, making the discussions here and with MV feel like I had one hand tied behind my back.

skitzzo: Actually I think that leads to a question Pops had which is, are you under an NDA with Google? (do NDA’s allow you to mention that you have an NDA? Does that create some sort of legal infinite loop?) If so, or if you’re allowed to admit to it, what types of things does that cover? Would it limit your criticism of Google in any way? Also, do you feel like you harmed Aviva’s business at all? When you talked with Jeff did you get the impression that he thought so?

Rand: I have NDAs that cover certain material with all of the major engines (except Ask, who have been kind enough to let me slide without one). However, it ONLY covers those things that happen that are directly under the NDAs - conversations over email that are mentioned as such or in-person visits. For example, when I went to Google and lectured to their search quality team, or visited Yahoo! or Microsoft. It doesn’t affect my criticism - I’m free to be as critical as I want, and I haven’t received any money from any of the engines (this has all been pro bono work, purposely). I have done paid work with other arms of the companies that own/control the engines, but never with the search teams themselves (or any properties close to them). FYI - There are at least a dozen popular folks in the search marketing space who also have NDAs with the engines - it’s a requirement for on-site visits and exchange of press/insider material. As for Jeff and Aviva - all of my contacts with him have been exceedingly positive. We’ve always had an excellent relationship and I’ve tried to help him wherever I can and plead his case when necessary (sadly, without effect). I’ve kept in email touch with him directly for several months, talking almost weekly and sometimes more frequently. I certainly count him as a friend, and I hope he feels good about our interactions as well.

skitzzo: That doesn’t really answer my question, at least in my mind. Do you think you harmed Jeff’s business?

Rand: No - I think Jeff’s business had been hit by Google when I posted (which is why I saw those odd results). In talking to him privately, those appeared not to be the only issues. Obviously, when Google swung the club at a lot of other directories, Jeff was hit, too. I think that my efforts on his behalf helped him, at least to identify what the problems were, even if we weren’t able to prevent Google’s wrath.

skitzzo: Fair enough.

The Employee Comments Issue

skitzzo: Probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for me and prompted me to write my post was Jane’s response in the comments of your now infamous “outing” post. While I admit I was probably a bit worked up, it seemed to me that her responses were rude and dismissive. This combined with Rebecca’s and Jane’s comments in some of the sphinn threads seems to be a pattern. Everyone knows that your company is a very relaxed company without much of the corporate structure etc that many of us dislike. However, do you think your employees’ conduct, in this instance specifically regarding the comments, reflect on your company as a whole? Do you agree with my statement that the fact your employees are representatives of your company when interacting in the SEO community? If so, should they be held to a higher standard than someone who has only their own name and reputation to protect?

Rand: Yeah, they probably should be held to a higher standard, and I recognize that sometimes their comments can be perceived negatively. We had a meeting last week to talk about it, and while we’re still planning to stay free from formal “rules” governing online conduct, I think we’ll all try to be more careful about what we say and stay away from “defending” me or anyone else.Just so we’re clear - none of that was “orchestrated” - they’re just comments that happened in the course of the day. I actually try hard NOT to interfere with their opinions and their postings - in fact, when Jane or Rebecca post on the blog, they don’t even clear it with me first. I know it’s odd for a company to act this way, but I always wanted a very open and trusting model here. I always hated how big companies wouldn’t let their employees speak their mind or represent their opinions, but I can also see how it can cause problems and issues. It’s something we’ll continue to work on.

skitzzo: I never thought that any of it was orchestrated. I mean, not to be rude but it would have been idiotic to plan it out like that. Also, I think the open nature of your company is really a positive but in areas such as this it can have it’s drawbacks.

I realize this is an internal matter but you asked at one point whether I had ideas to help mend the fences so to speak and I think addressing this issue, even if just very briefly, might be beneficial. While my post definitely caught some flack from people who disagreed with me, I also received some comments and emails that agreed that their online interactions with some of the SEOmoz staff have left a bit of a bad taste in their mouths. As I mentioned, Scott’s comment on my post actually did a lot to restore my image of your company on this issue. I mean it’s one thing for me just not to get along with certain people. That’s going to happen, trust me (or better yet ask Pops) but I think with your company, people (myself included) tend to lump everyone together as SEOmoz and some sort of public, “hey, we do know we don’t always get it right but will try harder on this issue” without getting into specifics and stoking the flames back up, could go a long way.

Rand: I definitely agree - we’re human, we make mistakes and because we don’t restrict our communications, those mistakes are very public. I hope we can earn back some karma points to spend on future mistakes, but I think it’s going to be a long road - there seems to be a lot of negative feelings out there about what’s happened. Sometimes I feel sad about it - I think I’ve got about 2,500 blog posts under my belt and we’ve collectively probably left 10,000+ comments around the web, but the negative always seems to get the most visceral reaction. It feels like restaurant reviews - you have a good experience, you might tell one person, once. You have a bad experience, you’ll tell every friend, neighbor, dog or cactus you encounter. I have to be more mindful of that natural progression and remember that we’re being watched very carefully.

skitzzo: I think that is a very good point and very good comparison. I mean even if you have a great meal at a 4 star restaurant, yes it’s good but it’s supposed to be? If you have a bad meal at a 4 star place and everyone and their brother will know about it. I really feel like that applies to you guys as a company and the blog as well. Yes, on the one hand it sucks that people are going to look at it that way (I think that’s just part of human nature) but you should also be proud that you’re up to that level you know?

rand: I guess I should be proud (although I’m never satisfied with what we’ve done) - I still feel very much like an underdog - trying to make a success of a small business. Just a few years back we were deep in debt, had 3 employees, and Matt and I had to choose who took home a paycheck that week (based on who needed it more). Now things are obviously better, but we’re still a very small company - 7 people - and still trying to build something great.I think our visibility is probably much bigger than our true size, but I can’t complain about that. The blog and the press and all the attention we receive has certainly helped to make the company what it is today, and I wouldn’t go back to those bankruptcy-dreading times for anything.

The “Outing”

skitzzo: Alright, on to the most recent issue. Obviously you’ve removed the specific links etc, but do you think it was a mistake to list them in the first place?

Part of what frustrated me so much about this was that you said you thought the damage would be minimal for most sites. Was that just poor wording or did you not think about the damage that could be done to those sites by your post?

Actually I guess that sort of leads to a more broader question of do you think that your blog could damage someone’s site or even broader, their business?

Rand: I do think it was a mistake - not necessarily because it’s “evil” or “morally abhorrent,” but because at SEOmoz, the audience will be naturally sensitive to that kind of disclosure and will feel that I’m on “Google’s side,” even though the blog post was literally all about how I disagree with Google’s position.

I think it’s an emotionally charged discussion and one that hits people in their pocketbooks, because paid links are such a common way to monetize a site.

And yes - I DO certainly think that a blog can damage someone’s business. Just as an example, we were in talks to recently make a multi-hundred-thousand acquisition and those talks fell through largely because of the negative press we received on blogs like SEORefugee. Of course, I don’t blame you - it was my late night, careless blogging that caused the issue, but it shows how powerful blogs can be in influencing sentiment.

Another good example might be RedZee or Internet Advancement, both of which I’ve written very negative things about on the SEOmoz blog (and the comments have continued to pile up). Those blog entries rank well for their names and we’ve had legal threats and personal threats from folks associated with those firms because of it.

As far as the “damage is minimal” - it looks like Google changed their mind about how hard they might hit folks who buy and sell links - not just taking away those links’ value, but also affecting their PageRank and traffic, as Danny noted a couple days later (after speaking to Googlers) - http://searchengineland.com/071007-173841.php

Obviously, I don’t think I’m nearly important enough to have caused that kind of shift in policy, but maybe it bears updating my comment, as now they’re clearly saying that they’ll be tougher on sites that buy/sell links. I’m still of a mind that it’s an idiotic policy. All those sites I “outed” was to prove exactly this point - that none of them have probably ever heard of Matt Cutts or “nofollow” or the paid links debate. They just got some calls from folks who wanted to place ads and decided to go with it.

pops: I think there’s a problem with the nature of blogs. Most authors just think of them as a personal outlet and that’s fine in most cases. But, as blogs grow their audience, I think it becomes a problem.

A good example is skitz’s Blogging Experiment. He’s got a lot of good info there and is slowly growing an audience. But, when he posted The Art of E-War there a lot of people didn’t pick up on the fact that it was tongue in cheek. I think he’d established some expectations there and the post didn’t fit in.

On a larger scale, I think that’s what you face with the SEOmoz blog. Given your success, your relationship with SEs, etc. people are going to hold you to a higher standard whenever you talk or write about SEO. That’s only fair. It’s no longer a just personal outlet, it’s the public face of your company. So “late night, careless blogging” now has real consequences when a few years ago it would have only gotten a small blip of attention.

Rand: I think that’s very accurate - the visibility of the site has done great things for the company, but it’s accompanied by responsibility and I’ve had my share of mistakes. Hopefully I’ll do a better job of things in the future - it’s certainly going to be something I work hard at.

skitzzo: Rand, to me, this answer:

And yes - I DO certainly think that a blog can damage someone’s business. Just as an example, we were in talks to recently make a multi-hundred-thousand acquisition and those talks fell through largely because of the negative press we received on blogs like SEORefugee. Of course, I don’t blame you - it was my late night, careless blogging that caused the issue, but it shows how powerful blogs can be in influencing sentiment.

sort of underscores my point about the comments and stuff written by your employees. While I certainly wouldn’t want to cost your company a major acquisition, I think it goes to show how much more you guys have at stake than most of the bloggers and commentators. If I say something that makes me look like a jackass, maybe people stop reading and think I’m a jerk and maybe it even comes back to bite me in my next job interview or something, but you guys have a lot on the line each and every time any of your employees puts something on the web for public consumption. Although like I said, that was sort of the discussion that occurred earlier.

pops: So Rand, would you do it [out sites] again and under what circumstances?

Rand: Yes - I think I would do it again, but only for sites that fulfill certain criteria, such as:

  • Very big boys who can surely take care of themselves (Stanford Student Newspaper, Forbes, WashingtonPost, etc)
  • Sites where hypocrisy clearly exists (i.e. they’ve called someone out for spam or manipulation when they themselves buy/sell links)
  • Sites I’m sure Google has already caught/knows about, as in showing how the penalties are happening to a site like AndyBeard’s (who outed himself)

I can see clearly that there’s a difference between these and small sites that I just “StumbleUpon.”

One more thing, it was my intent to disagree with Google’s policies and to illustrate the ridiculousness of their demands by showing those sites. It was NOT my intent to punish them - I wanted to show how clearly they SHOULD NOT be punished, because they weren’t doing something wrong, nor could they have any knowledge that Google wouldn’t want them doing it. Lowering their rankings or penalizing them in the toolbar would be silly and almost childish - the only thing they can/should/might do is to remove the value those links pass, and if they think that makes their results more relevant, that’s their business.

I didn’t carefully consider the consequences of writing about them publicly and I should have. Big mistake - absolutely. Malicious intent - quite the opposite.

SEO Refugee’s Role and Blogging Ethics

pops: Rand, remember you’re free to ask us questions about the response to your articles from here.

Rand: As for me questioning your criticism - I think that would be very hypocritical. I know how much it hurts to have this stuff happen and I think that you and Ben are both terrific, trustworthy people. I don’t want to make this about someone else (or even several someones) … any re-direction of that would be seen, I believe, as dodging the issues.

pops: Well, then I’ll address it because I know at times it seemed like we were piling on. I think it raises some good issues. So in answer to the question you didn’t ask.

1. I don’t think it was piling on so much as the nature of the tightly-knit and relatively small forum we have. A lot of people here have become very good friends over the years, we all read each other’s stuff, we post member’s blog feeds, etc. So naturally, when an issue that many of our members feel strongly about blows up, this place is in the middle of it. And, like at SEOmoz, we feel protective of each other. However, unlike SEOMoz, we don’t have any control over how people respond (although we do occasionally delete posts and close threads).

2. What we do have control over is what skitz and I do. Personally, I think skitz’s blog post was a real attempt to address the issues in a calm manner. As for my cartoon, I have mixed feelings about that. I think it was a GREAT cartoon editorial cartoon but, on a personal level, it was kind of mean and I’m not sure how many people took note of the question mark in the title. I posted it on my cartoon site rather than here because I thought it would detract from skitz’s post but I think it was naive of me to think it wouldn’t be seen as coming from SEOrefugee.

3. This is more general and not limited to the current dicussion. I think that the pursuit of traffic has become a problem for bloggers in general. I think that the old adage that controversy is good for traffic can cause bloggers and other to pursue the controversy and overlook the substance. Whenever anyone “catches” someone doing something they disagree with, the immediate reaction has come to be: blog about it and Sphinn, Digg, etc. the post. I think that’s unhealthy but I don’t really know of an alternative.

Just my 2¢.

skitzzo: Maybe it’s the difference between a generation that grew up online and one that didn’t but I think of a blog as a microphone. If I take issue with something someone writes on a blog, I don’t see why using the same medium to respond is unhealthy at all. And really, won’t the knowledge that any blogger at any time could cause a public relations nightmare for your candidacy or company or whatever cause people to be much more careful and think about the repercussions of their actions more? Maybe I’m the one being naive now though.

pops: I’m more concerned that a blogger can do that without any basis for what they might say. Swift-boating on a monumental scale if you will. I don’t see how that’s a good thing and , in fact it would seem to favor the dishonest candidate, who is willing to engage in those kind of tactics. So, rather than encouraging good behavior it may do the opposite.

Rand: I think I have certainly been irresponsible with certain posts - particularly with regards to people I know. For example, a couple years ago, I wrote negatively about Mike Grehan’s argument that there was no sandbox, just lazy SEOs. Rather than email him first, get his opinion, clarify his points, etc. I just took him to task.The same goes for several other companies and people - I think we (bloggers) and myself (certainly) have this disease wherein we forget that we’re all in this together, and we’re (largely) all on the same side when it comes to the big issues. We’re also people - with feelings, emotions, hard times and, yes, of course, flaws. One of the things I really hope to take away from this experience is the empathy I can feel for folks who do get attacked or called out online.

I think I’ll be unlikely to be on the giving end of the attack without connecting privately with the recipient first from now on. Even things like my tirade against Robert Scoble (where I certainly wasn’t alone) seem now to be more cruel than necessary (even though I think it was a good post).

Lessons

pops: We seem to be drawing close to an end here. I certainly appreciate your willingness to address these issues. I doubt that our questions or your answers will satisfy everyone but I think we made a good attempt.

I guess the question I still have is what lessons have you learned from all of this?

Rand: I guess the big takeaways would be:

  • Think more carefully about posts before publishing and how the content might affect people & companies
  • Be aware that every comment, every blog post and every interaction online and off will be under a microscope for the next several months, and take extra precaution with both content and style
  • Think about the value of openness at SEOmoz and whether it needs to be balanced out by more controls and limits on what employees can and can’t say/do

I think there must be others, too - I’ll try to come back to this.

skitzzo: While this question wasn’t directed at me I’d say I learned that a) no matter how careful you are, there will always be people that read (or hear or see) what they want to read and b) when criticizing someone always expect your motives to be questioned. Hell that last part probably applies to everything in life these days but this is Doris Day week here at the Refugee so I’m trying not to be too pessimistic.

Rand: Yeah - I’d have to say the questioning of motivations is what hurt the most - calling out the mistakes and providing constructive criticism is great, but even at my most harsh with others, I don’t think I ever said “Robert Scoble is doing XYZ because he’s evil or greedy or in so-and-so’s pocket.”

I had always hoped that the years of providing help and answering questions and putting out good content would build some karma, but I think the web culture shows us how fickle reality is.

pops: Still, I think that the karma evens things out over time. It’s just not John Lennon’s Instant Karma.

But, then again, maybe I’m a starry eyed optimist (we really need a smiley for that. In the meantime this is the best I can do ).

skitzzo:

Quoting Rand: I tried very hard to stay away from that as well. I think [some people] clearly crossed over that line … and many people seem to think I did as well. In hindsight I guess there are a couple of spots that I probably should have been clearer on but I really didn’t want this to be about your motives or anything other than the actions that I viewed as mistakes.

I think assuming people’s motives based on your previous experiences with them is something that the web is fairly susceptible to and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because it’s (mostly) based on the written word and that can easily be taken different ways (no inflection or body language to help provide visual cues etc).

Rand: That’s an excellent point. There’s no tongue-in-cheek on the web, and very little body or facial language to read. The emotions in writing rarely come out, and I think that makes it even harder to make corrections or fix these situations.

So, there you have it. As I said, I’m sure this won’t satisfy everyone on either side of the issue. However, I would like to thank Rand for being willing to discuss the issues so openly. I would like to mention that Rand is out of town this week and will have only limited time to check in on the comments and discussion of this post. I offered to delay the publishing until a later date but Rand declined and promised to do his best to participate in the discussion whenever possible.