Another week, and another high profile website receives a dose of the Google Ban Hammer following on from a very public outing over the use of so-called questionable SEO techniques.

Milanoo, the fast growing fashion retailer was outed by TechCrunch following an investment from Sequoia Capital, and has subsequently been severely penalised in the Google Search results, losing some highly lucrative top rankings for terms like “Wedding Dresses”.  It follows on from recent penalties being assigned to other websites including Overstock, JC Penney, and BeatThatQuote.

According to Google’s much quoted terms and conditions:

Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank.

It’s a pretty unambiguous statement.  Don’t build links for the purposes of improving rankings.  I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that every single SEO company actively engages ins some kind of scheme to build links.  Whether that is syndication of content, directly buying tenancies on third party websites, or even building a network of dedicated websites solely for the purposes of creating on topic pages to link to their principal website from.

Editorially given links exist, but when you look at the back link profile of pretty much any website that is ranking for a high volume keyword in a competitive sector, you will see a stack of links that have been acquired solely for the purposes of improving rankings.

A Moral Responsibility to Report Spam

Whether you’re an SEO working within an agency framework, or as an in house consultant, a big part of the job is always going to be benchmarking competitors and investigating what success looks like in your particular sector.

Ultimately, if a client or employer is paying you to get them the best results possible, then you will eventually come up against the question of whether to report a competitor for spammy techniques.  On the one hand, the argument is that it is Google’s responsibility to determine whether a website is pushing the boundaries algorithmically, however as pretty much any SEO will tell you, there are sites in the sectors that they work with where the rules are being broken and no action is being taken.

Google does provide the ability within Webmaster Tools to report spam in their index, but despite the protestations of Matt Cutts, it is rare to see a website penalised as the result of a report being made.

In the case of the sites mentioned above, action was only taken following on from high profile outing of tactics via sites like TechCrunch, the New York Times, or on major industry blogs like SEO Book.

Of course, a high profile outing of a website has longer term implications.  A business that is exposed on a site like New York Times could suffer disproportionately across their other activities – “It’s their fault” you say, “they shouldn’t be so naughty, and they deserve to be punished”.  But that can be a bit short sighted.  If a company relies heavily on natural search traffic to be profitable, losing that channel could have a major impact on the employment of staff who are not responsible for the action that a small department within their business has taken.

Google’s own terms suggest that ethics should be important in SEO:

A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you.

Surely that extends to reporting people for spam.

What if?

There are wide implications for using high profile public spam reports as a legitimate SEO tactic.  arguably the most difficult to reconcile is the ability to self spam a competitor using an automated link placement service, or through over use of a particularly dangerous technique such as paid blogging, and then use the examples you’ve paid for.

Cheap links are cheap.  It wouldn’t cost much to run a dirty negative campaign against a competitor for a month or two, and I’m pretty certain absolutely convinced that it goes on.  When the stakes are high in verticals like gaming, getting a competitor banned could be cheaper than getting to the top by virtue of your own activities.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a forum to respond to an accusation of using black hat techniques to rank.  People will always assume that they’re true, and there are few friends in a competitive world.

Poll

So here’s the question, as an SEO, do you feel the need to report spam as part of your activity?

Should you report a competitor

  • Yes, via Webmaster Tools. (26%, 7 Votes)
  • No, it's Google's responsibilty to do it. (26%, 7 Votes)
  • No, and I wouldn't want to (15%, 4 Votes)
  • Yes, and I'd create spam to get them banned. (11%, 3 Votes)
  • No, I'm pretty dodgy myself (11%, 3 Votes)
  • Yes, and I would promote it. (7%, 2 Votes)
  • I'm Peter Handley, and I only report hacked sites... (4%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 27

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I’ll follow this up in a week or so…

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One Response to Poll: Do SEOs have a responsibility to report spam?

  1. I only ever report hacked sites that are in my way in the SERPs, I don’t file reports on what other folks may be up to – its something to learn from, refine and do better than they are (unless its really something so dodgy you really wouldnt want to do it on a client website, in which case, you wait and hope google will get wise to it)

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