Google Openly Profiles SEOs As Criminals

June 9, 2009
By Lisa Barone in SEO

If we can stop talking about nofollow and PageRank sculpting for a second, maybe we can openly talk about the bigger story of last week’s SMX Advanced. The one that has to do with Matt Cutts taking the stage during the You&A and openly stating that Google profiles SEOs like common criminals.

I was naïve in my youth. I’d read blog posts that accused Google of “having it out” for SEOs and laugh. There’d be rants about how Google was stricter on sites that were clearly touched by an SEO and how SEOs were dumb for “self-identifying” with attributes like nofollow. At the time, I thought these people were insane. Now I know they were right.

Google does profile SEOs. They’re identified as “high risk” and so are all of their associated projects.

One of the hot issues during last week’s You&A session was the paid link drama that resulted when Google oprah’d 500 free Android phones during the Google I/O conference. As the story goes, for their attendance, developers received brand new Google Androids, many of which were later pawned on eBay for prices as high as $760. For their Oprah generosity, Google received tens of thousands of free links to help the Android in a competitive telecom market. But calm those raised eyebrows. Because if it looks like a Google paid link, and walks like a Google paid link…then Google’s going to start talking about intent.

And that’s exactly what Matt did. He used the “intent” card to misdirect the audience. He explained that a line was not crossed because Google was not after the thousands and thousands of links they received. Google wanted to encourage these developers to create applications for Google’s Android…so they gave them phones.

Okay. Let’s pretend that’s true.

Michael Gray was seated next to me during the You&A session and mentioned Viral Conversations, his product review site that hooks bloggers up with free products. When Viral Conversations was first launched, he received an email from Matt Cutts with recommendations for things he’d like changed. [Clearing this up after some further discussion with Michael.] During a lunch conversation and follow up email conversation with Matt, Michael received some advice on things to change on Viral Conversation to help them “match” what Google suggests. One “recommendation” obviously being hinted at was to make sure bloggers used a nofollow on all links to rid any sense of paid link impropriety. In session, Michael asked why he had to place a nofollow when he gets free links but Google does not.

That’s when Matt started talking about SEOs as being “high risk” and “people who do things deliberately for links”.

Fact: Viral Conversations faced more scrutiny because Michael is an SEO. Michael and his sites are profiled the same way a black kid is when he’s out too late and the convenience store on the corner gets robbed. Make no mistake, the way Google handles your site is both site-specific and SEO-specific. And they do hold grudges.

And Michael’s not an isolated case. It’s happening every day on the Web. If you’re an SEO, you’re presumed guilty. If you’re not, you’re given a bye.

As Michael Gray points out today in his own post on Google profiling:

  • Those suspicious links on TechCrunch? Not paid links.
  • The all expense paid trip Robert Scoble and Sarah Lacey received to Israel and then wrote about? Not paid links.
  • Guy Kawasaki’s growing collection of “loaned” cars? Not paid links.

Why? They’re not SEOs. Let’s post two hypotheticals:

  1. Rae Hoffman, marketer and owner of BBGeeks, decides to loan 50 BlackBerries to some of her site’s most engaged users to build content and get unique customer reviews. And the handout works.  She gets tons of reviews and free content for her site. And because BB users are tech savvy, they also have blogs and write about the experience, linking to BBGeek.com in droves.  Rae doesn’t ask users to nofollow their links.
  2. A new bakery in town ships out 500 cupcakes to residents of a small suburb encouraging them to come into the store and try them out. There’s even a coupon for a few bucks off when they come in. The promotion spreads like wildfire when a few of the lucky cupcake recipients use their Twitter accounts to tell others about the bakery, it gets picked up by blogs and suddenly, they’re on TechCrunch. It doesn’t even have to be cupcakes. It could have been, I don’t know, pizza.

Are these paid links? For BBGeeks.com, yes. For the bakery, no.

Why? Because Rae Hoffman, by profession, knows the power of a link. Her site will either get dinged or receive a handwritten love letter from Matt. The TechCrunch-featured mom and pop, however, will be applauded for their ingenuity. Not a double standard. Simply evidence of Google’s astonishing mind-reading ability when it comes to intent.

Google, you need to stop with the intent card. You have NO WAY of determining someone else’s thoughts. You don’t know the face of evil. You never did. And these days, that face of evil that you’re looking so hard for is YOU as you continue to push your way through the Web intimidating webmasters, applying double standards, and playing the game of misdirection.

And in case there’s some confusion, your standard, back-up-against-the-wall response of, “you can do whatever you want with your site, but it’s our index” isn’t ACTUALLY an answer. It’s you being a bully. It’s an abuse of power. And more importantly, it’s WRONG.

Profiling a site associated with an SEO as being “high risk” is no more egregious and an abuse of power than a cop questioning that black kid who just happens to be walking down the wrong street. You can’t tell someone’s intent by looking at the color of their skin, their gender or their business card. Not every SEO is a link broker or thinking up ways to manipulate the system you created. In fact, most aren’t. Most want to create great content and to help their sites do interesting things so they earn their rankings. When you assume otherwise and bucket SEOs into a “high risk” group, holding  sites hostage, it’s malicious. And I’m no longer wet behind the ears. I’ve seen sites unfairly punished and left for dead simply because of the SEO association.

It’s wrong, you’re a bully and if anyone’s intent needs to be questioned, it’s yours.

I’m not naive enough to think Google will change. But as Michael Gray states, I think it’s up to us to continue to point out and educate  people to Google’s inconsistent and egregeous behavior. Consider the spotlight on.

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