SEO contest reveals limits of SEO

As you probably know, a group of high-profile SEO bloggers has been engaged in a debate with me for the past several months. Several of these bloggers objected to comments I made about SEO, especially the assertion that “SEO is Not Rocket Science.” Instead of debating me rationally, they took steps to wipe my name from Google. On March 1, 2007, at exactly 12, noon, the contest ended, with a $1,000 bounty being awarded to whoever ranks #1 for the term “Dave Pasternack.”

Before I continue with this account, I want to say a few words about the SEO community, because several of their high-profile members have had so much to say about me. This community is not monolithic, nor, do I believe, should it be indelibly tarnished due to the actions of a few which, in my view, have clearly crossed the line. There are many good, ethical, white hat SEO practitioners, who would never jeopardize the interests of their clients in exchange for a few shots of Google juice. There are many thoughtful, hardworking SEO practitioners, both at agencies and within in-house departments, who are thoroughly professional and provide enormous service in terms of developing and sharing organic optimization practices and principles that should be widely disseminated to everyone with an online business presence.

Unfortunately, there are others in this same community whose actions, in my view, do not always serve the interest of their profession. This observation is certainly not news: anyone who’s been in this business for more than 10 minutes is familiar with the perennial debates about SEO “white hats” vs. the “black hats.” Even a bunch of folks who engage in white hat practices don’t necessarily disclose those practices to clients and hide their activities to keep the clients’ thinking that SEO is voodoo or rocket science. It is important to state that these individuals are a minority, and while their actions may get all the headlines, they do not represent either the prevailing ethics or the business philosophies of the bulk of professionals in either the SEO or PPC segments of the SEM industry.

Now, let us proceed to the contest itself, which was formerly announced on 1/27/2007. As I mentioned, this action was taken to retaliate against me for making the statements that I made in a series of DM News articles. For reference, these articles can be found here:

Troubled Times for SEO Firms (DM News, 10/26/06)


An SEO Critic Answers His Critics (DM News, 11/27/06)


Is SEO Rocket Science: A Q&A With Dave Pasternack (1/23/07)


The contest, once announced, quickly drew the attention of many SEO practitioners, a subset of which entered it in an effort to win the $1,000 bounty, and more importantly the respect of their peers. They also were motivated by the idea that anti-Dave Pasternack pages would dominate the results, not just in Google but also across the engines. These entrants did exactly what I expected them to do: they reserved Dave Pasternack-oriented TLDs, put up keyword-rich pages on these sites and on numerous blogs, and, traded links among themselves in order to gain Page Rank. There is some anecdotal evidence that some of these links were actually sold, or traded for barter, but I do not yet have actual proof of these transactions. When the dust settles, I’ll find some time to do an analysis of specific tactics.

Over the term of the contest, rankings for my name (as well as the famous chef who shares my name) fluctuated wildly. At certain points in the contest, it was clear that the SEO bloggers’ attempt to game Google’s algorithm was working: at one point the actual relevant listings for both Dave Pasternacks nearly disappeared from the first page of Google SERPs.

Were these SEO bloggers practicing some kind of witchcraft or “rocket science” to achieve these manipulations? Hardly. They were simply allocating their Page Rank, much of which was pre-existing due to their inventory of backlinks. I will have more to say about the actual day-by-day, blow-by-blow progress of this contest in the future: suffice it to say that at no time was any “rocket science” actually used.

Because I was the target of this contest, I felt it was appropriate to at least do the basics to respond, and had my team do some changes to the Website which, in a thoroughly textbook-like way, made my bio page more search-engine-friendly and improved its anchor link power. While I could have instructed my team to emulate the tactics of the other contest entrants, I felt this was inappropriate, because it would have been an attempt to manufacture a degree of relevancy that was completely unearned.

To make a long story short, after two months, and the participation of more than 200 of the most aggressive SEO practitioners in the country (according to them), the final contest results support the assertions in my original DM News article. The Did-it Bio Page managed to “crush” all but one of the hundreds of pages created by the SEO’s. And this result was achieved by applying the most basic and common-sense SEO rules and practices.

I’m even more pleased to see that the original #1 page in Google for the site is the original article about the chef, David Pasternack, a page I recommended folks link to in my earlier column.

Again, I stress that all of this was done without employing any mythical “rocket science” or well-documented “black hat” tactics. Even in periods in which pages created by several SEOs finished one position above ours, this was only accomplished when a group of them coordinated their activities by instructing them to give up their own entries and instead link to each other in order to “pool” their page rank. Only by banding together in this fashion (which is a well-known “link farm” style methodology), could they unseat our most basic page. This was accomplished with no SEO effort at all on our part beyond implementing the most basic textbook SEO methods and practices. When push came to shove, the simple changes we made to our page beat out their voodoo science and it’s there for the world to see.

I hope this finally puts to rest the idea that SEO is Rocket Science. I would argue that it’s not even science; it’s tactics and strategies that you can get from a book or a bit of research. Baking a cake is much more complicated. Furthermore, it shows how limited the bag of tricks in the SEO’s black bags are. After all, banding together to pool page rank is a tactic that they could never use with actual paying clients. Getting legitimate links for their clients is much more difficult.

I will have more to say about this contest in the future, because I believe that it is actually a good thing that it happened. It stimulated a new round of soul-searching within the SEM industry by forcing a discussion about what this industry really does, and whether it still needs to “grow up” before it’s taken seriously by the mainstream business establishment. It led to a series of internal discussions among reputable members of the SEO community about the limits of permissible behavior among its members. And it continued to demystify and expose the standards and practices of an important SEM industry segment where more sunshine, and less smoke and mirrors, have been badly needed for a long time.

Finally, I think this contest reveals something important for marketers to consider when evaluating an SEO firm. As I’ve said before, making the right choice is all about reputation, reputation, reputation. And reputation is not just a term relating to SERP page position: it pertains to the business ethics and professional track record of any given firm, whether PPC or SEO. When considering any outside firm, be wary of contracting with firms that engage in shady tactics, or publicly encourage or otherwise countenance such tactics in public Internet forums. Your firm’s reputation will thrive if you make the right choice, but inevitably suffer if you engage with any firm that regularly “crosses the line” separating ethical, questionable or outright unethical conduct.

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