Before my SEO friends get their panties in a wad over today’s headline, let me emphasize that I understand the practical value and wisdom of basic Search Engine Optimization practices. There are many prinicipled people in the field doing good and useful work.

But the competition to out-fox the search engines is getting ugly. Beyond ugly.

I recently had a discussion with the CEO of a leading Midwest search firm who described their common practice of creating fake accounts to pump client links into the comment section of blog posts and forums.

The process goes something like this:

  1. The company hires home-bound individuals or low-wage people in developing countries to freelance as professional blog commenters.
  2. The blog commenters are trained on how to pose as fake people and comment in a way that does not alert the suspicion of Google or the author of the blog.
  3. The freelance commenters are then given assignments, fake personas and email accounts to provide an appearance of legitimacy.  A 50-year-old man in Indianapolis might be posing as a 30-year-old housewife in Pittsburgh, for example.
  4. The commenters are compensated by the number of client links they can successfully work into a comment or forum — as many as five in one post.

Reality check.  Isn’t this fraud?

I really don’t pay attention to the SEO shenanigans like this on a day to day basis but now these practices are starting to impact me and my precious time. Here is an example of this practice in a comment that was salted into the {grow} comment section by “John” –

This is good post. This is some good important facts about the corporate blogs. Do you have any information on how to manage comments on the blog.  I think http://www. (web link to consumer electronics retail outlet) might have an idea.  Chech it out.

And of course this linked website did not even have a blog.  So now I am spending my time weeding out fake comments that elude the spam filter … and it happens every day.

I spoke to one of the freelancers hired by this SEO company to provide this faux commenting service. He’s otherwise unemployed and is doing it because he’s desperate for money. He’s good at what he does and rarely gets “outed.”

However as he described his work, he told me he feels guilty when people on the blogs actually want to engage with his fake persona. “I feel terrible about this,” he said. “I have to find some other work.   I’m deceiving people as part of my job. I’m not in a position to engage with them because I’m a fake, which seems wrong.”

While Google fights against this kind of practice, it is very difficult to detect, and the “penalties” are so minor the risk is ignored by the SEO’s. And the volume of fake comments is likely to get worse.  This firm alone has hired 300 fake commenters in the past 12 months and sees rapid expansion as a key competitive advantage.

The CEO of this SEO company does not consider this a “black hat” SEO practice — “it’s gray,” he said, “and we have many companies willing to pay us a lot of money to do it.” He bragged that one client has a monthly SEO bill of $200,000.

I recognize that there are many important business insights and strategies that can come from legitimate SEO professionals like:

  • Keyword research + targeting
  • Testing + optimizing content for users
  • Content strategy direction
  • Making sites search-engine friendly
  • Leadership for analytics
  • Opportunities for alternative search listings
  • User experience improvement

… and more.  But I’m concerned when it gets difficult to compete in the SEO industry without engaging in fraudulent behavior.  This is a slippery slope that will lead to regulation.  All it will take is one high-profile case that blows the lid off these practices.  And we will all lose if we have to endure new rules and the cost of compliance.

I want to do business with people who view ethics as black and white, not gray.  I want to work in an industry where we can compete fairly without resorting to SEO fraud to cover up ineffective products, services and marketing plans. How about you?

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