SEO Ethics and Content Marketing: Spammers vs.Thought Leaders

seo ethics

By {grow} Community Member Andy Crestodina

Blogging is work. Finding time is hard, and pushing back deadlines isn’t easy. 29% of B2B marketers report that “producing enough content” is a challenge (source: B2B Marketing Survey). So why not outsource it?

Great! Let someone else do the work. But delegators beware. Ethical issues pop up when you outsource your blogging, especially when the goal is SEO. As usual, search is on the front lines of marketing ethics.

The ethics of outsourcing content isn’t black and white. There’s a spectrum of SEO ethics, ranging from the easy (but shady) to the difficult (but pure).

content outsourcing

Link Spammers

The last few years have been tough for SEOs, especially those who relied on link networks, article spinning, and directory submissions to build links. Google’s rank-crushing (but cute-sounding) algorithm updates, “Panda” and “Penguin,” changed everything. So SEOs turned to guest blogging as a reliable, repeatable way to build links to client websites.

But when the search pros start writing, things get weird. For the first time, clients are able to review the work and not just the rank. They want to read the content for which they paid. And since SEOs care more about the links than the writing, the quality of the writing is low. All too often, the content and the host blog look suspiciously irrelevant, even if they are good for rankings.

It’s unethical because the writer doesn’t care about the writing. In fact, they don’t care if the content is ever seen by human eyes. All that matters is GoogleBot and the juice that the link provides.

The Ghost Writer

The next step on the spectrum is the ghost writer. Since the idea for the content actually originates from you, it’s more legitimate. In this case, you write the topic sentence, the opening paragraph, and/or an outline.

Yes, it takes time to discuss topics, but the SEO vendor does most of the work, researching the topic, finding host blogs, writing, and editing. In the end, they may put your name on it, which is where ethics come into play. The topic is yours, but not the tone. Although it’s not written in your voice, you’re signing your name to it.

The Co-Author

This approach is a true collaboration between you and the SEO partner. You know the industry, so you provide the ideas, but you also do the research and write the first draft. The quality is higher, but quality takes time. The post is two-thirds done when you hand it off.

The SEOs do the editing and optimizing. They’re good at this because they know how to research keywords and SEO best practices. They also know (hopefully) where and how to pitch the piece as a guest post.

In the end, it might make sense to give writing credits to both authors. But only one can get credit in Google as the author. Google Authorship doesn’t allow for more than one author. If you want full social media benefit, put the rel=”author” tag on the link to your own Google+ profile.

Thought Leaders

You know the subject. You know your audience. You care the most. This means you have the best opportunity to find the right topic and shape it with your voice. Through your content, you can become respected for your ideas. That’s what a thought leader is.

It’s the highest quality content. It’s the well-researched articles, the passionate op-eds, the detailed reference guides. This is time-consuming, “cornerstone” content. Not the kind of thing you write everyday.

As a thought leader, you’ll get all the social benefits: a growing following, better traffic through sharing, and new connections. You’ll be an author in the eyes of Google (you’re ready for Authorship and Author Rank) and in the eyes of your peers (you may end up getting invitations to speak at events).

The trick is to find the time…

Take the high road (or the highest road possible)

No one likes a link spammer. So go as far to the right of the chart as time will allow. I suggest combining your options.

  1. Be a thought leader …when you can. Set aside time to write every week. If inspiration strikes, carry the idea all the way through to completion. Let your SEO or marketing partner help you promote it. If you don’t manage to finish the piece…
  2. Leverage your SEO partners …but collaborate. Leverage your own time by sharing ideas, information, and connections with them. Let them finish the work so you can keep the content wheels turning.

I’m sure you’ve got a few thoughts by now. What do you think? Should SEOs even try to create content? Will brands ever find the time to write? I’m looking forward to the comments on this one…

andy crestodinaAndy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a web design company in Chicago. He’s also the author of Content Chemistry, An Illustrated Guide to Content Marketing

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  • Andy, thanks for writing this piece. It helps to put some things into perspective for me.

    I am a physician blogger, with a blog that is hosted by my institution’s website. I write pieces that I believe help build trust between me and the community I serve. As the physician head of our children’s hospital I believe that the community must know me to trust me, and must trust me (and through me the physicians who work for me) in order to feel comfortable about allowing us to provide the best possible care for their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or patients (in the case of primary care physicians who need a place to send their patients for subspecialty care).

    Yet, there are some within the overall system’s marketing team who don’t necessarily understand my interest, desire and compulsion to handle and control this connection myself. Why not let someone in marketing write the blog? NO, NO and NO. I am more than happy to host others (physicians or others) who want to write something appropriate for my audience, with due attribution. But I am not willing to allow my name to appear on something that is not totally mine. It potentially means that I publish less content than I otherwise could. The time I spend searching for or creating images that fit the topic, could be handed off to someone else without changing my voice, and potentially saving me time and aggravation. But I can’t bring myself to do that.

    I have to admit I never actually think about SEO as I write or when I push the “publish” button. I just end up hoping that the content itself will bring folks to the blog, and that my relationship with the community will grow in a “natural” fashion. But I also believe that it is impossible to separate me and my writing from the “brand” that we are continuing to develop. In order for that growth to be meaningful it needs to be organic, built on truth, transparency and trust.

    I plan to share your post with my CEO and others who have questioned my involvement in social media and insistence on having it my way. Thank you.

  • Lana

    While I agree with most of this piece, I think it’s taking a simplistic view and is leaving out an entire group of professionals who make their living in the ghostwriting or even “link spamming” category.

    I know of many marketing and content writers, myself included, who make it their business to understand the ins and outs of their clients’ companies — both the culture and the technical aspects. When content is produced this way (even if the idea comes from the contracted writer and not someone “on the inside”) there is a level of professionalism, quality and relevance that is comparable to having the content written internally and with the added bonus of it being written well from the first draft. This minimizes revisions based on grammar or spelling errors.

    But as you’ve pointed out in other areas of the article, this sort of quality takes time. It can’t be dashed off in half a day, nor should it be. It requires collaboration in the sense that there may be interviews with key personnel, and in the form of research. Additionally, there will always be the need for some amount of back and forth to ensure the tone matches precisely.

    I write many pieces wholesale, from idea conception to final edit, and what I write is *never* link spam, but always tailored to fit the needs of my clients and their intended audience. Quality can’t be judged solely on how much input the client has into the process; one must also consider the skill and expertise of the person(s) creating the final piece.

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  • If I didn’t write it then I don’t want my name on it. I want to be comfortable and confident that whatever is published with my mug alongside of it meets certain standards and the only way to do that is to be a part of the writing process.

    It helps build trust, community and connection and those are things that are invaluable.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Alice.

    You are certainly at the far right end of that spectrum: the Thought Leader. My approach is very similar to yours. But there are cases where I’ll start an article, get stuck or lose interest, and hand it off to be finished by a member of my team. It’s an efficient way to produce more content.

    Also, I’d encourage you to think a bit more about keywords as you post. If you can learn some of the most useful (and ethical) techniques of the SEOs, you may get a lot more traffic in the long run.

    I’m going to keep watching the evolution of the content marketing industry. It’s interesting to see how social media, PR and SEO companies are taking different approaches to content, since they have different goals. If everyone focusses on giving value to the readers, everything will work out fine… 🙂

  • Hello, Lana. Thanks for the comment. I think you’re getting to an important point, which is that this article suggests there a relationship between two issues: outsourcing content and link spamming. There are not necessarily any issues with outsourcing content. I have huge respect for freelance copywriters and I frequently refer clients to them. I also teach clients how to delegate some of the content development tasks to become more efficient at marketing. I do believe there are still “angelic” ways to outsource and delegate.

    But I am crying fowl at the writers who write only for links. And obviously, you’re not defending them either. I’m against any content that isn’t focused on quality, which is why I shared this post with Mark. He feels the same.

    I completely agree, great content takes time. I spend an average of 4 hours per post. But I know an SEO who works in my building, just down stairs. He told me he writes “three or four posts a day” Can you imagine? I assume they are awful. Beware the writers who write only for robots. That’s spam!

  • Jamie

    Not everyone who has the smarts and experience to be a thought leader has the skills to write reader-friendly content, even without worrying about SEO. That’s when co-authorship gets my vote over pure thought leadership. Your final suggestion, though, is very realistic and could make writing content less intimidating for those who are just starting out!

  • Hi Andy,

    Overall, you make a number of good points, and pointing out that there is a spectrum, tradeoffs within the spectrum, but no single right answer, is refreshing.

    I would add alternatives here to your “SEO” partner as well. There are a whole category of potential providers, with journalistic or editing backgrounds, that provide additional options the SEO-concerned company can follow. Since you reference pitching guest posts, one option is to separate the content creation from the link building practice.

    Good perspective, and refreshing among today’s typical rhetoric on this. Thanks for sharing!

  • Thank you, Eric, for the thoughtful comment. This post is focussed on SEO, but you’re right, there are all kinds of providers in related fields. We could make a list of all the companies who did something else yesterday, but today they’ve rebranded themselves as content marketers: SEO, PR, social media, ad agencies and of course writers, editors, etc.

    The “smell test” for ethical content marketing is the reader reaction. Did the they get value? Learn something new? Were they exposed to a new perspective? If not, it’s spam. And if it’s a guest post, it’s probably link spam.

    It sounds like you’ve seen/smelled this content before. Is this what you meant by “separate the content creation from the link building practice?”

  • I’m really interested in co-authoring too. There are writers like Mark who continually pump out great stuff, but some don’t have the inspiration. Others don’t have the time. It seems like there should be some ethical middle-ground. In the future, I’ll be experimenting more with co-authoring…

  • sitesthatwork

    I agree with the points around content and the point of view related to being ethical and being a thought leader.

    However I don’t agree that all SEOers are spammy link builders and shouldn’t write. The SEO agencies that practice the types of practices you describe give the profession a bad name.

    Many SEO professionals are excellent writers and can collaborate with clients to create great content. It takes time and there has to be a relationship and an understanding of the industry business goals. There are also alternatives to having the SEO firm do the writing and there are many excellent freelance writers. I see some others in the thread share a similar point of view.

    Businesses have been outsourcing content, not everyone can write well and given the fact that quality is important, it’s essential to have well-written content.

    In some cases, I think having an outside point of view contributing ideas can actually increase the likelihood that unique and interesting topics are written about.

    What’s important to me when I develop content for clients is that we approach it together and that they have a vested interest and are engaged. I focus on the reader first and strive to write pieces that provide value – the optimization for search engines comes after that.

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  • I’ve been saying for years that the Internet/ blogging is killing itself by producing content meant for Google rank instead of actual human readers. I don’t think the issue is who writes the content but HOW they write it. A hired writer can care about the topic and have real experience/ knowledge too. It is up to the site editor/ owner to hire the right people and then review the content being written.

    The real problem with writing good content is having it stolen by those who don’t care and just want to have content, however they get it. This is why people who are still writing their own content (quality and original) are not distributing it freely as often now. If you at least try selling it in an ebook (for instance) you can have some control over it being stolen and make a little money too.

    Of course the sploggers can write ebooks too. I think, eventually web publishing will go through some big changes or people who really care about their content will return to print/ paper publishing in order to have control over their content again. it is far too easy to be stolen/ scraped when it is online.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Thanks for the article. A few years ago I got contract work for link building, but never really took it anywhere. It was a company with very high standards and integrity, but I just couldn’t engage myself, acting like someone else. I tried to find sites that I had actual expertise in so that I could write more truthful comments, but found that to have less opportunities. Being someone who has engaged with people online for many years (going back to bulletin board forums) it was just too uncomfortable. And since I was working on my own articles and blog posts, this made me even more uneasy. When the company turned to guest blogging, I looked into it, but it didn’t ever happen. I thought maybe I could be more genuine, but I’m sure there would have been some conflicts there as well.

    Creating my own content in areas I am passionate about is what appeals to me, and seems to be the only true genuine participation that works for me. This idea of thought leaders to me is the real thing. I would much rather focus on that, and letting the interactions that ensue be the kinds of things that help me to prosper.

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  • great post thank u

  • If you want to win my trust writing for human beings instead of Google PageRankings sounds fair to me.

    I came across this video from Matt Cutts yesterday who talks about
    What is Google’s view on guest blogging for links?

    I thought this video could add value to this post and its comments. Hopefully my comment isn’t alreday too outdated today…;-)

  • studiumcirclus

    This is why SEOs with an English / Language degree or background are so masterfully proficient in a post-panda environment. If they earned a decent grade and can write critically, thoughtfully (and to ‘dissertation’ standard) then they might be able to pull their weight in SEO. Personally I think that actual SEOs should only make up the margin of an SEO-team. They need people around them who can actualise and innovate their ideas whist they concentrate on actual optimisation.

    That being said there are some incredible hat-jugglers out there (I know a few). There are people who are smart enough to learn a decent amount about absolutely everything and these are the guys who research well (again; academic backgrounds – History, English etc.) and who are capable of becoming the critic they NEED to be in order to write content that sells itself.

  • Lana

    Hi, Andy. I agree, writing solely for links is spam and it doesn’t fool anyone. What I’ve seen more of in recent months is not the spam article – Google has crushed a great deal of “thin content” sites – but instead the spam press release.

    They are short and they contain nothing interesting whatsoever. (One particularly egregious site that I will not name has a new press release almost everyday with such announcements as ‘Company responds to [generic keyword-based article title]’ which has nothing to do with the company at all.)

    As for the SEO writing three or four posts a day, there are many companies who expect that kind of “prolific” writing. Content marketing in particular is seen as this endless machine where companies have to have tonnes of new content out every day. Businesses then feel obligated to do such things as “repurpose” and “reorganize” their current content, which means you get an article, a guest blog piece, a presentation, and an infographic with the same information.

    If you have great writers that can get a fresh angle on the topic in all three, and a great graphic designer to make the infographic, then it works. But most people don’t bother with the quality and it shows.

  • studiumcirclus

    There are people who can write maybe three decent posts a day but it does begin to verge on garbage. I think the problem is that there are a lot of crap-hat freelance writers just like you get crap-hat SEOs from time to time.

    These are some people who parrot categories of information in order to quantify what ‘quality’ means. Some writers will say:

    “I wrote X number of words and I included one infographic and X number of glossy images so you HAVE to accept that what I have created for you IS quality content”

    If you hear anything like this you need to run a mile. It’s sad but you need to use writers who are smart enough to know what ‘good’ is. It’s the same for SEO. You need people who understand that value-add is king and that content is one of value add’s many channels.

    Get away from people who over-simplify the notion of value add (this goes for BOTH content and SEO) and find someone with an eye or a hand for crafting real quality.

    Real quality can sometimes be reflected with numbers, but really intelligent content and ideas can’t be reduced to binary. Right?

  • A very relevant and timely share Claude.

  • Just wanted to say that I appreciate this very professional and helpful discussion!

  • Andy, yes. Here is my thought: knowing the audience and creating valuable content is a skill and expertise. Marketing content, getting it placed on other sites, building links back to it, etc is a skill and expertise. Often one person or organization is really only great at one of these.

    I don’t have a problem with a guest post in principle (although I agree most are pretty low value these days), but when it was written just to get it written and out the door, instead of to provide real and original value to the audience, you can tell. It leaves me thinking less of the individual that wrote it, the company they are supporting and the blog that accepted it.

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  • Thanks for posting this Claude – I was just asking Andy about this the other day. Lot of crap being spun and you have to wonder if anyone is reading 80 percent of it.

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  • You seem to put Ghost writers pretty close to the devil himself… I never really felt that strongly about it as a moral issue.

  • Sharla Laurin

    I do both SEO and write content, rolled into one project. I’ve only been doing SEO for 1.5 years, so I’ve learned in the era beyond black hat. In many ways it’s an advantage. I’ve been a blogger since the early days of LiveJournal. Engaging content is what I do. Admittedly, it’s much. much. easier.. to engage when you can write free style than it is when you have to have an eye for the formality of business. No one wants formal but the clients. and some of their customers.. ok, i get it. end tangent.

    But one advantage of being the SEO who writes the content – I still have a lot of freedom. I do the keyword research, find what’s trending in xyz industry, and most of the time I don’t even run ideas by the clients until I send them the fully finished drafts. The communication phase is too inefficient. They are busy people with businesses to run, and as I’ve developed trust relationships, it’s easier for everyone. I can research the basic idea and subject matter easily. If I have questions or need help with an original angle, a quick telephone interview can add the needed spice. Sometimes contracting it out is the only way mid-size businesses are going to accomplish regular content additions, and that leaves me in a fantastic position.

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  • Spook SEO

    Hello Andy!

    I totally agree with you that for the last few years, SEOs have been struggling especially those who relied on link networks, article spinning, and directory submissions to build links. Google’s rank-crushed down and there are new algorithm updates like “Panda” and “Penguin,” and now the “Hummingbird” who changed everything. So SEOs turned to guest blogging as a trustworthy, repeatable way to build links to client websites.

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