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The SEO, the Press, and Pandering

As SEO has grown, I think the standards for the SEO profession have gone down. That’s not unexpected for any industry seeing rapid expansion. One hopes that over time, as millions of real estate people study for their new careers as “search marketers”, things will get better. But then, there is the Press.

The Press seems to want to sensationalize SEO and search. If SEO is so hot, the coverage must be hot, too. Right? Normally, industry leaders and those knowledgable of the field can help corral the press into “keeping things real”. If coverage is too outlandish, then someone, somewhere will refer to that outlandishness, and, via inference, help curtail it. Except when there’s pandering.

Pandering is the act of “giving them what they want”. If you sensationalize a story to make it “more exciting” because your readers are looking for exciting material, you are pandering. And if the sensational coverage happens to be about YOU, and you allow that because, well, it’s good for YOU, than that, too, is pandering. You are giving the Press what they want, so they can give the readers what they want. Everybody’s getting what they want, right?

Wrong. If the message is skewed, then nobody is getting what they really want.

Just this week, USA Today published “Gray Googlers Strike Gold”. The article shows retirees how others just-like-them are making easy money with web publishing, because Google AdSense is so lucrative. Pandering to the Age Wave, with the hot topic of Search and Money. Of course, it is unrealistic (sensational?). The article presents a rosy picture of success on the web through Google ads:

The Internet may be a young person’s medium, but the retired and those nearing retirement such as Alonzy have found that they can work the Web just as well. Sometimes, such “Gray Googlers” can live a richer, more financially rewarding life than when they were supposedly working.

There’s more fairy tale buried in there as well. Take this segment describing an engineer making $800/month from his power supply web site:

Take Jerrold Foutz. The former Boeing engineer, 75, started a website a few years ago devoted to one of his passions : switching mode power supplies, which help drive, for instance, the inside of video cameras. He put Google ads on his smpstech.com site four years ago. After just one month, the first Google check was for $800. The second check totaled $2,000. “I thought, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “This was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. Something I thought would make $50 a year now equals my Boeing retirement check.” That comes out to around $25,000 yearly. Foutz’s experience is not an anomaly.

Now I don’t doubt the report, but I doubt the reporting. Four years ago, when AdSense started, the payout was very high for many specialized markets. It was not uncommon to see payouts of $15 or more per click. The first month earned $800 and the second $1200? Very likely. But to equate that to $25k per year and suggest that it is not an “anomaly”? I’d like to verify those claims. Looking at the site as it is now, I don’t see a big earner. But I do see a note from Mr. Foutz himself, addressing this USA Today article. It seems Mr. Foutz is a webmarketer.

According to Mr. Foutz (who doesn’t say anything bad about the USA Today article), things are not quite as rosy as described. In a nutshell, he outlines 9 years of web publishing work he carried out prior to starting his AdSense experience in 2003 (the “four years ago” cited by USA Today). He describes his countless hours of work and several web site ventures, and summarizes with “The trip was fun, but notice that it took over nine years — and I already had written a lot of the content before I went on the Web.” That’s a far cry from USA Today’s Jefferson Graham’s account: “former Boeing engineer, 75, started a website a few years ago devoted to one of his passions : switching mode power supplies, which help drive, for instance, the inside of video cameras. He put Google ads on his smpstech.com site four years ago. After just one month, the first Google check was for $800. The second check totaled $2,000.”

Pretty severe sretch of the truth, isn’t it? I also find it interesting that Mr. Foutz is now selling “how to make money on the web” programs from his website, including an amazon affiliate link known to pay out mere pennies per sale. Could it be that all those AdSense blocks on the page (he has the 2 more than maximum allowed?) aren’t paying out so well anymore for Mr. Foutz? Of course not, but let’s tell the AgeWave of retirees that there’s gold in them thar hills!

The USA Today article goes further, but I think the real fun begins in the comments. Linda Buquet, a quality individual whom I have watched in the affiliate space for many years, starts off the reality check very politely with statements like (emphasis added):

“I teach people how to make a living online and have the #1 ranked Affiliate Marketing Blog. I just blogged about this article. I always love success stories, but I agree with some of the other commenters that the article just makes it sound too easy.

After Linda, we see a lengthy comment from the featured “Grey Googler” himself, Jerry Alonzy of NaturalHandyman. His comment is apparently trying to “fix” the sensationalist skew of the USA Today article without offending. Mr. Graham’s article featured him up front and center, as a “Grey Googler” striking Gold:

As an independent handyman at the mercy of weather patterns near Hartford, Conn., he’d always made a decent income that rarely grew. Then he found Google (GOOG), and his life changed. Alonzy, 57, now makes $120,000 a year from the ads Google places on his Natural Handyman website, and he couldn’t be more thrilled. “I put in two, maybe three hours a day on the site, and the checks pour in,” he says. “What’s not to like?” In return for placing its ads on websites and blogs, Google pays Web publishers every time one of its ads are clicked. Those clicks help keep Alonzy and his wife living comfortably and talking about moving to Hawaii. “All I need is a laptop and a high-speed Internet connection, and I can live anywhere.”

But in the comments, Jerry himself chimes in and adds (emphasis added):

“in my opinion, the article does make the whole process seem a little easier than it is. In fact, making serious money with any website, whether you simply offer free content OR sell a product, requires tremendous amounts of time and energy. It is not easy but it is possible. I think this article demonstrates that, and I stand by it regardless of what the many cynics think. … I was quoted as saying that I worked a few hours a day and the “checks pour in”. Though that is true to a great extent NOW, the fact is I wore two hats for nearly 10 years as a full time handyman and website developer. That’s seven days a week, most days from 4-5am writing and posting…, a full day’s work and then back in the evening to make calls and answer emails. I still work 7 days a week to be sure the site is always available and to answer emails, edit articles, etc. Occasional site-wide edits have had me working long days for weeks or months straight. If you think that’s easy, I have a bridge to sell you! I’m just now reaping the benefits of years of unpaid labor. Of the past 12 years, I made a profit on three. All the other years I lost money….

Wow. Another featured success story admitting it took many years of hard work and years of losses… none mentioned in that article. That’s quite an apparent misrepresentation, no?

Just a few days ago I said I fully expect a strong PR campaign from Google during the next 90 days, painting a rosy picture of web success on TheGoogleProgramme, striking down SEO as evil and high-risk, and promoting Google partnership. Is this part of it? Is this a “framed issue”? Is this a ’sponsored article”?

Another article I read this week that fits into the emerging GooglePR Conspiracy was more local to me: the Seattle Times. In the Northwest Business & Technology section, in an article entitled “CEO puts fresh face on SEO“, Brier Dudley highlights Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz, but frames it in an oddly pro-Google and anti-SEO way.
The pandering in this Seattle Times seems less “framed” than the USA Today work, but is equally skewed. For example, Brier Dudley says that

There’s no use pining for a search utopia, free from commercial influences. That’s like wishing for affordable housing in Seattle or a zero carbon footprint. The best we can hope for is that search engines keep getting better and more precise, and that SEO is dominated by legitimate, transparent players.

How convenient. Although this is not in the Editorial section of the Seattle Times, the author seems to have a very strong opinion that SEO should be dominated by Google partners (or at least players who show all of their cards to Google?). Last I checked, Google is one of the least transparent organizations I deal with. They are also among the most profitable. Where did this skewed “reporting” come from? Who is framing this issue as pro-Google, and pro-transparency, via the Seattle Times?

And while I accept that SEOMoz might have 50,000 members, is there any basis whatsoever for the reporter to suggest that “More than 50,000 search-marketing experts are registered users of his [Rand’s] site”? Really… as if. The day every member of SEOMoz is a “search-marketing expert” is the day I sign up for the Premium Membership. Seriously. But I don’t want to nit-pick. The biggest problem I see is this article takes a pro-transparancy stance on SEO, without attributing it to Rand or anyone for that matter. It is reported as if it were fact! Oh, and of course, it finds a way to highlight Rand and SEOMoz as good while painting SEO as bad. In the beginning, the author describes Rand as a “fresh face” for SEO, and so aligns him with the SEO industry:

“he’s become a star in the mysterious world of search engine optimization, the realm of consultants and hackers who tweak and manipulate Web sites to make them more prominent in search engine results.”

Later, the author separates Rand from that same SEO industry by painting it black:

With Fishkin appearing in national media nowadays, his demeanor is helping to improve the reputation of SEO. It’s a controversial industry tainted by spammers using SEO tactics to game search engines and peddle Viagra, gambling and pornography.

Wow. Rand Fishkin, the Face of SEO = Good. SEO = spammers peddling viagra and gaming search engines = Bad. Nice work, Brier Dudley.

As I said earlier, maybe Rand will pop in and clarify some of this, but I will also note via Rand’s transparency, that he just returned from a visit to Google, and that he hopes to someday be acquired by a major search engine. He also notes that SEO is fifth on his list of 5 ways to get new business. I’m confused. This seems like a pro-Google fluff piece, but coming along with a friendly profile of Rand, the CEO of an SEO firm.
Things are changing fast in SEO world.

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9 Responses to “The SEO, the Press, and Pandering”

  1. Todd Mintz Says:

    Reporters aren’t any different than most clients…they learn a little and think they know it all. Only a small percentage of the people within the industry (yourself included) have the background to understand what’s really going on and the wisdom to see the forest for the trees.

  2. Matt Says:

    Great post, John. One of the best I’ve read in a looong time. And having spent the first 7 years of my professional life working in media, I can say that Todd’s comment is spot on, as well.

  3. randfish Says:

    John - happy to help wherever I can. I agree that Brier’s piece wasn’t entirely accurate, particularly the bit about 50,000 “experts,” and I’m also not thrilled with the way the industry was painted as generally dark and spammy - that’s exactly what I was trying to tell him we’re not.

    Just FYI - My visit to Google was in… I think July of this year, and I don’t think we’re going to be acquired by a major search engine! Brier asked during the interview and we both laughed and I said “oh sure, why not?!” - then of course, it makes it into the story. I suppose it’s possible, but it seems unlikely. Maybe more likely that we get picked up by a media company, a large agency, a software firm, etc. but still, that’s still many years away.

  4. Derek Says:

    A local paper in my area recently published a story along similar lines, not directly related to SEO, but blogging and entrepreneurial ventures online. Two folks, both at the top of their game, were referenced as examples.

    It was an interesting discussion piece for sure, since you would surmise from the way that the article was written, that anyone with an internet connection and the ability to type on a keyboard could do the same. While I was not personally connected to either source, I listen to and try to learn from many people whom are successful (online and offline), and I know that there is a lot being done (i.e., hard work), that never gets seen or recognized. But from a standpoint of selling news, just doesn’t gain/improve readerships by explaining that part of the equation.

  5. Jake Says:

    GREAT post John - very well put together and well thought out.

    If not for ethical and strong SEO - search engines would return junk a fair amount of the time, even Google at that. But what do they care; they can return whatever they want, it’s their engine…display well titled pages, and put a bunch of advertising around it, the clicks will come. OR, better yet, just insert Wikipedia.

    Google really seems to be on a tear against SEO’s, dark, gray or whatever.

  6. What Your Mama Didn’t Tell You About Becoming an SEO Consultant - Cape Cod SEO Says:

    […] Thanks to John Andrews for writing his post on SEO, The Press and Pandering, which made me sit back and reflect more on how our industry is evolving and being perceived. Sphere ItShare and Enjoy! Your Votes Are Appreciated. del.icio.us | Digg it | Reddit | StumbleUpon | Sphinn it […]

  7. massa Says:

    There’s no such thing as bad press. But that doesn’t change the fact that sensational sells papers.

    same as it ever was. it’s a sick world — thank god.

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