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Hypocrisy Begins at Home: Sphinn is YOURS!

The search industry struggles with issues of “fairness” too much. Every year several issues come up where search marketers cry “foul!”, Google frowns sternly while waving a crooked finger, and talking heads at the most expensive Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization in the world roll their eyes in suggestively “knowing” fashion (it’s a front, folks. They know less than we do!). Unfortunately, it seems none of these players has a clue. Oh, except the middle and upper levels of management of Google, of course. The ones with the really big money. I’m convinced they know what they are doing.

But the rest of us… so much wasted energy. Yes, those “great post, I sphunn it and bookmarked it” comments are a waste of glucose. So are the “Google is a meanie” posts. And the ones that say “rel=nofollow is unfair” and also the ones that suggest “every link is a paid link! Get over it!“. All wastes of energy. Even the ones from Google’s lower level millionaires are a disappointing waste, like “look at this guy’s directory. See? Spammy directories are bad.” posts. They may be well-meaning, but they don’t address the real issues, they don’t propose any real solutions, and they don’t make for a better (or more profitable) world fo rthose who work hard. Quite simply, they don’t help. At best, they don’t contribute to enlightenment. At worst, they increase confusion, foster bitterness and hatred, and mislead those with poor reading comprehension skills (which for the 25-45 year old group, is a significant fraction of the whole). I know each of you seasoned marketers imagined links behind each of those statements, pointing to well-known posts demonstrative of my points, so I won’t bother to embed any distracting outbounds.

If “we” are to really address important issues of search marketing as a “search marketing community“, we really need to address this stuff close to home. Which is why I just poked Sphinn, arguably the largest search marketing community online, and fairly obviously the most progressive. Back when Sphinn was new, I liked it. But after several months I was disappointed in the low levels of participation I saw. Oh sure the BigNames had stopped by and placed their business cards on it, since obviously it was a great place to brand yourself amongst the rapidly growing lower levels of the search marketing work force, but aside from a few individuals, I didn’t see those BigNames giving much to Sphinn. Why not?

I hate that. It’s almost as if they stop by, place their face in a prominent spot, and either attempt to traffic-jack off to their own forum or passively wait for it to sink-or-swim, avoiding any commitment or responsibility for failure. So, I posted a bait piece designed to promote Sphinn among Sphinn’s participants. I timed it where I felt it was ripe for support from Danny (how could he disagree that Sphinn was Great?), and I hooked it just a tad towards binding Rand Fishkin into Sphinning it. I tried to draw in the critics as well as the Sphinn lovers, with a common cause potentially interesting to both camps. I pinged everyone on Lee’s the 100 Best Marketing Blogs list to remind them that I and others were actively promoting Sphinn involvement. I voted up every comment on my post, and told people I was voting up every comment on my posts as a way to encourage voting comments. And I incentivized the couldn’t-care-less crowd with a free link.

It worked, and we broke 100 Sphinns very quickly. Nice work, everyone. Today, there are dozens of posts in the >75 Sphinns bin, more “voting up” on comments than I remember seeing, and in my opinion even more support from everyone for Sphinn (including many of the BigNames).

But then we fought about paid links, argued with Google abut paid links, and debated paid links ad-nauseum everywhere, including Sphinn. We fought over rel=nofollow’s meaningfulness and fitness for purpose. We got emotional and we got nowhere. After a while everyone was tired of the debate, the impactful arguments became more recognized for their entertainment value than their impact on the industry, and everyone moved on with search marketing under the new rules (follow them, or ignore them). After a while, everyone pretty much settled into “I follow the no-paid-links guidelines” or “I don’t follow the no-paid-links guidelines“. And then, as suits them perfectly, Google acted in its self interest. Wham! The more visible in the “I don’t-agree” camp got nailed with penalties, and the story ends unhappily ever after for those guys. The rest responded as if slapped: better not let it go any farther.

Why did Google get its way so quickly? Because we, the search marketing industry, never truly addressed the core issue of paid links. We never formed a strong argument against Google’s viewpoint on paid links, and we let the issue die. Billions more for Google, no donuts for you. And Sphinn is more successful than ever. Huh?

It’s time to call Sphinn to task for its leadership role as an enabler in the industry. It’s really not my job to call out anyone; it’s everyone’s job. Allow me to explain.

Sphinn has voting, and Sphinn says you can “Sphinn” a post just once. The aggregate Sphinn count determines a posts’s importance to the community. Enough Sphinn’s and the post makes the front page (or eventually, the Greatest Hits page). There are a bunch of rules for fairness, and the rest is up to the community. Sounds just like linking, doesn’t it? Remember that paid links issue that devolved into a riches-for-Google-only game this past year?

As “votes” (or links) became valuable for driving a post (web page) to a larger audience (i.e. higher ranking), the market set a value upon them. Once so valued, they get traded (via Twitter, email, cliques, camps, and even religious affiliation). How is Sphinning different than Google’s links? How can anyone expect that this will not suffer the exact same ills as Google suffered with linking? More importantly, how can the search marketing industry fool itself into thinking Sphinn-like (or Digg-like) systems will be “fairer” or “better” than Google, without the equivalent of a rel=nofollow?

Yesterday I poked the Sphinn beast again, and prompted my readers to Sphinn that Greatest Hits post to raise it even higher on the Greatest Hits page. Go for 300 next, on the way to 1000 Sphinns. Why not? And yes, I offered a link back to everyone who helped me by Sphinning up that post. JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE has been telling their friends about their Sphinn submissions, and just like all those Social Media Experts telling their bands of cronies to Sphinn their posts. It works. It’s called business, and it is what puts disease-free organic food on your table, a dentist in your neighborhood, and a hybrid car in your garage next to the GTO. If it seems unfair, where will the line be drawn? Where does “asking for Sphinns” break Sphinn, the way it has been proposed that buying links will break Google? Or does it not risk breaking Sphinn, but rather makes it a little harder to be or be profitable as I don’t know, but I think we need to find out.

But Sphinn thinks otherwise. In response to my new request to Sphinn up my post, EvilGreenMonkey told me this in the comments of my blog:

Sorry to be a party-pooper, but we request Sphinn members not to ask for Sphinns through means other than adding a Sphinn button to their site. Although your original post was tolerated, Sphinn is evolving and we don’t want to head in the direction of people paying, bartering or incentivising for Sphinns. I’ll shortly be updating the member guidelines regarding this to make the matter clearer, although in the mean time please consider that we may remove your 200 Sphinn post if you continue to ask people to Sphinn you.

So I replied with this, before I set out to write this here article you’re reading now:

Wow. Really? I didn’t know, and I guess I assumed the community would make such decisions. Should we expect a new rel tag for this sometime soon? Perhaps a rel=”nofollow” requirement for all Sphinns tainted by favors or “paying, bartering or incentivising”? Or perhaps you intend to penalize those who Sphinn my post? Or perhaps, you’ll just demote the post to the 30th position on the page, below the fold. Not so easy given the visible “Sphinn Count” up there, or maybe that’s not an actual Sphinn count, but a special Sphinn count just for public display? Hmm…

Just for the contextual record, in my original post I made sure to ask people to be mindful of harming Sphinn, to act rightfully, and that I don’t sell links but I do link to my friends and supporters.

Google’s approach to the development of a free market around links was to block it forcefully. In capitalist society, we have traditionally called these whirling dervishes that pop up around our successful and highly profitable industries “cottage industries“, and we considered blocking cottage industries to be evil. The right way to manage a cottage industry is to befriend it, to exercise some of the granted authority (and earned market might) the market has provided in order to penetrate the cottage industry and influence it. Encourage standards and practices that favor growth, more jobs, more wealth, and more dentists in the neighborhood – even the poorer neighborhoods.

The auto industry doesn’t actually make car parts any more – they are all made by members of the cottage industry that arose around the automobile industry. Those car parts makers had to sell their parts to someone, so a symbiotic relationship exists which is good for everyone involved. Why didn’t Google do something like that? Who’s asking that question? Where is it being smartly debated?

The same reason EvilGreenMonkey replied to me with “no, that’s not allowed, stop that, or we’ll ban you” (my paraphrasing). It’s to much work. It requires someone to bother to think. EvilGrenMonkey may be a volunteer for all I know, but does she represent Sphinn’s community or enjoy a right to exercise the Sphinn communities vote?

Seriously, folks. Hypocrisy begins at home. Before whining about Google, address the problem intelligently. I am going to make a heretical suggestion to all of you search marketers and search-traffic-hungry web publishers: we know more about the market for search than Google does. WE should solve the paid links problem. WE should tell Google how to handle it. WE should make the rules, in discussion with Google. And we should START AT HOME, with Sphinn,because it’s models the same problem, on a smaller, potentially more controlled scale. If we don’t take this up (and other issues like it), we have no hope of owning the search marketing industry. That’s all I have to say : Sphinn is YOURS, and I suggest you put it to good use.

Update: Please don’t be diswayed by those who will quickly label this a rant or suggest it is sour grapes or an attack hook to get attention.  That’s a normal immediate defense to criticism. Keep the focus on the issue, which is that the problem of paid/bartered/urged/prompted links or Sphinns will not go away, and should probably be managed for the benefit of everyone delivering value to the system. I personally think that should be debated by search marketers, not search engines, and I thought Sphinn was the community poised to house that conversation intelligently.


  1. Big rant, John. A pity that you couldn’t first raise your concerns with Rob Kerry – EvilGreenMonkey – our forums editor – privately first. But fair enough, you have issues with it, and so might those as Sphinn. We’ll respond….

    Editor’s Note: This is the first time I have cutt off one of Danny Sullivan’s comments. It was caught in moderation here because it contains embedded backlinks, not because it was from Danny. He republished it on Sphinn, and it is quite lengthy, and you can read it there. I clipped it here because (you can judge for yourself by readin git over at Sphinn) I felt it was a lengthy re-framing of my post in a quite different light, and I felt it was a mistake to reframe it that way. It does not serve the reader having it here as he posted it, and frankly I’m not convinced it serves Danny well either. But I feel it doesn’t disserve the reader (or Danny) for me to edit it here as long as I linked to it over on his site, where I believe it has been adressed. No need to re-address it here.

    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  2. John Honeck wrote:

    I believe you are also witnessing a change in attitude due to Sphinn aging and getting more popular.

    Notice the very first comment by Danny on your original Sphinnbait , “Oh my, really, the first serious Sphinnbait. And so deserving of a Sphinn. C’mon, let’s kick John up to 100.” That is quite a different attitude than “…post was tolerated”

    It’s interesting how some things/people/attitudes/policies change with success…and not always for the good. Add a little revisionist history and the whole story gets muddied.

    Then again maybe I shouldn’t be drawing a connection between Danny and EvilGreenMonkey as they both have their own opinions, but that’s the whole idea of making alarming and baseless declarative posts and comments, which now I am now just as guilty as anyone.

    @john: I don’t know EvilGreenMonkey except for the comment posted to my blog. And congrats on the refrigerator win!

    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  3. gamermk wrote:

    So as I mentioned on the Sphinn thread… you’ve confused the hell out of me.

    I agree that we should be able to buy/sell links.
    I do not agree that we should be able to buy/sell Sphinns.

    I don’t really think I’m alone on this one. It seems unreasonable to believe both statements can be true, but at the same time that really feels like the goal.

    We want Sphinn to be this pure, utopia-like search learning tool. The Anti-Digg. The Anti-Google. The site that “Does Good” rather than “Doesn’t do Evil”.

    We want Google to be our economic playground where we can do whatever we feel will creatively and effectively make us the money we need to be stay-at-home marketers.

    Okay, John. Can I have what I want?


    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  4. john andrews wrote:

    @gamermk That’s a great question. I think it should be answered before we all build something that a few will monetize for billions, using our content, our sweat, and our innovations, all the while making new rules that govern us after the fact to increase their profits at our expense.

    But that’s just my opinion.

    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  5. john andrews wrote:

    @gamermk That’s a great question. I think it should be answered before we all build something that a few will monetize for billions, using our content, our sweat, and our innovations, all the while making new rules that govern us after the fact to increase their profits at our expense.

    But that’s just my opinion.

    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Alex wrote:

    “Cottage Industries” are so important to the economy and spreading the wealth to others. Symbiotic relationships exist in nature everywhere you look. Google with its size should learn how to better share the wealth with people who are trying to make a living. Sphinn like everything else is vulnerable to corruption and influence.

    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  7. seanmag wrote:

    “…we know more about the market for search than Google does. WE should solve the paid links problem. WE should tell Google how to handle it. WE should make the rules, in discussion with Google.”

    Hi John,

    Enjoy your posts. A bit elitist, somewhat manipulative and melodramatic, a tad esoteric and clearly cynical. You strike me as somewhat of a Dennis Miller of search. Makes for a good read.

    The contradiction is that you espouse a quixotic view of how things should and perhaps COULD, be. As I’m fond of saying – Google is Pavlov and we are the dogs. Although I would relish a change, I expect the slow stream of scooby snacks to come just in time to assuage the flow of drool.

    With all due respect, the quoted paragraph is a pipe dream. If you think otherwise, perhaps you could present a solution with more legs than a narcissistic and contrived effort to keep your mug at the top of The Greatest Hits. ;)

    Other than that I pretty much agree with everything else you had to say.

    @sean: um…. thanks? Maybe more open discussion will lead to some solutions. Combine domainers with web publishers who engage in strategic search marketing and you’re looking at 60% or more of Google’s traffic, from what I estimate (I’m told as much as 30% of Google’s ad traffic (revenue?) comes through parked domains..actively discussed e.g. this and this). There is leverage in there. If marketers are influencing content as I know they are in heavily SEO’d markets, there is both knowledge and influence.

    Monday, January 21, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  8. Lotus21 wrote:

    The thing I love about your regularly well-written and well thought-out posts is that you continually bring up topics that push us. Some may see them as elitist and dramatic, I can only thank you for challenging us to do better. Any blogger can react to things that are happening and state his/her position. But, you continue to bring up relevant and important issues that challenge us to think not only about current issues but also emerging ones that require action. Personally, I haven’t used Sphinn very much, mostly because I’d been suffering from blog and social site overload when it launched. Your stance on us as a community is right on, though. Something for all of us to think about.

    Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  9. scott horne wrote:

    Hey John…. You respond a lot to comments. You might be interested in the threaded comments plugin.. it helps keep responses straight.

    I don’t expect to see this comment, its just an aside for you.

    the version I use is here:

    Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  10. seanmag wrote:

    Hey John, My comment was a bit (ok a lot), tongue in cheek, so I admire/appreciate the thoughtful response. Your posts are definitely thought provoking. I’m looking forward to seeing where the whole Sphinn thing goes. Cheers.

    Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  11. john andrews wrote:

    I’m starting to see that Sphinn may not belong to the “marketing community”, but a handful of influencers actively using it to influence the marketing community. Too bad.. it held a lot of promise. But if it’s not an honest site, I won’t participate. I hate to be someone’s tool.

    Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 10:50 pm | Permalink
  12. Nick Wilsdon wrote:

    Maybe I’m even more cynical than you (probably comes from being in Russia too long) but IMO everyone has an agenda. If participating helps you with yours than it doesn’t matter if the system itself is dishonest. As with paid links, our position is not to complain about them but to find ways to continue doing our work. Keeping your moral integrity intact is the tricky part.

    It would be great if this topic was debated by marketers. Not in the tired framework of complaints but with an effort to find a working alternative. I don’t believe Google has won this one, like cutting interest rates, they have only delayed the inevitable. There is still plenty of time to offer a solution that takes account of market forces and human nature – I’m sure Google are searching for it themselves.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 3:07 am | Permalink
  13. john andrews wrote:

    @Nick: I agree everyone has an agenda, because everyone has to make a living and try to be happy. That’s what general sites like Digg reflect. They provide an opportunity for everyone to promote their issues, and the underlying mission is for profit for Digg owners.

    But vertical market sites that promote themselves as communities commit to another agenda to which individual agendas are secondary. That is why they succeed. Everyone supports the success of the community as agenda #1, and then everyone works their own agendas secondary to that. Volunteerism works because of that common cause, and discussion takes place as the gray areas define themselves. That affinity community is forced to reach concensus on how it will behave (as a collective) on gray areas, as the urgency of the secondary agendas encourages compromise and fast issue resolution.

    The value proposition comes from the commitment to a vertical. Otherwise Sphinn is just a little Digg. If the Sphinn community doesn’t provide value to its members in exchange for participation, it will fail.

    When Sphinn moderators or “leaders” or “voices” work their own agendas first, sacrificing the community agenda or leaving it for others, the value of the site diminishes rapidly. That’s what I see when I see obvious propaganda promoted by so-called leaders, or mob-like voting up/down based on alliances (personal agendas). The most telling signs are holier-than-thou attitudes and bullying, concurrent with behind-the-scenes alliances. If Sphinn brands itself as the home of deceptive, slimy marketers it will not succeed except as a proving ground for newbies looking to break into search marketing or make-money-fast.

    I don’t ask marketers to leave their agendas home. On the contrary, I love to watch good marketers perform. But I hate to see poor quality promoted as good marketing. That’s what it is when a post is obvously biased, obviously agenda driven, obviously deceptive, obviously bad for the community, etc.

    Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  14. Bob wrote:

    >Everyone supports the success of the community as agenda #1

    I don’t believe that is even close to reality. The community consists primarily of those who are independent. When they cease to get out of it what they want, their involvement will wane or cease. Agenda #1 is never the community. TW may have been the closest to reaching that idealistic goal.

    Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 9:43 am | Permalink