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Hitwise: Can You Trust Hitwise?

As a truly independent search marketing consultant I frequently encounter the “bigger is better” syndrome. A potential client, not sure whom to trust, decides that a cheap, starter package from BigCompany is a safer way to get started in search marketing than working with an independent search consultant. I call it a syndrome because a syndrome is a “collection of symptoms” and that is what I see — hesitance & uncertainty followed by a wasteful commitment of resources to a typically minimal value effort from a “trusted” Big Brand.

Hitwise is one of those Big Brands… they sell expensive products that promise deep insights into search marketing. Do they deliver? I have a better question than that. Can you trust them?

Last week Aaron Wall of SEOBook.com published a link growth chart. It was didactic — meant as a teaching tool. He didn’t produce actual data to accompany the chart, and he didn’t claim actual data was behind the graph. Behind the scenes I spoke with Aaron at that time,  on a technical issue related to geometric progression and the exponential function. Aaron adjusted his graph and language to make better use of “geometric”, instead of “logarithmic”. The initial comment on that post still mentions a “logarithmic link growth curve” but subsequent comments properly address it as the updated chart shows: geometric.

Hitwise charts

If a research company like Hitwise was to produce a not-free white paper or webinar on search marketing, for its paying customers, you would expect them to do some work. Check their facts. Actually know something about the topic. Well, it seems Hitwise did produce a report a few days ago.. on link growth profiles. In that report they reproduced Aaron’s chart, adding captions describing how Google detects link profiles, and “penalises” sites. I didn’t see the full presentation, but only the slide that shows the graph and the accompanying claims, and a comment admitting to their adoption of Aaron’s chart as their own.

They, too don’t mention if the chart is based on real data or not. They don’t even mention that it came from SEOBook.com. In fact, the image clearly shows they removed the SEOBook logo, and patched up the chart lines where the logo was positioned. Aaron outlines their unauthorized use and the obvious removal of the SEOBook logo in a follow up post on his blog, where Hitwise also commented.

It’s a shame they stole someone else’s chart and offered it to their paying customers as their own, but they also referred to the optimal link growth profile as “Logarithmic / Geometric“, which I consider the most revealing aspect of this Hitwise rip off. Not only didn’t they know what to make of the difference between the chart’s use of “geometric” and the comment streams use of “logarithmic” as an equivalent term, they didn’t even research it to clarify. I doubt they understand the difference even to this day, or that there is a difference. The most disturbing part of all, may be the “Hitwise Client Commitment” published on their website:

Clients will experience the highest levels of integrity, ethics and respect at all times from all Hitwise employees.

Can you trust Hitwise? Should you? They had a chance to comment on the SEOBook blog, and this is what they said:

Hi,
I was part of a webinar that Hitwise Search ran yesterday . Firstly, apologies for not sourcing and attributing the SEOBook chart that we used in the presentation.

This was an oversight and we have taken measures to prevent this from happening again. We’ve committed to re-recording the webinar with the proper attribution and other courses of action to help rectify this error with SEOBook. It’s a great site for Search professionals to refer to – very useful and enjoyable to use.

Again this should have been properly attributed and I hope that people and SEO Book accept our sincere apology and trust that we take this matter seriously and are doing everything we can to put it right.

Stuart McKeown

Hitwise press releases identify Stuart McKeown as Product Director for Search Marketing Services at Hitwise. He’s the guy directing the search marketing offerings. Several subsequent comments from others highlight that such a “we got caught, we’re sorry, we’ve fixed the problem” is not enough. I can certainly see how someone might make a bad decision while preparing a presentation, and how Stuart  might jump in to apologize quickly, perhaps not putting adequate care into his comment. However, I just can’t get past the research aspects.

Does Stuart McKeown know what a natural link profile should look like? Do his search marketing experts? He’s responsible for teaching his paying clients about search marketing. Does he know what “geometric” means? Logarithmic? To put it into perspective, a link builder looking to achieve a geometric growth profile might double or triple his productivity every month. Were she to desire a “logarithmic” profile, she’d need to multiply her productivity month over month (1000 this month, 100,000 next month? A few million links the month after that?)

What about the validity of that graph? There is no data, and no mention of data, but I would bet that paying Hitwise customers assumed that Hitwise had done research to produce that chart. Data, behind the data points, not just made-up data intended to teach. I have no idea what data (if any) Arron Wall used to make that chart… in context as it was presented on SEOBook I had no such concerns. It was obviously intended to teach, and based on experience. It was not sold as a research report.

I have to question the other assertions from the experts at Hitwise. Can Google really detect unnatural link profiles, such as those from Social Media or linear link building? Does Google really penalise sites based on trust from this?

Bottom line: be careful whom you trust, especially if it is Hitwise. Bigger is not better. Bigger is not a better value. And bigger should certainly not be more trusted, absent any other evidence. Hitwise is owned by Experian, that big consumer credit card data aggregator with the big government contracts. Scary stuff.

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9 Responses to “Hitwise: Can You Trust Hitwise?”

  1. Adam Audette Says:

    Good comments, John. I agree with the sentiment here: the fact that Hitwise ripped off the chart and re-purposed it is one thing (and obviously, lame). But the bigger issue is the shadow of dubiousness it casts. This issue puts into question their search marketing services. If their aim is to provide services in line with the Hitwise brand, and if the Hitwise Client Committment is more than just a few words on a screen (which I don’t doubt it is), then they should take this seriously and make a “big deal” out of cleaning it up.

    My hunch is that this is an individual’s mistake, that s/he blew it and tried to take shortcuts, was probably busy, and threw together a deck quickly using the web as his/her collage. We all make mistakes… but. The web is small, and the SEO community even smaller. Most of us know each other pretty well and the clients we all have and even see deliverables and presentations from competitors and other clients. The web is no different from “real life.” What you prepare and share WILL get seen by eyes you never intended.

  2. Gregor Says:

    Naughty!

    It’s things like this that can really kill a brand. And as you say, the apology just seems to be an acknowledgement of them nicking the image, not the lack of understanding about what it says.

    Coming along with the “Top 51 SEOs” drama over at SEOmoz, the industry isn’t doing itself any favours.

  3. Dan Thies Says:

    I evaluated Hitwise’s keyword data and tools a few years ago and found their offerings to be mainly hype with minimal value and priced for the corporate sucker market. This does not surprise me at all.

  4. Ester Schuhe Says:

    Thanks for this precious spread-the-word.
    Actually I found really strange that hitwise behaves this way, given that the result is massive mud on their brand and reputation. I´ve sincerily tought as well of an individual mistake (a trainee?, a overworked employee?.

    As for the sindrome, which is part of the problem, the attitude to rely on big companies takes actually place in all industries, the food industry as well. Big companies make all efforts to create reliabilty and instil trust in their present and potential customers, which then they link to their brand and logo. So the end customer knows better their reputation, even if constructed, than the one of individual consultants. Mix everything with lack of know-how on the issue..so they will certainly think it´s better to address someone with “strong shoulders”, stable and since years on the market. This experience teaches us however that what we think companies are and what they really are can differ a lot.

  5. grasshopper Says:

    Hitwise is not a company that anyone concerned with data accuracy should do business with. Even their data collection methodology (they purchase usage data from low-end ISPs like NetZero) skews any subsequent conclusions that they arrive at regarding what “average” users do online.

    “Average” users in 2009 are all still on shitty $9.95 a month NetZero dial-up? That’s your data set? Really? Yikes.

    So if their idea of insight and analysis is ripping off other people’s work, filtering it through a minunderstanding of fundamental principles of mathematics, and then selling their garbled plaigarism to a bunch of deep-pocketed corporate rubes, I can’t say I’m surprised.

  6. Don Says:

    Dodgy Unethical Bastards. The thing is they had the hide to think that they could get away with it.

  7. Justin Goldberg Says:

    Hitwise gets data sold from ISPs and sells it to anyone, including domain squatters.

    Someone blogged about searching for their domain, it didn’t exist at all and never was registered before, and the next day someone had registered it.

    I read it on the internet somewhere, so it MUST be true!

  8. Markis Says:

    Justin, that is true..Hitwise does gather information and resell it to anyone who offers up some green. I think that this is true as well. That seems unethical to me..but I guess the internet is a place where bad behavior thrives.

  9. Hemden Says:

    Very Poor from Hitwise to apologize after your article was online. Shame on them!

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