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You’re Free to Go Home

Many years ago, in the days when I thought I was competitive, I played racquetball. Now I realize that I was not actually a competitive person at all. I was a poser. But the racquetball experience is still worthy of re telling as a parable.

Out of college and flush enough to join a private club, I learned to play racquetball. I practiced (a lot). I got pretty good. I joined the league, and earned a reputation for being quick. I won most of my games, even in my first year of playing the game.

The club kept one high-profile glass court reserved at all times for “winner keeps the court” games. If you walked onto that court, you were challenging all comers to a “loser walks” game. Winner was king of that court, and could play as long as he could defend against all challengers. Loser walked off. I was able to keep that court as my own, frequently, despite challenges from all sorts of players.

Unlike some of the other “regulars” at the club, I played a well-rounded game. I was quick on my feet. I was ambidextrous, and enjoyed a wide reach. I executed a hard, accurate swing. I could predict where the ball would be with great certainty, and I had a good court sense (body positioning). I had an awesome right handed kill shot from my younger paddleball days, and my left handed kill shot got more reliable every day. I knew the rules, and could usually highlight the mistakes I had made in any lost game. At one point, I even thought I was “competitive” player. Sometimes I thought that I only lost when I made mistakes, or when the other guy got lucky.

Boy was I wrong.

One day I played this old timer who rarely showed up for any league play. He had a beer belly, and was way old (about 45 years old I think). He beat me handily.

I watched him beat everyone else, too, while I awaited my turn to challenge again. I lost again. And now we get to the “growing up” part of the parable.

This old guy had one move — a killer move. He could return the ball into a corner, with low velocity and low height, nearly every time. No matter what you sent his way, if he could get his racquet onto it, he’d dink it into a corner. If he couldn’t he’d take the miss and wait for the next opportunity. Obviously body positioning was important to him, so he had mastered that as well. He always got into the center court position quickly, and like I noted already, he had quite a girth.

Now any decent competitive racquetball player will tell you how to beat this joker. I discovered I could defeat him by simply returning every shot down the side wall. I’d guess which side corner he might dink into, just like a soccer goalie. When I guessed right, I’d return his dink back along the sidewall.

If I guessed right often enough, I’d beat him. He could never get from his stable center position to the wall fast enough and with enough grace to return my wall-riding return, so it became a game of one-hit points, based on guessing. There were no real volleys, and no real “plays”.

So I learned to beat him, and the loser walked. But it wasn’t fun. It was boring. Slow and stupid. And he came back next chance he got to try again. It’s all he had, and he had as much right to challenge the last winner as anyone else. I never got to know the guy, so I can’t say if  he was simple or perhaps just limited somehow and doing his best with what he had. It didn’t matter. When he was there, racquetball sucked.

Then one night he and I were the only players at the club. Hoo boy. Did I want to spend my night scoring points on single hit plays, all the way to 21, just to do it again, and again? Nope. I made an excuse and conceded the court. He could wait for someone else to play. I opted to be a loser.

I know now I wasn’t really a loser. I simply wasn’t competitive. When it came to the Challenge Court, I didn’t really “get it”. It wasn’t about being the best at playing the game. It clearly wasn’t about being the fittest player. It wasn’t about having the fastest shot or quickest feet, or best court sense or even the most experience. It was about winning. You win, you play. You lose, you go home.

That’s alot like SEO. You win, you get traffic. You don’t win, you don’t get traffic. Simple, really. It doesn’t matter how you play.

I didn’t stay a loser, mind you. I changed my game and my view of competition, and I actually consider myself to be truly competitive these days. Not at racquetball, but at many of the things I do. And that beer-bellied old guy had something to do with my competitive development. I played him many more times after that quitter day, and because of him I learned to be more competitive. I learned to enjoy beating his ass on the court. I watched him and picked apart his weaknesses. I used him as target practice… yes for the occasional bean ball, but mostly for precision ball placement. I learned to enjoy making him stretch a little too far, and move a little too far off balance. I learned to psych him out, to tease him. I got pretty good at grazing his left knee. I learned to predict two positions ahead, not just one, so I could set him up and then knock him down. I learned to win.

I got my racquetball enjoyment while playing every one else, and I learned to get enjoyment out of tiring him out early in the evening. You see, if he could play his way, he could play all night. But if I played him my way, he’d go home early and exhausted. I even remember one night when he left early, someone said “now we can play some real racquetball“.

It was all real racquetball. It was all “legal”, by the rules racquetball. That attitude that it wasn’t “our” form of racquetball is a loser attitude.

If you are a competitor, you play all comers. You might not feel comfortable against some challenges, and you might not want to play the way it takes to win, but if you are a competitor, you will. You need to win. And if you’ve got game, you’ve got a chance. Otherwise, you really should consider going home. Play on your own court, with your own rules, and have your own fun being great at your version of the game.

Now let me address the “hot point” I mentioned above, since I know some readers are probably stuck on it. I said:

That’s alot like SEO. You win, you get traffic. You don’t win, you don’t get traffic. Simple, really. It doesn’t matter how you play.

So it doesn’t matter how you play? That’s right. If you spam your way to #1, you played legitimate SEO just like anybody else. And you’ve assumed the associated risks of ban and penalty and social shun. Grab the cash while the vault door’s open.

You didn’t break any “rules of SEO”… you simply played a different way that led you to win the top spots. Google’s “guidelines” are not laws. They are a set of guidelines that enable Google to manage the eco system of Google search in a way that makes Google money. The guidelines are intended to help keep enough peace that Google doesn’t have to spend alot more money managing that aspect of the Google business.

Of course you should  never gamble what you can’t afford to lose. If you want or need to stay in the game, don’t get yourself banned or penalized.

If you elect to believe in the Almighty Google and subscribe to a “White Hat SEO” philosophy, that’s your choice. You choose to believe what you are told, and follow the guidelines. But you should be prepared to eat White Hat SEO meals at White Hat SEO restaurants. Don’t complain when the menu is limited to stale bread and off-color water.

Don’t point at your more successful (and probably spammier) peers dining at Nobu and suggest life isn’t fair, they aren’t “real SEOs” or lament the fact that Google hasn’t caught them yet.

You can trust me on this.. Google has been very busy. It takes a lot to push billions of dollars in profits all the way to the bank. Just like the old joke that Bill Gate’s would lose money if he stopped to pick up $10,000 on the sidewalk, Google is not anxious to spend its time blocking the sites that are spammier than yours. Google would much prefer you stuck with the “make good content” approach to SEO, so there was less work to do on the spam-fighting front.

By the way, what is “legitimate SEO” anyway? I think there are two primary aspects to that concept: legal and lifestyle.

Legally, if you’re not breaking laws, you’re within the law, and therefore legal. Plain and simple. Of course some countries (like the US) have corrupt legal systems so you need to be careful. It is possible for the innocent to be convicted around here. An indictment for a jury trial is a perfect example of the risks of looking too much like you’re a lawbreaker even if you’re technically not breaking the law. So you do need to be smart about more than just the legal technicalities, in order to stay “legal”. Beware that you may also win so much that they make laws after the fact and go after you for breaking them before they existed. I’ll leave the research on that for homework, but it does happen too often, and it’s not pretty when it does.

As for lifestyle, you make your bed and you lie in it. If your legal spam pollutes the Internet or causes Google to get even more patriarchal than it is, we all lose and even you have to live in the uglier world you helped create. So think about your actions.

If I know you’re behind that spammy network that keeps getting in the way of my legitimate searches, or you’re the guy that makes it impossible for me to “follow my passion” because you’ve turned my niche into a spamfest, I will definitely not want to have a beer with you at the next search conference. And if that’s not bad enough of a social consequence for you, consider that most of the SEO meetings, conferences, and communities are moderated by opinionated, experienced community members who commonly impose their SEO religions upon their communities.

Aside from the token “Black Hat SEO” invited to speak as somewhat of a sideshow act at search conferences, the respect follows those who adhere to the principles of the moderators and organizers. Disagree with the key players behind SMX or SES or Pubcon, and you probably won’t be wearing a speaker badge often if at all.

But, and I say this knowing full well a whole helluvalot of people will be pissed at the suggestion, not everyone’s eyes see the same colors. An eco-conscious father unable to feed his kids will choose to pollute for a paycheck every time he gets an opportunity. You should be aware of that, and not be surprised when it happens. In fact, I’d be disappointed in the Dad who chose to remain “ethical” and poor while his kids starved, and I think you should be too. We live in a real world, and real world guidelines take priority over Google’s guidelines.

Lucky for Google, these days Google makes the real world rules. So if Google wanted to, Google could make the world a better (less spammy) place. That’s a great seat of power to enjoy.

If the Google guidelines mattered, they’d be enforced. You wouldn’t find the spam ranking, and you wouldn’t see Google partners sharing junk content (e.g. MFA) profits with Google. Unless you think Google actually can’t do it — which I say is absurd. Google’s got the money, the power, the talent, and the drive. It’s ludicrous to think poor old Google is suffering at the will of spammers. Convenient, maybe, but ridiculous.

Chew on that a bit, and you may achieve some enlightenment about SEO. Google drives commerce. Google apportions the profits from that commerce. If you want to know the real Google SEO guidelines, follow the money. Look at who makes money with Google, and what they do. That’s the game, and it’s Google’s game.

Just like that old timer with the beer belly and the dink shot. What will you do? Quit? Go home? Play his game and lose? Complain that it’s not fair? Or decide to compete. It’s your life.


  1. Jon Henshaw wrote:

    My new life goal: Acheive the dink shot while nursing my belly with beer. Oh, and competively rank for dink shot.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  2. Kevin wrote:

    Well said, John.

    The lack of real world mentality in the SEO world baffles me. Sometimes you can succeed by playing by the rules. Other times you can’t. Adapt or die. Darwinism and all that.

    I see it like a bar fight — you intend to fight clean at the start, but if everyone else is going dirty, well, that’s what you have to do to survive. If you watch a guy knock five guys to the ground by kicking them in the balls with his impossibly long legs, you can either take it in the crotch like everyone else or sneak up from the side and hit him with a sucker punch to the throat. It’s not the ideal way to win, but it saves your balls.

    If it’s a choice between ethics and my balls, and I’m going to choose my balls every. single. time.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Jill Whalen wrote:

    Well said! I agree and will continue to be one who refuses to pollute the Internet while teaching others the same.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink
  4. James wrote:

    Lame comment warning ahead..

    Great post, to be honest I enjoy the stuff you write as much, if not moreso, for the human element than the business side… moz and book are great but I wouldn’t enjoy them over lunch, like I just did this.

    On a practical front though I particularly liked these bits:

    “The guidelines are intended to help keep enough peace that Google doesn’t have to spend alot more money managing that aspect of the Google business.”

    “If you want to know the real Google SEO guidelines, follow the money. Look at who makes money with Google, and what they do. That’s the game, and it’s Google’s game.”

    To go back to the game metaphor I think those are the boundaries, you skirt around what you can / keep under the cost/benefit radar while copying success, and maybe aspiring to be first with some minor success at some point so u can feel like you’re not just a good imitator.

    I suppose squash is as good a metaphor for that as anything :)

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Hugo wrote:

    Well said, John.

    I think the key here is that you either stick with your white-hat plans and not complain when it takes a long time (or essentially forever) to attain a decent level of success


    you go with some black-hattish stuff and not complain when you get burned and have to start over from scratch.

    Either way, don’t complain (and don’t quit).

    Thursday, September 23, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  6. Marty wrote:

    John, how very parabolic of you sir :). Nice analogy, well written, great points. “I realize that I was not actually a competitive person at all. I was a poser.’ Bravo.

    Thursday, September 23, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  7. Ever since I showed my wife some #1 rankings I had “acheived” in late 2002 with a scraped site, and I saw the sort of “disappointed” look on her face, I decided to stay “white hat”, but under my own terms.

    I actually had a bad taste in my mouth using the software (aptly called Traffic Equalizer), but after closing a retail business, I was broke, and I had bills to pay, but i was embarrassed and a more than little ashamed at the end result…

    That was the last time I personally feel like i ethically crossed any lines, and I took down anything I’d call “evil” over 5 years ago. (Since I don’t think we ever had a drink together until about 4 years ago, you’re safe)

    But – I’m a realist, and your best line here (of many good ones) may be – “I’d be disappointed in the Dad who chose to remain “ethical” and poor while his kids starved” – Bravo!

    After a hard fought muddy football game, my kids pants are still legally “white” – I think it’s all a matter of pushing the envelope within your own personal values and risk tolerance.

    thanks for the racketball tips!

    Friday, September 24, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  8. I do agree that we should not be spammy or trying to do illegal stuff like hacking someone’s site


    you’re missing out on your own story

    my website is MY playground

    I make the rules in/on my site

    If Google wants to come play and crawl my site then they’re going to do it by my rules.

    We the PEOPLE make the United States of America…not the other way around.

    WE MADE GOOGLE and Google is profiting in the billions while we stand to make NADA.

    Google wants all of ‘yous’ to continue thinking that we should make this a better search engine.

    FOR WHAT? so they can make another billion dollar quarter while we get ZERO.

    Soon Google will be gone and you would have miss the LEGITIMATE LEGAL gravy train ….

    Friday, September 24, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  9. Nice piece John. I think it boils down to this. Within any search engine’s organization, you’ve basically got two teams of people with somewhat conflicting objectives. A “gather” team (the crawl/index team) is responsible for gathering as much stuff as they can. And then a “garbage removal” team (the web spam team) interested in removing anything from the index it deems unworthy. My guidance: 1) make sure the gather team can find your stuff 2) don’t do things that makes your site appear unworthy to web spam team. And as for cheap dink shots in the corner, no one likes those guys or those web sites.

    Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink
  10. seoservice wrote:

    Great reading! I think everything above is matter of ethics. Even when your start-up is over 10mln worth.

    Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink
  11. Russ Jones wrote:

    You can check my link on this, but I think there are some clear ethical guidelines that have nothing to do with Google and everything to do with other webmasters. Vandalizing their site with comment and forum spam (whether legal or not) is difficult to describe as anything other than unethical. I think it is time that black hatters (like myself at one time), man up and admit that some of what they are doing is unethical. We make judgment calls every day about how ethical we choose to be (should I jay-walk? should I leave work 5 minutes early?). I have no problem with people making these judgments, I only have problems with people who don’t admit to what they are.

    Monday, January 2, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink