John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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January 21st, 2008 by john andrews

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 buy-viagra-online-sites-directory-for-buying-viagra-online.com 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 Sphinn.com or be profitable as Sphinn.com? 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.

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January 20th, 2008 by john andrews

Get Your Free Links From…. johnon.com?

I hope that title was at least a little funny.

Anyway, we’re at 204 Sphinns over at the Greatest Hits page, which is great. But with the clamp down on paid links and the difficulties people have getting the “A” list to acknowledge them with links, I feel like we have an opportunity to push onwards. I know my dream of rolling the counter over 999 to 4 digits is rather “lofty”, but I see no reason why we can’t gather a bunch more of the Sphinn folks together on another “thank you” page right here. With desphinning coming soon, our current opportunity to bust the counter may never exist again. Also, I received word that someone is quietly raising Sphinns for himself to try and take the top spot away, which may include some organized desphinning down the road. That just seems so scammy, doesn’t it?

So if you haven’t already, go give that post a Sphinn, drop a comment here (which by the way, is a link) or send me an email and I’ll add you to the list of supporters as I thank the new ones on this page. Understand? I knew you would. Typical rules of good behavior apply.. no spammy achor text, please, and no abuse of Sphinn (via fake accounts, etc). If you are a genuine marketers, remember than linking to this post and linking to the Sphinn post help draw attention and increase the Sphinn count too. Doing so in the context of a conversation about How Marketers Can Help Other Marketers, or How Circulation Helps Marketing, or How Grass Roots Works Despite The Big Boys, or Sphinning for Links works, would be especially useful.

I tried to link out to everyone on the original post, although not everyone provided URLs or asked for links. if I missed anyone let me know now, in this post, and I’ll make it right.

Note about this blog and Paid Links: No, sorry, I won’t accept any offers for paid links from this blog. Please don’t ask. I value this blog and want to protect the integrity of this blog as a trusted web site in the Google universe. I follow the Google Guidelines as best as I can understand them, and I do not accept “paid reviews” unless they are very well funded, and even those will get nofollow links (in most cases). I like to play backgammon online, but that in no way suggests I have been paid for a link to a backgammon site like play65.com. I link to sites I trust and friends I trust. I link not because I am trying to influence search engines, but because I am trying to influence my friends. Duh.

The following people have already Sphunn the post pushing it to 204 Sphinns: dannysullivan, claireschoen, vanessafox, webuildpages, neil, randfish, graywolf, billslawski, Silver, 0thelisa, penbeatssword, Wiep, JeremyLuebke, Derick, SimonHeseltine, DavidWallace, SEMaven, B10G, DaveDavis, toddmintz, willcritchlow, JohnWeb, Aviva, vbin, chickenhole, Sebastian, pratt, SEOish, Naoise, MattMcGee, stefanjuhl, JeffHinds, webconnoisseur, DazzlinDonna, seosuresh, TimDineen, tonyruscoe, patrickaltoft, alex, Mel66, DLPerry, SEOHonolulu, toprank, akrone, PPCblogger, avi, HawaiiSEO, aerobe, billse, Lyndon, phaithful, seoz87, oggin, socialmedia, kevgibbo, AdamCarson, HamletBatista, mjesales, gabs, bhartzer, AndreyMilyan, MarketingGuy, mellonstock, AmyGreer, kimber, dedmond29, FetalMinds, JohnMu, bwelford, Sergi, Hobo, ScottFish, DoshDosh, fantomaster, BrettFromTibet, algoholic, bsaric, nathanholman, kelvinnewman, LukeRegan, fskipper, ciaran, Cumbrowski, squishee, 97thfloor, NatashaRobinson, Ramkarthik, aimClear, TannerC, Skitzzo, majorbta, toddemaus, Gamermk, rdash, MariosAlexandrou, shor, illumini, Mendax, dreras, lorenbaker, RuZ, wolftrust, Jeremy, SEOinSeattle, robwatts, searchcommander, ViperChill, SearchBuzz, JamesOmdahl, AndyBeard, ColinCochrane, kpraveenkumars, ManishPandey, steaprok, must, Rhea, erik, MattKeegan, simo, HayMeadows, stutofts, CameronOlthuis, georgiecasey, NNCA, PaulHancox, navdigital, casieg, AutomotiveSEO, johnandrews, Syzlak, coolice, EricLander, JamesDunn, Burgo, alexorella, michaelnew20, aglobalwarming, beammeup, jimmyfloyd, sunpost, sarahdeh84, ukdaz, kiru4, seoforgoogle, dlarson104, webprofessor, SisterSledge, benbicais, cisco, EmergenceMedia, peterdavanzo, Eloi, GiorgosK, PaFinder, abhilash, tinkerbellchime, jandrew07, JDA, mhuggins, macewan, NickWilsdon, Kalena, mktgrl, dailymoolah, zacharyfox, cmswebsiteservices, roberrific, centernetworks, cmiddlebrook, CWI, controltheweb, lizblaze, gyutae, cselorio, KangoTraveler, textahead, Bill15, planecrazy, floppy, sussane, KarlRibas, mandat, mckennagene, ruchirkc, mnotman17, Lodispoto, MattSawyer, AtomBoyz, davidgrant55, jackvorety, SpostareDuro, Nicole, seanmag, Marketing, howtoknowme, EmmaJones, tobyism, sailman, konvictcollin, jahsymon, yourseomentor, askablogger, totentando, nejron.

Will you be next?

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January 19th, 2008 by john andrews

Well-placed URLs as Advertising, Assisted

As I sipped my Starbucks coffee, I wondered how environmentally friendly the double-cup thing is. I loved those little corrugated cardboard cup insulator rings when they came out, because they provided the needed insulation for your hand when holding hot coffee in a paper cup, eliminating the need for Styrofoam™ cups which are oh-so-nasty for the environment. But sometimes they just give you two cups instead. Seems wasteful, and since white paper cups are produced by a bleaching process (which risks rivers and streams), maybe worse than Styrofoam. And then I saw it. The Starbucks quote:

The Way I see It # 289: So-called “global warming” is just a secret ploy by wacko tree-huggers to make America energy independent, clean our air and water, improve the fuel efficiency of our vehicles, kick-start 21st-century industries, and make our cities more livable. Don’t let them get away with it.” ~~Chip Giller, Founder of Grist.org, where environmentally minded people gather online.”


Ironic. A message about environmentalism on that double cup. I wondered if it was repeated on the second cup.. the one on the inside. Nope. That was #280, from John Moe, Radio Host and author of Conservatize Me (no URL). This environmental message was only on the outside cup; the one that represented an unnecessary waste and the one that tipped the whole situation onto the side of more-hazardous-than-styrofoam. Mere kismet, or serendipity?

What I noticed most was that URL for Grist.org. Very effective advertising, despite the ironic placement in this case. That URL so prominantly placed at the end of the quote, as if a call-to-action for the reader left wanting more clever environmental thinking yet already at the bottom of the Starbucks cup, with no more to read than a disclaimer distancing Starbucks the corporation from anything this particular environmentally friendly guy might have said on their cup. And not just a URL, but one helped along by Starbucks the corporation when they printed that little blurb “…Grist.org, where environmentally minded people gather online“. The message is clear. Starbucks is the place where environmentally friendly people gather, but Grist.org is where environmentally minded people gather online.

The URL was attractive, but the framing of that URL was a motivator.

Yes I did go to Grist.org. How could I not? I sit in Starbucks with my Starbucks coffee and my laptop computer and I write to warm up my mental processes, and here was an attractive cup-side advertisement with a powerful call-to-action and I just logged in to the t-mobile wifi network so… I simply had to go to grist.org. And I am glad I did. I now know something I never would have known, had I not followed the urging of the cup-side advertisement:

The Fleiss is Right: Former Hollywood madam to open a wind-powered brothel (source)

There’s more on grist.org. You can check it out yourself. If nothing else, it will give you something to talk about next time you are in Starbucks, gathering with your environmentally friendly friends and associates.

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