Is Social Media Getting Sleazy?

Person for sale(This is a repost of an article I originally posted on August 4th. That  posting generated so much controversy over the SEO section that I temporarily withdrew it. My intention in that section was to point out some shady SEO practices and the fact that if these practices are widespread, there is a likely impact on the quality of blog content. It was misread, though, resulting in veiled threats of a lawsuit.

While the threats are groundless, in this repost, I have removed names, because it is not my intention to sully reputations or imply that anyone’s blog has substandard content. I have included the original comments with names removed, largely to protect those commenting from retaliation by the A-lister who threatened a lawsuit. I have also included relevant tweets, with names removed, that were sent about this posting at the time of its removal, in order to provide a full picture of the event.)

I’ve recently learned about and seen some activities that make me question how we’re conducting business on the social web, and whether it may cause the social media backlash many have feared.

It’s a drive for numbers

The problem seems to be our drive for numbers of one kind or another: more followers, more website visitors, more backlinks. Here’s what has caused me to question the changes in our social media world.

I recently revisited some dummy accounts I use in Twitter. We’re working on our upcoming social media product, CurateXpress. I needed to do some testing, so I went to a few accounts I had set up a couple of years ago and hadn’t touched since. There was no activity on them at all.

So why was ****** following my dead accounts? Each of them had some followers. I expect most of are spammers or people who follow random accounts hoping to get follows back. But ******? Why would he be following dead accounts?

It wasn’t like I had followed him first. I hadn’t.

Now, I’m not trying to pick on ******. I’m sure he’s not alone. But I can’t think of any reason for randomly following an account that hasn’t tweeted in years, except to build your numbers. It looked like ****** wanted to get his Following count up or was using the familiar tactic of following a lot of people expecting some to follow him back, in order to build his Follower count. He’s certainly not following my dead Twitter accounts for engagement purposes.

Buying Facebook fans

Then, I was meeting with another consultant who builds Facebook pages for small businesses. He mentioned setting up a Facebook page for a local lawyer—and buying fans for it. On further questioning, I came to understand that this was a not an uncommon practice. Small businesses are beginning to see Facebook pages as a requirement for credibility.

Remember when the tide was rising on websites? Not every company had one, but over time businesses began to feel that they had to have a website in order to be seen as credible—even if it was just a static “brochure” site of only a few pages.

Apparently, now, businesses think that they have to have a Facebook page so that customers searching for them on Facebook can find them. But a Facebook page with no fans doesn’t look good. So they buy fans to make the fan count look good to visitors.

This particular lawyer spent no time on Facebook and had no interactions with his “fans” there. He might have a newsfeed set up to automatically post links to articles on his wall. That’s it. It was all about the fan count and looking credible.

And then there’s SEO…

Mark Schaefer did a post the other week about this topic, showing some of the sleazy practices taking place in the name of SEO. For me, the light came on when I was talking to an SEO specialist the other week about his business. This guy is very good at his job. I just didn’t realize quite what the job entailed.

Of course, he does the usual keyword research and checking the client’s website to see that it is constructed correctly for the search bots and is SEO friendly. That’s all basic must-do’s just to play the game.

The bigger job is building backlinks. Whatever Google may say, it’s still critical. So, as part of this consultant’s package, he finds good sites (mostly blogs) that cover topics relevant to his client’s business, and ones that take guest posts. He builds a list of these websites. I happened to get a glance at his list for one client, and was surprised to see ****** on it.

The SEO consultant pays different companies who specialize in writing keyword-soaked content on a relevant topic, with appropriate backlinks to his client’s website. They submit the content to the selected high-traffic blog to create backlinks.

This all suggests that a reasonable portion of ******’s content is provided by third-parties who are paid simply to provide passable content with the sole intent of getting backlinks to client sites with appropriate keywords. And who knows how many other well-known blogs are filled with the same type of content. Could this be contributing to the problem Danny Brown wrote about: readers complaining about the decline of good content on popular blogs?

You have to wonder how good the content can be when it’s provided by people focused mainly on keywords. There is necessarily a difference between those who strive to come up with unique ideas, methods, and information—and then convey that information in the most effective way possible. Versus those who try to come up with content mainly with an eye to keywords and how to populate the text in the most SEO-friendly way while appealing to as broad an audience as possible.

For me, the difference boils down to one thing: quality. This SEO approach sacrifices quality to some degree or another, for numbers: number of keywords, number of eyeballs, amount of traffic.

So, what’s it all mean? If you’ve been keeping the pulse of social media circles lately, you know there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction, inundation, a feeling of being overwhelmed–mostly overwhelmed with mediocrity. Could it be that our own practices, our own drive for numbers is creating that environment of mediocrity? I think so. And I think the dissatisfaction is likely to spread beyond our circles of social media aficionados and into the mainstream. If the backlash comes, it will be one of our own making.

Here is the comment thread, minus all names. Major Blogger refers to the top Ad Age Blogger referenced in the above article.  Social Media A-Lister refers to the big-name social media person referenced in it:

Person A

You know what another distasteful tactic in social and seo is? Starting a flamewar and creating link bait targeting high profile individuals for your own benefit.

Person B

From a purist standpoint, I have to agree, in essence, with a lot of what you say. However, I would have found this article far more palatable if you had chosen not to name-drop (or was it name shame) in what I see as a badly disguised attempt to “drive traffic”.

Major Blogger

We get solicited for paid links all the time. And yet we’ve never sold a single link to anyone, ever.

I think the way you presented ****** in this article is irresponsible. We can’t stop people from putting us on a list and wishing, all we can do is ignore their requests.

You said:

“This all suggests that a reasonable portion of ******’s content is provided by third-parties who are paid simply to provide passable content with the sole intent of getting backlinks to client sites with appropriate keywords.”

We don’t pay anyone for content outside of our organization. And no one pays us. To the extent a ghost-written post has been submitted to us, we’re not aware of it, and most of our guest writers are repeat contributors and people we respect.

I suggest you retract what you’ve said about ******. It’s not true and recklessly asserted, which crosses a line beyond “your opinion.” You didn’t even bother to contact anyone at ****** before publishing your unfounded assertions.

This isn’t a smart way to get attention.

Person C

****** Neicole clarified in her reply to me below that she isn’t saying you folks make a dime from guest bloggers, but that the bloggers themselves are — according to the SEO guy she spoke to — writing backlinked content for pay and then approaching all the big names to try to get their pieces accepted, making their customers very happy because of the obvious traffic that comes by way of your exceptional blog. I think what she’s saying is that this practice, among others, is diluting the quality of blogs, and is just evidence of deeper issues in the social media world.

Major Blogger

Name one.

Person C

****** Mark Schaefer did so in his post “The Great Ghost Post Scandal” (Neicole links to it in her post), where he actually named a company that hires freelancers for those kinds of writing assignments. Mark’s post is actually about a different issue, but the company he named provides SEO services that include hiring freelancers to write backlinked content that’s then “well-placed” on blogs like Schaefer’s.

NeicoleC

****** I want to be clear. I NEVER said that anyone paid you to publish content nor that you paid anyone. If you read what I wrote, it absolutely does not say that. I said that apparently SEO consultants and firms pay other companies to write content that is then submitted to your (and other) blogs.

As a large blog, I completely understand that you rely on content from others. And I am sure that you have a quality bar and that you don’t take anything that doesn’t meet that bar. My point is the quality of posts written primarily for keyword/backlinking purposes is going to be lower than posts unconcerned with that, where the focus is on the content.

I have no idea how many of your repeat contributors are getting paid to write content. But apparently, some are. Are you telling me that you can absolutely say that nobody has ever been paid by a client to write content and submit it to ******? If I randomly met an SEO person who had you on their list, doesn’t it seem likely that you are on other SEO people’s lists?

I see this as primarily a problem with SEO, not blogs. We all want bloggers to be able to make a living, and at some point in scaling, that means accepting guest posts. You can only vet guest bloggers so much when you get to a certain size. So, if the SEO folks are putting you and other blogs on their lists, because you’ve done such a great job of building an audience and reputation, then some portion of your posts are going to end up being from these paid SEO guys, primarily concerned with backlinks. I actually don’t know if that’s considered blackhat SEO or just regular SEO. I think it’s kind of icky, though, and really puts us on a downward spiral. That was my point.

Major Blogger

Neicolec You implied we were sleazy. What you’re saying now is we’re being duped.

Here’s the thing… we reject more posts that we publish. If it’s good content, do we ultimately care what the benefit to the author is? There’s always a benefit to the author — why else would they write for us?

But keyword-stuffed crap never makes ******.We also negate obvious attempts at prime anchor text links unless it’s truly worthy.

Do you actually read us? We have higher standards than 99% of the industry when it comes to content, and we edit it all in-house to make every author look better.

So… if it’s good, we run it. But if you think we take the time to edit blatant SEO crap just to have something to post, you’re sadly mistaken.

Contact me privately with actual article titles and authors you’re aware of, or my request for retraction stands. And if you do believe we’re innocent “victims” of SEOs giving us actual high-quality content, then our inclusion in a post with this title is not appreciated.

Social Media A-Lister

I use socialtoo to manage following. To my knowledge, it doesn’t follow anyone without that account following me first. Jesse would know for sure. He wrote it.

Why would it benefit me to follow more accounts? That doesn’t even make sense. It’s number of followers that anyone counts.

NeicoleC

****** LOL. You’re welcome. Like I said, these are bogus accounts. They are old accounts, too. And the first time I noticed you following one was probably a year ago or more. So, maybe before you started using Socialtoo?

Social Media A-Lister

Neicolec – I’ve used socialtoo for about as long as it’s been around. Not sure the time on that. But hey, with 190,000 followers, I don’t pay attention to the details on who I do or don’t follow. It would be a full time job. Not sure if that’s sleazy, but if you say so.

Person C

I don’t care how people get followers, unless they’re being ripped off by companies who sell Twitter followers and Facebook fans to people who believe (wrongly) that buying followers and fans is going to magically get them traffic to their website! Now that’s sleazy, because it’s dishonest. Social media doesn’t work that way. I know that’s not what Socialtoo does, since they simply follow back those who’ve followed you.

Person D

People keep trying to say, “Quality doesn’t matter if you don’t have quantity!” And I just have to shake my head because that makes no sense!!

If you don’t have a quality following of people, then nothing that you put out will matter. None of them will engage. They were paid or coerced into liking the page one way or another, therefore, they don’t CARE about the business or person, they just care about getting their money and/or their like/follow back.

It is becoming sleazy and it’s people us and anyone else that agrees to stand up! :)

Great post! Thanks for sharing!!!

NeicoleC

Thank you, &&&&&&! Sounds like there’s a solid group of us who aren’t willing to compromise on quality.

Person E

Neicole, I can understand the examples you mention for these kind of practices both on Facebook and Twitter, specially when we talk about small business. Let’s be honest, entrepreneurs fail to wear many hats and they don’t hire because there is no budget. The results are expected.

When I’m truly surprised is when I see well known ad agencies launching digital initiatives for big brands. Just 2 years ago we were building websites, mini-sites, experience sites, you name it. Every single digital campaign today includes Facebook, it’s only natural. But at the end of the day the only metrics that count are how many likes did we get, how many pageviews did we get or how many people installed our app. When we’re not growing at a 200% rate, everybody is pissed off.

I’m really enjoying your content. Thank you.

NeicoleC

Thank you for stopping by, &&&&&&! I’m honored. I love your content!

You’re right re: small businesses. If it is now the case that you have to have an FB page with a certain number of fans in order to be seen as credible, it puts small businesses in a difficult situation. What sucks is that they aren’t getting real value out of the page, aside from the mandatory presence.

As for experts and agencies, I guess maybe it is a cache 22. Businesses are pushing to measure, and they measure based on factors that are only partially useful. That drives the agencies and consultants to use those same measures, including for themselves. Then you have things like Klout, which factor in some of those measures, too. It all conspires to make those silly numbers all the more important to us as business people.

Person C

I watch my numbers, certainly, but what I’m interested in as a small business serving other businesses is who’s actually READING what I post, share, or Tweet. I use social media to draw and drive traffic to our website, to draw and drive traffic to our friends, and to build relationships with our target audience and those who serve our target audience. So numbers are meaningless if nobody cares. I’d rather have 100 engaged brand ambassadors than 1000 followers who never see a thing I write.

NeicoleC

Neicole, great post. I felt like I was reading the results of an investigative journalism piece!I just wrote a post about an article in the June 1011 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine, about buying Twitter followers. The writer seemed to see nothing wrong with buying followers, EVEN IF THEY NEVER TWEET AT ALL. You can read about it on my blog, where I referenced yours, and told people you NAME NAMES, so they’ll come over here. That’s backlinking the way I like to do it, giving credit where credit’s due.I think the ****** “secret” freaks me out the most, since he shares periodically where his income is coming from via his website/blog. I don’t recall ever seeing him divulge that he is paid for keyword-heavy posts with backlinks to other people’s blogs. I honestly don’t know what to think now. If he had said so, would I be as bothered? I don’t think so.Just tell us the truth! And it looks like this piece you’ve written has set out to do just that. Good for you, Neicole! Thank-you!!

Person C

As an aside, how do you space paragraphs in the Livefyre comment space? That’s one ugly comment there!

NeicoleC

Thanks, &&&&&. I’ll check out your post. One point, though, I didn’t say ****** is getting paid to post keyword-heavy articles. That’s not my understanding. I’m not sure how he is making money, but probably in the typical ways, advertising, selling premium content, affiliate links, etc. But he has to have content that drives traffic to his site in order to make money off those methods.

It appears, though, that at least some of the guest posts on his blog are coming from people who are being paid by their clients to create keyword-rich posts. I expect ****** publishes them for free. The SEO guy even said, in passing, “******–that’s a good one.” So, that site apparently serves his clients’ SEO needs well.

Person C

Neicolec Thanks for the clarification! ^^^^^^ is one of my blogging heroes. But what if he is earning income from selling keyword-heavy backlinked posts? If the quality is still good, is that wrong? I’m struggling with this now. If I were blogging for a living, I’d do it. Or at least I’d try.

Person C

Everyone: Neicole just clarified on Twitter that ^^^^^^ is ^^^^^^, not ******. I am sweetly satisfied, because while I look up to both of these wildly successful bloggers, ^^^^^^ is my favorite, and is the one who shares his income sources with his readers. But the question still stands: is it unethical to earn income from writing blog posts that are keyword-rich and backlinked, and then sell them to the backlinked website?

Major Blogger

We’re primarily a software company. How can you write about a company so recklessly with no idea what you’re talking about?

And give me the alleged SEOs name, because you’ve just joined him in a potentially unpleasant situation involving published lies – also known as libel.

Person C

I had no idea you’re a software company, and I’ve been following you all for over a year, reading your posts and learning from you! You’re a leader, well-deserved and proven, in the field of content writing — and I don’t know anyone who would disagree. Your Google listing states “Online marketing advice that works: Tips for copywriters, bloggers, and content marketers. Online marketing strategies that work.” There’s no mention anywhere of software. But you made me look. I didn’t know you’re the &&&&&&& developers. We love &&&&&&, as do our WordPress clients. But we really love you for your content writing tips!

Person F

I’m so glad I saw nancyd68 ‘s tweet about this post Neicole! If not, I wouldn’t have noticed that your feed had changed, and I would have missed this excellent post.

I definitely agree that there’s a growing sense of dissatisfaction in the social media world. On Monday, I wrote a post about the “friend collecting” phenomenon and its negative impact. I feel like a backlash is coming, and I don’t know what will happen. The best thing we can all do now is redouble our efforts to stay focused on quality and real engagement. Forget about the numbers and start being truly social.

NeicoleC

I’m glad, too! It’s a hard balance. I am not really trying to get down on people here for the tactics they are using. We all have to make a living, too, and numbers is part of the game. I wish that things weren’t going this way, and certainly lament the loss of quality. At the same time, I also understand the business needs driving it. I think we just need to be aware of what the possible impact of these approaches, even if we aren’t able to stop them from taking place.

I will say that the product we are releasing this month, @CurateXpress, is aimed at trying to both meet business goals and try to reverse this downward spiral. I’d love if it helped.

Person G

Oh, my. That last sentence. I have a guest post coming on Spin Sucks along a similar vein…authenticity versus optimization and automation…it’s where I see social heading to my chagrin. Isn’t that par for the course, Neicole?

Bots, and automatons get into something that’s a hot trend to carpe diem, and those who are and want to remain authentic suffer.

I have no idea what’s happening, but we’re at a tipping point, absolute. I’ve been feeling and seeing it awhile now.

NeicoleC

I have to say, it feels that way to me, too, re: tipping point. I suppose the automation and optimization is par for the course. I can still lament it, though. And, it does have repercussions. People react to those changes, too…

Person C

I thought automation was old-school, and everyone’s running away from it. Automated DMs, using Hootsuite to schedule everything and then walking away, linking Twitter to our Facebook Pages or vice versa (I hate that one) — every time someone figures out a way to game “relationship-building,” the purists cry foul and out the practice. But are we being hypocrites? Or am I? I don’t automate, but if no one cared, would I automate everything to buy time? And I don’t buy backlinks, but if it was looked upon as a valid practice, would I start that business on the side and write backlinked, keyword-heavy posts?

Person H

Ditto on that last sentence. Mmhm. It’ll start with those of us who are already saturated and ripple on down to affect everyone’s attitude. The mind quails, but it’s coming.

Neicole C

I hate to say it, but I think you may be right. Weird to think that so many people whose living depends upon social media/content marketing/SEO may be the instruments of its destruction. Though, maybe destruction is too harsh a word. People have ad blindness, but we still have online ads. Things will change, anyway.

Person H

Yeah, I doubt it’ll be destruction, but… how do I put this… It’ll start becoming the social media we’ve always pretended it was, you know? Practices like the ones you mentioned, as they spread and become common practice among some pretty highly ranked users (like those you mentioned), will give us good reason to be jaded.

It’s actually funny, because I realized after a while as a new social media user that the reason certain people were getting big numbers was because they were doing things they weren’t willing to tell us they were doing because they were the things we’d been warned against but had probably started doing until we got that warning and stopped :) (oh yeah, I’ve been there).

Neicole C

ShakirahDawud Yes. I have no way of knowing for sure. But seeing these things made me wonder…

Person C

“…the reason certain people were getting big numbers was because they were doing things they weren’t willing to tell us they were doing because they were the things we’d been warned against” — and that’s why the social media emperor has no clothes! I say let’s continue to be purists, and accept that there will always be another philosophy of social media marketing, just like every other form of advertising/marketing. For example, just because sex sells, you won’t see me showing skin to drive traffic to my website. But if that’s what YOU want to do, have at it!

NeicoleC

I won’t be going the skin route, either. But that’s partially because in my case, I don’t think it’d sell!

And here are some tweets from the time period. What amazed me is how many (even big name) people piled on and spread rumors and misconceptions, without apparently actually reading the post and deciding for themselves:

Major Blogger
I’m sick of uncreative, ignorant people thinking they can say anything and get away with it. Libel laws exist for a reason.

Major Blogger

@&&&&& I can afford the suit more than I can afford being arrested for hot-lava tossing. ;-)

Neicole Crepeau
@MajorBlogger Well, I’ve gone ahead and removed the post. Not much choice, now, huh?

Major Blogger
@neicolec
Never wanted anything other than for you to recognize the truth. Happy you cared and happy to talk about it with you any time.

Neicole Crepeau
@MajorBlogger
Oh, I recognize the truth. As for talking, when someone threatens a lawsuit, it effectively closes the door to communication.

Major Blogger
@neicolec
When someone recklessly libels my company, I defend us. Don’t act like a martyr, learn to be a responsible publisher.

Major Blogger
“I can do whatever I want to hurt you, but if you dare defend yourself, you’re an asshole.” How does this make sense?

Major Blogger
I know, I know… but imagine the day when all the attention-seeking haters got served. Otherwise it will never end.

People who jumped on the bandwagon:

Tweets from a Second Party
@******
come on, can I get a link over here? Dying to know what you’re talking about.

I’m down to go play with people in a comment section.

It’s so easy to get traffic without being an ass or an idiot. So why do people do it? I don’t get it.

Tweets from a Third Party
They always do it for self promotion.

Tweets form a Fourth Party (another big name, actually)
There s a difference b/n criticism that’s fabricated vs substantiated. You lie, you harm, you should pay.
Working up a quick compaint as we speak . ;-)
Tweets from a Fifth Party
Well @ neicolec libeled @**** and @****. Another smear prompted by the Brown - Livingston syndicate ?
Tweets from a Sixth Party
libel law suites need to prove a loss , can be costly . Why not just throw bowls of hot lava at them ?
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