Being the Blogging Media: Ethical Questions on the Fly

Monday, January 14, 2008
Posted by Jim Hedger @ 7:16 pm

This post takes a step away from the business of search engine optimization and marketing but it covers an important facet of the environment, the search-media. This is an issue that is obviously near and dear to my heart. I write it because my tech-hardened heart broke a bit while reading an apology from Search Engine Land editor Danny Sullivan to Wired and the search marketing community.

At issue is a short article published in Search Engine Land last Friday morning. Written by Barry Schwartz, the piece was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek exposure of a fairly obvious link-building loophole found in Wired’s “How To” wiki. Links placed in its user-generated content area did not have default NOFOLLOW tags!

Naturally, links from are weighted with considerable authority. Search Engine Land found out when they saw spammy SEO content that linked back to the “How To” wiki. Seeing an issue of note and noting the implications of the issue Barry wrote the controversial piece which turned out to read like a short how-to on spamming Wired’s “How To” wiki under the link-bait loaded title, “Get a Free Link From Wired“.

Some SEOs were saddened when Wikipedia added nofollows to external links. Perhaps they’ll perk up to discover that Wired’s semi-Wikipedia challenger has no such blocking. -(you can picture SEOs everywhere thinking, “OH YEAH? Do Tell…” )

Reaction from readers was swift. In a few short hours, Wired’s wiki saw a sudden increase in spammy pages created with the stupidly simple goal of tapping a vein of Google-juice.

According to Danny’s post, “Wired’s Editor In Chief, Evan Hansen, contacted me on Friday several hours after we initially published, not out of anger, but to understand more about the issues we were raising. When I realized what a mess my approval of the article had caused, I apologized for the hassle. Both parties decided that the original article should stay up. Wired was happy with my suggestion that I add a note making it clear that we were not asking people to spam them.

You’d think it should have stopped there but it didn’t. An ugly flame war started over the weekend in reaction to the story. By Monday, Danny was moved to eat public crow and issue the lengthy apology. As someone who regularly writes about the search marketing space, I appreciate his sentiments but really wish he hadn’t.

Search Engine Land did the right thing running the original story. Though a clumsy headline might have set the tone for the way people read the story, pointing out such issues is one of those things the search-media is SUPPOSED to do. Unexpected results may vary. Disassembly likely required. Such is life.

Wired left a big, juicy hole open. Lots of Wikis do. Search Engine Land learned about that hole because they, “… came across that [the loophole] after encountering spam.” Of course they had to report on it. A good reporter can’t ignore something once they have seen it and realized its implications.

Barry wrote that SEL spotted the loophole after encountering SEO spam while performing a simple blog-search. How long would it have been before others figured a similar method out at Wired’s or another Wiki and REALLY started exploiting the heck out of it?

In the long-run, SEL has done the industry a favour by sparking discussion around the link-value of user-generated content on Wiki sites. Think about the nuttiness of DMOZ link-values a few years ago or more recently with blog comments and multiply that exponentially. That could have produced the sort of link-devaluation weirdness none of us need to see.

The lesson learned by/for Wiki-webmasters is simple: If you can’t fully moderate it, user-generated content should probably be NOFOLLOW. Think about the evolution of forums, directories and blogs and apply that to Wiki-sites. Reality bytes and it’s the search-media’s role to point it out, again.

It is not the search-media’s role to protect Wired or other webmasters of Wiki-esque sites from their own web-strategy choices. Our role is to provide enough information to allow all readers to learn about the implications themselves. Apparently the article accomplished exactly that, in big-time unexpected fashion.

Over the years, nobody has done search-journalism better than the team assembled at Search Engine Land. They should never have to make any excuses for publishing what they write even if a few of their readers use that information to make regrettable choices.

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