The Rules by Which We Play

It’s a zero-sum game, this industry of ours. There are winners and there are losers. There can only be one site that ranks highest, and many sites that rank below it.

Though strictly speaking that’s not true any more – due to personalised results and the continued integration of social signals – I think we can all agree that there’s limited space at the top of any given SERP.

Fortunately we have a big playground to work in. Search engines process billions of queries a day, many of which they’ve never seen before. Every query, potentially, serves as an opportunity to reach an audience.

But in the end we all know that, because of what we do to increase the search visibility of the websites we work on, there are other websites that are losing visibility. Our sites gain traffic, other sites lose it. Zero-sum.

In a zero-sum game, if you play nice you tend to end up on the losing side. Others have learned this lesson the hard way. Take the financial industry as an example. They play a zero-sum game: there’s a limited amount of wealth in the world (and don’t let the capitalist delusion of endless growth fool you – our world’s resources and thus our potential wealth is most definitely limited) so when someone ends up with a large share of that wealth, it means there are many others who’ve lost it. Zero-sum.

And in a zero-sum game, playing nice is not a sustainable strategy. The financial industry had this figured out decades ago, so they stopped playing nice. Instead they played dirty, deliberately and determinedly. And it paid off. Big time.

Even when their dirty tricks backfired and they found themselves in a financial black hole of such colossal magnitude that it dragged the global economy down with it, they made it work for them. By that stage they’d gotten so good at playing dirty that they managed to get the people they’d been leeching wealth off of for decades to bail them out, so they could continue to leech wealth off of them. They turned a massive defeat in to a glorious victory – and got many people to applaud them for it along the way. Now that’s class.

The SEO industry has a lot in common with the financial industry. SEO, like the financial markets, is a game invented by humans, for humans. The rules of this game relate to reality – the world of brick and mortar – only indirectly, dealing as it does with fleeting human behaviour in a fabricated environment invented and managed by a small group of all-powerful entities.

But, like the financial markets, what happens in SEO does have direct and significant impact on real-world affairs. Careers are made and broken on the backs of SERPs and stock tickers, jobs gained and lost, livelihoods made and destroyed.

Yet unlike the financial industry, SEO hasn’t yet embraced playing dirty. Yes, there are many SEOs who are fully aware of the zero-sum nature of the game they play, and have no qualms about adopting any tactic required to ensure they end up on top.

But for every one of these zero-sum SEOs – we tend to call them black-hat – there are others who insist on a strong ethical foundation for their work. These white-hat SEOs insist on playing by the nice-guy rules and to build their business on solid best-practices and adhering to the guidelines set forth by the powerful SERP overlords.

Whether or not the white-hat brand of ethical SEO is a sustainable long-term strategy depends on one factor, and one factor only: the level of success achieved by the SERP overlords – Google et al – in making black-hat tactics unprofitable.

Because only if Google and its rivals succeed in making black-hat obsolete, if they manage to oust spam websites from their SERPs and cease to reward dubious tactics with search engine traffic, only then will while-hat be a viable long-term strategy.

This is a big responsibility that rests on the shoulders of our SERP overlords. They either manage to break the black-hat back, and thus make white-hat SEO the only sustainable tactic, or they will fail at fighting spam and thus elevate black-hat SEO to the default approach. In a zero-sum game, there is no third option.

Personally, I hope the search engines succeed. Not because I’m a whiter-than-white SEO, but because of the moral implications of these outcomes.

Should, heaven forbid, search engines fail to effectively combat spam tactics and black-hat SEO becomes the only profitable way of operating, it means I will have to knowingly and deliberately embrace the same type of dirty tricks employed by the financial industry. It would mean that, in a very real sense, I would be joining the ranks of investment bankers, stock brokers, and bonus-gobbling CEOs.

And I find that to be a rather revolting prospect. In fact, should that come to pass, I’m pretty sure I won’t want to be an SEO any more.

About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.

11 thoughts on “The Rules by Which We Play

  1. Heavy going there Barry! The comparison of SEO to the banking industry is a little disturbing but I know thats not the point you want coming out in this post. As I see it, in a nut shell, your saying “google please sort your shit out and stop rewarding crap”.

    Would that be fair? If so, I wholeheartedly agree but in all honestly do not believe it will ever come to pass as Google themsleves perpetuate the damn problem by making money out of it… a lot of money so really, its only in their interest to control it so that it doesnt override the system but never actually eliminate it.

    A bit like bankers I guess. Pity really 🙂

  2. Like Justin, I can’t say I find the comparison to Wall Street vultures encouraging, however apt. And I have to agree that as long as the search engines (read: hawkers of on-line advertising) make more money in the current environment, change isn’t likely.

    But I’ll toss you another parallel: human nature, in general. For ages, we’ve had to deal with murderers, rapists and thieves, yet cultural mores and societal law continue to force the perpetrators to the fringe. Rather than becoming accepted practices, they continue to be chastised, punished and/or “rehabilitated”.

    Of course, one could make a convincing argument that religion has played a huge role in keeping such behavior in its status as unacceptable. For the most part, organized religion condemns such activities, even if the “punishment” promised supposedly is issued from some mystical imaginary being. But FUD, by any other name,… right?

    So, we can find ourselves grouped with thieves or bankers, depending upon… but, wait… I guess there really ISN’T any difference, is there?

  3. @Justin: I don’t like comparing myself to those vile depraved parasites on society we call bankers, but the way the SEO industry is heading isn’t making me feel very proud of my job, you know? So yes, Google et al need to sort their shit out.

    @Doc: not sure I’d credit religion with any kind of moral helpfulness. On the contrary, organised religion has helped make moral depravity acceptable over the centuries. As in “kill the heretics”, and such. In fact, any kind of large institution, be they banks or churches, governments or corporations, is a conduit for making morally bankrupt behaviour acceptable and even required. I just hope our SEO industry isn’t heading that way…

  4. Can’t argue that, Barry. I guess the point I should have made is that Google has become somewhat of a religion for some, that seem to believe it’s omniscient, omnipotent and benign.

    The truth is, of course, that it’s a business (there’s yet ANOTHER parallel to organized religion), and a pretty effective one, at least at its primary goal… make money. As such, it’s no more to be expected to have our best interests at heart, than any ephemeral deity of man’s own creation.

    Maybe if we take the religion aspect one step further, and start burning black-hats at the stake? Ah, but then we’re faced with that sticky, “who’ll be the judge” question.

    I think for the time being, I’ll just do my job the way that I think is right, and the hell with letting corporate entities dictate my ethics. What’s the worst that could happen? Google IS a god, and I get passed up for the Rapture to Mountain View?

  5. That sounds almost communist.. sorry, it really does, though I’m sure you didn’t intend it to. Evil capitalists parasites of the society, “religion” killing people…
    There’s no such thing as “religion”, unless you’re speaking only about the concept of religion, the mechanism of faith etc. There are many religions, all different, christian creeds (or “denominations” as Americans call them) can as well be considered separate religions (=connections). Judging them indiscriminately would be intellectually dishonest, since their nature is not the same. The fact that some religions are bad (or, like in the case of the Roman Church and its Protestant offshoots, have gone bad throughout their history) does not justify placing the blame on all religions by lumping together in an ideological construct called “religion”.
    Apologies for the off-topic, just clarifying things.

    1. “That sounds almost communist.. sorry, it really does, though I’m sure you didn’t intend it to.”
      No, I did intend that. I wouldn’t call myself a communist – it’s typical of right-wing thinkers to label anything to their left as ‘communist’ with all its negative connotations – but I’m definitely a socialist.

      “There’s no such thing as “religion””
      Oh yes there is. regardless of their specific creeds, tenets, or whathaveyou, all organised religion has the exact same core. It’s all about manipulating superstitions in an effort to wield power over the masses. Each and every organised religion has that in common, which is why it’s perfectly valid to lump all of that together. It’s not a construct, it’s a simple fact.

      Personal beliefs, on the other hand, are highly individual and often have very little to do with the actual religion a person feels he or she belongs to.

  6. Got me! I am right-wing indeed and I was worried about insulting you, because I consider “communist” to be pretty much a deadly insult. Living in a former socialist republic I am very sensitive to marxist ideas and the harm they can do.
    I stand by my assertion about “religion”. I think the reason we’re disagreeing is because you don’t understand religions are lived and that they are communities more than they are institutions. You seem to think people don’t actually live a religion, rather their personal beliefs within a religion. But a religion is not an organization and personal does not mean strictly individual or original (only heretics come up with inventions of their own and true heretics are rare). A religion is not just theology, it’s formed of its specific practices as much as it is made of beliefs. Practices / rituals are what make beliefs live and they are common to believers of the same creed/community.
    I think you operate with the common, inaccurate definition of the superstition. A superstition is in fact a belief which has lost its logic and its meaning. A shape with no substance (I know, you think all beliefs lack substance, but bear with me). We knock on wood, but we don’t remember what’s about knocking on wood that’s supposed to protect us from harm – as opposed to believing in, say, the sign of the cross being able to protect us (its logic being that it gets its power from Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection, the symbol transmits the power of the represented object). As for manipulating the masses… I have no doubt this has happened in many religions, doesn’t mean however this is their essence (as an Orthodox Christian I know of course there is at least one religion that never manipulated anyone and I’m not taking blame for the deeds of communities who broke away from Orthodoxy). But I’d rather argue with you in Manchester (or not at all, even better), I feel like trolling here. 🙂 Feel free to delete the comments, if you wish. Failed ethnologist over and out.

    1. Oh no, I’d never delete your comment. On the contrary, I like debate! It’s always good to exchange viewpoints for many reasons – being exposed to other perspectives, sharpening my argumentative skills, and sometimes just plain venting. 🙂

      Re: religion, I think we’re just talking semantics at this point. What you call religion, I call personal belief. One thing though: if you genuinely believe your Orthodox Christian church has never manipulated people for the sake of its own power, I can really only advise you to turn your obvious intellect and critical thinking skills a bit more towards your own church, instead of always pointing it outwards.

      Re: Manchester, first drink is on me. 😉

  7. Semantics, indeed. When you say “Church” you think “institution” and “clergy”, while I think “community”. And a community as a whole cannot manipulate people, its leaders might but the leader of the Orthodox Church is Christ Himself, with no representative like the Roman Pope claims to be (decisions are taken by the Synod=council of the bishops and considered valid ONLY if they are compatible with the Scriptures and the previous Ecumenical councils – “The right faith validates the meetings that have taken place, and again, the correctness of the dogmas judges the meetings”, as Saint Maxim the Confessor put it). But here I go talking again, let’s stop the discussion before Bas van den Beld kicks me out.
    Regarding Manchester, I’ll gladly take you up on your offer, the second drink will be on me then. 🙂

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