Sour Grapes and Bad Vibes Fester in the Search Marketing Industry

Some time last year I realized my association with the search engine optimization and marketing industry might change because the atmosphere was getting partisan. Bad feelings between leaders were festering and it didn’t take much of a nudge to start a rumble.

The situation isn’t improving and I wonder why. Case in point is a recent bit of flap over an article that went out by someone well respected, which in hindsight was an error in judgment. Apologies have been made but it won’t end there because something has drastically shifted in the industry.

More and more people are unforgiving. There’s no room whatsoever for any slip ups.

I remember a friendlier time.

A few years back someone didn’t make it home from an SEO conference. A website called Threadwatch lit up with members putting out a global hunt for him and offering support for his family. He wasn’t even widely well known, but that made no difference. It ended well and showed that when one of their own is in trouble, the industry rallies.

However, if someone in the industry has an unpopular opinion, or defends something, or otherwise causes negative publicity to their company or self, they may as well be walking around with a scarlet letter branded to them for life.

Hypocrisy abounds. How is it that Rand Fishkin was slaughtered last year and taken to task for writings in his company blog and possible business practices, and yet the industry voted him the “Most Giving SEO”?

Today, I read a comment that he and his company are a “cult”.

Is it really possible to be the most generous person in an industry and be the most despised at the same time? What does this say about the people in the industry? What messages about the search engine marketing industry does this send to companies looking to hire SEO’s?

Marketers must market. This, too, I’ve come to see. You simply will not be noticed for your good deeds unless you talk about them, show them off and bombard everyone with your humble greatness because by tomorrow, no one will remember what you did.

Or is it that nobody really cares? I’ve been trying to figure that one out.

If you make personal sacrifices for the industry, or support it in ways that have nothing to do with promoting your business, this will not be recognized as a valuable contribution. If you provide a living example of ethical, smart problem solving in the face of a threat to your livelihood, this too isn’t acknowledged. Personally, when someone can show proof of their marketing skills in action, this speaks louder than how popular they are.

I can probably get away with writing and sharing my thoughts because I straddle two industries. I originate from the SEO industry however. It’s been far more friendlier and open than the usability industry. But as the months of getting unsolicited “advice” from people about who I should associate with or not went by, I began to suspect that true divisions exist and now recent events show that battle lines are drawn.

I don’t wish to take sides. There are those who leave comments in heated discussions who admit to loving the entertainment value. I don’t. I dislike the hostility. I’m having trouble understanding its purpose and value to the search engine marketing industry as a whole.

Is this where the future of search engine marketing is heading?

And if so, why is that?

27 thoughts on “Sour Grapes and Bad Vibes Fester in the Search Marketing Industry”

  1. Amazing how “on key” we (you and I) tend to be. I just wrote an email to a friend in this industry I trust with my life about this very thing.

    I feel it to … I felt it big time being only one of a few that went two both Pubcon and SES. Just really got to me after a while.

    I hear it to…. from all ends. It makes me seek out my colleagues in social media, plain marketing and PR more and more, which saddens me – A LOT.

  2. Your posts are always like a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, it seems the SEO industry–myself included–has become obsessed with personal gain and attention, even if it means we sacrifice our peers in the process.

  3. Kim,
    I’m glad you’ve written about this. I feel good to hear that someone with your years of industry experience is calling this a change in the wind. It has seemed that way to me, too.

    It’s seemed to me that a year or two ago, this kind of hostility just wasn’t around much. Is it that Social Media has sped everything up and ensured that SOMEONE will be having a bad day just about every day of the year and we’ll all get to see it? What kind of an impression must seeing a different fight every week make on brand new people to the industry? Will it breed a more contemptuous crop of new SEOs/Usability Folks/Marketers, ready to fight at the drop of a hat?

    It’s certainly not very civilized and I’ve felt sincerely bad for Rand, Danny and whoever else has been been the target of outspoken ill-will. Those guys had to go make dinner that night, thinking about all the rotten things that had been said about them. Not very nice.

    Miriam

  4. There is an uncomfortable static in the SEM world. Much of it stems from increasing brand value and an associated increase in sensitivity to criticism.

    We have all made bloopers both technical and social and they will be archived on the net for all to retrieve for much longer than necessary. :) There have been trolls and rants and flame wars since before the web and people generally moved on, grew up, apologised, and the faux pas became an occassional bad joke after a few beers.

    Stress separates out the best from the rest. Some people in our industry have apparently achieved greater success than maturity. There are good and bad methods of giving, receiving, and responding to criticism. Will people learn from the recent notable examples of both? Will people practice what they preach? Hope, they say, springs eternal.

  5. Having been in the industry for 10 years – with brushes of fame in the industry but definitely not a long-standing name, I can say that the tone of the game has changed. I think I can pinpoint when it happened – when Danny left search engine watch.

    Personally I am glad that Danny left and started a competitive show. I think this is good for the industry. But the inevitable side-effect of this move is to divide the industry. There are those in the Kevin Ryan camp, those in the Brett Tabke camp,and of course, the Danny Sullivan camp. Most of us will identify with more than one of these factions, but human nature eventually forces us to pick sides and defend our faction vigorously. So SEO is a three-party system now. I think this deserves a whole blog post, so be on the lookout (my shameless promotion for http://www.shavingoccam.com).

  6. Discussion is good, conflict is not, unfortunately some people don’t know how to do the former without causing the latter, and sometimes the media itself is at fault.

    Anyway I’m not into the whole side picking thing, heck you’ve only got to look at the sports teams I follow to know that. ;)

  7. When you said “But as the months of getting unsolicited “advice” from people about who I should associate with or not went by…” I laughed. Many people don’t know that this goes on. That players are deciding who speaks at conferences and who gets their photo with whom behind the scenes, not based on merit but who-likes-who.

    You won’t see cockroaches unless you turn on the light. Keeping things dark won’t make them go away.

    No offense to Miriam up there in the comments, but if it was quieter and “nicer” while a clique was keeping outsiders from participating in the industry, it wasn’t a better world.

    I’m not a fan of criticism, but I’m less a fan of hypocrisy and deceit. I’d never fault an idiot, but I am willing to hold an authority accountable for upholding the public trust, even if that is “unpopular with the ladies” so to speak.

    Thanks for the open comments.

  8. John -
    “but if it was quieter and “nicer” while a clique was keeping outsiders from participating in the industry, it wasn’t a better world.”

    No offense taken, but I’m not able to relate to what you are saying in the above. Are you referring to some time, pre-blogging, when you felt you didn’t have a voice?

    I don’t get the concept of being kept out. Seriously, my personal experience in this industry has been that virtually all of those folks who are sometimes referred to as ‘a-listers’ are more than willing to talk to polite lesser known industry people. I’ve had very nice and helpful interactions with every one of them that I’ve ever needed to speak to, so I just don’t get the grief about being shut out of something.

    Can you expand on what you mean?
    Miriam

  9. I’ll just point to that noted behind the scenes “advice” giving on who to associate with, who not to associate with, reported here. No need to get personal, and no I am not referring to myself. I have been around a while and while I believe the insider stuff seriously hurt the quality of the conferences, I have no gripes about my personal opportunities.

  10. Kim, I definitely feel for you. Perhaps the ‘tude is about BlogStars “pi$$ing in the fountain” and receiving accolades for doin’ it!

    Some of us who have built and nurtured the SEO industry for ohhhhh so many years only to have our bretheren pi$$ on our leg and tell us it’s raining!

    The blog world came along and quality and research went out the window being replaced with what? BlogStars?

    Assumptions often presented as if written on tablets, descending from the Mount carried by a biblical figure and read beside a burning bush… and the decree “PageRank is flawed” That anyone could be that sure of anything on SEO I find… well… more than a little disconcerting…

    Afterall he is talking about the algo that re-wrote the HTML spec to its own liking with the whole communities giving it a big thumbs up and queing up to rat on each other like junkies looking for their next traffic fix! It’s a joke! That G was out their like a crackwhore pimp given ‘em their fix is even more disgusting to me.

    We’ve lost our roots along the way! When I say we I mean SEs too there was a time when Jerry Yang was one of us… now he’s one of them… I’m sure wishing he was one of us again!

    It’s enough to make a grown man cry when idiots rat for Google! Why because they can’t really SEO their way out of a wet paper bag so… anyone above them has to be a spammer.

    As to the personality stuff, well, I’m the poster child! 14 years in the biz, taught and wrote web marketing and development courses… right… I’m not qualified to speak on anything? That my request didn’t even receive a FuK OFF response was a little insulting especially considering the Houston SES fiasco and the personal shitstorm that was for me both mentally and monetarily! Not sure how, but, I pi$$ed in someones cornflakes somewhere along the way. For that, my humblest apologies… to whoever, it was not my intention to do anything malicious.;-)

  11. Well, I still find it entertaining. I have never had to, nor shall I ever need to, make my living from the kindness of others in the ‘clan’. They are my ‘peers’ not my target market. I once upon a time cared about the image of the industry, as it pertains to my client base. I have realized there is little I will be able to do in that area, as I can’t even get proper credit for my own accomplishments because the cool kids have selective amnesia. So what exactly should I be doing? I sit back, grab some popcorn and enjoy the show. There is NEVER an lack of drama and it will be something new next week.

    There is little to be done but watch for most of us. I could write about it, but that would just perpetuate what is already a train wreck that folks just can’t turn away from. I do believe those of you with a voice should definitely be engaging in a dialogue…. Me? I will stick to be entertained :0)

    Nice rant BTW…. Best wishes

    Dave

  12. Studies have shown that a decent percentage of high achievers, including a good number of big-company CEO’s, are indistinguishable from psychopaths. It’s true that sophistry abounds in any sales-dominated industry, and true that nice guys (or solid, ethical players) sometimes seem to finish last as it were.

    But what to do about it? I think you can be plenty successful without being a psychopath at all.

    You can be very successful if you’re semi-psychopathic.

    You can be extremely successful, but also vulnerable to bouts of jail time and public derision, if you’re a complete psychopath. Once found out, psychopaths tend not to get a lot of second chances.

    Our industry’s wish to rise above mediocrity carries hype and factionalism with it as a side effect. It’s not a bad tradeoff. At least it’s not boring.

    For those who like to be quietly noticed for their good deeds, I think there is still plenty of room. I already have enough Lamborghini’s anyway, you know what I mean?

  13. Unfortunately, I think SEOs (especially the younger crowd) have always pushed hard to make a name for themselves, and these days the easiest way to do that is to attack the establishment and create controversy. To a point, that’s healthy, but we’ve crossed that point.

    On the other hand, as someone who also lives on the border between the SEO and usability communities, I find the usability establishment very cloistered and unfriendly. Where SEOs are often eager to share information and network generously, usability folks can be territorial and tight-lipped, in my experience. I’m not saying that’s true of everyone, and you’re definitely an exception to the rule, but I often find that I prefer to hang out with the SEO crowd.

  14. As a colleague of mine likes to remind me nearly every week, “We never leave high school.”

    I think that sums up the situation pretty well in the SEO/SEM world.

    And for the record, imo, it’s nothing new at all. It’s been going on for years, but as Miriam suggested, communication is faster and more plentiful so more people hear about it when so and so called whoseewhat a meanie.

    Where as years ago, the different clicques had their own hangouts rather than one big playground where everyone hung out (aka Sphinn and before that Threadwatch). Previously most didn’t cross into enemy territory like they do today.

    That said, I think it’s great today that search marketers of all hats do indeed hang out together, both online and offline. Petty arguments will happen no matter what you do, but in this case, the good far outweighs the bad.

  15. The future of search marketing definetely lies in Web 2.0; video and community based websites. These add a more human side to the whole web experience.

  16. My apologies to Kim for the tone of my earlier post, I now know it’s a bad idea to post when you’re fed up and over medicated.

    My apologies to Danny and Detlev I know the shitstorm was of my own doing and I crossed a line in making a point. I hope you understand it’s a constant fear of mine how people could judge me when they know that information about my past. Sometimes I’m sure it doesn’t matter other times… I’m not so sure… but… that’s my cross to bare, not yours.

    Andrew, I actually had to look up “pcychopathic” in the dictionary. Although I wouldn’t argue to being semi psychopathic, I think I am at the very least moral and remorseful.

    To this end I believe Popeye said it best when he uttered “I am what I ams and there aint no more”. I don’t try to present myself as anything more than what I am.

    I won’t disagree I lack many of the social skills others easily exhibit, but I won’t be judged by anyone unless he’s sitting on a high bench in a black robe or is Gabriel at the Gates. They are the only judges one should take seriously.

    As to second chances… nobody here should be in a place to be giving them out. That’s up to the individuals in the community and the two mentioned above.

    Neither should anyone try to directly sway that opinion one way or the other that should be based on the action not the “judgement” of the “old boys club of Search” some of that club I respect others I believe are in the club not based on merit but solely being likable. Nothing wrong with that other than it could be seen as exclusionary.

    I’ll take my chances that most in the community see past the delivery to the words, understand the message I was trying to deliver and that what may seem “psychopathic” is just emotional exuberance and genuine care about the industry beyond $ and things.

    We are a diverse community so before we label one another, either directly or indirectly we might want to consider that when some of us were in university partying with frat brothers, trying to get a few letters after our name on some companys’ stationary, some others only option beyond being a mindless factory drone was the school of hard knocks where the main frats are the Angels and Choice, and avoiding three letters above their name on a headstone is the goal of each day, still others are somewhere between… so… judge not lest ye be judged.

    I don’t think any of us are in a position to label anyone anything util we’ve walked a mile in their shoes and have some idea as to how they came to this place in life. Just my opinion, take it for what it is, just the opinion of a psychopath.;-)

  17. Sheesh! I’m sittin here looking at the comments alone, and it’s obvious what’s really going on out there. When I say out there, I truly mean “OUT THERE”. I like many others, sit behind the scenes, do our work, earn our pay and live and grow as internet marketers. I come here, and I can already see how people want to start ripping into each other. WTF is up with that?

    If there was anything that needed to be broadcast over a loudspeaker at any SEO/SEM conference, it would have to be “GET THE HELL OVER YOURSELVES”. Do your job, do it well, get paid and check your ego at the door. The internet will survive without us, but can you survive without the internet? Bears don’t crap where they eat… remember that.

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