Would you Wear a White Hat while Cleaning a Cesspool?

In case you still haven’t heard Eric Schmidt of Google’s condemnation of the internet, here’s the quote about cesspools and brands that has influenced a lot of the initial opinions and reactions to the search engine’s newest ranking algorithims I mentioned yesterday.

Here’s what he had to say back in October:

The internet is “a cesspool where false information thrives… Brands are the solution, not the problem…Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

An interesting blurb, and there’s no doubt its significant enough to generate the coverage and debate it has so far.

Schmidt seems to think that the best way to counteract false information is to rely on brand signals. What does it mean? I don’t think its very much different than the original pagerank system, it just puts more emphasis on the domains that have the highest central authority. Achieving a homepage PR of 7, 8, or 9 requires quite a strong brand, assuming all of Google’s spam checking is working as intended.

The problem, however, is how these authorities can so easily wall themselves off and become protective of the brand status they’ve attained. Nofollow even makes this particularly easy to accomplish – there’s basically no reason for an established authority to give a vote of credibility to anyone that they aren’t financially attached to.

Wearing White in a Sewer

So there you go. The internet is a big pool of sewage and as an SEO you’ve decided to sort the sludge in a way that’s mutually beneficial. How do you do this, exactly, while you’re keeping your white hat clean?

Neo, I’m going to tell you something. There is no white hat or black hat, in fact there is no hat at all.

There’s no “right way” to move up the search engine results because as far as Google is concerned you shouldn’t be trying at all.

Fundamentally, “White hat SEO” seems to be a phrase used to describe off- and on-page optimization techniques that are more likely to result in ranking gains than penalties and traffic losses.  If Google changes its algorithm tomorrow to penalize something you did last month, they don’t care what your intent was at the time regarding rules – you broke the first rule when you did anything.

Get a White Hazmat Suit

Rules?  Conventions?  Best practices?  I don’t know what they are and neither does anyone else.  They’ll change again before a consensus is ever reached.

If you go into the sewer and make it look a little better, or smell just a little bit less – no one is going to complain.  If you see a bad website – like one that scams users, spreads lies & false information, or otherwise messes with the browser & computer of surfers – do whatever you can to outrank them. Find the shady places they get high PR links and get some shady links for yourself, too.  Hey – you can’t help it if your brand is so popular that pages are linking to you!

Forget about trying to act morally and ethically in regards to the search engine, think about how you want to act professionally toward the surfer who types a search phrase into the engine.  Claim your own ownership of the internet:  It doesn’t belong to Google or Yahoo or (especially) Microsoft.

Many Surfers are Here to Escape “Branded Culture”

A lot of people are even a bit sick of these brands that expect us to love them regardless of how shoddy their product is. These are the brands that are afraid to actually compete in a real free and open market that encourages innovation.  (Many of them are standing in line for federal bailout money as we speak, shall we hand them our internet traffic as well?)

I’m particularly partial to this response from a reader at Wired:

Brands are not the solution, brands are part of the problem. Unless checked, companies (with brand names) will often post misinformation to attract consumers to their “brand.”

Communities are the solution, people working together to sort out the truth. (emphasis mine)

We’re sick of it because they already buy advertising online, on the TVs, radios, etc… We don’t have to go “searching” for these strong brands because they’ve been in our face screaming at us to buy something since we were little children trying to enjoy our Saturday morning cartoons.  We know you can make a living without forcing advertisements and brand placement into everything that is art and critique and entertainment.

The Same Old Climb on a Steeper Hill

I don’t think very much has fundamentally changed, aside from even more weight being assigned to keywords in domains and the relative strength of a site’s pagerank.  Google obviously isn’t reinventing the “search wheel,” they’re just tweaking the direction they’re draggin’ this wagon called the internet.

Google certainly seems to be reaching a maturation phase where its become more aware of its position as a global gatekeeper of media distribution and “truth.”  Just a few years ago, they seemed to agonize with taking this power inside of China, but they are today optimistically embracing it an idealistic mission on a more global scale.

I’m not saying they’ll be playing to any specific biases or protecting any specific businesses or politicians, but they do seem to have embraced this cleanup of the “cesspool” as sort of a righteous crusade.

For good or for bad?  It has yet to be seen!

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