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Do you want to be excellent? (Or just effective?)

Posted March 13th, 2012 by Andrew Goodman

It’s been awhile since SES London, and this post has been aging in the back of my mind… like a fine scotch. But before the next stop on the circuit (SES New York), why not reflect a bit more on the fundamental problems with “black hat” SEO?

In the Black-Hat, White-Hat, Unconferenced session at SES London, Mikkel deMib Svendsen highlighted a theme: the “hat color” is irrelevant. What matters is effectiveness. For effect, Mikkel chooses the starkest terms possible, essentially saying that the playing field for marketing is like a theater of war. To back this point up he points to a book by Ries and Trout called Marketing Warfare.

It’s at that point, frankly, that any serious marketer should thank the speakers for their time, and head to dinner. Or at least wander off to refresh their drink.

Presumably, for about half the U.S. population (or slightly less), the perils of fallout such as the recent Afghanistan debacle are matched in importance by the general principles behind the military security operation. The equation changes slightly now, but you wouldn’t  have been there if it hadn’t been for the magnitude and far-reaching consequences of being there, or not being there.

I cannot, and will never, be able to fathom the idea that selling a soft drink, an insurance product, or an aftershave is anything like going to war. We are going to work, not war. And in our work we need to be creative and yes, sometimes ruthlessly competitive. But we should also be excellent in our character, and more worried about the balance between negative fallout from anarchistic behavior, and the positive contributions from effective campaigns.

Maybe it’s that little comfortable part of me that says, hey, we’ve actually got a pretty good gig here. We’re all making money and doing well, and yes, through creative competition some lesser players will go out of business. But why screw it up by bringing a flamethrower to the party?

So, as search marketers, we generate more visibility for companies in search listings, mostly on Google. It’s gotten more complex over the years (new ad formats, new algorithms that black hats can’t outsmart, blended SERP’s, social results and social signals). The goal is to achieve more sales, to be sure. That’s not rocket science.

But the wrinkle is the word “visibility”. The search engine and the consumer have a pretty good panoramic view of how you come across online. They can gauge your character. The “guerrillas” get a lot more than just increased sales — they draw attention to their tactics. Often that attention is unfavorable. I’m suggesting that even if you could do the guerrilla stuff undetected, you shouldn’t. Indeed the mark of character (according to Plato) is that even if you could go about your business under the cloak of invisibility, you wouldn’t go around raping and pillaging.

Do it for yourself. If you think that “stopping at nothing” is the only possible way to move a few more Dyson vacuums, then what else do you believe? How low will you stoop, more generally?

<philosophy nerd hat on>

That debate goes back a long way.

Philosopher Alasdair Macintyre (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and After Virtue) summed it up in his view that the ancients (particularly Aristotle) meant to bring to the fore a fundamental difference in the honor or quality of human existence and indeed, in people. There are those (the majority — perhaps to be considered just the working stiffs and money-grubbing merchants) who seek only the goods of effectiveness. And a minority of true leaders seek to act justly as well and to create beautiful, timeless objects. These would be the goods of excellence.

Sanctimonious? Perhaps. Elitist? In that context, certainly.

Macintyre doesn’t see much in the modern world to recommend, because a sense of excellence is rarely present. The world, for Macintyre, is drowning in technique and lacking in purpose. Ultimately, I don’t share Macintyre’s specific conclusions, but his critique of mere effectiveness is right on. Effective to what end?

</Philosophy 331 dismissed>

Shouldn’t marketers — like any other professionals — adhere to something akin to a Hippocratic Oath? Can’t we get paid handsomely while upholding principles of dignity and fairness… no matter what nasty things we perceive some competitors (and even Google) to be getting up to?

Plain and simple: marketing is not warfare. Warfare itself is ghastly enough. Why do we need to import its principles to our daily work lives?

Specific people who (in Macintyre’s world view) would be considered prototypical pursuers of only “the goods of effectiveness” might be:

  • Machiavelli, and rulers who would follow his tactics
  • Nietsche
  • Snipers
  • Hockey goons

Not too difficult to tack “aggressive marketers” onto that list, is it?

The winning team or the vengeful nation might be very appreciative of the presence of goons and/or snipers. But as a society or as a profession, do we not also aspire for better things? Can goons punch the wrong heads in the wrong places? Don’t snipers often wind up on trial for war crimes? Is there a downside to believing that every realm is a theater of war?

I find it interesting to note that Mikkel didn’t mention another popular book by Ries and Trout: Positioning. Companies, professionals, and agencies that want to work and build excellent products and relationships outside of the shadows want to position themselves as — if not squeaky clean — then at least not goons. Goons get work (until they’re banned outright), but don’t the talented skaters get paid more in the end?



4 Responses to “Do you want to be excellent? (Or just effective?)”

  1. aaron wall says:

    “the balance between negative fallout from anarchistic behavior” … is something those atop the mega-huge banking class won’t appreciate until it cuts both ways and the genie is out of the bottle. It will turn out that they did not rub it the right way. :D

    “Don’t snipers often wind up on trial for war crimes?” … typically only if they are on the losing side of the war.

    Not saying I advocate a militant marketing approach, but what does the window of opportunity look like in some verticals where almost every bit of real estate is an ad, like seobook.com/images/newyorkhotels.png? Given that SERP, I am amazed at TripAdvisor’s $4 billion market capitalization & 22x P/E multiple.

  2. What am I missing here? Didn’t TripAdvisor build a respectable business?

  3. aaron wall says:

    Indeed they did, but aren’t they getting squeezed out of the search results? Look at that screenshot…there is literally 0 real estate for 3rd party review sites until you are well below the fold. So where exactly does their incremental growth come from to justify trading at a higher multiple than Google does?

  4. Many companies are trading at high multiples (LinkedIn, Zynga, Angie’s List, etc.), but I had no comment on that particular issue. We are indeed going through an era where Google and Facebook have immense power to determine who in the ecosystem to play well with. Precisely why these companies went public to raise enough funds to come up with alternate distribution strategies as a buffer against total Google dependence. I am not at all pleased at Google’s deprecation of quality 3rd-party review sites in its bid to build its own, similar capacity.

    I guess, in the end, you either live or die in this scenario.

    Since 2006, sadly, Google has done nothing but move towards the dystopia they warned of in their original “Anatomy…” paper. They have continually “added a factor” to favor not only companies they prefer or partner with, but simply their own properties.

    http://www.traffick.com/2006/05/serp-staples-here-today-gone-tomorrow.asp

    Would-be consumer content favorites will need to gain direct access to consumers by elevating their brands to such an extent that they are sought directly through various platforms, including Google. That is costly and that is why we are seeing the IPO’s.


 


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