I’M TELLING! (or reporting your SEO competitors)

When I did the Ask the SEO Vets panel at SMX Advanced a few months ago, someone in the audience asked a question about what to do when your competitors are buying links and getting an advantage from them in the engines. Vanessa Fox immediately answered that you could report them, to which several of the panelists, myself included, replied with a collective groan.

I responded that I have never reported a competitor, never will and believe heavily in karma and that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. After all, I said, if I spent my time reporting every competitor of mine breaking a rule, that's all I'd EVER do and my sites would suck because they'd be getting no attention. Quite a few folks in the audience clapped loudly, quite a few looked at me and rolled their eyes. It's a touchy subject, but one I feel strongly on, and I'll tell you why.

The engines are not our “friends”

Look, I like a lot of engine reps. Matt, as an example, is an awesome guy, responsive to the webmaster community and genuinely wants to make Google the web a better place. But Matt isn't Google and Google is not your friend. They are a multi-billion dollar company that makes their money monetizing the content of others. They don't care about “you” as an individual, your company or Who's Cheatin' Who. They care that their index is being abused due to a problem they created (links being the currency of the web) and use human nature, you wanting to make your life (and ability to rank) easier, to get you to work for them for free report folks.

SEO folks and the various engines have a delicate relationship. We're not friends – though we're not quite enemies – we merely co-exist because we have to. They need our content; we need their traffic. Don't fool yourself into believing otherwise.

People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones

When you report one person in your industry, make no mistake that it will likely draw attention to everyone in it. There are very few sites out there that don't at least have one of two skeletons to hide, and before you report your competitor and bring attention on yourself, you'd better be damn sure you are in that minority.

Are you using nofollow heavily? Do you have your keywords repeated on the page one too many times? Do you have 20 links in your footer, keyword laden, to internal pages on your site? Did you buy a few directory listings at crappy sites a few years back, before Google officially took a stand, that are still in existence? Do you comment legitimately on a lot of blogs using anchor text to your site? Remember that Google has quality raters (if you want a more current version of quality rater guidelines, maybe now is the time to invest in an SEOBook membership) and based on their guidelines, not an intricate knowledge of SEO, they decide your “intent” and report it back to Google.

Is your site really as squeaky clean as you think? Sure, you may not be buying backlinks or cross-linking a network of sites, but will you survive an in-depth, possibly inexperienced, industry-wide scrutiny if your report brings one on?

Are you willing to bet your site's rankings, or for corporate SEO folks, your job on it?

Studying brings you a higher ROI

Ok, so your competitors are buying links or breaking some other search engine guidelines, so you want to run out and report them. But have you studied why what they're doing is having the effect that it is? Have you figured out which link placements are bringing them the most benefit? Have you figured out which sites are giving them the most bang for their buck? Have you figured out why their obviously cross-linked sites are even bringing them benefit?

One of the “blackhats” I know told me once “Blackhat is merely figuring out what works whitehat and then automating it as much as possible.” The techniques are the same – it is the legitimacy of obtaining or implementing those techniques that make them “black” or “white” in the world of SEO.

You can learn from these folks and then backtrack what is working for them and figure out a way to legitimately benefit from what they're teaching you about the algorithm.

As I've always said, every good blackhat I know can whitehat their asses off. The difference is that legitimately implementing their techniques will protect you from future algorithmic changes. You get the benefits without the risk.

Constantly focusing on others takes the focus off where it should be

Is your website and your marketing strategy the best it can be? Focusing on what everyone else does and why your organic SEO life is so unfair distracts you from doing what will benefit you most – improving YOURSELF. The best thing you can do for your Web site is to focus on IT and not spend all your time whining about your competitors.

Reporting your competitors is no more an SEO strategy than a heavyset person complaining about what good genes her skinny friend has is a weight loss technique.

  • Focus on creating a point of difference.
  • Focus on creating compelling and unique content.
  • Focus on promoting your blog or website.
  • Focus on finding horizontal exposure and link opportunities.
  • Focus on creating the best site architecture possible.
  • Focus on working your internal links to get maximum effect.
  • Focus on what matters… YOU.

Let the search engines sort out what your competitors are doing wrong while you build an algo-resistant and defensible site that ranks because it should and not because of the current flavor of the month SEO technique.

Frankly, no one likes a rat

The SEO industry is full of paranoid people. And I can tell you from experience that nothing gets you out of the “circle of trust” faster than tattling to search engines, even if those in that circle aren't directly affected. I know I've been told by some that I'd be “surprised at who makes reports”. And I probably would. And then I'd never share anything with them again.

There is a very fine line between fighting what you feel is an injustice and “outing” Web sites. And sometimes even the biggest names in the industry have a hard time walking it without falling off the tightrope. Much like with the “intent” of a link, it is extremely hard to discern the “intent” of an outing.

I've seen many folks drop off dinner lists over the years because they violated Omerta and discussed what was clearly off the record in public. Sure, maybe the guy you reported, this time, doesn't affect me, but maybe the next guy you report will, collaterally, due to you bringing scrutiny in an industry with a lot of glass houses or outing a little-known technique to make the Sphinn homepage.

Once you start being a potential liability, you close a lot of doors that could have resulted in a competitive advantage for both you as an SEO and your Web site and its rankings.

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Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is a veteran digital marketer and SEO consultant. She is also a serial entrepreneur. You can find out more about her entrepreneurial efforts here. Rae is most active on Twitter.