At Semify we were once again trying to figure out the exact definition of white hat SEO, this time by watching a video interview with Matt Cutts of Google. As far as I can tell, Matt is the public relations spokesperson for Google to the webmaster and search engine marketing community. As you know, if you have been following us, we have been feverishly trying to find solid definitions of white hat seo vs black hat seo. You probably also know if you read my other piece on the topic of white and black hat SEO, I really don't think terms such as white hat seo and black hat seo are even appropriate for the topic at hand. What's really being discussed here is ethics in advertising.
Matt was being asked about the link juice and seo value of widgets in this interview. And in his response, he actually used the term "widget spam." Widget spam? I had never heard of this before. This does not sound like white hat SEO, so we watched more. He was addressing two things with his term widget spam: 1) Widgets that are about one topic but have a link to a web site that it not at all related to the widget, and 2) Widgets that are sponsored by a third party and receive a link in return (essentially a paid link). Matt did not outright condemn these practices, but he made it clear that they are not white hat SEO either. He used terms like "unhelpful" and "we have algorithmic methods for finding these widgets." He was careful, as always, to keep his statements vague - as I imagine a person in his position must do with so many watching and analyzing his statements to death. But he also was clearly using fear tactics as he asked people in the audience if they were ready to have their sites removed from the search engines or take unneeded risks.
Wikipedia has the common definition of spam here. They basically say that it's the abuse of electronic email for commercial purposes to solicit indiscriminately via bulk messages. They also say that the term is spreading to now include other media such as instant messaging, newsgroups, search engines, blogs, wikis, mobile phones, and forums. When the term spam was applied to email, it made sense. As it has creeped toward other media, I have a harder time understanding it. As you step back and think about this definition long enough you have to conclude that spam is being used for pretty much any unwanted commercial solicitation - regardless of the medium it's delivered through. That's not where it started, but that's what the term has evolved into. Am I wrong? Think about it.
So, then, why are television and radio advertisements not also spam? Let's break down the criteria and evaluate objectively to see if they fit the evolving definition I found on the wiki above. Are they unwanted advertisements with commercial intent? Most certainly. Are they delivered in bulk indiscriminately? Yes. Anyone who is watching the show gets them. Are they abusive? Debatable. Certainly some will argue they are, particularly in fields of politics, pharmaceuticals, and children's advertising. But this debate is also applicable to email spam. You could keep going and use this same evaluation template to look at radio advertising and conclude it is spam as well. But why are these two mediums not listed in the wiki under the definition of spam?
I think the reasons for this are many. The first reason is accessibility. Not everyone can put an ad on tv or radio because of the costs. Thus, because it is expensive we feel there is a justification for the ad and it is therefore legitimate. Perhaps a faulty argument, but a truly capitalistic one to be sure. Second, these terms are evolving in the technology community and out of the Internet advertising space. This community has no interest and relatively little knowledge of the traditional advertising industry. I'm sure I will take some heat for that statement, and there are exceptions to be sure, but overall the people talking and writing about ethics in Internet advertising are not the executives who make the television spots for the Super Bowl. The final reason that spam is only applied to Internet mediums is due to the scope of Google's business. As evidenced by the Matt Cutt's interview on white hat seo, Google seems to be applying the word spam to any practice that they don't want people to do. Sure, they are trying to align their guidelines with their corporate mission of "do no evil." But in the end, they are a publicly traded for-profit corporation just like GE, Coca Cola and AT&T. Draw your own conclusions.
My final conclusion is very similar to my last entry on white hat SEO. Once again we see how adolescent the entire industry of search engine marketing is. We are borrowing terms from hackers (white hat seo vs black hat seo) to describe marketing activities when we really should be inventing new terms. Here we see the extension of the term spam into the widget space in a conversation about white hat SEO. Again, inappropriate. This term was invented to describe an email practice. Are we so lazy that we can't invent new words for these very different activities? Perhaps Swidget? Hang tight. We will in time. But keep in mind that Google would prefer that we saw all of these activities as simplistically bad and were very scared of them. After all, this makes their job easier.
p.s. I think my next blog entry will be about where we learn our sense of ethics from: Our parents, the church, philosophy, the government (via laws), Google. ;-)