Posted by Jane Copland

If you take any interest in Sphinn and the debates that rage therein, you properly noticed last week’s uproar over linkbait specialist Lyndon Antcliff’s fake story that ended up being mentioned on Fox News. We’ve dabbled in a fair few linkbait projects over the years and since the Sphinn discussion was still alive just two days ago, I don’t think it’s too late to mention it again.

Those of you who were optimising your websites and not reading the 92-comment long thread at Sphinn (I did contribute, twice) might have missed the article in question. Titled "13 Year Old Steals Dad’s Credit Card to Buy Hookers," it was a complete work of fiction. I read the article when someone in the office saw it atop a social news site, most likely Reddit.

As someone who spends a good amount of her time writing, I could tell that the writer composed the article with a smile on his or her face, but it didn’t strike me as completely incredible. This either says sad things about my gullibility or society in general. Whilst the last paragraph of the piece borders on totally ridiculous, I have seen weirder news stories that are true. Or that I thought were true. Stay with me here please.

But this particular story was not true. There were no teenagers and no prostitutes. Fox News ended up reporting a complete falsehood, which is not like them at all. The story is, to the majority of the population, forgotten as one of those dumb things you saw on the Internet or on the TV. However, Lyndon decided to blog about the fabrication and wow, did he annoy some people.

The debate that resulted surrounded the idea that we SEOs have a bad enough reputation already and we don’t need the crime of "making up stories" added to our collective CV. It isn’t often that something like this divides the SEO and social media marketing community, and I don’t think it’s often that we see words like "ethics" thrown around quite as freely. The question here is, is it ethical to gain thousands of links and hundreds of thousands of page views out of something completely fictitious?

I happen to disagree with a number of my friends and people I respect on this one. I don’t think the composition and promotion of the story was a big deal at all. It really doesn’t fuss me much that I read a story that turns out to be made up. Whilst I don’t agree that it was obviously fake (having no author cited didn’t strike me as totally unusual), I feel that it doesn’t differ much from link building campaigns where one acquires links to an insurance site by paying someone who runs a site about consumer electronics. The link from the consumer electronics site makes the insurance site rank better without the insurance site having done anything to deserve it. Lyndon’s piece about an imaginary boy and his imaginary night out is an attempt to make money.co.uk rank better without it having done anything to deserve it. We all do the former. We just weren’t imaginative enough to do the latter.

Now, if you come down on the side of things where you feel all links should be editorial votes for money.co.uk or the insurance site, then it’s not ethical. However, not many of us are that idealistic. I also don’t find this as groundbreaking or shocking as some commenters at Sphinn did, because people have been lying on the Internet for… ah… ever. A story we once wrote on Drivl became a cited source in a Wikipedia entry about the topic at hand. The story was a complete fabrication, composed by Scott. We didn’t add the link to Wikipedia (although it taught us how reliable Wikipedia’s links can be). Scott’s fictional Drivl pieces often read as though they could be true, but we were always of the opinion that they didn’t sound particularly credible. It seems that we underestimated some people’s ability to be duped.

Secondly, we expressed no outrage when a well-known member of the SEO community appeared on a mind-blowingly popular daytime television programme as a made-up character. "Dick Masterson" didn’t do it just for fun, although I bet it was a blast. He did it to attract people to his website and to sell his product.  Have a look at the YouTube video of "Dick"’s appearance on Dr. Phil. To me, it looks totally fake, but I already know who’s really behind those Aviator sunglasses. If you didn’t know, you’d probably believe it was real.

Why weren’t we shocked when this happened? I expect it was because no one pointed out who Dick really was and potentially let the public know they’d been had. The fear that SEO and online marketing is going to get a worse reputation that it already has baffles me a bit because I meet very few people who even know what SEO is. I think we put too much credit in the opinions of obnoxious Diggers who slam stories once they know they were written or submitted by online marketers. They don’t speak for the general population.

Do we have a "responsibility" not to make stuff up? And if we do, who is this responsibility for? To my mind, the shady SEO who promises top-five placement for your company’s name and its best five-word key phrase doesn’t speak for all of us, and neither does a person who invented a story to get links. As sad as it is that any one person’s actions reflect on their entire industry, I don’t lump Sarah in with any of the shady lawyers I’ve heard about.

If this responsibility is to the public, I’d argue that the public do have a responsibility to take what they read online with a high degree of skepticism. I certainly do, and I have done long before I knew what linkbait was or how search engines worked.

One could argue that Rand’s and my imaginary Google OneBox results were deceptive in that a massive number of people went to Google, apparently to figure out if they were real. Whilst we never claimed they were real, and most people’s trip to Google was probably borne out of curiosity, we nonetheless brought a bit of deception into both the post and its promotion.

I did find the reaction to this a bit hysterical. If this is all it takes to ruin SEO and SMM’s reputations, we were probably out of luck before Lyndon even put finger to keyboard.

Should we make up lies and promote them as truths? To that, you want to say, "No, of course we shouldn’t." But let’s put everything else we do in language like that: should we hide unflattering results for clients based upon how much they pay us? Should we work to have a client rank better than its competitor, even if we know the competitor is better at what they do?

Please don’t get high and mighty about this, SEOs. I may not have been quite as blatant in making something like this up myself, but everyone who’s engaged in linkbait has embellished stories to make them more appealing. I also agree that the onus is on outfits like Fox News to check their stories before they run them, especially those stories without citations and authors.

And if you take one thing away from the debate, let it be this: If you get away with something on this scale, for God’s sake don’t tell anyone.

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