Web 2.0 & SEO: Must We Piss In Every Public Fountain?

2008 SEMMY FinalistUpdate: This post has been nominated for a SEMMY award – vote today!

I started this project a couple months ago, researching "Web 2.0" and SEO. Let me begin by confessing that I have no good definition for "Web 2.0" – but there do seem to be some things that everyone agrees fit the Web 2.0 label.

This post is going to ramble all over the place, and if you’re looking for SEO instruction, wait for the newsletter. I did come up with some positive ways that we can use social networks and other "Web 2.0" stuff for marketing and SEO. That will be published next Friday.

For now, my research uncovered a lot more trash than treasure, and I have to vent a little first.

There was an Internet before the web…

In the beginning, there was Usenet, and it was good. Today, everyone calls it "Google Groups," and people think Google invented it. They didn’t invent it, but at least they saved a whole lot of it from vanishing.

Usenet was an amazing thing. All discussion, all in one place, for the entire Internet. One big global community. Part moderated, part unmoderated. But the ‘net got too big, AOL invaded Usenet, and we had to run somewhere else. So we had email discussion lists, and when the web got big enough to support it, discussion forums.

Email discussion lists are still alive and well. So are forums. But compared to the "worldwide community" of Usenet, they split us apart. Conversations at Cre8, WMW, IHY, HR, SEW, WPW took all kinds of directions. Forums became tools for personal agendas. Barry Schwartz created the SERoundtable blog as an attempt to bring the forums back together. We’ll never know if this could have worked, because it was overtaken by a bigger wave.

Bloggers started blogging like mad, and the conversations got even more spread out and harder to follow… but at least we knew whose personal agenda the blog served.

The blogosphere needed glue, and social networking was (re)invented…

"Social network" is another one of those weird terms that means too much, and therefore means very little without context. When I look at Digg, I see Slashdot. Was Slashdot the beginning of Web 2.0 (the beta?), is Digg really Web 1.0, or am I missing something? (probably the latter…)

Now that I’ve decided that Web 2.0 and Social Networking mean nothing, I still need to come up with something to talk about. So I’m going to broadly classify Web 2.0 into a few categories:

  1. Actual social networking sites, like Facebook, LinkedIn, Orkut, and MySpace. Individual users have their own profile, everyone makes friends with everyone, and there are "groups" that look a lot like discussion forums. However, because we can explicitly tag someone as a friend, as opposed to having actual friends that we actually know, it’s Web 2.0.
  2. Social bookmarking sites, like Delicious (sorry I’m not in the mood to remember where the dots go), Digg, and Sphinn. Everybody can tag stuff. Everybody can push links into the system. Users "vote" or don’t. Links that get added at the right time get seen by more people and get more votes.
  3. Socially created content, like Wikipedia. I like Wikipedia, so to me, Wikipedia is Web 2.0. If you ask me what Web 3.0 should be, it would be a version of the web where everyone can edit every website. That would be way cool, but difficult to build, so we may have to push the release date back a little.
  4. The blogs themselves, which seem to separate the cool Web 2.0 kids from the Web 1.0 dorks. You know, the dorks who are just busy running a web site and a business. Much of Web 2.0 is only relevant inside the blogosphere, which is not the web.
  5. Personal "publishing" platforms, like Blogger, Squidoo and Twitter. Now you can make "social" noise on the web without figuring out how to install WordPress. Maybe this is Web 1.5. Which would mean that Geocities "sites" were Web 0.5.

What do all of these have in common? There’s one thing I can think of. They’re all really cool and useful (with the possible exception of Twitter), and they’re all forced to deal with spam. Nofollow wasn’t invented in a vacuum. It was invented to help Web 2.0 deal with Spam 2.0.

Wikipedia, Nofollow, & The Tragedy of the Commons

PJ O’Rourke defined the "tragedy of the commons" perfectly, by giving one example: public restrooms. I’m going to go with a slightly different example.

Imagine that you live in a village. The villagers need water. It’s a long walk to the river. So some of the village leaders get together and decide to dig a well. They create a public fountain, and everyone can get water from it. It’s a wonderful thing, until the village drunk starts pissing in the fountain.

Now replace the fountain with Wikipedia, and the village drunk with SEOs… and you have a perfect picture of why Wikipedia had to nofollow outbound links. I knew prominent SEOs who actually bragged about how easy it was to spam Wikipedia, by having their employees create accounts, do enough minor edits (fix spelling, add citations) to become trusted editors, and then pepper the community encyclopedia with links to their clients. Nice.

Not a week passes without another invitation to join a "Digg Ring," requests to vote up a worthless article on Netscape, and even sillier stuff. Hey Dan, we’re all going to go piss in the public fountain, you wanna come?

Unfortunately, far too many people think that if they can just add a little more noise to the channel, they can gain a competitive advantage. It’s a shame that so many people can’t find truly creative ways to market their web sites. It’s a shame that there are so many who don’t want to add value to the web, or can’t figure out how… and it’s a shame that search engines can’t find better ways to filter the noise out. It’s a shame that so much of this spam actually works.

Web 2.0 needs work. I still think that social websites can become more spam-resistant, as Wikipedia has, by making some users more equal than others. I don’t know how you can do this without turning Digg or Wikipedia into another DMOZ, but I have to believe that it can be done. A lot of social sites let users "vote" on each others’ contributions, but as far as I can tell, none of them makes productive use of this feedback.

Anyway, if you want to learn how to spam Web 2.0, I’m not the one to teach you. Just because you can do it, that doesn’t mean you should. There are better ways.

We’ll talk more soon. In the meantime, if you must spam, do it on Twitter. That thing is a waste of electrons.

29 thoughts on “Web 2.0 & SEO: Must We Piss In Every Public Fountain?

  1. Just to clarify the usage of the term, Tim-Berners Lee has said concerning web 2.0,

    Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.”

  2. Dan, I would say great post.

    I attended 30 Day Challenge which you also I think somewhere mentioned in your newsletter. It strongly rely on social book marking each other’s websites.

    Which i think as per you is wrong if you are just doing it for sake of making your friend’s website get more traffic.

    What you think is right? Do you think we should not do this ? Or do you think if our content is of general interest then we can still do it? I think its hard to define.

    But I think as GOOGLE has done in past, a day will come when all LINK love you have got from these social bookmarking sites, will become ZERO and your site will go DOWN DOWN DOWN in rankings.

    Do you also think so?

  3. Maninder, most social bookmarking sites pretty much exist for that purpose, no? Making friends, linking together, etc. For better or worse, that’s what they are. What you do on your Facebook profile isn’t really anyone else’s problem.

    At its best, social marketing can have a profound and positive impact on the web… but I think there’s a lot more to be gained in awareness, branding, partnerships, presence, and traffic than direct link juice.

    Many of the “Spam 2.0″ schemes I’ve seen rely on false assumptions about how PageRank works, and do nothing but add noise because they aren’t getting any link juice from it anyway.

  4. Although I agree with you that misusing sites like Wikipedia sucks I have to ask: Who is we? Certainly not me. If I get asked to vote an an article that does not suit me, I do not vote on it. Do not fall into the trap of self destruction by calling yurself names that others reserved for you.
    I follow the positive path and brag about how I can get many visitors without even white hat conventional SEO. Just by being a good soial media user.

  5. Maninder, many social bookmarking sites do have the ability to pass PageRank. But for a page to pass PR, it must have some incoming links and it must be indexed.

    Simply throwing up a profile doesn’t normally accomplish that, even if the Google toolbar shows a PR score for the profile page. The toolbar PR scores for internal pages are based on the score for the home page of the domain, and it can show a PR score even for a page that isn’t indexed at all.

    @Tad, “we” is the larger SEO community. I don’t spam Wikipedia either. I’m sure you’ve already “discovered” that the proper use of social media can generate traffic, awareness, presence, and plenty of links even if you aren’t doing it for SEO.

  6. Dan, Say you post a story on Digg, which links to your website. I think that will count as Link to your page. Isn’t it? Sorry if I am asking too much basic stuff. Just want to know as much as possible.

  7. Yes, that’s a link. Whether or not the story page gets indexed (which would make the link count) depends on whether the story page gets found and has enough links pointing to it.

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  9. Nice post Dan, this vaguely reminded me of Bill Hicks -

    “Not a week passes without another invitation to join a “Digg Ring,” requests to vote up a worthless article on Netscape, and even sillier stuff. Hey Dan, we’re all going to go piss in the public fountain, you wanna come?”

    There appears to be a lot of tit for tat favours in the industry, doing each other favours – linking to each others articles/posts etc. and in most cases it’s legitimate/relevant but sometimes it’s a thin line. In a sense this ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ shares similarities with politics and showbiz (etc.) – somewhat cynical businesses (arguably). I guess Bill Hicks had a few things to say about marketing/advertising as well, he’d probably have said something like – ‘if you’ve got a conscience and you’re smart enough to realise what you’re doing – you shouldn’t spam’.

    As a marketer (or anyone with a platform or audience) should have a sense of responsibility toward the medium they work in, otherwise as you say – it wrecks it for everyone (and potentially undermines your own work). Afterall if you piss in the public fountain of the internet it’s not going to help its popularity or make it a nice place for people to use.

    Rant over! actually no, I’ve got more..

    I might get a low PR link from this post – and I considered not doing so, given the nature of this post. (It does seem some posts are done just for the link or exposure rather than really adding anything worthwhile). But I hope you and your readers will agree that the substance and sentiment of my post makes it an honest contribution, and perhaps that maybe a good representation of the fine line of what is or isn’t spamming? Discuss (for 10 marks) ;)

  10. Dan, Say you post a story on Digg, which links to your website. I think that will count as Link to your page. Isn’t it? Sorry if I am asking too much basic stuff. Just want to know as much as possible.

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  13. thanks for the rant Dan. As someone that hated social sites, to my surprise i have actually come to be addicted to a few and found that i have connected to friends and family that were lost over the years.

    everything has its use – and there are always two kinds of people – users and abusers.

    Kudo’s on the twitter slam – worthless. although i did enjoy my holiday following Danny S. thru his holiday :)

    Twitter is actually dangerous when you are an honest person –>
    #1 Enter what you are doing…
    #2 Client finds it and takes it out of context
    #3 Client claims trust has been broken due to post on Twitter – seen on dummmyvison about interacting with ‘the enemy’.

    You GOT my vote 7 days a week Dan! Keep the good stuff coming!!

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  16. I never thought I would hear a statement with such eloquence, that included the word “piss”

    Bravo on a beautiful sentiment.

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  18. Wonderful post! I got a bit confused when you started to speak about "what Web 3.0 should be" because editing each others web sites could cause a chaos. Surely difficult to build because then who can tell who the moderator is? Would there be a thought that I can tell about: "Its mine" or rather just: "Its ours". Some sites would improve some not and much more would fall. If there is no definite controll it would became a war off masses or simply just a white noise which was called internet.

  19. hikaye: I think you are missing the overall point.. sure the link counts, but the real question is, “is the story you are posting on digg worth anything to any of the users?” If the answer is no, then it’s spam.. plain and simple.

    The problem is – and why we see so much of it, is that in general Google loves these sites and pushes power towards and out of them. If Google devalued everything from these sites, then they would never get spammed, because there would be no gain.

    But because Google loves them, you need to use them.. if you not you are trailing behind. It kind of makes you wonder how long you can piss in the cup before it overflows.

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