2009 Top SEO Smackdowns: Sullivan v Powazek

Counting down the top SEO smackdown of 2009 …

#1: Danny Sullivan v Derek Powazek: SEO = Spammers, Evildoers and Opportunists?

The provocation:

Derek Powazek

Derek Powazek

“Search Engine Optimization is not a legitimate form of marketing. It should not be undertaken by people with brains or souls. If someone charges you for SEO, you have been conned.

… The problem with SEO is that the good advice is obvious, the rest doesn’t work, and it’s poisoning the web.

… SEO cockroaches employ botnets, third-world labor, and zombie computers to blanket the web with link spam.

… SEO bastards are behind worms that attack blog services

… every link is a score for the SEO jerkwads and their disreputable clients.

… Worse than the hackers are the competent journalists and site creators that are making legitimate content online, but get seduced by the SEO dark side …”

— Derek Powazek, Spammers, Evildoers, and Opportunists

It gets worse in his comments section, from which he blocked most comments that disagreed with him:

“… I didn’t call SEO people “fucktards” because that wouldn’t be fair to actual retarded people.

… There is no such thing as honest SEO …”

The response:

There were many excellent replies. Danny Sullivan’s calm and powerful replies proved again why he’s earned so much respect:

Danny Sullivan

Danny Sullivan

“… my response come from my own 14 years of covering search engines. Of having answered feedback from hundreds of people. Of having talked with hundreds of people personally. Of understanding that the “you just build it; you just put it out there” approach to search engines, sadly, doesn’t always cut it.

… the stuff that you think isn’t rocket science — that anyone knows — is indeed a mystery to others. They want help, and sometimes they can’t find that web developer who also understands SEO issues. In the same way, you sometimes don’t find web developers who are also designers. Or designers who understand conversion issues. Or conversion experts who understand web development.

… There are bad SEOs out there, who give the entire industry a bad name — just as there are bad bloggers, bad designers, bad cops, you name it. There are also excellent SEOs who work inside of companies as well as through agencies for hire. Don’t tarnish an entire industry that actually helps many, many people in ways I’m sure you would agree with.”

— Danny Sullivan, An Open Letter to Derek Powazek on the Value of SEO

Danny proceeds to tell stories of people who care deeply about their websites but that really needed good SEO advice to reach their customers. He ended his post with links to the excellent posts he wrote replying to other rants on the same issue over the years.

Derek came back the next day with a nasty FAQ blasting SEOs. Danny came back with a stronger response.

“SEO is a profession. Companies from MTV to the New York Times to the Wall St. Journal to Yahoo, to name only a few, employ full-time people who are responsible for SEO (and they aren’t scumbags, either). These companies have some of the best content in the world. And yet, they can still have major issues in how their sites are built or written or constructed that prevent them from doing well in Google or other search engines.

These SEOs, by the way, struggle with web developers who “think” they know SEO but don’t. Web developers who think that despite what an SEO tells them, a 302 redirect is the way to go. And thus the International Herald Tribune loses thousands of links because who wants to trust the scummy in-house SEO, right? I’ve got story after story of web developers and designers who think they know SEO but don’t, who cause major problems for web sites, and yet NO ONE ever writes a blog post blasting them.”

— Danny Sullivan, SEO FAQ That’s Not from the Land of Unicorns

Derek came back a third time, a week later, with an apology so fake it made Lisa Barone’s apologies to Robert Scoble seem sincere. (It actually did. I reread Lisa’s apology and thought she really was trying to de-escalate, she just couldn’t resist the extra jab. But I digress). Derek said that the reaction to his posts were “the least fun thing ever” for him. But his “apology” is centered on the theme “the only reason to get defensive is if it’s true.” So what does his defensiveness against the people that called him an evil ignorant jerk prove?

Danny came back one more time with a post summarizing his years defending the SEO industry’s reputation. Every year, it’s somebody else, coming from the point of view that the natural order of the world is for readers and high quality and relevant content to naturally find each other, and that this would all work perfectly were it not for those evil SEOs. Here’s Danny’s final paragraph:

“I’m often asked why I don’t give up. The reason is that people do listen. You can have conversations and attitudes can change. Make more good SEO visible, and maybe the spam won’t be the main thing that seems to speak for the industry.”

I applaud Danny’s efforts. I have little doubt that we’ll be right back here in 2010 with SEO being scapegoated for all spam, incompetence, and other imperfections in of the web. And maybe next year’s argument will be more civil and more productive.

On a personal note, I started this smackdown series by letting my darkside loose and playing on our bloodlust for verbal venom. Then I realized I was bringing back all the anger that surrounded these smackdowns. I went back and edited the whole series, playing down the ugliness, and focusing more on the core issues they discussed. I appreciate Danny’s leadership on this smackdown. Danny’s immediate tweets captured his initial anger, but he toned it down and wrote posts that were calm, intelligent, and on point. I hope I can follow his lead. I’m wishing myself and all of us a 2010 where we can summon the better angels of our nature in fun, compelling, and meaningful ways.

Have a great year — and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The full countdown:

#5: Barone v Godin: Brandjacking?

#4: Arrington v Demand Media: End of Hand Crafted Content?

#3: Rand v Whalen: Is ‘Focus on Users, Not Engines’ Terrible Advice?

#2: Barone v Scoble: Is 2010 the Year SEO Becomes Less Important?

#1: Sullivan v Powazek: Is SEO Evil?

Powazek image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/gorriti/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Sullivan image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannysullivan/ / CC BY 2.0