On Day 3 of my new gig as an SEO copywriter I heard that Google had acquired major search engine optimization firm, Performics Search Marketing, as a part of its 2007 acquisition of Double Click. (Did I mention I was a 'newbie' at SEO copywriting?) That the dominant search engine would operate one of the leading SEO firms suddenly felt like "déja vu all over again," to quote the great sage, and erstwhile Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra. (Berra was either enlightened, thereby living up to his moniker, or a man who was very, very confused by things. In the end, is there much difference?)
When I practiced law on Bay Street (Canada's equivalent to Wall Street, or 'the City' in London), I witnessed the demise of Arthur Andersen, one of the so-called 'Big Four' accounting firms. Famously, or infamously, the accountants at Andersen whom Enron had hired to audit their books signed off on a number of then 'novel and innovated', but now 'discredited and illicit', accounting practices involving offshore trading accounts. The problem was that Arthur Andersen derived greater profits from its investment work with Enron than it did from the audit side. In helping Enron to issue securities and procure equity financing, the better that Enron did on its books, the more securities and equity financing Enron could access, and the better Andersen did as Enron's investment adviser.
Andersen played two roles at Enron and had a fundamental conflict of interest between them. The better Enron's books, the more profit there was to be made by Andersen working on Enron's investment side. So Andersen, as Enron's auditor, willingly or blindly signed off on Enron's sketchy offshore trading accounts. The accounts turned out to be nothing more than an elaborate financial shell-game. Essentially, Andersen helped or enabled Enron's executives to cook their books. The resultant fallout saw the demise not only of Enron, but also of Arthur Andersen itself. (At the time of its demise, Arthur Andersen was one of the world's oldest and most respected multinational accounting firms. The repercussion from the fall of an accounting giant was felt from Wall St. to Bay St. to Main St.)
So it was with great relief that on Day 4 of what is rapidly becoming 'SEO Grade School', my new boss told me that Google had, in fact, announced its intention to sell Performics. Sensibly, Google's management recognized not only their company's inherent conflict of interest, but also the growing concern in most sectors of the online marketing community about that conflict. Even to my rookie eyes, having a major search engine with an ability to drive online traffic to marketers who are clients of its own optimization company looks bad.
As a lawyer, I was familiar with what are known as "Chinese Walls". That's where a group of lawyers dealing with one client who has a conflicting interest with another of the firm's clients is identified and precluded from having any contact with the lawyers involved with the other, conflicted client. Those lawyers are said to be "conflicted out". Not infrequently an entire business law firm - and these are big firms - can be Chinese walled from a small group of its own lawyers that are conflicted out. (And, really, once you get to know them, what lawyers don't already seem to be deeply conflicted?)
Chinese walls do, however, work well in a legal setting. But you have to remember (a) that lawyers are highly regulated by outside professional bodies and regulatory agencies, and (b) they are professionals who are well-educated and trained to spot and avoid such ethical conflicts. (I know.... I know.... to some of you the idea of legal ethics may seem as much an oxymoron as the concept of jumbo shrimp, military intelligence or the cordless screwdriver - after all, aren't all screwdrivers cordless in the first place? But, in this instance legal ethics usually prevail and conflicts of interest are routinely avoided. This is only meant to demonstrate that Chinese walls can and do work in some settings. Legal ethics nearly always prevail when dealing with inherent conflicts of interest within a law firm. In my view, however, neither the search engine operators, the major SEO companies, nor their tech sector employees are sufficiently regulated or necessarily sufficiently trained, to ensure that voluntary compliance with such quarantine measures would be effective. Nor, need they be!
For a day, as I contemplated both this article and my new future as an SEO copywriter, things looked dim. If search engine rankings could be driven, even partially, by which parent search engine a customer's optimization firm is affiliated with, the results would be disastrous for all parties involved - particularly for the end user who relies on the net's global, national and local search capabilities to gain the best information or best deal that is available in the market place. Market's are, in theory, supposed to be free.
To the business that relies on online marketing, the entanglement between a search engine and a search engine-controlled SEO company, could leave an advertiser vulnerable to a pay-for-display shakedown scheme like the 'payola' scandals that rocked the radio and music world in the 1950s. Optimization companies, particularly local SEO companies for small business or mid-size business clients, would then be heavily handicapped by the preeminence Google, Yahoo and MSN enjoy in the search engine market.
Lastly, the possibility of such patent conflicts of interest could compromise search engine companies themselves, particularly the Big Three. Where consumers once voted with their feet, they now vote with their mice (mouses? meese?). Since the internet is nothing if not democratic, practices that could skew the market would inevitably lead users to utilize new providers or technologies that did not frustrate their attempts to gain access to the best and most relevant information with the least hassle. This is why the Big Three penalize 'black hat' SEO practices. They should not leave themselves vulnerable to even the optics of being perceived as capable of engaging in such practices themselves. The optics alone are bad for their business and the entire industry.
By announcing its intention to sell Performics, Google has clearly signaled that it is against its own interest to leave open even the possibility that it could be seen as having the capability of engaging in its own form of 'black hat' practices - even were Performics' employees and business operations to be strictly and effectively quarantined from Google's. Let's hope that, at least in this instance, Microsoft follows Google's suit by divesting Avenue A/Razorfish's SEO business which they acquired when they bought aQuantive.
See more information on SEO Copywriting for Newbies, or visit Wolf21 at fhttp://www.smallbusinessmarketingwolf.com for more information on optimizing your small or mid-size businesses' local search capabilities in either North America or the U.K.
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