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View Poll Results: Should Automated Comment & Link Posting Be Deemed Uncool?
Yes -- In fact, I'd say unethical! 31 57.41%
Yes -- Uncool, but unethical is too strong a word for me 12 22.22%
Maybe -- I'd like to sit on the fence and see what others think first 0 0%
Maybe -- I just don't know enough to say 1 1.85%
No -- It's not my fault software leaves such doors open 1 1.85%
No -- I just flat out dislike any declarations of standards. All's fair in love and marketing 7 12.96%
Yes -- assuming the search engines closed loopholes so I wasn't at a competitive disadvantage 2 3.70%
Voters: 54. You may not vote on this poll

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Old 09-19-2005   #1
dannysullivan
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Can We Agree Automated Comment & Link Posting Is A Bad Thing?

Calls for the search marketing community to embrace some type of marketing standards or best practices guidelines for "ethical" behavior usually go down in flames, since it's so easy to argue that any type of change to a page could be an attempt to manipulate a search engine.

With that acknowledgment, I wanted to stick my big fat neck out to see if perhaps we can get an agreement on one type of marketing activity, that of posting links or comments to web pages through an automated fashion. If we can't say it's unethical, could we all agree at least that it's "uncool" and perhaps pledge its something we don't do?

Let's review some of the ways automation is used to influence search rankings or as a way to generate online traffic period:
  • You might generate a referrer link off the logs of sites that are stupid enough to leave their states in the open or the few who deliberately expose referrer data as a feature.
  • You might gain a link off a guest book that's been left open.
  • You might gain a link or comment via a public forum.
  • You might gain links via trackbacks on blogs.
  • You might gain links via comments on blogs.

In short, even before we've had blogs, we've had people using automation to gain links. There's no doubt the blogging community in particular feels the pain. Screams from bloggers lead directly to the nofollow attribute. But as many expected, that's had no real impact on slowing down blog spam. An automated tool doesn't care if you have nofollow on or not. If it's just a few milliseconds to hit you along with a million other sites, what the heck? It can and will do so.

Here's a case in point. The SEW Blog used to carry trackbacks. I dropped them several months ago because the spam was so bad. Sure, I could manage things to some degree with MovableType plug-ins. But it wasn't worth my time.

Despite the fact I said nofollow was in use, I got the trackbacks. That didn't surprise me. It just confirmed what I'd expected -- that nofollow wasn't going to be helpful. And today, with me having NO trackbacks on the site, I still get something like 60-100 spam trackbacks a week. Though the trackbacks aren't visible, some code is still lurking out there that I haven't found letting people still ping our blogging software. So these idiotic trackback spamming tools do.

I'm not overly optimistic that some industry push to declare automated link/comment insertion tools to be "uncool" or dare I say "unethical" will necessarily work. I think the same idiots running them now may continue to do so. But then again, I try not to be so cynical all the time. Perhaps if enough people are saying, "Dude, it's not on to do that any more," some of this may go away.

Could it happen? Could we agree? I've talked with a few people privately of various hat colors that seemed to think it might be a good idea. Hence me wanting to put it out there for discussion. Some other things to ponder:
  • Dealing with Arsewipe Trackback Spammers is Nick over at Threadwatch frustrated last July with this type of attack on his servers. If Nick, who fair to say generally will not see the world in pure black-and-white when it comes to SEO is finding those doing this to be "idiots," just who exactly is going to step up to defend such software and tactics?
  • Blog Spammers is our own DaveN who wears a black hat on occasion frustrated with blog spammers. "I guess the last thing that the Blog Spammers would like to see is a poacher turn game keeper…your choice," he writes. Well, if he's annoyed, again, who wants to defend this?
  • A number of site owners dislike Google's auto-link system putting its own links in an automated fashion on pages. I don't. But if I think Google shouldn't automatically insert links in situations when they arguably can be relevant, then why would I find room to forgive the automated link and comment spam that so often off topic.

Smart comment and trackback spammers create "white lists" of sites they'll never touch. Blog spam someone like Google's Matt Cutts, and that's got to be the kiss of death when he fires up a few tools and wipes you off the Google map. Others will be smart and hit only abandoned blogs -- there's a few million out there, and if they're going to leave these tools wide-open, then why not make use of them.

In either case, I think such restrictions aren't enough. Just don't do it. Don't comment and trackback spam. If you need one more reason why not, consider Mike Grehan's Google PageRank Lunacy article from last year. It discusses how he set up a memorial page for a friend who was killed in a motorcycle accident. By the end of the week, the guest book was getting hit with link spam, upsetting his friend's widow.
Quote:
Programming a spam bot to relentlessly seek out guest books and comment areas to dump links back to your own pages is a "brute force" method that will produce little search engine gains, in my view. But even if you don't believe me and my writings about effective link building, are you really prepared to commit yourself to the virtual desecration of someone's memorial site and bring pain to their loved ones to sell a ring tone? If so, then why not head out to your nearest cemetery with a can of spray paint and plaster your URL's on the tombstones. Your actions in the virtual world of the web are the same.
So that's it -- various points on why I'd like to see some consensus that inserting links and comments through automation is not on, uncool, unethical, whatever. What do you think? Are there situations I'm missing where it is defendable, aside from the "everyone else is doing it" one?

What about manual comment and link spamming. Yeah, I thought about perhaps expanding the call to action. But sticking on the automated side is more clear cut. Am I spamming you if you discuss something and I link back to my site? Was that helping your readers or helping me? I can see that argument easily devolving down the usual paths. But on the automated side of things -- you haven't even read my content!

FYI, a number of search engines and blogging vendors are meeting once again this week to discuss the issue of blog spam. For the vendors, here's a thought. Stop making software that lets anyone post anything anonymously or without some type of barrier against automation. You've left the door wide open for abuse, so you shouldn't be surprised the abuse has happened. Meanwhile, from the marketer's side, perhaps a consensus on this tactic will have an actual impact.

OK, discussion's open!

Last edited by dannysullivan : 09-19-2005 at 12:37 PM. Reason: fixed links and bullet points
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Old 09-19-2005   #2
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I've added a poll so people can vote. I've also tried to give some degrees of yes, maybe or no to it.
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Old 09-19-2005   #3
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No -- I just flat out dislike any declarations of standards. All's fair in love and marketing

OK, I'm fairly white hat (I get black hat urges, but my colleagues keep me sedated), but going to have to go with the negative on this. As much as I don't like spam myself, there are 2 undeniable truths here:

> This has been going on in one shape or form for years.
> People taking a stand isn't going to stop it - it's just going to clear some of the market for others to play in.

Ethics / Cool? I don't agree about assigning ethics to these areas of business - it's just not on par with slave labour or criminaly poor working conditions. It's an annoyance at best - like telemarketing and junk mail - it just has a slightly different means to an end.

That leaves coolness, and to be prefectly frank, there isn't exactly an abundance of coolness within the SEO industry as it is, and certainly not enough to use it as a deterant against some blog spammers.

Perhaps though, there could be some kind of technical solution to blog spam? Peer pressure ain't gonna work, but perhaps removing the usefulness of the spam would?

Surely it isn't outwith the technical ability of the SEO / blog / SE communities to compile data on spammers (URLs) and discount them from SERPs? Make the process pointless (or carry threat of ban) and people will stop it.

Yes, auto-link spam is a bad thing - it's stupidly untargeted - it is occaisionally really God awful for the spammer (3 examples Danny mentioned) - it's a major annoyance for bloggers - it screws with SE's algos. But until it becomes dangerous (illegal, risk of being penalised, fined, etc), those who are doing it aren't going to stop.

Point and case - they have a solid business motivation for doing it and only a solid business motivation to stop will make them do so, and coolness and (in this case) ethics aren't solid enough (IMO).

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Old 09-19-2005   #4
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There are definitely technical solutions, and the tools are getting smarter. Still, there will remain plenty of dumb scripts for guest books and the like out there with doors wide open.

I'm also, as said, not assuming a stand will stop it. But perhaps there's another aspect I should touch on. My Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO article talked recently about the continuing bad rep SEO gets. One of the major recent drivers of this has been via blog spam. For a lot of people, the only connection they have with SEO is that they've run a blog and they get comment and trackback spam. That makes them thing that this is all SEO is.

While a stand might not stop it, it might help if you have a lot of search marketers saying it's not something they do. You can't hold an entire industry responsible for everything. It's like saying one blogger wrote something incorrect, so all the bloggers must be incorrect on everything. But impressions do get formed, and a stand might help change some of those impressions.
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Old 09-19-2005   #5
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Question <blogspam bad rel="nofollow">

While I don't participate in, or necessarily agree with the automated techniques, I'll voice my displeasure about them about time G admits that purchasing links is a legitimate technique and nofollow was a setup to stop the game they started. Not a big fan of spam, but even less of a fan of (that other) PR spin.

I think bh's have gained support (or at least apathy) for so long because SEO's have to maintain the same level of ambiguity with their "standards" that SE's do with their "guidelines" for our industry. I think that part of the resistance for most of us to condemn the "uncool" techniques in SEO stems from having most ALL our techniques condemned by the SE's.

I'd rather delete my blogspam than take the chance of having my own techniques tied to the stake for the next SEO witch hunt.

I think SEO's just prefer to stay "selectively unvoiced" on the topic of automated techniques, the same way the SE's do on topics like click fraud. Let's just procrastinate on the problem as long as possible

Just my .02.

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Old 09-19-2005   #6
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I voted uncool, more because I think it has become tactic with ever decreasing returns and is well.... kinda lame as a method of promoting a site. What I do think is bad and bordering on unethical however is search engines having such holes and software providers allowing their clients to be distressed at having to deal with the flaws in their software.

However you view it one thing is certain, if it works people will use it, its starts a sort of escalation that just drags more and more people in.

I'd like to see a public apology from the engines and one from the software providers too, thats the least they could do.
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Old 09-19-2005   #7
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This is a really great thread - as someone who's used MovableType I can appreciate the problems you're having (for a start, rename or delete your trackback and comments files - mt-comments.cgi and mt-tb.cgi respectively - and record the changes in your mt.cfg file as required.).

I wouldn't be against stating my intense dislike of automated spamming methods, but the problems as I see them is that rather than separating the "Good" from the "Bad", you would simply end up differentiating between competitive and most competitive markets being served.

Additionally, when I've tried to track down automated spamming methods, I find a large number originating in Russia - and I really don't see any standard working to stop people to whom simply working in volume for peanuts makes for a successful business model.

Another problem is that Google has been consistently upping the bar on what level of SEO works, in order to preserve it's index from manipulation. While the argument as to whether any degree of manipulation is good or bad, the danger is that as the bar riases, so will people feel pressured to need to use darker methods.

I have to admit, I wouldn't have even dared touch any dark stuff until the sandbox came along 16 months ago - and though my experience then was very temporary, I've just started experimenting again with some dark tools, just to see whether there may be a future a low risk application in my own business model.

Automated trackback and comment spamming doesn't form a part of my commericial interest at present, and I should hope it never does - but the more restrictive the search market becomes, the more tempting it will be to use dark tools simply to survive.

At the end of the day, even though I find the whole automated spamming business somewhat abhorrent, its prevalence is something I regard as a statement on the darker underground of humanity itself and its consumer markets.

Just as arms dealers may be in an even more abhorrent business, they are simply feeding a market that exists regardless of individual ethics. So long as people demand porn, pills, and gambling online, so will someone feed their market supply, and help connect consumer and supplier.

Two rambling cents.
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Old 09-19-2005   #8
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I think that part of the resistance for most of us to condemn the "uncool" techniques in SEO stems from having most ALL our techniques condemned by the SE's.
Would you be more comfortable divorcing this off from being an SEO technique or search engines?

What I mean is, I'd say most debate over a particular SEO technique revolves around whether it harms the search engine, its relevancy or the searcher. In any of these cases, it's easy to poke holes.

Cloaking is bad! Bad, bad, bad! Oh, unless you are an approved publisher and we can't get your password protected content, then cloaking isn't so bad. Or if you haven't gotten approval, so what if I cloaked a reasonable, non-misleading description of what my Flash-only page is about. If it was relevant to the search, why is that harmful or suddenly a bad technique?

You know what I'm talking about and how it can go -- the black and white of an issue can get more and more gray.

With this, set aside the SEO aspect. I guess I'd like to see it frowned upon/uncool/whatever not because it harms the search engine/harms the user (debatable in both aspects) but because it harms the site owner. It trespasses upon someone else's content and throws in a lot of crud they have to remove or deal with.

Yep, the vendors should be called to task for not having put more prevention in place, on the blogging front. But it's not a blogging only thing. Those guest book scripts -- they aren't from any particular vendors but someone who knows Perl. I suppose perhaps some upset could be pointed toward the hosting providers who distribute such scripts without protection.

But overall, I guess I wonder if views are changed if you delink the tactic from the search engines and vendors?
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Old 09-19-2005   #9
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Additionally, when I've tried to track down automated spamming methods, I find a large number originating in Russia - and I really don't see any standard working to stop people to whom simply working in volume for peanuts makes for a successful business model.
I can't stress enough that I'm not really expecting this will slow things down. But just because there are certain things I know can't be stopped, that doesn't mean I necessarily accept all of it. In this case, I think the main thing likely to come out of its is perhaps some eye opening among those who assume the ENTIRE search marketing industry just loves blog spam that in reality, a good chunk doesn't -- maybe a huge chunk that's willing to go on record and say that.

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Automated trackback and comment spamming doesn't form a part of my commericial interest at present, and I should hope it never does - but the more restrictive the search market becomes, the more tempting it will be to use dark tools simply to survive.
That's a strong point. If you assume that there are big chunks of some industries doing well by exploiting these holes, then it is odd to say you should tie you hands behind your back and not compete. I guess I'm not convinced these holes are necessarily that powerful. Just looking at the people who've been spamming them, hey, they ain't going to rank. They're idiots, honestly.

Still, I'm going to add a new category to the poll so people might be able to vote if they were assured that the search engines themselves would close the loopholes. Of course, I think the only way to do that would be to discount all comment and trackback links, which creates other issues for some.
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Old 09-19-2005   #10
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Interesting discussion. Danny, did you mean "No (instead of yes it would be deemed uncool) -- assuming the search engines closed loopholes so I wasn't at a competitive disadvantage." If so, I wish I could change my poll answer...is that possible?

I feel that it is "uncool," yet the "all's fair in love and marketing" certainly has a true ring to it. The SE link portion of the algos will change based on continued "gaming" of this current loophole, IMO. I am one of great faith in the SE's abilities.
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Old 09-19-2005   #11
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It's pretty hard to respect lazy, unfocused marketers. And the "hey, let's spam grieving relatives because they were more focused on a memorial to a loved one than setting up tight security" crowd make me sick.

I'm also not inclined to accept the "it's a robot and didn't know what kind of site it was submitting to" excuse. It's been a long held legal maxim that if you train a dog to attack people and then it attacks the wrong person (like a child), it's not the dogs fault.

The owner of the pet, trap, computer program or other non-human system is responsible for the results of that system or pet acting as it was trained or programmed to do. Not thinking about the results of your actions (negligence) is different from a malfunction (accident).

Do I think that blog spam should be banned? Dunno.

First, I'd be very careful about what kind of behavior set off the banning. Most of us can recognise blog spam (herein after referred to as BS - which is appropriate on multiple levels) instantly because most of it is pretty blatent. But the reality is that as soon as SE's begin to look for a certain profile, the BS'ers will change their posts to compensate. In the chess game of BS fighting you need to think more than one move ahead.

The most effective method would be to not count heavily BS'd blogs, under the assumption they are abandoned. But there are problems with that: 1) if I own a blog and go on vacation (or a natural or personal disaster happens) I might not update it or remove spam for months. But the blog is still a valid blog. 2) you are really blaming the victims, here.

Going after the BS'ers (ie banning any domain that was spammed into a blog) themselves sounds easier, and would work for most current BS and for a short while after, but then you'd see people BSing their competitors sites soon afterward. So it would only work for a quick, one-shot, housecleaning method, rather than a long term solution.

If I had the answer, I'd mention it, but the point is that almost everyone agrees BS is bad, but no one can agree on a solution right now.

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Old 09-20-2005   #12
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I'd say that Blog Spam is unethical because:

1) It uses people's bandwidth
2) It uses people's disk space

Because blog spam costs innocent people real money it is very uncool.
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Old 09-20-2005   #13
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I don't think it's fair to blame search engines simply for counting links - but I've said it before, I think Six Apart are especially guilty of abrogation of responsibility by not offering the sort of anti-spam tools that webmasters needed, when they needed it.

It's pretty insulting to sell software licences with known spam problems, without trying to address those spam problems in the default install. And when companies such as Six Apart have tried to address problems, it wasn't because of any outward concern for their clients being spammed, but simply to help balance the loads on their servers.

I believe Six Apart have finally closed the major loopholes, but it's clearly a case of closing the gate long after the horse was seen to have bolted.

It's also an issue of publisher repsonsibility to ensure that our own software is used only for the purposes they are designed for - blogs, forums, guestbooks, etc. It's pretty appalling that it is left to some noob like myself to report on anti-spam tools having failed - months after they were first used, and especially on blogs belonging to high profile people such as Seth Godin and Steve Rubel.

Software developers need to empower their users - and users have to take responsibility for their own sites. And if I were a search engine, I would have to push on both issues - and make it well known to companies whose software platforms are known to have serious link spam isues, that if they do not fix these exploits, then as a search engine I will have no choice but to publicly announce that such products will be penalised in some form with regards to ranking purposes.

Otherwise it's ridiculous that search engines are left devaluing links on quality sites because they were paid for, but still valuing link graffiti on low quality sites.

Another 2c.
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Old 09-20-2005   #14
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I find it hard to fathom how automated link building can be compared to arms dealers or people who teach attack dogs which then savage children. They are not even the same sport let alone same league.

Fact is it isn’t illegal, not even close, it is not even a loophole , it is a standard that the engines themselves have created and would like you to operate by. So why should any webmaster adhere to it.

What next, are people going to target direct mail companies that use snail mail and deal with occupational health products which happens to send the info to a house that has had a recent geriatric death?

The problem lies with the software vendors and the engines for allowing it to be exploited.

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JasonD and DaveN offered their services a while back, but they did not invite them
http://www.threadwatch.org/node/1538

No invite though.
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Old 09-20-2005   #15
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The problem lies with the software vendors and the engines for allowing it to be exploited.
Yes, that's a big part of the problem. But c'mon. Just because a freeway or motorway doesn't have speed cameras or police officers along every mile/kilometer, does that mean the governments that run these traffic conduits are promoting and allowing speeding?

I don't care if it's not illegal. It just sucks. It sucks if you are a publisher and get hit with this crud. It sucks if you've put up a memorial web site for your dead husband and some idiot runs software that insert links for viagra into it.

As I've said, I don't expect that this will solve the blog spam problem, not to mention problems that things BEYOND blogs encounter. I also understand that some people will feel like they don't want to give this tactic up, since they're afraid/know others will do it anyway. I know that publishers have to take a lot of responsibility themselves, as do the authoring tool makers and the search engines, both for listing it and helping fund some of it with their ads. Loads and loads of responsibility. But as marketers, is this an area where we can draw a line and say, "This, we don't cross. This is uncool." Can we as an industry, or a big chunk of us perhaps, take some of that responsibility ourselves?

Pick your tactic, there's a reason someone can make a good argument to defend it. For this, the best argument seems to be "I think it works, and I know others will do it."

I don't have an answer on the others may do it. I know people don't want to put themselves as a competitive disadvantage. But still, it seems like this might be one area where we could get some degree of consensus.

Over at Threadwatch, Mikkel said:

Quote:
You inspire script-kiddies to go ahead and make a bot. The fact is, that most computer-savy 15 year olds can make one and the more you talk about them the more will come. Do you think a 15 year old code-freak cares if you, old man, think they are un-cool?
Yes, Mikkel, I think that if enough respected leaders of various hats in this industry stood up and said don't do this, it might help. It's not going to solve it. It definitely won't eliminate it. But those kids coming into the space learn from others. And if they learn it's simply not polite to do this particular thing, maybe that will help a bit.

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Is blog spamming really the worst evil we can find in modern marketing and PR? Should this really be on the top of the agenda of the evils to fight? Sorry, but I think there are more important battles to fight
Yeah, I think it's a pretty bad evil in our space that we could fight. I have never, ever seen so many people of both the white and black hat space think that a particular tactic sucks. If we can't find some agreement on this particular tactic, well heck, we'll never find agreement on anything. And maybe we won't

It's also not blog spam. It's stucking stuff automatically on anything. Keep that memorial site in your minds, everyone. You really should. That's a worse case situation, but it's not something that really that unusual. I have no doubt I could quickly find some Hurricane Katrina blog that was set out there littered with links for viagra and online poker. People have better things to do.

Here's one more thing to consider. Many people dislike nofollow. Well, we got nofollow because of blogger screams. It's not going away, and I suspect it will just get more widely adopted. This particular automated link insertion tactic is still going. As an industry, we can either contribute a bit to the fight against it or we can sit back and see defenses get set up that we might no like for some of their side effects.

I'm really not trying to be naive here, and I think I've spelled out all the caveats and low expectations I have. But despite all that, I just really wonder what many in the industry think aside from the attributing blame part. Is the tactic itself something you think sucks, to the degree you think a stand ought to be taken on it?
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Old 09-20-2005   #16
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does that mean the governments that run these traffic conduits are promoting and allowing speeding?
That’s not the same, speeding is illegal.

I do take your point though, I have seen some pretty awful "link building campaigns", but the reason for them being awful was the content/subject of the anchor text.

Everyone has their own morals and because they don’t match up with some people here, that does not make them any better or worse than the people denouncing them.

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I have no doubt I could quickly find some Hurricane Katrina blog
Yeah, and while I think profiteering from such stuff is distasteful it is not against the law. Same goes for all the bad taste stuff that gets peddled down and around ground zero. Not illegal though.
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Old 09-20-2005   #17
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Danny, I'm with you.

Now, without pointing any fingers whatsoever, which is not what I intend:

There is such a thing as ownership. When someone owns a site, be it a blog or any other type of site, it's theirs. Attempting to insert any kind of comment, via trackbacks, pingbacks or otherwise, that the owner does not want (and let's not pretend that most blog owners actually *want* blogspam regardless of what, if anything, they do to combat it) is an encroachment on the owner's property. Property that does not belong to the blog spammer. Or "automated comment linker" or whatever Danny was calling it.

To then say that blogspamming is okay because it's not as bad as something else is to measure against a false index. There are plenty of things that are not as bad as something else, but that does not render them good. It may sound okay at first hearing, but the logic does not follow through. A justification is just a justification.

Personally, I'd rather not commit deeds that then require I justify them, to myself or anyone else. I think that life, and living well amongst one's fellows, requires a bit of self-restraint. Trouncing upon someone else's property or creation, however much it may benefit me, is really not the best contribution I could make to life.

If my only adjudication of my own actions is whether or not what I'm doing is illegal, then I'm asking for someone else to state and maintain my ethics for me. There are people who, I guess, need that, which is why we've come to need laws. I'd personally rather take what I think is right and wrong, and refine it upwards to suit my own tastes.
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Old 09-20-2005   #18
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Originally Posted by ukgimp
Yeah, and while I think profiteering from such stuff is distasteful it is not against the law. Same goes for all the bad taste stuff that gets peddled down and around ground zero. Not illegal though.
A case can be made that blog spam is illegal. From an article entitled Confronting Blog Spam:

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...activities that impede the ability of a company's servers to function - especially where such conduct is not authorized under any applicable terms of service - may constitute the tort of trespass on personal property. Recursive posting of messages on a Web log through the use of an automated software program may well constitute trespass.
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Old 09-20-2005   #19
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close the doors and it will be come uncool... leave them open it's uncool ... have google not pass pagerank is uncool ... what happened to searchking was uncool ...

The industry is uncool.

DaveN happy been uncool
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Old 09-20-2005   #20
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I'd like to make a point about the whole "it's ok as long as it's not illegal" mentality.

In almost all jurisdictions, it's perfectly LEGAL to sit on the edge of a public fountain, watch someones child walk over, fall in, and drown - all without lifting a finger to help. There is no legal duty to rescue in most places (as I recall, the final episode of Seinfeld revolved around this concept).

That doesn't make it right. Ethics, responsibility, and yes, coolness are all independent from law. Most "war crimes" were legal in the country they were committed in at the time of the commission. It's perfectly legal to harrass and stalk people, but not to water your lawn on sundays in some places.

In Alabama, It is legal to drive the wrong way on a one way street if you have a lantern on the front of your car!

I'm thinking that common sense should take precedence over the minimum behaviour established by law. I find it odd that the very people who most often justify their actions by saying that it's not illegal are often the first people to complain when a law IS passed that they disagree with.

It's one or the other folks. You either have free will and independent morals, or you let elected officials do your thinking for you.

On another note:

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Otherwise it's ridiculous that search engines are left devaluing links on quality sites because they were paid for, but still valuing link graffiti on low quality sites.
Well said!

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