Sometimes I really get it wrong; my apology to SEO industry

I’m not always right (I doubt anyone can in the world of tech if they are trying to predict the future) but here’s an example of when I got something really wrong (this was an example from my writing back in 2007). I thought more human-oriented approaches, like Mahalo, would get better results than algorithmic approaches, like Google. Why? I showed an example where SEO techniques had put stuff into Google searches that just wasn’t very good and compared that to where Mahalo had done a better job.

Anyway, it’s 2011 now and it’s clear that the Google way of doing things is still better for most people. It’s instructive to go back and see where I went wrong.

1. I didn’t listen to my own user behavior. Truth is, since 2007 I’ve rarely been to Mahalo. I rarely find that that site is authoritative on, well, anything. Compare it to Quora, for instance, and I find Quora more interesting in almost every case. I should have listened to my own behavior more.

2. I was trying to kiss someone’s behind and let that bias my conclusions. Why? I had visited Mahalo, gotten a tour of it with Jason Calacanis, who is an entrepreneurs who, back then, had a lot of power because he was a partner with Techcrunch and because he had successfully kicked off WeblogsInc, which included Engadget and sold to AOL. I assumed what he told me about where the industry was going was correct. As most journalists learn, I should have fact checked his statements. In college we learned “if your mother says she loves you you should check it out.” I didn’t, and now am facing the damage that happens when you say something that later turns out to be wrong.

3. I bet against momentum and user behavior. Truth is, even if Mahalo DID beat Google, it just wasn’t going to beat Wikipedia or Google itself. Why not? Mahalo couldn’t compete with the data Google had to study. Google knows a LOT more about our reading behavior than Mahalo does and can readjust its rankings accordingly (since 2007, for instance, Google brought out Instant Search which is far more useful for me than anything Mahalo has done. Why was that possible? Google has the user data, Mahalo doesn’t). Another more modern example of this is while I like Chewsy’s featureset, it is totally failing against Foodspotting because Foodspotting has more users. Same as I pointed out in my most recent post. Foursquare is beating Gowalla mostly because it has more users.

4. I went for cheap SEO tricks. Truth is, if you bash the SEO world they will all link to you, argue with you, etc. (Bloggers even have a name for this: “link bait”). Folks who do SEO as a profession love fighting about that stuff and it almost always works. But, does it really help you get the traffic you want? The reputation you want? No way. Putting up great content, like when I interviewed Mike McCue and told the world about Flipboard is a far more effective way to get good Google Juice. Taking shortcuts just tarnishes your reputation.

Anyway, just wanted to say I’m sorry to the SEO industry.

I’ll try to get it more right next time.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

74 thoughts on “Sometimes I really get it wrong; my apology to SEO industry

  1. One of the challenges facing any new industry is creating demand and awareness of the industry in consumer education. For many website owners have a general idea of ​​what search engine is and how it works.

  2. I dig this type of post, good stuff Robert. It was a long term lessoned learned. 

    What’s even better (for me) are those micro posts that you think totally understand but then a commenter enlightens you to a different way of looking at things and it breaks your earlier understanding. That’s the magic stuff of the web 

    If it wasn’t for continuous spammers I’d leave my comments open indefinitely just for that reason.

  3. “if your mother says she loves you you should check it out.”…hilarious!  Still, admitting a mistake is an admirable quality, and, in the grand scheme of things you were mistaken about something that was a 50/50 proposition.  
    Nice post

  4. The fact that you can admit that you were wrong, and explain in a very useful way why, impresses me so much that I am going to follow your blog carefully.

  5. *golf clap* Glad you mentioned linkbait because I was going to. I don’t think any of us were looking for an apology when we’re all busy getting paid being successful doing the ‘dark arts of seo black hattery’ at hogwarts and things and stuff. Carry on.

  6. Better late than never I suppose. SEO isn’t without its own flaws, but I’m happy that at least one more leading light in the tech industry isn’t putting out another ‘SEO is dead’ post.

  7. This will be some amazing link bait. The SEO community will gloat and link to this as well ;) But it is nice to see someone admit when they make a mistake.

  8. Don’t think an apology is necessary!  You made a prediction, turned out
    not to be right – it’s your prerogative to make judgements, statements
    and predictions… 

  9. Thanks for the post. I think there is every reason to bash SEOs -
    the industry is still full of cowboys – and I say that as an SEO. There
    are lots of different types of SEOs and SEO tactics, though, and I hope
    the better approach wins out – which will underline this post even
    more. 

    I actually think both posts are right. Human moderation is
    important; we’re seeing it impact the algorithms via social quality
    signals (such as +1s).
     

  10. To me this sounds more like some sort of weird indirect attack on Jason than an apology to SEOs.  I don’t think even he would say anymore that Mahalo was successful in providing better search results – from what I understand, that’s why he moved the company on to focus mainly on video.

    And do you even need to apologize?  It wasn’t that long ago, before the Panda update, that Google  results were still atrocious with all of the Demand Medias and Mahalos of the world messing up the search results. 

    Also, if the original thesis was that the social graph was going to be more important than search, yeah that wasn’t exactly right, but it wasn’t entirely wrong either.  Google just launched Plus of course, and we’re seeing that Twitter and Facebook are major drivers of discovery on the web.  That’s not search by definition, but they are now significant sources of traffic for any content site out there.  

    And that Panda update? It was largely based on signals from real people, not algorithms.  That sounds suspiciously like at least what a lot of companies were trying to do, only outside of Google…

    When I do a google search and see Robert Scoble’s face next to the result with a “+1,” (you’re the only one that seems to mark stuff as +1 that for some reason), I am now a lot more likely to click that link.  So social hasn’t “replaced” search, but it has made search a lot better, and is also providing additive value that we didn’t have before.  So I don’t think this was wrong at all.

  11. Not sure why everyone is so down on Jason.  You have to hand it to him, you can’t keep him down.   I think you have to consider pivots in life… One thing I have learned from watching Jason is that there are pivots a company takes and they are legitimate…. I think the Mighty Panda Paw of the big G has shown who are the weak and who offers little value… and so Jason Pivots.  Hey he may be some kind of difficult big mouth in life, hey I dont like Mick Jagger either, but his music – great…I will tell you his weekly shows on start-ups is a master class for us all.  Do I like every Picasso I have seen, hardly.   But he keeps painting… I have to say Robert, he seems to have more going on than you… Hey lets meet at Disney?  Was that paid?  Seemed like an ad to me.  At least Jason has the courtesy to tell us when he is running an ad Eh,a, eh, eh eh!

  12. the fact you never forget you’re falible is what makes you so entertaining (as opposed to, say, watch Jason who’s just a train wreck – entertaining, but in a very different way)

    Mahalo and Experts Exchange and places like them suffer because they require you to change your behaviour to use them. They are not especially natural forms of interaction. I think that’s why StackOverflow and their family will outlast Quora as well… I find myself back at SO but Quora seems too much of the blog echo chamber happening all over and very rarely seems to advance the knowledge on a subject (their insistence of “real” names puts me off as well… another artificial limit to the discourse to make their moderators feel empowered)

  13. You get +5 points from me for humility, especially when you’re in a position where you don’t really have to be humble. We all go off on our rants some days. I spent 30 minutes bashing HP on Twitter just today after my printer crapped out, and I know some perfectly lovely people who work for HP ;)

  14. Robert, no one can be right every time. It takes a lot to admit you were wrong, and a lot more to admit you were also trying to kiss the ass of a tech celebrity at the time.. kiss ass.. we all do it, we all buy into the hype when we’re with the owner of the product. Every founder has his own reality distortion field. I’m glad you caught onto it, and great work on everything else you do. 

    This level of honesty is what separates you from the other wannabes. They know who they are. 

  15. Robert – I will say that if you get 1/5 wrong and the other 4 are even somewhat right/interesting, it’s more than worth it. You’ve turned tons of people on to great technology and software and that’s more than many of the rest of us have done in this industry.

    Thanks for the post and for the continued efforts to uncover the new.

  16. There are a few valid reasons to bash SEO. The main one being people who sell poor quality services by knowing how to tell people what they want to hear then delivering what sounds like something but is really nothing, and often just manufactured with automated software. Then there are honest but ignorant SEO people who use lazy and outdated methods that get poor results. Both of these people make me an apologist for a fascinating industry that can make or break many websites and companies. Taking a website that was built without SEO in mind and creating a good campaign and getting results or seeing a client become #1 for 18 top industry terms is a blast even if it can be a lot of work. I guess with any industry there is the good, the bad, and the ugly so all are open to some criticism but it is also important to try to be fair and objective.  

  17. There are a few valid reasons to bash SEO. The main one being people who sell poor quality services by knowing how to tell people what they want to hear then delivering what sounds like something but is really nothing, and often just manufactured with automated software. Then there are honest but ignorant SEO people who use lazy and outdated methods that get poor results. Both of these people make me an apologist for a fascinating industry that can make or break many websites and companies. Taking a website that was built without SEO in mind and creating a good campaign and getting results or seeing a client become #1 for 18 top industry terms is a blast even if it can be a lot of work. I guess with any industry there is the good, the bad, and the ugly so all are open to some criticism but it is also important to try to be fair and objective.  

  18. Robert,

    No one get’s it right all the time but where you get Kudos is from being introspective enough to occasionally look back and recognize “where” or “why” a mistake in logic goes wrong. 
    Mistakes are forgivable, not learning from them is the crime. 

    That said there is one mistake I’ve learned from my own business dealings and it applies to anything, not just tech (in my case, tech, real estate and management consulting).

    That lesson is that you should NEVER underestimate human psychology. It’s damn difficult to predict but rather than worrying about getting it right, we should just make sure we’re taking it into consideration and giving it the effort of thought it deserves. It’s easy to crunch numbers, research news and trends, look at spreadsheets, whatever and never really ask how the human beings at the other end are going to behave. 
    To that point, your assumption that human factors would have a bigger influence was pretty logical, the flaw (apparently) was in looking at your own behavior and those of other people on the net. 
    It’s an interesting lesson that probably bears a lot more conversation, here and in business.

  19. That’s you getting it wrong?? In 2007 you talk about “social graph search and why it’s going to upend the search system in about four years time”. Here we are four years later, and courtesy of Google+ social graph search is indeed about to upend the search system. You also got it right about why the system was flawed back then and in need of upending, though you pulled your punches somewhat. The top Google results were all top because they said “Hey, HDTV lover – you want HDTV? We got HDTV. We got HDTV like you won’t believe. Nobody knows HDTV like us …” or something like that. Meanwhile the HDTV manufacturers were just quietly putting out facts for the benefit of their customers and potential customers, which wasn’t good enough fort Google’s algorithms. The truth, which you realised and stated clearly, is that computers weren’t as smart a humans and still aren’t.

    The only minor mistake you apparently made was in thinking that Mahalo somehow embodies the missing human touch. It doesn’t. I haven’t used it before so I just gave it a try now, picking “Keith Emerson” out of the air as a subject to search for. The top article was on “Emerson, Lake and Palmer”, which was good, but it was the ONLY relevant article. Other articles were on “ralph waldo emerson thanksgiving poem”, “Andrew Emerson”, “Jo Ann Emerson”, “Keith Aulie”, and so on. The other Emersons might be associated in some meaningful way with a Keith, and the other Keiths with an Emerson, but I doubt it. The whole thing seems to me (admittedly from a small sample) to be far more mechanistic and lacking in human oversight than even Google has been.

    But come on, you got everything else right. How is that anything short of incredible?

  20. I get things kinds of things wrong all the time. Regarding Mahalo, I certainly had a different take than you around the same time. Also from 2007: 

    “Why Mahalo is Fundamentally Flawed” http://dembot.com/post/19305296/why-mahalo-is-fundamentally-flawed

  21. You had me laughing out loud at the comment about your mom loving you. Hilarious!

    I was initially a fan of Mahalo and like Scobleizer, I thought it would be revolutionary.  Reality check. It’s 2011, i don’t know anyone that uses it.  Within a few years it’ll be dead.  I’m starting to wonder whether Calacanis will ever have another hit product again. He just seems so full of himself.. does anyone else feel that way too?

    I’m a foodspotting fan and recently got turned onto Chewsy because of Scoble’s video interview with them a few weeks ago. I actually like their product better even though it’s just starting off. Who cares about how many peopel there are on foodspotting? I barely look at other people’s photos anyways, and foodspotting doesn’t actually have reviews — just take a photo of food that looks good?!  Chewsy seems to have much more legs to it.. I love their social media integration. From reading their blog, they seem to be cranking out updates and the founders seem to just “get” the space.  I’ll be interested to see if more users start using the app.  

    Great work on this post Scoble, love the humility.

  22. Thanks for the post. I think there is every reason to bash SEOs – the industry is still full of cowboys – and I say that as an SEO. There are lots of different types of SEOs and SEO tactics, though, and I hope the better approach wins out – which will underline this post even more. 

    I actually think both posts are right. Human moderation is important; we’re seeing it impact the algorithms via social quality signals (such as +1s).

      1. Funny you should say that – there’s certainly a trend to talk about sites like HuffPo and Mashable as sites that combine some of the qualities of SEO and journalism. SEO is often mentioned as the key to their success… but it’s not the sort of black hat SEO of shame that involves dodgy links, etc. 

    1. Calacanis is ruining the internet from all angles. @Scobleizer:disqus didn’t you hear/see what he did to Leo Laporte and his Twit network? calacanis is scum

  23. Funnily enough Neil Patel has moved on from the SEO space since the days of his arguing with you and Jason

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