Should You Report Competitors’ PBN’s to Google? Poll Results

All is fair in love and war

“All is fair in love and war.”

Is it?

That’s definitely debatable.  I think not.

It’s a famous old saying and is dated back to a poem called Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit” by John Lyly, published in 1579.

In fact, we have rules of war globally that have been ratified by all 196 states. That’s amazing 196 countries/states actually agree on something.  Of course, those rules are broken here and there, but they do exist.

What about love? 

Yes, there are rules.  There are limits.  That’s all I’ll say on that.

How does this apply to blogging and the like?

It applies to a certain situation many people find themselves in with SEO.

Arguably, SEO is war.  It’s very much a zero-sum game.  The winner takes most of the traffic.  The top 3 listings take almost all the traffic.  There isn’t much of a reward for listings beyond 3rd place.

Does that mean you should do whatever it takes to get the top spot?

I don’t believe it warrants any behavior.  For example, I dislike the concept of negative SEO (where competitors blast spam links to competing websites in the hopes Google will penalize those sites and lower their rankings).

I think most people agree with me that negative SEO is an unsavory and unethical practice.  It’s sabotage.

2 aspects to winning with SEO:

  1. Focus on your sites; and/or
  2. Focus on competing sites (i.e. sabotage and reporting gray hat SEO).

Focus on your sites

When it comes to doing SEO on your sites, the gloves can come off.  I have no ethical qualms with PBNs, buying links, etc.  While it’s against Google TOS, it’s merely a business risk/reward decision.

Going after competing sites

When it comes to going after other sites to improve your SEO, that’s a different matter.  3 common practices include:

  1. Black hat – hacking sites: I’m against this.  It’s sabotage and illegal.  Most people agree with me that hacking sites for gain or any reason is unacceptable.
  2. Negative SEO:  While not illegal, it’s akin to sabotage in an indirect manner.  I believe most people don’t support negative SEO. It may well be Google has safeguards against negative SEO now, so it may be moot.
  3. Reporting gray hat behavior to Google hoping Google penalizes the site:  This is the interesting debate.  It’s not illegal.  It’s within Google’s TOS.  You stand to gain by doing nothing else.

Example:  Suppose a competing site bumps me from the top spot using a private blog network.  Should I report that site for using PBN?

On the surface reporting gray and black hat SEO to Google seems like a legitimate way to improve your rankings.  However, it just doesn’t seem right, at least for me.  I’ve never done it despite being punted from top spots by sites using gray hat SEO.

What’s my problem with reporting gray hat SEO to Google?

First, one should be absolutely certain it’s gray hat.  This is not easy to determine.  I’m not expert regarding PBNs, so I’m not confident of my abilities to spot such scenarios.

Many PBNs are well done and hard to spot.  Moreover, there are many spammy looking sites out there that aren’t a PBN.  My sites have spammy links pointing to them without my being involved.  I’d be pretty choked if someone reported those as PBN links and Google agreed when in fact they aren’t.

There’s simply too much room for error that could result in a serious injustice.

But isn’t all fair in love, war and SEO?

No.  Just because I could stand to gain something, doesn’t mean I should do it.

Second, there’s a distasteful aspect to ratting out a competitor for doing something that is merely against Google’s TOS.  I just don’t like it.

But, what about…

Okay, that’s all well and good for your own sites Jon, but what about those of us doing SEO for clients?  Shouldn’t we do all we can for clients paying us to get them more business?

This is a great twist to the issue.  I’m a lawyer (now non-practicing but still have my ticket).  Once upon a time I represented clients.  A lawyer’s job is to zealously advocate for and protect clients within the bounds of the law.

Could the same be said of an SEO doing work for clients?

Do SEO’s doing work for clients have an ethical obligation to do all they can to improve their clients’ rankings within the bounds of the law? 

My answer is yes and no.

It boils down to what you view your role as SEO in relation to your client is and how you present your services to clients.

If you view and present being an SEO that focuses on optimizing client websites for SEO for long term gain and nothing else, I don’t think you have an obligation to report gray hat competition.

However, if you view and hold yourself out as someone with a mission to get your clients ranked at the top of Google doing whatever it takes within the law, then you probably should report gray hat competitors.

Put yourself in your clients’ shoes.  Here’s a hypotheticial

Suppose you own a moving company that’s sitting in spot 4 on page 1 of Google. Your site doesn’t budge for months.

You hire an SEO company and pay them thousands of dollars to get you to spot 1, but they fail to do so.

You fire that SEO company and hire another one.  Your new SEO company discovers that spots 1 to 3 are won by competing moving companies using gray hat SEO such as PBNs.  Your new SEO company reports the gray hat activity to Google and your moving company website slides into the top spot.

You’d probably be a bit choked about the failure of the first SEO company you hired, wouldn’t you?  You would also be delighted by the work your new SEO company did as well.

As owner of that moving company, would you be conflicted by the fact your SEO company ratted out your competitors for engaging in SEO practices that go against Google’s TOS?

Chances are you would NOT care one bit.  All you would care about is that it was done legally and that you’re hauling huge moving fees to the bank every week.

At the end of the day, in my view, standards are different between ranking your own sites and ranking client sites.  However, it also depends on how you represent your services to clients.

What about negative SEO? Should SEO’s do negative SEO for clients?

No.  It seems to me engaging in spam falls far outside the obligations or job description of an SEO of any sort, unless contracted to do so.  If you hold yourself out as a negative SEO firm who attempts to spam competitors into oblivion, then that’s what you do.

Surely there must be better ways to make a living… although it’s ironic that such services exist making bank off of the very software that wreaked havoc on SEO in April 2012 (the first roll out of Penguin).

Are there SEO ethical guidelines?  What about an SEO Code of Conduct?

I’ve not found anything formalized, but Bruce Clay penned a code of conduct here.  You may not agree with all of it, but he’s definitely given these matters considerable thought.  Otherwise, there is not an industry code of conduct and no governing body other than the law (i.e. no hacking).  SEO is still the wild, wild west.

In fact, an SEO Code of Conduct is a little ridiculous in some ways because the industry is entirely centered around a corporation.  How could a governing body enforce or act when really SEO is dictated entirely by Google.  And that is one reason why the industry is so darn interesting… a whole lotta characters trying to make bank.

Take Our Poll and see what other people think

I have a poll asking about whether it’s okay to report gray hatters to Google.  The results are very surprising.

Take the poll below.  You’ll see results after you take it.



What do you think? Leave a comment!

  • Julian J says:

    Interesting read as always, Jon. The FBA marketplace, btw, makes Google serps look like a bastion of ethical behavior. Phony reviews (both negative and positive) are off the charts. Amazon made matters far worse when they banned “incentivized” reviews. All it did was create a cottage industry, and now the cooked reviews are “verified” and indistinguishable from genuine reviews.

    Isn’t it always thus? Penguin simply introduced “anchor diversity” into the SEO lexicon, and made unnatural links more difficult to spot. I’m afraid that, so long as resources are finite and people are people – which is to say roughly forever- unethical behavior will be a part of the human experience.

    That being said, for ever evil super genius who builds an impenetrable PBN sans footprint, there must be 1000 that a passably bright 7-year-old with a free Seo Spyglass account could ferret out and recognize in 10 minutes with a free SEO Spyglass account could ferret out in 10 minutes. The fact that they survive makes me wonder how diligently Google pursues reports.

    • Jon says:

      Hey Julian,

      Great comment. Thanks. I’m not into FBA, but I’m sure it’s ugly. Glad you liked the post. I enjoyed writing it. It’s not often we have the luxury to delve into the more philosophical side of things in this business.

  • Valaria Barbieri says:

    This is really interesting! You can never know what is the best strategy that will work in SEO industry. I tried so hard just to be on top but search engine updates is always the hindrance for you to fully succeed haha! Even though there are many ways to improve your sites, I still love the PBN strategy. I chose ProperPBN to help me out with my sites, as their services are amazing! No footprints and in fact, it works!

  • Art says:

    If you look at page 1 serps for the term “buy viagara” you can almost bet that every site on that page is using grey/black hat SEO including PBN’s to rank for a very competitive keyword like that. For one, these sites are pretty damn good looking and they have really good content. They have also done a very good job hiding the PBN. Yet Google serves up these sites on page 1, PBN’s and all.

    I think Google has bigger things to do then worry about who is using a PBN.

    On the other hand, if you’re going around telling everyone about your PBN, then, you’re just asking Google to take it down. Making Google look stupid isn’t a good play. If you’re using a PBN shutup about it and hide the footprints to it.

    As for ratting out a competitions PBN, no way. I wouldn’t do it. Just build your PBN better and outrank them. Your PBN sites should be built with the same care as your money site. That means awesome content for a start.

    Just my opinion.

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