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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Splogging isn't nice...

Mark Cuban, who apparently invented the term "splog," addressed the subject of these "zombie" sites again at Blog Maverick last month. Cuban, who runs Icerocket (a good blog search engine that doesn't break down or lose people like Technorati seems to) and makes a lot of news as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise, doesn't like splogs any more than I do.

He sees these scraping, stealing, nonsense sites for what they are--garbage. He also worries that the sheer number of splogs produced every day in the frenzy for backlinks and Adsense clicks poses a risk to the overall usability of the blogosphere. He's going to far as to raise the spectre of banning any blogger.com blog's from Icerocket because the Google-provided service is the tool of choice for splog-builders.

I dislike splogs for the same reasons Cuban notes, and I have a special extra dose of hatred for their tendencies toward wanton copyright infringement.

So, you can imagine the look of doubt on my face when I encountered a post at Graywolf's SEO Blog arguing that "Splogs are a Good Thing."

The entry argues that splogs allow smaller players to use Adwords campaigns on the Google network. Content network prices run less than those reserved for paid links alongside actual search engine results and provide a low-cost means of driving traffic and advertising, according to Graywolf. He continues:

"As long as Google has done thier job targeting the ads properly on the page, and it’s relevant to widgets, Widgets Inc. is going to be happy. Wait a minute, Widgets Inc aren’t the only one’s who are happy, Google is happy because they made money off of Widgets Inc, and the splog owner is happy because he made money from Google, in fact almost everybody is happy. Who’s not happy … who’s the one group of people who got left out of the equation … BLOGGERS."

He then alleges that those who oppose splogs are motivated by SERP envy or are just disgruntled by nature. Thus, he closes with,

"So I’ll say it again SPLOGS ARE A GOOD THING!"

Not very compelling, Graywolf. Here's why...

First, you left out the one group who really is irritated more than a subset of the blogging community...Users. Remember them? The people who are actually looking for valuable information and would prefer not to wade through a ton of crap to find it? They don't care for splogs.

This is one of the most foolishly overlooked aspects of the SEO game, in my estimation. The desire to exploit Google's algorithm flaws to draw traffic is a perfect example of short-term thinking. There are countless potential users out there--potential sources of real profit for businesses--who simply won't do business online because they have tried and have had their efforts thwarted by crap like splogs.

I have a former employer who can hunt and peck his way around a keyboard, but who refuses to believe that the internet is worth his time when making purchases. He likes to opine that "as long as it takes me less time to pull out the Yellow Pages, find a florist, call them, order flowers and pay for them, I don't see the attraction of using the internet."

That may seem crazy to those of us who make a living online. In the time it will take me to write this sentence, I could probably send Graywolf a nice bouquet of roses or a cactus. That's because I know where to look, how to look, and how to separate crap from quality almost instinctively. Average and new users do not have that skillset and they end up abandoning the web in a hurry because they have to confront so much noise when they are just looking for a simple signal.

The neglect of the end user may allow you to drive a higher percentage of currently available traffic, but it reduces the growth of the total traffic pool. You don't have to be a math wiz to figure out whether you'd like a large percentage of a smaller number or a lower percentage of a much smaller number, do you?

Yeah, I know, reducing splogs by a handful won't change the world. So, we end up in a situation where thousands of people are willing to abandon principle because others are doing so. Friends are jumping off bridges and people are following them one after the other. Sad.

Second, there is another group that doesn't care for the splogs. Users are undoubtedly the most important, but writers don't care for it, either. That especially goes for writers specializing in online content.

Splogs have a nasty tendency toward plagiarism. Plagiarism is Public Enemy #1 for writers. It drives down the value of our work in a variety of way and may, occasionally represent a direct trade off in terms of employment opportunities. There's also that tendency we have to actually appreciate the idea of intellectual property rights.

Graywolf has an interesting analysis of splogs with respect to advertising costs, etc. However, I wonder why anyone would think that a small business' quest for low-cost traffic somehow trumps user desires for quality material and the greater interest in having a web filled with quality, accessible information.

It's true that the best way to put an end to splogs would be for Google, et. al., to improve their search formulae to screen out the garbage. In some weird way, these zombie splogs might actually force the search engine's collective hand to improve SERPs and to provide a better user experience. That does not justify producing splogs, however, any more than one is justified in committing a series of crimes in order to convince the police department to hire more detectives. And no, I am not claiming splogging is criminal (although some content misappropriation common to splogging efforts may be, at times).

Although I'm a writer and not an SEO guru, I read Graywolf's stuff semi-regularly and enjoy seeing what the grey-to-black hats are up to. I don't always agree with their justifications or actions, but I do give that part of the online business world credit for their creativity and constant testing and pushing of the system. So, I hope this post doesn't make me sound like a white Stetson-wearing cowboy or the next incarnation of Kimberly Williams.

But this time, the analysis of splogs is just plain wrong. They are not, on-balance, a good thing.

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