SEO Q and A: Can the good guys ever win?

Ian Lurie

As part of my internet marketing Q&A last week, Deborah asked:
How do you compete with sites who are doing “unethical” things to rank higher than you. The answer is not report them to Google, because we’ve done that several times to no avail over the years. Can the good guys ever really “win?”
That depends on who you ask, but I look at it this way:

  1. There’s no ethical code around SEO tactics, aside from the business code that’s always existed: Don’t steal, don’t plagiarize, don’t lie, etc..
  2. What it really comes down to is risk management. If a site owner purchases thousands of links to obtain a high ranking, then she risks the consequences when Google, Bing or Yahoo! decide that those links are worthless.
  3. The search engines are terrible – awful at consistent application of their rules and filters around ‘bad’ tactics. So the risk is even harder to quantify. But, the search engines aren’t obligated to be fair, just or otherwise helpful. The truth is, they can do whatever they want. Their rankings are as accurate as they are only because Google, et al know they can make more money on ads if they have better rankings.
  4. Unfortunately, someone has to win or lose for a particular search phrase. This is a zero-sum game.
  5. Typically, though, when I see a site that’s spammed its way to the top, that site is very weak for ‘long tail’ terms, or is poorly set up for conversion optimization, or has other problems. It’s rare to see someone who’s got it all together.

So, Deborah, my answer is threefold:

  1. There are no good or bad guys in this. We’re still in a 100% amoral society when it comes to SEO, very similar to Deadwood.
  2. You can win, but, depending on your industry and competition, it may require a great deal of expertise. If it does, and you don’t have it, you’re going to get yourself into more trouble than it’s worth. Get a hired gun if you really want to go after someone who grabbed a top spot through shady SEO tactics. I guarantee you that that #1 site did, too.
  3. However, you don’t even have to show up for the fight. Find other keywords – longer phrases and niche terms that no one else is exploiting. Perfect your site so that you convert twice as many visitors to customers as the other guy. or find a whole new angle on your product that takes everyone by surprise. Companies have always had to do this. If they didn’t, you and I would be hip-deep in competitors.

I hope this helps. Believe me, I know how frustrating it is to struggle in the rankings. And I know my answer isn’t perfect. But, if you approach it from the perspective that you’re trying to find a niche, as opposed to going head-to-head with everyone else, it’ll get a lot easier.

Related, or not

Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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  1. hi Ian,
    Fantastic post. I think it comes down to this. Too many people think google is supposed to be “fair”, but what is fair? I agree with you… it’s more like Deadwood, and in the end it is mainly “risk management”. That said, I tend to keep my risk level low, which is probably why I’m usually on page two but optimistic that someday I’ll be on page one! Mike

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