The Inbound Marketer’s Dilemma

dinosaurs to scale

I don’t want  SEO to be turnkey or scalable

Anybody who has worked in this space for more then a hot minute has probably thought about how they can scale their SEO efforts in order to take on more clients and make more money. I definitely have. I was part of the problem. I helped ruin the reputation of search engine optimization professionals everywhere. However, I have now seen the light. A light that we all know to be true:



I don’t want to get to a page because the site owner had a guest posting budget to be able to create some decent links for some niche keywords. If I am conducting an informational search, I want the best information possible. If I am conducting a transactional search I want the best transaction possible. What does that mean? It means I want a site with a high degree of credibility, a great reputation, and a passion for their niche. But the link graph ruined all that. It made it easy for people like us to help anybody with the budget do better in searches. We helped ruin the internet.

I am a masochist. I love Panda & Penguin, EMD & PMD; they are the penance for our sins. They turned down the noise on the crappy thin content and link buying schemes of the past. Glory be to thy Cutts! Search results were starting to suck -  remember this guy? Do they disproportionately turn down the volume on small companies while rewarding big brands? Of course. Can small companies/brands still succeed? Absolutely. The same comparative strengths are there; it’s easy to move fast,  fail fast, and succeed big when you aren’t a huge national or multinational brand. That is the competitive advantage you have in this new search landscape. It’s the same one we should have been using all along, but I digress. If you’re sick and need a doctor do you want the best doctor you can afford or do you want the doctor with the highest link building and content marketing budget? How about if you need a lawyer? A plumber? A clown for your kids birthday?

sell out clown is a sell out

No one told me TextLinkAds were bad!

White Hat as a Framework

This post stems from a lot of angst I have from seeing calls to better automate and scale SEO/inbound marketing that are juxtaposed against calls striving for inbound marketers to do more, and be better. This stuff shouldn’t be a turnkey process that can accommodate a revolving door of clients. When process trumps all, there is no ability for true creativity to function. I will take it one step further: we shouldn’t help bad businesses succeed at the expense of a good businesses.  But that is just me. We should channel our inner Seth Godin and use our marketing powers for the good of the world! This is the flip side to customer development, that not only are we responsible for developing and growing our customers but we are responsible for what happens as a result of that growth. Lofty ideals, right? Look, I get it; ethical frameworks aren’t that easy to tie into a business model, and we all have to make a living. I’m not trying to call out everyone who has ever compromised to make a buck. I’m just trying to emphasize that we should all create our own ethical framework and stick by it.

I was browsing hacker news yesterday and I read Alex Stamos’s presentation deck from DefCon that snapped it all into place for me:

What does the value of the internet mean to you? A free internet doesn’t just mean free from invasive surveillance a la PRISM or a neutral pipeline for the internet or ending the digital divide. Of course, those are all part of it, but it also means the freedom to make your own choices as to what content you consume and where you make your web transactions, without having to wade through tons of crap to get there. As digital marketers we have an awesome opportunity. We can help amazing, passionate people succeed in life and prosper doing so or we can spin up link farms, make an affiliate play and vanish into the night. We can dedicate ourselves helping to build communities, or destroy them. We can strive to create killer content or create things that are just good enough. We can, and should be, striving to be the best all the time.  It’s not even important to me that you have the same ethical framework or make decisions the same way I do. What’s important to me is that you have an ethical framework and make decisions that are true to it and to yourself. Lots of people are already there. This exchange on Twitter really perked me up when I saw it:

ORM means ethical dilemas

Even if Rhea ended up taking on those clients despite the ethical dilemmas, she was clearly torn about it an willing to talk about it both publicly and to her team. These are the types of discussions we as digital marketers should be having. Unfortunately, most aren’t and that makes me sad. Like I said, I get it. Everyone has to eat and keep a roof over their heads. But even if you don’t have the financial ability to say no to a client right now, are you striving to get there? This is what it means to be a white hat. It’s not just tactics or strategy, it’s the framework that informs your entire work process. Look at this statement by Nifty Marketing for their new Legal Marketing practice:

Nifty Law Legal Marketing Doesn't Want Jerk ClientsIn short, the answer is no, they don’t want to help you or your company grow and I don’t either. Life is too short and the world is full of too many amazing people to waste the precious little time you have on the jerks. If you are one of these amazing people, who is passionate about both your company and your customers lets work together on your inbound marketing. If not, there are plenty of people out there looking for clients who can help you, I’m just not one of them.

  • ronellsmith


    I feel your pain, sir. I feel similarly regarding content marketing. Everyone is doing it; few are doing it well. And because so many companies are in the we-need-more-content mode, there are not enough of us policing the content that’s being delivered, even if it’s our own.

    I’ve become so disgusted with how so many of us think we can do content marketing without first doing content strategy. We can…just not effectively.


    • danleibson

      Thanks Ronell,

      I have been feeling that not enough people ask themselves why, in the Simon Sinek sense of the word,and just do. While I have been working on this piece for a while, the discussion on today about white hat vs. black hat tactics really pushed me to finish this and get it online. We need frameworks that govern our efforts that go above and beyond rankings, visits and conversions. Those are all means to an end and we can get them accomplished through all sorts of tactics. But what is the end?

  • Joel K

    Food for thought – love the quote from Nifty!

  • Spook SEO

    Hey Dan great post. Sadly, there are A LOT of posers claiming to be inbound marketers on the web and its hurting the reputation of the real ones. Ultimately, it all boils down to integrity. If they’ve just heard about the phrase content marketer just a week or so, they wouldn’t dare claim to be content marketers (let alone expert content marketers) if they have integrity.

    • danleibson

      Thanks sir or ma’am! :-) I 100% agree with you, and it’s that kind of thing that helped give SEO such a terrible reputation. I really hope the same doesn’t happen to inbound marketing.

      • Spook SEO

        Not being a pessimist but I’m sure that it will happen to inbound marketing. I guess its part of the online marketers job to deal with something like this regardless if if you’re in SMM, SEM, etc…

  • Mike Ramsey

    Thanks for mentioning us Dan! You would be suprised how many awesome people out their look for companies that are willing to take a stand. Over the past couple years since we rebranded to “We Make Local Sexy” we have had a ton of people say that they are contacting us because they want to do things right, stand out, and be different from the norm. If you want to attract good clients, be honest and hold the line.

    • danleibson

      Thanks Mike, I hope to see first hand all the awesome people out there looking for inbound marketers that will take a stand :-) I really appreciate you sharing your experiences and being a great inspiration for others who feel the same way!

  • Pingback: We Are All Inbound Marketers | Seth Godin's Inbound 13 Keynote