Is Writing For The Long Tail Spam?

Content Jun 17, 2006

What is spam and what is not? I don’t want to enter a Bill Clinton semantics game of “it depends what your definition of is, is”. That’s why enforcing contracts and agreements so often come down to enforcing “the spirit” of the agreement. Whether new blog posts and website content qualify as search engine spam definitely relies on the spirit of the thing.

So, if you’re writing for the long tail of search with the express intent of attracting visitors, and thereby getting and keeping customers, are you spamming the search engines?

It depends on what your definition of is, is. And that’s why this post in particular is such an important one. You must think about the spirit of the thing. If you know that by writing about a topic, you will be attracting prospective customers of the most qualified kind, is it wrong to write? How fair is it to have competitive intelligence of this sort? If you find the answers to tomorrow’s test laying open on your teacher’s desk, is it unethical to peek? Of course it is. Do the same rules apply to writing blog posts? As with law, the answer is not black and white, but rather continuous shades of grey. And yes, writing for the long tail of search with competitive inside knowledge that no one else has lands a little further towards black on that spectrum than some might feel comfortable with. But is it wrong? Let’s explore.

The first rule of war-style strategy is to make strategic assessments. And one of the most important strategic assessments is to know the lay of the land. And once you know the lay of the land, the most important assessments in whether to engage the enemy in battle is whether it’s going to be an easy win. The highest achievement is winning a critical battle before anyone even knew one was occurring. That way, you avoid bloodshed and achieve your objective without drawing the wrath, or even the attention of your enemy. Many introductions to Sun Tzu’s classic Art of War draw the analogy to a doctor who treats an illness before the symptoms become life threatening, or even visible to the untrained eye. And one of the most important parts of knowing the lay of the land is to hire local trackers who know the local terrain better than your own scouts. This is how Sam Walton won with Walmart: choosing a battle no one knew was being fought (in Nowhereville, USA), and scouting locations with little 4-searter planes.

And this is why HitTailing is ethical. We are your local trackers. The competitive intelligence is coming from nowhere other than your own site. It is nothing you couldn’t get from looking for the telltale clues in your own log files. But by using us, we save you time and give you the advantage of our ability to spot those telltale signs. We know the peaks and the valleys, and the difficult-to-discern telltale signs. And we know how to guide you through this varied terrain to your destination better than your own scouts ever could. We know where the small, but important roads converge into the best locations for future Walmarts. The only thing unethical about this is that Sears didn’t think of it first.

And the wisdom to hire local trackers isn’t unethical. The decision to use information garnered from local trackers is not only fair in business and war, it’s downright smart. This was a major shortcoming of the United States during the second Gulf War. We had plenty of satellite imagery (the equivalent of analytics), but very little agents on the ground understanding the culture and finer details of where the elusive moving targets (people) actually were at any given moment. The intelligence data that came back to choose targets wasn’t always good enough to respond in real-time.

These same high-strategy concepts must be applied to taking tactical actions on the Web. But analytics are more like the satellite imagery. HitTailing is like the local tracker. And the recommendations from HitTail are like your tracker telling you your target has passed this way 10 minutes ago, and your best route to intercept them is at the narrow pass in the ravine up ahead. You would be foolish not to listen.

It is with this sort of competitive knowledge in mind that you should choose your next topic for blogging. And it must be in an area that you have something worthwhile to say to your readership. Because if not, you are demonstrating a lack of respect for your readership. And a lack of respect is the first bad sign in what Peter Drucker identifies as the mission of all companies: to get and keep customers. So, show respect. Just because you know you will encounter them in the ravine up ahead, don’t dig tiger pits. Instead, be a friendly, unarmed party of travelers who happened to also be journeying in the same direction. And strike up a conversation with them. Tell them your story. Legitimately engage them, even though your intention is to persuade. Because in the end, this is business and not war.

Spam is hostile. Writing for the long tail of search is finesse. While the goal is the same, the spirit of the thing is different. Even if you’re selling, try to entertain and make it worth the visit. Today’s audience is increasingly media-savvy, and they more and more often know manipulation when they see it. And if they DO see it, make it acceptable by being non-deceptive. Always be respectful of peoples’ time. If you have to, be the friendly thief (refer to Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion and influence–the subject for another post). You can hawk wares, and still be liked and trusted. It’s a much nicer approach than “write anything”-style search engine spamming, and more aligned with the mission of getting and keeping customers.

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