Rand Fishkin & The Troll Defense

A couple of weeks ago, Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz posted a piece entitled, “You’re Not On The List“, designed to educate the public as to “why so many {directories} have little to no value”. This was following their release of a list, available only to SEOMoz Premium Members, of what SEOMoz had tagged as being quality directories. Basically it was designed to convince people that they would benefit from paying to have access to SEOMoz’s list, because the directories not on the list suck so badly.

“This week, Rand talks about directories and why so many of them have little to no value.” -SEOMoz

In his post, Rand decided to focus on the Aviva Directory, and to the best of his ability, show us step by step how even such a popular directory as that could easily be seen to fall under the classification of having “little to no value”. Rand took a fair amount of heat for this from the community at large due to, despite how Rand would like to spin it, him being just plain wrong.

I pointed out in the comments how Rand seemed to have missed some of the more salient points about Aviva, such as the fact that all of the subdirectories I checked ranked fairly well (within the top few-hundred, anyways) for their chosen categories. Without going into all of the details on the methods that Rand used (they can be seen in the post itself, and are discussed at length over at V7N), it should be readily apparent that his methods must have been flawed in some manner. Hell, Aviva even has the coveted “Authority Indented Listings” oft heard about in the forums:

How could you not consider a directory like that quality? Google doesn’t hand out that style of listings with a new toaster when you submit your url… those equate to have the top six listings when searching on their name. Not too shabby by any standards.

Although I pointed out to Rand how he must be wrong (in several places actually), he never did respond to any of what I posted. I defended him at one point, when someone raised the question of whether or not Rand deliberately chose the factors he used to show why Aviva sucked, considering how many other indicators showed the opposite. My response was that it had to have been random, based on how bad he was going to look when he was shown exactly how sloppy his methods and conclusions in the matter were. I gave Rand the benefit of the doubt as far as the honesty of his intentions went.

Was I being stupid in doing so?

This past Friday, Rand did a nice little post on reputation management. This post is shortly followed by quick tag team style sequel from SEOMoz member Jane Copland entitled, “When to Respond to Criticism, and When to Keep Quiet“. While many people may not catch it, Rands starts his bit with spin from the get go. In the paragraph introducing the video we see the line “we caught some heat in the forums (albeit largely from disgruntled directory owners)”, reinforced in the beginning of the video with Rand saying, “some directory owners got pretty upset with us”. This of course leaves the visitor with the impression of “Well, of course, they were biased”. He wraps up the lesson saying that when defending oneself, he endorses responding, engaging, being honest, and apologizing when you have erred. If he’s endorsing honesty, then of course he must be practicing it, and if he says it’s ok to apologize, then it must be that the only reason he hasn’t done so is that he was not, in fact, wrong.

Now, I didn’t stalk Rand over the whole Internet, so obviously I may have missed something, but from what I could tell he pretty much went out of his way to avoid addressing the issues that people brought up, and instead spent his time defending his position that Aviva sucked. He even posted more misinformation to back up his claims on V7N, where he stated that Aviva must actually be under a penalty, because it doesn’t rank in the top 10 for one of it’s articles (it’s actually #1… is it possible Rand doesn’t actually know how to use Google?update). Rand does post again in the thread, but rest assured it is not to make any apologies for being wrong.

Jane’s follow-up post on When Not To Respond To Criticisms of course does nicely justify Rands lack of meaningful replies. In a nutshell, her 4 reasons for not replying are 1) when the criticisms are not based on fact, 2) the poster was anonymous, 3) the poster is a troll, or 4) you’re just too pissed off to reply sensibly. Since we already know from Rand’s video post that we can trust him, obviously the main reasons for Rand not replying to non-anonymous legitimate questions or criticisms must have been #1 or #3. Right? I mean, it doesn’t matter how many cold hard facts someone presents to you, once you’ve called them a troll, you’re right and they’re wrong… period.

For those of you convinced that Rand’s errors in his evaluation of the Aviva directory were honest ones, despite his total lack of coming clean, that Rand is at heart a trustworthy person, let me enlighten you to a little known bit of history. Three years ago, when Rand first started hanging out on the forums, before he created SEOMoz, Rand spent the bulk of his time (according to him) on one client, Avatar Financial Group. He had a reciprocal link directory on their site that he was promoting. This may seem fine and dandy, but he was blatantly ripping of the link partners by purposefully blocking the search engines from seeing the links page via robots.txt. Now, Rand did apologize, here and here… but only after his actions were made public. When initially confronted and questioned about it, Rand lied through his teeth, stating that blocking the pages was “a common safeguard against linking out to bad neighborhoods” (the original post where he made the claim was deleted, but can still be viewed on the Internet Archives). This claim was made to real estate webmasters, not to other seo’s, and obviously he was banking on them just not knowing any better. Do I think that we need to crucify Rand for acts of pure dishonesty from 3 years ago? Of course not, I’m not saying anything of the sort. Do I think it should be kept in mind when reviewing current behavior…?

Yup, you betcha.

One last thought. When slamming the Aviva directory, how is it that Rand never thought to compare his own directory, socengine.com, against it in a side by side comparison? Could it be because he knows that using the same criteria would show that the directory he was slamming was actually better than the one he owned? Or, was that oversight an honest mistake as well?

Update 08/14/2007: Aviva is actually no longer ranking for the phrase I mentioned there, and I apologize for not caching the search as I often do. To be fair I should mention that of course it is possible that there were discrepancies between datacenters when Rand and I performed the same search. However, I would like to point out that if you remove the extra terms, in essence increasing the competitiveness, Aviva is actually in the #1 spot: [brand on the cheap].

Rand Fishkin & The Troll Defense on Sphinn.com.

21 thoughts on “Rand Fishkin & The Troll Defense”

  1. So many points to try to address in this post, but I’ll do my best.

    1) You are totally correct that I wrote a post marketing our list of directories addition to the premium content, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with that. I wasn’t attacking directories to make people sign up for membership – I was doing it because all our testing and link building over the past few years has been showing me that there really is a very, very tiny amount of value in general directory link building.

    Give it a try! Go to a list like StrongestDirectories.com and buy links at all of those low-mid range general directories that market in people’s signatures at Digitalpoint and V7N. Make it for a moderately competitive market like “hvac training school” or similar. Let me know if buying all those directory links gets you any ranking – my experience has been that it just doesn’t provide good ranks, but if your experience is different and you want to champion the value of those general directories, I’d love to see some examples and would be happy to blog about the value if you can show it.

    2) Is rankings a fair way to value links for rankings? In my opinion it is. We disagree on that, and that’s OK – John Scott, who’s a very smart SEO, and many other folks disagree as well. There are plenty of people on both sides of this issue, but my experience puts me heavily on the “good rankings = generally high value from links.” Poor rankings for many unique terms in a title tag and on a page can also often spell a penalty or dampening of some type. For directories, this has always set off red flags to me that Google doesn’t trust them because they’re linking out to some shady sites.

    3) Is it inaccurate to say that directory owners got upset with us? I’m pretty sure they did… Was there a lot of comment from non-directory owners in those threads? If so, I do apologize for my generalization – I just saw a bunch of links to directories in the signatures of the criticizing members.

    4) Honestly there’s not a lot of “spin” going on. These are just topics that were on my mind. In fact, believe it or not, I had no idea that Jane was making a follow-up post on the subject. She’s had her own criticism aimed at some of her private projects on sites like Digg, so I think it was an issue close to her heart. In either case, I can say honestly that there’s no intention to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes – they were just subjects that were interesting to us (independently).

    5) RealEstateWebmasters from 3.5 years ago – yeah, that was a total wrong-headed move. I think it was actually the start of my decision to go white hat. I hated the idea that I was hiding something and overall, I think it made me a better SEO. I do still apologize to anyone who was part of that (I think we got 3-4 links out of that and I tried to personally address all of those folks). After a couple months and some apologies, REWebmasters let me back in, which was very nice of them.

    6) SOCEngine – you’re totally right on this. I think it provides no value – it’s a general directory with almost no value. I’ll ask the crew to shut it down – it has been barely operating the last couple years. We’ll just keep it in existence but kill the submissions so anyone who is listed now will continue to be listed.

    As you’ll note, I haven’t promoted it at all in 3 years. It’s certainly not an income source for us in any meaningful way.

    7) The personal attack seems very, very harsh here. I think the message is “don’t trust Rand or SEOmoz – they’re trying to pull a fast one on the SEO world.” I work really, really hard to try to do just the opposite, so obviously, I’m heartbroken to see this kind of post. I guess we can always work harder, though, and I’ll try to do that when I return from vacation.

    In the meantime, please do consider responding to my email.


  2. What a rousing discussion. Would that my blog generated such passion. I would like to say in Aviva’s defense that it is the only directory that I have submitted to, including many on Rand’s list, that has driven traffic to my site.

    We still use directory submission as part of our SEO efforts, but of course it is only one of many ways we build links.

  3. Ok, sequence of events, as I saw them:

    1. You decide to release a Premium Directories List.
    2. You do a piece on why the vast bulk of paid directories out there are worthless.
    3. You decide to illustrate what a worthless directory looks like.
    4. You pick Aviva. There are hundreds of worthless directories out there, but you must know that if you debunked ones that nobody has heard, then nobody would care. So you pick one that most people view as having value. This will of course have more impact making your point. The main problem with this, however, is that Aviva actually does hold value. You literally have to pick and choose specific not-so-relevant facts, and omit many things in your evaluation, in order to come to the conclusion that it was worthless.
    5. I post a direct refute to your eval, and show examples of how you are wrong, in comments on SEOMoz. I show 4 very specific examples countering what you were trying to show:


    You never replied… at this point, I assume you just didn’t see it.

    6. John also refutes you on V7N with valid points.

    7. You reply to some of the criticism, but only to a few regarding Aviva itself. You reiterate that you think rankings are important, but skip over the fact that you pretty much would have had to look for specific non-ranking phrases to make your eval of Aviva valid.

    8. I actually looked for your replies to the criticisms before posting, btw:

    • Sitepoint – no posts
    • SEOChat – no posts
    • SEW – no posts
    • cre8asite – no posts
    • Digitalpoint – nothing about Aviva
    • V7N – Aside from your blog, this is the only place where you really talk about Aviva, and you only defend the fact that “rankings are a valid way to determine value”, you don’t actually refute the posts about how it is easy to see Aviva is a quality directory and the things they do rank for.

    9. Following your complete lack of replies to these legitimate concerns, you:
      a) do a piece on how you should reply to criticisms from a reputation management point of view, which is somewhat odd, considering how little you actually replied, and
      b) your employee Jane posts a piece right after that stating that it is ok not to reply to criticisms if the poster is a troll or if that they aren’t basing what they say on facts.

    Rand: Hi guys, here are some hand-picked facts that totally support my point!
    Critic: Rand, here is why you were wrong…
    Rand: {silence}
    Critic: Rand, again, here’s where you are wrong…
    Rand: Hi, I’m Rand, and I advocate Honesty.
    Jane: Hi, I’m Jane, and 2 of the reasons Rand might not reply to criticisms are if the critic is a troll or doesn’t use facts. {pretty smile}

    So, can you see where I was coming from here? I know this feels like a personal attack, but I’m not attacking you Rand, I am criticising your actions as I see them. Personally I feel that your attack on Aviva was much more unfounded than my review of your actions surrounding it.

  4. True Michael,

    The only thing rand did was that without any factual data he just published his comments which is really very bad and passes a bad name to Aviva.

  5. Michael,
    As you’ve asked me to over email, I’ll try to address your concerns here on your blog.

    The series of events as you’ve painted them make it look like I promoted our directory list in premium content (which I did), then was negligent about responding to criticism on several forums and blogs (again, I admit to it – I’m overwhelmed with stuff at work and planning a wedding, was on vacation all last week and have tons of projects and a few clients as well with demands on my time).

    Your other concern is that I glossed over the critiques of my methodologies – I’d say again that I still believe that the rankings I pointed out to you over email and those I discussed in the V7N thread and the SEOmoz blog are indications that Google has some issue with Aviva. You’re certainly free to disagree, and you’ve brought up many searches where they perform adequately.

    I think the best way to determine whether Aviva passes value is to buy some links there, point them to some test sites in relatively non-competitive fields and see if the links can help to raise the rankings. If they can, then my arguments are baseless and your points are validated. Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t go this route to help prove me wrong – no evidence would be more damning.

    In any case, I’ve done so tonight – bought a couple links to different pages and we’ll see what the results look like.

    Hopefully I’ve addressed your concerns – let me know if there are other pieces you’d like to see me respond to.

  6. Rand, one MAJOR question I have after reading your response here is this: If you believe the best way to determine whether Aviva passes value is to buy links and see if the links help, why in the world wouldn’t you have done so BEFORE blasting Aviva? Wouldn’t that have been the responsible thing to do?

    The fact that you hadn’t before writing this piece is VERY surprising to me.

  7. Of COURSE if you type in a company name or website you will see the site links below it…that doesn’t mean it’s an authority site – that’s just how Google responds when you type in a specific known entity. BTW if you check again you’ll see that the site links for “aviva directory” are gone.

  8. Nate, for one, you are replying to an almost 9 month old post. Yes, the ranking data has changed since then, and correct, at this time Aviva does not show sitelinks.

    The bit you posted about sitelinks always being there for a company is “of course” just plain wrong, that never has been true. It does in fact indicate a certain amount of authority, ranking power, juice, whatever you want to call it, that simply is only there for a select number of websites.

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