A Lesson Learned from the Pasternack SEO Contest

First published March 8, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Why is search engine marketing defined by diametric opposition?  It seems like for every question there are two extreme answers.  And these polar opposite viewpoints are held with a tremendous amount of passion.  The smallest questioning of our position can unleash a firestorm of retribution.  Blogs kick themselves into high gear as aspersions are cast without a second thought.  We rise passionately to defend our position, questioning the pedigrees and mental capacities of our opponents. How could someone be so incredibly dense as to not see it our way?

Tempest in a Teapot

In the past few months, little has raised such a passion of opposing viewpoints as the questioning of the value of organic optimization.  The verbal feud that took place in the blogosphere is well-known to most of us within the industry.  If you’ve been one of the few that has remained blissfully ignorant of the David Pasternack (co-founder of Did-It) “Is SEO rocket science” debate, count yourself fortunate.  It’s not so much the debate I want to focus on, but the fallout of that debate because I think there’s a valuable lesson that we can all learn from it.  As the organic community rose to defend its collective value, Threadwatch.org had the idea of launching an SEO contest.  The premise of the contest was simple.  Whoever ranked highest for the phrase David Pasternack by noon on March 1 was the winner.  A Who’s Who of SEOs rose to take the challenge, using every trick in the book to try to propel their page to No. 1 in the Google data centers.

One Set of Results, Two Interpretations

Predictably, the tactics ranged from the white to the dark gray.  The winner, when all was said and done, was the page that had been ranking previously for a chef in New York also called, coincidently, David Pasternack.  There was a post on Dave Pasternack’s Did-It corporate blog that said, with a decidedly sarcastic tongue-in-cheek approach, “See? We told you so! SEO isn’t rocket science and after you guys threw the best you could at the algorithms, the page that was there before the contest was still the one ranking number one on Google.”  That’s one viewpoint.

Ironically, when you look at that same page of search results, the opposing side also claims victory.  Their contention? They dramatically changed the appearance of a search results page, which shows that SEO does have tremendous value and that it’s not a “set and forget,” one-time endeavor.  Search results pages are dynamic environments and if you hope to do well on them, you have to be prepared to take a long-term view. That’s the other viewpoint.

See?  The same set of search results — but two dramatically different opinions of what happened in the contest.  And both sides swear they’re right.  In my opinion, they’re both right — or, at least a little bit of each argument rings true.  The fact is, the page for David Pasternack, (the chef, not the cofounder of Did-It), has been around a long time and this Pasternack is a well-known guy.  Google is doing what it should be doing; putting the site first that most people would be expecting to find at the top of the listings.

The SEO side is also correct.  They did dramatically change the look of the page.  Other than the top0ranking page, the rest of the results looked decidedly different than they did a few weeks before, prior to the contest.  So rather than quibble about who’s right and who’s wrong in this debate, let’s look at the takeaways and see what we can learn.

The (Web) Guerilla Approach

One of the most interesting entries was a late one by Greg Boser.  Greg’s approach leveraged the existing notoriety of David Pasternack, the chef.  Greg’s approach was not so much based on technical tricks (although they did play a role), but rather a very clever strategy that was aligned with the inherent nature of people who frequent the Web.  Greg didn’t win the contest, but he came within a whisker’s width of doing so.  The fact was, Greg reluctantly entered the contest late (more irony, both Greg and Dave Pasternack called SEO contests stupid, but both entered) and  he wanted to time his entry so that it climbed the search engine ranks and claimed the top spot within 12 hours of the closing of a contest.  He wanted to show that not only could you control your organic visibility, but you could do it with a fair amount of predictability.  His timing was a little bit off, due more than anything to variations in the various Google data centers, but he definitely showed that with the right approach, you can influence search results.

To me, the interesting thing in this was not the technique Greg used but the approach he decided to follow.  He played the innocent bystander card.  He appealed to human nature and understood how people would react.  The genius of Greg’s approach was not in how he used redirects or turned on the “link juice.”  Those were all techniques that were part of the execution and yes, they had to be done right, but they only mattered because they were aligned to a strategy that was very clever.  He outthought his competition, rather than hammered them to death with a bag of black-hat tricks.  He knew that if he drew attention to the real Dave Pasternack, the one that was having his rightful visibility usurped by a temporary blip on the online “buzz” horizon, he would have a better chance of gaining support because he was appealing to an inherent human value that we all generally share.

We like to protect people, especially if they’ve been rightfully wronged in some way.  Our best instincts rise to the surface and we want to rush to the aid of the victim.  In this particular instance, the way to do that was by sending a little “link love” Greg threw out some irresistible link bait. And what was particularly impressive about his entry was the way he almost timed it down to the hour, letting the momentum of his entry roll right up to the final moment and coming within one datacenter of actually winning the contest.  Did he usurp the original Dave Pasternack page?  No, but he really shouldn’t have.  That page had already earned its link love and should have been right where it was, on top of the listings.

The Value of People Smarts

Recently, I wrote a column about the future of SEO and SEM agencies.  And I said that the time may soon be coming when the technical wizardry that SEOs tend to rely on may have limited value.  One thing, however, that will never have limited value is the ability to understand how people think and work — and then to be able to translate that into an online reality.

That’s what Greg Boser showed in this contest.  He understood what makes people tick and then anticipated how that might play out online.  That type of approach will always have value in the online world.  Over time it may translate itself from gaining results on a search engine to building buzz on Digg, creating more presence on blogs, or any one of the other 1,001 places where we would like to gain visibility online.  But the ability to take an understanding of human nature and then to be able to translate that into anticipated online behavior is an incredibly valuable commodity.

Greg, there are many things that we might not agree on, but in this particular contest, you showed that SEO may not be rocket science, but it can certainly be a social science.


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