The Weakest Links! The Dark Artists of SEOs and the Net Narcs Who Rat Them Out to Wall Street

Nineteen ninety-nine was a revelatory year for Stefano Sandano. He became one of the few applicants out of thousands to be approved as a licensed Vatican tour guide, and he began, for the first time, to seriously study the inner workings of the Internet.

Mr. Sandano was an early convert to the digital doctrine of search-engine optimization, the art of goosing a particular website’s visibility on services like Google. By currying favor with outside sites and tweaking his content with crucial “key words,” Mr. Sandano was able to outrank his competitors whenever would-be customers typed terms like “Vatican tour” into Google.

Before long, business was so good that Mr. Sandano no longer needed to rely on travel agencies and hotel concierges, which generally took a cut of his revenues. As he led his groups of Japanese and Brazilian tourists through the gilded arches of the Holy See, he kept his online secrets to himself. “The church was my passion,” he said. “But the Internet was my weapon to build the business.”

While conducting a tour in 2004, Mr. Sandano met an American woman whom he later married. He moved to New York in 2006 to be with her and became a full-time SEO consultant to pay his way through a Ph.D. program in art history.

These days Mr. Sandano favors a patient approach to SEO. “To improve in a search, it takes a long time, year after year, like erosion,” he said in his marvelous, sing-song accent. “Don’t rush things, or they will punish you. You got to respect the Google.”

The simple mechanism at the heart of most SEO is the page-ranking system devised by Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin when they were still students at Stanford. It determines the relevance of a given website to users by looking at the number and types of sites linking to it.

“SEO is not a real industry,” insisted Dan Campbell, founder and CEO of xtractly, a New York-based online data extraction company. “It’s a massive, billion dollar accident driven by Google’s most brilliant and simple invention. They never stopped to imagine how the market would distort things.”

Bryne Hobart learned the vagaries of Google rankings while working at Blue Fountain Media, one of the biggest SEO shops in New York. The 24-year-old college dropout had hoped for a career finance, but the market implosion of 2008 nixed that idea. Instead, he scored an internship writing copy at Blue Fountain, eventually working his way up to managing director of marketing.

As the tech sector began heating up, Mr. Hobart spotted an opportunity to distinguish himself on Wall Street. “I saw all these companies, like Demand Media, getting ready to have these big billion dollar IPOs and I thought, ‘Their whole business is based on the kind of campaigns I run every day for clients.’ Maybe there is something I can add to that discussion.”

He and a colleague, Doug Pierce, had already been attracting a lot of attention with their research on how companies were gaming the system. Work they did at Blue Fountain became the basis of a February page-one story in The New York Times by “Haggler” columnist David Segal, exposing the dark arts being employed by JC Penney. A follow-up wilted the Mother’s Day sales efforts of 1-800-FLOWERS. In both cases, coverage prompted Google and its all-powerful antispam enforcer, Matt Cutts, to tweak the engine’s algorithms, banishing the sites, at least temporarily, to search-engine Siberia.

In March, Mr. Hobart and Mr. Pierce formed their own company on the side, Digital Due Diligence. His first post, on Demand Media, drew tens of thousands of readers and was passed around internally at the content farm. Mr. Hobart began monitoring other companies that were relying on some of the shadier SEO strategies, and posting these findings online. The idea behind the business was to help hedge funds and venture capital firms assess the risk of investing in companies that relied heavily on search traffic.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Hobart’s double game–practicing SEO by day, exposing it by night–soon proved unsustainable.

In April, when DDD published a piece noting that the fashion site Milanoo was attracting a number of sketchy inbound links from sites about football and cars, their work was picked up by the massive industry blog TechCrunch. The revelation embarrassed the venerable Silicon Valley venture firm Sequoia, a Milanoo investor, and earned the fashion site its own spanking from Google. It also infuriated a lot of the partners’ erstwhile colleagues, who saw them as turncoats who’d violated the ironclad omérta of the industry.

“Their main angle is whoring for media attention,” Aaron Wall, a long-time SEO consultant, complained to The Observer. “People who destroy this trade for their own self-promotion deserve to be called out.”

Equally distressed by the post were their employers, whose clients include P&G, Oppenheimer Funds and the U.S. Mint. “They are two of the most valuable individuals in our marketing department, but this was a case of bad judgment,” Blue Fountain CMO Alhan Keser wrote on the blog SEOBook. “I came back from a trip on Tuesday and confronted Byrne and Doug about the issue and asked them to stop outing companies.”

The Weakest Links! The Dark Artists of SEOs and the Net Narcs Who Rat Them Out to Wall Street