The Tragedy of the Commons and SEO

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the site is, my job is to do what the client tells me."
"If my client wasn't there, then someone else would be"
"It's a free internet, and I can do what I want."
"Deciding if a site is good or bad isn't my job, SEO is"

I've heard all these statements through the years, and many others along the same theme. The common thread is that they are basically "washing their hands", so to speak. The problems of spam and bad results are not their problem.

Bull. If you are on the internet, and especially if you make your living on the internet, then promoting crappy sites is like peeing in your own well-water.

I'll take on clients who have crappy sites who are willing to make them better, and I will take on clients that are effectively indistinguishable from their competitors (ie they all sell the same product), but not clients who want me to get a crappy site to number one.

If I did that, one of two things would happen: 1) If the search engine was on the ball, the site would be removed or a filter would be tweaked to prevent it from being there, thus wasting my time; or 2) it would stay there and I will have been partially responsible for making search a worse experience.

I will give people the benefit of the doubt - I thought E-Bay was a dumb idea when it first started, so it's not like I can consider myself to be a final authority on what people want.

But the site, even back then, was well designed, well organized and was better than the competition, so I probably would have taken them as a client - I don't necessarily judge the business model, but I will judge whether it's a good response for the search terms.

I'm reminded of the classic "Tragedy of the Commons" essay by Garrett Harden. If you haven't read it, you should. Here is a quote:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of - 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

I've held for quite some time that the Internet is a Commons. The tragedy that can happen here is that the benefit to a website owner of getting a crappy site to number one is 100%. They benefit completely.

At the same time, the downside of getting one bad site to rank is actually quite small, to not only that webmaster, but to everyone. People will just ignore that one listing and continue on. No big deal.

So the benefit of promoting a bad site for an SEO is high (you get paid) and in most cases makes no real negative difference to the Internet experience for you or most other people. So there is little immediate drawback.

Following logically, you may decide as a result that you should promote crappy sites, since the benefits outweigh the drawbacks by a significant amount. This is common thinking for people using throwaway domains, etc.

And this would be true, if you were the only one doing it. But of course many other people will come to the same conclusion, and as a result, the Internet becomes poisoned and useless, especially because it's also easier to create a bad site than it is a good one.

Here is another issue - the standoff. Even if I know what I'm doing is wrong, the fact that everyone else around me is doing it too means that if I stop, then they will get a significant advantage over me and my longview stance just became my short term gravestone. Once I'm gone, the problem will still persist. Therefore I feel a need to continue doing what I'm doing, even though I'm not happy about it.

There are some ways out of all of this, of course.

1. Enlightened Self-Interest. Some people (like myself and many others) take a look at the big picture and refuse to go down that path. We realize that at the end of the day, we are just hurting ourselves.

Unfortunately, not everyone takes a long term view of things, and not everyone is in a strong enough position to ignore the immediate disadvantages of not using every tool you have right now, and to focus on the long term results, instead.

2. External Authority. This is the "Someone should pass a law" effect. Many times, this is actually welcomed. A bunch of competitors would all love to stop doing something, but no one wants to be the first to blink. In this case, a third party comes in and makes them, and everyone is happier for it because the playing field is still level. It deals with the standoff I mentioned earlier.

Examples of this include anti-spam and other fair trade practices laws, as well as the rules and guidelines used by search engines, etc.

This is not always welcomed by individualists who dislike any rules at all, and of course it's not welcomed by people with crappy websites who happen to be showing up well.

3. Self-Governance. This is a combination of the two, where a group of people/companies in the industry get together and mutually agree on some ground rules. This is my personal preference, but of course there is the issue of enforcement. Anything than consumer education and peer pressure can't be used, since there is no legislation to back it up.

Almost every single profession in the world has common statements of ethics, rules, guidelines and so forth - except SEO/SEM.

Personally, I believe that until this industry is mature enough to actually hold a common opinion on something other making money, it's not mature enough to be called a profession.


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