Lansing State Journal’s SEO Ethical Dilemma

We have been fortunate in growing our business in the past four years across the United States and more recently into Europe. While we’re based in East Lansing and now Grand Rapids, we still take pride in our local presence. In the past couple years it’s been a bit of a joke around our office that whenever anything good happens to us, we can get featured in any local media except the Lansing State Journal.

When we moved into our new office last year, we thought there would be a nice bit of local PR, and despite being the anchor tenant in the State News Tech Center, we were hardly mentioned in the article. Obviously, our neighbors at Nicholas Creative, Digital Active and CEMA are all newsworthy themselves, but we thought we would be a large part of the article given our rather quick growth. Regardless, it didn’t happen.

More recently, we were fortunate enough to be nominated and win an award as one of Corp. Magazine’s Economic Bright Spots, previously won by the likes of such local icons as Biggby Coffee. Surely, we thought, the press release we sent them about this item would get us at least a few lines in the business section. But alas, our achievement was once again ignored. At this point people I know were joking about how nothing could get us in the LSJ.

I’ve seen a lot of our contemporary marketing and tech companies in the area featured in the LSJ in the past, and it seemed increasingly hard to believe that there wasn’t a conscious effort to ignore us as we’ve grown from a staff of two to a staff of 9. Of course, that’s when we stumbled across this and it all made sense.

SEM Services, eh?

Of course! The LSJ is our competitor! Wait, the local newspaper is our competitor?

Way back in the 1990s I headed off to Grand Valley to study journalism. While I changed my major during my Junior year, I still took a healthy dose of journalism classes and one thing I remember having pounded into my head, and that was ethics. One lesson I remember well is that it’s not just about remaining objective in your presentation of a story, it’s about story selection.

While our company obviously has continued to grow without any help from the Lansing State Journal, I do feel it’s a disservice to the community to not share newsworthy items about a local company just to freeze out a competitor. But taking it a step further, there are all kinds of potential repercussions with a newspaper going into search marketing, in particular SEO.

What happens to local search competition?

One of the services the LSJ offers is local search optimization – which means they help companies rank out better in local map listings (which Google is pushing more and more if you haven’t noticed). How do you rank higher in local search? Well, let me condense some of the work of the guru of this genre, David Mihm (whom I’ve had the good fortune to listen to live):

  • Factors on your Google places page (what keywords you use, your location, correct categories, etc.)
  • Authority of your actual web site (this means other high quality websites link to yours)
  • Citations (this means references to your company’s name, address, phone number, etc.)

Now let’s think about this a bit further. Any company can claim their Google places listing and manage that themselves. So the first factor is irrelevant. But what about the second two?

For many local area businesses, one of the most difficult things to do is gain authority. If you own a local print shop or a restaurant for example, it’s not like Staples or The Food Network‘s websites are going to link to you, so what are your best options? Local media. Of course, one of, if not the best spot for a Lansing business to get a link from would be the LSJ. To their credit, they’ve historically held to a no links policy which makes this point null and void for the time being. But there’s nothing to stop them from changing this policy at their own whim. And of course, if people would be willing to pay for it, why wouldn’t they? Which then broadens the problem we have, as the LSJ could severely skew local Google rankings in a lot of industries by dropping links to those who pay them and not offering that option for media coverage for their client’s competitors (if they chose to cover them at all).

The third citation is another similar case, which is the one way the LSJ could currently enact their will upon local rankings by adding citation information for those who paid them, and not adding it for those that don’t. It’s feasible to think that competitors’ to their search clients could be ignored. How does that help those that depend on the local media for objective news and information?

I’m not accusing the LSJ of actually doing these things, but I think the prospect of having a local newspaper with an online presence go into search leads to a Pandora’s box of potential ethical issues. I’m not against them broadening their business model, as I know the newspaper business is tough, but this seems like the wrong way to do it in the eyes of someone who was once an idealistic journalism student.

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Adam Henige

Adam Henige is Managing Partner of Netvantage SEO. Adam heads the SEO and link building efforts for Netvantage and has been a contributing blogger for industry publications like Search Engine Journal and Moz.

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