The Great Ghost Post Scandal

ghost postI recently had an experience here on {grow} that sickened me.  I feel betrayed and I think it illustrates another example of the whacked-out SEO ethical approaches in our business as Google juicers search for the Almighty Backlink.

Earlier this year I was approached by a guy named David Murton to do a guest post for {grow}.  I would say I get at least 2-3 requests like this every day.  The ones from obvious spammers or people trying to get product placements are typically easy to spot but David seemed sincere in his request to get exposure for his writing.

I didn’t know him and responded that guest posts are reserved for people who are active in the community. If somebody is active in the comment section or makes a reasonable attempt to connect with me on Twitter, I’ll certainly support community members in any way I can, including a guest post opportunity if appropriate.

David started showing up in my conversation stream so when I received a list of possible blog post ideas from him I was receptive. The ideas seemed unexceptional and I challenged him to dig deep and come up with a post that only he could write … the advice I give to every blogger, in fact.

Forsooth, the post arrives

A few days later, I received a finished post with a note explaining that he took my advice and “took a risk” with his writing. The post was highly original — in the form of a Shakespearean play. I thought it was too long so I challenged him to tighten it up a bit. He was a little defensive, wanting to protect the integrity of his writing, but did a good job on the final product.

I ran the post, “A Classic Take on Social Media,” April 8 with his requested backlink to his online business cleverly embedded in the copy. The post received several nice compliments from readers. His response in the comment section: “Glad you liked the post, it was a real pleasure preparing this one!”

That was the last I thought about it until last week when I received a cryptic comment on this now four-month-old post.  “I’m glad most of you liked the post.  I’m the guy who really wrote it.  My name is William Harwood and I was paid $50 for it.”

I contacted Mr. Harwood and said that if he was claiming that David Murton was fraudulent, he better back it up.  He folllowed with more than 20 emails, proving the authenticity of his piece and exposing at least six other examples where David Murton had claimed authorship of a post that was not his own work on various blogs. He also presented an example where David’s business partner seemed to have similarly duped Ari Herzog, a frequent commenter on {grow} and a blogger I admire.

Ultimate douche-baggery?

As I pieced together the facts, here is what appeared to have occurred. William had been employed as a freelancer to provide content to Skyvision Enterprises, a company involved in a number of SEO services including building backlinks through well-placed content. Mr. Murton purchased content from this company but presented it to me, and apparently other bloggers, as his original material.

When William Harwood googled his writing to see if it had been used anywhere, he found David taking credit for the ghost-written work, which he characterized as the ultimate “douche baggery.”  Although he had been paid for his work, he understood it was to be used anonymously in corporate blogs and publications.

I spoke to one of the owners of Skyvision, Greg Asseff, and he seemed sensitive to the situation and apologetic. His job, he explained, was to match business needs with content but what happened after that was out of his control.

I also reached out to David Murton, and after several days, I received an email explaining “I don’t try to mislead anyone, especially people that I work with. As you can see in William’s comment, he freely offers that he was paid for writing this article – I never tried to deceive or take advantage of anyone.”

I responded, with this request:  “Here is all I need to know. Why is it Ok for you to present this to me as your original writing — and take credit for it as your original writing — when it clearly was not? Do you think this is an honest business practice? Is it worth deceiving me — and apparently many others — to get a link?”

I have not received a reply.

The ghost post debate

I’m actually OK with ghost blogging under certain circumstances. I think it fills an important role for busy executives (especially those who are not good writers) and the community explored that topic in the post Can you out-source authenticity?  I also had a lively debate with Mitch Joel about it.

The community feedback from these dialogues helped create an outstanding list of best practices for ghost blogging .

So I’m not saying ghost blogging in our world of content marketing is wrong per se, especially with the guidelines around transparency provided in these posts.

But here’s the one principle that can’t be compromised in business. You. Can’t. Lie.

In this case, I was deceived. You were deceived. And here’s the message I would like to send to everyone in the business of chasing backlinks.  Please, look at what you’re doing.  If your primary business objective is to create SEO gold through deception, just think about what kind of a business environment you are creating. Is this something you are proud of?

The world of blogging and SEO seems to be in its own little world where the rules of business integrity often don’t apply. We seem to have an attiitude of “well, that’s just the way it’s done” without considering the moral, legal and ethical ramifications of our daily business practices.

Are we disconnected from ethics?

I’ve been employed in business for nearly 30 years. I’ve worked in Fortune 100 companies, start-ups and everything in between. I have faced gut-wrenching ethical situations with vast legal and financial consequences.  In other words, I’m not naive.

But when I see the daily trove of SEO bullshit that comes across my desk I just think WTF? What is this blogging business about?  What are we allowing — encouraging — as SEO professionals and marketers?

In this specific case, I am going to delete the Shakespeare post.  I thought about various options but that just seems to be the cleanest option.  I’ll leave it up until the end of July because it is relevant to this article. It’s kind of like looking at the wreck before it is moved to the side of the rode.

I’m not going to stop trusting people, but I guess I have to be more careful accepting content from people I don’t know well. I will also be able to link to this post as a cautionary tale to future guest bloggers.

Does this re-open the whole ghost blogging debate?  What’s your take on this situation?  Would you have handled it differently?

Addendum: Based on the feedback in the comment section, I decided to not delete the original post, but amend it to acknowledge William Harwood as the author.

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