SEO: Gaming Meetup.com
[Note: I provided a draft copy of this article to SEO meetup groups for comment/clarifications before I published it publicly. There was no reply.]
Introduction, the SEO Dilemma
The professional trade of Search Engine Optimization has taken a "hit" to credibility multiple times over the years. It has been so bad that some versions of my resume doesn't list it as a skill -- to prevent being associated with those identified as less ethical.
Search Engine Optimization is extremely important to the success of an organization's web presence. Companies with limited budget or in-hjouse technical skills may not fully research their options before handing over their credit card to an "SEO Consultant" ... only to be scammed.
UX Engineers and site designers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince their clients that basic improvements to site navigation, macro- and micro-copy, GOOD CONTENT, web-standards compliant code, and mutually beneficial relationships with other sites can improve their site's SEO (and do so without search-engine hacking or code trickery).
But that education opportunity is an uphill battle. Clients see Google search results promising "We'll submit your site to thousands of search engines for $50!", and "Your brand will be in the top 10 search results, guaranteed!"
Of course, there are no guarantees.
To make matters worse, our estimates are never cheaper than the scam SEO ads. Not to mention a site improvement or redesign engagement may take months. An unscrupulous SEO company requires a 5-minute sign up form and credit card number.
So when SEO companies, who may be a completely legitimate and professional, do bone-head stunts, it helps further the already sullied reputation of the rest of us trying to make an honest buck.
A New SEO Scammers Target: Meetup.com
I run 2 major meetup.com groups (HoustonPhotowalks.com / AutismHouston.com), and help manage in one capacity or another, a couple of others. And I'm a proud member of quite a few other active groups. Irrespective of some of the downsides of using the Meetup.com system, it is a great organization-building tool, including building personal and professional networks within any number of given interests.
But as with any other type of open and popular network, it's available for gaming the system. This article lists 10 ways I've observed "SEO companies" use Meetup.com to either mass-market uninterested parties, or unethically game the Meetup.com system to further their own SEO objectives.
10 Ways to Destroy Meetup Groups by turning them into a SEO Marketing Engine
1) Unethical SEO account managers often create multiple Meetup.com user accounts to stay "under the radar".
Fellow members can see what meetup groups you belong to, unless you choose to make them private. So its pretty easy to detect if someone, such as an SEO company owner, posts the exact same event to several different groups.
Why would that be bad? Many times, these events aren't even actual meetings, they are advertisements. So this allows the person to post the advertisements multiple times without being detected or questioned.
2) Take over as "Organizer" for as many groups as possible.
This requires a bit of timing. But all a prospector has to do is sign up for dozens and dozens of groups, and this sit back and wait for an organizer to quit.
This is great for the unscrupulous SEO person to increase the size of their personal advertising network. Anytime the "Your Organizer has stepped down" email goes out, the SEO consultant just has to get to the "Make Me Organizer" button before anyone else. EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER ATTENDED AN EVENT IN THAT GROUP!
The new SEO organizer posts his advertisements everywhere, sends out regular emails with their company info, etc.
3) Create Events Completely Unrelated to the Meetup Group Subject
The unethical SEO objective is to post as many events and send as many emails as possible with the SEO company name, branding and advertising. The events are often duplicate events from other meetup groups he has taken over, and thus rarely have anything to do with the group's interest.
4) Use the "Advertising" and "Perk" system on the meetup group.
A savvy SEO person will display advertisements everywhere ... multiple times ... even in areas designed to provide sponsorship opportunities to the group.
5) Fudge the math, no one is paying attention
One way to make a group look more popular is have LOTS of people attend fake events. Even if a group only has 202 members, an SEO advertiser who has taken over a group can claim to have 300 people attend a single event!
Crazy right? I've seen this happen and it makes the group seem extremely active and attract new members ... when in reality it's nearly dead.
6) Post the EXACT same meetup event to as many groups as possible.
SEO takes a lot of time, so an unethical SEO artist may post the exact same event to a dozen different groups, all of which have completely different subject matters. The main goal is to make sure that the SEO company hyperlink and logo is in every single outgoing email.
7) You Don't Have to Post Events, It Just Needs LINKS LINKS LINKS!
Message board, emails, pages, calendar notes, mailing list. If it has a potential of being seen by a person or a search engine, an unethical SEO person will make sure it's full of links.
Also, the links will point to "SEO Documents" that are quite favorable to the SEO company, and full of facts and figures with no data or references to back them up. And when this comes into question, then its "ok" because the documentation is clearly listed on the site as "A DRAFT".
Even though it's been in "Draft" for 2 years, one can't expect it to have supporting documentation if the document isn't final yet.
8) Create Fake Sponsors so the SEO Organizer looks "Legit"
To make a 203-member group look legit, an SEO artist may pretend that heavy hitters such as LinkedIn and Facebook are sponsors of the group. All it takes is adding those companies logo in the sponsorship panel and "Poof", the group appears to be supported by LinkedIn.
9) Prevent Fake events from being confusing.
Some people might actually think a fake event full of advertisements and content completely unrelated to the actual group could be a legit "meetup".
So to help keep the complaints to a minimum, the "start time" will be in the middle of the night.
10) Delete any unfavorable comment, post, and remove members who don't favor your form of "SEO"
This is the most important thing of all. An unscrupulous SEO organization doesn't want bad press. So if anyone points out that their events are fake, duplicated over half-a-dozen different groups, that everything about the group has gone to pot since the SEO organization took it over, and that the organizer has no actual interest in the subject matter, they delete everything and kick the user. That's an absolute must.
I Call Shenanigans
Any company running a meetup group (or FB page, or ... etc) will run that organization how they see fit. And in many cases, their goals include converting a user base into a customer base. When running a business, this is a matter of course.
When a company or individual is clearly gaming the system, providing little or no value to their social network group, and worse yet, engaging in unethical behavior, it has a negative impact the public impression of all companies and consultants doing the same work.
For that reason, and the negative impact it has on members, Meetup.com needs to look carefully at the SEO organizations running meetup groups, and members of those groups need to protest this activity by quitting these groups.