Victor Pan

Victor Pan

Organic Search Manager

The Great Internet Ethics Debate: Sharewalls

Howdy Catalyst blog readers! Today we’re demystifying the “growth hack” of sharewalls (or share walls), which are websites that block content or services from visitors until they exchange part of their social voice for access. By crowdsourcing from the great minds of Inbound.org, I’ll be analyzing the overall sentiment of 27 seasoned inbound marketers on the ethics and viability of sharewalls, ending with a prediction on how search engines will treat sharewalls. Hang on tight, it’s gonna’ be a wild ride.

This internet ethics discussion was made possible with the help of AJ Kohn, Paul Shapiro, Ian Howells, Gareth Jax, and Samuel Lavoie, who commented on the black hat nature of sharewalls; Brian Dean, Vinny La Barbera, Larry Kim, Matthew Barby, and Clayburn Griffin on how sharewalls can be considered a white hat tactic; and Nick Eubanks, Ed Fry, Tommy Walker, Goran Candrlic, and Jake Butler who filled-in on the grey zones. With the help of these gentlemen, and everyone else who Upvoted their comments, I was able to summarize the overall sentiment of our online focus group made of inbound marketing experts.

sharewall ethics diagram.

Surprisingly, the white and black hat camps are equal in votes, but overall sentiment on the ethicalness of sharewalls is low.

Table of Contents:

  1. It’s the Wild West of Internet Ethics
  2. Interesting Examples of Sharewalls
  3. Sharewalls Are Unethical
  4. Sharewalls Can Be Ethical
  5. Sharewalls Are Ethical; Bad Intentions Are to Blame
  6. Prediction: Sharewalls Are the New Guest Posts

It’s the Wild West of Internet Ethics

wild west of internet ethics
The term growth hacking has been getting a lot of flak lately on the wild west of the internet. Gossip and rumors about lyrics website Rap Genius, a lyrics website, which was outed for their “growth hack,” penalized by Google, and recovered from said Google penalty in just 10 days have been spread around web saloons and bars.

Rap Genius was offering tweets to their Twitter account in exchange for links with anchor text on highly sought after search terms like Justin Bieber from affiliate websites. This linking scheme helped Rap Genius rank on competitive terms core to its business growth, but the benefits in ranking were short term. Google eventually caught and penalized the evil-doers. Rap Genius should’ve seen the issues with quid pro quo a mile away, right?

Google penalizes Rap Genius

But not all online marketing tactics are crystal clear. What if instead of links, Rap Genius only asked for social shares?

Today at the Catalyst blog we’re going to shed some light on the “growth hack” of sharewalls. Sourcing perspectives from some of the brightest minds in the industry, you’ll be hearing from hired guns and corporate gunslingers who’ve donned SEO hats to settle things once and for all.

Interesting Sharewall Examples

Sharewalls have always been a part of Facebook. “Liking a page” has become a digital currency to see the contents of this a fan page, get your personality test results, redeem a store coupon, and many other online exchanges . The concept has started to appear on websites beyond social media and application has been varied, making it a difficult ethics question. Below are some examples of different types of sharewalls.

Here’s a sharewall content producers can place on their live streams hosted on their Facebook page.

video sharewall for facebook

Sharewalls exist beyond social media and have crept into the realm of websites, and even Twitter is now part of the trend.

sharewalls for websites

Need something to go viral? Why not erect a tweet wall for your eBook?

sharewall for ebooks

Because of just how varied implementation can be, keep in mind that all of the experts quoted in this debate are wary of the shortcomings of a black or white debate system, but rolled with it anyways.

Now back to today’s program on those internet gunslingers and hatters!

Sharewalls Are Unethical

History will remember AJ Kohn, an industry-respected hired gun, as the man who fired the first shot at the great sharewall debate. It all started when I reached out for his opinion on how search engines may react to sharewalls:

AJ Kohn starts debating sharewall ethics

AJ replied, and the debate began.

AJ Kohn
AJ Kohn
BlindFiveYearOld.com

[Sharewalls are] blackhat. Unlike a paywall, the act of sharing is an endorsement to others not an exchange of value between creator and user. Forced endorsements aren’t really endorsements but only signals of engagement of a sort, which may or may not reflect true sentiment. So not only do you get very lame evangelism (Tweet and delete), but you dirty your own ability to measure true evangelism.

AJ isn’t the only one who’s not a big fan of sharewalls. Below are some responses from a number of other inbound marketing folks:

Ian Howells, a SEO director at a marketing services company, believes that “social will, at some level and some point, be a significant ranking factor— it’s no different from forcing people to link to you in order to download something.” He believes that this value exchange is no different from what got Rap Genius in trouble.

Gareth Jax, an Italian SEO specialist, also finds the practice useless — and hopes that ad blocking software will do something about sharewalls.

Samuel Lavoie, SEO Manager at Canadian internet marketing agency, calls the practice “social black hat” if endorsements are forced upon the web visitor.

brian dean
Brian Dean
Backlinko.com

[Sharewalls are] whitehat. That being said, I don’t think it’s a smart long-term strategy. If your service/content/tool is good enough to be shared naturally, it WILL get shared. Period… Do you think Google needed a sharewall in 1998?… Did Facebook force you to email a friend about it before you could sign up?… [D]oes Pinterest make you “tweet” Pinterest before sharing pictures with your friends?… Because they all have services that are worth sharing. They don’t need cajoling or arm-twisting to get the word out.

It’s interesting to emphasize how both Brian and AJ consider sharewalls a dumb idea, but Brian considers sharewalls as a white hat tactic while AJ sees it as a black hat tactic. This may arise from the fact that search marketers are divided on which social signals have an impact on search engine rankings, since Google and Bing have been perfecting the social formula since 2010. Since 2010, Matt Cutts has had to repeatedly discredit multiple social signal studies.

Paul Shapiro
Paul Shapiro
Paulnshapiro.com

[Sharewalls are] black. Ok, so I would have said white hat (or maybe grey hat if that were an option), because if [you] remove personalized Google+ results from the picture, forcing people to share on social media really won’t directly impact search rankings. I believe Google on this point. Duane Forrester also has indicated an effect from Facebook shares, only in exceptional cases. It probably will [affect] indirectly through latently building backlinks, but there is nothing inherently wrong about that in the eyes of the search engines. However, they [these tactics] feel really seedy and are an attempt to manipulate the social space. As a social media tactic, it very much has the feeling of a grey or black hat SEO tactic.

Paul, an avant-garde search marketer at Catalyst, highlights how only certain signals can manipulate search engine results (and hence black hat) and that the other signals which do not manipulate search results would “technically” make sharewalls fall into the white hat category. It’s this technicality that explains why AJ and Brian agreed that sharewalls are unethical, but the type of search engine optimization tactic it would fall under differed.

So, sharewalls are bad and hats don’t matter, right? Not so fast. Let’s hear the other side of the story before we jump to conclusions.

Sharewalls Can Be Good

As the cowboys of sharewalls-be-doomed rallied their cheers at the ol’ saloon, a smaller but equally respectable group of rangers stood out against the crowd. There was silence – but most of all respect. This was going to be a debate between gentlemen and not a gunfight.

matthew barby

Matthew Barby
Matthewbarby.com

[Sharewalls are] white. If you’re interested enough to consume/download the content behind a sharewall, then your social share should be seen as a valid endorsement. If this is the case that you want to be entered into a competition, it helps to spread awareness and more social reach for your competition and can be great for traffic generation.

On the flipside of things, the real importance lies within the message being shared. In order to segment this away from other social signals you should be tracking these shares separately. This could be via a competition hashtag or specific text/link within the share.

Matt, a digital strategist in the UK and author of The Ultimate Guide to Running Online Competitions is no stranger to sharewalls. When implemented correctly, sharewalls can amplify the amount of traffic your content receives without diluting brand evangelism.

larry kim

Larry Kim
WordStream.com

[Sharewalls are] white. Similar thoughts to Matthew Barby here — that you can’t force anyone to share anything. People have free will— people can simply decide not to share the thing. A company has the right to ask for whatever they want to in exchange for their stuff. Case closed.”

Larry Kim, the founder of a PPC software company, threw in the philosophical free will argument. With the exception of a followed link, Larry argues that companies with a presence on the web have the right to ask their potential customers for whatever they want in exchange for the content or service they provide. Because people have free will, the decision to share becomes an editorial choice, and hence, white hat and ethical.

vinny La Barbera
Vinny La Barbera
Vinnyvidivici.com

[Sharewalls are] white… although I agree … that it’s not always one or the other. This practice has been used for years, well before social media. The first example that comes to mind is when many restaurants would have patrons fill out comment cards and their email or shipping address to be entered into a giveaway or raffle.  I actually still see some places do this. A sharewall is just the online equivalent of this and, in my opinion, a perfectly practical and sometimes creative way to encourage social endorsements. It’s not top of mind for most people to share their experiences at certain establishments, even when they’re positive. These little nudges can help them to do just that — even if takes a bit of coercing.

Vinny, the CEO of an internet marketing agency, believes that sharewalls has its roots in regular commerce. Sharewalls are both practical and creative to nudge patrons in the right way – people with positive experiences could use a sweet reminder to share their experience. That being said, it’s not what sharewalls are, but how they are executed.

Clayburn Griffin

Clayburn Griffin
Clayburngriffin.com

[Sharewalls are] white (Unless…) I think it’s a legitimate ask that people share something to use it. However, if you block off all access unless they share, then you’re pushing them to vouch for something they know nothing of. That’s black hat. But if instead you have some kind of rate-limiting or extra features for people who evangelize for you, then it’s perfectly fine. Also, it can be black hat if you’re asking them to share something unrelated or tricking them into sharing something they don’t realize they’re sharing. Think of yourself as the user. If you’d be screwing yourself, then it’s probably black hat.

Clayburn, a senior content strategist at a digital agency, went with the golden-rule argument. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was a litmus test that garnered a lot of agreement amongst many search marketers. If you’d be annoyed by the sharewall you set up, it’s black hat. If you’d be ok with the sharewall you set up, it’s white hat.

Sharewalls Are Ethical; Bad Intentions Are to Blame

As the SEO hired guns, gunslingers, and vagabonds settled into all the possible perspectives of this issue, they all knew deep down that the answer was the same. Did they think the Google Sheriff would outlaw sharewalls? Well, it depends.

nick eubanks

Nick Eubanks
Seonick.net

Meh. Sorry to break the rules; it’s not to be rebellious. But I don’t think this is a binary issue, although I understand the utility of drawing a line in the sand.

I think this is an extremely subjective, case by case answer. I’m happy to endorse a brand whom I trust and follow to get access to a report or a whitepaper. It is most likely a valid endorsement if I am interested enough to make the share to consume the information. However, this is a very slippery slope when applied in other scenarios, say for example a blog post, where only the first hundred words [are] displayed as a hook to lure the reader in. A sharewall will force me to endorse the content, the author, and more than anything else, the brand — potentially without any prior exposure to any of the above, and more so I may have just endorsed content that is complete shit, because I had no way of knowing so until afterwards.

Sorry to muck up the rules.

The two conflicting user experience scenarios that Nick Eubanks, a VP of digital strategy, highlighted resonated with other search marketers. Sharewalls could be turned white or black, ethical or uneithical.

Ed Fry, Inbound.org’s community manager, similarly raved, “If your sharewall page is creating behaviour that would happen anyway (i.e., it’s welcome, it’s inbound) then there’s no real problem. But if it’s an unwelcome interruption that’s manipulating the course of behaviour with consequences the user doesn’t intend for (“spamming” friends and followers) — then yes, there’s a problem.”

Goran Candrlic, one of the masterminds behind SEO Crawler, believes that the industry needs to be more pragmatic— give users more options and give them a better experience.

Jake Butler, a search marketing coordinator, believes that there won’t be “an answer until Google says yes this is okay or no stop doing this.”

Tommy Walker, the editor of a must-subscribe CRO blog, understands that sharewalls can be evil, but is “planning on implementing [sharewalls to] increase social sharing, without making people pissed and after they’ve already gotten something good.”

Surprisingly, even an infamous black hatter agreed that the tactic isn’t outright white or black hat.

charles floate
Charles Floate
Godofseo.co

[Sharewalls are] grey. I actively use social walls on my blogs to give the user something in return. For example, if a web visitor dropped by my site and wanted to download the PDF version of my guide, then him giving me a Tweet about my article in return is a perfectly fair trade  — especially when his followers are in the same niche as mine and will be genuinely interested in the content I produce. So by him advertising [my content] to his group of [followers], he also gets something in return. Now that’s white hat. If however that sharewall is showing blocking the actual content to the user but not to Google, then it’s black hat.

That being said, I wouldn’t trust the words of the notorious young black hatter who ranked for Rand Fishkin. It is in Charles’ best interest for these tactics to remain off of Google’s penalty radar. Where’s the money at for Charles?

Prediction:  Sharewalls Are the New Guest Posts

As I put on my black thinking cap, I had a realization – sharewalls are going through the phase that guest posts have. There’s good and bad guest posts, just like there can be good or bad sharewalls. There’s going to be people who swear by them, and then those who simply hate them — but once a white hat sharewall tactic becomes a best practice, the irony is that sharewalls will start following the path of guest posts. Here’s a taste of the ridiculous advice you’ll hear in the future:

  1. Social share text should be natural and that you should not have more than 25% of these shares include your targeted search term.
  2. Social share content should be as varied as possible, duplicate texts are less valuable, so use a random social share text generator.
  3. Social shares need to be diversified. You need to have social shares on every major social platform.

Yikes!

I predict that there will still be really good guest posts out there in the future and just as many ethical implementations of sharewalls— but I expect just as much evil to come out of sharewalls as there could be good.

I’d love to hear your comments below.

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  • Chande

    Again as said previously – it’s all about user experience – I like this plugin (http://codecanyon.net/item/social-download-system-for-wordpress/2416289?WT.ac=solid_search_item&WT.seg_1=solid_search_item&WT.z_author=TylerQuinn) that “upsells” the reader to get the article / more info with a social share. Again, depends on the context and your own preference.

  • Larry Kim

    i think the upvotes need to be weighted by comment position

    • victorpan

      That’s a very valid bias! Extrapolating quantitative data through qualitative observation won’t ever be perfect, but it’s still interesting to be able to see the rough big picture. I’ll try to eliminate this bias the next time I have a more controlled environment.

  • Charles Floate

    Thanks for the feature Victor, though I prefer to be called a Grey hat 😉