Hey, Merlin Mann: Is Bashing Charlatans Useful?

I’m a fan of Merlin Mann’s work on 43 Folders and how he approaches problems. Figuring out good ways to do things and, more importantly, what’s worth doing at all, is good stuff.

One of Merlin’s favorite subjects is pointing out the ridiculousness of “productivity” websites that post new tips dozens of times per day. As he’s mentioned, you’re not doing anyone any favors by chewing up their time with recycled productivity tips. The best tips, in most cases, being, “get back to work.” He gets into this starting around 3:15 into this video:

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now) from Merlin Mann on Vimeo.

Another topic that he often tackles is charlatan businesses such as the snake oil salesmen we see pimping SEO (Search Engine Optimization) services and self-proclaimed social media gurus. These tend to be consultants who may or may not be able to provide anything of value to clients. Additionally, at least part of what they sell isn’t all that far from common sense (ex. “If you want more online friends, don’t act like a jerk online.”).

Merlin tends to make some blanket statements about consultants in industries like this, suggesting that they’re ALL basically selling common sense advice or snake oil. Clearly, if people are selling snake oil, there is a problem. But when did selling common sense advice become a scam? People are more than willing to pay to hear things they already know. Look at how many people sign up for marathon training groups and weight loss programs. Common sense has value – especially when it comes from people who’ve been down that road before who can adjust the wheel a bit if necessary.

Somehow, this inspired me to talk to the camera a bit to cut a response to Merlin’s narrative. This is my attempt to differentiate the people who deserve to be ridiculed from those who are under the radar and those who actually know what they’re doing.

I’m all for knocking on companies and consultants who write checks with their mouth that their ass can’t cash, but let’s be clear that this is generally only a small slice of people working in any given industry (outside of MLM).

16 thoughts on “Hey, Merlin Mann: Is Bashing Charlatans Useful?”

  1. Getting pretty sick of hearing this same crap over and over, but what can you do…Calacanis spouts it, Rex chimes in, now add Merlin to the mix.

    The sad thing is Calacanis and Rex have actually built things, near as I can tell…Merlin mostly just talks about productivity, and creativity and knows productive people. Don’t get me wrong huge amounts of energy are invested in creating all the content that he produces but a quick glance at Wikipedia doesn’t show a whole lot of tangible things.

    Sure he’s quirky and funny but I put him more in the tech comedy dept.

  2. @ed [This is good]

    Thanks a million for this, Ed. Honored (for real).

    I like your approach, and that model does make a lot of sense for explaining one kind of phenomenon — especially in what I’d loosely call “sales.” By this I mean, that if you have the right mix of competence and charisma, you can *probably* sell just about anything. Ditto “management,” to some degree, right?

    But I think it leaves off a couple relevant points (axes?).

    First, when I take “shots” at SEOs and social media gurus, it’s not because of anything having to do with the axis of “competence” — being experts at what they do isn’t the issue. Burglars and con men can be great at what they do, but even if you admire them as puckish, chaotic-neutral antiheroes, you certainly wouldn’t want their means of employment to “catch on” any more than it already has; if *everybody* started behaving that way, we’d experience a net loss of awesome. In my opinion, what these folks do, in the aggregate, is plainly selfish and harmful.

    With respect, I do stand by that without asterisks or apologies.

    What I’m most skeptical about is disingenuous “help” (in which the welfare and improvement of the “helped” is the opposite of a priority) and a “stuffing envelopes” mentality that persuades a desperate or vulnerable person to learn to swindle in the way they were swindled.

    In both instances, we’re not talking about neutral things here:

    1. the increasingly black hat nature of SEO and social media saturation (exploiting the openness of the web for blatantly selfish reasons),
    2. the malignant promises implied by pyramid scheme-style businesses and blogs (problogging about problogging? really?), and
    3. the stunningly dangerous effect of offering “help” that is precisely the opposite of what it appears to be (advice on procrastination, productivity, and “simplicity” 12 or more times a day?).

    These are what I’m bummed by. Competence aside. These are, IMO, Bad Things.

    It might help me to know more about which particular people you feel were unfairly slandered in my drive-by announcement. To me? “SEOs” that solely teach practical readability and semantic markup are web developers. “Social media consultants” who also go out of their way to warn you about the often-modest rewards of pretending to publicly pay attention to people you don’t know, are mostly doing smart PR or customer service consulting. And “self-help gurus” who repeatedly remind you not to spend all day reading self-help? Gosh, I certainly couldn’t argue with that approach and would never feel the need to defend it.

    Also, regarding my tone? I put things strongly for a reason, Ed. People hear thousands of voices every day nudging them to explore these dark (and unprofitable and sketchy and damaging) corners of the web. My loud, annoying, too-opinionated voice sticks out so much partly because there are aren’t THAT many high-profile people on the web encouraging you to be circumspect about how many high-profile people from the web you listen to.

    That’s only a paradox if being in a minority makes it so. Because my gut is that I’m saying something a lot of folks haven’t heard and might really benefit from, regardless of how weird or annoying it makes me look. I can live with that because I truly believe in what I’m saying.

    All that said. I TOTALLY take your point. And I do thank you. Very much. Christ knows I get things wrong all the time, and I LOVE being reminded that despite all that yelling I do, the web is also made out of thoughtful, sane people like you. Seriously. Thanks for this.


    If you don’t think butt jokes and lengthy articles about pens are tangible then I’m not sure what to say. Because I do make a *lot* of butt jokes. Like. A lot. And I really like pens, too. And butt jokes.

  3. @Merlin, thanks for the response. Good point about the need, potentially, for additional axes to get into this. My illustration, in this case, presumes that something of value is attempting to be sold, but a Z axis could represent a scale of ethics or value of the service.

    Disingenuous help is definitely running rampant these days. I recently met a guy who explained to me over a beer how difficult it was to choose a new cell phone with so many new phones coming out every day. He suffered from paralysis by analysis. Link bait driven sites offering “sneak peeks” of yet to be released phones are doing nothing to help this guy make an informed decision, but they’re generating plenty of nutrient-free page views. The kicker here is that the guy’s current phone’s battery is being held in place with duct tape, so the right answer for him is whatever phone a hobo will hand down to him.

    I do some SEO stuff by day, so that probably impacts my perspective on your commentary. While developers play a big role in many aspects of search engine optimization, I see the typical competent SEO as being someone who straddles the fence between development, design, content creation, and analytics. They’re the “people persons” of web development who tie it together. At least, that seems to be the case when I’ve seen it work well.

    I dig your style and appreciate that you share your realizations of how ridiculous it is that help can be turned into harm through fire hoses of questionably valuable tutorials. That’s great stuff. I think we all have moments where we step back and wonder where our time has gone only to realize it went to ______. You do an awesome job sharing those WTF moments where you realize things like productivity tips can turn into productivity time sucks.

    I’m going to catch up on Seven Chicken Soup Hacks for the Four Hour Work Week Soul now.

  4. “I’m going to catch up on Seven Chicken Soup Hacks for the Four Hour Work Week Soul now.”

    Ha! – Best line I’ve read all Friday!

  5. I’m ignorant of this situation with SEOs. But I felt the urge to give each of you?Merlin and Ed?a virtual high-five for reminding me that there is still intelligent dialogue passing to and fro along these internet wires.

    Thank you both.

  6. @Ryan, a Venn Diagram, eh? There’s a time and a place for that. Meritocracy issues aren’t limited to the web, of course. The music industry is a good example of that. To me, the way to deal with this is to understand that Google isn’t Consumer Reports.

    The absurdity of firehosing of productivity tips is a fun nugget. The trick, in my mind, to dealing with sites like that is to read them second hand, or stumble across them through search at a teachable moment. If a particularly killer set of tips on a topic is published, that will tend to find me through mentions on blogs I read daily. And when I get a hankering for some gmail strategery, I’m 1 second away from laundry lists of information at a time when I may be able to apply it.

    @Benjamin, thanks for the kind words.

  7. Perhaps a Venn Diagram would have been more appropriate.

    What Merlin is really doing, at least in my estimation, is warning his audience of the increasingly large and downright troubling intersection of “people who seek to make the internet less of a meritocracy” and “people who have financial interest in distracting us to the point where we can’t make things.”

    Seems like a noble cause to me.

  8. Merlin does make some broad accusations. I probably agree with many of them.

    There’s one word that Ed mentions that Merlin does not. This word is analytics. Since analytics is a big part of SEO, I would like to know why he thinks it is selfish and harmful.

  9. @paul jahn

    Dude, I’m all about analytics. A champion of analytics, actually, for reasons I’ll explain below. Man, I tell anyone who’ll listen to drop those couple lines of Google Analytics into every page and then just let er rip. Even if you don’t look at it for months, just start letting the data pile up. It’s the single smartest thing a web person can do, IMO.

    Two big points:

    1. Wanting traffic and success is universal and good.

    I want it, you want it, everyone wants it. I’d hate for people to think I’m saying “don’t try to be successful on the web,” because, Lordy, I’m not. It’s my job to do those things. Clearly.

    What I *am* saying is that success and traffic should, wherever possible, be organic, sane, honest, and based on doing strong work that merits the kind of attention that Google et al typically use to assign importance and relevance. It’s why Google beat Alta Vista, but it’s also why so many people are obsessed with this cargo cult of rising in the SERPs.

    “Link building,” overly ambitious comment spamming, stuffed keywords, and all the other tricks that many black- and grey-hat SEOs use is cheating. Period. This stuff harms users and it also harms the companies who are foolish enough to do it. It hurts their credibility for chump change, and exposes them to the dreaded Google ban.

    Part of the problem, from my perspective, is that “SEO” used to mean something pretty different when I was still doing web development. It meant making it easy for sites like Google to love and promote your real work; it didn’t mean, as it often does now, doing everything possible to gin up your results right to the point of penalization.

    So maybe we’re just using a term differently. But, my gut is that people are not paying SEOs big bucks to learn the importance of “ and a good title tag. I could certainly be wrong, and am open to the correction.

    2. Smart analytics let you be a thoughtful host. If you choose to be.

    Analytics, to me, are about much more than ego surfing, intelligence about ad-buying, and marketing effectiveness, although they’re awesome at all three.

    Analytics, when used well, also let you learn what works (for now) so you can periodically kill off the stuff whose useful-to-annoying ratio isn’t cutting it. For this very reason, I LOVE A/B testing. It also lets you learn, for example, where conditional presentations might be effective and useful and helps you evolve a better experience for your visitors as well as a more profitable business for yourself.

    Thing is I look at a site like HuffPo (via my blog: http://bit.ly/14JVP), for example, and I see nothing like that. A glance at their code shows they’re using analytics by Sitemeter, ScorecardResearch, BuzzFeed, plus, of course, Google Analytics — which they are using to also track every outgoing link (very smart, by the way)

    All swell, but how’s it helping their users?

    I see a spray and pray approach to throwing every conceivable cheesy traffic-builder onto every page in a way that says, “Eff You, reader.” They could easily determine which of the many social sharing badges work best, which self-linky promotions work best, which chrome most or least helps *anyone*. But they don’t. Because they’re desperate for empty, dumb traffic. And it shows. Horribly so.


    Anything that helps a business make smarter and saner decisions is swell. But I see a lot of sites of all sizes going down the tubes by playing ridiculous (and, yes, ineffective) games that insult the intelligence of every person who actually cares about what’s happening in that tiny little postage stamp of “content.” It implies that a business can only succeed by attracting people who don’t mind being tricked or somehow enjoy having their time deliberately wasted.

    I’m all about figuring out how to be successful and well-trafficked. I just get the sense there’s a lot of terrible advice out there that’s driving people, businesses, and publishers toward the dark side by encouraging them to pee in the village well for what amounts to a handful of cold nickels.

    And I think that’s a shame for everybody involved.

    Again: way open to correction on any of this.

  10. Merlin, I won’t try to correct you on any of this because I agree with you on at least 95% of what you just wrote.

    You’re right. I think we are using the term differently. It sounds like you understand and use analytics at a level that many don’t. To me that says you do some good SEO on your own. You obviously don’t consider it SEO, and that’s just fine.

    Maybe “search marketing” would be better. I consider that more of an umbrella term that takes in about 5 different acronyms. 🙂 Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

  11. The problem I see isn’t so much that the “how to” industry exploits people’s ignorance and insecurity, because I’m sure some do, but as Merlin mentions at one point in the vid, a lot of them are not even aware that they’re keeping people in that state. They write for search engines and unique visitors, not for the returner that should move on. This should be implicit, but surprisingly, and one of the points I think Merlin is trying to get at, it’s a little more subtle. The blame here is half and half; they don’t know how to tell when to move on and you don’t know when to move on.

    If it isn’t too much bother, I’ll leave this link to a John Cleese video presentation that I think fits well with the whole thread of assessing your competency level.


    Around the 9 minute mark is my favorite part of the talk when he says:

    “To know how good you are at something requires the same skills that it does to be good at that thing. Which means, if you’re absolutely hopeless at something, you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely hopeless at it. And this is a profound discovery. That most people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, have absolutely no idea that they have no idea what they’re doing.”

  12. I agree with Paul a lot of the bitching that I hear/see/read comes down to semantics and definitions of online marketing. Most of these complaints come down to the fact that Merlin, and the other rockstars of the internet make all the right moves, its not surprising they have been doing this a long time.

    But where most of the arguments fail to hold water with me is that they think that what their doing comes naturally or is somehow common sense to everyone else.

    SEO might just be asking for a link when writing a review or testimonial for a vendor, customer. It might be writing up/posting a “how to” article in a subject that your company possesses specialized knowledge.

    Social Marketing might just be asking/looking to see your long term customer is on twitter or something as simple as asking your employees to fill out their employer field on facebook. It doesn’t always have to be about a “limited time offer this” or “sign up for my newsletter to receive that” type of stuff.

    There is a lot of poor advice out there and for sure. A lot of the crap is thinly veiled get rich quick MLM type scams that puts short term gains above and potentially at the expense of long term viability. But in all that noise there is good signal and todays savvy web users are the ones that can figure out which is which.

  13. @merlin: I forget who said this—I wanna say Andy Baio but I could be wrong—but the quote was something like “All SEO that anyone really needs to know is already common sense: Use descriptive titles and permalink URLs, and mark-up your document appropriately.” I get the sense that the type of site you have really been after are the ones that look 100% different when you apply the “Readability” bookmarklet, the kind built to serve the search engine and not the reader.

    I think you’re dead right. Shitty chrome has come a long way. I remember back when everyone was on Geocities, “shitty chrome” meant having a “link exchange ring” banner on your site, or having some awful cloud background on your Simpsons site, and an animated-GIF that people could click on to send you an e-mail. Now it’s irrelevant linkbait and links to one’s own A-LIST BLOGGER BOOTCAMP or some shit. And I find that SO much more offensive.

  14. @ryan I think you’re right on.

    If you’re creating good stuff, you don’t need to “market” yourself to a search engine, or fill your site with link bait, or ask others to link to you because you mentioned them in a post, or because “I put you on my site, so you don’t want to be a dick, do you?”

    @ryanl The thing is, this stuff *isn’t* hard, provided one thing: you create something worth looking at. If someone is interested in what you do/write/say, like I am with Merlin, they will seek that out regardless of the SEO, social media, web2.0.1 stuff that went into marketing it. A site like Tumblr pops up, I get on that and eventually look for or come across someone like Merlin, and it’s instantly bookmarked. When I am particularly intrigued or have something to contribute, I reblog/comment/etc. I, and people like me, are Merlin’s marketing/SM/SEO junk.

    But where folks like Ed come in is when you’re talking about bigger businesses who won’t buy an ad without market surveys first. Or folks who do create good stuff but don’t understand that internet “thing.” And that has value. And I don’t think that guys like Ed are what Merlin has been ripping on.

    In the past month, I have had to find manuals online for several items I was going to sell on Craigslist. Between several searches for different products, the top hit has been a site called fixya. com. It’s a horribly designed, useless site that contains no information but does have tons of ads. That site is pure rubbish that gets in the way of me finding what I’m looking for. I think that’s what Merlin is so against.

  15. Thats funny, that you mention fixya. One company that I work with has had great success building their online reputation by submitting answers to questions on fixya that no one else knows the answer to.

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