The Ethical Dilemma of Providing Marketing Services and Tools

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When I first came to Sitening, the company that built Raven, I had a lot of ideas — none of which included the creation of a Web based SaaS. Instead, I focused on providing client services, like Web Design, Software Development, Information Architecture and Online Marketing.

But soon I wanted to build an automated tool that would help me with sales. My idea was to create a parser that would analyze any Web page, and then provide a score between zero and 100, along with a results report card. For me, it was the original Website Grader, and we called it the SEO Analyzer. It’s now a minor tool that we included in Raven, and it’s called the Design Analyzer (a much more accurate name).

The SEO Analyzer was incredibly popular worldwide. Scott Holdren, the developer who coded the tool, also created small score badges that users could post on their websites. Thousands of people did just that, sharing their pride with visitors. It was a neat concept, and one that ended up being repeated and enhanced by several other SEO tool providers in the industry.

The Creation of Raven

The popularity of the SEO Analyzer, and the subsequent skyrocketing SERPs, traffic and business, encouraged us to make more tools. We created simple ones, like a PageRank Checker, and more complex offerings, like our SERP Tracker. We also made the tools free–for the sake of marketing–until the day two things dawned on us:

  1. It was getting too expensive to give the tools away.
  2. We could provide a much better set of tools if people were paying for it.

My vision for the new toolset wasn’t to just build something better. It was also to solve some of the problems inherent with online marketing tools—problems that persist even now. They include:

  1. The inability to communicate with each other. Instead, those tools were (and still are) disparate and incapable of having useful data relationships.
  2. Lack of support for multiple users. There was no easy way to allow team members to conduct and share their work.
  3. No clouded, shared data storage. They could run basic reports, but the reports weren’t saved, and the only way to use the data was to export it to a spreadsheet. (This is still common in some of today’s most popular SEO tools.)
  4. Absence of branded, professional reports for clients. Online marketers were forced to export data from different tools, collect data from their team, and then spend anywhere from a day to a week piecing together client reports.

When we first started building what is now known as Raven, we knew that, assuming we were successful, a toolset like this would ultimately be used by our competitors. We would most likely be in a position of arbitrage, giving our competitors tools to compete with our own services. And while arbitrage was a financial challenge, there was also an ethical one: The data we were storing from other companies could technically be used by Sitening to unfairly compete.

The Ethical Dilemma

The problem of providing both tools and online marketing services has been on my mind since the beginning of Raven. Even though I knew we would never use that data for our own gain, there are people and companies who would if put in our shoes. As Raven grew, we started to lock down the information even more, and also separate it as much as possible from employees who worked on Sitening services. Later, we decided to split up employees within the company, so that they either worked on Raven or on Sitening services, but not both. This removed any temptation someone might get from the pressure to perform.

From time to time, I’d get email messages from prospective Raven users looking for assurance that we wouldn’t use their data for our own gain. While I could promise that we took the privacy of their data seriously, and that we were a highly ethical company, the elephant in the room was always Sitening’s online marketing services.

The End of Services

We’ve always known that for a company like Sitening–one committed to running and supporting a major online marketing software platform–the most ethical course of action is not to provide services that compete with our customers. Unfortunately, this has been no easy task. Sitening, and more specifically Raven, is funded mostly by the income earned from these services. Everything that has made Raven possible has come from our own bootstrapping.

Unlike most of our main competitors, we are not VC funded. It has been a struggle both financially and emotionally, but we have been fortunate enough to have a core team of partners and employees who have helped make the vision of Raven become a reality. We’ve also been incredibly lucky to have professional agencies from around the world take a chance with us. They are the early adopters of our software, whose patience and guidance have helped make Raven what it is today.

Thanks to Raven’s explosive growth over the past few months, I’m proud to announce that Sitening is now in a financial position to end all of Sitening’s services. That means we will no longer be offering anymore online marketing services, and will have our entire staff focused 100 percent on growing and making Raven even better. We hope this move will instill more trust in us from agencies that may have been on the fence about storing their data on Raven. We also hope it will show that we are, as we have always been, committed to privacy, data integrity and ethical business practices.

20 Responses to “The Ethical Dilemma of Providing Marketing Services and Tools”

  1. Even though I’m not a frequent user of your tools but I can understand your situation I’ve worked with a European company before that have had SEO Tools and also provided SEO Consulting.

    It worked pretty well but there was always suspicion and there were a lot of customers that said no to the tool because they worked with another SEO Consulting firm that didn’t want us to “take” the customer.

    It’s a hard decision to make, but I really think that you did right here.

  2. I think WOW is right. This is a huge move that takes a lot of courage & I’m sure comes at a large financial expense.

    It’s nice to see a company do the right thing. Your success has been well deserved & with decisions like this one I’m sure it will only continue.

    Congrats & well done.

  3. Marty Martin

    Wow, congratulations! I know as a Raven user it’s incredibly useful and you-all are highly responsive. This is a bold move. Way to go; hopefully all your customers will appreciate the sacrifice.

  4. Jon, I have always wondered about this, but made the assumption that you guys would act on the up and up, and you have, which is great to see. This final move is a smart one, as the tin foil hats can come on over and see all the tools have to offer. Continued success. I’m working on a blog post about what we discussed at ASW 10. I’ll let you know when that goes out.

  5. Great article! RocketFuel is often in the same dilemma of offering our CMS to other agencies, and not looking like a threat to their business. We’ve gone to great lengths not to intrude on the customers of our agency clients. It can still be a stumbling block for agencies not comfortable with client perception of third party vendors. Fortunately, it’s worked very well for us overall.

    We are also working on productized versions of our CMS, so perhaps we will come to the same crossroad soon. Meeting with a VC next week, let’s see if the dangling carrot appears. Wish us luck either way!

  6. Jen Lopez

    This is great to hear. 🙂 It definitely seems like a sign of the times! And a competitor or not, I always love hearing about awesome companies kicking butt. 😉 I also didn’t really know much of the background of Raven, thanks for the transparency!

  7. Congrats, sir. Raven is a tremendous product that we’ve been using since the inception of Words Go Here, and while sad to see the end of Sitening (once upon a time…), it’s a move that seems not just ethically appropriate, as you indicate, but perhaps more importantly it provides the Raven team a clear line of focus to digging deeper into the Raven toolbox. We’re looking forward to finding out what the year holds.

  8. Jim Banks

    So that was the cryptic stuff you were talking about over fajitas in Vegas.

    When I had my PPC business I gave up on building tools, and focused on servicing clients and let the guys who did tools do them better than I would ever be able to.

    Some of the Chinese Walls I have seen are a joke, and as you said, even though you personally wouldn’t there will always be the naysayers who will accuse you of it.

    Good move man.

  9. Congrats …. definitely the right move. As Wil mentioned above, we always wondered about the connection between your services and the software side. We are looking forward to seeing what the future holds.