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Seth Pokes the SEO Hive, Gets Stung

By Andrew Goodman, 7/20/2004

When Seth Godin decided to cast the professional "search engine optimizer" in a less-than-flattering light, it reminded me a bit of the time I naively decided to critique the Open Directory
Project. Silly me. I assumed the audience reading would be sympathetic to a conceptual
argument drawn (at least to some extent) from the sociology literature on "degree
of professionalism."

My audience, however, was not sympathetic, because it wasn't made up of members
of the general public, it was made up largely of people who were volunteer
editors for the Open Directory Project. Fortunately, at least one person, an
ODP co-founder, has forgiven me for this harsh appraisal, probably because
he recognizes that the argument was principled, not personal. I still think
the analogy is fair: I don't mind a volunteer firefighting force doing a great
job in a small, remote town. If I had the time, I might even join one. But
in a big city, I want real, paid, full-time firefighters. Too much is at stake.


Professionalism matters. With a professional code of ethics that is actually
enforceable, there is recourse against poor practitioners. Engineers, lawyers,
doctors, and psychologists can be decertified, sued, etc. if they don't adhere
to the standard.


Unlike Godin, I've done SEO work for money (though I now focus elsewhere).
I've never discussed this with him, but I've often said that the side benefits
of shifting my consulting focus to paid search took me off guard. It turned
out to be a more predictable exercise. At the heart of marketplace (and journalistic)
scepticism about SEO is the thorny question of deliverables. What are you doing
for the client and how can you prove it? Today's "white hat SEO's" don't
admit that the salad days of SEO (in many SEO's eyes) were those days when
you could glide by on mystique and monthly "web ranking reports." (And
these pretty rankings on obscure search phrases make the client money how,
exactly?)


The client requests we began receiving, after I ditched SEO a couple of years
ago, started coming from companies who had something called "advertising
budgets" - companies who therefore were more likely to have business models
that could sustain a fairly-priced market for clicks. This does give us a taste
of what search engine marketers might indeed aspire to someday -- a future
that Godin portrays as "a
day when Tivo has Java and TCP/IP and there's a million channels"? We
might actually get this new world. If we keep at it, "companies with advertising
budgets" might actually come to agencies that look more like us, the way
they traditionally went to the big ad agencies.


Relying too much on free clicks is analogous to a low-dollar policy or protected
trade: it props up the weak. Long term, it's unhealthy. The companies that
are heavily dependent on penny clicks or entirely free traffic as their only
marketing method tend to be weaker companies. Changing my consulting focus
to help stronger companies made my job a lot easier. It's easier to help someone
who already knows business than someone who expects miracles. So that's the
SEO business as I encountered it. Not only were a good 25% of the consultants
in the field downright shady, casting the rest of us in a poor light, but 25%
of the prospective clients were bad apples of one sort or another. It takes
one to know one, or something like that.


(Boring, yawner of a caveat: if you can get some nice natural search traffic,
it's great and it can help your biz. Ho hum. That goes without saying. Now
back to infuriating people.)


Like Godin, I want search engine marketers to stop being so thin-skinned and
realize that maybe we aren't solving all the world's problems, and if we do
our jobs too well without regard for the consequences of that work, we might
actually be creating problems. Many SEO's regularly and unapologetically bite
the hand that feeds them -- namely the up-to-now vastly generous hand of the
search engines, which do cost money to run. A recent comment by an unnamed
poster on Search Engine Watch forum where this topic is being discussed went
along the lines of "I don't have a lot of sympathy for a billion dollar
company, so I'll worry about myself first. It's not like they're hurting." Sure,
Google's doing well, but in spite of SEO, not because of it. Indeed, they're
arguably the first major algorithmic search engine (Teoma is another that springs
to mind) that has not been bankrupted by search engine spammers who
gamed the system without giving anything back to it. Remember AltaVista? They,
along with Inktomi and others, fought a losing battle with search engine spam
before moving to paid inclusion and/or selling out to Yahoo. Google may stay
a step or two ahead of it, if it can get its next-generation personalization
technology out soon.


Many in the SEO game would think nothing of criticizing an SUV driver or oil
company for adding to air pollution. But heaven forbid that we take a hard
look at whether our own activities might be adding to the level of pollution
in search results.


Godin popularized and advocated something called permission marketing, which
as we know was roundly abused by various large corporations who thought nothing
of adding to the clutter in inboxes under the guise of permission. But Godin
was at least frank enough to admit it when life in permissionland didn't turn
out perfectly. Indeed, he questioned whether permission marketers blew
it
."


The argument that there is such a thing as "benign" SEO is well
taken. There are probably less honorable professions than helping someone improve
their content or make better use of title tags, assuming for the moment that
this is all a good SEO might do. (Most, of course, throw a little algorithm-gaming
and low-level link-farming into their service. They, and their clients, just
can't resist.)


But can't we ever just admit that in a perfect world -- in a world that truly
served searchers -- things would be better off if we just left well enough
alone?


Take the example of someone with a popular name. Getting your site to the
top of the rankings, if your name is Brian Smith, might be worth something
to you. The problem with that is, Google's job is to reward the site that ought
to be
at the top, not YOU. Since hundreds of Brian Smiths might be worthy
in different ways, in this case we're at an impasse. We can't even look at
the results and say anything like "Google's doing a good job," or "a
good SEO can easily tell you how these sites got their rankings, and should
be able to do so next month." On a search for "Brian Smith," I
see nothing but a confusing mess.


This Brian Smith ranks #2, whereas this Brian
Smith
is way down on page 7 or 8 of the listings. Who knows why. Do Kobe
Bryant fans get the nod over political science doctoral candidates who claim
a fondness for the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment and F.A. Hayek?


So why not do a little optimizing?


Maybe a better question would be: why not shell out ten cents for a sponsored
listing referral if it means so much to you to break a virtual tie amongst
thousands of almost-identical results? Going to so much effort in the pursuit
of "free" traffic is like driving 100 miles to save a dollar on a
tank of gas.


Basic search-engine-friendly design and content creation are never mistakes
(yawn). But we didn't really need to explain that to Seth Godin, surely. After
all, doesn't he blog, and don't people link to his posts out of genuine interest?


When white-hat SEO's are done feeling sorry for themselves that Seth Godin
or reporters from the world's major newspapers want to lump them in with the "black
hats," it might be time for some serious introspection. And the idea
of a set of professional standards
might serve to head off embarrassing
muckraking by clueless 60 Minutes investigators, though they won't
fool a smart cat like Godin for a second.


Bruce Clay, a veteran of the SEO business
who maintains a popular "search engine relationships chart" on his
site, has been a strong advocate of the idea of an SEO code of ethics. A few
SEO firms have already signed
onto the fledgling initiative
. It's a start, but as I argued on Search
Engine Watch forum, it could create as many problems as it solves. For starters,
if I don't do SEO, but rather other forms of online marketing, I don't have
the SEO seal on my site. At some point, some competitor is going to whisper
to a prospect that I don't believe in ethical standards because I lack the
official-looking seal. I suppose my response would have to be to go looking
for a better-looking seal from an organization of longer standing.


Larger advertising and marketing agencies who now "also do SEO" would
likely shun the seal, because it would marginalize them. And there is the "thou
doth protest too much" aspect. The SEO Code of Ethics could wind up working
like reverse psychology, much like "I am not a crook," or "I
did not have sexual relations with that woman."


Let's be clear. Building bridges, fixing broken bones, and representing accused
criminals are genuine professions worthy of societal attention, worthy of serious,
sustained, and deeply-studied standards. Worth of a Royal
Commission
, even. It's not at all clear that gaming search results -- or
even "helping clients create content to achieve more organic search traffic," or
whatever -- should be seen in the same light. As Clay and others are now arguing,
any professional code of conduct should begin with the obvious: a pox on "scammers" --
those who take money for services not rendered, fabricate fictitious stories
about search engines, and clearly commit fraud in ways that would be punishable
by law. Even here, the line is difficult to establish. One side says it performed
a service, the other says it did not. A matter for small claims court, or some
informal watchdog site run by a gaggle of random members of the industry? Both?


The goal of shunning scammers seems somehow too modest. Of course, any self-respecting
SEO company already does that.


Even if a modest exercise in moral suasion towards better standards is pursued,
it leaves at least three major (but not insurmountable) problems: first, the
governance problem of how to ensure impartiality in accreditation and prevent
corruption in enforcement; second, the lack of a commonly-agreed definition
of search engine spam and the likelihood that many leading SEO practitioners
will simply deny that their "link farm" is indeed a "link farm" (etc.);
third, the question of what disincentives and penalties might be applied to
those who don't comply.


When MarketingSherpa released its first guide to SEO firms (now in a third
edition
), it boldly waded into an industry-cleansing role that others
wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. We got a taste of the potential for
disagreement when one prominent firm was left out of the guide, which includes
definitions and judgments about methodologies along with information about
firms. (Tests of SEO effectiveness have now been de-emphasized in Sherpa's
guide, a good thing considering the fact that some included firms, including
my fledgling company in 2001, were able to game them by pointing to great
rankings achieved on behalf of clients -- rankings which later turned out
to be temporary.) The aggrieved firm decried the potential injury to its
reputation and made noises about legal action.


Sometime soon, associations and standards codes for the SEO business will
be created in spite of it all, and some will simply keep their distance from
them, along the lines of the jealous relationships between practitioners and
guardians of "mainstream" medicine and purveyors of alternative medicine.
From here, it's impossible to tell whether the current SEO discontents will
be a mere footnote of marketing history, or whether stable search marketing
governance bodies will emerge and provide fodder for a future generation's
M.A. theses.


Andrew Goodman is Editor-at-Large of Traffick.com and the author of "Winning Results with Google Adwords". 

 

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