A Bad Month For SEO’s Reputation

We seem to be going through another wave of "SEOs are scumbags" incidents, and I find myself with little energy to push back against them with yet another defense of the industry. It’s not that SEO doesn’t deserve better treatment. It’s just that I feel anything I could say, I’ve said before — as have others as well. But below, a round-up of some of the latest developments, including a podcast defense of SEO that I did after Jeremy "Shoemoney" Schoemaker gave SEO some slams.

On January 7, Tech ‘Solutions’ Your Small Biz Can’t Use from Gene Marks in BusinessWeek is what I’d say was the start of the current round. Marks wrote:

Search Engine Optimization
You mean for $5,000 I can get my company’s name on the very top of Google’s search results? Where do I sign? Many business owners have been fooled by the allure of search engine optimization [SEO] — and I’m one of them. I forked over a bunch of dough to a firm in California that promised to get my company’s name on "all the major search engines" when someone was looking for products that we sell. How did they plan to do this? I’m still not really sure, but it had something to do with spiders, black hats, and link farms. That should’ve been enough of a hint that witchcraft was involved. After a brief flirtation with page 47 of MSN’s search results, I gave up. SEO probably does the job for companies with oodles of money, but not for the typical small business.

Somehow, I don’t think the company actually told Marks that it had to do with "black hats and link farms," and part of me thinks that if you’re not really sure, maybe you don’t fork over $5,000 without better understanding what you’re buying.

Part of me, of course, sympathizes with a bad pitch he got and a bad experience that has him authoritatively writing off SEO as being useful to small businesses. But that still made for bad advice.

For example, our Pizza & Salad Gets Local Company Top Ranking In Google discussion at Sphinn covers how David Klein offered to help his local pizza place rank higher on Google for some free food. Free food, folks — not $5,000. Extreme Pizza is now tops at Google, no link farm required. So much for small businesses not needing SEO.

Need more people who disagree with Marks? There are no lack of them:

A few days later, I didn’t help matters when our Get A Free Link From Wired story went up. As I explained in the subsequent An Apology To Wired & The Search Marketing Community post, it was never our intention to encourage link spamming. But no doubt it added to the bad rep that SEO takes in some quarters.

Soon after that, Why I do not like 95% of SEO Experts from Shoemoney, Jeremy Schoemaker, came out. Someone gave Jeremy some unsolicited advice, causing him to have enough:

I claim all the time I am not a SEO and I have never sold SEO services. I always get labeled as a SEO though for some reason. I actually despise being labeled a SEO. Why? SEO’s are like the 21st century car salesmen. Most are slimy and have no clue what they are talking about. They tell you you just need to put spammy keywords in your title tag, keyword tag, and write a spammy as hell description meta tag.

Jeremy might not be an SEO, but he certainly mixes with a lot of high profile ones. That led to a number of people to view his post with disbelief. Are we turning on ourselves now?

As the comments and reactions built up, Jeremy said he’d take on anyone in a debate on his podcast. I said sure, and the conversation happened.

You can listen to the show here at Shoemoney’s site or here at WebmasterRadio.FM. Note I said conversation, not debate. That disappointed some people, who apparently wanted me to slam a folding chair over Shoe’s head.

I like him too much personally to do that. Plus, when you talk to him, you can understand his frustration. Similar to Jason Calacanis, who famously also dismissed most SEOs as slimes, he’s constantly cold-called. Those doing cold calling could arguably be among the worst representatives of any industry. People who do exceptional jobs — or even just good jobs — in an industry in demand rarely need to cold call.

It’s a long show, and we went through a variety of topics, which from memory involved:

  • Why different SEO approaches are relevant to different industries
  • History of trying to get certification and the debate that has caused
  • Problems with letting search engines certify "good" SEOs

There was much more, and Jeremy, Danny and the 95% Affair gives you a written overview of the entire show.

At the end of January, news came out that some slimy SEO types were spamming social media sites on behalf of the UK’s Times Online. The promotions company accused, Sitelynx, is actually run by a friend of mine, Graham Hansell, who I met when I first came to the UK about 13 years ago. I was both sorry to hear his company got caught up in controversy and that the controversy hurt SEO. Some links about it:

A key thing you’ll take away from these stories is how it was described as an SEO issue. Wrote the Guardian:

Times Online is getting it in the neck over some search engine optimisation techniques employed by Sitelynx, a company that the Times has used since 2004 to boost its profile on social bookmarking sites and in search engine results.

Sitelynx employee Piotr Wyspianski (perhaps following company SEO strategy, or perhaps developing his own carpet bombing techniques – we don’t know yet) has seeded "thousands of links" to Times content on sites like Yahoo! Answers, Del.icio.us, Metafilter, StumbleUpon et al, according to Andy Baio on Waxy.org.

Here’s the thing. Social media marketing is not SEO. If you want to be successful with SEO, there are very compelling reasons why you should also be doing SMM. But they aren’t the same. Nevertheless, the Guardian makes them the same, as did many other articles, and so SEO takes another body blow.

To go back to what Greg Boser wrote almost exactly a year ago:

Spamming Digg isn’t an SEO activity. It’s an SMO/SMM activity.

So why is it that all the hip “Social Media Marketing Consultants” struggle with that concept? Is it because deflecting the wrath of all the top Digglets towards the SEO community allows them to slip under the radar with their own client work?

Since SEM/SEO is where I spend the majority of my time, I’ll take responsibility for the guy who auto posts to 50,000 abandoned blogs with the anchor text “Buy Viagra”. He’s an SEO spammer because his actions have the potential to directly impact how a site ranks in a search engine for a specific phrase.

However, I won’t take responsibility for the people who spend their day posting crap on Digg (on behalf of a client) that rarely produces anything more that a short-term flood of traffic, and almost never has any direct impact in terms of helping a site rank for prominent phrases that people are actually typing into the little white box.

That’s not an SEO Spammer. That’s a Social Media Spammer. Accept that fact and move on.

Today, Mark Jackson perhaps caps the current round off with news that American Express is behind advice to bail on SEOs. From a guide they back:

Search engines, like Yahoo! and Google, are usually the first place people will look for you. Make it easier for them to find you. Yahoo! and Google offer tools to let them know the site map structure of your Web site. Also, using clean U.R.L.s such as yourdomain.com/store/widgets instead of yourdomain.com/store.php?id=42&categoryID=widgets will increase your chances of getting indexed in a search engine. Finally, don’t waste money on so-called Search Engine Optimization (S.E.O.) specialists. Search engines are very quick to penalize sites that try to trick their filtering techniques, and once your site has been put on Google’s blacklist, it will take forever to get off.

Heh. Perhaps those compiling such sage wisdom could go back and see what Google actually says about SEOs:

SEO is an abbreviation for "search engine optimizer." Many SEOs and other agencies and consultants provide useful services for website owners, from writing copy to giving advice on site architecture and helping to find relevant directories to which a site can be submitted. However, a few unethical SEOs have given the industry a black eye through their overly aggressive marketing efforts and their attempts to unfairly manipulate search engine results.

Warning about "A few unethical SEOs" as Google does is much different than writing the entire industry off as a waste.

In Mark’s article, he does a good pushback on the Amex guide, plus there’s a thread on the guide’s online forums where he’s posted and others can contribute.

At least there was some good PR this month. You might figure Craig Newmark of Craiglist would be an anti-SEO person, but not so. From a Search Engine Watch interview with him last month:

What are your thoughts on the SEO community in general?

Craig: I think it’s important to get the word out about search engine optimization. SEO is more ethical and less obtrusive than many other online marketing methods. In comparison to many other marketing tactics, SEO is appropriate and not spammy, and it uses sites in a positive way. With time, people get a lot smarter about SEO.

Nice to hear!

As I start off saying, I’m fairly tired of doing long defense pieces. I’ve done many over my years covering the space, and those who are interested can read these from the round I did last year:

One of the other things I’ve done in the past was to organize panels or summits on improving the industry’s reputation overall. As I explained in Shoemoney’s show, some of these lead to the creation of SEMPO, which is now the industry’s biggest professional group, in terms of size and stature.

SEMPO deliberately stayed out of the certification or rating debate when it began because there was enough outcry over any type of industry organization getting started at all. "Who are you to represent me?," was a common reaction from those already in the space and experienced.

I also found when I did these sessions that the issues were complicated. "White hats" would be upset that tactics against search engine guidelines were being used. But "black hats" would complain that white hats might use perfectly safe tactics, charge a lot for them, and produce no results. And when you’d talk further, you’d find black or white, there was often agreement, if not downright anger, over firms using any tactics (black or white) that used heavy pitches and charged for doing nothing. Black hats and white hats united against rip-off hats, if you will.

Since those earlier days, a number of certification and training programs for search marketers have emerged. That’s why when I drafted up the agenda for our SMX West conference that happens later this month, I figured it was time to revisit the issue again. On our first day, we have this session:

Is It Time For Search Marketing Standards? – Now that several groups and organizations are offering certifications in search marketing without massive online debate and uproar, does that mean the oft-discussed idea of agreeing to common search marketing standards of behavior could happen? Let the discussion — and likely debate — begin! This session explains the issues involved, with viewpoints all around.

The session won’t solve things overnight, but perhaps it will contribute to improving the reputation issue. There’s no doubt that SEO has one — and it spills over into search marketing as a whole (search marketing being both SEO and PPC/paid search combined).

But then again, for those feeling all doomy and gloomy, all I can say is that the reputation issue has been out there for years, yet demand for SEO services seems as strong as ever. I doubt the bad reputation will kill SEO any time soon. It just doesn’t make you feel good to know it’s out there.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | SEM Industry: General | SEM Industry: Organizations | SEM Industry: Outsourcing | SEO: General


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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