Over the past ten to twelve years, various SEM practitioners have brought up the need for industry standards. I started asking the question in 1998, and others have brought it up since, but the industry seems to have a laissez faire attitude.
Albeit, we’ve seen some standardization steps taken by the search engines themselves. Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft got together on the Sitemaps protocol, and Google, Ask.com, and Microsoft are now anonymizing log file data. Subsequently, Google called for international privacy standards. The November 2007 FTC public forum on behavioral advertising also focused on privacy concerns. These are all steps toward industry standardization with regard to consumer privacy, an issue search engines must address to maintain public trust. But search engines are not as motivated to establish standards for search engine marketing tactics.
Obstacles to standardization
The legion of search engine marketing practitioners is too fragmented to have a leader calling the shots that others will follow. After years of competing against each other, the white-hat/black-hat divide seems to be gravitating toward white-hat dominance, although there are still some black-hat practitioners in the marketplace. Matt Cutts recently said in his blog, “I was looking over a list of 20+ black-hat SEO companies that I compiled back in 2002. The majority either went out of business or have transformed into white-hat SEO companies.”
The wide variance in range of services provided by SEM firms is another reason why industry standardization is difficult to achieve. We have standalone SEO or PPC providers and firms that provide both SEO and PPC. Then we have the ad agencies with specialized search departments. Many traditional and interactive agencies provide search engine marketing in addition to a bevy of traditional and online marketing services. You can get email marketing, search marketing, banner creative, direct mail, and media buying services from these one-stop shops. By the same token, many of the SEO/PPC firms have expanded their services to include search and other marketing services as well. Part of the reason for the lack of industry standardization is the fact that your typical SEM firm is in no way typical.
Looking beyond the obstacles
Looking beyond these drawbacks, I also see signs that we may be getting ready to establish standards. For one thing, the industry is maturing. In some respects, search is still in its infancy because ongoing changes occur rapidly. But the saturation point is fast approaching in search marketing as growth begins to slow. Search marketing was a $9.4B budget item in 2006 when the SEMPO State of Search Marketing survey reported a 62% growth rate over 2005. SEMPO’s report for 2007 is not out yet, but industry experts believe growth is slowing due to market saturation and maturity.
Another sign of industry maturity is the growth in search marketing training programs. In addition to all of the individual courses and seminars, there are also search training courses in conjunction with search industry conferences like SMX and SES. We have a number of organizations offering certificates of completion for online and offline search marketing courses like the SEMPO Institute Search Engine Marketing courses and the DMA Search Engine Marketing Certification Program. There are even a few universities that offer search engine marketing courses in their curriculum. These advancements also indicate the time is near for establishing common search marketing standards of behavior and techniques.
To understand why little progress has been made over the past decade, below is a brief review of past attempts.
Act 1: In August 1998, Danny Sullivan wrote an article in SearchEngineWatch, “Promoters Call for Certification.” The article stated that principals from four major promotion and design firms had sent an open letter to the major search engines calling for establishment of a certification program for optimization professionals. At the time, Danny said,
“The letter is the first such coordinated move from the Web promotion community ever regarding search engine positioning issues.”
I was among those signing the letter to search engines, asking them to develop an SEO certification program in order to eliminate spammers and other search engine gaming techniques. At issue was the fact that Infoseek, then a popular search engine, had banned pages redirecting to other pages. In those days, optimization techniques depended on the redirects, which were the only way to record visitors and charge for optimization. I thought Infoseek’s ban came about due to the heavy abuse of redirect pages loaded with spam by the adult Web site industry. Reputable SEO firms weren’t interested in spamming with redirects, and the idea of certification seemed like a good remedy for the “Wild West” mentality of the day. However, the letter was politely acknowledged and ignored, except for Danny’s comments.
Act 2: In November 2001, Sullivan wrote “Desperately Seeking Search Marketing Standards,” a review on further attempts to establish search marketing standards. He started by saying every so often there’s a new push for search marketing standards and then cautioned they’ll need lots of luck because “the barriers to establishing standards remain substantial.” He opined that search engines are reluctant to be transparent because overzealous SEOs would likely come up with heretofore unknown spam techniques for favorable rankings.
Sullivan mentioned early efforts by WebSeed to provide a “Search Engine Promotion Code of Ethics” in 2000 (no longer available online) and, of course, Bruce Clay’s “Search Engine Optimization Code of Ethics,” which has been used extensively by search marketers since then. Both documents supported Clay’s position against doorway pages, a controversy then and now.
Sullivan discussed the whitepapers issued against spam, like “The Classification of Search Engine Spam” by Alan Perkins, as well as the disagreements over what constitutes spam. The article reviewed several attempts to begin the dialog on standards, including the efforts of Terry Van Horne’s SEOPros.org, the World Association of Internet Marketers (no longer online), and the heated threads on this topic at WebmasterWorld. All was to no avail.
Act 3: In April 2004, Sullivan wrote, “Spam Rules Require Effective Spam Police.” This article countered Kevin Ryan’s assertion in “Spam, Unprofitable Spam” that the industry has no rules. Sullivan pointed out that the rules are implicit in the Webmaster guidelines posted at Google and Yahoo!.
He discussed the futility of lobbying for standards by saying, “SEM pioneer Paul Bruemmer pushed for search engine optimization certification back in 1998. But as I wrote then, just having a “rule book” doesn’t mean an end to spam. We also had a push in 2001 for search engine marketing standards, which also has gone nowhere in terms of reducing spam in search engines.”
Sullivan suggested that a real solution to the spam problem would be for search engines to publish a list of companies they have banned. While this seems like a good way to help consumers avoid non-reputable SEM firms, the search engines were afraid of possible lawsuits.
He mentioned SEMPO’s reluctance to enforce spam rules for its members, agreeing that it’s not the responsibility of a third-party group to enforce rules they don’t create. Since then, SEMPO has created a Metrics and Standards Task Force with a mission “to develop a set of standards and guidelines specific to search marketing.”
Back then, the only advice Sullivan could give to those seeking standards was to follow search engine guidelines and ensure your vendor does as well if you outsource. He cautioned the engines are good at detecting spam and other non-sanctioned techniques, and while they can’t catch every single instance, it’s not worth the risk of being banned.
Where we stand today
In August 2007, the IAB and DMA in the UK launched a certification program (one that left Danny less than impressed). In January 2008, the IAB announced a successor program, an online best practice resource to “reinforce its commitment to trust, transparency and accountability within the search industry.” The new initiative has the backing of Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. To be hosted on the IAB UK Web site, the Search Best Practice Resource will provide access to materials promoting an understanding of key search marketing issues and how advertisers can conduct search marketing responsibly.
Complementary to existing material on the site, the new resource will include how-tos on search marketing best practices for basic and advanced techniques. There will be checklists to help advertisers through key steps in the search process, and a section describing basic search engine policies on trademarks, user privacy, and fraudulent or invalid clicks. The resource will be managed and updated through the Search Council, which is leading the project in conjunction with the DMA and other search industry projects aimed at advertising agencies.
While the IAB and DMA have taken some steps to establish search marketing standards, SEMPO states in its FAQs that it is not a standards body or a policing organization:
“Is SEMPO a standards body for the SEM industry? SEMPO is not a standards body or a policing organization. Membership in or involvement with SEMPO is not a guarantee of a particular firm’s capabilities, nor does it signify industry approval or disapproval of their practices.”
SEMPO has a Metrics and Standards Task Force, and we have contacted the committee to see where they stand with respect to search marketing standards. As stated on the committee’s description, “The mission of this task force is to develop a set of standards and guidelines specific to search marketing.”
Call for standards circa 2008
As you can see, the call for search engine marketing standards dates back to 1998, and the industry hasn’t stepped up to the plate yet. Search has grown and become mainstream, but the industry needs to increase its value, authenticity, and integrity by identifying a set of standards to help replace devious SEO techniques that still tarnish our industry.
The lack of SEO standards is one reason why some businesses give this valuable marketing strategy short shrift. While 75% of marketers say they use SEO (MarketingSherpa 2008 Search Marketing Benchmark Guide), they obviously spend more money on PPC (SEMPO State of Search Marketing 2006). Right now, the only thing that marketers can do is obtain a methodology statement from their search agency, read it carefully, and ensure the agency follows search engine guidelines, which are somewhat similar but also vary.
Many search agencies say they’re committed to SEM best practices. But establishing standards will take more than lip service. Real people will have to stick their neck out to get this done. It will take leadership by individuals, by search agencies, and by our industry trade organization. We need search standards to bring more credibility to our trade.
Paul J. Bruemmer has provided search engine marketing expertise and in-house consulting services to prominent American businesses since 1995. As Director of Search Marketing at Red Door Interactive, he is responsible for the strategic implementation of search engine marketing activities within Red Door’s Internet Presence Management (IPM) services.
Note From Danny: See also A Bad Month For SEO’s Reputation for some recent thoughts from me on the standards issue. Paul is one of several panelists on our Is It Time For Search Marketing Standards? panel at the SMX West show next week. We’ll have coverage of discussion out of that session after it happens.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.