We have a problem in the search marketing industry, and it’s getting big enough to potentially threaten our livelihoods. The problem is especially dangerous in that customers seeking out SEO services are more confused than ever, which is unfortunate since SEO is no longer a new industry.
A big reason for the confusion is the misuse of industry terms. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was just the general public using incorrect definitions. What makes the problem serious is that it’s primary cause is people in the SEO industry who use words incorrectly.
Here are some common reasons terms get misused and why it’s important for people to get them right:
No standard definitions
Many of the misuses of SEO terms happen because people simply don’t agree on their definitions. The most extreme example of this is the phrase “search engine optimization.” Much of the bad reputation in the SEO industry stems from the fact that ordinary folks are confused by what search engine optimization actually is, how you do it, and what its purpose is in the larger scheme of things. While company A will tell you that SEO is “submitting websites to the search engines” (blech), company B will tell you it’s “manipulating search engine results to provide a more favorable listing for a specific website” (also blech).
Both of those definitions do a huge disservice to those trying to figure out what SEO is and whether or not they need it for their websites. It also makes it difficult for the rest of us to sell true, professional search engine optimization services, which in part consists of fixing broken websites. After all, if someone thinks they simply need someone to submit their website or their keywords to Google and they will magically start appearing in the search results, they’re not going to be interested in having an SEO agency fiddling with their website’s structure and wording to make that happen. They’ll instead find a cheap, incompetent SEO to do what they think they need. When nothing happens, they’ll be one of the majority that believes SEO is crap, impossible, a rip-off, or that it just doesn’t work for their particular industry.
But if the correct definition of SEO was being used consistently by all parties, more people would understand what it is and why it’s necessary–and more so, why it’s hugely valuable.
Lack of knowledge or just plan laziness
Too many articles, blog posts, forum threads and speaker presentations use words incorrectly. How many times have you seen people talk about getting a website to rank? Since the search engines judge the relevancy of individual web pages (not sites), nobody gets a website to rank. They may optimize the website as a whole, but it’s the individual pages that will show up in the search results–or they won’t. The reason why it’s important to use these terms and the many other mis-used ones correctly, is again because it provides potential clients with the wrong expectation of what SEO is all about. If they think that their entire website is what will end up ranking, they end up with an incorrect picture of what needs to be done, or they think it’s a simple practice of optimizing just their home page. In theory it sounds a lot easier to rank one website than to rank 1000 web pages, no? If only.
Old wives tales
What I mean here are phrases such as “search engine penalty.” People bandy this one about to describe all sorts of things beyond the scope of what it actually means. From pages not ranking to duplicate web page content. (God forbid they just suck at SEO!)
The true definition of a search engine penalty is something that a search engine hits a web page with when it’s determined (either algorithmically or manually) that the page has crossed the line from search engine optimization to search engine spam. And believe it or not, it’s not easy to spam the search engine by mistake. Most people know when they’ve crossed the line. Problems arise, however, when people use an incorrect definition of SEO to begin with, as above. If one believes that SEO is about tricking the search engines, then one can most definitely find pages of their website penalized.
Along the same line is the term “over-optimization.” There is, of course, no such thing since optimization itself means that everything is optimal. So if you keyword stuff, and find your page’s ranking goes down or disappears completely, it’s because you’ve implemented search engine spam on your page, not over-optimized it.
While I know that it will be impossible to get everyone in the search marketing industry to use all terms correctly (or to even agree with what the definitions are), my hope is that this article will at least encourage people to think carefully about the way they use industry words when writing or speaking with others. After all, if the very people who make up our industry can’t get it right, how will others?
Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.