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The Two Sides of SEO
Often, when people in the industry talk about the two sides of SEO, they’re talking about black hat and white hat tactics.
Having worked as an SEO since 2003 and in Internet marketing since 2000, both with Fortune 50 and mom and pop businesses with business goals as different as night and day, I think the distinction is deeper than just black hat and white hat.
It seems the best way to illustrate this is with a description of two SEOs, in the literary tradition of Goofus and Gallant:
Two Sides Of Link Building
- This SEO refers to herself as a link builder, and spends all day checking reports from the software that automatically sends out reciprocal email requests. She doesn’t necessarily care if they’re effective or annoying to millions of people because she has a paycheck coming in and, hey, this is business.
- That SEO convinced a client to permanently redirect a temporarily redirected domain, and gained more than 100,000 authoritative links in the process, which allowed them to jump from page two to one, where they have ranked consistently in the top 5 on a very competitive brand-agnostic keyword for the last two years without adding the keyword to the title tag or the body copy, which conflicted with their style guidelines.
Two Sides Of EDU Links
- This SEO goes out and celebrates at the end of the day because she has identified and secured links from three authoritative EDU domains in the course of the day.
- That SEO has a client who works for a university who changed domains ten years ago and let the domain expire instead of redirecting it and is not having success talking to Educause about subverting their policy about not re-acquiring the expired domain in order to let the client reclaim these thousands of old links that are rightfully theirs and could be helping them compete for competitive keywords because it is a rule that they’ve made, and other university clients who find out what SEO is will want to do the same thing.
That SEO looked in vain in Google’s webmaster help center for answers on how to handle link recovery issues such as this, and found nothing. When he reached out to his company’s Google rep, she referred him to the webmaster forum, but he couldn’t post a question due to confidentiality issues.
Two Sides Of Goals and Metrics
- This SEO can’t sleep because he’s anxious about whether his PR8 links that he bought will bring his toolbar PageRank score to 5/10 and allow him to report the good news to his client.
- That SEO sleeps well knowing that she is meeting her goal of natural search impressions, clicks and conversions that she forecasted for the client at the beginning of the project, and implementation of recommendations is on track to help her reach her goals in the end.
Two Sides Of Allegiance
- This SEO thinks Google is the enemy and writes in her blog and in social media outlets regularly about how hypocritical the search engines are.
- That SEO thinks of herself as an extension of the search engine’s search quality team, and regularly reports competitors who violate the webmaster guidelines as part of the SEO process. That SEO uses search engines in life as much as anyone, and gets upset when the search results aren’t relevant. That SEO thinks having a rigorously controlled Google Webmaster certification program similar to the AdWords and Analytics programs would be a great trust signal that could help Google fix their current spam problem.
Two Sides Of Implementation
- This SEO makes changes to his website all day and night without anyone knowing or caring what is done.
- That SEO just got off a four hour conference call with Legal in order to explain how search engines work and why it’s going to be beneficial to the business to make the title tags more descriptive. Changes to the website will not happen for months.
Two Sides Of Process
- This SEO finally goes to bed at 3am because he’s been scrolling through tweets all day. He didn’t actually make any changes to the website that he’s optimizing, and probably spent too much time tweeting back and forth with @WestchesterSEOCompany1234 about Matt Cutts’s cats, but tomorrow is another day.
- That SEO has to keep a detailed project plan of what’s being done when so that all stakeholders in the SEO project will know what’s expected of them when, and SEO requirements will not delay the launch date of the web site or require additional resources that weren’t in the budget
Two Sides Of Discourse
- This SEO guru focuses on bare bones implementation in the service of getting the client to the top of the search results with available resources for however long the tactics work.
- That SEO guru doesn’t have a lot of time to write articles or speak, as she spends most of her day realizing her natural search goals and planning for the future, but when she does contribute to the industry it’s less on reverse engineering algorithms and more on creative ways to help her clients get more and better traffic by focusing on synergies between what SEOs and search engines need
Which Side Are You On?
Ask yourself: what kind of SEO are you, and what kind of SEO do you want to be? In my experience, it’s very easy to be “this SEO” as the majority of SEO gurus out there are trying to sell SEO services to small businesses with authority issues that don’t have resources to compete fairly or find creative ways to help clients become more visible in natural search results.
But when I’m hiring an SEO to help our company help clients take their natural search visibility to the next level, I’m weeding out “this SEO” in the interview process and looking for “that SEO” with great communication skills who focuses on business value of natural search traffic, quality of execution and attention to detail, and has a knack for creative problem solving.
I’m not suggesting that there are only two types of SEOs. I think there’s a more nuanced explanation that’s closer to the truth. However, I’m simplifying the issue to prove a point.
In these examples, “this SEO” is the one that gets covered often in this industry because the barrier to entry is lower, but it’s also the example that has very little to do with my work as an SEO and the work of others like me.
Fortunately, publications like Search Engine Land start to fill the gap with columns like Industrial Strength, and SMX caters to “that SEO” by focusing certain sessions on using natural search to drive business value.
There are also great books that cater to this audience like Vanessa Fox’s Marketing in the Age of Google and Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content. Unfortunately. these things are the exception to the rule, and the signal to noise ratio for someone in the SEO industry who wants to be the kind of SEO that I and others like me aspire to be is low.
If you are an SEO or you’re writing about SEO, please do your part to strengthen the signal by not assuming all SEOs are interested in what you consider to be SEO, and keep in mind that there are people out there who make a living as SEOs whose lives don’t resemble the lives of other SEOs in the slightest.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.