Why SEO Needs Its Own Reputation Management

A few weeks ago, I saw a reference to search engine optimization (SEO) on the TV Show The Good Wife that made me fall off of my chair. (See SEO Gets Dissed by CBS TV Series “The Good Wife” for the transcript.)

I fell off of my chair for two reasons: (1) I certainly did not expect a reference to search engine optimization during a prime-time television show, and (2) I did not expect the reference to SEO to be a negative one. Aren’t we past the whole “snake-oil” thing already?

Alas, I wish we were.

I certainly do not like to be characterized as a snake-oil SEO practitioner when I, and others like me, have done nothing to contribute to this negative stereotype.

Instead of exploring different ways to exploit the commercial web search engines, I prefer to discover new ways to make web content more findable and user-friendly — contributing to a positive user/searcher experience.

So why does this negative stereotype persist? Let’s look at four common sources…

Black-Hat Techniques & Search Engine Spam

I understand that all industries consist of people who give their industry a good name, people who give their industry a bad name, and people who are in the middle. Many physicians are laudable for their dedication and expertise. And some physicians are just plain quacks.

That being said, I honestly believe that many black-hat practitioners contribute to the SEO industry’s poor reputation. Whether we like it or not, many black-hat practitioners plagiarize content and use it for their (and their clients’) benefit.

Many black-hat practitioners create content farms, link farms, etc. all in the name of rankings and their personal version of the user experience.

And if you dare criticize some of them? Prepare for backlash.

A black-hat SEO once said to me, “I don’t believe you are a real SEO unless you’ve gotten a site banned.” That’s like saying you’re not a real banker unless you’ve robbed a bank.

We should be realistic about our own contribution to the negative SEO stereotype, whether some of our colleagues like it or not. But let’s flip the proverbial coin now….

SEO Fairies & Magical Pixie Dust

Another reason I believe that our industry’s bad reputation persists is due to ignorance. People continue to believe that SEO practitioners have some sort of magical pixie dust that we sprinkle on websites. Here are some quotes from some colleagues:

  • “I was on a conference call with my boss and an SEO firm out of New York. After the call, my boss said, ‘It sounds like a lot of money, but if they can flip a switch and get us to the top of Google, it would be worth it.’”
  • “I overheard a senior vice president say, ‘…and then we’ll get the SEO fairies to sprinkle magic pixie dust and everything will be swell!’ It was a joke, but there’s truth in every joke. What did he mean by magic pixie dust? There is no such thing in SEO. SEO is work. It’s like rowing on a crew team.”

Do you know why hearing these bothers me so much?

Because I think people should know better by now. They should do their research and listen to the SEO practitioners who are willing to dispel any misguided preconceived notions. Website owners should not hire an SEO firm that will tell them precisely what they want to hear…just because they want to hear it.

Guess what? When that happens, you make yourself easy prey for search engine spammers. It is one thing when an SEO firm misrepresents services and ethical SEO methodologies. It’s another thing when a website owner willfully discounts or ignores knowledgeable SEO advice.

I simply wish search engine spammers would take responsibility for their actions.

Likewise, I also wish the people in charge of websites would also take responsibility for their actions. Allow yourselves to be challenged. Ask questions. Be willing to listen. Rinse and repeat.

Journalists & Mainstream Media

To be fair, some media professionals do not cling to the snake-oil salesman stereotype. And that is great. However, in my opinion, too many journalists and other media professionals validate and perpetuate the stereotype. I don’t expect journalists and media professionals to know all of the details that encompass search engine optimization. But they do cling to over-generalizations and myths.

For example, I cringe whenever I read that SEO is about getting a website in the #1 position in Google all of the time. No site is in the #1 position in Google (or Yahoo or Bing) all of the time for every keyword query typed in on every single searchers’ computers or mobile devices. Please stop writing nonsense like that!

At the next Search Marketing Expo conference, there is a session entitled SEO Myths, Mistakes & The Madness of Crowds. I wish all journalists and media professionals would listen, allow themselves to be challenged, and ask questions at that session. I wish everyone would. You will find a great many SEO professionals who are not snake-oil peddlers.

Search Engines

There is one more group that, I feel, contributes to the negative SEO stereotype. Yes, I’m saying it – search engines.

I am not the first person to say it. I’m not the last person to say it. Jill Whalen wrote an outstanding article entitled Dear Google…Stop Making Me Look Like a Fool! that addresses our frustration with search engines and search results.

How are we supposed to convince clients and prospects not to spam the search engines when they (as searchers) see spam results so frequently? I understand that minimizing and eliminating search engine spam is a difficult, never-ending job. I appreciate the webmaster support and anti-spam content. Thank you, spam team.

My questions to search engine spam teams are:

  • Do others outside of the spam department understand the quality terms and guidelines?
  • And do they apply them, or is ad revenue more important?

Here is a comment from a blog article I wrote last year about redefining search-engine friendly design:

“You know those horrible looking landing pages that you see if you make a mistake typing in a domain name? You might think that those were made by a brain-damaged monkey with a magic marker, but those are actually scientifically designed to maximize ad revenue — the more useless and worthless and confusing a page is, the more likely people are to click on ads.”

“Now granted, your site needs to look good enough to pass a site revenue and if it impresses people enough that they’ll link to it, it’s all well and good, but effort spent on making a site too usable can come right out of your pocket…”

I long for the day that I can walk into a lecture hall, a training session, or even an elevator and not get an eye roll because I am one of “those” search engine optimizers. I try not to contribute to the negative stereotype. I wish others didn’t as well.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).

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  • http://www.blindfiveyearold.com ajkohn

    The scary part is that the recent ‘revelations’ around link abuse are feeding into the stereotype.

    I’m seeing software companies pitch their services as a way to keep track of your SEO, like we’re some misbehaving 8 year old whom you can’t trust to turn your back on.

    Quite frankly, there are a lot of bad apples in our industry. We all see it, we all know it. The obsession with links (and the quick results it *seems* to provide) has crowded out the voice of holistic SEO.

    I too long for the day when I don’t spend large amounts of time defending SEO or talking clients down from ‘get-ranked-quick’ schemes.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    Credibility comes from accountability. Accountability comes with standards.

    The SEO industry needs real standards now more than ever, because only good, solid standards will help people outside the industry understand what to expect from us.

    People need to stop confusing standards with certification. Standards are the bottom line, the foundation upon which good, credible service is built — and, sadly, this industry HAS no bottom line.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hi everyone-

    Astute observation – confusing standards with certification. I would love to have quality standards, but I honestly have a difficult time believing we could get get consensus. For example, I know that SEO is part of findability, and findability is a critical part of the user/searcher experience. Usability, too.

    But SEO professionals, as a whole, do not understand usability, findability, user experience, and even information architecture as well as they should.


    Step 1 is better than Step 0, though.


  • http://www.adrianbold.com Adrian Bold

    Great article Shari.

    It is a real shame that SEO certification seems little more than a pipe-dream. I was just thinking this the other day when contrasting to PPC. I had just sat the Google AdWords exam for the fourth time and thought what a shame there wasn’t an equivalent for SEO. I’ve always found it interesting to see the number of self-promoted SEO gurus spouting their opinions at seminars yet not a formal qualification on the subject in site.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Thanks guys.

    One of the reasons I am pursuing my PhD (on hold now, again) is so I can put together a formal curriculum on search engine optimization. My co-author and I, Nick Musica, taught a course at NYU last year. One course at a time, one step at a time.

    About the only courses I know of are in library and information sciences (LIS) — SEO falls under information sciences, for those of you who are not knowledgeable about the field. I tried to do some web design courses, but the stuff that’s out there is overly focused on appearance, not practicality.

    Wouldn’t it be great to put me and someone like Jason Calcanis on a panel? He wants to bad-mouth SEO? Let’s see him do it with me sitting next to him.

  • http://www.seo.net Artur – SEO.NeT

    I just had to sign in to comment this story. This question has been close to my heart for few years now. The strange thing is that very few have bothered to address this problem in the Industry. To make this problem go away the customers must know the difference between a good and bad choice. Certification is not good enough, because it tells you nothing about the performance of the SEO Company and if the SEO customer was satisfied. You need a measure of Performance “Popularity” (Can the SEO rank well in SEs himself), Customers Satisfaction (What does the customer say about provided services), Strength (Will this company exists in near future, many companies enter and leave the industry, also can it win new customer), Historical performance and Momentum (How did the company performed in the past) and basic check of the knowledge (some kind of SEO certificate) as a last (small) thing. All that together makes a Review & Ranking Comparison Engine. This very ambitious project is launching very quietly at http://seo.net to benefit the customer and hopefully also the industry. You have good cars and you have bad cars. The customer and media have just to know the difference. When they learn the talk about the bad SEOs will go away to a large degree and the problem disappear.
    Just a comment to the service. SEO.NeT is not opened for customer reviews or registration until all 15 000 pages are published which will probably take until May -June. Only popularity rankings are available for a random selection of about 8000 SEO companies in 1000 categories (When all pages are up and running) with a history of more than 12 months. But it should do for a start to make a difference.

  • http://www.callfire.com Kimberly Kohatsu

    This reminds me of being in the advertising world. There’s a huge group of people trying to push the envelope and make advertising breakthrough and creative, but when you tell people you work in advertising, they still associate you with junk mail, spam email, and infomercials.

    The thing is, that IS part of the whole picture. You can’t change the perception until you react to the lower spectrum of your craft. In advertising, you can’t shun coupons unless your creative campaigns include the greatest, most creative coupon ever.

    I think SEO can learn from this. It’s not enough to say, “That’s not me,” it’s more about addressing the snake oil head-on. Is there something we can do on the web to educate people about what SEO really is, why it works, and why we’re not a bunch of sleazeballs?

    I think more articles like this are a great way to address the problem, not just complain about it. Well played.

  • http://www.seo.net Artur – SEO.NeT

    Sorry, I can’t edit my commetn. To see how the comparison engine works go directly to http://www.seo.net/compare/seo-companies/norway for say Norway as an exemple. It’s quite advanced application and it’s easy to get lost.

  • NeilW

    I think that part of the problem is that we continue to be in a transition phase with respect to the Web, where many business owners still do not have the faintest idea.

    They know that they should have a Website, but they don’t know why and they know that their site is supposed to rank well on the search engines but they don’t know how.

    The lack of understanding leads to an undervaluing of their on-line activities and so budgets remain low. Inevitably, their sites perform badly and so budgets are reduced further.

    Here in the UK, there are many SEOs indulging in extremely persistent, high pressure telephone sales operations. Their targets are the business owners I have mentioned and their tactics involve endless false promises that invariably lead to disappointment.

    As a small business owner in the UK, it’s difficult to go a day without two or three SEOs calling, all promising the number one spot on Google.

    Unfortunately, the reputation of SEOs is set by those that shout loudest and deliver least.

  • http://www.searchingforprofit.com amanda watlington

    Shari — Excellent article; however, in a business where there are no barriers to entry, continuing bad press (the jcp.com link scandal), and casts of bad actors, it will be a tough uphill battle. Certification is not the answer — the answer rests within the industry.

  • http://www.seopros.org Webmaster T

    “About the only courses I know of are in library and information sciences (LIS) — SEO falls under information sciences”

    Shari interesting… but when I look at information sciences…. SEO is so much more than just the discovery and retrieval of information. If you have no marketing skills you are the one legged man in the a$$e kicking contest. If you can’t put two words together in a coherent sentence that can evoke action… information sciences don’t mean a lick. That is THE problem with SEO Certification… first you have to determine what is even teachable and what discipline is it derived from.

  • http://www.search-usability.com/ Shari Thurow

    Hey Webmaster T-

    I could not disagree with you more. Information sciences DOES mean a lick, and a big one at that. To be honest, your knowledge of library/information science is extremely limited.

    SEO is about findability, and what it takes to make information findable, be it on a website, an intranet, software, etc. You don’t need marketing skills to make information findable. Writing skills certainly do help.

    Please, everyone: listen, allow yourself to be challenged, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and for heaven’s sake, do your research. SEO is about findability, and findability is a library/information science discipline. Don’t discount something due to your personal prejudices and limited exposure.

    IMHO, information architects would make great search engine optimizers if they would let go of their prejudice about us. My 2 cents.

  • http://kercommunications.com Pittsburgh SEO

    I am a little surprised by your surprise at SEO’s bad reputation.
    Nearly every day, I have a conversation with a prospective client who is either completely convinced that SEOs can “flip a switch” to get number one rankings for anything and everything overnight, or they have been burned by someone who promised that sort of thing. I also do a great deal of SEO disaster recovery – trying to undo the keyword stuffing, etc…
    Either way I have to spend a lot of time convincing people that you can’t get overnight results for $29 or that I am not yet another of the snakeoil salesmen who already ripped them off.
    And I agree that Google seems to be part of the problem. They announce updates to algorithms to deal with web spam and so on, yet a completely craptastic site can still buy their way to the top with little more than paid links. The recent JC Penney SEO scandal making the news, and Google responding with a slap on the wrist is really no help. I believe the big G is beginning to lose credibility. Occasionally I try to talk to friends who are not SEOs, developers, or marketers to find out how they use search engines. Because of the spammy results, they are either frustrated with “all the rip off sites on the web” or the try to only use search engines when they know the exact name of what they are looking for.


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