Jason Calacanis is riled up about SEO today, telling the world that "90% of the SEO market is made up of snake oil salesman" and still confused over why the "SEO folks" were mad at him when he said "SEO is bull" during our keynote conversation at SES Chicago last December.
I love Jason. I really do — he says what he thinks, with passion and clearly deeply cares about things. And I’ve enjoyed some of the arguments we’ve had via instant messaging on this topic recently. But Jason — and a lot of other people – need some more education about the myths and misperceptions of SEO. So let this open letter do both.
The Bad SEO Video
First, let me deconstruct what Jason wrote, no holds barred. Starting from the top:
This video is so cheesy you have to think it’s a fake… but I don’t think it is. (Hat Tip)
Jason’s talking about a video that we mentioned in our headlines section of the SearchCap newsletter yesterday, one that that the Pronet Advertising team alerted the world to as a bad example of how not to do social media optimization — getting on Digg, Netscape and the like. To be absolutely clear, this isn’t Pronet’s video. This was Pronet, a leading SMO firm, telling people not to act this way.
Hehe. Yes, it was nice advice. It was also nice linkbaiting. Jason took the bait. Pronet thanks you for the links, Jason.
Where the unfairness comes in is Jason taking this video as the model for the entire SEO market — that all of SEO is like this. It’s not (and the video wasn’t even about SEO, but more on that below).
How To Piss Off An Industry Through Ignorant Remarks
This misperception leads me to the next part of what he wrote:
The SEO folks got really pissed off at me for saying "SEO is bulls@#t." last year, but the truth is that 90% of the SEO market is made up of snake oil salesman
They got upset because about 90 percent of the audience you were speaking in front of made their living doing some type of SEO work. And the vast majority of them were not snake oil salesmen — or women, for that matter. SEO has a huge number of women working in it let’s not forget.
Jason, you work for a VC firm now. Tell you what. Next time, have me come and speak in front of a VC conference. Get lots of VCers all in a room, and I’ll tell you how 90 percent of VC firms are snake oil salespeople who don’t know what they are talking about — that their ability to pick winning companies is all bull. Let’s see if they get pissed off with me.
They should, because I don’t have the background to make such a wide-ranging statement. I’ve talked with a number of VC companies over the years and am often less than impressed with the knowledge of search they have, despite wanting to back some search company. I’ve watched from afar how VCs have sunk money into search firms that aren’t going to go anywhere — but man, that money certainly helps the press release spam I get and attention grabbing in general that pulls away from efforts that deserve more love.
I could use my limited knowledge and characterize an entire industry. Maybe I would be correct. But there’s a good chance I’d be wrong. And that’s what’s happening with you about SEO. You’re dead wrong, and you insulted (and continue to insult) a lot of good people with such wide-ranging generalizations.
They All Look Alike To Me
To understand how wrong, let me go back to something I wrote about this issue back in 2005:
It also behooves everyone not to tar the entire industry with the same brush. For all the bad things that people want to lump under the umbrella of SEO (and really search engine marketing, of which SEO is just a part), there’s also plenty of good. Decry a particular SEO tactic, if you want — but don’t decry the entire SEM industry as being rotten. If you want to do that, then here are some other stereotypes you’d also better buy into:
- All car salesmen are crooks
- All lawyers are crooks
- Teachers teach because they can’t do
- Bloggers don’t check facts
- [Insert Race/Culture/Nationality Here] is [Insert Derogatory Comment/Stereotype Here]
Yeah, they had good reason to be pissed at you, Jason. You walked into the room, acted as if you knew everything about their industry and told them they all sucked. They might have accepted the criticism if you knew what you were talking about. But you didn’t.
What Is SEO?
Let’s get our definitions straight, as part of the education process:
- Search marketing is the umbrella term that encompasses any act of
generating traffic from search engines. The two main areas under search
marketing are search advertising and search engine optimization.
- Search advertising — or paid search — is the act of buying
listings on the search engines. You know,
Google AdWords, Yahoo Search
Marketing, Microsoft AdCenter,
Ask Sponsored Listings. No
snake oil or black hats there! Let’s not talk about misleading ads, arbitrage,
clickfraud, blackbox pricing systems or other concerns some have, of course.
- Search engine optimization is the act of getting listed in search engines for free. It is PR for the search engine world. There are things that you can and should be doing to improve your listings with search engines, in the same way that there are things you can and should be doing that can improve the coverage you receive for free from television, radio and TV.
SEO: In House & Third Party Firms
SEO started out originally as a heavily third-party industry. IE, people who understood the ins-and-outs of search engines were hired to work with designers and others who wanted to rank better. Today, SEO has huge numbers of people who do work internally.
I haven’t seen good figures on this recently. SEMPO literally just released a new State Of Search Marketing report today, so maybe there’s a breakdown in there, when I get a chance to go through it. For now, I’m giving you that based out of my gut experience from running the largest shows in search marketing over the years. I’ve had to add first a session then an entire track to cater to the in-house marketers. The New York Times runs SEO in-house, for example (say hi to Marshall Simmonds, who runs things over there). Lots of firms large and small do it. Search engines like Yahoo and AOL themselves do SEO internally.
So when you came into the room — or wrote your post today — dissing SEO as snake oil, you were dissing a lot of people who aren’t trying to rank some AdSense scraper site or Digg their way into traffic heaven.
Oh — but you’re not talking about the in house people, all the "good" people, right? It’s the 90 percent of SEO firms, the third party vendors that suck. After all, you write:
These are guys in really bad suits trying to get really naive people to sign long-term contracts. These clients typically make horrible products and don’t deserve traffic–that’s why they’re not getting it organically so they hire the slimebuckets to game the system for them.
Google Says: Only Worry About A Few SEO Firms
And which survey did you run to come up with these figures? Which "firms" do you count in them? Will any small company be weighted the same as some large company with multiple clients? How about I turn to a source that’s seen more SEO firms than you ever have. Google. What’s Google says about SEO firms? Let’s see:
SEO is an abbreviation for "search engine optimizer." Many SEOs 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.
A bit different from your 90 percent hucksters figure. In contrast, Google puts many SEOs as doing useful things and only a "few" being an issue. That’s pretty much the opposite of what you wrote.
By the way, those guidelines sparked a huge outcry when they first appeared in 2002. Some focused on the helpful, sensible advice Google offered in making a wise SEO choice as an attack. I didn’t, as I wrote:
At the end of last month, Google rolled out a new page offering advice to those seeking a search engine optimization firm. Since being unveiled, there’s been both support and criticism of the tips and recommendations that Google has posted in various SEO forums.
From my perspective, most of what Google has posted is sensible advice and positive for the SEO community as a whole, especially compared to what was said by Google previously about SEOs, within its help area:
"Be very careful about allowing an individual consultant or company to ‘optimize’ your web site. Chances are they will engage in some of our ‘Don’ts’ and end up hurting your site."
A brief and fairly negative statement, to say the least. The impression one comes away with is that most SEOs are likely to cause you problems, so you’re better off avoiding them. Compare that to what Google’s now saying:
"Many SEOs 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, there are a few unethical SEOs who have given the industry a black eye through their overly aggressive marketing efforts and their attempts to unfairly manipulate search engine results."
So, congratulations, SEOs! Google, in my opinion, is legitimizing the majority of you and certainly the industry.
SEO Is Bull? Todd Spits Coffee Almost Through His Nose
Google — legitimizing SEO companies, and this back in 2002. Skip forward to 2006, and you came to Chicago and dissed a lot of good third party SEO companies who work with other companies to do solid work to increase traffic.
Need to understand more about that? Say hi to Todd from Range Online, who recently pushed back at the latest wave that SEO is a waste of time and that he’s somehow carpetbagging snake oil (and also who nearly spit out his coffee through his nose, as he writes, when he heard your "bull" comment while watching you in Chicago):
We do a fair bit of SEO at Range and we recently have a great success story that involved online revenue moving from 6 figures a year to 7 figures a year (and I don’t mean from 9M to 10M). Most of that campaign was the fundamentals that weren’t in place prior to our involvements. We fixed Titles and Metas, URLs, ALTs, internal linking and did some external linking work. We also rewrote thousands of pages of content. Go ask the CMO what we did and you may hear terms like rocket science and magic and to that CMO it is rocket science with a huge payoff in revenue.
Back to your post. You do throw a bone out to third party SEO firms:
Note: There are some whitehat SEO firms out there I know, but frankly the whitehat SEO companies are simply doing solid web design so I don’t consider them SEO at all. SEO is a tainted term and it means "gaming the system" to 90% of us.
I’ll come back to the it’s just "solid web design" and smack you upside the face about that, which you so richly deserve. Remember, I’m smacking with love! But first let’s talk about SEO as a tainted term.
SEO Is Not A Synonym For Spamming Or Gaming
Hey, well you certainly don’t help. I really appreciate you taking that term and continuing to make it a negative, rather than trying to educate people about the difference between SEO and spamming.
SEO does not mean "gaming the system" to 90 percent of us if you’re talking the SEO industry itself. Heck, I don’t even know if 90 percent of the general public thinks that. Most people in the general public still don’t even seem to understand that there is even a thing called search engine optimization. Go talk to some search marketers who have had to explain what they do and hear what they have to say. My own conversations tend to go like this.
Them: What do you do?
Me: I write about search engines and search marketing.
Them: Blank Face
Me: You know, how Google…
Them: Oh, I use Google!
Me: …Yahoo, and Microsoft and Ask and search engines like that work, and how people can get found through them.
Them: Oh, can you get me at the top of Google? We have this web site, and….
These are conversations I have with cab drivers, hair dressers, random people I encounter. They don’t know what SEO means, much less that it is practiced by scum-sucking evil doers.
Blog Spam & Trackback Fallout
I know a lot of thought-leaders in the blogosphere see SEO as tainted. I’ve written about this before. It formed the title for my Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO article back in 2005, when we last had an SEO reputation crisis as we do every two years (and somehow, it keeps rolling along).
- Worthless was Seth
wrote in 2004, "SEO is the purported science of optimizing your
webpage so that you rise to the top of the listings in Google and Yahoo …
The theory is that a huge number of people find what they’re looking for via
search, that virtually all of these people only look at the first page of the
results and that if you don’t tweak your page, you’re doomed. I just got a
note from someone asking me for a recommendation, and when I said I didn’t
think that most SEO was worth the money."
- Shady was Movable
Type’s Anil Dash, who
2004, "I’ve always had a pretty low opinion of the Search Engine Optimization
industry. Though there are of course legitimate experts in the field, it seems
chock full of people who are barely above spammers, and they taint the image
of the whole group …. So, in order to prove that real content trumps all the
shady optimization tricks that someone can figure out, and because I figure I
deserve an iPod at least as much as the Star Wars Kid, I’m entering the
- Criminals was Mary Hodder, who wrote in 2005 during a Search Champs session at Microsoft: "There are about six search engine optimization people here. Kind of like being at the FBI and having criminals helping out in the room."
Statements like these mainly come out of the most egregious marketing tactic out there, blog spamming. That’s what most bloggers see, so they can be forgiven from forming an opinion that SEO is all about shoving a gazillion trackback spams for Viagra into blogs.
My first response is a big chunk of the blame for this goes to those who create blog software. You set up a completely open system and didn’t think it would get abused? This is the internet. We have long experience in knowing that any open system (say email) will be heavily abused by a relatively small number of users (most people who send email are not email spammers). Dudes, what were you thinking?
My second response is not to equate blog spam with SEO. Someone buying software that automatically shoves junk into blogs might not even be hoping to get into Google. The clicks alone might be all the "marketing" they need. Link building is an important component of SEO, but link spamming has and does exist independently of SEO. Links are an independent traffic channel.
Mainly, however, I apologize. I’m sorry that my industry — search marketing — hasn’t done more to make this particular tactic go away. But then again, it has done a lot. Many leaders – even leaders in the "black hat SEO" world — have pushed against this. My call to action back in 2005, Can We Agree Automated Comment & Link Posting Is A Bad Thing?, covers a lot of this.
I’m Proud To Be An SEOican…
With SEO seen as synonymous with spamming by some, you recently encouraged me to promote some new term. Abandon SEO to the spammers, was your plea.
Well, I did try to encourage people to understand the flavors of SEO in that Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO article I mentioned earlier:
So how did SEO turn into a synonym for many people to mean tricking search engines through bogus links, comment spam, and other unsavory tactics? It’s happened because there are other flavors of SEO that have developed and dominated the impression of the industry.
Consider the above tips as part of "content-based SEO." Need an acronym? Perhaps CSEO or SEFO, for "search engine friendly optimization." I won’t say that this is the "true" SEO, because for as long as there’s been content-based SEO, there’s also been other flavors of SEO and tactics designed just to generate traffic from search engines regardless of content. For example:
- Doorway pages: Maybe you have existing content, but you don’t feel your content optimization is effective enough. Maybe you aren’t allowed to make a site more search engine friendly by your management. Maybe you are an affiliate who simply wants traffic to send to others. In any of these cases, you might create new pages designed to get traffic and serve as a "doorway" from which you send people to other pages.
- Link Building: Even before search engines relied on them, building links was an online marketing tactic. Link building has its own flavors, which range from making requests and hoping a link will be granted, to buying links, to using automated tools to create links in guest books, blog comments, forums and other areas allowing open access.
But really, when you tell me to abandon the term SEO, I think back to a letter I once read from someone who wanted homosexuals to stop using the term "gay," because this person liked to use the word gay to mean happy and didn’t like that it had gained another usage.
You can imagine the letters that came back in response from gays. They weren’t about to go find some other word. And neither am I.
I’m gay, and I’m proud! Well, I mean I’m an SEO, and I’m proud. I might not be a flaming blackhat SEO like some. I’m certainly not a scum-sucking trackback spammer like others. But I’m not going to come up with a new name simply because you and other thought-leaders are often too ignorant and too lazy to fully understand something you want to attack. Rather than educate, you toss out linkbaiting, flame-producing lines that do nothing to solve the problems you perceive.
I’m certainly not going to try and come up with a new name when it’s taken so long for many people to even understand basic terms like SEO and search marketing. Not having been in the space — not having had to deal with clients or others seeking help — you are clueless to them asking about things like:
- search engine submission
- search engine positioning
- search engine marketing
- search engine optimization
- search engine ranking
And more. When I suggested going with "search engine marketing" as an umbrella term back in 2001 when SEO wasn’t encompassing enough, I had a huge positive reaction. Five years later — half a decade, a generation in internet terms — I’ve been educating people about SEM, SEO and search advertising using particular terms. I’m not going to switch terms midstream just because of the latest SEO reputation crisis. Why? We’ll just have another one in 2009.
Designers, SEO & The Third Browser
Let’s kick back to you post, for that promised slap-upside-the-face:
Frankly the whitehat SEO companies are simply doing solid web design so I don’t consider them SEO at all…
Now, if you make great content, keep your page design clean, and stick with it you’re gonna do just fine in the rankings. Don’t smoke the SEO-crack… you’ll just wind up chasing your tail as digg and Google closes the tiny SEO loopholes and put your domain on the black list.
Look, I’ve worked with web designers. I like web designers. But web design is NOT SEO. A good web designer should think about SEO issues, such as unique title tags, directory structure, page assembly order and other architectural issues. They don’t. They really generally do not.
I keep imploring them to do so. I keep explaining that search engines are like a "third browser," that collectively more visitors use them to "browse" sites than Internet Explorer or Firefox combined. Still, designers fail to often do even the "basic" SEO they should. And that "basic" SEO remains basic to you because you’ve learned some of it along the way.
If you haven’t, then it remains a mystery. My Yes Virginia, SEO Is Rocket Science – Defending Search Engine Optimization Once Again and More Rounds In The "Is SEO Overrated" Debate go into much more depth about this.
If it’s so easy, if it’s just simply web design, why do I have all this from the search engines themselves:
- Google’s Webmaster Help Center
- Yahoo Webmaster Help
- Microsoft Live.com Webmaster Help (use the drop-down box to reach Live Search Site Owner Help. Microsoft’s absurdly makes help sections impossible to bookmark)
In particular, notice how much both Google and Yahoo especially provide in terms of help. There is lots and lots of advice. That’s because SEO, while it might not be rocket science, still can be pretty tough.
Not Everyone Knows Or Wants To Know SEO
Remember the great sex blogger crisis of last December? Tony Comstock is struggling (note, some adult content) with Google playing funny with his site again. We’ve had about six emails go back and forth as we try to understand what’s going wrong with his site. But he just needs good design, right? Apparently not. Here’s some of the frustration he’s shared in our emails:
It’s bad enough that I have to be a part-time SEO to keep my business running. I should be making my next film, not trying to figure out if we shot ourselves in the foot or if Google is having a bad hair day. I should be working on my next film (which so tendersweetsexylovely I can hardly stand it!) Does everyone who keeps a blog need to be an avocational SEO just so they can have their namesearch? That just doesn’t seem reasonable.
No, it doesn’t. But sometimes things go wrong. And sometimes, that’s when having a professional — someone who lives and breathes SEO — might help. For one thing, they understand the importance of keyword research (something Robert Scoble forgot when he did SEO "blogger style"). They also see a lot of sites. They read a lot of material. Many of them aren’t selling snake oil. Many of them can diagnose problems.
Speaking of diagnostics, Tony emailed me about a friend’s site, Wilful Damage (again, note: some adult content), that’s not appearing on Google for its own name. I’m trying to figure it out, seeing things like Google perhaps thinking most pages are the same, as you can tell when I force it to unfold things and discover many of the descriptions are the same.
Is it just a problem with Google seeing the snippets the same but the pages are still unique? Are the pages seen as duplicate? Is it just a Google bug? I asked Tony — has she used Google Webmaster Central to check on any potential problems?
It’s a just a hobby for her. I don’t know that she’s done any big diagnostic work.
So much for just good design. Yes, good design plus good basic SEO is all many sites need. And yes, people can learn SEO — just like they can learn design. But like Tony, I’d rather write articles than figure out how to make my page design look nicer. That’s why I hire a designer — and finding a good one is tough, when anyone can be a designer (and potentially do bad things to your site from a search perspective). Similarly, finding a good SEO can be tough, because anyone can say they are an SEO. But that doesn’t make SEO evil, bad or worthless.
Linkbombing Jason Calacanis
You’re also engaged in this challenge with some SEOs who want to get into the top rankings for your name, as you write:
PS – And to the SEO idiots trying to "take over my SeRP" on Google you’re proving my point exactly. Grow up.. the only thing you’re ever going to prove by trying to game my SeRP is that you’re low-class idiots.
Yeah, it’s childish. But then again, what did you expect? You told a roomful of people that SEO is bull? I find linkbombing campaigns a poor way for anyone to prove their SEO power — but they can do that, sometimes. And as for "gaming" your SERP, how? Some of those pages are actually now relevant for you. Your action in slapping at the SEO community sparked this, so it’s kind of relevant some of those pages come up.
Then we’ve got your closing paragraph:
PSS – This whole gaming of digg/Netscape/MySpace is being called SMO–social media optimization. That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard of. Anyone who hires an SMO firm is an idiot. The whole point of social media is TO BE REAL NOT FAKE!!! Just be yourself and participate… that’s all it takes (and note, participation is not just putting in your own links, it’s voting/commenting on/submitting other people’s content too!).
Wow. First you make SEO to be 90 percent junk, now you suddenly call an entire new rising industry to be gaming?
SMO Facing SEO’s Challenges
Wake up, Jason. Social media sites are growing, as you well know. People want to be found through them. And the sites themselves encourage this. What, Digg rolled out all those new, improved buttons this week that many of us shove on our pages because Digg doesn’t want site owners to be listed? Of course they want people to get their own content in the system – just like the search engines do. And of course people want to do this in an appropriate way. And of course people are going to want to know the most optimized way to do it.
DO NOT make the mistake you’ve already made with SEOs and start out wrong with the social media optimization crowd. That group can help encourage and support social media search engines in the same way that many SEOs already serve as an active, engaged, non-gaming support structure for the major search engines.
DO NOT act like anyone submitting anything without some knowledge of how the various social media sites work is just going to magically shoot the top of the lists. Sure, it happens. But optimization helps. Respect for the community helps. And some good SMO firms can make that happen, in the same way good SEO firms can help with search engines.
Right now, I continue to be bemused watching SMO and social media sites go through all the same growing pains that the search engines went through back in the 90s, when they had to slowing start protecting and altering systems that were far too open to abuse. You’ve heard me talk about this many times on the Daily SearchCast over the past year.
Digg will one day have some decent help files (so we don’t have to do their work explaining how Digg Friends works). They’ll one day have a formal reinclusion process. I’ve no doubt we’ll see Digg Webmaster Central or something similar emerge.
The SMOers have their own work to do, of course, if they don’t want to go down the road that SEO has found itself in. I was going to talk about this in more depth, but long-time search marketer Greg Boser already beat me to it. Social Media Marketers Need to Accept Some Responsibility from him covers it well. From the conclusion:
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