We Don’t Need SEO Standards!

Last month I attended the SMX West session in Santa Clara entitled Is it Time for Search Marketing Standards? It was an interesting session, but I wasn’t really sure where I stood on the issue at the time. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to think about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that […]

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Last month I attended the SMX West session in Santa Clara entitled Is it Time for Search Marketing Standards? It was an interesting session, but I wasn’t really sure where I stood on the issue at the time. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to think about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only would it be impossible to come up with standards that most would be happy with, I strongly believe that we don’t need them at all.

I have long been a proponent of performing SEO in such a way that satisfies all stakeholders, i.e., the client, the search engines, and the internet as a whole. My feeling is that the better we make websites, the better it will be for everyone. Through the years I have developed SEO methods that not only meet that criteria, they also work wonderfully to increase targeted search engine traffic. In fact, the techniques I developed and refined over the years have been adopted by tens of thousands of others who share my belief that SEO is about making websites better, not about tricking the search engines.

So you’d think I’d be a big proponent of standards… but I’m not.

Here are the top 4 reasons why I believe we don’t need SEO standards:

1. There are too many ways of skinning the SEO cat. Let’s face it, some of us may use similar SEO methods, but there’s no one way of performing it, nor is there one special recipe for SEO success. You may add a few more keyword phrase instances into your copy than I might. Or I might be a strong proponent of pulling up secondary pages in a website’s architecture, while you’re not. Yet we are both successful in bringing targeted search engine traffic to our clients’ websites. I can’t imagine there ever being any sort of standard rules or recipes that SEOs are supposed to follow in order to be a member in good standing of the SEM industry.

2. We can’t even agree on the definition of search engine optimization. Some of the proponents of SEO standards claim that we need a specific set of definitions for the industry, but I don’t believe this is possible. Through the years, I’ve had my share of online arguments over semantics way too many times to think we could ever come up with set of definitions that everyone would agree with. For instance, my definition of search engine optimization is “helping sites to be the best they can be for the search engines and the site users.” No more, no less. I understand that this definition is very different than what most people believe. But to me it is absolutely the essence of what SEO is. Unless SEO changes dramatically at some point, I don’t see myself ever agreeing to another definition than that one (yeah, I’m stubborn). And I doubt the rest of the industry is going to suddenly start using mine. And that’s just one term. Create an entire set of terms people agree with? Good luck with that!

3. There are already laws to protect people from SEO scams. The one thing that most honest search marketers agree on is that you shouldn’t rip off your customers. Well, duh. That’s why there are laws regarding fraud, as well as laws about fulfilling the terms of signed contracts. If the search marketing industry needs a special standard that says we have to do what we say we will do, then we’re in a lot more trouble than I thought. One would think the threat of jail time or a court-ordered breach of contract settlement would be deterrent enough from committing crimes against clients.

4. There’s no such thing as “cheating” in SEO. I have to laugh when I hear some SEOs complaining that it’s not fair that sites that are beating them in the search results are cheating. Where’s the cheating? Using techniques that are against search engine guidelines? How’s it cheating if it works? It’s not up to us to police what our search marketing brethren are doing with their own or their clients’ websites. It’s up to the search engines to enforce their own guidelines—assuming they truly believe in them. If “shady” techniques didn’t work, people wouldn’t use them. Period. Instead of worrying about the cheaters, make your own site better. Doing things to websites that search engines have explicitly stated you shouldn’t be doing is not illegal, nor is it necessarily even wrong. It’s simply a risk that some people are more willing to take than others are. So be it. I agree that if you take risks with client websites, you should inform them of what the consequences are, but even if you don’t, there are existing laws that could be enforced if you play Russian Roulette with your clients’ websites. I imagine the legal consequences would be a lot worse than getting excommunicated from the search marketing industry.

So, yeah, I’m not a proponent of SEO standards. Every industry has their share of bad guys and good guys. Industry market forces and the search engines themselves will eventually dictate what best practices are and are not. I believe it has already happened, to a certain extent. Why do you think there are so many ex-black-hatters turned white-hatters out there? They have learned through trial and error that fixing what’s broken on their websites—rather than tricking the engines into thinking all is well—works much better for the long-term.

For those who just don’t get it, all the definitions and rules in the world won’t change them. Market forces will either require them to change their ways, or they’ll simply end up out of business.

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.

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Jill Whalen

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