Why SEO Needs Its Own Reputation Management

Shari Thurow on
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  • 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:

    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:

    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.


    About The Author

    Shari Thurow
    Shari Thurow 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).