No easy answers to an age old problem

No easy answers to an age old problem

26th January 2012

What started as an innocuous article on a regional publication, last week provoked a lot of debate on both sides of the pond around the age old SEO subject of integrity. The article in question related to a SEO company based here in the UK who had released a press release claiming to be the number 1 SEO in the UK. Now this post is certainly not going to tackle that particular subject as I and I would imagine many of the State of Search readers are very bored of that particular subject.

What I did think it highlighted was the fact that despite the SEO industry has come on leaps and bounds, we do still struggle with many of the age old problems that have so often blighted it in the past. Many people have suggested a number of ways of attempting to help organisations looking for SEO services – particularly as SEO moves away from the cottage industry mentality into one closely integrated with other channels such as PR and Social Media.

As a result , I asked some fellow SEO colleagues as to how as SEO’s we should attempt handle this by asking them the following question:

With organisations like TopSEOs providing so called impartial feedback on the industry, its increasingly difficult for clients to get a real feel for what is and isn’t good SEO and who does and probably as important doesn’t do it properly.

Many people have suggested regulation could provide a solution, or alternatively accreditation to allow potential customers to buy SEO with a degree of confidence.

As a result we ask, how do we as an industry help improve the perception of SEO. Is regulation an answer to the question or do we need to look at some form of industry accreditation. Is there anything else you think could be done to help?

Time for SEO to grow up
Judith Lewis

While ultimately regulation is likely to be imposed on any industry doing real wrong, I don’t feel that TopSEOs is bad enough for us to end up with regulation forced on us. What is more likely is that we, as an industry, will simply have to say ‘enough is enough’ and take our collective fingers out of our collective asses, stop fearing that we will fail whatever test is set, and come together to provide some sort of umbrella accreditation. There are lots of examples of this with chartered surveyors, accountants, the advertising industry and more.

This would serve several purposes:

We could come together, as an industry, and work with search engines to create accreditation if we feel it is necessary. Otherwise at the very least we can open a dialogue with the relevant people and work towards something that, in the UK at least, could lead to accreditation. Without creating something with Bing, Google, Yahoo, etc. any accreditation will lack teeth and validity. It doesn’t need to require advanced maths, impossible-to-know questions or anything much beyond “how do search engines handle errors from within the following series:…” but by creating a starting platform with search engines we can create a basic minimum standard an SEO can be held to. Even marketers have the CIM.

While accreditation has been tried and failed to even get out of the starting blocks, it would be necessary to offer some sort of realistic standard that people listed with the body could be held to. With the new householder documents that needed to be provided by the seller, they had to come up with testing quickly and did so for an industry selling houses made by different companies, of different ages, with different and unique challenges (lack of foundations, possible nearby wells, soil conditions, etc). While this is a B2C market, there is nothing but fear, lethargy and infighting stopping us from creating a baseline of accreditation.

If we had a body that held SEO firms to a minimum standard, we could offer cheaper membership to individuals then use that to leverage cheaper rates on PI insurance. Besides helping to educate these practitioners on the minimum required business bits, it could be a body that works to improve the profile of SEO within the media and in the UK in general.

With accreditation and an industry body we could easily also work with the IAB or similar, already established industry body. That way we can learn from them and be helped by them and their existing good relationship with search agencies and yet offer something completely separate from the focus on paid advertising.

We, as an industry, are young and nervous. Some of us may look at the SEOmoz exam and worry that any accreditation will be even harder and require arcane and impossible knowledge of abstract SEO challenges. This does not need to be the case. Others may worry that agencies will hijack this industry body and make it a rubber stamping exercise. We, as an industry, can work to prevent this. Some may feel SEMPO already handles this. In the UK at the moment SEMPO lacks industry support. There is a sort of fear and uncertainty in the industry that somehow either the industry body will be corrupted or the selection process will be because we’re full of spammers. Ya, we are and I put up my hand as I was there but I’d also argue that we’re also full of brilliant people who are willing to give up their free time to come together and create something that will be changed, altered and reshaped but that ultimately helps herald a new chapter in the story of SEO – the chapter when SEO grew up and got serious about being taken seriously.

No easy answers
Barry Adams – Pierce Communications

People have been bouncing this issue around for almost as long as SEO has existed. Unfortunately there is no easy answer. As an industry in a continuous state of flux and in an adversarial relationship with search engines, SEO does not lend itself well to regulation of any kind. Regulation requires standardisation, and the speed with which SEO moves – as well as the often arbitrary guidelines drawn up and haphazardly enforced by search engines – makes standardisation in SEO all but impossible.

The same goes for accreditation, though this is probably slightly easier to tackle. It would take a trusted and independent organisation to manage and keep up to date, but if widely enough accepted an industry-approved accreditation system would go some way to making sure those offering SEO services have at least a baseline understanding of their craft.

But this is still no guarantee for quality services, and should not be positioned as such. Also, with the fractured nature of the SEO community – which is ironic, as we never fail to come together when the cause is strong enough – wide acceptance of an accreditation system is not likely to occur. In which case it is bound to fail.

So what options do we have? I wish I had the answer. All we can do for now is make sure we deliver the best services we can, fight unethical and deceptive practices in our midst (deceptive towards clients, that is – I have no problem with deception towards search engines), and generally try to be decent human beings in our day to day jobs.

Not an easy problem to fix
Andy Heaps – Epiphany Solutions

This is a really tough one, and one I’ve been torn on since discussions about industry accreditation first started.
On the one hand some form of quality control is needed to help companies wishing to work with an SEO company make an informed decision based on best practice and proven results. On the other hand there isn’t really any industry body qualified to provide that service. The more I think about it the more I think there can never really be anybody to do that job without being biased (think search engine reps or employees of search agencies) or simply not carrying the gravitas required for it to be taken seriously.

Even if there was an organisation genuinely reviewing SEO companies their findings are still going to be so subjective.

· A website can conform to all commonly accepted best practices and have no organic visibility

· Conversely a website can engage in spammy SEO tactics and rank #1 for all of their target keywords

Who has done the better job in the above 2 scenarios? The obvious answer is none, but I can imagine arguments being put forward for both. People measure success in different ways.

And budgets – A short term, small budget is going to result in a different SEO strategy – and results – to a longer term, bigger budget. Should budget restrictions (details of which would likely never be made public) reflect badly on the SEO company? No. Should technical website limitations that impact SEO results reflect badly on the SEO company? No. You can see what I’m getting at. Best practice is subject to circumstances – circumstances that people looking for an SEO company likely won’t get visibility of or understand the implications of – resulting in them never being able to get a true picture of who genuinely are the best companies.

Until somebody comes up with a way to easily and accurately take into account all the variables and external factors associated with SEO it is going to be impossible to accurately and in an unbiased way measure and regulate the performance of SEO companies.

The SEO industry is its own worst enemy
Andrew Girdwood – Bigmouthmedia/LBI

In moments of bleakness I worry that the SEO industry is its own worst enemy. As a whole we are complicit in the shady dealings and dodgy practises of black hat hackers, spammers and snake oil sellers because we, as a whole, do not speak out against them.

SEO culture needs to move out from the protectionist view of us-versus-them in which secretive skulduggery is seen as kind of cool and the accidental banning of a few small businesses dismissed as unlucky collateral damage.

The reputation of the SEO industry will only improve when SEO can be conducted in the sunlight and as a valid, trusted, discipline. That’ll be the same moment as reputation extortion rackets find their food source taken from them and are left with no option but to whiter and die.

SEO Crowdsourcing not an option
Andy Betts

I think there has to be some form of regulation that is somehow regulated independently – it has to include a body such made up of leading / neutral professionals not day to day seos to avoid bias – reputation and client input and recommendations that is then verified by a panel, body, and not crowd sourced by seos

There is no doubting that the landscape has changed considerably in the last couple of years. The marketplace has changed from a number of boutique SEO/SEM agencies to the modern landscape that includes web development organisations and huge media organisations. That in itself brings its own issues as there is no doubting that we are dealing with two seperate ends of the market – however there is no doubting that many will share common experiences of good and bad SEO practises – and at the end of the day all are playing on exactly the same playing field.

As much of the feedback above suggested any formal way of ‘managing ‘ the issue is fraught with issues. Much of which differentiates one organisation from another is their IP, their relationships and their approach to SEO. These are the types of things organisations are likely to be resistant to share, and whilst some acceptance of common practise may help facilitate this – one can’t help feeling that is a long term battle.

Next is the issue of regulation. One only has to look at the paid links debate to see that what is one persons snake oil is another mans gold. Further to that, SEO is a results driven business – and one only has to look at many competitive SERPS to identify that certain sites do take a more leniant perspective towards paid links. Thats just one aspect – opening up the regulation argument would only see this magnified.

Perhaps then education is the key. One has to suggest there is still a degree of misinformation that manifests itself within the industry itself. One would be naive to suggest this doesn’t have a halo effect. Better awareness one would suggest within the wider marketing remit would be one obvious solution – and perhaps even provide SEO with a much needed knees up in other areas.

I think Judith said it well in her closing paragraph, that SEO is full of “brilliant people who are willing to give up their free time to come together and create something that will be changed, altered and reshaped but that ultimately helps herald a new chapter in the story of SEO – the chapter when SEO grew up and got serious about being taken seriously.”


Written By
Peter has been around the industry for a while now, having previously headed up both search and SEO operations at Connectpoint (now Amaze), Mediavest, Brilliant Media and now Search & Social Director for Mediacom.
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