Are SEOs Still Seen As Snake Oil Salesmen?

In days gone by we digital marketers may have referred to ourselves as SEOs. Obviously SEO is a fundamental part of what we do, but the term is just not broad enough to encompass everything we need to do these days to build successful campaigns and reach our goals. As we have changed and adapted, has the public perception of the industry changed?

At the start it was easy, and for many years SEO stayed relatively uncomplicated for the average optimiser. Staying up to date with what worked and what didn’t, spamming your Meta data, following the competition, and paying for as many directory links from anywhere and everywhere pretty much covered the basic. Then content became more of a thing, so we focussed a bit more on that too. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling what we did, and there were plenty of other practices for improving your PageRank and so on, but life was simpler back then.

The downside of this of course was the large number of cowboys out there charging huge amounts of money for very little effort, producing poor results and generally giving us all a bad name. These slippery-cold-calling-cliché-spewing-exclamation-mark-loving characters continue to diminish in number as practices get harder and more genuinely talented marketers appear. However, their population is still strong, and they continue to jade the layman’s view of what we do and why we do it. As their army of cold callers marches on with promises of instant page one results, our reputation as an industry continues to struggle.

Or does it?


In February 2014 SEL published the findings of a SEMPO + eConsultancy poll, which indicated that almost 70% of agencies surveyed expected client SEO budgets to increase in 2014. Only 47% of in house SEOs expected an increase in budget.

Recently The Drum posted a similar piece aimed at 2015, based on figures from Gartner. Once again digital marketing spend is expected to increase, on average by 17% this time.

Love us or loathe us, we’re doing something right. A good digital marketing strategy is fundamental to any business, and SEO is a fundamental part of a good online marketing strategy.

Public Opinion

I went to the doctors last week. She asked me what I do for a living, and when I said ‘digital marketing’ her first response was ‘Oh. Do you call people up all the time?’ I was of course very quick to make a crowbar separation between us as an industry and any kind of cold caller or salesman. This got me thinking, so in a completely unscientific and vaguely relevant piece of ‘research’, I posted this as my status this morning:

My Status

Here are some of the responses I received:

Zan 1

Vicky 1

Sel 1

Sam 2

Nick & Isobel 1

Pete 1

Ray 1

Sam 1

Mae 1

Jason 1

Isobel 1

This last comment is from my cousin. I have no idea what she does but I know it’s very clever stuff, I think she studied Molecular Biology, and I’m pretty sure whatever she’s working on has no requirement for digital marketing. This technique, these desperate cold calling salesmen, seem to be a theme which immediately put us as an industry on the back foot with people.


Interestingly, we have a bit of a mix, though overall less negative than I expected.

So, in 2015 it seems that agency clients are expected to spend more on SEO, in house digital marketers are expecting more SEO budget, and opinions online and within my circles may be improving!

Then This Happened

Mark Wright Twitter

…and unsurprisingly the responses weren’t too positive.

Andy Status

In one swift move the winner of The Apprentice is set to bring the reputation of SEO back in time to around 2003. A salesman with no actual SEO experience at all, Wright claims that “no one knows more about SEO than me in the UK”. Kind of gives you the mark of the man. As does his online behaviour so far. He’s been on Twitter for a month, and this is his Google+ page:

Mark Wright Google Plus

With any luck the semi-enlightened and those in the know will bat this man-child away with the back of their hand and forget about him, like a mosquito or other minor annoyance. It’s those not in the know, and his potential clientele that I worry about. This post by @searchbrat  and the comments it has drawn echo my feelings, and I’m sure those of others in the industry.

It’ll probably all come to nothing, but the idea of this…person…tarnishing an industry which has struggled with its reputation for years because of people just like him chills me.

What are your experiences of the public view of SEO and digital marketing as it now stands?

What do you make of Mark Wright and his ‘SEO product’?


Laura Phillips

About Laura Phillips

Laura is a Digital Marketing Consultant with Aira Digital & Advance Promotions. With search experience in a large number of industries both in-house and agency side, Laura has a strong interest in conversion optimisation and web psychology.

6 thoughts on “Are SEOs Still Seen As Snake Oil Salesmen?

  1. Hey Laura,

    He / they are not rapidly becoming the face of “SEO” in the UK, he / they have become it.

    So if ever there was a time to up our game, stop being petty, be professional and act like the business people we claim to be, this is it. Heck, maybe the UK SEO industry needed this wake-up call???

    Instead of cowering away, we need to work harder & stick our necks out, to help businesses and educate / show them why choosing those of us experienced in our field (who’ve achieved client company profit, growth and bottom-line results, not damn rankings) are better suited to helping them reach their goals and objectives, than those who’ve became overnight celebrities on a TV programme.

    As you say, our industry has had to deal with many challenges in the past. Not a day goes by without someone claiming “SEO is Dead”, not to mention the spammers who’ve ruined the livelihoods of many businesses websites and the perception these idiots have created. And it’s my belief that those who view SEO as a commodity “product” and not as a semantic search / UX journey, will come unstuck.

    Who knows where this episode will lead. Being in the public eye and spotlight work both ways. If problems occur with clients and they verbalise their unhappiness on social of through national media, there’ll then be a focus on finding those who get the results that businesses small and large crave for (and back to us again).

    It’s also worth noting that “selling” what SEO can do is a promise. Officially working with a client and helping them achieve tangible, business-focused results is a deliverable and it’s the deliverables they’ll be judged upon by those they work with..

  2. Well, given that I was recently called a snake oil merchant by a nasty piece-of-work web designer a few months back for simply admitting that I worked in the SEO industry, I think I’m gonna go with “yes”… 😉 I also got referred to as an insect as well, which was also nice. Nice chap, to say the least…

    In my experience, a lot of business owners have come a long way, from what I’ve seen during the 6 years in my career. I think they’re getting better at understanding good vs. bad SEO and therefore realising that yes, there are bad apples, but there are some good ones in the bunch, too. If they’ve been affected by bad SEO, there’s more chance that they’ll realise that they’ve been unlucky in their previous choice of SEO and try to get it fixed, rather than thinking “screw this” and hating all SEOs.

    If anyone’s still behind in this way of thinking, it’s the web design community. Just spend some time looking at the comments on SEO posts/submissions on sites like Hacker News and there’s a lot of hate for our industry. That said, I worked in a web/software development agency for a year between 2012 and 2013 and even in that time, the perception has changed a lot.

    Interestingly, regarding Mark Wright, perhaps the weirdest feedback I’ve seen from non-SEOs is a few people claiming that “SEO is easy” – therefore suggesting that anyone who charges for it is a snake oil merchant. I found that oddly bizarre. Comments like that (and ones calling us snake oil merchants) used to wind me up. Now I just laugh at their ignorance. 🙂

  3. If people want SEO to be taken seriously they have to stop running away from it and rebranding themselves as “content marketers”, “digital marketers”, “digital agencies”, “anything-but-seo-folks”.

    1. Hi Michael

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that straight ‘SEO’ as a job really exists much anymore. What we do for a living has changed more than any other industry I can think over over the last 5 years, and ‘SEO’ just doesn’t cover it anymore. I don’t feel the term is being pushed under the rug and replaced by schmantzy new titles, more than there is so much we have to do alongside SEO to get the job done that that title just doesn’t cut it any more. What do you think?

      1. Pure SEO is what I do. And there are still many job listings for SEO managers, account specialists, etc. Too many bloggers are trying to get out from under the shadow of SEO but companies still recognize they need it. They just aren’t willing to place as much emphasis on it any more because it was done incorrectly by so many for so many years.

        SEO is not, never has been, and never shall be all about links. But “the industry” tried to make it all about links with strategies like guest blogging, infographics, social media campaigns, SEO-friendly directories, link swaps, link bait, etc.

        SEO begins on the Website and it still has to be done despite changes in marketing objectives. SEO is a process that never changes. Spam changes over time. Now we have “content marketing” which is just guest posting dressed up as a new name. People continue to make it all about links. It’s not. Links are important to SEO but they are only one aspect of it, not the most important, and certainly not the most productive.

  4. I work in both academia and the corporate world. Unfortunately, academics tend to view SEO as snake oil.

    It’s ironic. I think academics should have knowledge about SEO and findability in general.

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