Trust and SEO

Trust and SEO

7th December 2012

Let’s face it. Anything you do as an SEO is based on trust.

Clients don’t get an immediate return on their money in the same way as buying, for example, a sandwich, pair of shoes or even a report. It’s an invisible service, often based on best guess.

I work with a company whose CEO, the management author Kevan Hall, often talks about ways of building trust in large organizations. His ideas resonate with me, and so it’s with a hat tilt to Kevan that I address the subject here (although the thoughts here are my own).

Trust is a cornerstone of PR activity. The journalists, bloggers, clients and others that I work with, all need to trust that I know that the information I share with them can be trusted for use or publication. The standards to which the media are generally held also hold PR people to account (and in this context I push aside the kind of reporting that the UK’s Leveson inquiry has addressed, although mostly the publications told the truth – it was how they got the information that mattered). For the most part PR people lose their jobs if ‘called out’ in public by a journalist or blogger.

SEO has a pretty major reputation issue by comparison. SEO for many is synonymous with spam, poor grade content and doing lots of shady stuff.  Whilst the industry is very, very needed, one of its biggest partners, Google, is, it would seem from many of the blogs and articles, anti-SEO.

So – don’t shoot the messenger – here’s a couple of thoughts to build on:

Earning the trust of the company/companies you work for

For an inhouse SEO team, the path is, perhaps, easier. As an employee, you’ve been given a long term commitment and will probably be given a whole load of company guidelines and training to boot.  In many cases, trust is yours to throw away.

For consultancies, with limited time to spend on a limited time contract, life is a little harder.

But here are five things you might do to earn trust:

  1. Invest in understanding. Why on earth would I trust anything you tell me if you clearly don’t understand my business? Unless it’s in a foreign language, in which case you earn some leeway, there’s little excuse for referring to irrelevant key phrases, or not knowing broadly what’s on a website and how it’s structured, or anything about the industry I work in, and my company’s standing there.
  2. Make time for face time, especially in the early days. We’ve all had emails and texts we’ve taken the wrong way or misunderstood. Knowing the sender helps build the relationship. That’s best done in person – often an afterthought for people who spend time behind a computer screen.
  3. Honesty. Trust needs openness. Yes, we all know mistakes happen and that the World’s not entirely perfect.  It’s what you do about mistakes that earn trust and respect. (As a holiday rep years ago, I regularly scored higher customer satisfaction ratings when a customer had a problem that I’d helped resolve.) I’m not suggesting for one minute that your monthly report says ‘The whole thing’s sucked this month’. Try an approach along the lines of X was a problem. This was what we tried. This hasn’t had an effect (yet) so this what we’re doing about it.
  4. Education. Help people to understand what you’re doing and why rather than berate them for not understanding. If they could do your job, they would. This doesn’t mean patronising people, but if you want them to do something – create content, share something, pay for something – explain what it will/could do for them/the company rather than expect them to blindly follow what you’re asking for. Best case they surprise you by contributing something even greater.
  5. Pay it forwards. Don’t expect someone to trust you if you don’t try to demonstrate trust in them or respect for them. An agency I worked for years ago had a lovely customer called Sue Fox. Someone in the office tripped over their words and called her Foo Sox, and the name stuck. Every time poor Sue called the office, we were convulsed as whoever was on the phone to her struggled not to call her Foo. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it was for Sue when, every time she phoned, there was hysterical laughter and the person on the phone struggled to stay focussed. Had we shared the joke, she would, at least, have been able to join in, creating a bond rather than a barrier. If it works at this really simple level, imagine the barrier being built when you consistently refuse to spend time on something a customer has asked for with no explanation; or go over their heads; or behind their backs; or simply expect them to blindly trust your suggestions.

Earning the trust of the search engines and beyond

We’re all trying to work out the best way to influence the search engine algorithm, or we wouldn’t be reading State of Search.

But when an entire business community has grown up around making the most of Google, yet each of Google’s algorithm changes are billed as anti-SEO by bloggers and journalists, something’s wrong.

This isn’t, of course, a one sided deal. Had Google warned about Panda in advance, for example, allowing webmasters to sort themselves out before changing the algorithm, decent sites would not now be out on their ear, to the detriment of the surfer. The sad truth is that many HAD TO use some of the spammy tactics that worked because they did just that – they’d have been left for dust had they not. But SEO’s can’t control Google, which can mostly do as it likes with its own product.

We can, however, look at the way the industry plays together, clean up our own act and seek to influence. As a PR person, I’ve been amazed at how well and how generously SEO professionals, for the most part, work together.  It’s not impossible.

I spotted on Facebook that Koozai were using a ‘clean up the industry’ tag on their advertising there a while ago. To write this article I took a closer look, and the story behind that campaign is What Every Internet User Has To Fight For Right Now.

Whilst I think some of the issues they chose to raise are very valuable, and full marks to them for speaking out on important issues, there are some equally valuable indicators in the text of a lack of trust in the industry from the outside world: everyone was having a go at the SEO industry; newspapers complained about paid links; congressmen tried to control the Internet; cookies; members of the public complaining about black hat tactics and things that they didn’t understand.

One of things that Hall (above) often points out is that people try and control/change things when they feel someone else is, or could be, doing something wrong, or they can’t trust them to do it properly.

Let’s take cookies. It’s a dog’s dinner of a piece of legislation. It’s almost impossible on an international site to satisfy the way it’s been interpreted in  each country, with some countries insisting on full sign in consent, others requiring full disclosure and everything in the middle. If the aim of the legislation was to make things better for consumers, the legislators have thought not one jot about the poor user trying to access via mobile, or the fact that the Internet crosses national boundaries, or any one of a myriad of other stupid unintended consequences.

But the truth is that, even with all the skills and talents that the industry boasts, the SEO industry had little influence over the legislation.

It points to a lack of trust. Great SEO is usually invisible, hidden behind superb content and brilliantly marked up pages etc. Sadly, the visible bits are the search results that serve up nonsensical streams of words strung together. The spam.  Even SEO’s own customers (internal AND external) can be slightly wary, as we’ve seen above.

The SEO industry can go into 2013 complaining and whingeing. Or it can try and see things from the other side and engage proactively and productively. Try and understand why Google does the things it does and have a say BEFORE changes are made to avoid unintended consequences.  Try and earn the trust and respect of legislators.

That means organising itself – growing up and trying to identify and protect the bits of the industry that are great. Showcasing genuinely good stuff. Building relations rather than walls with the companies/organisations without whom SEO would not exist.

There is everything to lose. More and more SEO agencies, tired of being tarred, are rebranding as digital marketers, integrated agencies or content providers. This simply adds to the external impression of the industry as untrustworthy, and predictions that SEO is dead.

For as long as the search engines want us to optimise our sites for their benefit, we will need SEO, whatever you choose to call it. If the SEO industry wants to influence the tune the piper plays, it needs to build trust in itself. It needs to have a representative voice, and whilst no one organisation like can speak for everyone, it can reach a base level of agreed guidelines for the industry, and obtain a remit to help it have a say in the important changes that lie ahead. And yes, I know it’s been tried before, but you now have even more to lose.

If Google showed its teeth in 2012, it doubtless has the bit between them for 2013. If legislators tried and failed to address regulation in 2012, they’ll be even more determined to establish controls in future. And if the World outside sees the industry continuing to pollute the Internet with low grade content, people will continue complaining about black hat tactics and things that they don’t understand.

You can sit and whinge or you can do something about it. Articulate the changes you want to see, and be part of making them happen. Work together to build pride and trust in the industry.

Your choice.


Written By
Claire Thompson has has 15 years PR experience and runs Waves PR, which she founded. She has great taste in wine and lousy taste in music. The two are not unconnected!
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