The SEO “reputation problem”

Part One: The SEOs

While at Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose recently, I attended a surprisingly thought-provoking session, entitled “The SEO Reputation Problem.” The presentations and discussion explored the perceptions people outside “the industry” have about search marketers and SEOs. (For more details, Tamara Weinberg has a fairly complete write up at Search Engine Roundtable.)

Now, you might think no one would care about this topic except search marketers and SEOs themselves, but the presentations raised some interesting points — some of which I think are pertinent for small businesses who are considering hiring someone to help with their site optimization.

Most of the time these sorts of discussions seem to degenerate into a two-way argument. Sometimes its about black hat versus white hat. Sometimes it's about low-quality providers, or spammy marketers, or scammy “guaranteed rankings” offers. In any case, the participants often boil it down to a simple case of right and wrong, good-versus-evil. But quite a lot of the people I talk to are left with a nagging feeling this “either-or” way of looking at things doesn't address the core of the issue somehow.

The real problem — getting real results

The way I see it, the issue is more complex than most of the current discussions allow for. It's not a simple matter of good and evil, which is why thinking people are uncomfortable when the discussion is reduced to those terms.

There's actually a grid: one axis represents the quality of the results the SEO achieves. The other represents the degree of aggressiveness in the SEO's techniques. So in my opinion SEOs, rather than falling into one of two groups, instead can be roughly classified into one of four quadrants:

  1. The White Hats — Non-aggressive, High Quality: These SEOs focus on producing good results for their clients, and they don't do anything that might place the site's pages at risk for banning or penalization in the search engines. If this results in lower rankings for some high-competition terms, that's a tradeoff they (and their clients) are willing to make.

  2. The Black Hats — Aggressive, High Quality: The main difference between the black hats and the white hats is the black hats and their clients are willing to take greater risks in the pursuit of higher rankings. Like white hats, black hats are focused on producing results for their clients, so they don't want to “pollute” the search results with non-relevant sites; they simply employ more aggressive tactics when seeking high rankings for competitive terms.

  3. The Incompetents — Non-aggressive, Low Quality: They aren't search engine spammers, and often may describe themselves as “ethical” and “white hat”. Unlike true white hats, though, these folks don't provide good value to their clients. Their “services” often involve things like “optimizing” your keywords meta tag and regularly re-submitting your site to search engines (despite the fact that it's already fully indexed). You might as well take the money you send these people and run it through a shredder; it would do you about as much good either way.

  4. The Scammers — Aggressive, Low Quality: These people use outdated, heavy-handed and (frankly) stupid techniques that experienced SEOs know can get a site banned or penalized (blatant doorway pages, poorly hidden text, obvious cloaking, etc.) or that can harm a business's reputation (blog comment spam, Wikipedia spam, forum link-drops, etc.). They may call themselves “black hats,” but unlike true black hats, these people don't care about whether they produce any results for their clients; they're only concerned with their own profit. If you hire one of these to optimize your site, you run a very real risk of your site dropping from the search engine results and your company suffering a damaged online reputation.

It all comes down to informed consent

Let's say a new drug is developed that shows great promise in treating a serious illness. As it happens, though, the use of the drug carries some risks: the cost of the drug may not be covered by insurance, it's not 100% effective and there are potential side effects. What should doctors do?

Should doctors withhold information about the drug, or advise their patients to avoid this medicine no matter how effective it might be, on the theory it's their responsibility to protect their patients from all risk?

Should doctors simply prescribe the drug without mentioning the potential side effects, as there's no point in worrying patients needlessly about things that may never happen?

Or should doctors inform patients of all the alternatives, including the possible risks and rewards of each, and let the patient make the final decision? (This is called “informed consent.”)

Now, different people might answer differently, but personally I come down on the side of informed consent. The way I see it, the final decision rests with the patient, not with the doctor. The one who will bear the consequences of the risk should be the one to decide how much (and what kind of) risk to incur.

All choices carry risks. There are risks from being too aggressive and there are risks from being too timid. In the context of SEO, the risks range from the possibility of being banned by the search engines to the chance that the so-called optimization will have no measurable effect on rankings, traffic or sales. It doesn't matter to me what color somebody's hat supposedly is, or whether some self-proclaimed expert has declared their tactics to be “good” or “evil” — as a client, what would matter to me is whether I'm comfortable with the tactics the SEO uses, and that those tactics are employed with sufficient skill to produce acceptable results.

As long as the SEO has properly informed the client of the alternatives and their risks, and the SEO and client have together come up with a plan of action with which they're both comfortable, I can't find anything to complain about. They may decide to take a more or less aggressive stance than I would if I were in their position, but I'm not in their position. I don't have a right to dictate to them, just as they don't have a right to dictate to me. I'm going to follow a course that works for me, they can do the same, and can't we all just get along?

Is there an SEO reputation problem? To the extent that legitimate SEOs have to waste extra time re-educating potential clients to dispell misconceptions about what site optimization is and what it can reasonably accomplish, then I'd say yes. SEOs have gotten caught up in irrelevant arguments over hat colors and “evil” and have allowed the incompetents and scammers undue influence over the conversation. While we've been fighting over hats, they've been out there polluting the search results, setting urealistic expectations with our prospective clients, and giving everyone a totally distorted idea of what our industry is all about.

If SEOs really want to clean up the reputation of the industry, we need to band together to get rid of the incompetents and the scammers. The ones who don't produce results. Who hide behind unrealistic promises and high-pressure sales copy rather than being honest and realistic with their clients. Who refuse to discuss with their clients any specifics about what they do (which, of course, would allow the client to decide how well the techniques fit with the client's overall risk-tolerance). Those are the ones really giving the industry a black eye, in my opinion.

But clients have responsibilities, too, ya know!

As someone who offers site optimization consulting and who is also an in-house webmaster for a mid-sized business, I was able to consider this question from both sides of the fence, so to speak. So now I'm taking off my SEO hat and putting on my webmaster hat.

See, SEOs can't clean up the industry all by themselves. As long as we customers are lining up and practically begging for the chance to hand over our hard-earned cash for a scam, the snake-oil salesmen will keep hanging around. So, webmasters and business owners — are you ready for a little tough love? Part two is for you!

August 27, 2007

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Hi, I disagree with your assessment on #1 "totally". Would you like me to show you some "competitive" terms where sites are positioned that my firm helped get there?

People just don't get it in this industry and that is a fact.

I also think the second page's bottom line summary is off-base as well. Why does this industry always seem to want to put the responsibility of all it's problems with the 'outside'? Why is it a "buyer beware" and the buyer must do the research, etc, etc? I will never get that mindset at all. Just wait until some groups get together and take the non-sense by the throat. Something "will" be done before the governments get involved. We do not want that to happen, so something "WILL" be done.

I found that panel/session to be laughable as it was no different than past sessions and no different than what these people have discussed online in many places.

I agree with most of your comments. We've got an outfit in my area the "guarantees" a page one Google listing. And delivers. With a phrase that no one is using, of course. The client could have done that himself and saved the $3000 he paid them. Then they had the bald audacity to charge him $100/mo per site to "submit" his site to the engines each month. What a waste. The real phrases he needed are languishing way down in the "also ran" section.

I'm trying to pick up the pieces, but the other outfit ransacked his budget, so there's not much to work with.

@Doug: "interesting" perspectives as usual. I was especially fascinated to learn you apparently think it *isn't* a site owner's responsibility to make sure they know what they're buying before they plunk down thousands of dollars for SEO services.

Of course, as I stated clearly in the article, SEOs definitely have a responsibility to clean up their own industry. But to say site owners have *no* accountability for their own decisions is, quite frankly, irresponsible.

I find your implication that site owners aren't capable of doing the requisite homework (or having done it, are incapable of making a wise decision based on the information gathered) demeaning and insulting.

Either we're smart enough to educate ourselves and make good decisions, or we're not. Speaking as a self-educated webmaster, I happen to think we *are* smart enough.

You're free to hold a different opinion. Of course, in my experience it isn't usually a really good idea to call your potential clients stupid, but, hey, whatever works for you. :)

@Al: frustrating, isn't it? I feel your pain. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story!

Doug, good logic.

Unfortunately, some clients just don't have the background to do a proper job of evaluating an SEO outfit. The fellow I mentioned turns a wrench for a living and is almost totally computer illiterate. He's outsourced his web site to people who are mostly busy with other things and no more SEO savvy than he is. He finally turned the whole problem over to us to coordinate so he'll have more time to work with his hands, which is what he's good at.

During the summer, he's so busy that he just doesn't have enough time in a day to mind a web effort, even if he had the skills.

In today's highly specialized world, not everyone can be a computer genius. Those of us who take money to be the "expert" for clients who don't have the time/knowledge to do it for themselves have a responsibility to do an honest job and give our customers their money's worth and not take them to the cleaners. Think about the last time you, or someone you know, got skinned by a dishonest car repair outfit. What with the new computer-controlled cars, it's hard for us old time smoke eaters to know what's going on under the hood. We need to trust someone who spends their entire time learning and working on the new gee-whiz stuff.

The best compromise I've found is to work closely with my clients. Find out as much as I can about their business before I start any work. Then I let the client know what I'm going to do and why (education at a level the client can understand). I periodically let him/her know what I'm doing and make sure the phrases I'm trying to optimize make sense for the business. I also work closely with the client when optimizing a page to promote conversion once someone finds the site (something that other outfit I mentioned completely ignored). Not that I monopolize the client's time. But you need to make sure the client knows what you've done and likes it (no surprises).

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Search Engine Guide > Diane Aull > White Hats, Black Hats and Thinking Caps (part one)