Last week, Tony Wright and Chris Boggs responded to questions about the proposed Code of Ethics that SEMPO is spearheading. Now I have put questions to several well known industry experts to get their reactions and opinions on the Code of Ethics plans.
I spoke with Rhea Drysdale, CEO of Outspoken Media; Kristine Schachinger, an independent consultant; and Kim Krause Berg, President of Creative Vision Web Consulting, on their thoughts about the Code of Ethics and controversy surrounding it.
Why do you think the Code of Ethics is a bad idea?
The intent of the COE is fine, but the process is flawed and SEMPO is no longer operating according to its mission.I believe a Code of Ethics is great in theory–most reputable SEOs already hold themselves to a high standard and abide set of professional ethics. However, if you were to survey a significant portion of the industry, you would probably find what the industry lacks is education and reliable data, not a police force.
I understand SEMPO’s mission is to help with this—relationship development, awareness, education, industry promotion, unique research, and a better understanding of how search fits into a bigger marketing landscape. I think SEMPO’s energy could be better spent supporting educational and research initiatives than chasing what appears to be a controversial passion project with little support and structure.
There are multiple reasons. Simple ones like even among ethical SEOs ethics are different and what is ethical in one area may not be in another. We work in the land of gray, not black and white, to state that any group can say how any other should behave is wrongheaded. And while I have no doubt there were good intentions behind this thought it is a bad thought.
There is genuinely no upside for any SEO in this idea. Will this stop “asshat” SEOs? Of course not. Dicks will be dicks and an unethical SEO is already subject to online reviews and many laws related to fraud, yet that does not stop them. Does anyone really think a group with an SEO code of ethics will? To enforce an idea you must have authority of which the law surely has more and this group has none, so we wind up fighting over what “is” means and the asshats continue to rake in the uninformed consumer.
What else makes it a bad idea? Aside from our own policing our own, people with vested interests deciding who and who is not ethical? Legalities. As is with other codes of ethics such as Realtors, Lawyers, and Doctors these are grounds for laypersons to sue, whether people participate in the group or not.
Do we really want to open up the land of random lawsuits by clients who already have no understanding of what we do? .
So it fixes nothing, it causes division in our industry and it opens us up to legal issues and those are just the few overarching issues, there is not enough room to get into the many logistical and industry related issues that this would cause.
Kim Krause Berg:
The Code of Ethics is a bad idea because they are using the term “ethics”, that implies a set of laws, beliefs and compliance which would need to be enforced.
Clients don’t understand that search engines want money. Any practice that an SEO comes up with that does not make money for a search engine may eventually mean a punishment from the search engine. What is unethical is not being honest with a client that certain strategies are high risk. This has been a complaint since SEO first began. What may be considered as unethical is continuing to perform tactics that are out of date, but practicing bad strategies is not about ethical SEO, it is bad business. So my concern is creating a system that has one purpose, which is to destroy individuals and agencies for being stupid business people. Secondly, judgment and enforcement is performed by industry peers.
Do you think the industry could use some sort of code of ethics or watchdog?
Until there’s more structure surrounding education, I don’t believe you can effectively (or fairly) police an entire industry. There’s also no vehicle to transmit the COE message and it’s probably as unenforceable as the SEO trademark would have been. Most important, it goes against SEMPO’s own values, “Is SEMPO a standards body for the SEM industry? SEMPO is not a standards body or a policing organization. Membership in or involvement with SEMPO is not a guarantee of a particular firm’s capabilities, nor does it signify industry approval or disapproval of their practices.”
No we work in the land of gray where standards differ even among the most ethical. I think where this group could better spend its time is educating site owners, because even with a code of ethics, they will still buy $100 services since they do not understand why they would buy $1000 programs. This will do nothing to stop that practice.
Kim Krause Berg:
No. That approach is wrong in my opinion. I emphasize with Chris Boggs when he wrote in your interview, “However, I get tired of hearing about SEOs being shady and using smoke and mirrors.” That statement is at the heart of this effort that SEMPO wants to support. One if the reasons that some of the first SEO’s in the industry are retired or changed careers is tied to the terrible reputation.
Today, SEO is all about battling with Google, playing nice with Bing, buying ads, optimizing for local, hunting algorithms and adding social media marketing strategies. Of these, Google scares the hell out of site owners and forces them be dependent on whomever they hire to keep them in Google’s good graces. Google’s punishments have created more work for SEO’s because what used to work is now considered forbidden and companies hire SEO’s to clean up the mess. It is not always the SEO practices that are unethical. It is what search engines are doing to make the experience of being in their databases that is a source of the problem.
Site owners will hire anyone that sells them a promise and sells it cheap. Some companies will prey on those companies and this has contributed to the bad reputation issue. But again, it is not about SEO ethics. It is, to me, about business ethics.
Do you think a Code of Ethics plan could work if SEMPO wasn’t the driving force?
While it feels like SEMPO should be in the best position to champion the COE, there needs to be separation between their mission and industry standards/policing. What makes more sense is to see the few vocal leaders within SEMPO who support the COE separate and form a new organization with greater structure, professionalism, and industry reach around this topic. I don’t believe you can have both under the same roof (education and regulation). For the moment, no organization currently has enough clarity of vision or industry support to back the COE.
No. For the reasons mentioned above and the much more simple, how would anyone enforce it? How would it not become divisive and again it would do nothing to stop the asshats. This is not about SEMPO it is about the concept which despite its good intentions is highly flawed.
Kim Krause Berg:
SEMPO hears the call for help and has offered to assist in creating a solution but from what I read, they are not interested in being the organizer. Since I don’t see any other organization stepping up, I think that this will land fully in SEMPO’s lap. I see it as an opportunity for SEMPO to act as a leader, but these first steps regarding the Code of Ethics were not well thought out and planned, leading to a wave of anger and push back.
Do you feel this Code of Ethics is SEMPOs plan to try and make themselves relevant since many people don’t see the benefits of being a member.
We’re marketers and we’re talking about SEMPO–as easy as it would be to accuse SEMPO of using this as a marketing play, I understand it’s caused a lot of contention and probably hasn’t helped SEMPO’s reputation. This makes me believe it’s likely a very real initiative for the handful of individuals pushing it through. What’s of greater concern is the lackluster response from the community—most simply laughed the idea of COE off saying it would never materialize. This brings up the issue of relevance—SEMPO lacks industry support. If I was on the board, I would want to focus on my core mission: member recruitment and networking, education, unique research, and industry positioning and awareness.
No I don’t think that. I do think there is probably a sincere effort to stop the bad SEOs, it just won’t and in the end it just hurts us as an industry.
Kim Krause Berg:
Yes. As someone who works in an industry that provides support to Internet Marketing, there is no compelling reason for me to join SEMPO. I would ask the Board to consider finding ways of making the organization something worthwhile for all types of sole proprietors and companies to join, and be proud to be a member of. For example, one of the professional organizations I am a member of sends out print publications of case studies and research to members as a benefit. I use the data in my work. So my point is, rather than setting rules and threatening punishment for non-compliance, why not provide the resources for doing credible business instead?
How do you feel about the delegate selection process, especially since so many in the industry simply don’t belong to a local group that could send a delegate.
Outside of SEMPO, there are a few regional groups like SEMpdx and SEMNE with strong membership, but to call the majority of smaller groups well-organized and/or attended is questionable. This limits representation mostly to existing SEMPO members.
In the example brought up by one board member, they’re picturing the COE as a Better Business Bureau for SEO. It’s worth noting that the Better Business Bureau does include SEOs in their business listings, but the majority of listings sit empty or paid for—a practice that has garnered a significant amount of criticism for the BBB (“rewarding” paying members). How the BBB is structured with independently governed, local BBB boards is a good model, but there’s another group that governs those, which is made up of leadership from the local BBB boards, business executives, and industry leaders. The selection process is cannibalistic, especially when the boards are made up of at least 90% business sector professionals.
There should be a less controversial model for the COE if SEMPO is trying to legitimize their campaign. Until we have an independent organization that can fairly recruit and develop a true COE, I believe our time and resources are best spent on industry-wide education and research and hope SEMPO returns to its roots.
Highly issued since as mentioned we would be legally bound if the code becomes an industry standard.
Kim Krause Berg:
This is not well thought out.
Some companies in the search engine marketing industry are bad businesses but cleverly market themselves as experts. A Search Council is not going to tell those companies they will be punished for their bad practices. It’s simply never going to happen when the reality is that SEMPO paying members may be lost. SEMPO is never going to allow itself to be sacrificed.
I would like to see examples of what the delegates might wish to enforce. Not having any examples leaves everyone left to guess. I would prefer that rather than ethics, SEMPO focus on education. What does a well-run online marketing business look like? What companies are examples of excellent business practices? How can SEMPO help site owners choose the right company to work with? What are safe SEO practices? Where can people report SEO spam email and websites that promote outdated SEO practices? What are fair prices to charge clients? When are certain practices necessary? Aaron Wall wrote an excellent perspective on one of my sites on that. I would rather see SEMPO find ways to support the industry rather than creating more ways for dividing it.
Any other comments?
SEMPO’s discussion of the COE remains vague. I was promised details about the COE by one board member, but have yet to receive them. Given the recent article, I suspect there are no tangible answers, because they simply don’t have them. From the outside looking in, the campaign lacks leadership and a clear message outside of “needs to be decided.”
So much, but it would take an article of my own to write. If you are reading this just ask yourself, what would be the upside and just who would get to police who? Who would decide what is ethical. The really only code of ethics is SEO is “Don’t Be A Dick” but the dicks will still be dicks and in the end all we have done is created grounds of division in our industry.
And do I really want to turn my industry into a bunch of people outing each other? We are a large family, maybe a dysfunctional one, but a large family. To further this cause is at the expense of many and it will leave scars that may be unrepairable.
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