Search engine optimization has an ongoing reputation problem. SEO has always been a controversial practice. There’s an air of manipulation inherent in SEO which is similar to the air of manipulation around other forms of prominence marketing. Though professional SEO is really about clarity, many professionals still think it’s about the dark-arts or spam. I’ve recently been introduced at meetings as an outlaw of the Internet and have previously called myself a ghost in the machine. There’s something sexy around myths of manipulative power.
The truth about myths is they’re not really real. Myths tend to be more story than substance. Though true to the time, it was a mistake to market ourselves the way we did in the early days of search. What’s worse, is how so many continue to market the concepts of SEO in much the same way.
The myth of the manipulator has been fostered by some in the industry as a means of sexing up their sales process. Sometimes it gets pushed by people from other sectors in the digital marketing and advertising space, often from voices whose experience was tainted by bad-SEO. Most frequently the sector’s bad rep is earned by practitioners taking projects beyond their scope of knowledge or with too few resources to keep promises made and ultimately failing their clients.
The industry requires a reset yet it has something of a reputation problem to overcome first. I think we could start by deconstructing the myth of the manipulator and touting the truest service provided by really good SEOs, that of web quality problem solver.
More Complicated than Most Clients
Search is a complicated subject. Search engine optimization even more so. Clients expect reasonably priced results to manifest quickly and there are several other ad-spend options available for them to consider. This leads some SEOs over-promise as a means of over-compensating, creating client expectations that need to be dialed back while explaining a realistic range of services.
Over the past two years it has become increasingly difficult to quickly quantify our services. Organic search continues to drive the bulk of referred traffic. Nevertheless, Google continues to make it harder to draw definable lines for our clients showing successes from initial research to search engine traffic. In the introduction of Universal Analytics, Google is even redefining long-used metrics to better suit its view of the changing faces of web-traffic.
All of these changes and complications are good for our industry. Outside the search engines themselves, who is better qualified to understand and articulate these changes?
For many SEOs, the past few years have been as much about problem solving as they have been about traditional SEO. As web design changes to meet the challenges of mobile devices, many small to medium sized businesses are racing to redo or renew their sites. In the course of our careers, SEOs get to work on hundreds of unique websites. Most problems a website might experience are already part of a good SEO’s experience because we’ve likely seen something similar before.
This is the kind of experience SEOs should be selling as a standard level of service.
A Not-so-Subtle Shift in Tone
In the wake of two years of substantive change in Google’s ranking algorithms, the tone of the industry is shifting. SEO firms that concentrated only on link-building are starting to close or striving to change. Firms that stayed true to the fundamentals of strong web design, smartly written site copy, analytic driven decisions, and collaborative strategic planning are finding their phones ringing again.
This shift in tone is being cultivated primarily by Google which has deliberately created a climate of fear between the rock of a penalty and the hard reality of being re-ranked. Google quite clearly resents being gamed. This is a good thing, something good SEOs should consider telling their clients.
Clipping They Who Fly By Night
The highest hurdle ahead of us as an industry remains the behaviour of the huge contingent of snake-oil SEOs. It is as easy for a fly-by-night entrepreneur to establish a SEO firm as it is to become a 1-800# psychic. Fly-by-night SEOs exist all over the Web. Many built their businesses on link building. Now that most unnatural forms of link-acquisition have been burned by Google, those firms are unable to assist clients who were led into harm’s way (though they can sell link clean-up services).
The industry should acknowledge the presence of low-skill and fly-by-night practitioners. They exist and they do damage to clients and to the tens of thousands of good webmasters who want to use their skills to help other businesses succeed. Short of certification and registration in a professional body, the snake-oil SEOs will continue to proliferate however, we as an industry can deny them the myths they use to mislead and misinform.
The role of the SEO isn’t to game Google or Bing but rather to serve information to them in ways they can best understand and use to guide their users.
While the lines between social media marketing and search engine optimization continue to blur most social media marketers and search engine optimization practitioners fail to embrace their careers as a cross-discipline. We continue to exist in separate silos competing for resources and focus. In many cases, the social media team and SEO practitioners work at cross-purposes rather than as a collaborative unit. There are several prominent exceptions to this rule but they are fewer in number than one might think.
The ability to effectively mix SEO and social marketing efforts will be a separation point between search marketing firms that grow into the environment and ones pushed further to its margins. Those who find, develop, or innovate on processes that involve collaboration between marketing platforms will thrive. Those who can’t will shrink.
Think of a future where SEO is part of a much larger advertising effort. If today’s SEO practitioners have a hard time working collaboratively with their social media marketing counterparts, imagine the difficulties in acting as a component piece of a campaign run by a much larger machine. Those who can’t will shrink.
The search marketing family has matured into adulthood but the same can’t be said of its eldest brother, SEO. In the earliest days, SEO was an advertising offshoot, a hidden unfair advantage only a few online businesses knew about. That started the myth. Today, SEO should be practiced as an integral part of a much larger collaborative cross-disciple effort. That reality should, over time, slay the myth.
It’s a myth that needs to be buried for a better definition of SEO to emerge. The sad truth is, I don’t manipulate Google nearly as much as Google manipulates me. As a SEO, my job is to instruct clients how to maximize Google and Bing results for all their digital marketing efforts. SEO is not about manipulating Google or Bing. It’s about standing out while conforming to their standards. Mostly, being a SEO today is about seeing and solving problems. That’s a way better reputation to have than that of a manipulator.
It’s also about collaborating with other service providers covering different segments of a marketing campaign, such as social, paid-search, and traditional advertising. For most, the days of the single service practitioner hanging his or her shingle are over. I used to be a hired gun. Now I’m a quality control department. Such is the state of the SEO industry in the summer of 2014.
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