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E-Marketing Performance Blog

The Arrogance of SEO

I’m tired of the arrogance within the SEO community, specifically with those that claim themselves to be the keepers of all true and correct SEO knowledge. It’s pitiful, undignified, disheartening, and annoying, and I’ve had enough! Maybe other industries have their own similar issues that I don’t know about, but I do know what I see within the SEO community and I’m fed up.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am an avid watcher of the Apprentice. I like that show specifically because I like to see how the tasks are performed each week. From a business standpoint I like to see what the teams do to succeed; from generating the idea all the way to execution, and the personality issues in between. Unlike other reality shows, like Survivor, where outwitting your opponents is first and foremost, even to the point of being dishonest in your relationships, is just part of the game, the Apprentices is more about business acumen. Those candidates that go on and act as if it is a game like Survivor never become Trump’s Apprentice. Those that learn how to work with personalities they may conflict or disagree with often last the longest.

The SEO community seems to have a Survivor mentality rather than an Apprentice mentality. Many claim moral superiority in their own tactics while working hard to discredit or badmouthing anybody that does things differently. This isn’t a black hat/white hat thing, it’s a “my ways are the right ways and your ways are everything that’s wrong with the industry” thing. That’s actually what is wrong with the industry. To be fair, there are a lot of things that constitute good (ethical) and bad (unethical) business practices. In SEO, however, that word “ethical” has taken on a whole new identity to mean anything that company X says it should be. Last year I read a very prominent SEOer’s book which stated that submitting anything but your actual business name in the “title” field to an online directory, such as Yahoo, is “unethical”.

Come on. Really?

Business ethics are pretty much universal and there are very few instances where ethics apply only for a particular industry. Cheating your clients is unethical. Lying or misrepresenting what you can do is unethical. These are universal. Using keywords in the title of your directory submission is not.

(Note: I’m sure there are certain business ethics principles that only apply to certain industries due to the nature of those industries, such as ambulance chasing for lawyers, but you’ll pretty much find universal agreement that these practices are considered unethical. For instance, insurance brokers shouldn’t ambulance chase either!)

For some reason many in the SEO community frown upon many sound business practices as “unethical” even though these practices are routine business procedures for many successful and “ethical” companies. Maybe because SEO is online we are dealing with a slight variation of a practice, but at it’s core the principles are the same.

Let’s take an example of cold calling. In the SEO community, cold calling is often considered “unethical” or said to be done only by the most sleazy of SEO firms. My firm does not cold call, however I’m not opposed to cold calling as a sales strategy; for SEO or any other business. Many legitimate businesses rely heavily on cold calling in order to maintain and grow their businesses. Should they suddenly stop this practice their business would suffer, if not fail completely.

To be sure, nobody likes getting cold calls, or calls from telemarketers at their homes. But just because I don’t like it doesn’t make it unethical. Many businesses would simply call it a necessary evil, but to others it is certainly a legitimate sales technique.

The argument against cold calling in the SEO community is that good SEO sells itself. In a round about way, this is true, but I’m not one to wait around for that to happen on its own. Anybody who makes a good product ultimately produces a product that sells itself, but marketing that product is still important and essential. Good SEO often generates good word of mouth (the most effective form of marketing there is) but not always, or at least not always as frequently as one would like. In my experience, many very happy clients don’t like to give word of mouth because they want you to be their “secret weapon.” Either that or the pool which they have to spread the good word is limited.

Getting good word of mouth from colleges is easy if you’re a great networker and have many friends in the industry. I’ll admit that networking is the skill I most lack from my business toolbox, but that doesn’t make my SEO services any less excellent. The alternative to great word of mouth is simply to be in the top position for ultra-competitive keywords like “search engine optimization” but from a business perspective, there are many legitimate reasons why you wouldn’t want to be in those positions. SEO guru Dan Thies had made this case himself in the past.

Yes, good SEO does sell itself, but that does not take the place of other forms of marketing. Even the most well-known SEOs understand this which is the reason many of them advertise on sites like Search Engine Watch, actively engage in PPC advertising and are known to sponsor or exhibit at events such as the Search Engine Strategies conferences. Not many would argue that these well-known, well-networked SEOs are good at what they do. But so much for good SEO being enough to sell itself. Marketing is an essential component to any business’ success.

SEOs that cold call do it for exposure and to draw new potential clients. Again, I’m not making a case here for myself or my own business, because we don’t market this way, but why should legitimate companies be considered sleazy for using this form of marketing? I think the simplest answer here is that many SEO companies that do engage in cold calling often are the sleazy ones, selling promises that they can’t deliver and getting sites banned from the search engines. Scorched earth SEO! Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. These companies are unethical because they participate in unethical business practices, not because they cold call. It’s silly to lump all cold callers in the SEO industry with those that are ethically challenged in other unrelated ways. Like I said earlier, nobody really enjoys getting cold calls but businesses do it because its a form of marketing that works for them.

Let’s take up UCE (Unsolicited Commercial Email) commonly referred to as SPAM. Nobody likes getting SPAM in their mailbox largely because it comes in mass quantities, you get the same emails to everybody@yourdomain.com, and its nothing you would ever be interested in. The Can-SPAM act was was developed because sending out millions of emails costs a fraction of sending out thousands of direct mail pieces, and the ease and inexpense of sending out mass quantities of UCE creates a burden on computer resources as well as time being spent sorting through these emails on the user end.

But I don’t believe all UCE is SPAM. I received an email the other day inviting me to speak to a local gathering of business people from my area. I didn’t ask for this email and it is commercial in nature, does that make is SPAM? Most would say “no” because this is an email that I welcome. So now the definition of SPAM is any unsolicited email I don’t like but not the ones I do like. Therefore the true definition of SPAM is really dependant on each individual person because some UCE is welcome while other UCE is not. One person’s trash is another person’s opportunity.

Before we go any further, let me say that my persona distinction between UCE and SPAM is the automation. If the email was sent to me through an automated process I would consider it SPAM. If it’s simply an “opportunity” that I find annoying, but was sent to me or my business by a real person then I would say it’s not. But that’s only my definition.

If, however, all UCE is SPAM, then there are a lot of other business practices that should be considered as such and, if not regulated, should be given the same moniker of “unethical”. Direct mail is one. Is Safeway unethical for sending me coupons every week. I have not been inside a Safeway for years, but I keep getting their coupons in the mail. What about those fliers about missing kids. I didn’t ask for those, are the organization sending those out ethically challenged?

Watch any episode of The Apprentice and you’ll see teams not only cold-calling but often just dropping by businesses in order to try to sell them something. Nobody asked for them to call or come by so should Trump fire these teams for participating in “unethical” activities? Any team team that took the view that cold calling or drop-ins were unethical would summarily lose the task and then someone would undoubtedly be fired for not doing enough to win.

I don’t have a problem with any person or persons in the SEO industry having an opinion about certain things. That’s all well and good and they are more than welcome to share what they believe for themselves and their own businesses. The problem I have is the self-righteous blather that spews out when these individuals believe that their way is the only right way. If they do it then so should you. If they don’t do it then you shouldn’t either.

This is nothing short arrogance on the part of those that make a sport out of looking down on those that participate in marketing practices that they believe to be “unethical”? If one or more or even most SEOs consider something unethical, does it really make it so? Not at all, and this kind of self-righteousness doesn’t belong in the SEO or any other industry. It’s okay to have your way of doing things as long as it falls under your own personal ethics and the broader spectrum of business ethics as well. But your way isn’t the only right way, nor does anybody hold the monopoly on ethics.

The two examples cited above are in no way intended as a defense of these practices but more of a realistic view of such practices in the overall business sense. Disapproval of certain SEO practices is not limited to these two examples but is seen in many forms on many different topics from both black hat and white hat SEO as well as with practitioners of “textbook SEO” and “SEO 2.0”.

I never really understood these extreme “camps” that SEOs often find themselves in. I once stated on a forum that I thought that “the SEO community is [like] a prison environment. You’ve got to find a ‘hat’ to hang out with in order to find protection.” Things don’t seem to be as black hat/white hat as they once were but we still see an extreme arrogance on both sides of the spectrum. There are many SEOs who do things that I wouldn’t and I know I do many things that others wouldn’t.

Rarely do I condemn the tactics of other SEOs unless I know without a doubt that such tactics are derived from lies and/or lead to a site getting banned by the engines. The liars would undoubtedly be the ethically challenged ones while those that get their clients banned are only “unethical” if they have misrepresented their services. If the client was fully aware of the potential consequences then ethics is not really a factor. I personally think using any SEO tactic that might get a client banned is a bad business decision, but that decision is up to each business owner and their clients.

So why can’t we all just get along? Well, mostly because everybody thinks they are right. You can call it the religion of SEO where each camp believes they hold the keys to the only true path. But the last I checked, Google (or anybody else for that matter) never claimed to be the Way, the Truth, or the Life in regards to SEO. It’s one thing to make your points known and stick to your own beliefs in regard to what is right and wrong. It’s another to condemn practices that are routinely employed by other successful businesses as a standard form of marketing.

But maybe there is something to this whole arrogance of SEO. Maybe some of us truly are more right than others and some legitimate business practices really are unethical for the SEO industry. Maybe this industry has risen to a higher plane of existence in the business world. If so, perhaps we should start referring to our industry as SEO Almighty!

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