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To The SEO Community: Keep Sharing, Stay Humble

Mark Jackson
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time-to-shareAs I’m writing this, the area that I live in (Kansas City) is getting nailed by a tremendous snow storm.

On a break, I caught up on local news and was hearing about some local tow truck companies volunteering their time to help people who are stranded on the roads. They’re pulling them out of ditches and helping them get on their way home.

It reminds me, somewhat, of the SEO industry. I think it goes without saying that – for many – our reputation isn’t the best. A few bad apples spoil it for the rest of us. The same could be said for the towing industry.

But, by and large, the SEO community does a lot of good things, too. I’m reminded of this, as I look back on the past 10 years that I’ve spent in SEO and can think of all of the wonderful people who helped me along the way.

There were no courses to learn SEO, when I was first introduced to the practice. I learned through being inquisitive. I asked “why” and researched until I determined what it might take to be successful. But, more than anything else, I leaned on a lot of people and asked them the same question: ”why?”

I was also helped by forums such as WebmasterWorld, attended SES conferences, got involved with the Dallas-Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association and networked.

What I found was that the SEO community was very willing to share their knowledge and experiences. I could provide a very large list of people here to say “thanks” to them.

The people who speak at these conferences, and contribute to the forums, are (in most cases) giving their time to the cause. Do they do this with the hopes of growing their presence/gaining business? Yes. Is that the only reason? No. They are just willing to help out. We really do have a lot of very nice people in our industry.

There are some SEOs out there who claim to “know it all”. I, for one, will tell you that I don’t have it all figured, still. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on things, but – let’s be honest – there’s a lot of stuff to try and keep your head wrapped around. And, much like Google gets better because it has access to a lot of information, SEOs get better when we have access to a lot of information, too!

One of my all-time favorites in our industry is Ted Ulle. I am compelled to share with you a post that Ted had written on WebmasterWorld, in which he speaks of the importance of humility in SEO:

Let's face [it], there is only one person in the world with the "highest IQ". For the rest of us, we are not the smartest person around. For most of us, the average search engineer at Google IS smarter than we are. Fact - it's a job I can't do. I don't think I could even get through the first interview.

So we need to stay realistically humble when we analyze what Google is doing or even trying to do. Otherwise we're going to make TERRIBLE SEO DECISIONS, based on our own blind spots rather than the real situation. Or even worse, we'll spend all kinds of energy assuming we can't do anything about our situation. Then we just whine and wring our hands, but we don't start winning again.

The biggest error I've seen is assuming we can read the hidden intentions of any other individual, and especially those of a corporation. This is dangerous territory. It's where we have a strong tendency to project our own hidden character onto another, rather than seeing the situation clearly. And with so many people inside a corporation affecting the group's action, it gets even worse.

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For me, doing good SEO work means accepting and knowing that these two shortfalls are mine: I'm not the smartest cookie in the jar, and I can make big mistakes trying to read the motives of others.

By admitting that others are smarter than I am, I am challenged to continue to learn new things. So I study patents from Google, Bing and other Information Retrieval scientists. They are doing the hard work that's on the edge of human cultural change - and I want to know at least something about it at that purist level.

Then the science work gets translated into a public search engine service through a large company - because that job TAKES big resources these days. Cuil learned that lesson!

So I do try not to project my own shortcomings onto that corporation. Corporations in any field are a human challenge whenever they hit a certain scale. New effects appear that can look like "evil". Google is doing better than most at keeping that cr@p under control, but still they do create some effects that can feel harsh on a personal level.

It's easy, in a frustrating situation, to lose track of the fact that Google doesn't focus on me - that they're focus is on THEIR user base, just as my focus should be on mine. Emotion will not resolve an SEO problem - that's a fact!

And for me, this approach has worked so far. I have a career that feels like a blessing most of the time. And I can stay relatively balanced at work and still "have a life", too.

We are all in a competitive-cooperative ecology with Google. It's not just a competitive or cooperative situation - it's both, all the time. That much understanding, just on its own, has enough to humble me and keep me from becoming either a fanboy or a whining critic. It keeps me in a place where I can be productive.

I hope that sharing my thoughts on these issues can also help you.

SEO professionals who only have a handful of projects have a difficult time saying “this is the way it is”, when – in reality – they don’t have enough breadth of experience to say, with any level of certainty, that they “know” something is a certain way. However, when you’re able to reach out to a network of trusted piers within your industry, it helps you to substantiate your thoughts – or not.

And, the SEO community is, by and large, willing to help out.

That’s what I sincerely love and appreciate about our industry. I feel like we each owe it to one another to continue the spirit of knowledge-sharing.

There have certainly been times, when a prospect reaches out to me (that I know for certain cannot afford our services or – perhaps – shouldn’t even be entertaining SEO at the moment) that I take a deep breath and remember that we must help one another. It’s the Golden Rule that my momma taught me well. You must do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, I typically end up spending 30-60 minutes on a call with them to help them understand what SEO is, how it’s done, and give them a plan for what they should be doing (which, in most cases, does not involve hiring my agency).

Another lesson that I’ve learned in life is that “the more that you give, the more that you get”. I have written before about how I feel that Rand Fishkin established himself, largely, because he figured out that knowledge sharing grew his market prominence and established him as a “thought-leader”. This same formula works today. If you have a client that is willing to share their knowledge via a blog, or guest writing somewhere, that certainly helps their SEO.

I should mention that those towing companies that I mentioned earlier are being tweeted about (photos, etc.) on the local news social profiles here in Kansas City. They gave….and then they received.

Here in KC, we have a local search group, the Kansas City Search Engine Marketing Association. We have had some tremendous speakers, including – most recently – Brett Tabke (PubCon/WebmasterWorld founder). While Tabke may have agreed to speak to the organization to promote upcoming PubCon event, I don’t think that what his chief reason.

Tabke “gets it”. He is willing to share his knowledge. He “gives” and therefore he “receives” (no doubt that some of the people who listened to him were intrigued enough to consider attending future events).

The SEO industry has come a long ways in the past 10 years. I hope that our industry can always keep in mind that, while there may be competition, we all work within a unique industry that is stronger because there is a common bond. We do need each other. We need to continue to share our experiences and be willing to help.

The next time someone asks you a “stupid” SEO question, take a breath, remember that we belong to a community that is willing to help others be successful, even if that means no money in our pockets – at least, not right now. As Ted said, “be humble”.


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