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How to Solve the Sexism in SEO 'Problem': Stop Complaining & Take Action

Erin Everhart
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Women in SEO

At SES New York in March, I organized the first Girls' Night Out for some of the female SES speakers. Not only was a great way to put finally put faces to names, it was an opportunity for us to really hone in on the root of this sexism in tech debate.

We debated a lot, but two things were excruciatingly clear:

  • We have more power in this industry than we give ourselves credit for. (Don't forget we can already get better links than our male counterparts.)
  • We need to stop complaining about it and do something to change it.

Much thanks to some amazing women in the industry who lent their expertise:

First Things First: Is There Really a Gender Bias in Speaking?

It started Jan. 21, 2013, but the discussion was happening long before then. Marty Weintraub at aimClear wrote a fantastic piece on female speaker stats that he gathered from 19 conferences. Since then, a slew of articles have come out about women being underrepresented in speaking and being downright harassed.

It's hard to argue with numbers, but there are more variables to consider.

"We know there are less female speakers, but I don't think that's a result of gender bias," Gillette said. "Conferences want to get the well-known, and in my opinion, a lot of the older, well-known SEOs happen to be men."

Save for a few, like Debra Mastaler, Christine Churchill, Anne Kennedy and Hoffman.

Still, there's little argument that there are just downright more men in the industry than women, so naturally, there will be a higher percentage of men speaking, right?

"I don't think it's a matter of percentages though," Barone said. "When there are 20 male speakers to every one female, it's not an adequate representation of the industry. To try and claim that, to me, is absurd."

So, What's The Deal? Are Women Just Not Pitching?

"Ultimately, we (SES Conference) do see lots more submissions from male speakers but our number of submissions from women are starting to increase," Roth said.

Yes, fewer women mean fewer pitches, but maybe women are just more hesitant to put themselves out there. Maybe women aren't as furious when it comes to speaking in public. And maybe there are some women who feel like should be on a panel just because they are women and their pitches aren't up to snuff.

"This demand for more 'female inclusion' for the sake of more female inclusion is something I take as an insult," Hoffman said. "I've busted my ass to create a name for myself, and I've earned my speaking slots and my reputation. Why should someone else be placed on a panel, or a top list or included in an interview simply because they wear a bra?"

Our other experts agreed. No one is clamoring to put women on a panel to fill a quota or make it more diverse. Still, conference organizers have a responsibility to keep track of who they're selecting, and women have an equal responsibility to make their pitch stand out.

Roth and the SES team certainly have. She recommends that if you really want to be accepted, make your pitch stand out. Don't assume you're going to be on an outreach panel just because you were on one last year.

SEO is constantly changing so your pitches should, too. Take a risk and go off the wall. Talk about something controversial. Be engaging. That's how you get accepted.

And if you're not picked, it's not the end of the world. Personally, I've been rejected just as much as I've been accepted, but that's never stopped me from continuing to pitch.

"If you aren't picked, pay attention to what is chosen or reach out to the session moderator to find out how your pitch could be better," Gillette said.

OK: So What Can We Do To Get More Women in SEO?

"The same way I'd encourage men to get involved in SEO or speak," Hoffman said. "Everyone wants to focus on this ‘gender divide,' but in my opinion, your gender doesn't put you at a handicap in this industry or in life — anymore than I believe that your sexual orientation or race does. Mindset has more to do with it."

Reading, learning, and researching are the big three when it comes to entertain the field, but so few people actually experiment and test when they're just starting out.

Have a pet project you work on. If you want to see if having action words in your title tags improve CTR, test it.

"There's no college degree for what we do," Hoffman said. "If you have a desire to get in the game, jump in and get your feet wet."

Even though we are cut-throat competitors, SEOs are amazingly supportive, especially the women, but it can be intimidating if you're just starting out.

Unfortunately, for every amazing SEO out there, there are five bad ones tarnishing our industry's reputation. Naturally, we can be wary of newcomers, so the best way get involved is show you actually know (and practice) what you're talking about.

Gillette recommends using Twitter to interact with other women. Use these Twitter lists as your starting point: https://twitter.com/Casieg/top-ladies-of-seo-social and https://twitter.com/junemackweb/women-to-follow-in-seo. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and don't be afraid to walk up at a conference and say hey. We promise we don't bite.

"There's no reason why I or any other female can't achieve whatever you want to achieve in this industry – you just have to not be scared to go for what you want," Roth said.

What Are Your Tips for Kicking Butt in SEO?

"It's so easy when you are immersed in your brand 24/7 to forget what it's like to be your customer," Roth said. "It's so easy to use content that you think is interesting, but if it's not relevant to your audience it's wasted content and resource."

Roth recommends asking yourself these questions before doing anything:

  • If I was receiving this email, or being asked to buy your product, what would I be looking for?
  • What would make me decide to engage with your brand, or better still, to purchase or sign up for something?'

That's just simply knowing how to pitch.

"That doesn't come from being a man or a woman, but just understanding what the person on the other end is looking for," Gillette said. "Oh yeah, and just being a nice human being; that goes a long way. Maybe women are just better at it."

There's a lot if information out there about what works and what doesn't, and you could easily rest on what they say and get by just fine. But what fun is that.

Take what you read and form your opinions. Find your own results.

"SEO will only continue to get harder," Hoffman said. "Those who form their own opinions on how things work will always have a leg up on those who blindly follow the advice of others."

We also owe it to ourselves – women and men alike – to stop taking shortcuts to just game the algorithm. It's not sustainable, and you will see repercussions from that tactic. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but I believe enough in Google's power that they will find you.

Plus, when you're good at what you do, no one asks "Hey, how are you ranking for credit cards as a girl?"


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