Is now the time for search engine marketing standards? The question comes up often in search marketing circles. It feels a little presumptuous to try to set standards. In a way, you're telling smart marketers they must do search marketing within a box of specific guidelines.
Every marketer should have the ability to make search marketing decisions not based on ethical or moral considerations of using specific tactics, but on their own business model. If you're a Super Bowl T-shirt salesman and need to sell a few million items around the time of the big game, you may be willing to use riskier tactics. That should be your choice.
Before we could hope to have standards, we need a level playing field for marketers interested in engaging Internet audience through search engines. In that spirit, I'm in favor of establishing search engine marketing standards that would provide guidelines for all marketers, and create that level field.
Under my proposal, which I presented in a session at SMX West this week, we as an industry would need to create a glossary of tactics, and rate them according to risk level associated with their use. The search engines provide Webmasters with guidelines on what tactics they consider right or wrong. Enumerating the various tactics, and the risk rating associated with each tactic would allow people who are not familiar with search marketing to make informed decisions. It would also go a long way toward fostering a better understanding of the work that goes into organic search engine optimization.
I envision a process including the following steps in order to make this happen: 1. Define commonly used search marketing tactics; 2. Rate the tactics by risk level; and 3. Educate webmasters on the ratings.
1. Define Common Tactics
The various methods used for search engine optimization can be broken down by level of difficulty. Simpler tactics would include keyword research, ranking reporting, creating page titles and meta information, and the use of heading tags or bolded content.
More difficult, less widespread tactics would include the various ways to label images and other non-text content, and "workarounds" for Flash or rich Internet applications.
Known "no-no's" would need to be addressed as well. Of course many tactics would likely not make the list due to their secrecy and infrequent use. However, old-school spamming tactics such as using white text on white background or the practice of deceptive IP delivery (cloaking) could be defined.
This process would need to be committee-driven, rather than a community-driven effort, in order to get the first draft. The community could then be polled for feedback and to help fill in the missing pieces. Consensus may be difficult to reach and it would be likely that some opinions would have to be ignored.
2. Rate the Tactics
I envision a "tactical risk consideration" rating added to this document: levels of risk associated with each tactic. The particular strategies could then be rated into the following categories:
- No risk
- Little risk
- Moderate risk
- High risk
- Not advisable
Marketers would need to be made aware that not all tactics are included in the glossary – and if they aren't, caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.
The document must provide a clear statement: "If a tactic not clearly defined is presented as a part of the project plan, a marketing manager should pause to question why, and decide if that tactic is appropriate."
The reasons not to list all tactics? In short, to avoid giving away the recipe for success to search engines and competitors. Complete inclusion of methodologies would be impossible to accomplish. Of course this would also be a living, breathing document. Ratings should be purely committee-driven and approved by SEMPO, which is the closest thing to an industry standard group that exists in search marketing. (Full disclosure: I serve on the SEMPO Board of Directors.)
3. Promotion and Awareness
Once created, this document should be made available to everyone in the marketing industry. It could be published on a unique domain or on an established industry platform such as the SEMPO site.
The format of the document could be wiki-style with limited editing access. The document caretakers should also monitor its "reputation" within industry blogs and forums. The standards would not be "set and forget." Updates may need to be recommended quarterly.
I'm curious to hear your opinions on this subject, so please share your thoughts on establishing SEO standards at the Search Engine Watch Forums.
Frank Watson Fires Back:
Great idea mate. It is about time to lay out standards and risk ratings – though I doubt the real black hat promoters will take much notice. Maybe just to see where the risk levels are and what gets laid out at the various levels.
There is definitely a need to define "black hat." Too many novice search marketers fear the wrath of Google, and have many misconceptions about what they can and cannot do. A risk rating system could help many of them.