A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference in Dallas, Texas December 11th and 12th, 2002.
Perhaps it's a terrible cliche, but the only thing that experts agree is constant in the search engine marketing business is constant change.
As 2002 drew to a close and SEO vendors converged in Dallas for the Search Engine Strategies conference, the predominant discussions focused on moving the industry to a more mature status, seeking to debunk common myths in search engine marketing (SEM) and searching for credibility among traditional media.
Clouded by the murky waters of unethical behavior and the "black eye" that a few have given the entire industry, the "monetization" of the search industry has been one of the most difficult challenges faced by both search engine optimization (SEO) vendors and the search engines.
More than ever, SEOs are feeling the shift of search engine marketing to a "media buying industry" with cost-per-click feeds and keyword bidding shifting the focus to "checkbook SEO". While "organic" SEOs fight this model to provide results at a reasonable cost, many concede that a fully integrated approach creates the best success model for search engine marketing.
The advantage in moving towards the media buying model is greater accountability, including direct results with ROI tracking, but the SEM industry is still so immature, says Barbara Coll of WebMama, that the big companies with large advertising budgets are hesitant to spend money with SEO firms. Instead, many currently prefer to deal directly with the portal ad reps.
Standards - The Bone of Contention
The push for SEM industry standards and SEO ethics guidelines continues, yet the likelihood of the industry coming to something of an agreement on this topic seems to be an impossible goal. Complicating matters on this front are some of the actions taken by the search engines themselves, either by not clearly defining "the rules for spam" or setting guidelines that appear contradictory in nature.
Exposing some of the double standards set forth by the major engines was Greg Boser of Web Guerrilla, who presented several instances of "favoritism" for sites that allegedly used spam tactics. Boser contends that paying advertisers are given "somewhat of a free pass" or a chance to clean up the egregiously spammy SEO, and typically it is the website's ad sales representative who gives a heads up to the webmaster before the site gets removed from the natural index.
To avoid the "relative risk" by pushing the limits of spam policies, Boser recommends spending a minimal budget advertising on the engines while implementing organic SEO tactics instead. Doing so may provide you with an inside track in times of crisis - such as a "PR0" penalty or a missed update.
Access to an ad rep may also help uncover potential code problems or other errors that prevent proper spidering of your site. In extreme cases, such contacts can shed light on non-public issues, such as "back room deals" where inventory for particular keyword buys have been sold out for eternity, due to previous contracts signed.
The Act of Intent
The lack of honesty on both sides (SEOs and the search engines) is clearly hampering the industry's growth, and the distrust on both sides stems from relevancy problems and issues surrounding trusted feeds. For relevancy's sake, even ethical SEOs must sometimes rely on using tactics that push the limits, typically by way of work-arounds that do not offend the end-user, and only if there is a good reason to do so.
Efforts such as having "hidden headings or text" underneath intensive graphics or flash are to make same content available to users, for their benefit, allowing the most relevant results to appear, despite issues with site design. Another practical application brought up in discussion was the proper use of IP detection for the sake of attracting a robot and avoiding spidering issues with Session ID's or cookies.
To date, most of the spidering engines have labeled IP detection as against the rules, but client pressure to solve such indexing issues via "black magic" or server side technology is on the rise. SEO vendors are asking the search engines to examine the nature of intent behind these practices more closely, rather than being labeled spam automatically.
Frustrating for organic SEO campaigns are issues surrounding trusted feed results that are not clearly defined as paid results, which may eventually be challenged by the recommendation of the FTC to label such listings. For example, sites using Inktomi's trusted feed (at a set per click rate) are blended seamlessly into MSN search results. Some SEOs argue that there is most definitely a relevancy issue with trusted feed pages that do not always point to the right content to match the search, and furthermore, are ranked ahead of the less expensive, paid inclusion pages in an effort to better monetize search.
On the flip side, Mikkel deMib Svendsen argues that paid results can be more relevant than "natural spam," but the quality of editorial integrity needs to be evaluated and recognized separately.
Accusations also flew around about "monetization targeting," the practice in which sites successfully implementing organic SEO strategies are cold called by search engine sales reps, looking to upsell paid programs. In a few cases, claims Mr. Boser, this has occurred soon after well-placed pages "mysteriously" disappeared from the natural index.
The Future of the SEM Industry
While Google made the most recent attempt at setting standards for ethical SEO practices, there is significant pushback from SEO vendors who feel the statements made within the document are a step in the right direction, but contradictory to the point of buyer confusion.
Danny Sullivan says it still does not provide the consumer with the information needed to make a good decision on choosing an SEO consultant. Just as previous attempts by other outfits had caused confusion, Google's SEO policy needs holes filled in and cannot be viewed as the industry standard.
Among the top points of concern to SEOs are the "money-back guarantee" clause and the issue of reporting spam when there are no definitive methods of investigating technical issues or clearing up spam penalties. To solve spam disputes or technical questions, SEOs loudly voiced the desire for Google or other search engines to launch a paid support system to offer (even partial) answers to problems faced by SEOs and webmasters.
Daniel Dulitz of Google said that the problem with implementing such a system is managing the SEO/customer relationship -- there still would be no true way of getting direct answers, though he concedes that the system could work to alleviate the heavy email load Google currently faces.
The potential benefit of creating such a subscription system could lend credibility to the search engine marketing industry as a whole, by at least giving website owners some assurance that an SEO has the resources and knowledge available to maximize their visibility in Google without breaking the rules and causing harm to their businesses.
As it stands now, the are no rewards for "being the good guy" in SEM, since SEOs cannot answer client problems with complete accuracy when unexpected events occur and there are no formal explanations put forth by the engines. Such issues put the credibility of the entire industry at risk. Of course, it's a slippery slope for search engines to follow, because they do not want to take on the direct liability of acknowledging which SEO firms are good or bad.
Traditional media agencies are just beginning to weave themselves into the SEM industry because large advertising clients are starting to demand greater visibility from search engines. Tony Wright of Weber Shandwick confirms that media agencies still "don't get SEM" and will continue to spend money without knowing where it's going, but predicts the agency switch or the buying of smaller SEO agencies with good clients is coming soon.
Meanwhile, SEO vendors continue to look toward offering large and small companies, as well as media agencies, value added services that include initial consulting services and detailed take-away strategies, education process on best practices of SEO, site architecture and technical constraints, and training of appropriate staff to manage PPC, SEO campaigns in-house.
Guidelines for Search Engine Optimizers
While Google does not have relationships with any SEOs and does not offer recommendations, it does offer a few tips that may help you distinguish between an SEO that will improve your site and one that will only improve your chances of being dropped from search engine results altogether.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.