Standards? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Standards!

The SEO community has been foaming at the mouth lately over whether or not we need standards for the industry. As Chris Boggs points out in his article, “SEO Standards Signal the Maturing of Our Industry,” the discussion affects both industry mainstays and newcomers alike, with ethics and education being intrinsically tied to standardization.

While I respect Chris’s position that standards would increase the legitimacy of the practice, I must disagree with his assertion. Standards won’t signal maturity, but will rather lead to homogenization of industry strategy.

Ethical and educative issues should be addressed through the agency-client relationship, not via outside arbitration. And risk ratings should be assigned to tactics on a per client basis.

Clients Are Not Created Equally (and Neither Are Agencies)

One concept on which Chris and I differ is the establishment of a risk ratings system for “best practices.” The intention is to better inform the clients of the potential pitfalls of not implementing particular recommendations. This would be great, if every client’s Web site was the same.

All clients aren’t created equal. Each recommendation’s risk varies depending on the client’s background. Social news submission, for example, poses an entirely different risk to the Huffington Post than, say, Bill O’Reilly when it comes to SEO benefit. Each site brings its own unique challenges and pitfalls to the table, and “risk rating” for strategies would prove entirely unreliable.

Agency influence must also be considered here. The size and relationships established by different agencies can reduce or heighten the so-called “risk” of certain tactics. If your agency has strategic partnerships with different services or organizations, some of your link building may be easier. Conversely, smaller agencies may have a degree of fluidity about them that enables certain tactics to work more effectively than competitor attempts. In both agency and client cases, the idiosyncrasies of the player make the concept of strategic risk a relative matter.

When the Game Changes

SEO strategies are constantly evolving, and the heavyweights Google and Yahoo can change the rules at any time. This is the problem with SEO standards. Before you can even think of creating standards for an optimization industry, you need to have standards in place for the industry it affects, namely the search engine industry.

SEO is constantly in flux because it’s adaptive. Search engines refine their algorithms to generate more relevant results (or to squeeze in more paid search results, and SEOs must respond to keep their clients relevant to key terms. This may mean content creation, on-site optimization, link building, or other tactics, but whatever the engines say is most important will always be what we pursue.

We’re chained to algorithmic operation, and unless you lock down the evolution of search engine algorithms, our operations are subject to change. As this is entirely unrealistic and unhelpful to relevancy, you’ll likely never see rigidly defined engine standards. It’s impossible to have true SEO standards when the object of our optimization efforts can change the game on a whim.

The Wild West?

While some may still be singing “Don’t Fence Me In,” the pragmatic SEO realizes that the industry has long since moved past the Wild West mentality. We’re a service tied to the regulations of marketing and advertising, the standards of ethical business practice, and, in many cases, extensive legal review. Our industry has matured in recent years, and with that maturity is a greater understanding on the part of our clients of what SEO is and isn’t.

Now, I’m not naÔï¿Â½Ã”¯ve to the snake oil salesmen within SEO, and I’ve written on how to tell these fast-talkers apart from truly ethical shops. But I don’t believe “the sky is falling,” or that increased awareness of SEO will lead to increased victimization of marketers and clients.

Actually, our clients are more informed and making smarter decisions about their SEO services. From this column, I’ve had several marketers reach out and ask for advice on structuring an RFP and selecting an SEO vendor. Our clients are doing their due diligence.

Aside from looking into vendors, many clients research the discipline itself prior to engaging in SEO campaigns. It’s no surprise to me when a prospective client is current on SEO trends, or has at least read “SEO for Dummies.” Education is a major component of the client-agency relationship, and it is our job to fill in the blanks or explain the specifics of a client’s situation.

The Elephant in the Room

Chris also states that “some SEOs must not like this idea because it could mean they’ll actually have to provide more assurance and clearer goals in their statements of work.” What we’re really talking about here is predicting results. As SEO is extremely volatile, people are often gun-shy about making assertions on search gains. This requires a lot of client research, and any change to the landscape, client Web site, or SERPs can undo months of hard work.

I’m all for assurance and clear goals in the statement of work, but industry standards aren’t necessary to facilitate that. Goals are specific to the client, and assurances can only be made once a proper situation analysis has been done. Because goals and client situation are subjective, standards would be ineffective they were drafted in an extremely broad manner.

Such cursory guidelines wouldn’t be enough to prevent unethical SEO shops peddling their wares; there’s too much wiggle room. However, adhering to strict standards would mean ignoring client subjectivity or, at the very least, superimposing such standards on top of client campaigns.

Assurance and clear goals should be in the statement of work rather than a list of SEO standards, since we as marketers understand our clients and their objectives. As partner to our clients, it’s up to us to clearly outline the potential risks that may occur if they choose to not follow our advice.

Gray Matters

The goal of SEO is to increase the search rankings of a client for specific terms. No matter how you rationalize it, whether you think you’re increasing a pages relevancy, optimizing a site to search engine standards, or “building connections,” we’re manipulating search results. The point of a search engine is to provide the most algorithmically relevant pages to a user. When we dictate to a search engine what is relevant, the engine begins to lose its efficacy.

Imposing “standards” on a discipline that runs counter to the intended use of a search engine is somewhat folly. That’s not to say that what we do isn’t useful or helpful — far from it. SEO is a discipline of balance, and careful mixture of human and algorithmic input is necessary to create truly helpful listings.

That said, there’s space between white and black hat tactics. This gray area is where a lot of SEO is really done, much like business deals can be made on the golf course. SEO standards, in a way, would be tying the hands of a lot of shrewd thinkers, and with SEO subject to the whims of the engines, what works today might not tomorrow.

Professionalism is Self-Governing

Standards aren’t the right answer for SEO, as ours is an industry of subjectivity and landscape fluctuation. SEO standards would need to be amended as search engines change the rules, and industry rigidity will cause more harm than good.

The sun shines brightly in the land of SEO. As more of us write about the practice and explain its intricacies, it gains maturity and stature as effective marketing. Our industry is growing in leaps and bounds, and professionalism is catching up with technical innovation. We don’t need SEO standards to define our operation for us; we simply need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of business.

Share your thoughts on SEO standards in the Search Engine Watch Forums.

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