SEO Standards Signal the Maturing of Our Industry

When I suggested that we consider setting standards for the SEO industry, I had no idea the topic would cause such uproar. I was actually following up on a SMX West panel I was involved in with three other panelists who also provided their opinions on the need for SEO industry standards, and I advocated for the need of a clean glossary of definitions with an assigned risk rating.

Discussion on the topic has heated up around the industry, with long-time SEOs and newbies alike joining in to support or denounce the idea of creating SEO standards. At Search Engine Land, veteran SEO Jill Whalen argues that standards are not necessary, since her SEO tactics have been adopted by “tens of thousands of people,” and that she never needed to set any standards.

I’m a little perturbed that she decided to take that road. I recently covered Jill’s session at SMX for the Search Engine Roundtable blog, and she and her co-speaker, Heather Lloyd Martin, essentially gave the same presentation they’ve been giving for years about creating content with search engines in mind.

As I said in my coverage, this continues to be invaluable advice, and one can’t go wrong by emulating her and Heather when it comes to creating content. What makes me mad is that Jill would be so presumptuous to feel that others less knowledgeable than her wouldn’t benefit from standards or definitions.

Defining Methods, and Assigning Risk Ratings

We need more than content to rank well for competitive terms. There are dozens of ways to do this, and for a marketing manager or executive of a large corporation, we need a clear set of guidelines and an outline of the risks involved. Call them standards, rules, advice, best practices, or whatever you want, but we have to move toward creating a document outlining the majority of the methods used in SEO, and providing a risk assessment so marketers can make (more) informed decisions.

Jill argues at Sphinn that there can’t be definitions because we would never agree on them. Ian McAnerin countered that: “You can’t ask for clarification of every word in the English language, just in case the other fellow defines them differently. Nothing would ever get accomplished. That’s why dictionaries exist. They are a standard for the language. We need standards in order to communicate effectively.”

Ian further spelled out his position advocating SEO standards in a two-part post on his blog. He does a great job addressing several of the arguments put forth by those arguing against standards.

Ian rightly points out that standards in many industries are needed to protect the public, and that SEO should not be any different:

Why do lawyers and doctors and firemen and engineers and almost every other industry have standards? Do lawyers need protection from other lawyers? Is there a big concern that by implementing standards your lawyer will not be able to help you sell your house or write your will? Or that shady lawyers would take advantage of those poor, unsuspecting judges? Bah. The standards are there so that the non-legally trained public has the right to be informed about their rights and obligations, and has a reasonable expectation of a certain level of service and professionalism. In SEO, they have the right to know what the hell you are talking about when you talk about “attraction”, “entry” or “zebra” pages.

I’ll continue to advocate this need, no matter how many people think it’s wrong, or choose to make light of the need. (By the way, isn’t it ironic that the title of this blog is The Worst SEO Blog Ever? Although the post is meant to be humorous, it highlights a sophomoric underbelly that continually hurts SEO professionals.)

No Marketing Regulations?!?

In the same Sphinn discussion, Jill wrote, “I am not aware of there being marketing regulations.” provides an excellent look at existing marketing regulations. Some of the few that can be further researched — many of which could have an application to search — include: truth-in-advertising; CAN-SPAM; product labeling; and product types by advertising medium. The list goes on. Perhaps someone will be so kind as to create a full post answering that question.

In Jill’s original article, she argues that there are laws to protect people from scammers. Unfortunately, these laws don’t apply until after someone has been scammed. Making people aware of tactics and the risks/benefits prior to engaging with a particular SEM allows them to make better choices. We still have time to avoid further damage to the credibility of our industry by setting standards and sticking to them.

How many people have you ever heard of complaining about the services Bruce Clay offers? His organization is a great “standard bearer,” and Lisa Barone provided an outstanding rebuttal to Jill’s post at the Bruce Clay blog:

Taking a look around, I think we are absolutely at the point where it’s Do or Die time for SEO standards. We don’t need the perfect search engine optimization How To guide (though I’m sure Mahalo is working on that), but we do need to outline what SEO is and what it means to optimize a Web site. We need to establish best practices, what the risk is for abandoning them, and what all these different terms that we throw around actually mean.

There are many other Bruce Clay-type companies out there, and I’m proud to say that I’ve worked in a few myself. Using standards to police ourselves translates to predictable results.

Wake Up Before It’s Too Late

The sky is falling. As marketers become more aware of the power of SEO, they’re also becoming increasingly victimized by unscrupulous practitioners of SEO. Any marketing executive can search Google or other search engines to find a number of horror stories related to SEO experiences.

If we, as an industry, come up with standards that the majority of us can agree on, and then make this information available to marketers via targeted distribution through associations such as the AMA and the DMA, among others, we take a giant step forward in SEO legitimization.

There are many comments out there in a number of discussions related to this topic that advocate the “we don’t need ’em” stance, but the majority of those arguments are based on the premise that we “have been doing fine without them for years.”

Balderdash! Again, I counter that we’ve evolved into an industry that needs “standards.” Without them, there’s too much confusion out there as to what works and what’s an acceptable risk to take.

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. God forbid that SEOs should be held to standards like the rest of the world.

Frank Watson Responds

Chris, it seems we may be on the same page. As I wrote last week in the Search Engine Watch blog “standards” seems to be a dirty word for some search marketers. As I said there, I don’t think there is a need to police standards, more to outline them so customers can have an idea of what to look for as well as new people in our space have an idea of where to start.

I am always up for laying out guidelines or standards that people can use to better improve their situation — either as an active marketer or a potential client. I’m not talking about forcing everyone to give up their secrets or conform to a specific way of doing SEO. I’m talking about identifying the basics of what an SEO should be doing for a client. Something to prevent an SEO from guaranteeing top 5 positions in Google only to find out they’re talking long tail keywords that no one searches for, buying positions in paid search, or other variations.

There’s a forum discussion about the situation in the Search Engine Watch Forums. I look forward to continuing the discussion there.

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