Are SEO practitioners the digital equivalent of bankers? | April 1, 2011

This morning I’m going to be standing in front of a room full of SEO people to let them know how I feel about their industry. Here’s a rough outline on what I’m planning to say…

Capitalist society needs the banking institutions. It needs them to raise money, store money and move it around the world. Bankers provide the financial lubrication to grease the wheels of commerce and keep the market moving. However If I ask how many of you respect the banking institution or feel that it’s an honourable or worthy profession, I suspect few hands would be raised.

The recent banking crisis has exposed what many of us knew all along. That banking is a murky profession which skirts the edges of the regulatory bodies to probe for weaknesses in the system in order to seek out advantageous outcomes for their clients. As soon as one regulatory loophole is closed, the geniuses in Wall Street will discover another, more devious loophole to exploit.

I’m not saying that bankers are criminals, although some obviously are. The regulatory system has been constructed to prevent people from creating an unfair advantage and gaming the system, but game it they still do. And is it any wonder? The system is porous, the potential gains are high, and the bankers face constant pressure from their clients and peers to perform. So it’s easy to understand why so many of them work the system and why so few get found out.

I think one of the problems most people have with the banking industry is that they don’t really understand why these people are worth the fat bonuses they pull in. Sure they create monetary value for their clients, but the work their do is somewhat soulless and rarely adds much cultural or artistic value to the world. Their singular purpose seems to be gaming the system and reaping the rewards. Surely there is a more honourable way of making a living?

When I think about the banking industry, I’m reminded of the world of Search Engine Marketing. They too are trying to find weaknesses in a set of rules designed to level the playing field, in order to create a competitive advantage for their clients. It’s just that rather than these rules being laid down by central government, they have been developed in the labs at Google.

Google’s algorithm is explicitly designed to seek out high quality content while preventing external agents from manipulating the results for commercial gain. Back in the early days of SEO, bedroom hackers would gain a secret thrill in gaming the Page Rank algorithm and boosting their site to the top of the rankings. I know, I was one of them. Google quickly caught on and tried to damp down this effect, and the SEO arms race was born.

Agencies came up with all sorts of techniques to usurp the engines, from link building and keyword stuffing, through to doorway pages, cloaking and content farms. Out of this mire, the idea of “white hat” and “black hat” SEO emerged. The conceit being that “white hat” SEOs were honourable and law abiding while “black hat” SEOs tried to play the system. The truth, I believe, is slightly more nuanced.

The Search Engine industry is predicated on it’s practitioners ability to game a set of rules laid down by Google. As such, there can be no real “white hat” or “blank hat” practices, only varying shades of grey. Few SEO people would admit to dabbling in the black arts, but I suspect most of them do, behind closed doors and in the privacy of their own offices.

There are undoubtedly good people in the industry, just as there are good people in the banking world. In fact I’d say that the majority of practitioners fall into this category. I just struggle to accept an industry which exists in the same continuum as blog spammers and which is forced to label its members as “white hat” and “black hat”. After all we don’t talk about “black hat” doctors, “black hat” hairdressers or “black hat” designers. So by using these terms, the industry is knowingly complicit in the problem. In fact there exists an almost adolescent glee that they are involved in something slightly naughty.

I understand the need for SEO. After all, Google drives the engines of e-commerce and SEO companies are simply the grease on the wheels. However I find it a rather hollow and soulless world in which to work, buoyed by the thrill of beating Google rather than by creating truth or beauty.

A think a good barometer of the industry can be seen in the outrage many felt over the recent “farmer” update by Google, which downgraded sites it believed were using content farms to game the system. Like the indignant gambler ejected from a Vegas casino suspected of card-counting, many in the industry cried foul. However if you choose to play this game, you can’t really complain if you get ejected, even if this time you had nothing to hide. It’s Googles party and deception in the industry so rife, it’s one of the risks of the game.

Call me an idealist, but I believe that our ultimate goal should be to create user value, not just unqualified traffic. We can learn how to do this by studying user behaviour, uncovering user needs and satisfying these needs through relevant and appropriate content.

I realise that the search engine industry has been moving in this direction of late, but the drivers are somewhat different to mine. While I believe that good content attracts happy users, the SEO industry believes that one way to get users is to create good content. The ultimate result may now be the same, but the reasoning is more cynical and manipulatory. It is also a result of their less than pristine techniques slowly being cut off by Google, forcing them to focus on quality content over link building campaigns.

So Im going to make a request to any truly “white hat” practitioners out there. Please distance your self from the world of SEO, stop talking about search engine rankings and start helping your clients deliver real value to their users. Stop defining yourself by the discovery medium and focus on the content itself. I don’t mind what you call yourselves, be that digital marketers, content strategists or simply web designers. But whatever you do, remove the word “search” from your job title. It’s tainted and devalued and you’re much better than that.

Posted at April 1, 2011 8:45 AM

Comments

Barry Prendergast said on April 1, 2011 9:27 AM

…and you’re going to stand in front of the SEO people and tell them that? Ahahaha…

+1

Pete Clark said on April 1, 2011 9:39 AM

You’re a brave man Andy, I fully agree with your point of view. But while the demand for SEO exists, people will step up and offer the service. This being the case, isn’t it better for the industry if the people with ‘search’ in their job title includes the good guys as well as the bad? I’m not in SEO by the way - very much like banking it’s something that causes me much irritation. But at least at the moment I can give SEO people the benefit of the doubt before I decide I don’t like them. ; )

LordManley said on April 1, 2011 9:40 AM

We do not talk about ‘black hat doctors’ any more, but we did when the industry was new and quacks roamed fairgrounds with cure-all tonics and tooth pulling drums.

There are charlatans in our business. Many, many charlatans. Even some big agencies offer ‘SEO’ with no understanding whatsoever. I can name one who was winning huge brand clients without a single SEO staff member.

The fact that these charlatans exist does not mean that the remainder of us are not legitimate.

SEO is as ‘real’ as any marketing endeavour and, accessibility so often a side-effect of good SEO, possibly more so.

It is hard working in an industry where it is not uncommon to be pointed out as a witch doctor or pariah, but I provide genuine user value by increasing relevance to search terms.

I am proud of the majority of my work.

Also: you wrote ‘blank hat’.

AlastairC said on April 1, 2011 9:42 AM

There needs to be a client-education aspect as well, as long as there are people willing to pay for better rankings, there will be people with ‘search’ in their title.

Simon Dalley said on April 1, 2011 9:44 AM

I resent being referred to in the same breath as those filthy bankers who are complicit in the destruction of people’s finances. I don’t think it’s a fair comparison at all - you’re probably right about white hat verses black hat. I think it’s time we all started growing up and thought of ourselves as marketers rather than those looking to game the system. Also, and you may smirk at this, but I’ve started to stop referring to myself as an SEO and moved towards search marketer or finding strategist in an attempt to get past the negative connotations associated with SEO, by moving away from the term SEO it makes a statement about what it is I’m trying to achieve.

sil said on April 1, 2011 10:04 AM

I’m not sure that the point about black-hat SEOs came across right, especially having read LordManley’s comment. Black hat SEOs are not charlatans; they’re pursuing legitimate goals (hopefully) by illegitimate means. The legitimate goal here is “make this business more popular”. Charlatans are knowingly pursuing an illegitimate goal; someone selling snake-oil medicine knowing that it won’t work, just to get the cash and then run out of town, is not in the same business.

The problem comes when you read the above paragraph and say: that’s not a legitimate goal. Making a business more popular than it deserves to be should not be a legitimate thing to do, whether you do that by setting up a thousand cross-linking Blogspot blogs or by gaming Google’s search algorithm. That’s a reasonable position to take, but there’s a pretty shallow slope from there to saying that it’s equally illegitimate to make a business more popular by carefully choosing your HTML markup so that Google can easily read it, no? Washing powder manufacturers routinely claim that their new product will exceed all others; that’s advertising, and the ASA exists to stop it getting out of hand. I’m not sure I can see a clear dividing line between “gaming Google’s algorithm to get popular” and “gaming people’s psychology to get popular”. Making your product look cool so people buy it is essentially the baseline definition of what advertising is. How does SEO differ from that, at least in concept?

Jeremy Keith said on April 1, 2011 10:06 AM

If anything, I think you’re being too kind to the world of SEO.

Oh, and there’s a typo in the title of this post: the final word should begin with a W, not a B.

Also: Viagra!

James Noble said on April 1, 2011 10:10 AM

I have to say, I’m in agreement with your article and applaud your stones for speaking so openly in a room of SEO ‘Specialists’.

Like most industries, it takes merely 1 to taint the many. SEO has always been a dirty word in my mind. My company doesn’t offer SEO parse, more W3C Standard solutions. Creating an effective solution a client, lets say for arguments sake a HR Company, we of course then mention ‘Human Resource/HR’ search google for the most search listings keywords etc, then use these results to (but not specifically) influence heading tags, keyword listing, descriptions and titles etc within the site where appropriate. We’ll not however try to cheat search engines by creating twitter accounts, facebook pages and mail-outs friending everyone and hitting the ‘like’ button all over the place, this is what I fear pure SEO companies do to ensure they get there absorbent amounts money.
I’m not saying this is what all SEO companies do, only from my experience this is all I’ve attained from their services. Businesses that employ them largely do so because they don’t understand what is being done, and so long as results are accomplished they are happy. The far to regular ‘out or sight, out of mind’ ethic.

In short, if clients are better educated from the beginning, in turn invest in the right digital business to come up with a solution, the end result will work for search results and ‘SEO’ well oiled creation will take care of itself in the rankings.

Hopefully most that read/hear Andy discuss this issue, the better we as a digital community educate our clients to help rid ourselves of the charlatans.

Here, here Mr Budd.

Matt Wilcox said on April 1, 2011 10:12 AM

Excellent article, and I agree with pretty much every point. As far as I’m concerned the majority of effective “SEO” isn’t done by SEO specialists at all, but by competent web designers and good writers.

To me “SEO” is only the dodgy underbelly of that. The polluted search results, the link-bait spam that get’s peddled around and that I have to deal with by clearing that crap out of my own websites.

Getting traffic isn’t hard if you write content people want to read. Google’s great at finding that. Trying to short-cut the system is temporary, ugly, and devalues the rest of the internet by poisoning search results. If it’s not relevant, I don’t want to see it.

Richard Stubbs said on April 1, 2011 10:15 AM

Where the “This is not a April fools joke” disclaimer?

Allan Stewart said on April 1, 2011 10:19 AM

SEO is a lagitimate marketing activity. All industries have sharks. You don’t see neuro-surgeons writtin
g blog posts suggesting they all change their name becuase of one or two rouges. Its just life mate - get on with it. Oh, and BTW, you can add value/be creative through SEO, particularly when creating development plans for clients.

I do understand your irritation with snake oil SEO practioners though.

Marcus Greenwood said on April 1, 2011 10:28 AM

Here here. Does the SEO definition also encompass social media ‘experts’?

For some reason I feel the google ads at the bottom of the article are mocking you!

LordManley said on April 1, 2011 10:44 AM

@sil The charlatans of which I speak are not the Black Hats - I have nothing against black hats, as it happens - they are the agencies and web designers who offer a service which they cannot perform.

iDGS said on April 1, 2011 10:46 AM

Hey! Sometimes, to get a breath of fresh air, one has to break a window! This is an absolutely wonderful message, and I’m delighted you’re sharing it—not only with us (thank you again!), but with those who really need to hear it most. Together, courage and good sense are a great inspiration! You have both in abundance. Godspeed!

Jonathon Baker said on April 1, 2011 10:54 AM

Hats off to you Mr Budd, if there were an internet hell which level would seo people be on?

Dan Hunter said on April 1, 2011 11:57 AM

Interesting and while I agree with some of what you say! While Google still uses links as it’s main ranking force, there will be a need for spammers, link farms and other manipulative processes.
Creating compelling content and media is clearly the right way to do things but what makes it work, what makes it gain traction, yes a trend insight and a little luck helps but for every 1 success story there is 10 failures. How many clients have a budget for media that might not work might not earn them money before they go bust?

Marc said on April 1, 2011 12:34 PM

How do you think great content is found by Google?
Answer: Because of SEO practices.

Google recommends SEO: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35291 and has its own starter guide.

I think so much of what you say applies to other aspects of life and marketing that this article really just displays some kind of personal dislike for the SEO industry. Admit it Andy.. how is this different from any other form of marketing? TV Commercials, Magazine Ads, Billboards - all designed to take an audience to the product to make a purchase (no matter how good or bad the product is). How many people have purchased a poor product because the commercial was so good? How many people have gone to see a rubbish movie because the trailer rocked!?

Richard Vaughan said on April 1, 2011 2:23 PM

So all you are saying is that seo can be as manipulative and insiduous as any other marketing practices? Next you’ll be telling us night follows day ;)

Antony Quinn said on April 1, 2011 2:36 PM

While I agree with most of your points Andy, I would be careful about saying that “we don’t talk about … “black hat” designers”. As Harry Brignull pointed out in “Darkpatterns.org: naming and shaming sites that use black hat, anti-usability design patterns”, there are black-hat designers out there:

http://www.90percentofeverything.com/2010/08/16/darkpatterns-org-naming-and-shaming-sites-that-use-black-hat-anti-usability-design-patterns/

Guy Carberry said on April 1, 2011 2:41 PM

Loving the Google Ads in this post.

Sandy Lee said on April 1, 2011 2:53 PM

Search Engine Optimisation is the study of how search engines react to the information we put on websites. It just so happens that one of the most direct ways this activity can pay for itself is through marketing.

Your argument that SEO is an industry predicated on the ability to game a set of rules is specious in that same way that if I arbitrarily labelled User Experience as ‘white hat’ and Conversion Rate Optimisation as ‘black hat’.

I work with people who are above competent in their respective fields, they are talented. But this ability in their fields comes at the expense of not having the time to be able to fully study how search engines react to information in the same way that I couldn’t call myself a Web Designer, UX practioner, Information Architect or Web Developer.

Consequently a Search Practioner can bring can bring value to any web build process beyond merely ‘gaming the system’ and to assert otherwise is nothing more than professional prejudice.

Scott said on April 1, 2011 4:44 PM

LOL @ “finding strategist”

Andy - spot on. SEO (black or white hat) is about gaming the system. Focus on valuable content and the search engines and users will find you.

Besides, people are starting to use social recommendations more regularly than search algorithms , so the days of the SEO are numbered.

Jack Josephy said on April 2, 2011 7:35 AM

I can see how your analogy works and there are some similarities.

However, every website exists for a purpose, in order to achieve some sort of measurable conversion, be that an e-commerce transaction, a blog post read or submitting an interest form. A decent SEO is focused on being a part of the conversion challenge. Yes they are trying to drive traffic. But if they are using techniques, which dilute the user experience on the website then they will be damaging its ability to be a good conversion site. SEO’s who ignore the bigger picture and purely strive to drive traffic at the expense of the user experience, are not practising good SEO.

However most websites likely needs SEO. It’s a dog eat dog world in the world of marketing, and if your not practising it, your missing out. The ability of an agency or department to balance the needs of SEO and UX is what clients and senior management should be looking for, and its our job as professionals to inform them that their website is not just a big hit counter.

David Colgate said on April 2, 2011 2:06 PM

The debate yesterday was very interesting, certainly an interesting opener and one I know from talking to others that stirred a variety of opinions. Although I agree in majority with your comments and some of those expressed in the debate, I think we ‘SEOs’ should certainly be considering a change of title. Our role is less about manipulating rankings, more about marketing in general which itself covers a far broader range of skill sets and requirements. By the way, really love the blog, one of the most beautiful I’ve come across!

John Robinson said on April 3, 2011 12:31 PM

Unfortunately we live in a world where commercial advertising is (1) huge business, and (2) works. SEO is just advertising. There’s nothing inherently special about it. You have a product to sell. You want to get the product exposure (whether it deserves it or not), so you game the system/your customers/[media of choice] to get the word out about it.

Companies spend millions on massive advertising campaigns because they work. It is all one big scam, but it is there. If advertising didn’t exist, then the “create the content and they will come” approach would make sense. But we don’t live in that world, and advertising is much bigger than the world of SEO.

It would be great if we could kill SEO, and search engines were smart enough to only ever rank worthwhile content, and maybe we’ll get there one day, but we’re not at that point now. Your clients will have a product to sell, and you’re gonna have a really hard time convincing every client that they should forego advertising their product. The mindset just isn’t there. Why should I intentionally get less exposure for my product when Company X selling the same product is making a fortune from advertising?

Alex Grechanowski said on April 4, 2011 12:34 AM

Hi Andy,

A very interesting comparison. There’s a lot of snake oil out there in the SEO world. At the same time, it’s a fast moving space and “free” education on the subject matter is widely available: SEOmoz, SE Journal, Webmasters World and even my blog, So my advise is: stay tuned to what is happening in the industry and you won’t be fooled by co-called experts and adepts.

Hope that helps.

Alex

PS Check out what good folks @ Google say about SEO:

“SEO is an acronym for “search engine optimization” or “search engine optimizer.” Deciding to hire an SEO is a big decision that can potentially improve your site and save time, but you can also risk damage to your site and reputation. Make sure to research the potential advantages as well as the damage that an irresponsible SEO can do to your site. Many SEOs and other agencies and consultants provide useful services for website owners”

Carlos Saba said on April 4, 2011 10:32 AM

While I agree with most of this post, like most of the banking system SEO appears to be a necessary evil. Until our search engines can read our minds and work out what we’re looking for they’re always going to need a little bit of human intervention to point them in the right direction. SEO can achieve a lot in terms of visibility but it seems many SEO practitioners are also eroding our trust in these results. No wonder all these crowd sourcing sites and approaches (i.e. quora, FB like buttons, Google +1) are appearing!

While SEO is a type of marketing it is uniquely different to all other forms. It’s all about beating a computer rather than winning hearts and minds. Where’s the trust?

Ade said on April 4, 2011 5:48 PM

RE: “> stop talking about search engine rankings and start helping your clients deliver real value to their users. Stop defining yourself by the discovery medium and focus on the content itself.”

- I agree with this principle entirely, except that:

Recently I was asked to make an e-commerce site for a tradesman. He happens to work in a skilled but common industry - they make and sell lengths of skirting board, architrave and so on.

Now, while I of course went to great lengths to make the website as simple to use and well-coded as possible, the fact remains that the content - in the eyes of a search engine spider is inherently quite dull. And these companies are ten a penny. There are hundreds of joinery websites.

Other than them making their prices very competitive (which wasn’t something within my control) the only things that I could do to help get them onto page 1 of Google were the usual tricks: lots of keywords, keywords in titles and URLs, semantic markup, and of course trying to “create” lots of inbound links, by submitting the site to various directories, trade bodies and such.

As a result of everything they are making a moderate number of online sales and the site is more or less justifying its existence (and the money I charged them to make it).

The whole experience made me understand more the role of the SEO Snake Oil Pedlar. There sadly is a place for their industry, and in certain cases like mine I can’t really argue against them.

But yes, as a rule: make stuff that people are genuinely interested in, and they will come!

Andrea said on April 5, 2011 3:09 PM

As a linguistics buff, I often ponder the implications of a naming convention or oft-used pop-culture phrase…and what that says about the group doing the naming.

The philosophy of linguistics, if you will.

Anyway, I don’t know much about the SEO industry, but your quote about “white hat” and “black hat” stopped me in my tracks. Bravo, your message on ethics and terminology is greatly appreciated. :)

Will McClellan said on April 5, 2011 5:19 PM

I don’t think I agree with comparing people working in SEO to bankers (I don’t think the bonuses are on par for one), but I do concur that websites should be designed for users, not SEO robots - which is exactly what we tell our clients.

Paul said on April 11, 2011 10:17 AM

I totally agree with your stance. Excellent summary of my feelings on the industry.

Andy Morley said on April 11, 2011 10:21 AM

“The Search Engine industry is predicated on it’s practitioners ability to game a set of rules laid down by Google. As such, there can be no real “white hat” or “blank hat” practices, only varying shades of grey. “

I agree with you.

You Suck Andy said on April 11, 2011 10:33 AM

Thanks for educating me so well on SEO,

This is an obvious attempt at link baiting.

x

Matt Cutts said on April 11, 2011 10:47 AM

Woooohahahaha

Google actually created this whole mess by building a link economy and letting pammy sites rank well.

:-)

Alex Magill said on April 11, 2011 11:09 AM

“While I believe that good content attracts happy users, the SEO industry believes that one way to get users is to create good content.”

I think that sentence sums it up perfectly.

The potential problem with SEO is that it can all too easily be used to create a web version of Stephen Pinker’s cheesecake: he suggests that, though it has no nutritional value itself, cheesecake is ‘designed’ to mash all of the sensory buttons that would have denoted highly valuable foods to our ancestors (high fat, high sugar, etc - all things that were hard to come by in large quantities and usually occurred in useful and nutritionally valuable foodstuffs).

Jon said on April 11, 2011 11:19 AM

Some less experienced developers can end up with a site that isn’t perfect and need someone, an ‘expert’ to point them in the right direction. I’m a junior dev in a company with no senior, I’m still learning the trade but I was in this boat a while ago. A site which I created was consistently appearing below a site of a similar name but for a company which went bust and had an extremely bad rep. We did everything we could think of but we were still losing customers until we sought advice. They gave us some simple pointers which we adopted and we’re now top of the rankings now for our company name. I’ve since realised that creating good SEO is synonmous with creating a well formed, informative site with good useability and I think its good that the ‘experts’ are there to point us in the right direction.

Tamara@Adaptive said on April 11, 2011 11:48 AM

I agree that SEO specialists should stop defining themselves by the discovery medium and focus on the content itself. Manipulating the system shouldn’t be a company’s sole form of advertisement. Having said that, rankings are a big part of which sites generate a lot of traffic and which do not. And to do successfully, SEO efforts must be frequent and varried, which means there isn’t a ton of time or room for brilliant editorial. Don’t forget, people who write SEO content aren’t experts in every field they write about. I understand that this is where your frustration lies, however I wouldn’t go as far as saying that internet marketing agencies should remove SEO from the services they offer, or that they’re all ‘better than that’. SEO is one form of internet marketing, that’s it.

Ian Goodall said on April 11, 2011 11:54 AM

The fact is, ‘good’ SEO, (forgetting, for a moment, the whole ‘black hat’ ‘white hat’ concept) should focus on good content, because ultimately traffic doesn’t magically turn into long-term profitability and reputation. SEO should be another piece of the pie, not the whole pie. If you make a website and buy 50,000 links to it and fill the page with duplicate crap content and AdSense, you’ll make some money, sure, but in a month or two that website will be gone, and that is pretty much guaranteed. People do it in fact. But anyway, I say again, SEO is part of the marketing mix.

If you make a website that is great for the user, that takes into consideration what people want to see in a website; what content that will fulfill their needs, you will ultimately end up the search engines. However, in a few industries, especially for startups, a ‘build it and they will come’ approach doesn’t work. You need someone to get out there and promote your business, to get other webmasters to mention and link to you. This is akin to a new sandwich shop handing out flyers.

Ultimately, as said above, SEO is just another form of advertising. If the product is amazing, you still need to do something to get people to see it. SEO does that.

vlad said on April 11, 2011 12:00 PM

Hi Andy,

great artcile and overall I agree that web should be a place of high quality content in the first place, however, this is not as easy as it seems.

E.g. I have two very different projects in portfolio: content heavy blog about books and a website of music band.

Blog really requires only basics of SEO, because, and here’s when I completely agree, I am creating a genuine and (hopefully) high quility content and Google (as well as users) is able to recognize it.

On the other hand, music band website, does not offer a real space for content nor additional features - having few words about band’s history, some photos, upcoming events and perhaps a song or two to download cannot be called a content really (let’s leave out band blog for this time). On top of that, there are tons of similar music band pages. Therefore, if I need to get this page high in results in order to promote music band, I need to throw in a couple of additional ‘SEO moves’ (don’t worry, not talking about black hat technicues).

Content posibilities depends on niche of the website, however if content reached its maximum potential…

Dave said on April 12, 2011 5:07 PM

I’ve never met someone in real life who would say out loud “it’s just marketing”, “there’s a demand for it”, “necessary evil”, etc. In online comments, these things literally sound sociopathic — what are they doing if not disregarding what’s best for others in favor of the income they’ll get from a client?

I suspect they aren’t really sociopathic frauds to their core. Maybe I’ve never heard someone admit to this in real life because on some level they understand their offense against society, and keep it to themselves.

Ioana said on April 13, 2011 4:29 PM

“Google’s algorithm is explicitly designed to seek out high quality content”… that’s what THEY claim and they don’t seem to be doing a very good job at it. Oh, wait, the link spammers are guilty… the link spammers who appeared only because Google said sites need a lot of links to rank. SEO is a necessity and I see absolutely no reason to feel ashamed of my trade.
Mr. Budd, I’m sure you feel very good about yourself, standing up and denouncing the bad elements of the web (that’s sounds so communist…), but you’re embarrassing yourself and insulting the SEOs you preach to (who are probably not spammers at all). Should honest lawyers call themselves by some other name because so many other lawyers have given a bad name to their profession? Should good journalists call themselves something else, since many (if not most) journalists nowadays are ignorant and/or biased? I for one have seen an incredible number of idiotic journalists, yet when I read a new one, I always expect him or her to be a professional, though almost every time I’m disappointed. To stay in the marketing realm, if some (many, actually) companies buy and sell e-mail addresses and other personal data and spam people, do you automatically, at first glance, assume an unknown company in that field is unethical until proven innocent?
To people who only had bad experiences with SEO: do you know why you only found charlatans? Because you looked for cheap work done fast with miraculous results. In my country we have a saying, “the fool is not the one who asks (for more money than what his service is worth), it’s the one who gives”. So yes, for those wanting to hear promises, there will be unscrupulous (and sometimes rather hungry) people to make them and they’ll be more visible because the good SEOs don’t need aggressive advertising.

Rob said on April 14, 2011 2:52 PM

Wow, Andy. Thank you for posting this! I have been advising clients this same thing for a while now - ultimately, if you develop in the spirit of Google’s intention (to deliver the best, most relevant content), as opposed to trying to gain an unfair advantage with substandard content, you will win out in the long run. SEO is a symptom of a world which does not value patience, quality or longevity but instead seeks immediate gain without regard to the consequences.

Some Web Developer said on April 14, 2011 5:51 PM

I’ve gotten to where I refuse to use the term without quotation marks; I refer to it as “SEO.” Our marketing group contracts with an “SEO” firm - “white hat,” of course. I’ve received requests to reword page titles, make titles h2s that are not semantically or hierarchically h2s, to bold or italicize text, and to include more keyword phrases in content. To my knowledge, never have they suggested an overall, holistic improvement of our content (which it needs and which maybe we could afford if we weren’t contracting with them).

They say: We need to pack the page title with keywords.
I say: No one clicks through if the title’s not human readable and doesn’t match the expectation of the searcher. [And then if they do click through, what then? They find subpar content?]

They say: But no one will find your website without us.
I say: Bull$h1t. Marking up a website correctly is not an “SEO” thing. It’s a “how to make a website properly” thing. [Also, “SEO” people - stop trying to co-opt things that any web developer/designer worth his/her salt already knows to do as “SEO” guidelines.]

In short, I’d fire them in a second and hire a content strategist/writer instead. And I’m with Jeremy, I think you’ve already given them too much credit.

Mr Portman said on April 15, 2011 7:25 PM

This sums it up for me:

“While I believe that good content attracts happy users, the SEO industry believes that one way to get users is to create good content. The ultimate result may now be the same, but the reasoning is more cynical and manipulatory.”

As someone who values creating websites that actually work, this explains my discomfort with the SEO industry better than anything else. Your analogy with bankers is a good one.

Anthony said on May 3, 2011 6:44 PM

I’d argue that a particular side of an SEO’s job is one of the most important parts of a website - keyword research can identify the customers language, for instance: a. how the customers refer to your services, b. the size of the demographic, c.any trends or regional language issues. This is usability at its best, surely?