1 April 2011
Tech Culture

Are SEO practitioners the digital equivalent of bankers?

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.