Public perception, don’t leave home without it.

Monday, March 31, 2008
Posted by Jim Hedger @ 8:50 am

“Search Engine Optimization is the process of improving websites or web documents with the goal of achieving strong search engine rankings for those sites or documents under relevant keyword queries. Everything else is technique, applied marketing knowledge, analytics and skill.” – me, late last week.

SEO is a ten year old industry and therefore somebody else must have said something similar at some time or another. Often, I get the feeling the mainstream world isn’t listening.

Search engine optimization is woefully misunderstood, even within parts of the greater online marketing community. As very good SEO firms rarely have to advertise, the general public often has no idea what it is SEOs do. When they are exposed to SEO, it is often in ways we would rather they forget. Years of e-mail spam guaranteeing SPECIAL TREATMENT and TOP RANKINGZ on the LARGEST SEARSH ENGINES IN THE WORLD have mildly annoyed most people using commercial email addresses, forming their most frequent contacts with the concept of search engine optimizers. That’s what they are exposed to when it comes to SEO and therefore, that’s what they know. Because that’s what they know, that’s what they think because, until they do some research, that’s all they know. Circles are vicious that way. Again, over ten years into the search marketing industry and we are still tagged as spammers and snake-oil peddlers.

I had wanted to let these thoughts pass. I’ve written this column before. A post at the SEO Chicks Blog and a subsequent note from Tamar Weinberg at Search Engine Roundtable last week put the topic back in the spotlight again. The mainstream doesn’t understand SEO. The most recent example came up about two weeks ago in an article at Search Engine Watch titled, “American Express Advises Clients to Avoid SEO”.

About a month ago, American Express published a small business guide book that contained an article written by a third-party website design firm which warned readers against the dangers of search engine optimization. While the article itself wasn’t a big deal, the publisher was.

Fobbing SEO off as dangerous cyber-manipulation shows a serious lack of research or preparation on the part of the author, which a dangerous thing to do in public. Offering ill-informed advice in a piece that weighs in at less than 1200 words is one thing. Doing so while representing a design company that appears to want to live on the cutting edge is quite another. Placing it in an American Express small business publication brings the matter to another level. That makes it kind of priceless.

Buried near the bottom of a rather basic article attributed to San Francisco website design firm, the Cuban Council, a suggestion, “…don’t waste money on so-called Search Engine Optimization (S.E.O.) specialists”, is made. The piece goes on to add, “Search engines are very quick to penalize sites that try to trick their filtering techniques, and once your site has been put on Google’s blacklist, it will take forever to get off.” That’s the writer’s rational reasoning for avoiding SEO services, because the SEO might try to trick Google.

In one sense, the writer is right. Trying to trick Google or any other search engine is foolish.Most SEOs learned that long ago. Reputable SEO firms stopped trying to trick search engines in 2003 in the wake of Google’s Florida update.

On the other hand, enhancing websites and web documents to best serve information to search engines is probably wise. Good SEOs learn that on day one.

I suggest “probably wise” because as the writer wrote, “… once your site has been put on Google’s blacklist”, it usually takes the skills of a good SEO to get it off. Knowing how to conform entrepreneurial marketing skills to a set of best practice webmaster and keyword determination techniques is what makes good SEOs a great asset. Still, the mainstream doesn’t understand.

If only the sector could properly market itself
Comparing SEO with underhanded trickery is a mistake many outside the search marketing sector continue to make. It’s hard to blame non-SEOs for their lack of understanding but when misinformation goes into print and is published by one of the leading business and credit solutions companies, it should not stand unchallenged.

I used to blame the fly-by-night operators who wasted 2001 – 2005 spamming anyone with a website promising extraordinary results and delivering little more than a series of expensive invoices. I used to blame web-design companies that figured they could cut into the professional search engine optimization game but were in no way prepared to actually offer professional services. I used to blame the mainstream media who enjoy generating cyberpunk drama from their perception of a cat-and-mouse game. Now, nearly a decade after beginning my own career in search engine marketing, I figure we only have ourselves to blame.

Ironically, misconceptions about SEO in the mainstream come down to a matter of marketing. For the most part, the best SEO shops do very little marketing outside of the immediate SEO/SEM industry. They have never had to. When was the last time you saw a television commercial or read a print ad addressing SEO, outside of the general industry? To this day, the local yellow pages lumps search marketing under Internet Services.

Having communication issues might seem strange for a sector that can communicate as well as ours does. SEOs have traditionally been an open and vocal community on the Web while also being among the more arcane and mystic using subject-specific language which often requires a technical dictionary for the uninitiated to understand.

SEOs continue to face an uphill battle explaining our services and the roles we play in the digital marketplace. SEOs still haven’t found a way to coalesce as an industry much less articulate a better public perception of our work or of our intentions.

SEOs are clearly still viewed with suspicion by observers who only see a “ghost the machine” avatar in place of the professional, best practices marketing and webmaster services folks in the sector would rather be identified with.

I think adopting a very basic definition of SEO services and equating SEO best practice procedures with extraordinary webmaster skills is a good place to start. Search engine optimization remains a geeky game with enormous attention paid to file types and site structure. Building a better website or improving on an existing one constitutes the most challenging parts of SEO. Pouring over statistics detailing keyword targets, link opportunities, entrance and exit paths, time spent on each page and referral queries is how many SEOs spend their days.

Now, add a good portion of marketing savvy. If every good webmaster had extremely strong marketing skills, the SEO sector would be bloated beyond recognition. Fortunately, marketing skills are either hard wired or hard learned. Most people don’t have them or more webmasters would be successful SEOs.

Learning SEO is not that hard but it is very time consuming. There is a great deal of collective knowledge that has developed over the years and much of it is critical to know before taking responsibility for somebody else’s website. Like medical professionals, an important part of a SEO’s duty is to do no hard to clients’ interests.

Fortunately, there are dozens of information sources for people interested in learning more about search engine optimization. For years, the sector has fostered its own media which includes many e-publishing innovators. Several of the search media outlets have devised methods of being successful online publishers and some have even defined how to make a decent living publishing niche information to a specialized sector.

Media outlets such as Search Engine Watch, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal and Search Engine Guide (note the emphasis on search engines…) are freely available for anyone to read, and WebProNews and WebmasterRadio dish out original webmaster focused content 24/7. There are also dozens of forums, chatrooms and social networks formed around the SEO community.

Over the years, those information outlets have complied tens of thousands of articles, white papers, diagrams and descriptions on proper SEO technique. If an enterprising journalist or article scribbler wanted to do some research, an overwhelming amount of free information is readily available.

SEOs not only have ring-side seats to the greatest social evolution in history, we are often active participants in the development and direction of the Internet and World Wide Web.

The search marketing sector remains the fastest growing segment of the online advertising industry. Having its fingers in any number of other online marketing channels, search marketers have tended to be early adopters and proponents of emerging digital marketing opportunities. A glance at the complicated conference circuit and the session schedules of those conferences shows the enormous breadth of technologies search marketers see as promotion venues.

As pointed out by Jason Calacanis in his keynote speech at SES NY08, “A lot of affiliates and SEOs are outsiders from the Silicon Valley crowd, and the affiliates and SEOs are some of the smartest hustlers out there. That’s hustlers in a good, Jay Z kind of way.”

He was referring to SEOs aggressively seizing opportunities in new technologies. Calicanis, a web properties developer who once dismissed the SEO industry claims to have gained deeper insight into the skills and knowledge required to perform search engine optimization techniques. He even went as far as stating that he too was a SEO.

Then, Calicanis pointed out an obvious truth many SEOs prefer to overlook, “They [we] think in the short term.” He is right. SEOs need to think about the day after tomorrow and the year that unfolds after that. We have obviously gotten some sort of message out to the mainstream media and online community. The problem is, it isn’t the most flattering or descriptive message. If we had been successful in educating the general public, we wouldn’t see articles like that one in the American Express small business guide. Perhaps writers like the one from the Cuban Council would have better things to say about our hard-working and meticulous industry.

Lots of people give ill-advised advice and many of them are careless enough to do so in print. In that, the Cuban Council is not alone. They are also not alone in knowing far less than they should about search engine optimization. Too many commentators outside the industry are saying too many silly things about what SEOs do. From pity warnings of Google banning sites to the specter of the snake-oil-salesman, the external media still doesn’t get it.

The piece demonstrated an appreciation of search engine friendly design and the necessity for good content. It mentioned the use of simple, keyword-based file names and positively identified search engine results pages as primary traffic drivers. It could have served as an intelligent introduction to the refined arts of search engine optimization. Unfortunately, as witnessed above, it didn’t.

The blame rests fully on our own shoulders. It’s been too many years to think otherwise. We the practitioners, essential optimists all, have obviously failed to represent ourselves or our services properly. Sitting on the cusp of a sure thing, the SEO community somehow continues to be seen as the ghosts in the marketing machine.

For a sector built on successful communication, it’s a wonder we haven’t done better. Glancing at my own work-related inbox however, I understand that today at least, I am going to be too busy to expand further on best practices SEO.


  1. Jim, great article – as usual.

    For your comment, “Glancing at my own work-related inbox however, I understand that today at least, I am going to be too busy to expand further on best practices SEO”, I hope you’ll have time for some more on this.

    There are a lot of people whose writing is OK. Yours stand out with a depth of knowledge, simple quality of writing and a “feel” of professionalism that is rarely seen. And it therefore has more chance than most to give this message – to business, to the general media, and to other Internet marketing professionals.

    I like to say, “It’s not INTERNET marketing. It’s MARKETING… on the Internet.” It’s way past time that the people offering the services understood and practiced that.

    Comment by Michael Linehan — Tuesday, April 1, 2008 @ 12:11 pm


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