Cleaning up the SEO Cesspool

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Boy, don’t you just love to hate my article titles?  I know this topic has been discussed numerous times.

Seriously though – for all the short term talk that happens every time we take a hit from someone who gives our industry a bad rap, we’ve never yet come to a clear consensus as an industry on how to properly deal with the ramifications.  I for one think it’s time we find a way to address it.  And I have a proposal on how we can work towards such a seemingly impossible goal…

The SEO Bashers

Since this article is appearing at SEJ, I’ll refrain from pointing fingers at individuals who I believe fit the bill.  Instead, I’ll just clarify a bit about what I personally perceive to be qualification for actually cesspool worthy candidates or issues.    Let’s start with the SEO bashers.   Talking heads who love to blast SEO as evil, how SEO is ruining the SERPs, or how SEO is dead for any six reasons.  We all know who the top culprits are.

Yet for every one of the loudest voices, there’s probably fifty other, less well known people out there saying the same things.  And honestly, we can disagree all we want amongst ourselves on how to address it. Whether we should leave a plethora of counter-point comments, respond with a counter-blog article, or we should just ignore the problem.

The funny thing is, none of these methods has any serious foundation at the collective level, in another aspect of our industry.  Reputation management.  Well sure, some of the actions a number of us take can be considered at least partial reputation management.  In that we create content in response.  Yet it’s always case by case, one at a time. Usually with a lot of venom. (uh, yeah, count me in on that one!)

And It’s always without any true cohesive or collective voice in method or process.  So sometimes it helps to one degree or another, and other times, it just fans the flames  of ego on the part of  h8ers.  And in it’s worst outcome, sometimes reinforces the view that we’re just a bunch of hackers.

The Words We Choose & The Impression They Leave

Another area lies in that oh-so-famous concept of black-hat tactics.  Honestly, we do ourselves no favor by referring to things in our industry with such a term unless we, as a collective body of professionals, have the courage to change the way we go about discussing the topic.

And quite honestly, I personally believe the only reason such talk flourishes at conference sessions, in chat, on Twitter, is because it strokes the ego of many of the players puffing up their chests to prove they can get away with some of the very things the rest of the industry can’t.  And we put such people on a pedestal.  Which only leads to more bashing from outside the industry.

I’m not saying that any of these people should be cast aside.  Ultimately, many also have contributed greatly to our collective success.  Not to mention that the majority of dialogue about these subjects does have value.  Yet I believe we need to go about it in a much different way.  And we need to be much more aware of the fact that our words reach more people than just industry insiders.

Without A Unified Voice Who Will Listen?

Because so much of all of this goes on, many agencies and design houses around the globe who venture just a little while into finding out what this SEO thing is all about inevitably end up lost, confused, and overwhelmed.  Which inevitably then leads to many of them using industry buzz words, then proceeding to hack-job their client web sites, while claiming “sure – we do SEO”.

And too, when big corporations come out with yet another “3 easy steps to online success” product, they get away with deceptive murder.  Claiming the most outrageous nonsense when it comes to how their automated solution includes SEO or how it will get them “found in the search engines”.

The Ultimate Price We Pay

By acting in these ways in these situations, and by failing to establish a unified standard for how we act, and what it means to be a professional industry, we ultimately prove to the world that we’re really an immature lot, rather than garnering the respect we otherwise know, for a fact, we deserve.  And the price we pay for that reality, is business owners continue to look upon our industry with suspicion.  And we shoot ourselves in the collective foot monetarily.

A Possible Path To Enlightenment

Imagine having one widely accepted entity that can give a professional stamp of approval to things?  Not from an exact methodology perspective of course.  But one where we combine the efforts of the many who have taken on one or another issue themselves?   That we can refer to as our industry truly setting an example?  Or where that entity can be a central clearing-house for business owners to turn to?  Or how about a collective voice that responds to attack mentality in a professional, legitimized manner?

There have been several attempts on a small scale, and even a few on a more wide-spread scale, to bring order to chaos through the years.  SEMPO and  the Bruce Clay Code of Ethics are just two quite noble and yet vastly different examples in a sea of attempts, to one degree or another to bring professionalism to the forefront.  To say to the world – we’ve got our act together as an industry.  Dialogue has taken place one article at a time repeatedly through the years as well. Yet even with all these efforts, I believe we can go much further.

The First Step – Cooperative Planning

So what’s a group of highly intelligent, adamantly rebellious people supposed to do?  What I envision is establishing an initial working group to not focus on the bigger picture, or the longer term objectives, but instead, to establish a framework from which we can move forward.  This group would then coordinate efforts on establishing  first phase web presence, where collaboration can begin in earnest, online.  A central clearing-house even, of information sharing.

From there, I suggest the panel seek out the support of our own industry conference organizations, and encourage them to open up one session at each of a select handful of the top conferences where people can come together and help get this thing off the ground in a more substantial way.  By having a presence that the big conferences get behind, at least in a supportive manner, we can quickly (always a relative term) bring even more attention to our effort, and people will take us seriously.

Of course, if they don’t want to, we’d need to find sponsorship another way.  Yet how could they not want to be involved if we really take a stand at giving this a go?

The Painful Reality

Now, I don’t have any of the nitty gritty details here.  Like many in our industry, I have what I believe are some serious ideas and notions about at least some of the things we’d need to do and how we might do them.  Which I’d be happy to throw into the mix.  But this isn’t a platform for my views at the detailed level. And they’re just my views, not really hashed out given the scope here.  Instead, I’m only providing a starting point that I believe is long overdue.

Yes, I already know how many objections there are to even attempting this.  Believe me.  In more than one discussion I caught on the topic this past year, issues came up about who the initial participants would be, what would give them the right to decide how things come together, what if later participants disagree on the early decisions…

And I know how overwhelming this can seem, because over the years I have served, and continue to serve, on non-profit organization boards of directors and administrative committees, and sub-committees.  Where chaos can reign supreme. Even with Roberts Rules of Order in play.

So I know quite well how daunting it can be to even begin to come together and attempt to form a cohesive group of people, let alone a unified message.  Yet these are, ultimately, excuses.  And I sincerely hope we can get past them.

Hope Through Example

As much as we all see the challenge in pulling something of this magnitude off, none of us can deny that there exist countless professional organizations in an untold number of other industries.   THINK AMA, IEEE, W3C, SAE… The list is long and large.  So why not let go of the fear and embrace the possible?  Why not make an attempt to do this thing?

Who’s Gonna Take The First Step?

Well, honestly, this article can serve as the first step.  If enough people who get all bent over industry bashers want to be more than talkers, and if enough people in our industry are sick and tired of being sick and tired of the disrespect we take on, then we can let this moment be the moment we stop being the doormat of the online world.  We can begin to shed the collective victim mentality in a real way once and for all.

But for now, that’s getting the proverbial cart before the horse.  The only real question left at this moment – is anyone else with me on this?

Alan Bleiweiss has been an Internet professional since 1995, managing client projects valued at upwards of $2,000,000.00.  Just a few of his most notable clients through the years have included,, and  Follow him on Twitter @AlanBleiweiss , read his blog at Search Marketing Wisdom, and be sure to read his column here at the 2nd and 4th Tuesday each month.

Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors... Read Full Bio
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  • Terry Van Horne

    Well it would have to be totally separate from anty current entity because they are all selling courses, memberships or garbage self interest certification. It should be setup like an RFC where the industry not some group has input. Membership should have no bearing on the right to participate.

  • Alan Bleiweiss


    You bring up a good point as far as this being set up so as to ensure the integrity of the organization. The biggest challenge with that though is there has to be structure, and that structure can only result from people meeting to discuss, set a vision, seek input, and process the input. This then means that rules and guidelines will need to be established where those are based on industry neutrality and openness.

  • steveplunkett

    Harith and I and others (lookadoo, etc.) tried to do this.. but if “the SEO talking heads don’t come up with the idea… they would rather not lose market share..”

    i can understand…. however… i’ve written this same article and so have many others… then we go back to talking amongst ourselves.. or bashing the non-seo talking heads, etc…

    this is the first time i have actually “seen” a solution.

    I read this…

    Let’s start with the SEO bashers. Talking heads who love to blast SEO as evil, how SEO is ruining the SERPs, or how SEO is dead for any six reasons. We all know who the top culprits are.

    came up with:
    SEO Myths
    SEO Cheats
    SEO is Dead
    SEO is ruinging SERPs
    SEO is Evil

    then i read this..
    “loudest voices, there’s probably fifty other, less well known people out there saying the same things. ”

    ok.. so… i thought to myself while still reading..

    “several attempts on a small scale, and even a few on a more wide-spread scale, to bring order to chaos”

    still thinking.. i read..

    ” without any true cohesive or collective voice ”

    then i thought… still reading..

    “So what’s a group of highly intelligent, adamantly rebellious people supposed to do? ”


    we take over the SERPs, collectively.

    We get EVERYONE to publish the same post.. we target all the keywords listed above… SEarch Engine Journal Does it. Mashable does it, Search Engine Land, TOPRank, Danny Sullivan does it… maybe matt cutts does it.. (posts on his blog) , we all put the exact same thing up… mutually approved (and to think this would be the hard part, the SEO myth dispelling, showing SEO is alive, AND professional, collectively..

    something like…
    SEO IS real… MOST SEO profesionals are highly ethical codemonkeys who thrill in success for their client, the kind that makes the cash register ring, and no.. WE DON’T MEAN the ADs on the right side.


    • Alan Bleiweiss


      Everyone publishing the same post will just result in a duplicate content issue. And who will write the original post? Who will approve it? What should the message philosophy be across all messages? How do we maintain a unified dialogue when it’s spread out across so many sites?

      No I personally believe we need a unified message that’s presented in one location and where multiple authors can participate, where everyone can come for dialogue and were the community can support that through links and tweets and mentions and supporting articles. And we can then go to the trash-mouth sites and articles and refer them back to that.

      • steveplunkett

        think about it….

        duplicate content, absolutely…

        i don’t think one place is enough…

        google seo is dead.. what if…

        top 10 results, all same article….

        collectively is the only way to address it.

      • Alan Bleiweiss

        Doesn’t do anything to elevate our industry. And personally, if I were a business owner looking for the truth about SEO, and I stumbled on that, see the entire first page of Google with 10 of the exact same article, I’d think SEO was just crap spam.

      • steveplunkett

        then.. have dannysullivan write it and matt cutts or google/bing/yahoo to post it.

      • Alan Bleiweiss

        Have Matt Cutts, Google Bing or Yahoo to post it? Can’t go that route without 80% of our own community see it as polluted by search engine self interests. I don’t have any big answers here, but this is one concept that can sure be added to the possibilities, as long as there’s a way to ensure neutrality of the message

  • Patricia Skinner

    I believe so strongly in everything you’ve said here Alan, that a while back I started the Self Regulation Community. I can’t say it’s been the huge success that I’d hoped, although I’m partly to blame for that: Not enough hours in the day. If anyone would like to join me and help me come up with ideas, I’d be thrilled. At the same time if someone suggested a plausible strategy, I’d get behind that and encourage my members to do the same. Thanks for bringing this subject up Alan.

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      I understand your desire to see the Ning group grow and flourish, however, again, I think it’s too limiting to achieve the kind of goals I’m talking about in the article. There needs to be a professional organization here. A 21st century kind to be sure, yet one that carries the weight of an AARP or an NAACP or a NOW.

  • Gennady Lager

    I believe this to be the nature of Search Engine Optimization. We will forever be out of favor with those in power (search engines being those in power). Whether people view SEO’s as spamming results with useless pages ranking or helping search engines find relevant content, we will always be ‘manipulating things.’ Whether that is good or bad will always be open to interpretation.

    The ultimate question is do I make $X trying to corral the 5% of things that are out of order or do I make $10X going with the flow of the other 95% and just being a good old honest SEO? Methinks it depends who you ask.

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      Thanks for adding your view on this. “Traditional” advertising and marketing carry much of the same burden from a societal view. Both appreciated and reviled. Direct marketing is a great example (Think direct mail). Yet the Direct Marketing association is a huge and powerful organization that helps to carry a voice for the industry, dispel myths, and provide a mechanism for addressing the “dark side”.

      While I don’t think even THEY go far enough, that’s just one example. Nor do I expect everyone in our industry to participate or buy into whatever unified message / standards of doing business that may evolve from this as yet unknown entity is. Only that we have been around for long enough as an industry that I believe we need this in order to properly mature.

  • Terry Van Horne

    Alan an Request For Comments (RFC) provides the structure for proposing standards and questions for some sort of Professional. It is how most internet standards/protocols are set. If it is an Org only used to act as the body that manages the RFC then all the structure is there. So for instance if I wanted to have knowledge of redirects in the standard then I would propose it for the standard; provide the reasoning behind the need; and then anyone in the industry may:
    1. provide input into changes
    2. argue the neay side

    • Alan Bleiweiss

      I see where an RFC would come into play, however first an organization has to be established to write the RFC, provide the framework for the process. So the question comes back to who’s going to set up that core organization? Who’s willing to participate in that initial process? I’m willing to participate.

  • Alysson

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Alan. A small group of us started the wheels turning on such an idea early last year, but I’m ashamed to admit that it never really amounted to much. Rather than being an industry organization, per se, we wanted to create a site that would provide people with useful and accurate information. That content would compete with the nonsense and libelous claims made by those – like Dvorak – who know nothing about SEO, but proceed to advise people that the entire industry is made up of snake oil salesman and scammers.

    SEOAly began as a blog with the sole purpose of educating small business owners and help them avoid falling victim to search marketing scams – the most despicable of which are the “get found in 3 easy steps…” offers from big business organizations that prey on the ignorance and frugality of small business owners. To say that I support your efforts is an understatement. Count me in.

    • Alan Bleiweiss

      Thanks Alysson

      There’s so many within our industry who do speak up individually and in small groups that it would be a shame if we couldn’t get something significant established. Maybe this is just a situation that needed re-fanning the flame.

      I like Terry’s suggestion about going the RFC route, at least in theory, and at least for some of what I envision we can accomplish. So perhaps once we figure out the baseline model that could be a jumping-off point.

  • Lydia Fabry

    So many of us have obviously tried setting standards for SEO and have failed to succeed (as mentioned above). Issues relate to the inundation of current (and old) propaganda on the topic. ‘Who’ is going to determine the authority of the content and information when it mostly relates to individual situations, different priorities, unique problems, deductive reasoning and puzzle solving. No one solution or standard fits every model (or website), hence, constant discussion and some disagreements from which the cheaters and scammers rely! The ‘good’ group of us is always trying to find ways to educate others, clients and/or SEO’s in training through our blogs, conferences, and communications. It would be an awesome task to create a governing agent but isn’t that partly why Google has put out so much training and information on the topic themselves? There is no one-size-fits-all in this industry that’s what makes it fun, lively and with constant questions which makes it very difficult for the consumer to grasp. [sigh] But, I’m here too for you – quietly in the background, working very hard, keeping all my clients happy since I went independent as an IM / SEO. They (my clients) are my advocates, they are my stars, they are the ones who don’t let any cesspools form near me, they are the ones who spread the word to others and they are the ones who should be/create the baseline models!

    • Alan Bleiweiss

      Not sure how your comment, dated 1/12, just showed up today, a day later. Thanks nonetheless for contributing your perspective and experience to the discussion.

      You’re right in how a big challenge has to do with the “not-one-size fits all” concept. That definitely sets us apart from any typical “standards” organization. Yet I still believe there’s enough common ground in all this that can ultimately be labeled as “universal truth”, at least from those of us who believe in ethics.

      Sure, Google’s gone a long way to helping educate, yet they are, after all, Google, and by nature, are both far from neutral as well as generating a lot of double-standard work themselves.

      I don’t see how clients could possibly create a baseline for our industry other than to potentially motivate government to at some point step in and regulate our industry. I’d rather find a way to be proactive here long before such grumblings even begin.

      For all the failed starts at this, there’s got to be a way to the next level.

  • Mindy

    We’ve been saying a very similar thing for a while now ( – apologies for the shameless plug, but not worth retyping our thoughts).

    Maybe it’s an idea to forego the talking heads and instead gather the real practitioners – the people in the trenches who are too busy doing SEO to be sitting on conference (and cleaning up the messes and dispelling the myths to companies who pay for SEO) to be sitting on conference panels – such as the Directors and SEO consultants at some of the more reputable agencies who really know what potential clients are asking and what the damage is?

    Quite frankly, the guys on the conference circuits whose names we do know have been too busy arguing about this for years to find a practical solution so, perhaps the first step in creating one is to sidestep the “SEO Rockstar” circuit entirely?

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      Thanks for providing the link – I see that all the time for a number of my clients and fortunately, we’ve instilled such trust in them that they immediately ask us to “check this out – what are they talking about…”

      I agree that the ongoing arguments need to be addressed if we are to move forward. How that happens I’m not yet sure.

      Whoever gets on board with this is less important to me personally than it is that there’s neutrality of process, open dialogue and a willingness to focus on that process so that real goals can be achieved.

  • Kathryn


    Your idea to keep self interest out of the arena is noble, but not realistic in practice. Direct Marketing Association, American Marketing Association, and other traditional marketing associations all charge fees to participate in their organization. There’s no “free lunch” because no one is going to put tremendous effort into the movement unless there’s a payback. When you’re “volunteering” it becomes a secondary effort that’s done after you get the job done that pays the bills.

    What you need to find is a happy medium and provide real benefit to those participating, at all levels. My reason for not joining SEMPO is because I don’t see the benefit at the individual level. Also, SEMPO doesn’t try to stand for anything, because it doesn’t want to alienate anyone. Do yourself a favor, pick a stance and alienate some people. It builds quality for the organization and sets standards.

    I’m starting to ramble now, so I’ll stop. But if you need any help, count me in.

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      Thanks for reminding me that no matter what path is taken, if it’s going to work not everyone is going to think it’s all that.

      It only makes sense that at some point there will need to be costs spread among members, and the inherent need to thus provide substantive benefits, so in that I do agree. I hadn’t gotten that far along in the process myself yet, given my stated initial goal of just getting both feedback and an initial working group to participate, with the details to come from that.

      Like you, I refrained from SEMPO for similar reasons, and that’s a big thing I want to address. This shouldn’t just be open to larger organizations, nor just for people who want to say they’re a member, though both would be welcome here.

      I do know that already with the comments here there’s enough for me to have a better idea as to where this could go, and am already formulating a follow-up article.

  • Ron Chmara

    If only witch doctors and cargo cult chiefs would form industry standards, they would be as respected as medical doctors and scientists!

    Uhmmm …..

    There seems to be something wrong with that thinking. I would argue that the problem with the “cesspool” isn’t that there aren’t standards, or basic requirements of understanding the fields of IR and (by extension SEO), but that a vast number of self-proclaimed “experts” don’t even understand the very basic math and science involved in the field, and instead resort to vague hand-waving and “trust me” levels of incompetence, to mask their ignorance and cargo-cult thinking.

    Here’s a simple test for a supposed “SEO expert” candidate:
    1. What is “snowball” as it relates to IR (Hint:Porter)?
    2. Explain the “dangling nodes” problem in the random surfer model.
    3. Explain Hilltop in a few short sentences.

    Anybody with a few years of research in the field should be able to answer the above, at length if required.

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      Thanks for your input on this. Personally, I have no idea what any of your three test questions mean nor what they relate to. So either I’m a complete fraud in the SEO field, or such questions apply to some aspect of how you’ve come to learn your craft which happens to be a dramatically different way that I’ve come to my own.

      Where I do see an opportunity with this venture however, is that with a strong enough voice, reputation and position, we would be able to help educate the business community about the best ways someone weed out the hacks before hiring one. Of course this would not eliminate that altogether, however it could go a long way in improving our reputation as an industry.

  • Thos003

    Love the title!

    The only way to clean something up that is so misunderstood is to make it understandable. Why do companies spend more on PPC then on SEO? Transparency. Clear precise ROI. It’s quantifiable. It’s measurable.

    SEO has to be clear enough that the benefits can be proven and continually measurable for the business owner.

    • Alan Bleiweiss


      I agree completely – we need to be able to bring understanding to the forefront, through a trustworthy and highly visible entity that’s not there just to promote it’s own products.

  • Florida SEO

    For the most part, people are going to bash anyone that they have to pay money to. I was a car salesman for almost a decade and was used to getting tormented because of it, I used it to my advantage by coming in as an informative and professional salesperson that was there to help with their needs. I am now a search engine optimist and do exactly the same thing. To this day it helps me to close deals, the trick, remain confident and truthful while killing them with kindness 🙂

    I personally hope that bad guy seo’s continue to give us all a bad name so that I can swoop in and be the knight in shinning armor!

  • Terry Van Horne

    @RonChmara I agree those are things that can be taught and tested that have merit in understanding how Search engines work. Patents and knowing what the fck an HTML element does beyond how SE’s use it would be something we should get back to as well. Teaching link bait101 and artcilemarketing (personally stopped doing it in 99) has taken the industry from being technicians to being like the low life barkers at a carnival. SEO earned the reputation and brand it has. For taking a decde to look past the desk in front of them.

    As to $’s this would be, personally, my third attempt having founded the first Org whose members have silently built a war chest… so $’s and memberships are not necessarily a big deal. That isn’t the problem… sentiment is. Anyone around longer than a day knows what I’m talking about… I’ll just leave it at that.

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Well the reality these days is that if enough people bash our industry, and if enough bad guys misbehave, Uncle Sam is going to step in and really screw with us. If you think the whole FCC disclosure thing was bad, wait til they start fining us for not charging clients purely based on performance, even though we have no say or control over client product offerings, descriptions or customer service.

  • Mindy

    Good point that it’s impossible to lay out EXACTLY what any given SEO company should do for any specific site, but there’s basic things everyone should check first thing – and basic things no SEO company should say/do (“We can get you to #1 in Google for £50 in 4 weeks for all your top keywords…You do sell ‘green, plastic, meat-based, larged-sized, defenestrating widgets’, don’t you?”.

    Just having a professional body of some sort where businesses can go for advice on choosing a consultant/agency or to get feedback on proposals (e.g., Is this too good to be true? Is there a risk in what’s being suggested to me I should do with my website?) would help because then, at least, businesses could have more confidence in the advice they’re getting, and as an industry we would be actively seen to be putting clients’ interests first.

  • Alan Bleiweiss


    I really like the concept of emphasizing the “clearing-house” concept. We’d have to have serious guidelines as to how we would respond to requests, and I could already see where some people in our industry would say “this is perfectly legitimate” while others would say “no, definitely avoid such companies”. Yet at it’s core, the service would be one I’d think would make such an organization stand out as invaluable.

  • Gennady Lager

    And we continue to see stuff like this surface:

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Yep and this week I saw a new article claiming social media is dying. Right along with SEO I guess.

  • Funs blog

    Yeah, Ann is right on that one. So far less was known about them