Death of SEO Transparency

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Scratching deeper into my little foxhole of the search engine marketing pie, I’ve noticed a trend among true experts – if you want to be over-the-top successful, keep your mouth shut! This trend is not without exception, so for what is sure to be statistically insignificant, please take a moment to participate in the SEO Transparency Poll.

There’s a problem in the search industry: SEO noise pollution! What was once a tight community of enthusiastic pioneers has fizzled into a sea of mediocrity. However, this isn’t just another Sphinn-bashing post. Beyond the Sphinn car salesmen pitching the next “12 Ways to Not be a Complete Idiot Online,” there is an overabundance of forums, blogs, magazines, conferences, podcasts and books providing insight into elusive “SEO secrets.”

With so many information sources and “experts” there’s a flavor for every competent and incompetent search marketer. I don’t blame the industry for the shifting baseline of SEO fame. On the contrary, it’s only natural that as the industry was accepted as a mainstream marketing strategy that it would see the flood gates open to opportunists. I should clarify that in my mind opportunists of early SEO days were in fact highly intelligent, driven individuals that deserve the utmost respect for breaking the mold. The new generation of opportunists are leeches, sucking on the hard work and lifeblood of others.

Leeches come in many varieties, they can be other marketers, clients and the media. There’s no end to where a leech might appear and in what form. So, I urge you to watch your back and most importantly, keep your mouth shut! Please note that I don’t consider search engines to be leeches, because they’re simply doing their job. Would you fault a prosecutor for not questioning a witness? Why then do SEOs continue to get upset when the head of a Webspam team adapts to known spam? You’re doing your job and they’re simply doing theirs. Take it for what’s worth and evolve!

In preparing this article I asked seasoned SEO veterans to respond with their view of how the level of transparency in the search industry has changed since they joined. Several of them asked what area I was specifically looking for them to resopnd to, but I left it open ended to not influence their thought process. Here are some of those comments:

“It’s certainly much more open than it was many years ago when I was pretty much the only one giving away all the SEO secrets. Many SEOs of that day were none too happy with me about it either. But I guess, if ya can’t beat ’em, join ’em…which many then did.”

Jill Whalen, CEO of High Rankings

“I think as soon as people started seeing things they shared stop working (because Google, Digg, etc were reading or listening) they stopped sharing. It’s one of those things where – yeah maybe you will get some links or publicity out of it but is that worth losing something that was making you a lot of money.”

Chris Winfield, President and Co-Founder of 10e20

“The people I know have always been open to sharing information. That’s the fastest way to become popular and get lots of attention.”

Jonathan Hochman, President of Hochman Consultants

“Definitely less talk about paid links and their generation tactics as well as less chatter about open sources and where to find them. Unless people are jeering at them, reciprocal linking strategies aren’t being mentioned and I’ve noticed a shift away from recommending press and media releases as a viable way to attract links. ‘Link bait’ is still being written about but seems to be focused on tapping the viral aspect of the strategy. Can’t say that’s bad but not everything has viral capabilities and people don’t seem to make that distinction when they’re going on about it. However, the noise of regurgitation is most noticeable.”

Debra Mastaler, President President of Alliance Link

“I think this industry has always been open and very sharing with information. I think that’s why I love it so much. I came from two backgrounds – programming and PR where people are notoriously selfish with their “secrets”. Compared to those two industries, the search industry is a breath of fresh air. It’s a great thing when you can sit at a table with some of the greatest minds in the industry and they can brainstorm ideas with you and never think twice about it. It’s one of the major reasons why I feel at “home” here in search.

I haven’t noticed much of a difference at all [in levels of sharing]. I think who you choose to put your trust in says a lot especially with how much they share with you and you share back.”

Liana Evans, Director of Internet Marketing at Key Relevance

“SEOs are becoming less and less open about everything especially when it comes to the more advanced stuff. I know that I’ve been sharing less and less. I’ve had and used a bunch of my own ideas that I think are great… and they have been beneficial, but I’m afraid to talk or write about them because I don’t want my ideas to become mainstream… thus becoming less effective.”

CK Chung, SEO Consultant at Webosis

I should point out that both Jonathan and Liana, who believe the industry is rather open, alluded to the fact that their experiences come from a trusted pool of individuals. So then, does that mean their techniques are transparent in the sense of visible for the world to see? I would wager no. Discussions at conferences and in trusted circles or on forums are rather limiting given the full size of the industry. There is a divide between “SEO community” and “SEO industry”. I define a community as a group of individuals actively participating in a discussion at conferences, seminars, in online forums, on blogs, etc. The industry is an umbrella that applies to anyone doing SEO, but not actively participating in the conversation or development of new strategies and research.

Jill is in my opinion the only truly open SEO in the group, but that likely stems from her white hat approach (please correct me if that’s a false assumption). This is where the “death” of SEO transparency gets interesting. In speaking with my good friend, Aaron Chronister (who will forever be known as the-poor-sap-that-bought-a-$200-beer), he pointed out the separation of black and white hat transparency, something I subconsciously understood, but never verbalized for myself:

“[Over the years] more [transparency] in white hat land…less in black hat land. I joined back when there was no central place for information, it was all scattered….kind of like domaining is today, or at least that’s what I compare it to.”

Aaron makes a great point, but according to link expert, Eric Ward, who recently wrote a post on When Linking Experts Go Underground,

“There are some techniques and approaches I use for link building that I simply know I can never tell anyone about. It’s not that they are black hat. It’s just the opposite. They are white hat tactics that, for the right kind of content, can work wonders for both click traffic and search rank. But if I share those tactics and as a result I give five competing sites an inside view of my link building strategy, that’s not really very smart, is it? This is the link builder’s Catch-22.”

I agree with Eric, it isn’t necessarily a divide between hat camps, but the separation comes from a level of self-preservation and advanced, creative thinking. Did I find this technique? Is it working? Do my competitors know about it? If I want to continue living my comfortable life, would giving this “secret” away for free jeopardize my standing in the market?

In the past, I don’t think giving away these “secrets” was as frustrating or painful as it is today. Besides your direct competitors, you’re now competing for your good name! Remember those leeches we talked about in the beginning? As soon as you publish your brilliant discovery what will happen? The Sphinn brigade pounces and the next thing you know you get traffic at the expense of your name and a dozen copy cats file into the public arena with a trickle down effect for slower mediums. Fortunately, writing for major industry blogs, magazines and speaking at conferences hasn’t been infiltrated too much, because that actually requires real work from the leech, which from their inherit nature we know they won’t do.

My favorite response to this article came from Andy Beal, Internet Marketing expert and Founder of Marketing Pilgrim, who said:

“As the industry evolved, the veil of secrecy lifted. There are fewer “secrets” to SEO but instead subtle nuances and levels of experience. SEO is like baking a cake. With the help of books, articles, and training, anyone can bake a cake-but great chefs still exist.”

Great metaphor! So, why do top chefs exist? Because they wrote the books and articles from which others learn to cook. While Suzie Homemaker is content to read a recipe and follow a step-by-step guide to success, chefs are busy turning the culinary world upside down.

This post is my plea to the community that you become a chef. Ingredients themselves don’t change and neither will the fundamentals of search, so being able to follow a recipe doesn’t make you great, it makes you competent and worth your salary. Being great only comes when you can take Fundamental A and Fundamental B and build something beyond anything else others are doing. And, while you’re developing that perfect recipe, are you going to share the process? When you’re done, will you teach everyone how you did it? Keep in mind that in the search industry, unlike culinary arts, if you give away your secret recipe, the meal is spoiled for everyone! Is it worth your five minutes of fame? What drives you? Fame, a comfortable life or the challenge?

Also, unlike the culinary arts, the search industry is likely to publically flog you for outing their secret recipe, so to be completely cliche, if you play with fire, prepare to get burned and you will end up like this:

I need to point out that this post was inspired by two recent Blackboard Friday posts by Cesar Serna (Learning to Fish is a great article!), the recent Link Week post by Eric Ward, the controversial appearance of SEO Gossip Girl and my private conversations.

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Rhea Drysdale
Rhea Drysdale is Co-founder and CEO of Outspoken Media, which specializes in SEO consulting, link building, reputation management and social media. With more than seven... Read Full Bio
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