Death of SEO Transparency

SMS Text

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.

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
Subscribe to SEJ!
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!
  • Ken savage

    I work as a search marketer for a corporate software manufacturer and when I deal with “SEOing” anything for the company I believe it has to be fully transparent. I’m responsible for lots of money and essentially a part in how the company lead flow progresses.

    Sure we might be able to bump our ranking 2 more spots by gray hatting it a bit but after a month or even 6 months is it still there and are those links that I got trustworthy?

    I rather a consistent 100 inquiries over 6 months than 100 in 2 days.

  • WebSite Design Orange County

    Whatever techniques you are employing there are going to be others out there who are doing the exact same thing. And with all the current SEO tools available to inspect the top sites and what they are doing, there really isn’t too much that can be hidden these days.

    If you are using either gray or black hat techniques that you don’t want to share, the search engine algorithms will find it eventually. A few days on top is not worth months being banned.

  • Egyptian Mau Breeders

    I agree, the last thing you would want to do is be banned for ever. Working smart and hard gives you pleasure over a long period of time. Working mischieveous, the pleasure will only last for so long then you are stuck with a banned site. My egyptian mau breeders website has been doing well for some time and it’s all about working hard.

  • Rhea Drysdale

    This isn’t a matter of white vs black hat techniques. At least not in my opinion.

  • TheMadHat

    Agree…it isn’t. I was talking about the transparency of the two specifically, and from my overall viewpoint of when I started to today.

    Not if you should do blackhat or whitehat… Doesn’t anyone actually comprehend posts anymore?

    – The poor sap who likes $200 beers

  • Rhea Drysdale

    Aaron, I’m completely with you on the change over time and I hope that came across. It was interesting seeing Eric’s take on white hat.

    …I’m convinced no one actually reads posts anymore.

  • Tony Adam

    There are a lot of people that try to come out and talk about being an “expert” in this industry…yet they haven’t had the experience, gone through the hard work yet, or delt with the trials and tribulations like others.

    That said, my SEO work was focused on consistency and hard work. But, once I have my way of doing things or find something interesting that I could use to my advantage, I wouldn’t pass that along to others until it became common knowledge.

    There are a couple questions you have to think through…(1) is this my “so-called industry secret”?…or…(2) is this pretty much common knowledge? It is similar to the reasoning companies do not give away trade secrets.

    End all be all…do you think Google would publicly release trade secrets to someone like Yahoo! or Microsoft?!? I highly doubt it. =)

  • Marios Alexandrou

    What I think some people might find frustrating is that step-by-step instructions aren’t provided so from that perspective there’s some hiding of information.

    If people instead took in a new tactic and then thought about how to take that tactic to the next level, they’d find that there really is a lot of good stuff out there amongst the noise.

  • Who?

    I’m all for transparency, to an extent. When working with large sites, how else can one achieve results without obtaining buy in from multiple stakeholders? Just getting “best practices” implemented can be a nightmare in some large site situations. The “Chef” metaphor definitely fits here. Unless you can do everything yourself, I think a lot of SEO is about selling your ideas (which may not be your “original” ideas, but your the one that has to coordinate the efforts)

    In terms of optimizing new media formats, and to new search technologies, my lips are tightly zipped. At least until I get the basics in place.

  • Ken savage

    In my own work and client work I don’t real sh*t to competitors or friends. Or even the client themselves.

    But in the corporate day job I have to be open and accountable for what I do because someone else’s $ is riding on the business. And what I do should negatively impact a $500m+ company’s bottom line.

  • Catfish SEO

    Nice article man although I disagree with you in regards to Jill Whalen. I have read a lot of her stuff and listen to her speak at conferences and I don’t think she ““was pretty much the only one giving away all the SEO secrets.” What a pompous Additionally, I don’t think SEO was ever transparent. I would argue that it is more transparent today in that there is more being written about SEO all the time and there are less loop holes to exploit. Having said that, the chef analogy is a good one. There are many people that can learn the rules of SEO, but lack the expertise to creativly apply them to different situations. And certainly, having years of experience and living through Florida, Austin, etc, gives one a perspective that newer practioners of SEO don’t have.

  • Michael Martinez

    SEO has never been completely transparent and probably never will be.

    But if we had some real industry standards people would be in a better position to share research and ideas with some hope of reward.

    There will always be a risk when you share ideas about where to get links, how to design content, etc. Someone will always try to abuse a good idea for their own selfish, short-sighted, temporary gain.

    While we cannot prevent people from running good ideas into the ground, we can focus on expanding our knowledge of reliable principles that work regardless of technique. We can also build resources that encourage peer-reviewed studies and research that benefit all Web marketers.

    Standards are about so much more than “taking a certification test” but if we have to do this in stages, then I’ll be one to step up and take a test written by other SEOs if that leads to truly opening up the discussions and leveling the playing field.

  • Barry Welford

    A most informative article, Rhea, thanks and congratulations. I think the answers depend very much on what market sectors are being looked at. For most market sectors which are not highly competitive, I think Andy Beal’s comment is golden. To do well you really need to be a chef. It’s amazing how many people reading the public SEO recipes create non-performing websites

  • DazzlinDonna

    There are several factors at play, making the death of seo transparency inevitable.

    1. The search spies (both SE employees as well as the self-glorified narcs) are paying attention more and more.

    2. The algos have progressed to a level that the webspam teams have more ability than in years past to eradicate things that are working for us.

    3. The playing field has gotten larger and it is more difficult to know who can be trusted to not blab the information everywhere.

    4. There aren’t as many true secrets to share anymore. It’s more about finding ways to use the common knowledge in not-so-common ways, or in not-well-known places.

    5. One tends to get labeled a spammer if one admits to even white-hat secrets. Why? Because those secrets usually CAN be used and abused in less than pure ways. So, if it can be abused, then the one sharing is assumed to be an abuser.

    6. I’m sure that there are more than 5, but I just took my seosfightfat exercise walk and I’m burnt out. 🙂

  • SEO Results

    Before we got involved in online marketing we ran a successful below the line marketing enterprise for many years.

    Back in the days any advertising was considered to be good advertising and we got rapped over the knuckles many, many times for going over the top.

    Same applies to SEO, but here one needs to be a lot more circumspect, as penalties are immeadiate and can reverse many months worth of hard work very quickly….

  • Jon Henshaw

    Rhea, I really enjoyed reading this entry – thanks for spending the time to write it and for capturing all of those quotes.

    In this industry, just as Jonathan Hochman suggested, one of the quickest ways to bring attention to yourself is to give away good techniques, so I doubt that’s going to go away.

    This industry attracts every kind of person, which is why you get every kind of yahoo – from the shyster to the true expert. For me, I can instantly identify content that’s probably total crap as soon as I see the word “secret.”

    Personally, I’ll continue to write and publish techniques and ideas. However, it’s twofold for me. Part of it is definitely for publicity, but another crucial part is the act of simply participating in the SEO community.

    As for those tried-n-true or newly discovered techniques that give me an advantage over other specialists in the field, I’ll continue to keep those to myself, put them behind a cost wall or tell anyone who asks if they buy me a beer 🙂

  • shayne

    Transparency also includes peer review of work I’ve seen many former client site’s suffer from the lack of knowledge and foresight into tactics they claim to understand from previous employees that were trained by myself. MANY in this industry tout success stories without substantial proof of a positive ROI to claim there self importance, rather than being a shameless self promoter or latching on to the so-called GURUS/ Rock Stars of this industry, just shut your mouth and let the results speak for themselves.

  • David Marx – SEO Enthusiast

    Keeping ahead of the algorithms is one thing, doing the basics right is another. I think everybody will agree on 90% of the basics needed, like on page optimisation, keyword research, link building etc, whilst the next 10% starts getting a tad arcane, especially when looking at last 2%.

    SEO’s evolution is reminding me a lot of the automotive / computer / most all tech industries, with today’s flavour being tomorrows old news

  • Karma

    In the experience I have working with SEO’s, I have found they work in a very silo’ed environment. Whether this is because they are overprotective of their work or because what they do is a lot of smoke and mirrors, I will never know. Transparency is key if you are part of a team, and the only way to get things accomplished is to share the knowledge you posses. Preach what you deliver and deliver what you preach, unless of course…it is of an egotistical nature

  • Rhea Drysdale

    Karma, I agree about team transparency being essential for growth and communication. The key is having a team that understands your area and can provide informed criticism. If that doesn’t exist for an individual SEO the only way to attempt to validate an approach is through outside communication or trial and error, neither of which are preferable.

  • Yasir Khan


    This is a great post with varying degrees of opinions. Now coming to think about it, I might actually be in a bind for outing all the SEO secrets on my website!

    I guess I should be taking a different approach. If everyone knows what SEO people are doing, it causes a problem. You are right!

    Keep up the good work!


  • dave

    I agree that the internet and its original clean way of marketing is no longer around, but that’s just a part of the internet evolving. All attempts to stop black hat techniques are being exhausted but as the internet continues to roll on so does it’s new black hat technique inventors. The way I see it is, just add value to the internet and search engines and things fall into place itself.

  • Guitar Player

    Since I spent lot of time to do the SEO for my sites I think it is better to do it for long time…..better to have sales next few years then just one week. SEO has to be done slow….

  • Guitar Player

    Since I spent lot of time to do the SEO for my sites I think it is better to do it for long time…..better to have sales next few years then just one week. SEO has to be done slow….