The SEO Reputation Problem

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The equally titled panel discussion at Search Engine Strategies San Jose in August moderated by Jeffrey K. Rohrs, with Shari Thurow, Kristopher Jones, Kathleen Fealy, Jennifer Laycock and Jonathan Hochman as speakers, was very emotional. I would say that it was even more filled with emotions than the “hot” panel discussion “Are Paid Links Evil?” which caused quite some stirs in the industry.

That the emotions were stronger is no surprise, considering the fact that “search engine optimization professionals are often treated as if they have the plague” (Shari quoted) and that the misconception that SEOs do evil stuff and spam the search engines (e.g. optimization = spam) is wide spread like the misconception and prejudges that lawyers are liars and car sales-men crooks.

Lisa Barone from Bruce Clay, Inc. and Tamar Weinberg from Search Engine Round Table did a good job covering the panel discussion itself, if you want to get more details about that.

SEOs are Crooks and Liars
If you are a crook and liar you don’t mind if people call you what you are, but if you are not and in fact the vast majority of people that do what you do are not either, then it is very saddening and does not make you feel better. It does make the environment you live and work in much more hostile and ugly. It also makes your actual job a lot harder, because you have to convince a number of people first that you are not the devil and that you are not doing the devils work, before you can even do what you do best: search engine optimization.


People are not getting their misconception and prejudges out of nowhere. There are reasons why people belief what they belief. The cause of the bad reputation of search engine marketers and SEOs are the bad examples in the industry that do exist and do what people think all of them do.

Jonathan showed some Wikipedia examples of actual spam within Wikipedia, how editors react to them and their attitude after years of reversion a countless numbers of spammy edits that contribute to the bad opinion many Wikipedians have about SEOs and internet marketers in general.

Kris Jones showed some other bad examples that reflect poorly on the reputation of the industry by doing a search on Google for the phrase “guaranteed search engine placement“. A bunch of services pop up who offer ranking guarantees. I used my own example by entering “number one search engine rankings” into the Google search box.

One of the top paid results offers the service to get your site into the top 10 results in Google, Yahoo!, and siblings and partners of those search engines, and some smaller engines guaranteed within seven days and that just for the low price of $50 to $200.

It is a monthly subscription, which makes me wonder what will happen to a customer’s top 10 listing if he decides to cancel the service. Microsoft is also not included for unknown reason. People believe those promises, fall for them and have a very negative attitude towards the industry they were burned by services that make guarantees that are unrealistic and create or reinforce wrong expectations by the customer. Kathleen said correctly “Perceptions = Reality”.

Damage Control
Now the damage is done and all the “ethical” SEOs have a problem on their hands they’d rather not want to have. The question was asked what to do against this and how to get the general idea into people’s minds what ethical SEO actually is and what it is not.

Kathleen proposed a list of actions. The other speakers and the general audience of the panel discussion more or less acknowledged this list as right and good.

  • Educating businesses
  • Jargon can be good BUT clearly explain the terms
  • Seminars and site clinics
  • Help businesses understand that its important that they know their objectives and they can’t just be “I want to be #1 in the search engines.”
  • Increase conversions
  • Increase traffic into stores
  • Name recognition.
  • Manage client and potential client expectations
  • Warn them about spam emails offering services
  • Explain why there are no guarantees

Sounds great and I agree with it in general, but there are some details where I have a bit different view.

seocodeofconduct.gifTaking One Step Back
Let us start with the some questions that should in my opinion answered first, before you can start going around and educate people about them. What is ethical and what is not? What are the industry standards? What are considered the industries best practices?

Search marketing has an organization, SEMPO, that is somewhat accepted and respected by the industry, a huge advantage search marketers have over affiliate marketers who are working in an industry that battles very similar problems as SEOs. Answering my previous questions is what an industry organization is designed to do.

There Is No Such Thing as 100% Consensus
Not everybody will agree, but it is not about unanimous agreement. agreement.gifIt is about self-regulation, which also means self-restriction. The outline of the definition of what are considered good practices and bad practices is also an important purpose of an industry organization. A rating system and/or certification mechanism that attests to companies that they actually follow those practices is the next logical step.

Somebody who does or wants to engage in bad business practices does not seek a seal of approval, but will try to prevent the general acceptance of such a seal by the vast majority of businesses in the industry. Such a seal would require some explaining by companies that refuse to comply and thus do not receive the seal.

Businesses that look for a SEO service and do not know the industry use those seals as guide, because that is often the only third party and independent acknowledgement of the company they have.

Anybody can claim to follow “best practices”, if those best practices are nowhere defined and acknowledged as such by a somewhat neutral but knowledgably to the subject entity.

Theory and Reality
Educate people, create articles, guides and provide tips.

This sounds great in theory, but if you publish the stuff on your own business website, those things are just your opinion and/or your sales letter to the outside world, no more and no less.

The site that guarantees page one ranking does the same thing. How can an outside entity that does not know the details of the business know, who it can believe and trust and who not?

Actionable Suggestions
Education has to be done via an outside source, something that is not part of the industry and somewhat trusted to a degree by the public

It could also be a source within the industry, if this source represents the majority of the businesses in the industry, e.g. an industry organization or other entity within the industry created for the purpose of self-regulation.

wikipedia502.gifSEOs do not like Wikipedia, but Wikipedia is actually a place where non-SEOs look for information. While Wikipedia is not the place to push an opinion and political agenda, so is it a good place to educate people about the facts and fiction in SEO. Articles are scrutinized eventually and promotional and original content will not stick forever, especially if the subject draws quite some attention and traffic to itself.

ftc50.gifWikipedia is not the only place where neutral and factual correct education about the subject is possible. I am sure the FTC would be glad to provide the space and some resources on their part, if SEOs would be willing to work together with them on educational material that is useful for people who want to learn about search engine optimization and the SEO industry, including its benefits, its issues, how it works and why it works etc.

sempo501.gifSEMPO could also become a place for that. SEMPO could become like an elected spokes person that represents the industry to the outside world. If you go to a place, where you have never been before and know nothing or only little about, checking out the “tourist information” office that is operated by the local administration of the place is probably not the worst of places to get some information about it.

SEOs Stop Thinking Like SEOs for a Moment
However, SEOs want to keep that kind of “good” and much linked to content on their own sites, for SEO purposes, duh.

This kind of thinking is typical for many professionals. It is like asking sales people to give the product away free, which they could have sold to that person and earned commission. If it would not be for the marketer, the sales person would never have given it away and forgo voluntarily his commission.

He is in sales and most people in sales think like that. The idea that giving up revenue at the right time for the right thing can actually increase revenue and the overall bottom line of the company are alien to him and to say it quite frankly, also not his job. That is not what makes him a good sales person.

Unfortunately, there is no “marketing guy” who can convince the “sales guy” aka SEO to sacrifice his “commission” this one time for a greater good and future return.  It will be beneficial, not just for him, but also for his fellow colleagues (and competitors) down the road. Maybe there is one…  at least I tried.

Quick Personal Note 
It has been a while since I last posted. I was (and are) crazy busy and now also “permanent resident” of this country, by the way. This post was on my “want to-do list” for a while and I finally got around writing it up. It turned out to become a long post again, sorry, but it seems that I have to live with it as much as you do. Cheers!

Carsten Cumbrowski
Internet marketing resources at, including a list of search and internet marketing organizations and other search engine optimization resources.

Carsten Cumbrowski
Carsten Cumbrowski has years of experience in Affiliate Marketing and knows both sides of the business as the Affiliate and Affiliate Manager. Carsten has over... Read Full Bio
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  • Tad Chef

    Good analysis. Only a broad campaign and accepted standards of best practices can alleviate the problem. Also more focos on non-profit SEO would help. The other measures have already proved unsuccessful.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Hi Tad, thanks for your comment. The SEO industry has an advantage over the equally if not worse troubled industry of affiliate marketing.

    SEO has at least a somewhat accepted organization, something the affiliate marketing industry lacks completely.

    If you want to see how just the idea of such thing is perceived have a look here and here.

    An organization is the first step and to fully establish its position within the industry it represents, some not so easy tasks need to be tackled.

    This includes the conception and ratification of basic rules and guidelines that specify what is considered best practice and what is considered to be unethical.

    Those guides and rules could even be used by the lawmakers to make them a law.

    That would be much better than having them crafting something based on inaccurate and incomplete knowledge and understanding of the industry, blurred by lobbyists and then spelled out by people who believe that the internet is a system of pipes (no fun intended).

    How those laws look like can be seen by looking at CAN-SPAM, which is a marvelous and useless piece of crap law, which did more harm to the business than it is solving the problem it was created for.

    Then are people complaining, when it is too late.

    What they should have done instead is helping themselves, before the government had to step in and do something for them.

  • Michael Dorausch

    Posts like this are step in the right direction. It’s going to take a concerted and continual effort amongst a large number of ethical and professional SEOs to make your ideas a reality.

    Don’t pass up the opportunity to look outside the box and study other industries that may have successfully overcome stereotypes and misperceptions. The parallels you’ll discover can be rather enlightening.

  • Doug Heil

    That’s a good article Carsten. You missed a big part of the problem though. The fact that ALL types of sites out there and all types of conferences out there tout and praise those who do “not” follow stated search engine guidelines, and because of this the general public is constantly in a state of confusion. It makes perfect sense why they would be. Firms who do not hardly acknowledge Google’s webmaster guidelines and constantly are doing their best to find the holes are a good majority of the industry… and they are outspoken about it as well. This is confusing stuff to the general population so it’s easy to see why the industry has the bad rap.

    You mention SEMPO? Why them? I thought they accepted “any” firm into their membership as long as they paid them the money? If not, they must have changed things a bit. That’s the last I heard anyway. How can an org who will take anyone on as a member with no review process be brought up in any article pertaining to the industry’s bad reputation?

    There are many, many reasons why the bad rap. Way too many to list in one setting. I don’t think you want me to go on and on with this. πŸ™‚

    I like your spunk though Carsten. The industry seriously needs more people like you who want to actually get serious about this stuff.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Hi Dough, thanks for your comment.

    Okay, Google’s webmaster guidelines are a different beast and have nothing to do (okay not much to do) with a best practices and rules set for the industry. The rules and guides I am talking about should not be a vague and unclear thing like the Google webmaster guidelines.

    Did I mention that Google still did not clarify what they consider to be a “paid link”. I won’t continue there. I wrote about that issue already a book worth of posts and comments over the past year or so.

    Why SEMPO? Because it is an organization that is generally accepted by the majority of the members of the SEO community. Membership and Seal of approval (e.g. certified to follow the to be specified rules or code of conduct) are not the same thing.

    Membership should be open to anybody who wants to join, even pitch black black-hats and big time spammers should not be rejected and excluded, if they are taking the step to participate in the community and engage in a discussion, arguing their point of view.

    The to define code of conduct (or code of ethics) has to be a collaborative product, which is supported by the majority of the players in the industry. It wouldn’t have any weight and meaning otherwise and wouldn’t even be worth the money for the design of the seal.

    Like the rules for the code of conduct must also the review and monitoring procedures for the evaluation process be specified and made transparent and public. It should not be given to anybody without performing checks to make sure that the rules are being followed. A seal should be valid as long as the company does not violate the rules and be revoked if the company does, even after being warned. It has to be something that has grip and is clear and makes sense.

    It’s should never become something just for show without substance.

    Like Jonathan, am I active at Wikipedia. I helped on the now featured article to SEO (Jonathan did most of the work though) and also did what Jonathan did for the SEO article for the affiliate marketing article, which is currently being a candidate for becoming a “Good Article”, the level of quality that comes before “Featured Article”.

    Like I did here for the Search community, did I try to get some people in affiliate marketing active. See this post at ReveNews about this subject.


  • Doug Heil

    Oh boy Carsten; You and I could not be further away from each other then. Sorry.

    You see; you have made my point about this industry. The mindset you just laid out is “why” this industry has the reputation problem. I really don’t know why it’s hard to understand. Our industry does “not” have a set of rules “within” the industry yet. When we do, it totally has to include following any search engine guidelines. It has to. You cannot separate that from what we all do. Doing so will take down the industry…. like it’s doing right now. As far as any se guidelines being “unclear?” hmm. It’s funny but I know a great many people in this industry who find the guidelines “very” clear. The Google guidelines are more clear today than ever and keep getting clearer and clearer almost daily it seems. They are pretty much common sense stuff and really always have been.

    You say you want “best practices” but those practices have nothing to do with the “one” type of website we all strive to do better in?…. the search engines. How can you have any type of best practices at all for this industry if you do not include se’s? My goodness.

    I’m feeling now that this industry is further away from any standards than it’s ever been. What you were really writing about in your article has nothing to do with what I thought you were writing about. Our idea about what “best practices” should include is very different.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Doug, I believe we do want the same thing.
    I don’t want to discuss the details of a possible “code of conduct” and you can not just take the search engine guidelines and make those to the rules either.

    It has to be discussed then spelled out clearly and the majority of people involved (SEOs and SEs and whatnot) have to agree with it. How close or not this set of rules will be to a specific search engine guideline is not relevant for what I wanted to get across with my post.

    I was not talking about the content, but the process to get to the content and what to do with it once you have it.

    And because of all the interests of the different parties involved, which are often the same but sometimes conflicting, is it important to establish an industry-wide accepted rules set within something that represents the industry e.g. a Search Engine Marketing Organization, e.g. SEMPO.

    Btw. The rules are for search marketers so Search Engines are not affected by it, thus not should not have any SAYING (voting power) in this, but they should be included in the design and decision making process as an outside “consultant”, because they will be affected by this too, only indirectly.

    I hope this makes sense.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    p.s. The search engine guidelines would make a very bad set of rules, because you can’t enforce them and I mean enforce them on everybody equally.

    Look at what search engines do today. A set of vague and confusing rules followed by applying double standards for the enforcement would not be progress, but a step backwards.

    This does not mean that the search engine guidelines should be ignored entirely or even partially.

    Also, any set of rules established does not take the rights of the search engines away to do whatever they want to do. They will have a bit more explaining to do, if they penalize somebody for something that is considered by the vast majority of knowledgeable people in the industry as perfectly ethical and not deceiving. Especially if it was spelled out why it is right.

    So it will be good IMO πŸ™‚

  • Doug Heil

    Hi Carsten, You wrote this:

    “And because of all the interests of the different parties involved, which are often the same but sometimes conflicting, is it important to establish an industry-wide accepted rules set within something that represents the industry e.g. a Search Engine Marketing Organization, e.g. SEMPO.”

    You are assuming that a “majority” of firms in OUR industry accept SEMPO. I’d love to see the proof of that. You state that SEMPO “represents” the industry. Exactly “who” do they represent anyway? Where do you get your information from? Do you get it from “conference” people? If so, that is fine and dandy, but do you know that a very clear majority of firms in “this” industry have “never” been to a conference and never would attend one? That’s a fact.

    Anyway; how many members does SEMPO have since they launched about 4 years ago? Do you think for one second that figure “represents” the industry? If you think it does, you are not getting around the internet much at all. I can name about one thousand firms who never attend conferences and who are in this industry. I’m not naming them so don’t ask. LOL My point being that the names you mention or think of are not even “widely” accepted by firms in this industry. Not even close.

    Also; what if the plumbing industry or the home building industry included and “touted” plumbers and builders who just didn’t build things according to the “guidelines” set by the “best practice” builders and plumbers? They do NOT include those types in meetings, or even mention them at all. They don’t allow those types in the door in any way. What these so-called rogue people do is not illegal, but they simply cut corners or they don’t follow the best practices that every good builder or plumber follows.

    I know these things as for 20 years I was in the building industry. If you think for one second that “best practices” can leave out the very thing that ALL firms are suppose to abide by…… then you don’t have a best practice thing at all. It’s really that simple.

    If you want to “leave out” the majority of “whitehats” in your type of setting, then go for it with this type of thing. I can tell you that it will never fly.

    Putting it this way; blackhats “steal” from website owners who try to abide by the guidelines. blackhats really don’t try to educate their clients as they simply do as the client wishes. That isn’t a best practice kind of thing at all. What it is, is a firm who only wants to take the money from the client, with no regard to how their actions affect many more types of groups of people. They only look at the benefits as applied to them and their client.

    But anyway; please carry on. We will never agree with this so let’s just agree to disagree. πŸ™‚

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    “You are assuming that a “majority” of firms in OUR industry accept SEMPO. ”

    I actually don’t assume it and know that it is not the case, though I hope that this will change. Taking on the responsibilies we are talking about might creates the needed support for the organization.

    SEMPO is the best thing in regards to an organization this industry has at the moment. It is not perfect, but a start. The SEMPO as it is now would not have enough power to create a standard set of rules, but they are the type of vehicle to do it.

    Something like a pro-standard movement could help SEMPO to get the influence needed to get into the position to be able to start the process of crafting the rules set and the means how the rules will be enforced.

    Are there any alternatives? Is there some other body that could be considered somewhat like a representation of the industry, maybe not in numbers, but in structure?

    Do you see other ways of accomplishing the things I mentioned in my original post (in addition to a Code and Standard, Wikipedia and FTC)?

    Who else would be better for creating a standard set of rules and enforcing them? Google? Danny? Rand? WMW?

    I thought people prefer somewhat democratic approaches rather than establishing a monarchy in order to get their own house clean.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    p.s. Rules will not be followed by everybody, something that is also true when it comes to law who’s violation has much more severe consequences than not following the rules. Accepting the rules is voluntarily anyway and if the majority of the companies in this business are as white as they claim they are, then they will do that, if it is done right and in the interest of the majority.

    If companies don’t do it, even though the “HOW” was done right, then I don’t want to hear anybody complain about people who call SEOs cheaters, spammers, scum etc., because people would obviously be right (not about everybody, but the majority).

  • Doug Heil

    “I thought people prefer somewhat democratic approaches rather than establishing a monarchy in order to get their own house clean.”

    Of course Carsten, but saying that SEMPO would be that org is actually making me laugh out loud. Let’s say that SEMPO decides to have some “best practices” set. Are they then going to “de-list” some firms from their membership? I don’t think so.

    You ask who instead of them? I can think of “two” right off the bat… there maybe more.. don’t know. … and … they actually “screen” members for se spam. BTW: My firm is NOT a member of either one of those groups. Actually; we aren’t a member of ANY group but our own group, so I don’t have any bias towards them other than knowing they do screen their members. I doubt those two are the answer, but I know they are more the answer than SEMPO. πŸ™‚

    Please stop already; I’m starting to lose my dinner from rolling around on the floor.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Okay, add SEOPROS and SEOCONSULTANTS to the list of options. Yes, SEMPO as it is today would not be able to pull it off, but the KINDs of SEMPO are the ones that have to pull it off.

    Whoever is doing it has to become what none of them is today, a representative “spokes person”, who actually represents the majority of the people and companies in the search engine marketing industry.

    If it would be something new that is created because of the need for it and because none of the ones that exist and could or should do it ,are doing to do it… fine with me too. I don’t care what the same of that representative will be, but I do care that there will be one at all.

    p.s. You laugh about SEMPO, fine, but SEMPO is a lot more than affiliate marketing has today. Search marketing is “rich” in comparison to affiliate marketing. We also don’t have a SEOPro or SEOConsultants equivalent either.

    All of what you already have is something that could be build upon, you don’t have start with getting to know each others phone numbers and share a conference room together ONCE.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Now I stop, unless you keep talking about SEMPO. I hope I clarified that I did not talk about — THE SEMPO — but the “likes of SEMPO” as in Organization that can and will represent the SEM/SEO industry to the outside world. I am sure that you agree with me on that one.

  • Doug Heil

    Okay then Carsten; that is fine. That is not what you stated in your article however. If what you meant to say was an org “like” SEMPO, that is very different than stating that SEMPO should be who represents the industry. Thanks for clarifying/changing things a bit. πŸ™‚

    But still Carsten; even when you say like SEMPO, you are still a little off in your diagnosis. There are quite a few sites out there “right now” that are “like” SEMPO. There is really not a chance that any org who wants to represent the entire industry… even the majority, can do so without a clear set of “best practice” rules to abide by. When I write “best practices”, I clearly mean “best practices”.

    Thanks for being more specific in what you meant by your article.

  • CarstenCumbrowski

    Doug, Exactly! The “seal” is meant to be a voluntary promise by companies to follow those “best practices” and not violate them.

    To give the seal some strength and support, to become something like a trust symbol (similar to the Verisign or Trusty seals) for the outside world, abuse must be prevented. That is the enforcement part I was talking about.

    If you use the seal (as a marketing tool) and officially claim that you do follow the “best practices”, somebody must make sure that this is really the case. Getting the seal should be free IMO, violation and abuse of it should cost money. That would make companies think twice, before they voluntarily submit to those rules, in order to be able to use the seal.

    It’s voluntary submission to quality control so to speak and would increase the value and power of that seal significantly and will make it noticeable to the outside world.

  • SEO Web Design

    Over the years, more and more webmasters fell for the trick of those guaranteed ranking “rogue” and spoilt the reputation of search marketing. The only way to save ourselves is to over-rank such sites by using our skills. Write an article with the title eg.”Guaranteed Top Ranking?” and contents to warn against such rogue “seo” firm. Linked it from other sites and i believe in this way we might be able to over-rank those sites in SERPs. Example of such article may look like this :