Some of Us Have Standards Already

This is a touchy subject for a lot of people in our industry, but it has to be discussed...

First, those of us who think of ourselves as white hat SEOs already have standards. We make sites more accessible to index more unique content, and we pay attention to on-page and off-page search engine ranking factors, but not at the expense of the user experience.

We work within search engine guidelines to ensure our content appears when it’s relevant to a query. There’s an art and a science to relevance, and there are many tactics used to achieve it. This is what white hats do; they enable relevance. This is also what search engines do, but their long-term success depends on the relevance of their results regardless of who provides it.

We focus marketing efforts on the long-term success. Because of this, our clients don’t have to scramble every time there’s a major algorithm update.

There are others in this industry who don’t operate this way. They have another name. White hats may respect their technical skill and their intelligence, but fundamentally disagree with their professional ethics. What separates us is relevance. We both work to create successful campaigns for our client, but white hats use search engines ourselves and understand when a result is helpful and when it’s not.

We appreciate it when SEO is used to help search engines find content that’s exactly what we’re looking for when we’re looking for it, and get upset when our time is wasted by companies who just care about getting traffic to their site and nothing else. We put relevance and community ahead of brute visibility, and we usually achieve long-term visibility because of it.

These are standards that are put into practice at Resolution Media. There are a number of reasons why standards would benefit me, and the industry in general, including:

1) Solving the staffing crisis – You may have heard that our industry is suffering from a lack of qualified people to fix an abundance of inaccessible web sites that weren’t built with the user or search engines in mind. And there are currently no formalized training programs to help people understand what needs to be done and how.

Resolution Media has our own internal training program where we instill white hat values and ensure compliance throughout the optimization process, but it would be nice to have an industry pool to select qualified candidates from. Programs like SEMPO Institute are a start, but they don’t go far enough in emphasizing ethics and relevance, and thus fall short in my book.

2) Evolving the industry - Because white hats focus on long term success, we can start optimizing for the future today. This industry evolves at a breakneck pace and those who are busy moving the location of their servers in order to avoid detection don’t have a lot of time to look far into the future.

We focus on emerging media to keep ahead of the curve in terms of innovation. With Yahoo recently adopting semantic web standards, Google introducing Universal and personalized search, and the engines focusing on making content available to the mobile user, it’s clear this is not the same search marketing landscape that it was in 1998.

When we stop manipulating ranking algorithms, we can stop talking about paid links long enough to keep up with the search engines, and bring SEO into the twenty-first century. As it is, our community hasn’t quite evolved with the search engines. I, for one, think standards could help us catch up.

3) Increasing investment in search – Being involved in mobile SEO means I’m involved in two industries: mobile marketing and search engine marketing. The mobile marketers didn’t wait fifteen years to set standards for their industry because they recognized immediately that abuses by unethical marketers could cause “consumer backlash and additional regulatory scrutiny”.

To combat it they issued a code of conduct, consumer best practice guidelines and mobile advertising guidelines almost immediately. Of course, doing so doesn’t prevent me from getting Russian Viagra spam on my phone once in a while, but it at least lets potential advertisers know that mobile marketing is a legitimate channel in which to engage consumers, provided they do it correctly.

I’m not saying that such a code will be enough to take significant budgets away from broadcast or print media right away, but today mobile advertising is on the rise, and SEM budgets have room to grow. If we’re ever going to get to the point where search is a significant portion of the total advertising budget, let alone overtake all media spend in three short years, we have to do more to convince advertisers that it’s a legitimate medium. SEO is not somehow exempt from this reality.

No, not everyone in the industry is in favor of standards, but I am. I’m a white hat SEO. If you’re with me, stand up. If you’re not, I wish you best of luck in doing whatever it is that you do. It hasn’t stopped us from achieving long-term results doing what’s right in the past, and it’s not going to start today.

Chris Boggs and Lisa Barone, let’s go. Resolution Media operates by SEO standards and we welcome them in the industry. Please let me know how we can help.

Posted by: Bryson Meunier, Product Champion, Natural Search


Dave McAnally said...

I've followed the whole debate on standards. My question is what is supposed to happen once these 'standards' are developed? I understand the whole theoretical line in the sand between white hat and black hat practices, I'm just lost as to what everyone expects this industry-wide standards thing to take shape as. Like is this going to be a list of tactics that is dispersed on boards/blogs etc etc? If that's the case, this doesn't sound like it'd be anything more than a bunch of people getting together and determining what tactics are 'white hat' and what is 'black hat' (and then Chris's risk factors he wants to put on). Once a consensus is reached, this becomes some sort of constitution for white hat SEO that becomes a statement for the whole industry. In my opinion, it's a bit of a tall order to expect something like that to be a mainstream marketing frame of reference.

Or when they talk about having 'standards' do they mean that some 'bureau of ethical SEO' will deem people worthy so they can be accredited? To make something like that work, I think you'd have to go to an AMA type level (honestly-who outside of our industry even knows what SEMPO is?).

Personally, I think the notion of an industry set of standards is fine, but it should be more business model/strategic in nature. Tactics and their 'white' or 'black' characteristics are always evolving. If we had this debate in 1999 and published tactical standards in 2000, that document would be nearly irrelevant today (or amended into oblivion). However, the strategic goals and overall ethics behind a project are quite static, and in reality, those are really where the line is drawn between a black and white hat project.

Bryson said...

Dave, you and I have talked about this quite a bit offline so I know where you're coming from. I must say I agree that we should be focusing on strategy rather than tactics as the ranking algorithms have changed and continue to change. I tried to focus on that in my post. There is a fundamental difference between what black hats and white hats do outside of the tactics that are employed, and I've outlined a few reasons why I think stating that could be beneficial to the industry. As we've discussed, success would depend on how that message was delivered, but I think there's value to everyone in defining a clear set of standards for ethical marketers to voluntarily endorse. Still waiting for someone to stand up and take the lead on compiling and distributing these standards, however.

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