The Arrogance of SEO

I’m tired of the arrogance within the SEO community, specifically with those that claim themselves to be the keepers of all true and correct SEO knowledge. It’s pitiful, undignified, disheartening, and annoying, and I’ve had enough!

Regular readers of my blog know that I am an avid watcher of the Apprentice. I like that show specifically because I like to see how the tasks are performed each week. From a business standpoint I like to see what the teams do to succeed; from generating the idea all the way to execution and the personality issues in between. Unlike other reality shows, like Survivor, where outwitting your opponents is first and foremost, even to the point of being dishonest in your relationships, is just part of the game, the Apprentices is more about business acumen. Those candidates that go on and act as if it is a game like Survivor never become Trump’s Apprentice. Those that learn how to work with personalities they may conflict or disagree with often last the longest Black hat forum.

The SEO community seems to have a Survivor mentality rather than an Apprentice mentality. Many claim moral superiority in their own tactics while working hard to discredit or badmouthing anybody that does things differently. This isn’t a black hat/white hat thing, it’s a “my ways are the right ways and your ways are everything that’s wrong with the industry” thing. That’s actually what is wrong with the industry. To be fair, there are a lot of things that constitute good (ethical) and bad (unethical) business practices. In SEO, however, that word “ethical” has taken on a whole new identity to mean anything that company X says it should be. Last year I read a very prominent SEOer’s book which stated that submitting anything but your actual business name in the “title” field to an online directory, such as Yahoo, is “unethical”.

Come on. Really?

Business ethics are pretty much universal and there are very few instances where ethics apply only for a particular industry. Cheating your clients is unethical. Lying or misrepresenting what you can do is unethical. These are universal. Using keywords in the title of your directory submission is not.

(Note: I’m sure there are certain business ethics principles that only apply to certain industries due to the nature of those industries, such as ambulance chasing for lawyers, but you’ll pretty much find universal agreement that these practices are considered unethical. For instance, insurance brokers shouldn’t ambulance chase either!)

For some reason many in the SEO community frown upon many sound business practices as “unethical” even though these practices are routine business procedures for many successful and “ethical” companies. Maybe because SEO is online we are dealing with a slight variation of a practice, but at it’s core the principles are the same.

Let’s take an example of cold calling. In the SEO community, cold calling is often considered “unethical” or said to be done only by the sleaziest of SEO firms. My firm does not cold call, however I’m not opposed to cold calling as a sales strategy; for SEO or any other business. Many legitimate businesses rely heavily on cold calling in order to maintain and grow their businesses. Should they suddenly stop this practice their business would suffer, if not fail completely.

To be sure, nobody likes getting cold calls, or calls from telemarketers at their homes. But just because I don’t like it doesn’t make it unethical. Many businesses would simply call it a necessary evil, but to others it is certainly a legitimate sales technique.

The argument against cold calling in the SEO community is that good SEO sells itself. In a round about way, this is true, but I’m not one to wait around for that to happen on its own. Anybody who makes a good product ultimately produces a product that sells itself, but marketing that product is still important and essential. Good SEO often generates good word of mouth (the most effective form of marketing there is) but not always, or at least not always as frequently as one would like. In my experience, many very happy clients don’t like to give word of mouth because they want you to be their “secret weapon.” Either that or the pool which they have to spread the good word is limited.

Getting good word of mouth from colleges is easy if you’re a great networker and have many friends in the industry. I’ll admit that networking is the skill I most lack from my business toolbox, but that doesn’t make my SEO services any less excellent. The alternative to great word of mouth is simply to be in the top position for ultra-competitive keywords like “search engine optimization” but from a business perspective, there are many legitimate reasons why you wouldn’t want to be in those positions. SEO guru Dan Thies had made this case himself in the past.

Yes, good SEO does sell itself, but that does not take the place of other forms of marketing. Even the most well-known SEOs understand this which is the reason many of them advertise on sites like Search Engine Watch, actively engage in PPC advertising and are known to sponsor or exhibit at events such as the Search Engine Strategies conferences. Not many would argue that these well-known, well-networked SEOs are good at what they do. But so much for good SEO being enough to sell itself. Marketing is an essential component to any business’ success.

SEOs that cold call do it for exposure and to draw new potential clients. Again, I’m not making a case here for myself or my own business, because we don’t market this way, but why should legitimate companies be considered sleazy for using this form of marketing? I think the simplest answer here is that many SEO companies that do engage in cold calling often are the sleazy ones, selling promises that they can’t deliver and getting sites banned from the search engines. Scorched earth SEO! Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. These companies are unethical because they participate in unethical business practices, not because they cold call. It’s silly to lump all cold callers in the SEO industry with those that are ethically challenged in other unrelated ways. Like I said earlier, nobody really enjoys getting cold calls but businesses do it because its a form of marketing that works for them.

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