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“Isn’t SEO just BS?” was a question someone posed to me over the July 4th weekend, after finding out what I do for a living. My immediate reaction was one defensive of my industry and livelihood.  But it did bring up some interesting ideas that I wanted to share. But first, let’s travel back in time.

The term “Eternal September” refers to a phenomenon first experienced by members of Usenet. Usenet was the precursor to internet forums that existed since the 1980s that allowed people to interact via message threads. There were established posting standards and implied rules of conduct. During Usenet’s existence, it would become flooded with new members every September, due to college freshmen who now had access to the internet and the service. These new members did not know the rules and made the entire Usenet environment bothersome to experienced and longtime posters.

In 1993, AOL began providing its users access to the service. As a result, Usenet was subject to an influx of many more members (the majority of whom had zero experience with the system). Whereas in previous years September would end and the new members would learn how to conform with the established standards of the site, this was no longer a feasible scenario. Longtime member Dave Fischer referred to the new Usenet as “the September that never ended,” or the Eternal September.

How does that anecdote relate to Search Engine Optimization?

Much like Usenet after AOL opened the floodgates, there are no true barriers to entry to get into the SEO industry. As far as I know, no respected universities offer an “SEO major” and most low level SEO jobs require no experience. Simply put, anybody with a website and internet access can claim to work in SEO and has a chance to enter the industry. In contrast, there are no amateur bankers or hobby biologists. And with good reason. Those jobs have proven real world implications. I’m not saying that SEO doesn’t, but it is at its core an industry where it’s hard to definitively measure ROI and where there is no centralized certification available to objectively QA individuals’ SEO abilities. The sad result of this is that there are many people who call themselves SEOs and many agencies who offer “SEO Services” who are (for lack of better terminology) just not that good. There are also people who practice SEO without a well-rounded knowledge of how the web works, and worse yet, people who deliberately try to manipulate search engine algorithm in a black hat manner. All these groups of people give SEO a bad name (just ask the New York Times).

Circling back to the original question I was asked a few weeks ago: Isn’t SEO just BS? Obviously, my answer was no. But I also made sure to respond that there are definitely people who call themselves SEOs who are full of it; and of course, that I am not one of them (nor is the company who employs me).

Do I feel I’m part of an Eternal September? A little bit. I envision the SEO field becoming more and more competitive with people finding out what it is, people realizing that they don’t need a college degree to learn about industry standards, and people whose only goal is to game the system for financial gain.

I also don’t see this changing until Google and other search engines recognize SEO as a real legitimate industry. The only way to do that is via official individual SEO certification tests. And that would require that Google finally admit that some SEO tactics are better than others, which I don’t see happening anytime soon.

Just watch this video from Matt Cutts:

“It’s going to be tough” indeed, Matt.

April 29th, 2011
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Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil”; Google wants its search engine to help people. On the other side of the battle are those working in Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Knowledge itself is morally neutral. But as is the case with almost everything in this world, people’s intentions determine the social constructs of good and evil. In the SEO world, we have white hat SEOs and black hat SEOs. In short, the difference is that black hat SEOs take advantage of what they know about how Google’s search algorithm works in order to influence results for specific search queries no matter how accurate or relevant it is for users.

Now, despite what you may read on the Internet, Search Engine Optimization is a valued skill and a viable profession (just ask the folks over at SEOmoz). SEO is a service in which the majority of digitally savvy companies will invest money because they can see the long-term value of what will eventually pay for itself as “free traffic.”

I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that money is the root of all evil… at least not yet. But let’s put it this way: if Google had its way, anytime anyone searched for anything, its algorithm would provide the perfect result in the first position of the first page. Still with me so far? Good. Now let’s say there’s a small mom and pop store that sells toy trains online (and is a legitimate, well-intentioned business). Within Google’s search engine results page (SERP), that store’s website would have to compete with big box stores like Walmart, Target, etc. that may not have as good of a selection as a small store dedicated to the product. Now, is that the best thing for users?

Matt Cutts and the Google team would probably respond to this notion that SEO tactics and best practices are widely known and made public, so they are technically fully accessible by all. But let’s face it- for a lot of people, SEO is not all that intuitive and pragmatic. So to realistically level the playing field, the small mom and pop toy train shop needs to spend as much as Target to achieve the same level of optimization expertise. The logical extreme is that the more money you have, the more optimized your site will be (ceteris paribus).

Based on this simple assumption, is SEO evil? I’ll let you all mull over that for a bit. My answer to this question is forthcoming.

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