I have definite ideas on this question. But what got my attention recently was a reference to SEO in a prime time television show (one of the legal dramas) on one of the major US networks. It went something like this:
Lawyer: “What are you concerned about?”
Client: “I’m concerned that the jury will have a negative reaction to my profession; a lot of people don’t like what I do”.
Lawyer: “What is it that you do?”
Client: “I perform search engine optimization.”
When it hits primetime TV, you know the topic has entered the consciousness of the masses. And in this case, not in a good way!
For the uninitiated, SEO is an acronym for “Search Engine Optimization.” Wikipedia defines SEO as “the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines via the “natural” or un-paid (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results”. This is done by various methods, but the two most important aspects are creating relevant content on your website, and gaining links to your site from outside websites.
How can this be so bad? Well, like any other form of marketing it can be taken to extremes. Because it’s so valuable to appear near the top of a search results page in a search engine like Google, some will do practically anything to make that happen. And that’s what causes the problems. Techniques that the Search Engines consider inappropriate are called “Black Hat”; the page results that are listed inappropriately are referred to as “search spam” or “SEO spam”.
All this simply means that when you type in a search phrase into Google, for instance, you are presented with a bunch of websites that aren’t appropriate for what you were looking for. I’m sure you’ve all done a search, and the top sites that pop up have absolutely no value. The results might show a poorly constructed “Directory” aimed at a particular vertical topic, but really isn’t useful except to its owner trying to get Ad clicks. Or a site stuffed with a huge number of articles–none original or written by the site owner, and sometimes even modified by computer program to make it look “original”, but in actuality making it practically unreadable to humans.
Arguments for SEO
- It’s just a marketing technique like any other, just like Press Relations in the “real” world. Why can’t you use all the tools at your disposal to make sure that your website is visible to your target audience?
- “White Hat” SEO techniques are above board and available to everyone. What’s wrong with writing appropriate content for your site, and requesting backlinks from other compatible sites on the web? If you do a better job than your competitors, or they don’t choose to use these methods, that’s simply you beating them in the marketplace.
- White Hat SEO is really just an acceleration of and a focus on the very things that happen naturally for a successful company on the web: Attractive onsite and offsite content, with a large number of links to your site from other sites with a compatible focus.
- The “Black Hats” will always be around–the only way to avoid being left in the dust by these scoundrels is to use (legitimate) SEO techniques to compete for position in the search results–or they win by default.
Arguments against SEO
- Any technique designed ONLY to move a website up in the search engine results pages (SERPS) is by definition cheating and not legitimate.
- SEO is a slippery slope; there really is not sharp dividing line between “white hat” and “black hat” techniques.
- Search Engines work best without any efforts to circumvent the “natural” results; any manual intervention to change them is a distortion of the real world, and therefore inefficient for the market.
- Buying or otherwise obtaining links that you wouldn’t get naturally is deceptive, and therefore of no value and even immoral.
- Content stuffed with keywords simply to rank high–rather than inform–is also of no value and is ruinous to the beautiful Internet.
The irony of this controversy is that inbound marketing techniques like SEO originally held the promise to marketers of largely avoiding the negative stigma associated with more direct methods. Now, it appears that the term “SEO” has gotten a negative connation in the web marketing world, much like all direct email marketing is considered by many to be SPAM. It’s apparently gotten bad enough that the term “SEO” has completely fallen out of favor with some; “Content Marketing” and “Inbound Marketing” are two new code phrases for what really is just SEO in a repackaged form.
My view is that this is a real shame. In the email world, there are legitimate direct email marketers, offering real products and doing their best to target their offerings to interested prospects. These companies shouldn’t be lumped in with Spammers who are nearly breaking our email systems with endless numbers of fake Viagra ads. In the same way, companies using standard SEO methods to ensure their target prospects can find them, shouldn’t be thrown together with the black hats who distort search engine results while trying to make a quick buck. I realize many folks don’t make this distinction. What’s your view? Post a comment to let us know where you come down in this argument.
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Joe Hinder says
I read your blog, but don’t post very often. This topic is of particular interest to me as one of my larger customers has a very large in-house SEO operation. It’s by far their most effective part of their marketing plan. What’s interesting to me is how much money the can make or lose just by a simple change that Google makes on their side. They’re totally at their mercy, and SEO is a big part of your marketing plan you need to take account that Google could totally drop you for a couple of days and your site traffic will be impacted.
I believe there was an article on Tech Crunch about a year and a half ago from an anonymous CIO. He was heavily concerned that his company’s bottom line could be so dramatically changed but the whim of a software developer at Google and was wondering why this wasn’t regulated. I don’t know that it needs to go that far, but it’s certainly something to plan for if you’re going to pursue SEO.
Joe, thanks for your comments. Everything you say is very true. -Phil
Brian Leach says
The view I’ve always taken is that SEO is a completely legitimate marketing strategy, but for the reasons Joe mentions above, I wouldn’t rely on it as your sole strategy. Google has the right to do whatever they like with their search algorithm; it’s theirs. The companies that “feed” on those results just need to be aware of the risks and have a plan “B” (and maybe C, D, and E).
Chuck Melton says
I have engaged an “inbound marketing” firm and for the most part I think it has really improved the way I craft my message to the public. The company has given me a complete infrastructure to allow me to control my entire website and online message without soliciting expert help. Yes, there are certain techniques I should use to be make my blogs and web pages more search engine friendly, but at the same time it has required me to engage both customers and prospects in an analytical and intelligent way. The best “white hat” inbound marketing you can do repeatedly is blogging and educating your audience – something you are obviously well versed in yourself.
I can then take that content and create newsletters like this to continue to widen my audience. Any marketing technique that educates and broadens the targeted audience is a positive and legitimate method in my view. You can see some of my effort at http://www.meltontechnologies.com/blog. Given our past conversations, I would be interested in your thoughts.
I can see why many people find SEO sneaky. In a way it is – but if you’re company doesn’t play along, it gets left in the dust. If everyone plays nice and follows the white hat method, I don’t see a problem. Google is VERY good at what they do and they will eventually find a way to eliminate all black hat strategies.
Katie, I agree with you. The only thing I’m not certain about is Google completely catching up with the Black Hats. You’d think we’d have a handle on viruses and malware by now–but it’s only getting worse. It seems to me that in dynamic environments like the Internet, it’s a constant game of catchup with the the bad guys.
Joe Hinder says
Not to beat this to death or anything, but here’s a good story about a guy that got hit pretty hard just because Google tweeked their algorithm. He was not engaged in any black hat stuff: