Last week, I wrote that the SEO industry is at a crossroads. I suggested that the path we in the SEO industry are taking is precarious. I harped on the lack of uniformity with regard to doorway pages as a case in point. This lack of uniformity is not only confusing prospective SEO clients but also turning them off. Finally, I suggested that a way to address this problem is for the SEO industry to adopt industry standards.
Standards provide both stability and continuity. Doorway pages, for example, would be essentially the same at company A as they would be at company B, and that uniformity would make things work both for consumers and for SEO firms.
Not only do standards foster clarity, they also impart credibility. To illustrate the clarity that standards could bring, let’s juxtapose an industry with standards against the current situation. Imagine that you’re a dot-com looking for an online advertising vehicle that works. You investigate SEO firms. Here’s some of what you’d have to deal with.
SEO firm A has a positioning guarantee; SEO firm B says guarantees aren’t feasible because search engine algorithms are constantly changing, and it furthermore cautions about the legitimacy of SEO firms that offer guarantees.
Let’s look at pricing. SEO firm C charges for its services by the month. Firm D charges $300 for every Top 10 ranking. Firm E charges only for “competitive” terms that get a Top 20. Daunting, isn’t it?
Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’
We’re not making it easy for consumers to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Not only that, I’d suggest that there’s so much conflicting information, we’re inadvertently engendering cynicism in the very group we’re trying to solicit.
Standards will bring the kind of uniformity you’d expect from any other industry.
Look at it this way. If you’re in the market for a car, you know that the major manufacturers mean essentially the same thing when they say they offer cruise control. But what if every manufacturer’s concept of cruise control were totally different? Imagine that they all had different pricing structures, and some offered cruise-control guarantees, while those that didn’t scoffed at those that did.
This kind of disparity may cause you to forsake cruise control entirely.
Unlike the automobile industry, SEO is relatively new and is fighting for mainstream acceptance. It’s crucial that we engender confidence and credibility now.
The Standards Dilemma
Setting standards isn’t a new idea. Nor is it without controversy.
Eons ago in Internet time (1998), Danny Sullivan, perhaps the web’s most authoritative voice on SEO, wrote a piece in which he discussed problems in the industry that precipitated a call for standards.
In “Promoters Call for Certification,” Sullivan reported how some key players called for the “establishment of a certification program for optimization professionals.” Proponents of the program felt that standards would help distinguish between relevant, ethical doorway pages and doorways that abused the system.
While Sullivan allows that “there are still some types of standards and common ground that can be formed,” he has some concerns about the idea of industry standards — in this case, as they pertain to doorways.
“Standards don’t solve the underlying problem — as soon as you have 11 people vying for 10 top spots, they’ll fight among themselves and constantly rejigger their pages within whatever ‘standards’ someone sets up… So they’ll go back and rework their pages, albeit within the ‘rules,’ to secure a better placement. Thus, they’ll go back and rework their own pages, putting the cycle into a constant loop.”
Rules Worth Playing By
Not surprisingly, Danny’s right when he points out that this system isn’t perfect. It may appear a bit stifling if everyone plays within the rules.
But let me propose this: The SEO firms that succeed are the ones that find ways to make playing by the rules work. Can you show me an industry whose players don’t bend the rules (without breaking them) in an attempt to get the best results for their clients? Danny’s “constant loop” may be a way for us to encourage innovation.
Adopting standards may well ruffle a few feathers — just ask Al Gore’s attorneys. In effect, Gore lost the keys to the White House because 5 of the 9 Supreme Court justices couldn’t reconcile with the idea of a recount without uniform standards. How do you discern voter intent without uniform criteria?
Standards could also help us tackle an insidious situation.
The truth is, the SEO industry is quietly suffering from an image problem. Am I suggesting that SEO isn’t effective and, therefore, has a bad reputation? Absolutely not.
Consider this. Someone goes to AltaVista. He enters “buy CD changer” in the search field. If he lands on your site because you have a high ranking, you have a visitor who knows exactly what he wants — and he wants to convert. Also note: This prospect wasn’t solicited by a banner or email that implored him to click through. He deliberately went looking for your goods or services.
I’m convinced there’s no better way to drive qualified traffic.
Changing Minds, Opening Doors
People’s perceptions of the SEO industry are being shaped not because of the product itself but because of the issues surrounding the product. I also think that our image problem is exacerbated by the industry’s organic growth, which has resulted in a lack of industry-wide uniformity.
So, how do we change the perception that the SEO industry is esoteric?
Standards could provide the infrastructure for assisting prospects to make informed decisions. Armed with standardized information, prospective SEO consumers would be able to sift through various SEO firms, make apples-to-apples comparisons, and choose the firms that best suit their needs.
The stability that standards foster implicitly validates SEO strategy. The perception is that if all the SEO firms are all playing by the same basic rules, they must be doing it right.
Making clear and consistent information about SEO more accessible to our target empowers our prospects. Standards can help facilitate this empowerment process.
We don’t have to change the product, we have to reposition the brand. If that happens, doors will open.