Search Engines and the SEO Business

Recently, an article appeared in the press that said Ask Jeeves and Lycos would each offer SEO (define) services. After the piece appeared, Ask Jeeves said it’s only doing SEM because of a relatively small relationship it inherited when it acquired Interactive Search Holdings. Nevertheless, the article spurred some interesting and important discussion in the industry. Some search engine optimizers feel a search engine company offering optimization services is a clear conflict of interest. Others believe it’s the natural evolution of search engine monetization.

Search Engine Motives

But what are the search engines’ motives? Perhaps search engines feel they has something to gain by enticing potential customers with the fact it’s an actual search engine doing SEO, including on its own sites. The gain must outweigh the perceived loss of credibility with search engine marketers (SEMs).

In addition, the general public might not realize Lycos doesn’t use its own spider-based search engine for its search results. (It currently uses Inktomi.)

Maybe offering SEO services is a desperate attempt to monetize search property for short-term value the engines can show shareholders. Is this the start of a trend?

Strained Relationship Between Search Engines and SEOs

A level of paranoia has always existed between SEO firms and search companies. SEO firms get light praise at best from search engines. SEO firms were largely responsible for demonstrating search engines’ monetization value. Now, however, they feel they’re being treated like an increasingly unnecessary middleman, one that can be disposed of once search engines have learned enough of the trade.

A public company can face extreme financial pressures. It’s expected to always grow, which means having to be more competitive. This can lead to switching from a collaborative relationship with others (where revenues are shared) to a strained competitive relationship (where former partners are eliminated). Being one of the smaller search engines can place more pressure on a company to draw additional revenues.

Many search engine software engineers distrust most SEO firms. Then again, most SEO firms distrust other SEO firms. Search marketing has become an increasingly high-demand industry with a rather negative reputation. Ethical SEO companies appear to be the exception rather than the rule. (By “ethical” we mean those who actively try to give search engines relevant, valuable content and follow the terms and guidelines set forth by the search engines.)

Unfair Advantage or False Impression?

Working at a search engine company doesn’t impart you with any natural gifts for SEO. In fact, many SEO professionals are quite amused at this new service offering. They know how to optimize better than search engine staff. Many search engine companies have to hire outside SEO professionals to help them optimize their own sites.

Having access to your own search engines algorithms (which might be construed as a huge breach of integrity) doesn’t automatically make you an SEO expert. That only comes with years of actual experience in optimizing sites.

Search engine staff might have access to search data, but they don’t always have access to data from Web analytics software, usability tests, focus groups, and sales. Do search engine employees understand site design? Information architecture? Making a site search-friendly without compromising its user-friendliness and ability to convert visitors into buyers?

In this situation, the engines are newbies.

Conflict of Interest

This new search engine service can be problematic ethically. One reason “natural” or spidered search results are so popular is they level the playing field. Small and medium-sized businesses can compete with larger companies.

Just because a large company has the budget to purchase loads of pay-per-click (PPC) ads doesn’t mean its site contains the most relevant information people are searching for. Relevancy applies to all types of businesses: small and large, profit and nonprofit, commercial and noncommercial. End users ultimately decide if a small company contains more relevant content than a large company through (ethical) link development.

Once search engines start offering paid “natural” search results, many SEO firms feel the search engine index becomes tainted. Money takes priority over relevancy. It’s OK with ads, because ads are clearly labeled. But paid relevancy isn’t OK with spidered search results.

Paid inclusion has always been a hotly debated topic. Yahoo claims participating in its Site Match program doesn’t boost positioning, but some prominent SEMs don’t believe it. (View the Site Match submission page and Content Guidelines.)

Yahoo currently doesn’t openly disclose which sites participate in its paid inclusion programs. Would search engines label the search results that have been optimized by their SEO staffs?

Conclusion

Our personal opinion is neutral. As search-friendly site designers, the search industry is good for our Web design business. But we also like the search engines because they help us in our personal and professional lives.

We understand search engines need to make money and continually provide relevant results. We have no problem with paid inclusion programs, because they allow sites with problematic URLs (such as Session IDs) to be indexed without having to undergo costly redesigns.

However, too many questions are still unanswered for us to give a wholehearted thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Additional Reading

A more detailed discussion among SEO firms is available in the Search Engine Watch Forum and in Gary Stein‘s blog.

Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, IL, December 13-16.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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