SEO Guide Expands, But Ratings Upset Some Firms

Buyers’ Guide to Search Engine Optimization & Positioning Firms” is a resource I’d recommend to anyone seeking a search engine marketing (SEM) firm. But the guide has also spawned serious concerns from some SEM companies.

First released last September, it reviewed 24 U.S.-based SEM firms.. An October update listed two new U.S. and U.K. companies. In March, the number of companies reviewed climbed to 64. The important change, however, was the addition of a ranking chart, giving companies a letter grade showing how well they scored against “Best Practices” criteria.

Grading SEM Firms

Publisher MarketingSherpa grades were added to make it easier to identify which firms follow practices that may cause trouble with search engines, a major concern for buyers of SEM services. “You don’t want to get your company bounced from the search engines,” said new managing editor, Alexis Gutzman.

Companies earn points for following practices MarketingSherpa deems unlikely to jeopardize what it terms “client safety.” A company saying link building or keyword research is important gains points, for example.

Bad practices, such as cloaking or mirroring sites, cost points in rankings ranging from A to F, for a failing grade.

These criteria are not an official industry standard. The SEM industry has no “official” standards about what’s “right” and “wrong.”

Guide Creates de Facto Standards

It’s perfectly acceptable for MarketingSherpa to create guidelines in lieu of official standards. Industry standards aren’t likely to emerge soon, if ever. The guide’s criteria have become de facto standards to fill the gap. Companies reviewed meet them or face a bad grade.

Lawsuit Involving Ratings

A bad grade can be more than embarrassing. It could potentially ruin a business. This concern prompted International Crossing (IC) to file suit against MarketingSherpa and the guide’s chief U.S. researcher, Anthony Muller.

MarketingSherpa had asked an IC rep if the company cloaked. The answer was no. When MarketingSherpa checked an IC client listing in Google, the page looked different from the page shown in the page cache, what Google’s spider would have seen.

Because of the difference, MarketingSherpa reported IC lied, resulting in a failing grade in the third edition.

IC denied cloaking. The company did show the same page to spiders and humans, but used frames in such a way portions weren’t visible to humans. MarketingSherpa defines cloaking as using IP detection to show different pages to spiders than humans.

Concerned about its reputation (and having one client question its tactics within hours of the guide’s publication), IC filed suit, claiming defamation, trade libel, and unfair competition. It wanted allegations withdrawn and sought damages.

MarketingSherpa retracted its statement, saying IC was not cloaking. The suit against MarketingSherpa was dropped. IC is no longer listed in the guide.

Marketer Reviewing Marketers

IC is still pursuing action against Muller, whose own SEM firm, Zen Hits (listed in the guide), was the only firm not graded. This was at Muller’s request, to ease concerns Zen Hits would have an edge due to his involvement.

IC isn’t the only competitor viewing Muller with suspicion. “The main problem with Anthony Muller is he’s rating other SEOs, yet he owns a competing firm. It’s difficult for a industry to set standards when those writing about them have competing interests,” Jeffrey Pruitt, IC’s director of business development, said.

Muller no longer accepts new SEO work. He consults and helps companies find SEO firms. He said he doesn’t accept referral fees, and his firm won’t be included in future guides as the business model has changed.

Damaged by Exclusion?

IC was upset by its listing. Oneupweb is protesting how the guide impacts firms not listed, like itself.

President Lisa Wehr says unlisted SEM firms are implied to be disreputable or less worthy than those included, especially given the guide advertisements.

“Are firms not included not reputable? This appears to be the implication. How can anyone possibly state these firms are the ‘leading’ firms when only a very small percentage of companies have been interviewed?” Wehr writes on her company site.

She cites ads MarketingSherpa has run with statements such as, “Which 64 firms are best in the U.S. and the U.K.?” and “Which 55 firms are named among the ‘Most Reputable’?”

Wehr complains she’s lost potential clients who asked why her company wasn’t included.

How New Firms Are Added

Wehr says her company was passed over three times. MarketingSherpa says she missed out only once.

The confusion concerns a “first edition” with three updates. Each update added firms, which MarketingSherpa says were initially identified through polling of several marketing mailing lists.

The “second edition” is expected to include about 200 new firms. These companies requested inclusion through a nomination period ending in February. Some were identified in other ways as important to include.

“Everybody who asked to be included by February 15th and who is an SEOP firm is being included. It’s very democratic,” said Anne Holland, MarketingSherpa’s publisher. Nominations are being accepted for inclusions in the second edition update, to be published this summer.

Thanks, But No Thanks

Don’t look for Wehr’s firm in it. She says she doesn’t trust or respect the rating system.

“They did call and told me they were ready to do my interview. I declined,” she said. “I don’t want to be included in a guide I don’t think represents the industry fairly. Why do I want to put my entire livelihood at risk by having them review me when I don’t even respect the people doing it?”

“While they cite ‘lack of trust,’ they might also simply be afraid we’ll give them a bad ranking based on their actual practices versus what search engines and other experts maintain are best practices,” said Holland.

Refining the Ratings

Given the flak MarketingSherpa is taking, you’d think it’d consider dropping ratings altogether. It’ll stick with ratings but plan enhancements to make them more fair.

Cloaking won’t be viewed as a client safety penalty — if done on a search engine allowing the practice in certain forms. The client safety grade will be one of several factors listed on an aggregate chart that will also display services and pricing.

MarketingSherpa plans to expand lists of sample clients to three per firm and include clients comments, which it is soliciting. It says it wants to hear from companies that feel they’ve been wronged in the ratings. Some scores were corrected when review indicated higher rankings were deserved.

Need for Accepted Standards

Oneupweb and IC say there’s value in a guide that could help consumers make good choices about choosing an SEM vendor. Both want a panel of experts to establish best practices criteria.

A solution would be for search engines themselves to rate companies, or at least indicate whether a company has ever been banned. They’re the ones who ultimately set standards and decide what’s acceptable.

All major search engines have internal “blacklists” of companies and sites considered to have spammed them. They’ve discussed sharing these among themselves or publicly. Concern about lawsuits has hindered any movement.

Consumers seeking help with SEM will still have to sort out whether a company is trustworthy. The best advice, as always, is to check references.

Final Observations

I said MarketingSherpa’s guide is a resource I’d highly recommend to those seeking an SEM firm. It’s not perfect, but it provides an excellent starting point for services offered and an initial list of firms.

The rating system must be overhauled. An emphasis on client lists and customer comments may be a move in the right direction.

One hope that is search engines organize a system allowing MarketingSherpa and others who produce guides to get feedback from them. The entire industry would be helped by this.

There are good firms in the guide, and plenty of good ones not in it. Use its good advice about choosing a firm to review companies you’re interested in.

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