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August 2, 2007

Are We Setting The Bar Too Low For SEOs?

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Rand Fishkin outlines ten questions SEOs should be able to answer before they start offering search engine optimization services. Rand, we love you, we do, but you’re setting the bar far too low. What are the four major search engines? Why is Alexa inaccurate? What’s "the long tail of search"? I grill the guy at the fresh fish market harder than that.

There’s a difference between having a basic understanding of search and how the search engines work and being a professional SEO. Heck, the questions Rand was throwing out even Susan and I could answer without much thought, and trust me, people, you do not want either one of us optimizing your Web site. Your competitor’s Web site maybe, but definitely not your own.

I think my problem with Rand’s questions is that there were too many "what’s" and not enough "how’s". Being able to identify something doesn’t mean you know how to use it. My computer-retarded mother (no offense, Mom) can probably name the four major search engines, but that doesn’t mean she knows how to use them. I can name most of the parts of my body, but I won’t be performing surgery anytime soon.

If you’re touting yourself as an experienced SEO, I don’t want to know what you know; I want to know how you’re going to use what you know. I want to know how you’re going to use Universal Search. I want to know how you’re going to help me get back into the index after I accidentally got myself booted out. I want to know how you’re going to make my site mobile-friendly. I want to know how you would handle [X] if [A], [B] and [C] happened. I’m not interested in a quiz to see if you’ve been doing your homework, I want a test that proves you’ve been reading ahead.

Susan and I have merely done our homework. We can answer Rand’s questions because we’re knowledgeable about search and the principles behind search engine optimization. We read the search marketing blogs, we read the occasional forum thread, we have more newsletter subscriptions than we do fingers and toes, and we work for one of the most respected search engine optimization companies in the industry. Just being in this office we’re constantly hearing things.

But we’re not practicing SEOs. We have no experience implementing anything. I may be able to do a site review on a client’s site and pinpoint everything that’s wrong, but I probably wouldn’t be able to fix it.

I feel like if the search engine optimization and search marketing industry is ever going to be taken seriously the bar has to be set much higher than it is right now. Eventually we need to require people have more knowledge than what they’ve heard from others. Eventually we need to start adopting some sort of industry certification or training program. Eventually a standard needs to be set.

Why not encourage that now? Let’s not reward people for being simply "good enough".

Rand rattled off an interesting stat in his post, stating that less than 30 percent of the companies paying for organic search engine ranking services are getting a good deal. I don’t know where that number comes from but I absolutely believe it. Finding a good SEO is no easy task, mostly because business owners don’t know what to look for and because SEO wannabes can often spend months hiding behind fancy buzzwords while wasting your money.

I was trying to come up with a fun little anecdote that illustrated the difference between being an informed searcher vs being an SEO when I remembered Rand actually gave me one a few months a year or so ago (God, time flies).

Last September, Rand sat down for an interview with PayScale.com. (Unfortunately, the video appears to have been taken offline, so if I’m mangling your words here, Rand, I apologize!). During the interview, Rand discussed a recent interview process (I believe this was Operation: Find Jane) and explained that one of the questions he was using to weed out potential employees was something like, "how would you improve Craigslist.org?" Rand was likely looking for things like branding strategies or ways to increase traffic or conversions, but instead the interviewees, who were search-savvy but not necessarily SEO savvy, were talking about things like changing its color to make it prettier. Because, you know, SEO is all about being pretty.

In a time when search engine optimization is constantly being labeled spam, with everyday searchers claiming that all we do is muddy up the search results, it’s really time to start demanding more from the members of this space. If you can answer Rand’s questions correctly then you probably have a decent understanding of the search space, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to start charging for SEO services.

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3 responses to “Are We Setting The Bar Too Low For SEOs?”

  1. Rebecca Kelley writes:

    Good counterpoint, Lisa. I feel like you a lot of the time–that I can pinpoint what’s wrong but still need to improve my ability to know how to fix problems.

  2. Michael Sass writes:

    Hi Lisa,
    You mention “we need to start adopting some sort of industry certification or training program”. SEMPO and the Direct Marketing Association recently announced their “certification” program. I have two questions for you. First, are you aware of them and if yes, are they providing that higher standard you’re talking about? I look forward to your response.

  3. randfish writes:

    Yeah – I should have qualified that the answers to ten questions certainly aren’t ALL that’s required to start charging, but rather, that if you don’t know those answers, you really shouldn’t be doing the work professionally. It was more of a reactionary post against SEOs who claim to be experts but don’t actually know the first thing about search engines.



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