We Do Need SEO Standards

Over at Search Engine Land, Jill Whalen writes that we don’t need industry standards and just like that my inner pit bull wakes up and starts mouthing the gate. It’s like a tic.

As you might imagine, I disagree with Jill. Taking a look around, I think we are absolutely at the point where it’s Do or Die time for SEO standards. We don’t need the perfect search engine optimization How To guide (though I’m sure Mahalo is working on that), but we do need to outline what SEO is and what it means to optimize a Web site. We need to establish best practices, what the risk is for abandoning them, and what all these different terms that we throw around actually mean.

Jill gave the following four reasons for why they industry does NOT need SEO standards:

  1. There are too many ways of skinning the SEO cat.
  2. We can’t even agree on the definition of search engine optimization.
  3. There are already laws to protect people from SEO scam.
  4. There’s no such thing as "cheating" in SEO.

That was her reasoning. Now I will destroy it. Muahaha. (Just kidding, Jill!)

Jill is right. There are many ways to do SEO. There are also many ways to cook a pork chop. Just because the same task can be accomplished and approached differently and with different flavors doesn’t mean that guidelines aren’t useful. I’m not saying that SEMPO or another such organization should get together and create the end-all, be-all recipe of how to perform SEO. That would be unrealistic and outdated before it was even finished. I’m saying we need basic guidelines for the search engine optimization process and to document what it is we actually do. It’s something we need for training, for protection and for credibility.

Jill noted that we all know that keywords are important to a search engine optimization campaign even if we can’t agree on how many instances of each term we need in our copy. The fact that keywords are needed to support our subject theme is the SEO rule, the number of instances is the secret sauce that SEOs can experiment and test out on their own. We’re not creating a cheat sheet; we’re creating guidelines.

And as much as I sympathize with Jill’s hesitancy to push for a set of common definitions for SEO, good GOD do we need them. I know the process is going to be majorly not fun and that there will be lots of closed door fighting (bring popcorn!), but without standard definitions we’re all just making this up as we go along and trying to get square spammy techniques to fit inside a round white hat hole. It’s also necessary for newbies just entering the game and for the poor inhouse folks who have to explain and justify things to scary balding men in suits. I don’t need to know the history of cloaking. I just need a basic definition of what it is and examples of it in its most white and most black forms.

Jill’s last two points of contention are that there are already laws in place to protect people from SEO scams and that there’s really no such thing as "cheating" in search optimization to begin with. Back, pit bull, back!

As far as there being "laws" out there to protect people from wheelin’ and dealin’ SEOs, I think that’s up for debate. Yes, there is legislation out there that will make sure contracts are lived up to and that fraud doesn’t occur, but we need to educate people so that they are aware of when they’re being scammed. I suspect most site owners don’t even know that the SEO "professional" who is buying them links and engaging in shady SEO practices is potentially putting them, their site, and their company at risk. And that is scamming them. That is what a SEO standards can help accomplish. It’s about making the entire process transparent, without revealing each firm’s specific secret sauce.

When it comes to the SEO cheating argument, I think Jill needs to understand that the best practices and standards we’d be creating aren’t meant for the black hats. I’m not trying to bring anyone over to the light here. What I’m interested in is helping upcoming search marketers learn the ropes and to give them the tools they need to learn to do things right from the very start. We’re creating standards so the next generations of search marketers get a head start and have more than just SEO blogs and forums to learn from. We’re trying to cut back on the amount of disinformation.

And I think it is up to us to police our industry, just like it’s up to us to be good citizens in the town we live in and speak up when we see something that isn’t right.

Obviously, I don’t think it’s my job to "out" people buying links or those using spammy techniques, but as a member of the search engine optimization industry, and a representative for a company known for doing it "right", I think it’s my responsibility to educate. That is a stance Bruce Clay, Inc. has always taken. It’s why we have our SEO Code of Ethics and started our SEO training and Advanced Certification programs.

For search engine optimization to become a legitimate industry, we need to start treating ourselves as one. Ian McAnerin actually brought up a great point during the Is It Time For Search Marketing Standards panel reminding us that search engine optimization is a form of advertising. It’s not a matter of should it be regulated, advertising MUST be regulated. If we don’t do it, someone else is going to come in and do it for us. I’d rather see us create our own guidebook.

Think of SEO has a baby startup. In the early days, it’s okay when you’re stealing money out of petty cash to pay the rent and maybe not following all those OSHA laws you know you’re responsible for. But as you start increasing your employee count and becoming "legit", those things start to matter more. You start to become responsible for making sure your organization is playing by the rules. It’s the same thing for SEO.

For us to grow, we have to adopt the official standards that are going to give us the credibility and protection that this industry needs.

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (34)
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34 Replies to “We Do Need SEO Standards”

I don’t believe there needs to be regulation on how we perform seo practices, however we could all benefit on some industry standards that prevent companies from charging outlandish fees to unsuspecting business owners for sub par seo work. Not sure how that could work but its a good idea just the same.

As someone trying to investigate SEO services for my company, let me throw in my 2 cents and say that standards maintained by an industry group would be *immensely* helpful to me.

It is very hard for a newcomer to the industry to sort out what is good practice from what is bad, and which companies fall where.

How do you set standards for a marketing activity? Isn’t it always going to be somewhat of a free for all with ineffective practices constantly being weeded out?

Lisa, I’m late to the party on this topic, (too busy actually doing the work of SEO to read blogs that often lately) yet nevertheless, I totally agree with your point of view on the standards topic.
I’m consistently peeved when a company or “expert” claims SEO and then either just stuffs 100 words into the keyword field or uses blatantly pure black hat, and calls it a day.
And when I’m not getting peeved over that, I’m patiently explaining to clients why “guaranteed top position for just $9.99” is a scam…
It’s really so uplifting when I do get those prized first page / 1st position listings for my clients, and I got them there through best practices (based on what many of us who really care about that notion really do see as a fledgling list of to-do tasks)…
And given how many of some of my client’s competitors got there through black hat, I happen to be intensely grateful that “doing the right thing” really does pay off – both from results and professional pride.
So as far as I’m concerned, go pit bull, go!

A standard is a document that establishes uniform engineering or technical specifications, criteria, methods, processes, or practices.

If these “standards” are constantly changing and always left in secrecy… it can NEVER be accomplished. While the SE’s do provide all the information you need to know to improve rankings, without providing the weights of each… there is and never will be a “standard” for SEO, which I take to mean Search Engine Optimization and not SEM (Search Engine Marketing).

One thing is certain: no matter what SEO standards are developed, they will be obsolete almost immediately and completely useless within a year. Whatever short-term aura of legitimacy they might impart will dissipate quickly as they quickly become a millstone around the neck of forward-thinking SEO writers and a catalog of excuses for the least-effort-possible types.

Yes Eric; the buyer beware mentality has been alive and well in the SEO industry since I can remember… since 1996. What other industry out there is purely buyer beware in nature without a set of best practice standards to follow? I cannot think of another industry off hand, can you?
It seems to me the main reason that the industry does not want standards is the fact that so many have a vested interest in tricks and those who try their very best to trick. Afterall; look at all the articles wrote by SEO’s on blogs out there that tell you how to spam the search engines and get away with it? Does anyone see many in this industry calling out those SEO blogs? Hell no.
I’ve heard from the very start of my experience that all is fine and dandy as long as you explain to your client what you are doing. That was BS in 1996 and it’s still BS in 2008. It assumes that all clients are knowledgeable enough to begin with to fully understand the repercussions of getting a penalty or banned from a search engine. Do we all really believe that ALL clients in this industry are this knowledgeable?
Come on now.
Do you know how many so-called clients I’ve talked to in the eleven years that had NO clue about what could possibly happen with some technique their SEO was doing? A bunch. To simply defer to the knowledge of a client in this industry and claim… buyer beware, and “explain what you are doing” is not understanding things at all.

1. It is my opinion that the Government will NOT step in to specifically regulate “SEO” anytime soon, if ever (probably the later).

Again, SEO falls under Marketing/Advertising, which already has standards. As such, you can be held financially responsible for deceptive advertising and business practices.

2. BE UPFRONT & HONEST with your clients about your optimization process. Let them decide if your tactics truly fit their needs.

We can’t have standards as long as the search algos are a black box, which means we will never have them because these are the prime intellectual property of the search engines. Unless we had a set of guidelines provided by Google et al, a la feedthebot.com, there’s no point in this entire discussion.
To my mind the standard (note: singular) is good relevant content displayed with accessible web standards. Everything else is guesswork or trickery (blackhat, grayhat, fez).

I am just a learner yet…What I have concluded till date is that Search Marketing or Search Engine Optimization industry use to update frequently…Also, Google Algorithms use to update frequently. So we need to act accordingly..

As Ian said “Problem is, who will set those standards? An industry organization like SEMPO makes a lot of sense. But that only affects those who want standards. The folks preaching snake oil can still go around doing what they want…

Else what happens after implementation of such standards could be known after that only.

I agree with Jill that we need “a specific set of definitions for the industry.”

I think you mean that you agree with Lisa, because I didn’t say we need a set of defintions.
I have my definitions and I’m quite fine with them. Everyone else is certainly welcome to use them if they would like!

My my. This just goes to show all of us that the industry is still a baby. Every new industry goes through the same thing… no standards. need standards, etc. Unless or until there are lawsuits of major consequence, I doubt we will have a set of standards that everyone can agree to. I know that any standards set could never go far enough for me, so that tells me that nothing could be done as it stands at this point in time.

I’m in total agreement with Lisa, but I would have to go further in that the se’s would have to be a part of things… right along with their guidelines for webmasters, etc. In my mind, blackhats cheat the rest of us. I know I know, you hate me for that but it’s the truth. Any kind of standards would have to include spam,.. email spam by SEO’s as well.

The only way something will work is if an independent body set the standards with zero conflict of interest involved. As it is right now, too many in the industry have vested interest in their being no standards whatsoever. Too many make lots of money off the blackhats, and that includes google.com as well.

Putting it this way; we either figure something out, or we simply do nothing and let the US government figure it out for us. Other countries would do the same. If you want no standards, you pay the price for that attitude later… in about 3 more years or so is my guess.

The purpose of SEO standards would be to specify the minimal acceptable levels
of services. If the creation and acceptance of SEO standards are to become a
reality, I agree with Jill that we need "a specific set of definitions
for the industry." If there is a definable SEO industry, it should be able
to come up with standards. The question of how they would be applied is a separate
yet related issue.

At this point, I believe that most of the following questions should probably
be answered as part of the definition of SEO as an industry.

What is a search engine optimization specialist?
What are the most common services provided by an SEO?
What might be considered less common but within the breadth of SEO services?
How do SEOs differentiate themselves from related fields? Do SEOs want to be
Where are SEOs most likely to be employed?
Can we count the number of SEOs? (How many people label themselves as an "SEO"
in your city?)
What are typical salary ranges and consulting rates?
What are the job and career prospects?

What level of formal education, if any, is needed to become an SEO?
What degree of self-taught SEO is sufficient?
Is an SEO internship needed?
How are SEOs credentialed? Do they even need credentialing?
Does being trained as an SEO mean you have a minimal level of liability? Will
this stand up in court?

What professional associations do SEOs typically join?
Are there more SEOs in an association than not?
Should there be multiple organizations? (International governing body? National
association? Regional organization?)
Can SEOs be kicked out of an association for messing up a website’s ranking?
How will the SEO industry relate to other associations such as Internet marketing,
advertising, digital marketing, web design, copywriting, and so on?

Public Education
Should clients be made to sign a specific contract attesting to the fact that
they understand what they are getting into?
What are the repercussions, if any, when a client gets burned by an SEO company
that claims to follow the SEO standards?

Can all of this (and an official SEO standards edict) be governed by authority?
Who would make up such an authority?
Are there penalties associated with failure to live up to the SEO standards?
How does this effect people (within or outside of the industry) not following
SEO standards?

Who is going to make the above decisions?
Should credentialing go hand-in-hand with the associations? (Ex. Should SEMPO
make these decisions?)
What happens when this fast moving field grows more quickly than the decision-makers
and organizations can keep up?
What happens if the search engines make changes that force a de-emphasis on
SEO but an increased emphasis on some other aspect of Internet marketing?
Are there too many vested interests that will prevent all of the above from
being answered appropriately? (Let’s be realistic…!)

Why do we need an exact definition of SEO? Our whole industry (SEO/SEM) is still growing with extraordinary rates and, in my eyes, can not yet but understood as a constant environment. There is simply way too much change.

@ Lisa – Best Practices? That might be achievable because they are similar to guidelines, but then you’ve got the problem of who decides the yardstick measure? Regardless, I’m enjoying the discussion, thanks for blogging it

After reading this post..I don’t know but.I have to agree on Jill’s idea that we need to have an exact definition of SEO…because you see..I think almost all of us experience how hard it is to explain to other people everytime they ask us what we do for a living…(they just don’t have any clear idea of SEO is)..anyways thanks for the wonderful post Lisa..^^

Bruce Clay

This is a circular argument, and one that we are apparently not ready to have… maybe someday. Several people understand that even though card cheats consider themselves as professional poker players, they are still cheats, just like spammers consider themselves SEO’s. And to say that it isn’t spam if you aren’t caught is like saying you aren’t speeding if you aren’t given a traffic ticket – we all know better.
The standard cannot be what the search engines want. It has to be what we as a community feel is right and acceptable. It is up to all of us to define how we will live… and even then the vocal minority (spammers), along with the few that religiously fight any form of intervention, will eloquently argue that standards aren’t needed. As long as those that make money spamming have a voice, there will be a fight against standards.
But pretty soon ethical consumers will see those that argue against standards as someone to avoid. Take this test, go to your clients and ask them which they would trust the most: Someone following industry standards or someone fighting those standards?
Maybe someday, not today, but hopefully soon.
In the meantime, let’s not take cheap shots at each other – the "I disagree, and your dog is ugly" posts will not be allowed…

Search engines don’t adhere to any specific standards themselves. There are separate companies that have an incentive to provide “relevant” search results (however you define that) by providing their own methodologies to weigh and rank pages. There are some general items that many of them agree on, but there are few if any standards that they all 100% agree on.

On our side of things there is confusion even in our own ranks… Cloaking to give French IPs French language pages, US IPs English, Russian IPs Russian, etc. is pretty legit. You can’t throw a wet blanket over all cloaking…

@Michael and others, perhaps, many of the people on our side of things could set up something similar to a cross between this:
and this:

Something that is neutral, that presents many of the pros/cons, both sides of some issues, and gives some minimum ideas, describes a few terms – not unlike a Wiki, but is not something that is used to build business for a particular SEO firm, conference, etc.

I understand their need to advertise (/sigh) but when starting out, how cool is http://www.robotstxt.org/ (more along the lines to what I’m thinking) to most beginners who are trying to understand robots?

SEO is, and always will be just one piece of an overall marketing strategy. And marketing already has a defined set of standards and best practices.

Curiously… For those of you that are adamant about creating SEO standards, what is it exactly that you want to see standardized? SEO Basics? SEO tactics?

My thoughts:

  1. It occurs to me that in order to have standards, they need to be enforceable. The last time I checked, there was no truly enforceable law(s) that govern the way SEO is practiced.
  2. As practitioners of SEO, don’t we all pretty much review the same items within a web page/website and off-page factors to determine what can be done to increase search engine visibility? Pretty standard stuff, right?
  3. Maybe the only standard you seek is as simple as full disclosure to the Client as to how your SEO tactics would be viewed by the major search engines (their current guidelines).

That’s all for today.

– Eric Itzkowitz


Some kind of standards would be good – but God knows what.

Facts are though that there are still cowboy SEO companies operating in London, pretending to follow ‘best practices’ of SEO, when all they are doing is outsourcing link building to spammy, cheap Indian link builders, and passing this off as good SEO.

It gives people a crap experience of SEO and companies assume this is what SEO is, as they don’t know anything better.

I vote for Best Practices that are to be emulated rather than Standards which imply policing. Seems to me the Bruce Clay Code of Ethics is a pretty good first draft that those who want to work on this could start from.

Just to clarify: As I mentioned in the post, I’m not in favor of SEO Standards because I think it’s going to make black hats change their ways or just SEO scams. It’s not about policing as much as it’s about setting a standard and then explaining the costs/benefits of straying from those standards. Really, it comes down to education — education for upcoming SEOs and for those investing in SEO and unsure if their specialist is telling them the truth.

the crux of this post and where it hit’s the nail right on the head is:

search engine optimization is a form of advertising. It’s not a matter of should it be regulated, advertising MUST be regulated.

SEO, like other forms of marketing / advertising, is an attempt to influence consumer behavior. The fact that there isn’t any oversight of accepted SEO practices simply leaves the door open wider for deceptive tactics to creep in.
@Kelena – you can’t equate the FDA to Google in your example of the LSD-injected pork chop. the FDA is an objective third party oversight agency. Google, and other search engines, are directly involved in the SEO equation and thus cannot truly take an objective stance.

Well Lisa I have to agree with graywolf. It is education and publicity not standards that will be the solution. TriExpert hits the nail on the head setting standards to police SEOs will never work.
If we educate not only SEOs but the clients and potential clients I believe we will be taking a huge step forward. Besides we are shooting at a moving target, how often will this set of “rules” have to change and who will be willing to change them?

We need standards for education, training and certification of SEO consultants.
At the very least, folks who are teaching SEO should have to meet some minimum level of knowledge.
Problem is, who will set those standards? An industry organization like SEMPO makes a lot of sense. But that only affects those who want standards. The folks preaching snake oil can still go around doing what they want…

Setting “SEO Standards” is something that should happen in my opinion, similar to the way “Web Standards” are used. But, I think the bigger question is, why do we need them?

If we are creating SEO Standards to Police the way people do business, you are going to fail. Every industry, be it technology or not, has and always will have its crooks, bottom line. Attempting to create SEO Standards to police this will not be effective.

If SEO Standards are created they need to be in the form providing knowledge, education, understanding and a set of best practices about SEO to our industry.

Don’t create SEO Standards for policing the industry. Set standards to encourage education around best practices for it. That’s my two cents.

@Michael, IMO your point devolves to: “The process must be performed with precision and after vigorous debate.”
It still must happen. What The Lisa said.

I would agree with some of your points, and they are very good ones, but I am never a fan of putting more regulations (or laws) in the books that never seem to go away and have consequences that were never expected?

You certainly do have some good points though. Scott

If the SEARCH MARKETING community does not stop referring to it as search engine optimization, there will never be any standards agreed to, adopted or adhered to.
To get an industry to agree on standards we first all have to agree to ethically lie or at least mislead. How do you set ethical standards for something that isn’t true?
That is the FIRST issue that is going to have to be dealt with before everyone can agree to standards.
We can all pretty much agree on terms, (as much as I hate them), like white hat = search engine guideline compliant
and black hat = non-search engine guideline compliant
We can also have a vote and a majority that agree terms like cloaking = 55% of voters consider it black hat BECAUSE we know what someone does when they use CLOAKING. Then we can each decide if we think it’s search engine guideline compliant or not and whichever has the most people agreeing, we have a consensus.
But with SEO, no one calling themselves that optimizes a search engine. And that term is used by thousands of people to represent hundreds of ideas, concepts, procedures and techniques that a consensus can not be formed because a majority of people may agree that cloaking is bad but that “natural looking” links are good. Yet, both things are labeled under the umbrella of SEO. now add about 100 other things called SEO and you just multiply that problem by about 100.
If the industry is going to insist on referring to itself by an acronym for something that is just not true, yet there is still a need form standards, (personally I don’t care one way or the other),then focus on setting standards for search engine guideline compliancy and THAT could work but of course, there is little point since those guidelines are already established by the search engines.
So why not just establish standards for Search Marketing instead of Search Engine Optimization?

Google doesn’t set the standards for search marketing or search engine optimization.

Standards don’t pick and choose between techniques; they set minimum requirements for determining who is proficient and who is not capable of delivering a professional level of service.

This industry needs standards because right now there are too many people loading up blogs with nonsense about how “rel=’nofollow'” and sculpting PageRank (something no SEO can measure) is good search engine optimization.

Standards will help consumers and industry trainees see through all that crap and understand that you really can approach this kind of work methodically and set reasonable expectations.

Hi Lisa – as a fellow educator, I can understand your frustration at the lack of industry standards. But I’ve got to disagree with you that we *need* them. Creating standards is not going to get rid of shoddy SEOs or make them switch hats. Education and publicity has always been the solution so you are already addressing the problem. We white-hat educators promote the unofficial standards and search engine guidelines already. The creation of official standards would create more problems. As you state above “there are many ways to cook a pork chop” – doesn’t make any one recipe better than another as everyone has different flavor preferences. Taking the analogy one silly step further: If one chef chooses to inject his pork with mind-altering drugs, it’s up to the Food and Drug administration (search engines) to deal with the chef, not the other chefs.

Sorry going to disgree we dont need standards or regulations. Talk to many experienced PPC people and they will tell you some of the answers google wants on the adwords certification are just plain wrong, SEO is the same way.


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