I frequent many SEO and Web Marketing forums on a daily basis and every so often there is a debate about the SEO industry and ethics. After being involved in a number of these debates, it has become really obvious that the main problems are the facts that no two SEO companies are alike and there is no unified methodology. It's very hard to make statements about the industry as a whole because it's debatable what exactly 'SEO' is. Mix in the fact that most SEO companies keep their methodology and campaign strategies secret and we have a situation where every company is totally different with very different results.
Fact 1 : There is no unified SEO methodology. SEO is actually defined by wikipedia as a process of improving traffic from SERPs to a site. Of course, HOW they do that is the real question and causes the debates.
Fact 2 : The effectiveness of an SEO services campaign depends on the site structure, site content, keywords, methodology used, and how popular the site is. A site cannot just rank for any random keyword. SEO is also not voodoo. It is logic, problem solving, and Web marketing mixed together. If your site provides no value to users, it probably won't rank.
Fact 3 : Some 'SEOs' do search engine optimization and some do search engine manipulation. Of course, it is all marketed as SEO. Unethical optimization provides results at any cost and is always short term (usually ends in a banned domain name). Ethical optimization opens up the site to the search engines and provides long term benefits.
Fact 4 : Most SEO companies get paid whether or not your site gets any rankings. Unfortunately, this is the case with the industry. Most SEO companies implement A, B, and C and move on to the next client. Hopefully, the site ranks. If it doesn't, they always have more clients.
Fact 5 : Most SEO companies use both ethical and unethical inbound linking strategies.To maximize profits, it is very common for SEO companies to buy bulk links from India, links on spam/scraper web sites, or sell large directory submission packages. It is also common for SEO companies to place huge amounts of the contract into inbound linking to make up for the poor quality of the site optimization.
I don't think it is fair to characterize the industry as a whole without figuring out what is wrong with it and how SEO companies can overcome it. So how exactly do we determine what is good and bad about the industry? I have now been involved with the Web for over 10 years and, specifically, with the SEO industry for almost 4 years and I've seen the inner workings of major SEO companies and worked with clients who had been burned by their previous SEO campaigns. Combined with numerous Web postings and forum debates talking about the same basic problems, I've compiled a list of the most common issues.
Problem 1: Responsibility for Results
It's no secret that the vast majority of SEO companies take no responsibility for results. It is a fact that no SEO company can guarantee results (and if they do, they are lying to you). It is also a fact that the client is taking a risk by spending money with an SEO company that basically says 'We'll do what we can'. SEO companies simply guarantee they'll do the work to 'optimize' the site, but without full disclosure of their methodology, what exactly is the client paying for? No other industry sells a product with no guarantees and no specific list of work that will be completed. Of course, SEO work is basically the sales of information and keeping the specifics of a methodology is important, but the combination of secrecy and no responsibility for results really makes SEO campaigns risky. So, how can an SEO company reduce the risk for the client and provide the best grade of service?
Answer 1: Incentive Based Pricing
The only real way to reduce the financial risk of the client is to share the risk. Through incentive-based pricing, the SEO company can charge a certain percentage of the total contract (say 70%) to cover their intellectual property and time while placing the rest of the contract price (remaining 30%) in incentives for success. Of course, incentives and their percentage of the contract would be totally relative depending on the campaign. This first step into sharing in the risk provides both reassurance to the client that the company believes in its methodology and places some of the financial burden of the campaign on the SEO company. At the moment, however, very few SEO companies are willing to share in the risk and charge the same price whether the client gets top rankings or no rankings at all (or possibly even lower rankings).
Problem 2: Unethical Optimization
Unfortunately, unethical (or blackhat) optimization is still very prominent on the Web. It's also unfortunate that 'SEO' has been mistakenly confused with 'Blackhat SEO'. This is still the biggest problem for SEO companies. Saying that all SEO companies deal in blackhat optimization is like saying everyone who emails is a spammer. Blackhat optimization is not optimization at all...it is search engine manipulation. Because there is so much money tied to top rankings, there will always be a market for unethical SEO and search engine spam. Until companies realize what is ethical and unethical and stop supporting those blackhat SEO companies, they will continue to thrive. This makes the industry as a whole look bad and does not reflect the ethics of good SEO companies. Blackhat provides fast, short term results, but is never a good option in the long run.
Answer 2: Ethical Optimization
There is no quick and easy solution to blackhat optimization's stain on the SEO industry. I would suggest that all marketing departments research optimization techniques and educate themselves on what techniques are unethical. No SEO company is going to say they do unethical optimization. It's also not a good idea to immediately trust a company or product based simply on their rankings. Unethical optimization DOES provide rankings...just not for the long run.
It would also be helpful if the major search engines would be more open and accessible to SEO companies. Currently, the major search engines and SEO companies do not deal with each other and have formed a sort of love-hate relationship. Because of this, many ethical SEOs have slowly moved into dark territory. Ethical optimization seeks to make sites more easily accessible to the engines and help to improve the engine's search results. The problem is that the search engines mainly clump all SEO companies together the same way as uninformed users do: search engine manipulation. This is just not the case. Search engines do not want to reveal what they consider unethical because it would basically be providing a list of holes in their algorithms that blackhat SEOs would be able to manipulate further, but a defined list of 'what not to do' would provide a definitive list for businesses looking for an SEO company.
Basic Rules of Ethical Optimization
Any campaign that does not abide by the following rules is dealing in unethical optimization techniques and should be avoided.
1.) What the user sees and what the search engine sees should be exactly the same. Do not hide anything.
2.) Your keywords (and the resulting optimization) should exactly reflect the content of the page.Keywords should always reflect what your site is about.
3.) Do not build out pages exclusively for search engines. The site should always cater to both audiences (users and search engines). Catering to only users is why optimization is necessary. Catering only to search engines is optimization gone too far into blackhat.
4.) Do not participate in manipulative inbound linking schemes like link farms, bulk links, triangle linking, or any other unethical manipulation of your Google PageRank or link authority. Inbound links should be relevant to the content of your site and you should always know who is linking to you and where your links come from.
Problem 3: Assembly Line / Software SEO
With the growth of the SEO industry has also come the automation of SEO. The absolute first thing any prospective SEO client should know is that all effective SEO campaigns are custom. There is no checklist of items that will work exactly the same on every site. If the SEO company claims there is, then they are not doing full optimization and the campaign is minimal. A good optimization campaign optimizes the site architecture, text content, and code of the site. Assembly line SEO does not take into consideration the unique needs/design of the site and may even deal in blackhat optimization. SEO software especially should be looked at closely. There are really only two things SEO software could do that would work for any site: doorway pages (showing engines one thing and users a different thing; which is unethical) or a system of pages build exclusively for search engines (often called info or information pages and linked in an out of the way part of the page). Doorway pages are 100% unethical and info pages are deep in the gray area. Neither of those two methods address the architecture of the site, proper keyword analysis, or effective text content. The following links are examples of automated SEO software freely available on the Web. All links contain 'nofollow' to prevent the sites from getting inbound link credit from our site. These sites are NOT recommended by TreeHouse SEM.
Answer 3: Custom Campaign and Assessment
'SEO Software' may be cheap and affordable, but you get what you pay for. Any campaign that is going to slap on additional pages are simply sell you links is NOT an effective SEO campaign. Any SEO effort that simply has you add a few 'optimized' pages to your site is not going to be optimal. If you wanted to convert a street car into a race car, you don't simply add racing strips to it. Don't think that dumping a few pages on your site targeted to some random keywords is the same as a real SEO campaign.
If your SEO company will not sit down and talk about the layout, architecture, and aim of your site, then it is not providing a top-end service. Remember that the vast majority of 'SEO software' either is for building doorway/landing pages or simply providing you with data about your site (data that is already free to everyone on the Web). Good SEO campaigns take into account both the user and the search engines...not one or the other. An SEO company should have a commanding understanding of user experience and search engine optimization and use these in combination to create a campaign that will provide the best ROI. The end goal should always be leads/sales. Bringing in piles of non-targeted traffic often leads to extremely high turn over rates and very low lead conversion.
Do your research. Find out what you want from an optimization campaign and then ask the right questions. Make sure that the sales representative you talk to knows what they are selling. If they do not, they are definitely not the person to get information from. A lot of SEO companies use hard sale tactics and the reps are less than knowledgeable about what they are selling. Ask the following questions and see what they have to say.
1.) How do you assess keywords? If an SEO company simply optimizes for whatever keywords are sent to them by the client, the SEO campaign starts off on very shaky ground. Keyword analysis should be performed that takes into account the number of searches in all the major search engines and the relative competition for those terms. The site should also be compared to the keywords to see if they support each other.
2.) Do you plan on building out pages specifically to house keywords? Landing pages and doorway pages are not effective long term SEO options. SEO companies like them because they do not have to touch the rest of the site and it's very easy to simply add band aids instead of performing surgery.
3.) Will my SEO campaign also help improve the user experience of the site? Proper architecture and usability goes hand in hand with SEO and helps increase ROI. You should want to bring in new traffic and convert it.
4.) Does my revenue model affect my keyword selection and the optimization as a whole? Any SEO company that does not optimize based on the target audience is NOT providing the most effective campaign. An ecommerce site marketing to comparative shoppers will want to optimize heavily for product names and model numbers. An online magazine wanting to bring in recurring traffic will want to optimize for article topics and specific themes. Local companies will want to optimize for geo-targeted keywords.
5.) I want to optimize my site, but do not want to change any of the existing content or layout...how would you go about this? Any SEO company that says they will simply add on landing pages or hide text is selling blackhat. This goes back to the earlier analogy. You are really saying that you have a car that you want to modify to be very fast, but do not want to modify the engine and the mechanic simply adds racking stripes and charges you full price.