Maybe SEO Standards Aren’t Such A Bad Idea

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of seo standards since my last post on the subject. Initially I was set completely against standards, thinking them both impossible to enact and basically unnecessary. I’m still not sure if a standards body is feasible, but I am beginning to rethink my stance somewhat or at least I’ve begun to see cases where standards could prove useful.

I’m not alone in thinking about the issue so first here are a few more posts I’ve come across, more against than in favor.

Again I’ll encourage you to read these posts and their associated discussions. And again I’ll ask those of you who aren’t part of the seo community to share your thoughts. I think much of the usefulness or lack of usefulness with standards will have a lot to do with how they are seen by people outside the industry.

Just Say No to Regulation

My stance on seo standards as regulation hasn’t changed at all. There are arguments for an against, but in then end seo can not be regulated in any way that makes people follow the regulations. It’s silly to even argue otherwise. Every aspect of seo overlaps with something else and if you want to regulate seo fine. I’ll call myself something else and still do the same things and tell you it’s for reasons other than seo. Try and stop me.

Licensing and certification aren’t going to make a difference to well informed clients. Clients are interested in results. Who cares if someone sanctions you as a qualified SEO if you can’t help someone make more money. Licensing and certification would more likely lead to less qualified SEOs picking up clients since the requirements to gain the credentials would likely be easier than the actual work involved.

But there is another way to look at standards that have nothing to do with regulation and I can see some potential cases where those standards could prove beneficial for some.

Standards as an Authority Guide to SEO

Yura left a comment on my last post that made me see the issue differently than I had been.

I guess we simply need a trusted place that outsiders would recognize as trustworthy and start from there.

Short and sweet, but it did make me think. Imagine a couple of scenarios. Helen has developed an interest in SEO. For whatever reason she’s interested in entering the industry (god help her), but isn’t really sure where to begin. At the moment all she’s come across are some forum and blog posts that seem to contradict each other. She knows there’s something there, but is having a hard time sorting through the chaos, infighting, and misinformation. Sound familiar?

If Helen is persistent she will sort it all out and hopefully go on to seo success. But wouldn’t it be much easier on her if there was a site that offered her a better road map from the start. Nothing necessarily advanced or giving her specific tactics, but a guide that breaks down the various steps in the seo process and points her in the right direction.

Now imagine Bill. He’s not looking to work in the industry, but he thinks seo is important for marketing his site. He’s seen all the chaos too, but has no desire to sort through it all. He just wants to know enough so that he can ask the right questions when hiring an SEO and know enough about the answers to feel like he’s not going to be ripped off.

He’s heard some bad things about the industry being snake oil peddlers and wants to understand what to look out for. Maybe he’s even been ripped off once himself. Wouldn’t a simple guide from a trusted source be all he’d need to feel better about the industry?

Think for a moment about your favorite seo ebook. I know you’ve read a few. Now imagine that was your entry point into seo. Imagine you found that book before most anything else you read about seo. Would it have made your early days in seo easier? Now picture that book or guide as making up much of an seo standards site.

How Standards Could Work

There’s no question trying to create standards is a pretty big task, especially given the opposition. Rand made an interesting statement at the end of his post weighing in on the debate:

To be honest, I’m not particularly opposed to standards and if I personally agreed with them, I’d probably be willing to join a standards organization as long as it wasn’t too costly, too time-intensive or fraught with political issues (and I genuinely fear it could be all three). The big problem I see is that no individual or organization has actually put forward even an outline of what these standards might look like.

If you do think standards are necessary I’d suggest you stop the talk about should we or shouldn’t we and simply start drafting the outline. It will be much easier to convince the naysayers if you can show them what the standards might look like.

A few thoughts:

Any standards should be educational only. Regulation won’t work and it’s best to be left out. Also stay away from any ethical talk completely. If you bring ethics into the standards you’ll have lost before you even get started.

I’ve seen the W3C mentioned a few times as a possible guide to follow. I think it’s a good candidate to take cues from, though I think it should be limited to the W3Schools. The standards should be an educational body only. The education shouldn’t hope to be comprehensive. It can’t be when seo changes so rapidly and when so little is actually known. Stick to the basics. Tell people why it’s important they spend time researching keywords and how to make websites more search friendly. Teach them that seo is not a quick fix to building a business. Yes, that’s very basic, but that’s what those outside of the industry need to hear.

Remember though, you’re not trying to tell a browser how it should deal with a nofollowed link. You’re just trying to educate someone about what a nofollow is.

Here’s an example of a section that could be included. I think most everyone would agree that knowledge of 301 redirects is important for an SEO. Create a small section explaining what they are and why they’re important. Then provide the code to set up common redirections in both Apache and IIS along with links to more detailed resources.

Another example is a section on all the tools you can use to find keywords and how to use those tools.

Perhaps a glossary of terms with a simple definition and links to further sources. Keep the definitions simple. Stay away from points of contention. You can define what a backlink is and what constitutes anchor text without causing controversy.

Get some big names to back you. This only works if the standards become the de facto authority. That won’t happen unless well known and respected names are on board. You don’t need everyone on board. Just enough to convince a good number of people in the industry to follow you. Standards won’t need 100% backing to take hold.

Understand that you can’t be all things to all people. Your target audience for the best practices guide is limited. Think of Helen and Bill above. Most practicing SEOs will already know what you’re attempting to teach. You’re not writing the standards for them.

Benefits of SEO Standards

  • Educational seo standards can benefit anyone new to the industry. They can serve as a course in SEO 101 and get people started on a career path with less confusion from the start. They can similarly serve anyone looking to hire an SEO.
  • Standards may generate positive press leading to greater trust by those outside the industry
  • A standards body can legitimize the industry in the eyes of potential clients. Snake oil salesman don’t have standards. An industry that has standards is going to be seen as more mature and more trustworthy.
  • An increased level of seo awareness is good for everyone. It’s good for SEOs and it’s good for clients. You know why search traffic is good. I do too. Why not let others in on the fun?

Potential Problems for the Standards

Ok there are benefits, but there are still potential problems.

  • Who’s going to pay for this. Let’s face it setting up standards is going to cost money and time and probably a lot of stress. I’m not sure who’s up for all the work.
  • Conflicts of interest. Anyone working on standards does gain a competitive advantage. The rest of us might withhold support for that reason alone. This could be overcome somewhat, by having those already at the top being the ones to set this up. They already have the advantage. Any additional advantage may not mean as much.
  • There’s a similar conflict of interest for anyone cited as a resources and effort would need to be put into finding sources that stay away from community members.
  • Even a few words could skew things in an ethical direction. Any standards would need to be only about the facts. If something isn’t absolutely known it needs to be expressed that way.
  • Regardless of intent educational standards could eventually lead toward regulation or pseudo regulation. As standards become authority anyone working outside those standards could end up being viewed in a less than positive light. I’m not sure this doesn’t already go on anyway, though.
  • The same arguments could arise as exist now in regards to search engine guidelines. Again these are already present anyway.

I’m sure there are more potential problems as well as potential benefits. The above are simply thoughts off the top of my head as I’m writing

Could SEO Standards Work?

While this post is a bit more in favor of standards than my previous posts I’d hardly call myself in favor of standards. I’m just beginning to see possibilities of how standards could work.

Regulation? No. Education? Maybe.

It would take a lot of work to build a standards body that gains acceptance, though I suspect the same has been true of most every other industry that has enacting standards along the way. Could all the positives really get done while keeping the problems at bay? I’m not sure. I can still easily see standards getting turned into a regulatory agency and easily see some using the standards solely for personal gain.

I have no idea who would want to take on the work, though I have my opinion on who could make it happen.

Much of the benefits would hinge on how people outside the industry would view the standards and I honestly don’t know how they’d be perceived. I’ll ask again that those of you who don’t call yourself SEO offer some thoughts on whether you think seo standards would be good for you. Don’t worry about how the seo community sees standards. How do you see them?

I’m still not sold on the idea, but I am listening to the sales floor. I can see how an educational set of standards could be beneficial to enough people to make it an idea worth pursuing. Again my suggestion to anyone who is already sold stop trying to convince and start outlining the standards themselves. I think there are many you could convince if you had something tangible to show them.

Even if a set of standards can’t be agreed on I have a hard time seeing how a central authority source to the basic principles of seo would be a bad thing for anyone. Worst case is it’s just one of the many guides of it’s type already in existence. Best case it’s an entry point for most people starting out in the industry.

Keep in mind too that all it would take for your guide to become the standards guide is to create one so good the rest of us have no choice but to recommend it.

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  1. I’m glad you liked the article Anthony. I’m still not 100% sold on the idea of seo standards, but I’m clearly warming up to it. I can see the potential gain, though I also see the potential problems and abuse that can arise.

    I do think the issue is an important one to discuss and I hope the industry continues the conversation.

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