Should SEO Be Regulated?

In a word no.

Adam tagged me in the name of memekind with his post Who Should Regulate SEO? My answer is no one should regulate it, though in truth there already is regulation in place called the free market.

The main points of Adam’s post are that the SEO industry has a negative reputation due in part to companies offering questionable services. Services such as

  • Link Exchanges
  • Directory Submission
  • Social Media Exchanges

Each of the services above is routinely posted on forums and like Adam I prefer not to see them. It’s easy to see that the service being posted isn’t worth the price, but unlike Adam I don’t have a problem with the ethics involved. In fact I don’t see seo as either ethical or unethical. SEO either works or it doesn’t. I realize that some of the people posting aren’t ethical and have no intention of delivering on their services. I agree that’s wrong, but that’s a separate issue from search engine optimization. There are unethical people in all industries.

SEO Is Not A Debate About Ethics

Diane Aull wrote a two part article about the SEO “reputation problem” and I agree completely with her assessment of ethics when it comes to search marketing. SEO is not about good or bad. It’s about being effective or not being effective and it’s about how aggressive you are in your tactics.

What is truly unethical about exchanging links with another site? What is unethical about submitting your site to a directory? What is unethical about submitting content to a social bookmarking site? The answer to all three questions is the same. There is nothing unethical about any of them. Each can be abused, but the practices are not unethical by definition.

If someone promises to submit your site to 1000 directories for $30 and does submit your site to 1000 directories why is that unethical? The real issue is that it won’t work the way customer hopes it will. But that’s not ethics. That’s simply a poor decision on the part of the site owner. And while the service may not live up to someone’s hopes many would say the few decent links it might generate are worth the small fee.

The basics of SEO are not difficult to understand, but there will always be some who won’t take the time to become familiar with them. If you don’t make an attempt to learn who’s fault is it when you purchase a useless service?

I place more blame on site owners looking for quick fixes than I do on the people offering the quick fix services. The services exist because people want to believe they work. There will always be people who are looking for the easy way out and as long as there are there will be people looking to sell it to them. Regulation will never change that.

I might also argue that in some cases the above services do indeed work. Try a search for seo india and look at the top 10 results. Over half the sites listed on the first page are actively practicing link exchanges as part of their link building strategy, often via a directory on the site. It seems to be working ok for them at the moment.

Their link exchanges will probably not work forever and the smart SEO in India will be building defensible traffic, but who’s right is it to require them to be smart business owners?

SEO is not about ethics. As Michael Gray asked over the weekend

Why is an accountant who knows the regulation and codes and takes advantage of tax loopholes that save you thousands of dollars each year good, But SEO’s who take advantages of loopholes and flaws in Google’s algorithm to bring you traffic that makes you thousands of dollars bad?

Search Engines Should Not Govern SEO

Let’s pretend for a moment that seo should be regulated and address Adam’s solution to the question of who should be in charge of that regulation. Adam sees search engines as best equipped to regulate the industry. When did Google become the arbiter of ethics? Why should we think Yahoo or MSN will put the health of the seo industry ahead of their own profits?

Search engines are businesses with their own agendas and cannot reasonably be expected to set the guidelines over an industry that affects their bottom line. If you or I can help a page and site rank better in organic results then that site will probably have less need to buy search ads. Is it reasonable to think a search engine will help either of us with that task?

When BMW was discovered to be using invisible text Google’s algorithm banned the site. The next day Google engineers re-included it. Do you think Google would do the same thing for you. The New York Times practices cloaking to get password protected content to rank. Think you’d be allowed to do the same? Google’s guidelines are not the same for all sites. Are those the guidelines you want regulating an industry? Guidelines that bend for those with more money.

When search engines can’t solve a problem they turn to spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) instead. Are search results as relevant as they can be or are search engines spreading the perception of relevance? Should companies that spread FUD decide how an industry can behave?

Should we trust Google to regulate spam when most spam sites use AdSense as their model for monetization? If Google would like to to stop spam they could easily close the accounts of those spamming. They don’t because those spam sites make them a lot of money. Instead Google looks for the balance where they can allow as many spamsense sites to exist as possible without tipping the backlash of their user base.

Google wants you to believe that buying links is bad, but if you buy those links from Google directly then it’s not spam.

Adam is right when he says search engines have the most to gain from regulation, but that gain isn’t more relevant results. That gain is more money at the expense of the seo industry. If they were allowed to regulate the industry search engines could display any page they wanted in results and regulate any thing they don’t want to appear.

SEO Regulation Would Not Be Effective

Let’s carry the argument further and pretend that not only is regulation required, but that search engines could regulate the industry and tell SEOs what is and isn’t allowed. Why should anyone believe it would be effective?

Enacting regulation against an SEO selling a particular service doesn’t prevent anyone from actually practicing that service. If mass link exchanges are shown to work to improve ranking then people are going to engage in mass link exchanges. If you can drive traffic to your site by submitting your content to Digg why wouldn’t you? Are you going to stop just because a search engine tells you you can’t? Of course not.

People will practice the optimization they think is going to work. And those people that don’t know what works will buy services from those that do. A regulating body might be able to tell SEOs what they can and can not do, but they would have little to no authority especially over those who call themselves something other than an SEO.

And who’s to say that a marketing tactic, even as practiced by an SEO, is automatically about search engines. Link building isn’t only done for the sake of search engines. Link exchanges done right can drive traffic directly. Participation in social media can grow your brand. Links were bought and sold before the first search engine and they will continue to be bought and sold if all search engines closed their doors.

Regulation over the SEO industry really can’t exist and even if it could the search engines would be a very poor choice. Search engines are self motivated businesses that are sometimes in opposition to search engine marketers. It’s like giving oil companies the right to regulate companies that sell solar energy solutions. And even if you did give search engines the power they’d have no real authority to enforce the regulations.

I did mention at the start of this post that the free market already regulates the industry. Mass submissions to directories don’t work to significantly improve ranking. Because they are ineffective they will eventually go away. Smart site owners will come to realize why they don’t work and stop buying the service. Sites that seek out the quick fix will fail.

The way the SEO industry can help improve reputation is to practice seo that is successful in marketing websites and provide free information about best practices. Regulation would only corroborate to those who already mistrust the industry that they were right to mistrust.

Does SEO need regulation? Would the search engines be a good choice to govern the regulation? Would it really make a difference? You know what I think. What do you think?

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