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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  1. Even if we only take into account the recent debate on paid links and Matt’s replies at SES (when pressed, he said nofollow is only a recommendation for web masters, not commenting on why there’s so much pressure to put it on, though). I wouldn’t trust my site or the Internet with Google, really. Not when the money rule there, not Sergey or Larry.

    I think the market itself will sieve through good and bad SEOs. Good SEOs will always deliver results, create happy clients and their customers. As the end people won’t use or fall to spammy sites that bad SEOs produce, bad SEOs will either have to learn how to do things right or get new jobs.

    I have already seen SEO clients that have tried inefficient SEOs, know what to ask for and are looking for good SEOs. A good sign is that a client isn’t looking for a cheap $9/mo hire, but for a solid, trusted person.

  2. The photography industry is facing a similar problem. We’re not seen as used car salesmen, but people who’ve been wedding photogs for 30 years are fuming that new people are buying cameras, and offering bargain basement prices without much or any training or education. It’s not a perfect analogy, because SEO is a science, while photography is half art and half science … and the cameras are getting better at automating the non-art side. Some of the “newbies” actually do compete on quality. Your industry is more formulaic; there’s creativity involved, but there’s a clearly defined set of what works and what doesn’t. But what strikes me about the comparison is that you mentioned “FUD” and the old guard loves to warn that an amateur photographer “will ruin the most important day of your life” with no recourse or do-overs.

    You mentioned writing book reviews; you should read Will, by G Gordon Liddy. There’s a part in the book where the man discusses laws and ethics, and points out that there’s nothing inherently immoral about driving past a red, eight-sided road sign with the word “STOP” printed on it. But there is something very immoral with risking someone else’s life or safety for no good reason. The man having spent time prosecuting people as high-profile as Tim Leary, and then spending a few years in prison for Watergate has an unusual perspective on law and morality.

    I’m mentioning this because you raise some good questions. I’m not sure if I’d necessarily blame the get-rich-quick sites for hiring the $9 a month SEO; a lot of people really have no idea. I landed half a dozen clients who need web sites, all in their 60s, who’ve been avoiding the subject because they thought they would be nickeled-and-dimed for the price of a car. I quoted one of them less than my cheapest lens cost to set them up a WordPress site, showed them how easy my blog is to use, and word of mouth spread like wildfire. When I get run over by that proverbial bus, these are the type of people who might be talked into useless SEO work, and not understand enough about the internet to figure out where they went wrong.

    It’s not always a generational thing; there are 20 year olds who don’t know enough to do their due diligence before hiring the wrong company. I’d guess most people really should know better, though. I can’t be the only person who decided I should have a web site, and learned what I needed to do to make that happen…

    So on a final note, I’m really not sure at what point it goes from “I’ll sell you a useless Spiderman action figure for $100″ to something truly unethical that might need regulation? I’m tempted to say it’s when an MFA or otherwise lousy site pushes mine down a notch, but there’s a bit of self interest there … you have a point that that’s just competition. I think there’s some level that can be crossed when one company’s actions have a negative enough impact on others, even on people they aren’t competing against, that it certainly becomes immoral – comment spam on blogs, for example. Exactly where that point is, though, is a difficult question.

  3. Yuri I agree. The market will sort it all out and let’s face it there are snake oil peddlers in every industry. People will always be looking for cheap seo work and because of that there will be people there to give it to them. But that’s better than having search engines come in and tell us what to do.

    Michael I never did see Brazil, but I know the basics of the plot and I can understand why this debate would remind you of the renegade plumbers. Your quote about the accountant was great. I was trying to think of something exactly like that all weekend in preparation for this post, but you said it better than anything that was going through my head. Thanks too for dropping by.

    Forrest that’s interesting that you bring up photography as a comparison. My thought is that all industries get their share of spam and I’d bet that the percentage is pretty similar across industries. One thing about seo though is there’s quite a lot of art involved. It depends a little on the SEO. I find the scientific part tiring at times and much of what I’ll do comes from observation instead of any rigorous testing. There’s also a lot of creativity in coming up with a strategy or developing content. Different sites require different seo.

    I don’t think you’re doing anything unethical by helping people set up WordPress. All you did was help someone and you did it well enough that you were recommended to more people. As long as you’re not promising something you can’t deliver what’s the problem.

    Is a $100 Spiderman action figure really useless? It isn’t to the person who’s willing to pay that much. In the end things are worth whatever someone will pay.

    I think there are lines that can be crossed. but the reason comment spam exists is because there are a lot of people who let it get posted and once posted people click on the links and buy something. You get comment spam because for some it works to rbing a positive ROI. If it stopped working you’d stop seeing it. Get yourself a good spam blocker like Akismet or Spam Karma 2. Either will solve most of your spam problem.

  4. Search engine positioning, optimization, and increased website traffic are critical elements of a successful Internet business solution. High visibility of your website can make the difference between driving a high volume of sales leads and targeted traffic to your company’s website or being lost in “cyber space.”

    With the burgeoning popularity of the internet, new developmental tools are created daily. With these tools come new challenges, marketing, design, cross-browser transitions, etc. All of these can be a daunting task for those web gurus who aren’t well-versed in the W3 Standards.

  5. I guess I have a pretty strict idea of what SEO is … maybe an outdated one.

    There’s no doubt it takes creative genius to market something well. Or that it’s a skill many of us are lucky enough to possess. Marketing is inherently social; even if it’s disconnected it’s about communicating directly to people.

    SEO, to me at least, is a more narrow thing. When I ran my site under the “Valhalla Photos” name I didn’t know a thing about search engines, except that I’m glad I didn’t pay attention when they taught us the Dewey Decimal System. I wish I were able to measure the difference, but now that I’ve learned how to write for search engines, and more importantly how to balance between humans and bots, I’m sure there’s some improvement in my traffic. Actually it’s about triple today, but I have more photos, and there are sites like Stumble Upon and Delicious sending me traffic that didn’t exist a few years ago.

    I haven’t changed my overall marketing that much, though … I’m not skilled or knowledgeable enough to.

  6. I’m not necessarily sure your idea of seo is outdated. If you ask 100 SEOs what they do and what they consider seo to be you’ll probably get close to 100 different answers. There are some who prefer to spend more time on the scientific side of things, analyzing every piece of data they can get their hands on and trying to reverse engineer things. They’ll test and test and test.

    Some people take a more creative approach. The best way to build links now is creating linkbait. You have to be creative to come up with a good linkbait idea and creative in writing or designing or programming to pull it off successfully.

    SEO is technically a subset of search engine marketing (sem) which is a subset of marketing in general. Someone who is good at seo knows that understanding and working on the big picture pays the most dividends. The best SEOs are practicing beyond what might be technically considered seo.

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