Standards? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Standards…Do We?

Every so often the subject of SEO standards makes the rounds through the community. Are standards necessary? Would they help or hurt the industry? One of the sessions at SMX West last month led to a recent post by Jill Whalen arguing against the need for standards which is raising the issue again. Two posts after Jill’s in favor of standards are also generating discussion. I’ve written in the past that I don’t think SEO should be regulated, but there’s more to the debate and I wanted to mention a few points here and ask a few questions of everyone.

Before offering my take let’s get to the posts. Jill’s is first in the list below followed by posts by Lisa Barone and Ian McAnerin.

The first two posts above are also generating some good comments and debate at Sphinn

I’d encourage you to read both the posts and the discussions above. I also want to ask your opinion. Most of the debate that I’ve seen has been done by the SEO community. I know a good deal of you reading here wouldn’t define yourselves as SEOs and I’m interested in hearing the thoughts of people outside the community.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

The 4 Points

Jill offered four reasons for why she doesn’t believe SEO standards are necessary

  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

Her post offers more details on each and both Lisa and Ian use these four points in their arguments in favor of standards. Again I encourage you to read the posts and subsequent discussion.

Standards for Regulation or Education?

Reading through the Sphinn comments I’m seeing two very different views of what standards are and the way people think of them. Some see standards as leading to regulation over the industry and some are seeing standards as a set of guidelines that can be used to educate SEO and non SEO alike.

Most of those arguing against standards, including myself, hear the term and think regulation. Most arguing in favor of standards hear the term and think education. Before any decision or progress could be made on enacting standards this question of regulation or education would first need to be addressed.

Who would these standards be for? And what would they hope to achieve?

Standards as Regulation

My post Should SEO Be Regulated? from a few months back argues against a regulating body over the industry. I won’t rehash that post, but I will say that my reasons against are mostly because I don’t think regulations wouldn’t be effective.

There’s really no way you could require someone to follow them. If I don’t like your regulations I just won’t call myself an SEO. Anything you do for the purpose of SEO you could argue is being done for some other reason. I simply don’t see how you could reasonably regulate the industry. I also don’t see how any group of people could define what should and should not be allowed in regards to search engine optimization.

I’m going to market sites based on what I think works and what falls within my own moral compass. If I’m working on client sites I’ll work within their moral compass too. You can set up any regulating body you want and that won’t change. I would imagine the same would be true for most people.

Standards as Education

I’m much more open to the idea of a set of standards as best practices or guidelines for those in and out of the industry to follow. Still I don’t think they’d be necessary or as helpful as some would think.

SEO changes quickly. Standards don’t. SEO basics are fairly simple to explain. Beyond the basics very few will agree on exactly what does and doesn’t work. How could a standards body offer more beyond the rudimentary principles? And since those principles can be put together in short series of posts is it really necessary to put together a standards board to teach them?

Aren’t there already hundreds of best practices and guidelines available now?

Some of the thoughts in favor of educational standards are that they would be for prospective clients. Sounds good, but how many of those clients are going to take the time to read the standards. The medical and legal professions both have standards. Outside of what I’ve seen on popular tv series I have no idea what they are. I don’t expect that I would take the time to learn them before going to a doctor or lawyer either.

Would clients spend the time reading the standards prior to hiring an SEO? Do you know the standards and best practices for being a plumber? For being an accountant? For being an electrician? I suspect not and I suspect that SEO clients wouldn’t spend the time to learn SEO standards either. That’s kind of why they want to hire you in the first place.

We all know there are plenty of snake oil peddlers in the industry. They’re in every industry. They exist because there will always be a portion of the world that wants something for nothing. Sure, some people have been burned by bad SEO practices, but those people were burned because they wanted to believe in something that shouldn’t have taken more than a few seconds to realize wasn’t true. Would SEO standards change that?

Maybe the only standard that’s necessary to protect clients is this this one. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

What Do You Think?

I don’t think regulation could ever be effective and I don’t see a standards body being necessary to further the education of SEOs and clients. The market will regulate and there are already many sources of education available. There’s nothing preventing further education either. An educational standards would simply be one place to go to learn. I don’t think it could ever hope to be the only word.

Still my thoughts come from the perspective of someone who practices SEO. All the arguments I’ve seen for and against are from practicing SEOs. I’d be greatly interested in hearing the opinion of people not in the industry. While I’d argue against the need for standards I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

What do you think? Do you think SEO standards would help or hurt the industry? Are they necessary to protect clients? Would they be useful in educating SEOs and non SEOs alike?

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  1. I think SEO should be regulated by the SEO leaders, not by any kind of association that doesn’t get SEO.

    The points raised in the posts are valid, the key one being for me is that SEO changes too rapidly. Thus, it’d require:
    – the regulating body be ahead of the industry
    – which would require SEO leaders head the association
    – developing fair and correct regulations for the new strategies

    I think it all boils down to the hassle regulation will create.

    Also, I’d be as bold as to say that clients, who hire cheap and low quality SEOs, need to learn their lesson and keep moving. They should try better, try harder to work with better SEOs.

    If they decide not to follow SEO, they’ll be out of business.

    And it touches on the topic that someone should brand, promote and build trust for SEO to the outer world to educate the people. But it is not related to regulation, more like of a conglameration of SEO experts. Danny/Sphinn might be a good spot to start in this direction.

  2. Lemme rephrase before someone flames me for nothing:

    When I said regulate, I didn’t mean make anyone follow any standards. More like outline the best practices in the form of the ClueTrain Manifesto and educate the outer world about what we do and how they can benefit from it.

    Then again, that’s what we are all trying to do, right? May be not hard enough, if we get such discussions going.

  3. I guess it is high time that we should have a standards on SEO…especially the how to define SEO..I’ve been working as a linkbuilder for more than a year now, doing some SEO, etc..but I always find myself having a hard time explaining to other people what I really do for a living..^^

  4. @Yura – Standards as education doesn’t bother me. I still wonder how practical it would be. I would imagine if their was a standards body it would be made up of leaders in the industry, but still groups of people move slower than individuals.

    A best practices guide would be useful for those entering the industry and the clients that would choose to read it. But is it necessary? Isn’t the information already available in a handful of pretty good guides that exist?

    I’m not sure what the answers are so I’m glad we can have a discussion about it.

    @Federal Watch – It can be hard to explain what we do to other people, though it’s not impossible. But I think I know the conversations you mean and I think I’ve had them myself.

    My question still is are standards necessary. I think the guide that would be created already exists in several forms in a handful of good books.

  5. Okay, then my point more revolves around giving the relevant information, who don’t know what to look for. Normally, those, who already search for SEO stuff, are SEOs themselves or someone familiar with SEOs.

    There needs to be a place, where better practices are outlined and a list of signs of a good SEO company. SEL might do it easily, I’d imagine.

    The beef is making sure it is seen by the right people, who haven’t yet chosen a SEO or who are confused by the industry. It means that SEOs need to use their skills to market themselves, after all.

  6. Correction: “giving the relevant information to those, who don’t know”

    I guess we simply need a trusted place that outsiders would recognize as trustworthy and start from there. Maybe have a list of trusted companies there (only Danny can organize this without someone saying the spots are bought/sold). So far, I don’t see it happen.

  7. I can see your point. I’ve been reading a lot of the discussion going on and I think I can see the benefit of having a central place where the information is located for people looking to hire an SEO. The information certainly exists already, but the average person wouldn’t know where to find it.

    You might be right that having a trusted source for outsiders to go to could be a good thing for the industry.

    I think the hard part for me in all this is the idea of this turning into a regulatory body. Even if that’s not the point, it still keeps sticking in my head. But that’s my problem and not necessarily where this would be headed.

    Maybe a set of standards might not work for everyone, but I think I’m beginning to see how it could be useful to some.

  8. I am still of the opinion that there is neither a need for SEO standards nor a way to come up with some that make sense. There are so many different approaches on SEO and so many possible goals that there can be no standard. No right or wrong. No black or white. Oh, wait a second. The last point might be wrong but between black and white is still allot of grey.

  9. Funny on the black and white thing. Malte I came to the discussion the same as you, but I’m beginning to think there could be a use for standards for some people if it’s done right. It would have to be done well and it would never be something for everyone.

    I can imagine now a well written guide of the basics. The stuff most of us can agree on. Less about specific tacts and more about general ideas. Imagine Danny Sullivan wrote an intro guide to SEO. Would it perfect? No. Would everyone agree with all of it? Not likely. But I would think Danny could write a useful guide for someone new to SEO. Not perfect, but still very useful to someone first learning.

    Now imagine that guide was so well promoted that someone just entering the industry or someone looking to hire an SEO would be able to find it easily. I think for those people having that standard would be beneficial.

    I wouldn’t suggest Danny write this on his own and I wouldn’t think everyone would find the guide, but I am beginning to see how it could help those who are looking and in a way help the industry as a whole, but helping people unfamiliar with SEO to see through so much of the misinformation. I’m beginning to see standards as a simply a useful intro guide that gains authority with those unfamiliar with SEO due to the association with a standards board of some kind.

    I’m still not 100% sold on the idea and I can see several pitfalls along the way, but I am getting closer to seeing the benefit standards could offer.

  10. I’m not sold on them myself, though I did just finish a post on how standards might be useful.

    I think there’s been interesting discussion on both sides, each having good points. Something Yura said in the comments above is softening my stance a little and making me see the benefit of standards in the sense of being educational only.

    I do agree with you that standards in the sense of regulation or certification would lead to less qualified people becoming successes. I am beginning to see another side to this whole debate, though.

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