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April 7, 2008

SEM Industry Standards: Nonsense or Necessary?

A storm in a tea cup has been brewing in the search industry over the past few days. It was prompted by Jill Whalen’s recent blog post titled We Don’t Need SEO Standards where she came to the conclusion that she didn’t think the search industry needed standards or regulation, at least in relation to Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Here are Jill’s top 4 reasons why she believes we don’t need SEO standards:

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 scams.

4. There’s no such thing as “cheating” in SEO.

The post got a few people fired up and they blogged fiery rebuttals pushing their case for standards. Their reasoning included:

  • that the industry has a black eye and needs a regulating body.
  • that industry-wide standards need to be put in place to protect the public from unethical SEM operators.
  • that SEM practioners need to take responsibility for their own profession.
  • that it’s about time the industry adopted a set of agreed best practices.

Yadda yadda.

Passionate commentary ensued on Sphinn, proving that the industry is divided on the issue. But the truth is, we have been arguing about this very subject for years.

Personally, I agree with Jill’s post.

As an educator, I can understand the frustration at the lack of industry standards. But do we *need* them? Are standards going to solve the problems people perceive as dogging the industry? I think not. Creating standards is not going to get rid of shoddy SEOs or make them switch hats. Creating standards is not going to prevent the general public from being ripped off by SEM cowboys. Industry veterans will understand this. Education and publicity has always been the solution but it just took some of us years to work that out.

This industry has unspoken standards and they’ve worked well for 10 or more years. We white-hat educators promote the unofficial standards and search engine guidelines already. The creation of official standards would, in my opinion, just spawn more problems.

It’s interesting to see how personally some people are taking this issue. I too recall the days when I took SEO scamming quite personally and made it my own little agenda to hunt, expose and ridicule dodgy SEO firms in an effort to save the great unwashed masses from themselves and rid the industry of it’s shoddy reputation in the media. Now I simply educate as many people as I can about what tactics to avoid rather than who to avoid. I think this is more of an issue of buyer beware than anything else. Standards are a nice idea, but they can’t be discussed in isolation when we don’t have a governing body to determine or implement them.

I used to get so annoyed at the black eye given to the industry thanks to dodgy operators and ignorant journalists, but the tide has turned so we must be addressing the problem. These days, the general public and the media (with the exception of American Express perhaps) *get* that most SEOs aren’t out to rip them off.

As for best practices, these can’t be created from the outside in, they have to be generated from inside out – and that means with involvement from the very top – from the search engines themselves and possibly an independent regulatory body. No search engine or government body has imposed formal regulations on the industry so right now we just have guidelines and ethics and semantics. We white hat advocates can all pat each other on the back for following Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and not spamming, but we can’t be too hard on the black and gray hats for breaking the rules when there are no clear rules to begin with!

So who should be entrusted with the creation and regulation of SEM industry standards or best practices? Some are suggesting an existing organization or SEM firm should be given the job.

Within the Sphinn commentary, Jill said: “…those that would create the standards all have their own agendas.”

She’s got a point. I for one would balk strongly at one of the existing search marketing organizations or firms being given the power to determine best practices for the entire industry. The conflict of interest rumpus that would create would be unbearable and accusations would taint the reputation of those involved, even if their intentions were honorable – remember the drama relating to ethics in SEMPOs first year? Until we have a completely independent board/panel consisting of government officials and nominated representatives, the argument for standards is circular.

Meanwhile, we have to rely on our interpretation of the search engine’s guidelines, our own experience and our voices to educate webmasters about SEM best practices, as we see fit. As an industry, we’re doing this already via the many channels we have access to: forums, blogs, articles, webinars, media, training, conferences and the like. Do we need standards in order to educate? Nah. I think we’re doing a pretty good job without them.

About the Author:

Article by Kalena Jordan, one of the first search engine optimization experts in Australia, who is well known and respected in the industry, particularly in the U.S. As well as running a daily Search Engine Advice Column, Kalena manages Search Engine College – an online training institution offering instructor-led short courses and downloadable self-study courses in Search Engine Optimization and other Search Engine Marketing subjects.