Oh SEO, Where Did You Go (Wrong)?


Back in August, I wrote about the future of SEO. It was a forward-looking post that was somehow nostalgic at the same time, and it was apparently exactly what the industry needed to hear.

I felt inspired writing it, and since then I’ve been quiet, head down in my work. But last week, something happened that snapped me back into the present. I left SEO in what I thought were your capable hands, new generation. And you disappointed your industry.


Recently, the industry got all up in arms about a Whiteboard Friday post on Moz. It was re-blogged on dozens of big industry sites, discussed on Webcology, and even garnered the attention of the ultimate SEO Bit*h.

The discussion centered around whether it was/is possible to get a Penguin action from Google lifted using only the disavow tool. Reading that post and the surrounding controversy gave me pause.

The first question that occurred to me was: why are we debating this? Does this discussion have anything to do with our customers’ success? Does it help advance the field of SEO? We’ll come back to that.

In the meantime, I’ve decided I need to amend my original post. SEO newbies, there’s a much darker side of SEO that I didn’t show you in my look at its beauty. And while this latest incident is a good example, it is by no means the only one.

SEO Is Exacting

In one way, this is good – any theory will be called out for lack of evidence, lack of statistical significance. That’s exactly what happened in this case… the writer set out to disprove a theory, but failed to do so, and in the process, misused and misattributed the scientific method.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that SEO is a creative field. You can test it, and you can hypothesize, but at the end of the day, what works for you may not work for someone else. There are simply too many variables to say anything for sure.

SEO Is All About Google

Yes, Google has made a change in our rankings. It’s one of over three or four hundred changes that we make every year. – Matt Cutts, March 4, 2009

Google makes over 300 algorithm changes a year, according to the company’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts. One can only assume that’s increased since 2009 when that statement was made. That means there may be as many as 5.7 changes per week.

Statistical significance in testing will never mean more than correlation because are too many dependent variables in every experiment, courtesy of Google. As much as you want it to be, SEO will never be pure science.

SEO Is Dangerous

Anyone with a theory can claim to be an expert. In the example article named above, we see this danger firsthand. A rebuttal post by Paul Macnamara (the SEO Bit*h article) provides a unique look into this danger. While the writer, Paul Macnamara, uses a sarcastic tone, his rant rings true:

[He] must be an expert because he has been featured a couple of times now on [this site]… one would assume [they vet] the experts that it allows to pontificate on matters of SEO on their influential platform.

When any large and well-respected site features someone who has a theory but presents it as fact, we enter dangerous territory that includes responsibility and ethics. In an environment where anyone with some power and following can make a declaration that will immediately be re-blogged, tweeted, and shared hundreds of times, there are no take-backs.

You can apologize, but really it’s too little too late. That bell can’t be unrung. When a site has gained the trust of thousands of SEOs and business owners alike, they expect that anything published on that site will be vetted, well-researched, and accurate.

SEO Is Mean

The extreme vitriol and cruelty I have seen play out in comments on recent posts is shameful. Yes, I’m saying you should be ashamed of yourselves, people. Personal attacks, rush to judgment, callous language… are we professionals, or internet trolls?

I’ve seen several people insisting that the conversations be more tempered and that personal attacks be kept to a minimum, but never any apologies. The original post writers are often the worst offenders, but I’ve seen several other people fairly new to SEO make personal attacks instead of arguing facts. It’s becoming far too common in these threads to see this:


SEO Is Passionate

Part of what contributes to these extended arguments and mud-slinging is that SEOs are a passionate breed. We all have our theories, our beliefs, and our tactics that work for us. But we have to remember that just because something works for us or for our clients that does not mean it is the Holy Grail.

In fact, SEOs are famous for taking something that works and beating it against a wall until it doesn’t anymore… like a kid with a new toy.


Keep that in mind any time you see someone urging you to accept or reject the conventional wisdom. If the author of that Moz post got one thing right, it was when he said that you should ask a prospective SEO where they get their information:


SEO Is Not Double Negative

Just as you can’t say something does work, you also can’t say it doesn’t — for the same reasons. What doesn’t work for one site of a certain size, in a certain market, in a certain vertical, may work exceedingly well for another. And proof is hard to come by.

Take this comment from a reader arguing in the comments about the post:

Reader: “…stop with the “Prove it – post a url here” red herring. You should know that client confidentiality prohibits that.”

Herein lies the biggest problem with testing in SEO, and the reason the snake oil salesmen continue to get rich off of their unsuspecting victims…

SEO Is Confidential

The majority of professionals working on legitimate sites that have the kind of traffic needed to prove a tactic useful or not (with statistical significance) are unable to name those sites/clients by name. So you continue to see people talk about their “proprietary” methods and their special systems, all while making outrageous claims.

As far as I can tell, this will never change, so buyer beware. Anyone who says they have a secret sauce is probably not someone you want to work with. And don’t run from the professionals who don’t display big names on their homepages. Likely those are the ones you actually want to work with.

Understand, I’m not saying you shouldn’t test things. I’m just letting you know in advance that if you set up a “test” that isn’t just right (and sometimes even if it is) you are likely to get attacked for it if you talk about it publicly. Sometimes you will deserve it, and other times it will just be other SEOs challenging your methods to makes sure you’ve thought things through. Because the industry pioneers love what we’ve built.

SEO Is Protective

Those of us that love the craft and have a high level of respect for the industry and the people in it will always speak up to challenge those who threaten to shake foundations – especially with questionable or completely wrong information.

There will always be people willing to defend their fellow SEOs. Hell hath no fury like an SEO scorned.

And finally…

SEO Is Too Ego-Centric

I myself (in SEO since 2000) left a very long comment on the Moz post, but ended it with this:


And therein lies the truth, and my point behind this whole post. SEO may be beautiful, and it may be sometimes be black. But as SEOs, we have a responsibility – a higher calling, even – to help sites be the best that they can be. That may mean we use the disavow tool, and it may not.

In a book I contributed to last year, I said we owe it to our clients to deliver results, not just results of tests. However you achieve those results is between you and your client. If you want to discuss them amongst yourselves, that’s fine, but don’t attack people who disagree with you, and don’t put your dog in a fight without making sure you have your facts straight.
If you’re lucky enough to have a platform where people pay attention to you, use it for good and not evil. That means accurate tests, statistically significant correlations, and responsible debate. Turn away people who offer link bait and controversy just for the sake of it. You may help them get famous (or infamous), but you’ll also hurt your own brand and credibility in the process.

So, new SEO generation, I have two words for you: Try Harder. Because the last six months haven’t given me a lot of confidence in your ability to carry our beloved industry forward. You’ve been petty, you’ve ignored scientific principles for testing hypotheses and theorems, and you’ve used SEO as a launchpad for “fame” at all costs.

Focus on your clients, deliver great results, and if you’re good at what you do, maybe you’ll achieve that “fame” that you want so badly. At the very least, you’ll achieve respect.

And please, be careful about who you hitch your wagon to.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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