The Blog

Why the SEO Industry Needs Standards (and Possibly Regulation)

SEO can harm as well as heal, as it were. I am aware I can ruin a business as well as add millions on to the bottom line. I take the responsibility given to me by a client seriously but I know not all do. I'd like to see standards not as exclusionary but as simply something everyone must achieve to call themselves an SEO.

In most of the important industries in our lives, people and businesses are accredited in some way. Solicitors are part of a society which can remove their credentials, doctors are part of a council which can strike them off, accountants have degrees and accreditation, boiler maintenance people are certified. These are all industries where mistakes can cost lives, liberty or an entire business (and liberty). SEO is one of the last industries to have some sort of standards applied to it (after paid search even) and bad SEO can cost a business everything.

Search is at the heart of most of our online lives. The internet remains a platform on which a substantial amount of research and purchasing is done. The importance of visibility on this platform cannot be understated, with over 100 billion searches happening each month across the globe on Google alone, and with the top results taking around 20 - 36% of the clicks. Search results - paid or organic - are one of the main influencers on purchasing behaviour. This means millions of pounds or dollars in retail sales and profits rely on a third party platform to facilitate discovery.

In order to make things as fair as possible while maintaining a dominant, monopolistic stranglehold on the dissemination of the world's information, one search engine has created a set of rules which govern whether you are allowed to be listed on their engine, and what you are allowed to do in order to become more visible. Some call these webmaster guidelines, many call them laws because the punishment for breaking them is so severe it is akin to criminal law penalties.

This industry which has grown up to meet the needs of businesses trying to be seen in an increasingly crowded marketplace are no longer the ad executives and classified ad salesmen, but the SEO or Search Engine Optimisation 'experts'. This self-appointed group of people called SEOs have varying degrees of ethics, varying degrees of skill and varying degrees of actual experience. While the SEO industry has the ability to add millions to the bottom line of a business, it also has the ability to wipe a business out.

Many in the SEO industry are ethical and work hard for their clients. They ensure full transparency and strive to differentiate themselves from an industry tarred with the brush of being 'snake oil salesmen' of dubious ethics. They effect changes that work, monitor, and make sure every penny a client spends on this is well invested. They treat client sites as if they were their own businesses. Sometimes a well-meaning SEO accidentally causes a penalty among this group, but generally they are quick to spot this problem, tell the client and work to fix it. This group however are brought low by the less scrupulous.

There are some, however, who in any industry would bring it into disrepute. They find easy prey in smaller businesses looking for help to increase visibility precisely because of that lack of industry body, lack of accreditation and obfuscation that is often present in SEO. They take tens of thousands of dollars or pounds off companies to do nothing at all for them, producing reports that merely reflect what has happened naturally, eventually disappearing with all cash. While not unique to SEO, they are a problem however it is the third group of people that standards would squeeze out.

The third group of companies, and the ones who can bring the SEO industry into disrepute and are one of the main reasons the industry needs minimum standards, are the build agencies, PR agencies and other untrained professionals who think that because they read a few how-to blog posts they are qualified as SEOs. Perhaps the office junior has done a module on SEO at school, or maybe the marketing exec went to an SEO conference and now their agency feels that they can offer SEO. These people sell in an additional service to existing or new clients without truly understanding what they are selling. Too often these "SEOs" then create often unoptimised or unoptimisable campaigns or sites, create over-optimised content that borders on attracting a penalty, and sometimes even lie to bloggers in an attempt to build links for their clients. These people unwittingly damage clients' web presences through blind ignorance and a desire to sometimes simply maximise profits. They see SEO as an easy bit of extra income and don't understand how hard it can be to "stuff keywords" and rank well.

These agencies, selling a service they have no intention of delivering properly or well through trained, experienced professionals, are the main reason the industry needs standards. Not for the fraudulent companies, not for the black hats, but for those who are selling this service and destroying sites, ruining the reputation of legitimate SEOs and bringing the industry into disrepute.

By introducing minimum standards of knowledge to be called an SEO, it will not exclude anyone but will provide a minimum known level that anyone calling themselves an SEO must reach. These standards, not in the hands of any one agency or company but in the hands of a body, would provide employers with a way to assess the truth of a junior SEOs clams, give a possible minimum curriculum for courses about SEO and ensure development or PR agencies who are selling SEO as a service must have someone who meets those criteria. Standards aren't meant to be accreditation or regulation but merely a starting point that everyone can easily achieve to show that as an industry, SEOs are serious about quality work.

As an SEO I know I can harm as well as heal, as it were. I am aware I can ruin a business as well as add millions on to the bottom line. I take the responsibility given to me by a client seriously but I know not all do. I'd like to see standards not as exclusionary but as simply something everyone must achieve to call themselves an SEO. Much, much less than the Google AdWords PPC exams but more than the cowboy industry we currently are.

I'd like to see standards work like the RFCs for internet protocol standards, with people from everywhere around the world able to recommend what goes in and a committee meeting once a year or once a quarter to vote on the suggestions. I'd like to see it not controlled by agencies but rather part of the IAB or ASA or something similar. I'd like my industry to grow up and take a leaf from the social media companies' books and start setting this up so we have a foundation of something we can be proud of.

What do you think?