How SEO Confronts Its PR Challenge In The Blogosphere

Filed as Features on February 17, 2007 11:25 pm

I got a lot of attention from the search engine optimization (SEO) community this past week for a post on “What Gives SEO A Bad Name” — the example I used, a parked domain appearing as a #2 Google search results, turns out to be Google’s fault, not the work of an unethical SEO. Or so it appears, based on some very plausible explanations posted by some smart SEOs in the comments of the post — but I can’t know with 100% certainty what’s going on inside Google’s black box, and that’s a problem for SEOs.

Some SEOs got upset with me for appearing to unfairly perpetuate negative perceptions of SEO — but if my post was a mistake, it was an honest one (I posted a correction). The point I’ve been trying to make to the SEO community, not always successfully, is that because they live in a black box, SEO’s PR challenge involves correcting a lot of misperceptions. Many of those misperceptions are unfair, but they are not always intentionally malicious — and they exist among potential SEO clients, like me

UPDATE: Speaking of great search ambassadors, Google’s Matt Cutts showed up on my original post and all but confirmed that my example is likely a problem in Google’s algorithm, although it’s pending investigation. Matt said that if it does turn out to be a problem in the algorithm, it could lead to a larger fix, which would certainly be a happy ending to this tale.

In the PR sphere of blogging, I’ve seen SEOs take two very different approaches:

1. Patiently correct misperceptions in the context of goodwill
2. Take a generally negative tact with anyone who doesn’t “get it,” i.e. anyone who doesn’t live inside the search black box

Understanding the difference is important for anyone trying to practice PR through blogging, so I thought it would be helpful to walk through some examples.

First, on the positive side, there is no better ambassador of the black box of search to those outside the search world than Danny Sullivan, grand master search guru, formerly of Search Engine Watch, now of Search Engine Land, and still (fortunately) of Search Engine Startegies. Danny has shown up on my blog many times to correct misperceptions, exhibiting an almost superhuman degree of patience. No matter how frustrating or maddening the circumstances, Danny is invariably polite, constructive, exceptionally informative, and focused on building goodwill. Danny’s recent rebuttal of Jason Calacanis’ attack on SEO is a case study in how to push back and build bridges at the same time.

Another great SEO ambassador is Aaron Wall, author of the fantastically encyclopedic SEO Book. Aaron invariably leaves insightful, constructive, and generally good-natured comments on my SEO posts. A number of SEOs harangued me for not having done an update correction to my most recent post, which left me defensive, but when Aaron made the same point in his diplomatic way, it suddenly seemed to me like a moral imperative — and I did make the correction.

Bill Slawski, SEO by the SEA, is another a great example of a skilled blog PR practitioner — here’s the comment he left on my post, which is nicely done:

There are a lot of us in the SEO industry who would be happy to answer a quick question when you see something odd like the result you’re pointing out. I’m seeing more than a couple of SEOs who would, in the responses to this post, and showing up in your MyBlogLog widget right now.

I also love this video of Todd Malicoat and Neil Patel — while you can BS people in writing, it’s much harder to do so in video. Neil and Todd come across as very straight shooters (and very smart, of course), and they really seem to understand the PR channel they are working.

My sense is that there are far fewer SEOs on the flip (dark) side, but they are certainly out there. Here’s an excerpt from a comment on my post that really rubbed me the wrong way:

You no-follow your commenters contributions. You suggest that by being sub-optimal, WordPress is actually “dragging down” your rankings. You show little deference to several experienced people who are benevolently offering you free SEO advice, despite your obvious negative bias.

When someone starts talking about “deference” and “benevolence” in a blog PR context, you know they are completely tone deaf. I went to check out this SEO’s blog, and sure enough, found more of the same:

Sorry to throw yet another monkey wrench into your SEO business model, but if you are still working to get your client’s sites fully indexed in Google (or worse, still paying an SEO “firm” to get all of your pages indexed), I’m sorry to hear of your continued inability to get SEO and the web.

Condescension is the kiss of death for blog PR, which is what put me on the fence about another SEO PR practitioner, Natasha Robinson. On the predominately positive side, Natasha devoted a lot of time on my post earnestly trying to clear up my misunderstanding, and I think her goodwill is genuine and her blog PR sense generally quite good. But Natasha really rubbed me the wrong way when she slammed me in an SEO forum. Now I don’t fault Natasha AT ALL for slamming me — it happens all the time, and typically I deserve it. And as slams goes, Natasha’s was pretty mild. But I do fault her for is coming across as a bit two-faced, earnestly helpful in one context and condescending in another. Prospective customers may not read insider forums much, but when they do, they shouldn’t find that your attitude changes when your back is turned. That said, I think Natasha tips clearly over the fence into the camp that is a positive force for SEO PR in the blogosphere.

I can understand and appreciate SEO’s defensiveness, and their frustration with unfairly negative PR. But they do live in, what is for most people, a black box — they make their living helping people navigate the black box of search, so the PR challenge arises when customers become suspicious of what’s going on inside the box. Natasha made an interesting comparison to auto mechanics:

There’s so much I don’t know about fixing a my car, either – and that’s why I hire a mechanic instead of trying to teach myself how to fix my car. But simply because one mechanic may make a mistake or does a bad service, is not going to make me say that all Mechanics are cheats!

But as Dave Pasternack pointed out:

The question is: how do you know whether your mechanic is a crook or a competent journeyman/woman? Well, you do need to know something about the way automobiles work, and also, about the common scams practiced by mechanics.

This is SEO’s PR challenge — how to teach people enough about SEO so that they can respect and trust what SEOs do, but not so much that they’re practically teaching people how to fix their own cars.

Scott Karp’s blog, Publishing 2.0, occasionally appears in search results, and probably would more if he had a good SEO.

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  1. By Site Submit MD posted on February 18, 2007 at 5:15 pm
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    Pagerank is not an accurate indicator of success, traffic, conversions, etc is

  2. By Todd posted on February 18, 2007 at 8:02 pm
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    Thanks for taking the time to understand SEO more than most that criticize the practice. I can see that you listened to a lot of the defense, and counterpoint without already having made your mind up. It’s a strange irony that people that essentially practice a new school of PR would have PR problems.

    Glad you enjoyed the video as well, and thank you for the kind comments. There ARE many great folks in the industry. It is inevitable that SEO will continue to live in a black box due to the nature of what it is. It is not rocket science, but it does take a lot of understanding and time to learn. The beauty is that the return on that learning is about as high as you can possibly hope for. No matter what you do online, you can benefit from a strong understanding of SEO principles.

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