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The invisibility of SEO credibility

SEO digest

Search Engine Roundtable found a discussion around the idea that real search engine optimization experts are invisible. I have considered weighing in on the original thread at Jill Whalen’s Highrankings Forums.

The SE Roundtable discussion was Sphunn and the Sphinn has received a few comments.

Statements about the nature of good SEO versus bad SEO stand a better chance of sparking community discussion than the usual PageRank sculpting tips and reviews these days, because we SEOs so love to talk about ourselves. I think that any international SEO certification programme will eventually require as part of the certification process that applicants promote themselves successfully through forums, blogs, and social media profiles before being awarded their licenses to practice.

The idea that a real SEO expert is invisible seems to offend some people in the community — certainly a few high profile people don’t agree with the assertion. But the discussion seems to have exposed a line that was drawn many years ago: there are SEOs who are open and transparent about what they do and SEOs who don’t reveal everything they do.

In case anyone is uncertain about which side of the line I stand on, I am NOT open and transparent about what I do.

That doesn’t mean I run spambots that drop links on other people’s sites. Nor does it mean I have 100 social media sock puppets that I use to Sphinn, DIGG, and tease content into high visibility. That’s never been my style.

What I do is build Web sites, populate them with content, and get them indexed in the search results, and then I get them to rank for targeted expressions. Somewhere in the middle of all that work I may place some strategic links on those sites or other sites.

But I don’t tell you how I place those links. I don’t tell you where I place those links. And I may do some sneaky things just to throw you off the trail should my paranoia rise to a point where I fear someone may be trying to divine the sources of my secret SEO success.

In my opinion, based on years of discussing search engine optimization with people online and offline, I feel there are more experts who don’t say anything on SEO blogs and forums than there are public SEO expert personalities. Just because you speak at conferences or write an SEO blog doesn’t make you an expert. Being an expert doesn’t mean you’ll be asked to speak at conferences or write on someone else’s blog.

Perhaps the real threat in these “expert SEOs are invisible” comments is that it challenges the credibility of public SEO personalities. Few if any of them have, in my experience, claimed to be better than anyone else (although quite a few of them have publicly or privately snickered at competitors). Self-proclamation of expertise is rare (although I’ve done it more than once and I’ll continue doing it when I feel I can back up what I say) among our industry’s public personalities.

There is nothing wrong with self-proclamation of expertise, in my opinion. It’s a typical marketing practice and I have, in fact, reviewed many SEO Web sites that do make such claims: “Our expert SEO copywriters will improve your copy”, “Our expert link builders will help you get to the top of the search results!”, “Our proven expertise is based on 10 years of solid experience”, blahdeblahblah.

My claims of expertise are based on experience, but why should anyone believe me?

Being proclaimed an expert by your peers is flattering but, frankly, it doesn’t really prove anything. There are a lot of lemmings in the SEO community who migrate from conference to conference, forum to forum, blog to blog. They follow the lead lemmings over the cliff into SEO disaster on a fairly regular basis.

One public SEO personality recently said something about placing some links in a controlled situation, waiting a couple of months, and seeing no indication of change in the destination site’s Toolbar PageRank. My thought when I read that comment (from a well-respected “expert” in the field whose past exploits have left me wondering why this individual is respected) was, “Why is someone who has been around as long as you talking like Toolbar PageRank should normally be updated within 2 months?”

Google’s recent series of Toolbar updates seems to have knocked the sense out of some peer-respected SEO experts — if ever they had any sense to begin with.

If you want the public SEO community to respect you, go drinking with them. They seem to like hard partiers (not that being a hard partier means you’re not a good SEO). The respect that SEOs extend to each other is built as much upon off-duty interaction as upon how many times they inspire each other to write empty “Me too!” and “Great post!” comments.

Real search engine optimizers may present at conferences, or they may not. Real search engine optimizers may sit in the audiences at conferences, or they may not. Where you go, who you hang with, has nothing to do with whether you’re a real SEO. And the same thing is true for experts.

You’re an expert because you can confidently handle the situations most other people struggle with. That doesn’t mean experts can do things other people cannot. It means that experts have enough experience under their belt to be able to deal with the situations that non-experts cannot face. An expert can (and should) be challenged.

But some experts are more knowledgeable than other experts. You might be an expert link builder, and yet you could be basing your link building on outdated principles. That doesn’t make you any less an expert, it just makes your expertise archaic.

The pragmatic side of me says, “Well, if it works, don’t knock it.”

But the cool, avant-garde wannabe spirit in me says, “Hey, if it’s a 2007 tactic it is SO outdated!”


I think the argument that “real SEO experts are invisible” feels like a challenge to the self-appointed credibility of the SEO community more than anything else. It’s a phenomenon that has afflicted lawyers, Tolkien scholars, and virtually every profession since humanity began recognizing “professions”. It takes time to win general acceptance and approval from society and we as SEOs are not yet there. The industry has no standards, there is no generally acknowledged standards body, and there are no authoritative certifications.

There will always be a need for these kinds of introspective discussions within the SEO community until it makes the painful transformation from a community with professional accomplishments to a professional community with standards, authority, and credibility.

published @ October 30, 2008

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