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I recently saw a tweet for a link to SEO Moz's list of 'recommended agencies' and SEO providers. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page to find out about how to get onto this list you see the following statement:
"For those seeking inclusion - there is no formal process. A small group of individuals in the web marketing world (with representatives both inside Moz and from other organizations) created the list below and will occasionally nominate those who do amazing work in the field for a vote from the group. We'd encourage those wanting to be on this list to make high-quality, public contributions to the community, and we'll find you."
So, they have a list of recommended agencies and the only way to get onto that list is to know the people who make the list - the names of whom are not mentioned. The way to get on the list is not to have a long-standing history of delivering quality results to paying clients; you have to be on the radar of the mysterious list-makers through "contributions" - what sort is beyond me. Is this posting loads of content to YouMoz? Speaking at conferences? Building tools? All activities which may be good for other SEO's, but don't actually point towards the quality of what you do as for your clients.
Another recent SEO Moz post discussed how 'Real SEO's' [their term, not mine] are people who actively participate in the SEO community via social media - as opposed to being people who, you know, optimise websites in order to improve their visibility in organic listings for terms directly related to those websites.
These are just 2 more examples of the ‘closed-door’ attitude within the SEO community, where it's not actually what you know or what you deliver, but who you brown nose.
Is SEO akin to Freemasonry?
Take a look at the 'exclusive' SEOktoberfest conference. For £4000 a head 18 people get to hang out with a clique of 'top internet marketers'* (and 9 Playboy bunnies - oh yay!), in order to get their hands on 'insider knowledge'. Firstly, the cost limits the people who can attend to those already at the top end of the industry - people who should already be pretty clued up; secondly, surely these best practices and good tactics they discuss should be open to the community at large. Not only would this help us all to be better SEOs, it would help to change the bad reputation our industry has acquired, largely based on the poor services delivered by a lot of so-called SEOs.
No, apparently not; the 'knowledge' is only for those 'in the club' as it were. Or maybe it's not knowledge; maybe it's tactics that stray onto the darker side of grey, things that they don't want anyone working for a search engine to discover? Maybe they discuss the kind of tactics clients would shy away from? Maybe these tricks need to remain secret, because once search engines get wise to them they'll cease to work and they'll be back to doing SEO the hard way?
As you spend time in the industry you find deeper and deeper levels of secrecy, more cliquishness and closed doors. If you don't spend a lot of time on social media and SEO sites shouting a lot people won't know you when you go to conferences, and everybody knows the best conference takeaways are acquired in the pub, not the sessions. If you don't go to conferences you're not thought of as ‘serious’ and what’s more, you can’t go to the post-conference networking events so you have no way to access the information you need to be a better SEO. Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t just rename it Search Engine Optimasonry and start planning world domination via search.
The Financial Cost of Joining the Club
Never mind the time it takes to make yourself heard over the din of SEOs trying to make friends with the in-crowd, time taken away from actually working on SEO or spending time with your family (or outdoors, in the sunlight, where it's nice); the cost of attending conferences is prohibitive for many.
Factor in the registration fee, travel, expenses, as well as time away from the business - if you're working for a small company it's unlikely they'll have the budget to send anyone to more than the odd event, and if you're a freelancer I hope you don't mind remortgaging. You could always shell out yourself if your company won't send you, but you'd probably have to treat it as a holiday (and frankly, I'd rather my holidays not involve work).
This means that if you're a good SEO who’s learned the trade through hard work: you understand how a search engine works; you understand the needs of the businesses you work for; you can spot code issues or even fix them; you know what makes a good link; you're social media savvy; you can delve into Analytics, find opportunities and use stats to improve conversion rates and usability; you write press releases; and so on, you may still be considered ‘not very good’ by the industry, simply because nobody's heard of you. You certainly have very few places to go to learn more advanced skills and up your game, because people simply won't share with you.
This not only is this self-defeating, but it fosters an overall atmosphere of secrecy which affects the service we provide as an industry and the way in which we deliver it.
Nobody Likes a Whistle-blower Snitch
But the rot goes deeper than that; because the club doesn't rat on its own you can be a terrible SEO running an unethical business, selling services that might damage people's websites, but if you're active in the community then it's OK. God forbid anyone actually attempt to criticise the work you do, or start a debate about it.
We see damaging SEO tactics all the time - things which could get sites into trouble - but the moment we try and expose these tactics the industry comes down like a tonne of bricks, condemning us for turning on our peers, even though said tactics can, in some instances, be the wrong side of legal.
On the whole, SEOs passively accept the darker practices of our industry because we all, to some degree, use them (and we can learn a lot from the way they work). They’re also accepted because, for many out there, these are the people they drink with at conferences, the people who advertise and sponsor industry events, and the people who speak on panels; they're 'in the club'.
The first rule of SEO club is: ‘you don't talk about SEO club’; if you break it you're suddenly an anathema, potentially committing career suicide; nobody will ever share anything with you or trust you again, even when the dodgy SEO work you're outing is hardly hidden.
Clarity is Our Best Weapon – if We Choose to Use It
Now, I'm sure that everyone who's worked in an agency (and probably a lot of in-house folks too) have been in a room with a prospect or a client who hasn't trusted them - who thinks SEO is a dark art and doesn't believe that what we do will really work; a client who challenges every result, every success, because they don't really understand the process of optimising a website and the methods used to build successful SEO campaigns.
Well, guess what - a lot of this lack of understanding is down to our own closed community and the ideology of secrecy we worship. This lack of transparency about how we actually deliver results (rather than what we blog about as good SEO practices) means that those new to the industry will find it all the more difficult to learn. It also means that people looking for SEO services will continue to think of what we do as a black art, full of mystery, and will continue to mistrust our ability to do what we say we can, or to believe that when we tell them what we are doing, we're not up to something more sinister.
Personally, I'm all in favour of complete transparency with clients - I want them to understand what we're doing for them and how it may affect their websites, their traffic and their revenues. When we talk about doing 'ethical SEO' this is what we mean.
In my experience most good agencies operate the same way. However, the best way to get rid of the stench of deception about the industry is for us to open up our publications, open up our circles and talk frankly about what we do and the risks and rewards of it for businesses, in such a way that people outside the industry looking to hire a company to optimise their website know what to expect from the company they hire.
It might even have the side effect of making the SEO community a nicer place to be.
*n.b. this means people who work the conference circuit