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Like clockwork, every few months a mainstream publication or a prominent online website/writer throws SEO and the entire SEO industry underneath a bus. SEO is all about "tricking" search engines and the SEO industry is nothing but unethical shysters out to make a quick buck while polluting Google's search results. And yet, for an industry that's filled with reputation management consultants, we don't seem to do much to make things better. So this week's Sphinn "Discussion of the Week" asks: What, if anything, can/should we do as an industry to improve our reputation?
Comments29 Comments  

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Avatar Administrator
from MattMcGee 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 2

I'll start by saying this: On the bright side, SEO seems to me to be more in demand now than ever. I just wrote about the SEOmoz survey results which suggest similar findings from SEOs around the world. So that's good. At the same time, as someone who works with a lot of small business owners, hangs out with a lot of small business owners, is married to a small business owner, etc., there's still a strong  sense out there that what we do is akin to witchcraft, that it's risky, etc. I think a big part of the problem is all the actual snake-oil SEO sellers out there who prey on the uninformed.

What to do? I'd love to see a more coordinated effort at the industry level to focus on education and improving PR. Maybe this is something SEMPO can do? I don't know. I do know that I find all of the SEO bashing in both traditional and online media to be tiresome. I tend to ignore it at this point, but maybe the industry shouldn't be ignoring it.



Avatar Administrator
from Michelle 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I think it would be interesting to see how any given consultant would handle the situation if say, they had a new client come to them and say "I'm in the widget providing business. But widget providers are looked at with skepticism, and sometimes outright contempt. Here's the playing field. Here's what's out there in the SERPs about widget providing. How should I market my widget providing business?"  I'd be surprised if anyone came back with "Ignore that bad stuff in the SERPs associated with widget providers. They're part of traditional widget providing and don't understand what you actually do. Haters gonna hate."


Yet, it seems that's how much of this industry responds. The focus tends to be on the person/company/agency posting the negative info, vs. the fact that there is a growing body of negative info out there - easily believed and spread. No one asks why. Why this perception persists, what contributes to it, and how can it be addressed - professionally. Though with your own clients, that's exactly what you'd do. Because that's what marketing and reputation management is. It's about managing perception.




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from scottclark 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 1

More than ever, rank is a function of social signals and engagement.  I think SEM consultants should position themselves as the ambassadors for the engagement economy.  We must draw attention away from the old ten-blue-links thought process and towards helping shift a corporate culture so they meet consumers, bearing gifts of useful content, at the moment intent is detectable.



Avatar Moderator
from toddmintz 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 1

Ultimately, search marketing is about ROI / Sales / Leads.  When engaging prospects, consultants should speak in the language of mainstream business and lose the "geekspeak". If we can present ourselves in a near-identical manner as other types of consultants, our reputation will improve.

I would categorically tell a business never to use a search marketing consultant who doesn't primarily reference real world business metrics.  Last time I checked, a high Page Rank can't get your electric bill paid...



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from qwerty 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Matt, I don't think SEMPO are the people to promote the image of the industry, because their interest is promoting the industry itself. They made a decision at their founding that issues like standards wouldn't be relevant to them. This is still on their home page:

SEMPO is an industry organization designed to promote search engine marketing in general, not an accreditation body for SEM firms. Membership in SEMPO is not a guarantee of a particular firm's capabilities, nor does it signify industry approval or disapproval of their practices.

I'm fine with them taking that stance, but I don't think it puts them in a good position to defend us from those who suggest we're not to be trusted.



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from FlyingPointMedia 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I'd like to put forth the notion that it's time the search engines (Google in particular) partnered more closely with organizations like SEMPO or even SEO professionals that definitely "get it" to help businesses find good providers and avoid the snake oil peddlers. It feels like Google et al don't believe or don't want to acknowledge that they need SEOs to exist. I think its up to us to be more assertive and get the word out to the SEs that they need to support and promote the work of GOOD SEOs bc, in the end, it'll help improve the quality of THEIR SERPs. The longer they ignore us, the longer the the quality problems on many of their search products will exist.

Just because there's no AdWords account equivalent for SEOs to open and pay into, doesn't mean the SEs dont have a vested financial interest in getting on our side more. I've seen countless clients who become successful in organic invest in paid search - the relationship is a symbiotic one. And i'll say it again, making it difficult for the low-lifes to get paying customers will, in the long run, enable the good professionals to clean up spammy SERPs. Wouldn't this have a positive impact on search volume and impressions? On revenue?



Avatar Moderator
from Jill 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 3

There are so many things that contribute to the bad reputation of the industry. While we can (and do) mitigate it somewhat through positive education about what SEO actually is, how do we:

  • Stop the seo email spam? (There are like 10 in my spam box from just today.) People associate SEO with viagra, fake rolex, and whatever else is in spam email these days.
  • Stop companies (both big named ones and others) from offering boondoggle SEO tools and services that have no effect on a company's bottom line?
  • Stop people with no skills or experience from setting up an SEO shop overnight?

While some might say that SEO standards are the answer, I continue to disagree because  who will create the standards but other SEO firms? Which makes them tainted from the start (biased towards the way those SEO firms work).

I think the SEO industry has come by its bad rep. naturally because it mostly deserves it. When potential client after client after client calls and says they've already been burned by 2 or 3 previous SEO companies, that means there are a whole lot of SEO hucksters out there or how else would these people be finding and hiring them?

One thing that would help right away would be for stupid-ass fake SEO rating companies to be held accountable for their ratings. But that's another one that is never gonna happen since it doesn't seem that there are any laws against pretending you're a rating service when you're just a pay-for-play service.




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from kennyhyder 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Um who cares? Does what the ignorant think of us SEO consultants actually affect our ability to get clients? People always shame that which they don't understand. Let them.



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from FlyingPointMedia 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Kenny - Don't you think there's a benefit to helping create a market environment where potential customers who were formerly wary of or against SEO are now enthusiastic and confident about their ability to find a reputable provider? An environment where clients are almost always looking to partner with you to make things happen rather than put you under a microscope while they keep their "options open" no matter how good your work is? Wouldn't everyone benefit from that?



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from kennyhyder 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

My clients have and always will trust that I know what I'm doing. Anyone that is weary of SEO isn't ready to hire me anyway, so it doesn't matter.



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from JadedTLC 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

FlyingPointMedia - It frightens me that large SEO companies might get a nod from Google. They could easily start going black behind G's back. It's not G's job to monitor all the endorsements it gives out. That would cost them money.. But I've also seen demand for SEO rising, albeit from companies who want to experiment, not go full blown.

If you sit down with your client and speak without jargon, you will start to see the lights going off. Often we are afraid to expose our "secrets" for fear of making competitors. I think that is far from the truth. The science behind SEO should NOT be a closely held secret, the artistry is unique to the individual.

Those that believe SEO is witchcraft die by their own sword. Those that write about it, are trying to game the system to get more clients (Jason Calcanis, I'm talking to you).

Saying SEO is dead is like saying MySpace is dead. It's simply not. It's evolving. We've been in the middle of a paradigm shift in the media space since I graduated from college in 1999. Writing, copyrights, spam, marketing, advertising, communication, education, government, politics.. it's all changing and evolving. Some of it will be scary, most of it is exciting. Explain what happened to them when the poor SEO advice was offered - what was actually happening. Why they saw traffic rise quickly and then why they bombed etc.. If you can talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, you just show your expertise.

Education is the only way we're going to push a positive reputation on our industry. As the SEO industry, we need to come out of our conventions and invite more non-SEO people in. Allow them to see some of how the sauce comes together. They'll buy what we're cooking if it smells good. And when they taste success, they'll definitely want more.




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from StephenChapman 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 6

Hey, everyone. I run an SEO blog on ZDNet called "SEO Whistleblower" and its primary focus is to dispel myths and educate the masses about SEO. I'm not going to link to it here because I don't want this post to be perceived as spammy, but when I saw the topic of this article, I felt it necessary to comment. I wholeheartedly agree that the industry should address this problem and approach it head-on.

From the emails I have received and comments from various folks, there are a lot of people out there who are passionate about hating SEO. I've found that most of the people who are like that are folks who have been burned before -- not the people who just read negative SEO press. As for those who have been burned, just whose fault is it? Would awareness have helped in those situations? Absolutely. Once one business owner gets burned, the crap rolls downhill from there and that's a process I'd like to interrupt.

Kenny: Anyone that is weary of SEO needs to be educated, not ignored. Whether it's because they are planning on doing it themselves or they want to hire someone to do it, I'm completely willing to spend time and energy focusing on ways to educate that person and the person after them and the person after them and so on and so forth. Whether that makes business easier for you or your competition down the street, I'm interested in nixing the negative stigma around SEO while simultaneously putting the dishonest SEOs out of business. Trust me, I'm all for you having your opinion as you do on the topic, but there are many people who stand to benefit from taking the bull by the horns with this situation. =)

I'm interested in fostering industry health and promoting prospective client awareness/education, so... I encourage those of you interested in the same to include me in the conversation. My reach extends straight to individuals deep within big corporations who many of you would like to have a direct line to, so I'd love to use my influence in those realms to help show them and those following their footsteps what SEO really is... and what it's not!

-Stephen



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from FlyingPointMedia 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 1

Jaded - I don't think endorsements are the answer per se, but certainly taking the opposite approach and adopting the same cynical tone as detractors is way less constructive. Google develops way more resources to educate its consumers on AdWords and getting help with AdWords (agency directory as an example) - where's the same for SEO?


Kenny - i hear ya, business is still good so no sweat, right? It almost sounds as if, though, you're surrendering your stake in the future of the larger community in some way by framing your response in the context of the hear and now. Can we afford to be every SEO for him/herself? Is that ever a good idea?



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from JadedTLC 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Flying Point Media - Google doesn't get paid for SEO, and with the advent of Google Places, SEO is being pushed further and further off the first page (the only page significant traffic comes from). I don't believe promoting SEO any more than they currently do, is what they feel worth their cost benefit analysis. I used to stand more in your shoes, but as Eric Schmidt has become a live wire, I'm not sure I want to be associated as "good" by people who are kinda going crazy, if you know what I mean.



Avatar Administrator
from Michelle 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 3

SEO/SEM/SMM/PPC are just online marketing channels. Talk in terms of marketing channels, and people understand. I agree 100% with what Todd said - don't use geek speak, it's not necessary and changing the language will ultimately change the tenor of the discussion surrounding the tactics used (seo, sem, ppc, smm) for online marketing.


Something else that would go a *long* way in improving the reputation problem - stop using phrases like "white hat" and "black hat" and stop advertising your services as "ethical" and the like. Would you ever go to a doctor that felt it necessary to advertise "Ethical Dentistry" or "White Hat Family Medicine" - sounds kind of ludicrous, right? Well it is - to everyone outside the fishbowl of this industry. And makes them wonder 'why are there these distinctions?' 'Is this a legitimate business?'  Perception matters, and language influences perception. No one sells used cars anymore, right? They sell previously owned vehicles.


@kenny - you ask who cares and why bother? a couple of things -


- Madison avenue is catching on and catching up. Those traditional agencies everyone in this biz derides as not knowing what they're doing - look over your shoulder.  And consider their resources - ability to hire or acquire the knowledge they need; and their reach - they're already in business with the major brands. Why wouldn't they be going after the online budgets as well as offline? If you're content to yield the territory of all the major brands to them, well, carry on.


- As more money heads online, regulation and scrutiny will follow. If the industry doesn't care enough to keep it's sidewalks clean, you can count on the government to. I'll refer you to the history of the advertising industry - how it began and how it came under regulation. Google is pretty cozy with the fed. Wonder how much of a stake they'd have in getting online marketing tactics scrutinized if it helped clean up their serps....or if a large powerful brand was suddenly the victim of some of the "less savory" tactics that everyone gives a wink and a nod to. Inaction by the industry will result in regulatory action. It's not the wild west anymore out here.




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from MilesCarter 1392 Days ago #
Votes: 2

I think it really doesn't help that SEO has a bad reputation with lots of developers too.

Reading sites like alistapart and smashing magazine, there's not usually much written about or discussion of SEO.

The number of times there's bad blood, shirtiness, clashes of egos or disagreements between our agency and developers, lots of the time I feel like I'm walking on eggshells to avoid causing offence and not making reccomendations that I would do if their developer had a better attitude.

Mostly I feel it's because they don't like people tampering with their work, but it will trigger general scepticism about SEO.

If it was purely a few business owners that had been ripped off, I don't think the industry would have the reputation issues that it does - I think a lack of awareness and a general mistrust from people who work professionally with websites but don't do SEO is as much to blame.



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from WebmasterT 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 1

Bad reputations are always earned. The industry insists that the public should educate themselves... well if they do that do they really need an SEO. I don't have to read up on dentistry to go and have any dentist with a diploma pull my tooth. People do not have time to do that IMO, that is not a realistic expectation. The biggest problem is the industry has set no bar... and so anyone can call themselves an SEO. You can't have it both ways... The fact there is no bar is our fault. Our inability to see the idustry beyond the desk in front of us being THE biggest factor.



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from kennyhyder 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Michelle - I absolutely agree with you there, and when I see opportunities there, I go after them absolutely. The original question was regarding these articles that keep getting published shedding SEO in a negative light as some sort of dark art. I don't feel it's my burden to fight the ignorant.

FlyingPointMedia - In no way am I surrendering my stake, and in no way am I taking a 'every man for himself' approach, you don't know me very well to make that assumption. I just know that you can't win an argument with an ignorant person.

StephenChapman - While I love SEO and I love what I do, this is a business. I'm not here to educate people because they ought to be educated. If there is an earnest person that has some questions, by all means ask away. But I'm not in the business of blindly trying to educate the ignorant just to make a point. If a viable potential client needs educating, that is a different story, but those are case by case.





Avatar Moderator
from Sebastian 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Avatar Administrator
from Michelle 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

@kennyhyder ah ok, I see now that you were just saying "ignore the articles" but not necessarily "ignore the problem" altogether.  I think?  And I get that - there's not much you can do to stem the tide of those kinds of articles being written, but unfortunately, the reputation overall does need to be addressed. Think of it like reviews on Yelp or Amazon or something like that. If your client's products were getting negative reviews, you'd seek to balance those out - by either getting more positive reviews published, or engaging with the consumers that have had the negative experiences.


How could this be done in SEO? We could all play things a little less close to the vest. I see a lot of 'theory' in presentations at conferences and on blog posts, articles, etc., and not as much case study data. Publishing the positive results of all the good work done by the good folks in this space would go a long way in changing perception out there. It would also take it out of the black box a bit. There's really no need for it to be in a black box at this point.


As long as it's easier to surface negative information about SEO (and it's not all BS - we've all heard the horror stories of bad things done to clients by SEOs) than it is to find positive - there's a problem.




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from elysiabrooker 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I believe the single most powerful thing we can do for raising the profile of the SEO industry is achieve results.

The one thing I hear echoed from client after client is how previous SEO "experts" they worked with were paid for months and months of work without ever achieving a single ranking.

Business owners are focused on ROI. Concrete results speak louder than any colourful powerpoint presentation with a nice spiel about the importance of search marketing.

Show a client you can, have, and will produce xyz result and they will open their budget to you.

Consistently producing results will inevitably reverberate throughout the online world and help us all shed the stigma attached to the "SEO consultant" name.




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from qwerty 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Something else that would go a *long* way in improving the reputation problem - stop using phrases like "white hat" and "black hat" and stop advertising your services as "ethical" and the like. Would you ever go to a doctor that felt it necessary to advertise "Ethical Dentistry" or "White Hat Family Medicine" - sounds kind of ludicrous, right? Well it is - to everyone outside the fishbowl of this industry. And makes them wonder 'why are there these distinctions?' 'Is this a legitimate business?'  Perception matters, and language influences perception. No one sells used cars anymore, right? They sell previously owned vehicles.

Physicians and dentists have diplomas, residencies and accrediting boards. Because of that, we assume that a doctor is to be trusted. And when that assumption is proven wrong, a doctor can lose their license to practice.

I don't know which came first: an SEO declaring themself to be ethical, or someone outside the industry tarring an SEO as unethical. The image is out there, and I don't think that if we stop talking about it it's going to go away. I don't advertise myself as white hat (I don't use that phrase, at any rate), but a pretty high percentage of my prospects want to know if I am. I'm not going to respond to such a query by saying there's no such thing.

I'm concerned about the reputation of this industry, and because I recognize that a lot of people rightfully question that reputation, I beieve I have to work harder to uphold my own reputation.



Avatar Administrator
from Michelle 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 1

@qwerty - I'm not recommending we act as if there's no such thing - clearly, people love to use these terms. I'm just saying stop using them to self describe or describe your peers. Which it sounds like you don't do - probably because you realize why it's a bad idea to do so.


Terms like "white hat" and "black hat" further the notion that somehow, the methods used for online marketing (seo/sem/ppc/smm) are a bit fuzzy.  They're not. The methods are all pretty clear actually, it's just a matter of how Google responds to those methods. They like/approve of some, and don't like or approve of others. Qualified SEOs know which is which and take the risks. Professionals likewise educate their clients about the methods/risks. But couching them as "white hat" or "black hat" only contribute to the notion that somehow, what the people in this industry do is a bit shady - and that's why I'd like to see them dropped from our collective vocabulary.




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from StephenChapman 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

@kennyhyder Like I said, I completely understand your opinion and why you feel like you do. I don't think any of us are asking you to participate in anything you don't want to participate in. I mean, you may see it as a waste of time "blindly trying to educate the ignorant," but I don't. Nor do I think the end result of said education is "to make a point," as you put it. Like I said in my initial reply, "I'm interested in fostering industry health and promoting prospective client awareness/education." That's much more motive than simply making a point. Likewise, folks like me aren't really interested in blindly swinging an SEO bat around in a dark room until we hit someone (i.e. addressing the negative SEO press on an article-by-article basis and trying to convert those people). The scope here reaches further than that.

I don't know too many people here who would say they're in the business of blindly educating the masses, either. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be to say we're in the hobby of educating the masses? Just as you may spend your non-SEO hours doing whatever you might do, others of us here clearly feel compelled to use that time to better something we feel should be bettered. Does it make your life more difficult if many of us mutually recognize a need and aspire to create change and impact? Does that make your job as an SEO more difficult? Maybe later, but certainly not now.

Like I said... I get it. I get why you feel this conversation is a waste of your time and that your business model doesn't in the slightest involve educated prospective clientele or educating the ignorant and that's totally fine. For that matter, my business model doesn't, either! My hobby, on the other hand... well, that's a different story altogether. =)

-Stephen



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from lydia 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

We are all in charge of our reputation as SEOs. We should know how to "reputation manage" and keep it managed! SEO encompasses many elements used to "fix" or "make better" a website's presence online. Many of us have differing ways of incorporating these fixes for our clients; one, because we solve problems differently, and two, because each website and its online presence is different in nature.

I believe that we are obligated to both continued education to those in our industry and those who need the services of our industry. The more we work together on clarifying what are the various elements involved in SEO and how it is supposed to help individual website pages in Search, the better we will all be - and the better the consumer of our services will be in knowing how to shop for our services.

I say write about (check out Lisa Barone's article furthering this SEO discussion), talk about it, argue about it, use varying words to describe it ... but don't ignore it! Thinking that SEO is some trick or worthless in any way just comes from a lack of knowledge. Those who know, know. Let's work to get others in the know!



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from FlyingPointMedia 1391 Days ago #
Votes: 0

@Jaded - part of my point is exactly the opposite of your assertion. I think Google and all the major SEs CAN make money from "good" SEO - it's almost like an auto-curating process creating SERPs that are more likely to have well architected, user-friendly pages that satisfy the query. Happy users = more impressions & traffic etc. Instead, the approach their taking is to modify algo's constantly (which is fine, we need that anyway) and to monetize more and more of the SERPs (I'm lookin mostly at Google here). Neither one, and even both in tandem, i feel, will sufficiently solve the quality problem - not any time soon at least. The first SE to leverage the community of non-hacks in some way will gain the competitive edge over the rest (I feel like Blekko is dipping their toe in these waters). Then, i think, we're in a better position to change perceptions about what we do. And ya, Schmidt is worrisome but i bet the average business couldn't care less so long as the traffic that his product sends to their sites makes them money.


@Kenny - You're right, i don't know a whole lot about you beyond what I'm reading here - such was the basis of my assumptions. If you're saying its off-base, that's good enough for me. This is what I'm hearing: it's not worth the time to try and change negative perceptions in most cases; its a no-win proposition when dealing with those that are ignorant about what you do. I wonder how many business models thrived with that as an underlying principle. I know you know what you're talking about, I'm not challenging you there - its just the big picture stuff that you and I differ on.



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from MilesCarter 1390 Days ago #
Votes: 0

"Terms like "white hat" and "black hat" further the notion that somehow, the methods used for online marketing (seo/sem/ppc/smm) are a bit fuzzy."


@Michelle, I agree 100% with this.

I think something else is that many business owners will have no idea what "white hat" or "black hat" means in terms of SEO - sure it has other meanings, but this usage stems from obscure hacker's terminology. Searching Google for "black hat", everything after the first three results is talking about SEO.

So by talking about black/white hat and ethics, business owners may investigate what this means when they otherwise would not have seen warning signs. It seems almost like a sushi bar advertising by saying "Our sushi has never killed anyone with food poisoning"



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from glennfriesen 1390 Days ago #
Votes: 0

"You're a good guy and obviously know what you're doing, but be careful. In the industry you're in, you're swimming with sharks." - Tom, a local "friend-of-a-friend" CEO who asked me to "lunch" to "pick my brains" (but never paid me the confirmed consultation rate we agreed to).

Indeed, there are many sharks out there. Like my not meeting Tom again, I recommend not swimming with them.

==

Separate note: Isn't it ironic that "every few months a mainstream publication [...] throws SEO and the entire SEO industry underneath a bus [as] unethical shysters out to make a quick buck," considering that current U.S. mainstream media is the largest of the spin-cycles, ever?



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from JadedTLC 1387 Days ago #
Votes: 2

@FlyingPointMedia I understand your point. I think Google doesn't care about quality anymore. They have quantity and that's all that matters (ala Walmart).


@MilesCarter And YES Developers don't like SEO's meddling. I likened it to this: Writers have editors who redline their articles, but that doesn't mean the article is "bad." Developers (who are indeed creators) have never experienced editing. They become offended that an SEO is marking up their code as "bad" when that's not the case. This part of SEO is  just another style-guide for writers and coders. And you can quote me on that!



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