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As an offshoot to the ongoing discussion about the terms "black hat" and "white hat" tactics, some people have brought up the topic of industry standards and certification. In our "Discussion of the Week," let's hear your thoughts more specifically on that aspect of the debate. Search engine marketing has been around for more than 15 years now. Is it time for a set of industry standards and/or certification the way many other industries do? The floor is open.
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Avatar Administrator
from MattMcGee 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

In case you've missed it, here's the black hat/white hat terminology discussion I refer to. This discussion is more specifically about standards and certification, yay or nay, and why.



Avatar Moderator
from toddmintz 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

No, I think our service offering is intangible enough that any standardization process would be meaningless for both the consumer and the practicioner.  A "certified" practictioner wouldn't necessarily mean the person is either good or ethical, and a "non-certified" one might be non-certified because he/she doesn't give a rip about wasting the time and effort to be certified.



Avatar Moderator
from nickfb76 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Ideally I would vote 'yay' but in reality it's a big 'nay'.  So many of us practice SEO with all sorts of techniques resulting in all sorts of results.  What or who is to say what is "right" and "wrong". SEO is changing every single day so how do you determine how long a certification is valid for?

The biggest issue I would have would be who determines the training and issues certification?  Google? Search Engine Land? SEOmoz? The guy down the street? And how do any of these peeps differ from the SEO practioner that makes huge $$$ sitting in his/her moms basement and has no public reputation but is ranking for "viagra" & "Car insurance" etc.



Avatar Moderator
from Jill 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Absolutely, positively, 1 million times NO. And it never will be.

See my article at SEL from a few years ago as to why we don't need seo standards now or ever.



Avatar Moderator
from JulieJoyce 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 1

I don't want standards or certifications because they can be faked (and people can easily cheat to get certified.) As Nick asks, who would be the ones to set standards?



Avatar Moderator
from Realicity 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I agree with Todd so I won't duplicate that comment here.  So, instead I'll address the standards vs certification aspect.

Standards would be the basics and best practices.  Google and Bing each have their own guidelines, which the standards would be based off of.  And if SEO/M ever stops or slows down in changing as frequently, then, as an industry, we might be able to come to a consensus on a universal set of standards.  As an industry, we might be close to the point of being able to adopt standards, but we're probably not there yet.

The forthcoming SEOmoz 2011 Search Ranking Factors might be the closest thing to represent us as a collective industry.  I'm looking forward to it.

Now, I'll ask if there are universally recognized measures of Certification for:

  • Direct Mailing?
  • Telemarketing?  Government regulations certainly, but Certification?
  • Newspaper advertising?
  • Yellow page advertising?
  • TV or Radio?
  • Blimp advertising?

Of course there are companies and EDU's providing education and professional training in these areas as there are in our industry.  These would include the basics, standards and best practices.  But are there certifications specifically for these marketing/advertising groups that are universally accepted?




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from Mert 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Nay,

How can you keep standards on engineer-centric companies' (like Bing and Google)  technologies where everything changes everyday. This is not exactly as simple as Newton's Laws of Motion.



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from seotheory 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 2

Standards are NOT certifications.  People need to get down off their soapboxes and stop confusing these two issues.

We ALREADY HAVE CERTIFICATIONS.

Standards tell the world what to expect from the industry.  Standards are not linkbait.  Standards separate the hogwash from the reliable work.

Standards are not about the laws of physics, they are about processes.

Standards are not about engineering, they are about setting expectations.

There are many reasons why this industry needs standards -- and the lack of understanding on the part of SEOs about what standards are and mean is one of the most important reasons.

You shouldn't be afraid of standards because right now you're all advocating "best practices" that are essentially hogwash and BS.  There is no clear agreement or consensus on what constitutes "best practices for SEO".

THAT is what standards would give us all to work with.



Avatar Administrator
from Michelle 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 1

I think the fear about having standards in this industry is telling. So I hope the next time everyone starts the handwringing over the next article from pick-your-giant-old-media-outlet that paints SEO as ambiguous, snake-oil-like, or otherwise outside the bounds of traditional marketing, you all come back and review what's said here. And consider why it is that the reputation problem of this industry persists. You can't have it both ways folks - mainstream respect but wild-west fight club rules.


There are not only standards and practices governing the traditional advertising and direct marketing industries, but they've found themselves under regulation by the government. If you don't decide amongst yourselves some standards for this business - where ever increasing amounts of money are being spent - you'll find yourselves in the same situation. You just might regardless actually.




Avatar Moderator
from Jill 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 1

From the previously mentioned SEL article of mine:


So, yeah, I’m not a proponent of SEO standards. Every industry has their share of bad guys and good guys. Industry market forces and the search engines themselves will eventually dictate what best practices are and are not. I believe it has already happened, to a certain extent. Why do you think there are so many ex-black-hatters turned white-hatters out there? They have learned through trial and error that fixing what’s broken on their websites—rather than tricking the engines into thinking all is well—works much better for the long-term.

For those who just don’t get it, all the definitions and rules in the world won’t change them. Market forces will either require them to change their ways, or they’ll simply end up out of business.


Avatar Administrator
from MattMcGee 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 1

I'll play devil's advocate:

How is it that the real estate industry can have standards (to be certified/licensed as a REALTOR®), but the SEM industry can't?

Who decides? Well, in real estate, the industry created a National Association of REALTORS® that collectively created (and revises) a set of professional-level best practices for serving clients. It doesn't decide what the best tactics are, it addresses the behavior of those it's certifying. As a licensed REALTOR®, my wife agrees to behave in a certain way, to treat her clients in a certain way, etc.

Isn't that possible in our industry?

Most of the "no, it'll never work" comments come from people who associate certification with tactics, but in reality it would be geared towards behavior of the people practicing SEM. That's pretty much how all professional groups do things, from what I understand. Doctors get licensed not based on whether or not they prefer surgery vs. chemotherapy, but based on their professionalism, knowledge, and adherence to medical industry standards.

(end of devil's advocate)

I don't know how realistic it is for our industry, in its current state, to agree to a set of professional behavioral standards. But I do agree with Michelle that we're not going to solve our reputation problem until we do.

Another issue is that other industries have recognized processes for formal professional training. If you want to be a doctor, you attend and pass a prescribed set of classes at an accredited university or medical school, and in doing so you qualify to practice medicine. Our industry doesn't have any such system in place, making the whole idea too far-fetched right now.



Avatar Moderator
from JulieJoyce 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Good points just raised actually...when I was a social worker we had standards and that didn't bother me, so not sure why the idea of SEO standards does. I have dealt with so many clients who had truly ignorant SEOs that they paid handsome amounts to. These guys didn't even get the basic things like proper redirects in place. I'd like to see people who really don't know what they're doing not being able to fleece someone out of a lot of money.



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from seotheory 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 2

Market forces without standards often leads to regulation.  Even the ubiquitous "sales industry" has to deal with regulation ("truth in advertising" laws, for example).  It's only a matter of time before the SEO industry is regulated because of the egregious marketing claims that some individuals (and some well-known firms) continue to make.

But more importantly, before we have to contend with regulation we will have to contend with a hostile public that gets its (mis)information from the (ill-informed and) sensationalistic news media.

There is no reason to fear standards.  They take nothing away from anyone practicing SEO -- but they do give us all something we need: credibility.

As an industry, search engine optimization -- search engine marketing -- has little to no credibility.  Standards would vastly improve that situation.

We can adopt standards by supporting an industry standards group.  That doesn't mean we all have to buy link measuring tools and take certification tests.  It does mean we'd have to pledge to our clients and prospects (and employers) that we accept the definitions of best practices as defined by that standards group.

There is only a positive value in that proposition for everyone who isn't planning on cheating people.  When the public can point to a set of standards to which we hold ourselves accountable, they will be able to say, "Okay, this makes sense.  This helps us understand why search engine optimization is valuable".




Avatar Moderator
from hugoguzman 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I'm down with standards, but just don't let Michael write them. They'd be too long-winded.

But in all seriousness, standardization is a sign of maturity. Yeah, it would be hard and ultimately imperfect (as Jill suggests) but as Matt mentioned, if the real estate industry can do it, the search industry can do it as well.



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from Jas 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I don't think that a set of ethical business standards would be bad at all. What I am seeing a lot of people discussing here is a standard for certification, which I think has already been said that Google & Bing already have their own. For those businesses that are not familiar with what they are getting into, seeing that "Google Certified" logo is probably a relief to them.

Maybe what should come next for this industry is something similar to AIGA, some sort of organization to put down the rules so no one person is left in charge. Yes, there are people who wouldn't want to join, but there are more people who would.

By asserting ethical business standards rather than certification standards, businesses who are being jipped by their SEM will know they are and can hire someone new. I do agree that there should not be any more certification standards than what Google and Bing have already set in place.



Avatar Moderator
from Jill 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Ethical standards are already addressed by consumer laws. You rip people off, it's illegal.



Avatar Administrator
from MattMcGee 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Jill, then why do doctors, lawyers, real estate agents and dozens upon dozens of other professions have them?



Avatar Administrator
from Michelle 1112 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Jill consumer laws address specific actions - which are not always a matter of ethical standards within a given industry - and getting 'ripped off' is not the beginning or end of damage that could occur by engaging with an SEO.  Did JCPenney get ripped off? No.  Was significant harm done as a result of the business practice being used? Yes. Was it illegal? No. There is much talk of risk - the assumption being made there is that SEOs always disclose the risk to their clients, I'd bet that more often than not, there is no such disclosure.



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from seotheory 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Ethical standards are important but I think standards have to go beyond ethics.  There are certain practices that clients should expect and be able to understand, like keyword research, reporting, etc.



Avatar Moderator
from ajkohn2001 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 1

The real question is who is going to do this? I'm not going to name names here but don't we have certain certifications today? You might see them on some blogs.

Personally, I find most of those certifications to be all sizzle and no steak. They may look good, but rarely do I ever equate them with knowledge or reputation. In fact, my own bias is probably to view it the other way.

Certifications are ... essentially tests in my opinion. So, do we need tests? Maybe. But who administers them? Who determines the right and wrong answers? It's clear in real estate or in law when you've done something wrong. That's not always as clear in SEO. Not only that, but you'd have to retake those tests as the industry changed ... and it does change.

Standards are ways in which you conduct business. I think there could be some very broad standards, but I'm forced again to ask the question of who makes up these standards? At the end of the day I think we're talking about a code of conduct, such that you're not conducting work without cient consent, you're not representing competing clients, you're not engaging in spam etc.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to have standards and certifications. I spend a not inconsequential amount of time demonstrating that I'm not one of those SEOs. The ones who promised them the moon and instead gave them a golf ball. But I always do demonstrate that. I have a track record.

And so ... isn't that our standard and certification. To look at our work (blogs and clients) and demonstrate that we're at the top of our game. That we're not a fly-by-night whack job. And if clients can't see the difference - or don't want to pay for the difference - is it really our job to fix that?




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from seotheory 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I could swear I had replied again to this discussion but my comment is gone.

Standards go well beyond ethics.  Standards address performance and process.  With standards, clients would be able to learn what to expect from an SEO provider and how to measure the quality of that performance.

Standards can lay out the basic SEO process from keyword research to reporting without stipulating "how it must be done".

Certifications are not really part of the standards question.  Standards do not equal certifications, do not require certifications, and do not have to lead to certifications.

Standards can be set by an ad hoc group following ISO procedures -- everyone would have an opportunity for input and participation.

Standards don't carry the weight of law but they set a bar that is fair and achievable.



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from IanHough 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I think SEO is such a grey area, like the Web in general, that knowing where to draw the lines would be a major problem. The Web is like the wild west, and I think I like it that way. In time it will become more organised and civilised, but it has to be allowed to develop naturally. How can we discuss implementing standards when the sherriff, i.e. Google, is like a corrupt drunkard, intent only on milking every advertiser of their dollars by insisting their text ads are somehow of more noble blood than other bought text links?

Whenever it all goes pear-shaped the SEO company is fired, like cannon fodder, without a thought for all the money made by companies like JC Penney, etc, as a result of paid links. Who paid for those links, anyway? Did the SEO company in question charge JCP for them over and above the money discussed, or was it part of their monthly SEO package?

SEO (especially now) is like dieting; everyone knows what they have to do to get results. It's right in front of our noses, but too many SEOs believe in an "Agent X", a shortcut to success, a way to sell Google snake oil and get away with it. It's going to still be like the wild west for a while, methinks, but this latest Google move has shunted everything up a notch towards respecting the sherriff a little more, as he finally begins to sober up.

If Google continue to personalise results people will stumble into a dead end and begin to rebel. I think we'll see a good few more backlashes and punishments meted out before this is all over. The sherriff needs to remember, if we're gonna be more honest, so must he be....



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from mrwordsworth 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I will rather say YES to any such certification. Although I agree with most of the people who have rejected the idea but, A certification will not mean much to companies like SEOmoz or SEL but freelancers like me depend on our reputation to get clients. Having a tag of "certified" behid our names will increase our chanses of landing with new business.



Avatar Moderator
from Jill 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 0

And that's exactly my problem with the certification end of things. The perception from the general public that the certification actually means that the company knows what they're doing.

As far as standards go, my other problem with it is that not every site needs all the things that some might consider to be "standard SEO."

Every site is different, and every site needs different things. One would presume that some set of standards would talk about link building as something that should be done. Yet not every site needs link building. What if they're a huge brand who already has billions of natural links?

And while I believe that keyword research is the cornerstone to most every SEO campaigns, I've had clients where it's not necessary for a number of reasons. Under some sort of standards thingee, my clients would thing I was negligent.

If SEO were a one size fits all process, perhaps we could have standards. But it's not.

As to the ethical stuff, again, I think being ethical is a given with any company. Who's going to say, "we're an unethical company, but just hire us anyway." The unethical companies and people are typically the ones shouting about who ethical they are on their websites. They are the same ones who will claim to adhere to the arbitrary SEO standards that someone creates, and clients will continue to get burned.



Avatar Administrator
from MattMcGee 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 0

"One would presume that some set of standards would talk about link building as something that should be done."

Jill, again, certification/standards isn't about telling the SEO what tactics to use. Doctors aren't told that they have to choose surgery over chemotherapy for cancer patients, or that they have to choose eye patches over surgery for strabismus. Real estate agents aren't told that they have to use Trulia or Yahoo Real Estate or Facebook or whatever. No one would tell SEOs what tactics they have to use. That's not what certification/standards do.

What they do is educate and train so that the SEO is smart enough to decide which tactics fit best for each client. That way business owners aren't throwing their money away on tactics that aren't needed done by SEOs who aren't qualified.

"If SEO were a one size fits all process, perhaps we could have standards. But it's not."

And you think practicing medicine or law is one size fits all? SEO is child's play compared to that stuff. And yet somehow those industries have recognized the need for consumers to say, "You know, these people have gone through medical/law school, they've been trained and educated in a curriculum that their peers have agreed is needed to qualify for the title of doctor/lawyer, so I can trust that they have a foundation of knowledge. Sure, not every doctor/lawyer is awesome, but I can trust that this person didn't just buy a domain last night, start a website, and call himself a doctor."

I guess if you think it's a Good Thing that anyone can call himself an SEO and start making money off clients 24 hours later, then let's not bother. If it's a Good Thing that a large percentage of the population thinks what we do is voodoo and witchcraft at best, or unethical and illegal at worst, then let's not bother.

But if you think, y'know, maybe it would be best if the public knew that we took our profession seriously enough to want to make sure there's a formal education process, formal ongoing education, and a certain set of minimum qualifications in place, then maybe we should bother.

Or maybe it's just that doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, plumbers, contractors, landscapers, insurance agents, painters, electricians, and just about every other legitimate profession you can name is smarter than we are.



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from seotheory 1111 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Standards are not for Websites but for the people marketing the Websites.  In an industry with standards, those who comply with the standards deliverable a reasonable and predictable service.  Those who exceed the standards have an opportunity to become stars.  Those who ignore the standards risk losing all credibility.



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from bruceclay 1107 Days ago #
Votes: 1

Folks, each of us have our own standards. Every company we work for has its own standards. And if you have absolutely no standards then how do you live? What if we took the best from the community as they relate to SEO/SEM and then combined them into a minimum threshold for behavior that we can almost all live with. It does not define how we do the job, just what it takes to be called a SEO. We may be amateur Poker players, but we also all know a cheat when we see one -- we do have certain standards for most things. One way to develop standards is by consensus, notably starting with surveys. We ask which is most acceptable, which is always acceptable, and which is never acceptable. We ask each question 3 ways. We validate results and throw out false data. We get validated data from a large audience, determine the most natural behavior, then test a minimum threshold. Standards is not the realm of one person – it belongs to a community.

We start with Ethics… assuming that a large share of the population thinks it is not acceptable to lie and cheat and rob our clients. Consensus rules. Then we move to conduct. Consensus again rules.  Then heated and argumentative name calling discussion, then a soul searching about if everyone agrees to live by these basic minimum standards that the majority accept as fair. Sort of like writing the Constitution, but probably harder.

But with nothing as a standard then anything is legal and there is no such thing as a cheat or crook, or worse yet, we are all cheats and crooks.




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from seocharlie 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 0

In the SEO industry, results are the best “metric” for each one of us – I think.We all know what is “black” or “white” in terms of ethics, and sure we know the consequences. The word “Standard” sounds too short to me when thinking on optimization services.I got a “Master” degree in SE two years ago at Barcelona University (UPF), but I did it just for personal reasons instead for looking for some “certification” over my work.We all have our best “tactics” to get good results but this doesn’t mean the “others” are wrong OR outside of the average list. Just a quick example: link building. For some SEOs this should be the first step on any strategy. For people –like me- this is not. What’s right or wrong? Standards don’t guarantee results. We already have our “Code of Ethics” many years ago which are more related with personal attitude. That is in where everything else starts...



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from Feydakin 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 1

Matt, your argument that other industries have "standards" falls apart when you take in to account that search engines hide so much from us and leave us to figure them out on our own.. This places every single "tactic" in doubt as what may wor, and be acceptable, in one niche may be the kiss of death in another..

This in turn makes the entire standards process a popularity contest for everyone's favorite theory.. Now, if the SEs want to step up and create a certification and standards process, I would be willing to get behind that, but until then anything we do as an industry is just a WAG..



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from Doc2626 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 1

I'd have to agree with Steve-

Imagine a Building Code that was classified "Top Secret". You're told to follow best practices like "make it sturdy", "build it to last" or "quality material is everything". But when the inspector shows up on-site, his opinions are based upon some ethereal, mandatory standards which were never shared with you.

Let us know how that works out for ya!



Avatar Administrator
from MattMcGee 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 1

Matt, your argument that other industries have "standards" falls apart when you take in to account that search engines hide so much from us and leave us to figure them out on our own.

Is there a guide to how the human body works that I don't know about? Something that reveals everything there is to know for doctors? Or have doctors been trying to figure out how the body works for decades now through extensive research, research that continues to this day and will probably continue into eternity?

Yet, despite the fact that doctors have to "figure this out" on their own, and the fact that some tactics will work on one patient but not on another, that profession has managed to create a set of standards that dictates how those who wish to call themselves doctors are required to behave.

Again, if it works for them, it can work for us.



Avatar Moderator
from Jill 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Where are these doctor standards of which you speak? A Google search didn't seem to bring up much on that.



Avatar Moderator
from ajkohn2001 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 0

I won't speak for Matt but I'm guessing he might be referencing the AMA's Code of Medical Ethics.



Avatar Moderator
from Jill 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Great thanks. Those are a good jumping off point to see if and how something similar could work for the search marketing industry.



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from Feydakin 1093 Days ago #
Votes: 0

Ah, there is the issue Matt, you want a code of ethics, not a standards based process.. Got it..



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from SarahCarling 1092 Days ago #
Votes: 2

The problem I see with certification, is that you can only certificate everyone to the lowest acceptable standard. So we certify that everyone is able to do the minimum required (which is all some people are charging for, and more importantly, all some businesses actually need), then all that happens is we give everyone at the basic level a piece of paper that lets them start scamming their way up the pole, 'yes multi million dollar ecommerce company, I am SEO certified so I can work on your site' and for a little while businesses stop doing the due diligence they should be doing any way, and start hiring low level 'certified' SEO's. The end result is exactly what we have now.

The problem we have isn't going to be solved by standards or certifications, simply because there will always be people claiming to work at the level above what they are actually capable of. That can only stop when clients start educating themselves, in just the same way as bad plumbers and electricians stopped being able to get away with as much shoddy work when homeowners started realising that being a 'certified plumber' meant nothing, and that word of mouth was still the best way to find good talent.



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from seotheory 1091 Days ago #
Votes: 1

It looks like Aaron Wall has taken a pot shot at standards by suggesting that we'd all get some sort of badge (that's not what standards are for), that we'd have to have some sort of organization or body (not necessary with the ISO process so far as I understand), that scammers won't abide by standards (yeah -- that's how people OUTSIDE the industry would be able to identify scammers), that people willing to do "whatever it takes" would ignore standards (again, that would mean people OUTSIDE the industry would have a bar by which to measure the quality, credibility, and riskiness of such practitioners), that we have a set of standards in Google's guidelines (no, those are Google's guidelines), that standards are backwards looking (but since we never had standards, what on Earth would they be looking back at?), etc.

When people distribute this kind of ignorant nonsense through sensational claims, they underscore exactly the reason why our industry needs standards.

Until John Q. Public has an independent measure by which to judge the ridiculous statements made by any random or well-known SEO blogger, the whole industry suffers in terms of credibility.

Would standards have been able to deal with Panda?  Absolutely -- because standards are not about rankings, nor are they about techniques.  Can standards be developed that measure the quality of techniques and practices?  Absolutely, but in a dynamic environment there would be no need for standardized techniques except as fundamental training practices.

Standards are the only solution for the problem we have because standards cannot be manipulated, hidden, lied about, subverted, or otherwise used to deceive people.  The deception would still occur -- we wouldn't have to look to any august body to toss someone out on their ear.

Standards would provide those of us who want to achieve long-term success with the shield of credibility and a lexicon that can be understood by everyone who wants to talk the language regardless of their level of expertise.

Standards would quickly defuse the B.S. blog posts that argue against standards.  More importantly, they would give the media something realistic to talk about rather than these vague, shadowy practices they commonly associate us with.

It's going to take time for people to stop being afraid of standards.  Standards only threaten those in our industry who don't want to be held accountable to their clients and business partners.  Standards are no threat to innovation.  They have a long history of nurturing innovation.



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