Stop hurting yourself, SEO: Why the industry needs to get its house in order – quickly

Harry Sanders is the founder of SEO agency, Studio Hawk, and has been winning awards since founding his company. Awards won include Mumbrella Under 30 Achiever of the Year 2019, Millennial of the Year in the Media & Marketing 2019 Global Awards in London, Best Marketing Agency at the SEMrush AU Search Awards 2019 and Young Business Leader of the Year in Media, Marketing & Advertising Business of the Year at My Business Awards 2019.

Opinion Marketing is coming to terms with a new world order. Until last year, that looked like a gradual but fairly smooth transition. In 2019, two of its industries took a beating.

One was advertising. The other was SEO. While the advertising industry was being attacked, by and large, by aggressors outside its control – an increasingly fragmented media landscape, its own increasing fragmentation, budget and time pressures and a shift in the balance of power between client and agency – SEO was self-harming.

The bad behaviour of too many SEO companies was giving the whole industry a dire reputation. Self-harm isn’t smart. It’s not grown-up, it’s adolescent. Advertising, being a mature industry has been through its reckless stage. SEO, being younger has not. 

When Guido Heffels, the internationally applauded founder of German advertising agency, Heimat, was asked in an interview this month how his agency had managed to keep producing brave and successful advertising for core client, European home improvement chain, Hornbach, for more than a decade, he replied, “trust, responsibility, honesty and deep-rooted love.”

Trust, responsibility, honesty and deep-rooted love are not the dominant adolescent qualities. SEO needs to acquire these qualities. SEO needs to mature to thrive.

Like adolescents, SEO behaves in mysterious ways. Badly behaved SEO companies have been using this to their advantage. In the new world order, a lack of transparency is not tolerated. When businesses ask, “Can you give me a breakdown of specific SEO tasks?”, they expect a breakdown. Answers like, “It’s too complex,”, “We don’t reveal our strategies,” or “We don’t give away our intellectual property,” are self-harm. Trust is lost and even a handful of badly behaved SEO companies can lose trust for all.

Like adolescents, badly behaved SEO makes big promises that it cannot keep. “Can you guarantee that my website will rank #1?” answered with “absolutely” is self-harm. It’s irresponsible.

Badly behaved SEO companies have been using a lack of transparency to their advantage – but in the new world order, this is not tolerated. They hide their results behind privacy pleas but ethical SEO companies are proud to show off their results

Like adolescents, badly behaved SEO plays fast and loose with truth. Calling its unethical practices Black Hat SEO gives them an allure they do not deserve. The black hat wearing “bad guys” in westerns have an attraction of sorts. But they tend to get shot dead in the end, often tangled in their own sticky webs. Dishonesty makes for a short life and ultimately, failure.

I have a deep-rooted love for SEO. Love its complexity. I even love that Google’s algorithms are not constants that can be relied on time after time. Love being kept on my toes. I’d love to see SEO respected. Recklessness does not deserve respect – and there are plenty of behaviours that SEO needs to outgrow.

Most businesses are approached regularly by SEO companies by email warning of problems in their rankings and promising to achieve spectacular results. Many are approached over and over again by the same SEO companies. Respected SEO companies don’t have to send spam email.

Most businesses only find out that their SEO company has been behaving badly, that their business is not ranking highly, when their results decline. A decline in business is not what companies pay SEO service providers to achieve. To repeat, recklessness doesn’t deserve respect. Nor does it get it. Published stories about badly behaved SEO companies (and there are far too many of them at present) tarnish the respect that ethical SEO companies have worked hard to earn.

Badly behaved SEO companies hide their real results behind privacy pleas. Ethical SEO companies are proud to show off the results they have fought to achieve for their clients and their clients are proud to be shown for their successes.

Badly behaved SEO companies make Google enemy, magnifying the difficulties (and the costs) their own tasks entail and blaming these platforms for poor results. Google is not trying to kill anyone’s business. In fact, they rely on businesses to succeed by using them. But they, too, are under pressure to be ethical and they have millions of business trying to rank #1. They are trying to manage badly behaved SEO companies. They are trying to stop cheats.

Ironically, I began StudioHawk as an ethical SEO company when I was an adolescent. I was just seventeen. StudioHawk has grown up with me. It has thrived and I have thrived. But my industry hasn’t. The well-behaved SEO companies are having to fight far too hard to win respect because of those who think they can get away with bad behaviour forever. Thinking you can get away with bad behaviour forever is adolescent thinking. SEO needs to grow up.  

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.  

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