Why the Media Doesn’t Like SEO and Why They’re Wrong

When I tell people I work in SEO I often get one of two reactions. Either they stare at me blankly and wait for me to explain what the hell I do or they say something to this effect: “Oh, so you’re the guy ruining the internet.”

It’s that second reaction that takes me back a bit.

Here I am thinking I’m doing a service to the internet by helping search engines, the archivists of our time, organize web content so that those out there searching for information get credible and accurate answers, when all the while I’m actually just manipulating the system and churning out spam?

Popular opinion is often formed by popular media, and over the course of the SEO industry’s development the media has consistently portrayed the SEO practice in an unsavory light.

If someone has no idea what SEO is and they hear disgruntled characters on popular TV shows bad mouth search engine results for having “too much SEO crap,” or see cartoons where SEO’s are drawn as weasels selling snake oil, they’re going to form their opinions based on the context of that show.

Maybe that kind of portrayal was warranted back when the industry was first starting to find its legs, but modern SEO is making major strides towards adding real value to the internet. SEO is providing solid marketing strategies with high ROI to clients and no longer deserves the disparaging remarks.

How SEO is Represented in the Media

Let’s dive into the picture that’s been painted, shall we? I’ve put together a handful of examples of SEO being mentioned in major television shows, comic strips, and newspaper outlets over the past 5 years. If SEO gets mentioned at all in popular media it is usually portrayed in a negative light.

See for yourself:

New York Times Takes a Bite out of SEO
In 2010, the New York Times printed a rather scathing article titled “A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web.” The piece tells the tale of a woman who was scammed by an eye glasses website that had used the now defunct SEO tactic of accumulating bad press to rank above trustworthy brands in Google search.

2011 was a particularly bad year for SEO in the media as Showtime’s Dexter, Dilbert, and CBS’ The Good Wife all made mention of SEO.

Showtime’s Dexter Bashes Google for Falling Victim to SEO
Here’s a character on Dexter (one of the most popular television shows of that year) saying that “Google was so 5 minutes ago” while typing in the URL: eliotsearchengine.com – which supposedly “uses an algorithm to aggregate content without getting tripped up by SEO bullshit.”

CBS Points Out that No One Likes SEO Professionals
On the episode “Two Courts” of The Good Wife that aired on 1/18/2011 the defendant is fearful that the jury will judge him based on what he does for a living. You guessed it, he’s an SEO. Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video into this post because CBS doesn’t seem to have it up anymore but you can read more about the episode on its IMDb page.

Scott Adams Chides SEO Practices and Professionals in Dilbert Strips
The Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams is notoriously critical of SEO and internet marketing professionals. Check out these two comic strips and see for yourself:

Dilbert on Black Hat SEO

 

Dilbert on SEO profession

 

 The only thing I could find that ostensibly approves of SEO tactics and the SEO industry is a television commercial for National Car Rental services.

National Car Rental Applauds Business People with SEO Skills
The commercial’s voice over proudly proclaims, “You are a business pro! Monarch of marketing analysis with the ability to improve ROI through SEO all by COB.” I appreciate the sentiment that SEO improves ROI (it does) but I have a feeling that it was just thrown in there to make a joke about business speak abbreviations.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrLyo0g_LfQ&feature=player_embedded

Keep in mind that these are only a handful of media sound bites mentioning SEO. I don’t have time to go into detail on the countless news articles proclaiming that SEO is dead, SEO is evil, or people doing SEO are scam artists.

Why the Media Had a Reason to Distrust SEO

My father runs a small USA GOJU karate dojo in South Florida and a few months ago, I helped him create a simple website for it.

He uses the site to showcase the dojo’s events, post pictures for his students to see, and offers parents a place to ask questions about the classes. He has no plans to market the site, but gets bombarded with emails and comment spam from “SEO Professionals” who want his business. He’s even asked me a few times if he should take one of these guys up on their offer to “get him ranked 1 in Google” or “get 1,000 friends on Facebook.”

Small business owners like my Dad are ideal prey for unsavory digital marketing types.

If my father didn’t have me to call on whenever he receives a baiting email that sounds too good to be true, he very well might pay thousands of dollars in hopes of building traffic to his website, only to have the “SEO agency” pretend they’re doing him a favor by ranking him for nonsense terms with zero search volume or revenue potential.

Getting people who don’t know any better to sign up for “SEO services” or “Social Media services” without providing any real value in return is, unfortunately, a lucrative business model that has eroded consumer trust in the internet marketing industry.

Even larger companies have fallen victim to shady digital marketing agencies. Some companies, like JC Penny, have even gotten major press after getting their sites torched for conducting certain black hat SEO tactics.

For a few bad apples, the temptation to swindle people is hard to pass up when you have a huge burgeoning industry full of never before heard jargon like “link juice,” “SERPs,” “algorithm updates,” and a handful of case studies that show massive hockey stick style graphs proving the practices worth.

In essence, when you have an uninformed consumer base and historical data that promises massive returns… selling SEO is easy.

At least it was easy until the media took an interest in it.

Starting as early as 2005, media outlets began to take notice as more and more business owners started to voice their concerns about how expensive and ineffective their SEO agencies were. Google has also done their part to publically spotlight disingenuous (yet once effective) tactics like building content farms, publishing spun content, buying links, abusing anchor text, etc.

While the light of day is often the best disinfectant, dragging shady SEO tactics into the spotlight without pointing out the genuine good some SEO’s have done for their clients has a two-fold effect: it makes it harder to get away with using the shady tactic effectively (which is a good thing), but it may also paint a soured picture in the public’s mind of how people in the SEO industry behave.

Why SEO Deserves Another Look

As you can see, the media doesn’t seem to like people in the SEO industry very much. We’re portrayed as spammers, manipulators, corruptors of the internet, or just generally untrustworthy and unsavory folk. Wait a minute though. We are not “pantless weasels” out to corrupt the internet and trick hapless business owners into buying something they don’t need or something that doesn’t work. There’s a silent majority of us out there with integrity and in-depth marketing skills doing good work that has real value.

Now that the SEO industry has shifted away from the algorithm chasing “get rich quick” schemes and moved towards sound marketing strategy development and execution, it doesn’t seem right that we should be scoffed at whenever our job titles are mentioned to someone at a bar.

If anything, modern SEO practices are improving the quality of the internet on a massive scale.

  • We’re the ones who get web development teams to shape up and make their websites more user-friendly because we know that what’s good for the user is good for the search engines.

 

  • We’re the ones pushing hard for mobile capabilities because we know that people are using their phones to conduct searches.

 

  • We’re the ones who convince the purse string holders to budget for content development that answers your incredibly detailed questions about how to clean white linen doilies so that they don’t fade or tear.

 

  • We’re the ones who help make brilliant and useful websites like Zappos and Kickstarter deliver the high quality content the people of the world demand. We may not be on the UI teams, web development teams, or the creative teams, but we’re the ones that convince the stake holders to open the coffers and spend money on what matters so that sites can look like this:

 

Zappos

Without SEO the internet wouldn’t be quite as dense and functional as it is today. You wouldn’t be able to ask it any question and get a sophisticated and easy to understand response in return. Hell, it might still look like the jumbled mess of the 1990’s:

flowtown

 

As of the writing of this post, if you do a search for “how SEO improves the internet” or “how SEO has improved the internet” you won’t find a single article hailing the virtues of optimizing a site or a business’ marketing strategy for search.

Do we still have a ways to go before things are perfect? Sure. Have some of our industry colleagues taken advantage of people? Regrettably, yes, but that’s true for any emerging industry.

The media needs to take a second look at the people making a difference in our industry. It’s time they take a look at the Rand Fishkins, Heather Frahms, and Wil Reynolds of the world and it’s time for SEOs out there to step it up and help polish the SEO image by putting a halt to the unethical quick buck scams. We should do more to emphasize those real and ground breaking business practices inspired by search metrics.

Insights gleaned from search are changing marketing as we know it. It’s time the media acknowledged that.

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  • Matt Cullen

    Great article – Killin’ it! You covered all the TV mentions I was thinking of .. haha.

  • I can’t believe Patrick Stewart would mock us!

  • The more people that hate it, the more it creates opportunity there is for us to rank higher.

  • Spot-on, Matt! Maybe you should have titled this post “How SEO Has Improved The Internet”. 😉

  • Excellent article, well written, and great points! Perception is usually driven by the media so it’s refreshing to finally see an article from a qualified SEO bring these points to light!

    Pretending that the stigma doesn’t exist will only continue to harm our industry’s integrity and reputation.

  • Great article. I loved how you singled out individual references on SEO.

    I think Matt Cutts has also played a large role (through Google) in developing a positive image for SEO. I can’t imagine where SEO would be without these great guys.

    Sharing!