SEO: A Rose by Any Other Name…

There have been so many articles over the past few years referring to search engine optimization as ‘bullshit’ and its practitioners as ‘snake oil salesmen’, ‘spammers’ and worse.

A recent anti-SEO episode was started by Shoemoney. It was very well covered by Danny Sullivan over at Search Engine Land. (Disclaimer; I’m not saying Shoemoney started the latest furor intentionally, and he certainly has every right to be angry. I’m not having a go at him, just stating facts.) Vanessa Fox also touched on the subject recently.

There are a few things I would like to throw into the trouble-pot to bubble and boil.

1. SEO has ‘grown-up’.

I’ll start with an analogy… an odd, politically-based, reverse analogy, but an analogy nonetheless.

In South Africa in 1948 the National Party enforced the separation of warring African tribes ostensibly in an attempt to reduce the murder and rape rate between the warring factions. This political move was dubbed ‘apartheid’, meaning ‘apart-ness’ or ‘separation’.

Actually, at the time this seemed to be a ‘good’ idea to the ruling party. There was a perception that the ‘primitive’ Africans needed to be saved from themselves, and that the ‘civilized’ whites could help them to achieve some stability and reduce the killings by separating them legally into homelands. History has shown that apartheid proved to be a multi-layered disaster. I very much doubt that the founders ever envisaged how their ‘good’ idea of apartheid would be abused.

The seemingly benign term ‘apartheid’ became the byword for racial oppression, repression and abuse of power, and will remain so for eternity.

2. Now, in my weird reverse way, I’ll apply this analogy to SEO:

  • Search engine optimization (SEO) is a term that was coined in July 1997, where it was used publicly in a spam message. Hardly an auspicious beginning.
  • Over the years, the term ‘search engine optimization’ has become synonymous with spamming techniques and with the deliberate manipulation of the SERPs (search engine results pages) to reflect less than optimal results via ‘black-hat’ – or covert and underhanded – techniques.
  • Regardless, the SEO industry has grown. Many marketers, web developers and planners have realized that SEO can legitimately assist their online brand exposure, sales and other marketing objectives.

Here’s our (longwinded) definition of search engine optimization a’la

Search Engine Optimization is a multifaceted discipline. It is the practice of:

  • Understanding a web site’s primary online objective by understanding the client,
  • Conducting online competitive and market research on behalf of the client,
  • Analyzing the client web site’s visible onpage elements in terms of the research findings. (The objective being to assess how well the site is currently answering the interest and likely search behavior intent of the client’s target market in terms of onpage content relevance.)
  • Analyzing the client’s web site to determine how well coded and structured it is in terms of usability.
  • Providing recommendations to facilitate better target market understanding of the web site’s core offering including changes to copy, visible titles and META data, image descriptions and navigational sequencing. Keyword rich (usable) URLs are advisable too.
  • Analyzing how ‘recognized’ the web site is by others within its online market as an authority resource or supplier.
  • Providing recommendations on how to boost that authority legitimately via linkbuilding efforts, both in-market and socially.

We’ve also discussed what SEO is not about.

3. So what’s the problem?

Unfortunately, while SEO as an industry has grown to embrace numerous professionals who understand and practice these standards, the stigma of spam and SERP manipulation remains.

It is true that there are some people out there who practice deplorable search engine optimization techniques. That does not make all SEOs ‘snake oil salesmen’. In the same vein, not all lawyers are ‘shylocks’, not all whites are ‘supremacists’, not all used car dealers are ‘slimy’, not all politicians are ‘egomaniacs’, and not all movie stars are ‘druggies’. When did God make a critic the judge of not only one person, but an entire field of people? Generalizations, in my humble opinion, are both misleading and dangerous.

While the term ‘search engine optimization’ is one that professional, educated, ‘white-hat’ practitioners hold dear, perhaps the very term itself is the problem. I realize that this is akin in many minds to saying that the term ‘used car salesman’ is a problem… But hang on:

  • Used car salesmen actually sell used cars
  • Search engine optimizers don’t optimize only for the ‘search engines’, not any more…

4. What should (and do) legitimate Search Engine Optimizers do then…

Search engine optimizers optimize web sites:

  • To better market a legitimate business productively in the search engines for highly relevant search terms by attempting to get legitimate backlinks from related industry sites,
  • By conducting effective online market and competitive research, and
  • By tweaking the coding and content of a site to better represent the client’s web site to the users.

The fact that there are two types of users, human and spider, is irrelevant:

  • If a site is well structured and easy to understand and navigate, that makes it usable to both types of users.
  • If a site is relevant to human users, backlinks will self-propagate making the site more relevant algorithmically speaking.

That’s a bad thing?

5. Is there a Solution?

I’m not sure there is a solution to ‘re-branding’ SEO as we know it that will take effect immediately. I think that the associated stigma of spam and perceived manipulation will continue to affect what is know as ‘search engine optimization’ for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps it might be worth reconsidering the term SEO? Hanging out on a limb here, and hey, I don’t like it either, but the most efficient and effective solution might for the industries long-time uber-gurus like Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman, Todd Friesen, Greg Boser, Andy Beal and others to get together in an open forum and hash out a new industry title.

Sure it will get backlash from the SEO-haters for a bit, but the general pubic is already unsure of exactly what SEO is (which is a problem in itself), and without a little research (which generally only comes with exposure) don’t know that it’s a ‘bad thing’.

As Danny Sullivan says so eloquently of the knowledge of SEO amongst the general populace:

‘…These are conversations I have with cab drivers, hair dressers, random people I encounter. They don’t know what SEO means, much less that it is practiced by scum-sucking evil doers.’

This would be a good time to consider the human powered search engine Mahalo. What is the objective of Mahalo? My understanding is that it is to provide ‘really relevant’ results that can not be manipulated by ‘evil SEO practices’ due to the human editorial component.

Here’s a thought…
The engines in most cases are doing a better and better job of returning relevant results from quality sites as the algorithms mature. Search engines which apply algorithmic skew towards sites with great, relevant backlinks are more likely to provide even more relevant listings in the near future. As user generated content, reviews and SIM become even more prevalent, this algorithmic skew based on ‘topical authority’ is likely to be less biased than a human based editorial system, which by nature is likely to be flawed to some extent due to preference… humans are human after all.

6. So, hypothetically speaking, what alternative naming strategy might work?


  • WUO (Web Usability Optimization)
  • WSO (Web Site Optimization)
  • OSM (Organic Search Marketing)
  • OAS (Online Asset Optimization)

What do you think?

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