These days anyone can label themselves an SEO and begin publishing and building an audience. At first, a few basic posts like “make sure you have good title tags” will attract readership and comments like “wow.. this is great advice! Now I’m getting more search traffic than before, thanks!” which help convince others you are an SEOGuru. After a few of those rudimentary posts, if your writing is decent, you may even start to get comments from people who aren’t already close friends. If you choose the MakeMoneyFast route, you can build an audience of thousands without ever actually doing anything meaningful in SEO. Just re-constitute the same old basic advice found everywhere else into a new “how I got rich” scenario, publish a photo of an AdSense check, decline to admit how much you spent on the buy side of your arbitrage enterprise, and gain thousands more subscribers. Everyone wants to make money. Everyone wants something for free. Few want to work hard, and many want to just copy your success. The question to be asked is, at what point is someone calling themselves an SEO actually an SEO? At what point has someone earned authority to publish opinion on issues of SEO? And how do you know, as the reader, to trust that opinion?
In my opinion, it is a simple matter of comparison shopping. Compare unknown person A to known person B, where B has assumed authority, and you can better judge the quality of A. The only problem with this consumer approach to SEO is, we don’t often see two SEOs projecting professional opinions on the same issue. We see plenty of discussions that are in reality non-definitive in any particular market. Much of SEO differs between market niches. That basically guarantees that everyone stating an opinion might be correct in their own niche markets. It is fairly safe to state something is true “in your experience“, especially if you are not required to divulge your specific experience or if it is something that is difficult to test (and, in my experience, most SEO issues are difficult to test).
To complicate things further, the (excessive?) incestuous cross-promotion of SEO personalities in our market leaves us in a situation where when we do see agreement, we don’t really know if we can trust it as true professional agreement. It may be pre-arranged strategic alliance. Are they friends? Are they backing each other up? Are they playing nice, for other reasons?
That’s why I go to the sessions at search conferences. I can listen to “person A” whom I don’t yet trust, paying attention to every actual position they take on an SEO issue. I can then compare them to myself as known Person B, in order to form an opinion of their legitimacy as an actual, practicing SEO. It may sound surprising, but I am able to catch numerous “erroneous statements” made by SEO people at just about every conference. Are they mistakes? Are they errors? People are under pressure when speaking publicly. They make mistakes. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Person A said it, and I have a better understanding of Person A henceforth when I read their blogs or listen to them speak on other topics which I may not know very well. I also get to check on my own confidence, for each issue. If I am not sure about something, I know I have homework to do.
As SEO has specialized, I’ve become a liberal when it comes to defining SEO. An SEO is a person who works in search optimization, deploying techniques and practices that provide a competitive advantage over other web publishers in specific markets. That’s enough to qualify. But an authority is an SEO who can tell other SEOs meaningful things about search optimization that either will work or should work in various markets, based on past and current practical SEO experience. An authority has SEO Wisdom.
The most interesting situation for me is the rare case of SEO disagreeing with SEO, in public, accompanied by intended-to-be-persuading arguments. We never see that at search conferences. I rarely see it even online. But I saw some of it today between a relatively “new” SEO person (Joost deValk) and a relatively “old” SEO person (Mikkel deMib Svendsen), over what boils down to a fundamental philosophy of SEO practice: search engine business behavior.
Enjoy reading the comments for yourself, but it boils down to this: Mikkel has been riding the edge of SEO for many years, and doesn’t trust Google. Joost approaches SEO logically, and doesn’t see why certain SEO techniques that are clearly SEO techniques could be risky, since Google says they are ok. Read it for yourself, because they each try and explain their opinions and it makes for an insightful read if you care to understand the SEO approaches of your potential competitors Joost and Mikkel.
For those who care, I do indeed have an opinion on the debate. And yes, I will share it.
Joost is right, where he looks at the use of nofollow for “site sculpting”, cites Matt Cutts’ own comments on how nofollow can be deployed for such purposes, and notes that you are unlikely to unfairly benefit excessively in the rankings from the strategic use of nofollow in this fashion, and thus risk negative action from Google. But Mikkel is right when he says “from a pure risk perspective its not very smart to take risks you don’t have to when other, less risky and just as effective, strategies are available.”
If you sculpt your site with nofollow, you put yourself on the radar as a competitive webmaster engaging in tactics to influence search rankings. For that reason, and that reason alone, it is ill-advised where that activity gives you a significant advantage over your visible competition. As Mikkel seems to put it, if you took the riskyou must have expected a correspondingly significant gain, and therefore, your intent is clear.
However, if you are in a very competitive market where considered tactics are a necessary but not even sufficient condition for page 1 rankings, then you must by definition deploy tactics which are likely to reveal your intent to influence search rankings. Anytime you assume risk, you must manage that risk. Plausible deniability is a powerful weapon against search engine scrutiny, but the strategic use of nofollow is devoid of plausible deniability. As many have noted, it flies in the face of Google’s own initial purpose for the nofollow attribute. I say, manage your risk, and do what it takes to win.