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SEO goes back Underground in 2009

I think 2009 is the year SEO went back underground.

I come to this realization through the back door. While trying to understand how so many “SEO websites” seem to succeed with their audiences, while publishing poor quality or low value content, it dawned on me that the continuing growth of the bottom of the SEO industry in 2009 (the new people) has overshadowed the transition away from public disclosure of real SEO knowledge. That, combined with the aging of the original SEO practitioners (the ones in those ancient closed-door communities, who rarely show up any more, and always via a name drop by their friends) has left us with junk.

Search any current SEO topic and review the results. Nice designs, lots of supporting testimonials, plenty of “awesome article” and “thanks for this essential reference for our industry” type comments. But look closely at the “information” published and you might find (as I have), very little. Not much fact. Lots of fluff and conjecture. Lots of soft statements that really don’t say anything concrete, and often say things which are incorrect, if taken as written. And I have considerable knowledge and experience with the material, so I assume I am qualified to conduct such a review.

Over the past few years many of my friends have left the public SEO world and gone back to their own communities and work. But I have continued to try and make new friends. Now I am noticing that most of those new friends, who clearly have extensive knowledge and experience, do not publish anything. I see them in social media, keeping in touch, and I see them in person at conferences. But they don’t write about SEO. SEO has gone back underground.

Which leaves me wondering what will happen when the still public SEO websites are completely free to say whatever they want, to accolades from their adoring (and non-critical) fans. I think I know what will happen. They will become authorities. They will become standards bodies, free to say how it is, unchallenged. And if any of them are any good at this communications game, they will band together and brand anyone who criticizes them as, well, pick a label: crazy, stubborn, a h8tr, grumpy, deceptive, unbalanced, or any of a number of adjectives intended to discredit. That’s how propaganda works.

Worse still, if the consumer marketplace buys the junk info, which they may simply because a Google search turns up little more than that junk info, then the providers of said junk become more powerful. Authority gets granted.

The smarter/slimier of them will spread the wealth around their fan bases (typically in the form of kickbacks and referrals), to cement their support. In the short term, they win “power” and their followers earn profitable gigs. In the long run, the marketplace will suffer as customers experience low quality product and discover how inaccurate/misleading the published information really was.

This is all good for those who went underground. Less real competition, and less distractions. Google also wins.

There are many ways for an SEO to “go underground” in this context:

  • stop working on others’ projects and focus on wholly-owned projects
  • collaborate with associates to build out specific projects (partially owned)
  • focus on a narrow vertical marketplace where demand for state of the art SEO is lower
  • build a search marketing community and sell into it, instead of actually doing search marketing
  • publish software tools for sale to the seo marketplace or direct to consumers
  • partner with industry leaders to make over affiliate programs and search marketing strategies, profit sharing
  • start one or more small “firms” as partnerships, staffed by young ‘uns willing to work hard in “startup mode” for equity

That’s just a sampling… and the next step for me is to wonder, what happens when all of these endeavors stop performing, based on established SEO tactics? Will these players continue to conduct their own SEO research along the way, or keep coming back (and kicking back into) the community hoping to buy knowledge? Lots to think about…


  1. Totally agree, people can’t reveal information that actually works because it will just stop working straight away.

    Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 11:43 pm | Permalink
  2. It is obvious that sites about SEO are made by SEO’s with an idea of making those sites just having big traffic. And many of that sites are helping each other to improve that traffic, that is one of the way the money could be earned. There is no need of being an authority, we just need to get followers/twitters/readers etc. I’m afraid that nowadays site’s content is less important thing and marketing is the most important element of whole process of making site popular. Sad? Maybe a little bit, but that is just the world we live in.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 12:55 am | Permalink
  3. Ben McKay wrote:

    Hi John,

    You’ve raised some interesting points here, and I’d be interested to hear who you might be referring to.

    There is a trend of sharing less online, because if it’s shared, it’s written about and shut down as a loophole / opportunity. Often loophole’s a are short-termist, but sometimes that’s all you need. The opportunities, awareness and education from working together collaboratively though can add masses of value but it tends to be within closed communities/contacts to avoid the information going public.

    Regarding the consumers buying this junk that is publicly available. I guess this really comes down to have smart they are at shopping around for it. Have they carried out some preliminary research by paying £150 (or whatever it is) for a buyers guide to SEO from an industry level service such as Econsultancy in the UK…

    And regarding this point: “Which leaves me wondering what will happen when the still public SEO websites are completely free to say whatever they want…” – I think the SEO community is vocal enough to put people right.

    Really thought provoking post John, thanks for sharing. :)

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 1:28 am | Permalink
  4. Pretty thought-provoking. But I think there will always be options there for people with talents that achieve results and make money. Whether they move to their own projects, or work for clients that push useful budgets.

    The other factor that maybe you’re not considering is that if the junk floats to the top there will undoubtedly be a backlash from the demand side – customers will become more savvy, and reject shoddy service. That might actually be a good thing – sometimes you have to get to the bottom to beget rejuvenation. And sure what harm? As I said, the talented folk will always be kept busy.

    Have to say I enjoy reading your blog – seems to me you keep a very level-headed approach to your writing, which is admirable. Also agreed with your comments on the SEOmoz ranking factors post – without raw data it’s difficult to weight up the various conclusions.


    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 3:00 am | Permalink
  5. Todd Mintz wrote:

    People like you and I tend to talk about theories and concepts, showing we know what we’re talking about without giving much information away.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  6. Dr. Pete wrote:

    Not that I disagree, but isn’t that true of any industry as it reaches maturity? In the beginning, people are always discovering new things (because discovery is easy), openly talking about it, and the rules are always changing. As the “science” progresses, information is harder to come by (especially new, unique information), so some people continue to push forward while others disseminate the basics to newcomers. It only makes sense that some people are going to push the envelope (and want to keep some of that to themselves), while other people choose to become educators and distribute information other ways. Some of those information sources will be good, and others not-so-good – hopefully, competition sorts that out. At the same time, there will always be newbies, some of whom are smart and eager to learn, and some of whom want to take the easy way out.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  7. There is just so much “SEO expert” spam floating around in conjunction to increased monitization of the SERPs that the flow of real information will come to a trickle.

    The affiliate/Internet marketing world is hyper competitive so there is an incentive to not only provide less SEO information but to actively promote disinformation. While your would be competitors are spinning their wheel,s you can be off making money.

    Great post John!

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  8. ‘start one or more small “firms” as partnerships, staffed by young ‘uns willing to work hard in “startup mode” for equity’


    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  9. You may be right, that SEO information is not as freely available as it once was. Perhaps SEO technique has become more of a valuable commodity and as such is not simply shared. Tactics that are only semi-effective are floating around for free, while information that is highly effective is perhaps kept more under wraps. And Patrick, you make a good point — all it takes for Google to tweak their algorithm is for them to notice that SEOs are starting to make some serious headway.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  10. Chris wrote:

    An interesting article and one which I would agree entirely with.

    However, the rules, goalposts and general standards have never really changed. Content remains key, no matter what other factors any SEO expert points to. Make the content worthwhile, valued and of interest to the web community – and 75% of the job is done. The remaining 25% is the technical validity over and above content.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  11. Hi John,

    This trend seems to be largely precipitated by social media technologies. In the beginning our community, online, resided on forums. Forums were a good for discussions because they were multi-threaded and people could expound or get into an extended detailed discussion. SEO lived in the forums for a good long time. Relationships were built and reputations created. Even now, when you look at the predominant conference speakers, you can trace many of their roots to an SEO forum.

    Next blogging came into vogue and the conversation moved. Blogging was distinctively different because one person set the topic to which everyone else responded. Initially bloggers maintained the spirit of the forums when they wrote about each others’ posts and added their own knowledge or point of view. (I never felt that the real discussion occurred in the comments. That was mostly the “me too” zone.) Ironically, blogs created the A-List of SEOs. Because everyone wrote about each others’ posts and linked back and forth, they created a circle of search engine authority and trust, which resulted in high rankings.

    Blogs also began the self-promotion meme. People realized they could build audiences and convert eyeballs into dollars. It’s a attitude that’s carried forward ever since. Like the rolling snowball gets bigger and bigger, the drive toward self-promotion keeps getting stronger and stronger.

    Then came Facebook. Because it was fast and social much of the conversation moved there. Unfortunately, Facebook is not conducive to long format or detailed discussions. The conversation became less serious and more social and more promotional. Members had to deal with a higher level of Spam and noise. Still, because it was easy to participate and be seen, this is where the conversation migrated to.

    When you think about it, the prevalence of Facebook did not last long. Twitter quickly eclipsed Facebook with its instant 140 character platform. Once Twitter readers came into being there was no turning back. The problem with Twitter is it is impossible to hold a real conversation. Sure it’s good for jokes and comments or to point people to other content. Because it’s fast and easy it creates the illusion of keeping in touch with the community. After awhile, though, the conversation becomes stale and repetitive. During the early days Twitter was actually a lot of fun and you could have something resembling a conversation. That’s changed completely. After Twitter crossed the chasm it became too crowded and too noisy. I’ve witnessed more SEO personalities come and leave Twitter than are active in the space right now. They simply gave-up.

    My instinct tells me that we need to recover the art of the long slow conversation. It’s there that real knowledge percolates and experts emerge. Unfortunately, just as people are unlikely to return to the caves, I doubt enough members of the SEO community will want to slow down and engage in this type of discussion. We’re too busy pressing Alt-Tab.

    Thanks Tom. I see your analysis but I still think we will return to blogs. I expect a big tech change with blogging that will open up the conversation (comments plus social becoming something much more dynamic and supportive of conversation) and ultimately separate the “easy CMS-supported publishing platform” site from the “blog”.   I don’t think the self-published info site is going away. I also don’t think Twitter replaces blogs… although Twitter is surely changing the way we communicate and link.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  12. Keith Paulin wrote:

    Essentially you are right…I think there are a couple of driving factors.

    Firstly, those that can, do, and they make a serious recurring income and have no need to keep up the profile becuase their record speaks for themselves and referrals from happy clients keeps the loop closed…those that can’t do make a lot of noise, and make a lot of one-off income. But the profile of SEO is still rising…we finished the last quarter with the highest level of enquiries and conversions ever.

    Next is the simple extension that says “If we can do this for others and drive real revenues from online, then it makes sense to look at doing it for ourselves.” The infrastructure to support virtual business models, from drop shipping to online payments make it easy to add these to a “core” idea and get traction.

    And finally, our industry does itself no favours by conjuring up all the mystery and intrigue and inuendo (and yes, just guesses). You seldom find a lawyer or accountant or engineer creating such mystique. We go to great lengths to explain in laymans terms what it is we do – research, reverse engineer the SERP’s, test and implement what the search engine’s like…but even that is a failing because, as you infer, serving up content just that the search engines like is not the aim…quality content that engages, connects with and drvies actions should be the real goal.

    And so comes the interminable question “Is SEO dead/dying?”…and the answer is probably yes, but from a self-inflicted wound. We prefer to think of it as “in transition” moving away from mere rankings and traffic and more towards engagement and conversion…back to the principle of “stickiness”…at least that’s the way we are heading…but vewry, vewry quietwy…

    Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  13. I feel that most of the pertinent SEO information is out there, if you know where to look. Stuff that worked in the beginning generally still works, apart from practices that have been deemed Black Hat, such as cloaking. In the long run, solid SEO practices will continue to come out on top because all the clever stuff is either destroyed by spammers, or subsequently declared unethical. I don’t think the situation is as depressing as you make it out to be, however. Still a good article though, and well worth reading. Thanks.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 2:31 am | Permalink
  14. Crimsongirl wrote:

    Awareness of SEO is so mainstream now. Years ago I would tell people I do SEO and get blank stares. Now I just mention internet marketing and people exclaim – “you mean SEO?!” And you just see the most lame seminars pitched to small businesses about SEO now. I feel sorry for the business owners who fall for these vapid explanations and advice. This reminds me – a proposed event for next year’s SXSW festival

    It won’t get picked, but it’s still disheartening to see it even listed as a possibility.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  15. Anthony wrote:

    SEO has always been underground. Its becoming more and more competitive in every sector (gradually) and people are going to become less and less willing to share information publicly. Its just common sense…

    What makes it worst is opportunists see SEO as an opportunity to cash in. You can never guarantee results so they need not do anything much. Kinda ridiculous. It actually reminds me of Timeshare.. oo dirty word. But its the same, cold calls, hard sell and the small business is stuck in a 12 month contract which won’t deliver any ROI. They get burned bad and then avoid it in the future.

    Anthony :)

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  16. Wise guy wrote:

    we are all opportunistic people, and the best thing is to get the job done, what ever job it is that gives you the best ROI …..

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  17. Agreed that meaningful communication will slow down, maybe through blogs again, or maybe other means. I see Twitter as an interesting marketing tool, but it will need to evolve.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  18. Wayne wrote:

    Dr Pete raise a good point about an industry that is maturing. Once a person/company leaves the “startup” phase they tend (hopefully) to get very, very busy and just don’t have the time that they used to. They also probably no longer have a need to attract unprofitable traffic the way they used to as they start to focus on their niche market, nor do they want to share the hard-earned strategies that pay their mortgage and staff salaries.

    As Richard Hearne points out, the folks who are focusing on a niche are making money and they are doing well – as in any regular business environment where people take things seriously. These businesses are not in any danger from the “slimier” practitioners that may be left, nor is any business that makes a point of researching their vendors. If anything, the bottom-feeders may actually start creating their very own barrier-to-entry which will ultimately benefit everyone who’s in it for the long haul.It could get ugly in the short term though.

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  19. Joe Perez wrote:

    You have raised extremely valid points! My BIGGEST frustration as an SEO are the ‘snake oil peddlers’ or ‘black hat’s’ that convince their prospective clients that number of results yielded in the SERP’s have ANYTHING to do with their optimization skills. I remember over-hearing one such peddler at a conference tell the person, “You see how there is 35.5 million results? We are better than ALL of those other websites!” So later I asked if I could be so nosy as to what was the search term he gave as an example.. the answer was ‘Top Internet Marketing Company in America’ and the person seemed sold 1000% on their SEO ability. REALITY = Can you say no competition on that longtail? #fail

    If only website owners would educate themselves JUST a little in SEO so that they were able to spot these try-hards…

    Till then, I’ll be in the underground :0)

    Friday, August 28, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  20. admittedly this article gives me some ideas…focus more on in-house projects..

    Sunday, August 30, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  21. Vedran wrote:

    You don’t have to be a scientist to figure this one out, really.

    Your future as an SEO and an internet marketer is always going to be in development of your own properties and products. Everything that you do should serve that purpose.

    You can be an in-house guy (or girl), do consulting, or have a small agency just as means to an end.

    Monday, August 31, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  22. Thank you John for sharing your interisting opinions about SEO. I completely agree with you. However I think that most of the characteristics of SEO have not changed till now.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  23. Marcell wrote:

    I totally agree to you, John. I run an SEO blog by myself and it is hard not to reveal the good working seo tricks and write interesting articles at the same time.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  24. Is there an underground in the age of gogo le bot?

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 2:16 am | Permalink
  25. Jim Hay wrote:

    John, Your post was very interesting reading. I agree with you on several points. Most importantly that with the increase in public interest and awareness of SEO. I am a web designer that got into the industry via the need to market a business of mine that was marketed nationally. I as many business owners was ripped off in the past and work very hard at delivering goods when contracted to do so.
    My personal outlook in SEO is using the time tested techniques of good SEO practices. Good on page practices, good code, and developing quality inbound links. It works for me. Understanding good SEO practices and applying them in different ways has always delivered good results.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 3:30 am | Permalink
  26. It is interesting watching the ever-changing migration of SEO veterans. Many successful SEOs have long been underground, but I agree that 2009 has shown more underground behavior then years past, especially among SEOs who were very public just a couple years ago.

    Monday, September 7, 2009 at 6:31 am | Permalink
  27. yourseosucks wrote:

    Yes. Yes. Agreed. Who are the new guys in the room? And what are they doing? I hope they don’t ever tell. I know I won’t. Going back underground makes it fun again. >)

    Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  28. Suthnautr wrote:

    When I was a kid I did a lot of running, weight lifting, calisthenics, yoga and watched my diet and took my vitamins. Over the years I broke the 4 minute mile, came in first out of 5,000 men in the military in brigade competition, on the obstacle course, and almost broke the fort record in one of the competitions. The point I’m making is that just like becoming an athlete, it takes years of cumulative effort mastering the computer and the internet to become expert at SEO.

    The first few times I ranked a site on page one for competitive keywords when the SERPs showed 55,000,000 page results I had to figure out what it was that I had done right. It wasn’t in the domain name, it wasn’t in the number of back links, it was in the content – and I got my “Eurika!” first real SEO secret by analyzing what I did right. I do that same kind of analysis now on a regular basis to discover other SEO’s hidden secrets.

    While it’s certainly true that we can’t disclose what our competitive edges are to the entire public (and why should we – we’re ultimately competitors and in it not just for love, but also to make livings) the fact is that the masses of self SEOs and SEO wannabe’s just plain aren’t qualified. They don’t have the years of cumulative experience, they lack the natural talent, intellectually they suck at any kind of science, and in general they’re a bunch of screw ups. The real danger to SEOs is the con-artists that take clients money and fail to deliver, turning off a completely good revenue source to ever wanting to pay for SEO again. There are billions of pages and sites that need optimization, so running headlong into each other competing in the same niche at the same time for page one ranking is relatively small – and even if you rank one and I rank two on page one, we’ll all still be happy. If the good ones all go underground then the self proclaiming expert quacks will take over totally discrediting SEO and driving the price way down no matter what kind of real expertise you have. I’m not so sure going underground is the way to go. At least keeping valid “white hat” SEO sites up to date and exposing what doesn’t work will keep our domains ranking and possibly save some clients from being robbed. That’s what SEO is all about – saving clients from being robbed and at the same time making everybody more money.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  29. quqabita wrote:

    Early Adopters or early birds in any business model tend to get swamped by laggards-the Johnny-come-latelies and I promise you the enthusiasm and naivety of the latter irks the former big time.There are 2 options as you have rightly pointed out-leave the fouled joint by creating a new trend.

    This is a natural process. You can’t stop it. it is the order of the d ay in all facets of life.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 7:24 am | Permalink