Can and Should the SEO Industry be Regulated?

Published on May 31, 2011

SEOs seem to be seen in one of two ways: savants or snake oil salesmen. It may be time for an industry that could make or cost a company millions be regulated with other professions.

I recently spoke at SAScon in a session on regulating the SEO industry. While this is an issue that has split the industry for years and there was even a failed attempt to do so over a year ago, I believe the industry needs to regulate or die.

While seemingly dramatic, the assertion that the SEO industry much self-regulate or die is more of an observation that due to the poor reputation of SEO’s in the larger business community, it is getting harder and harder to win business without part of the process being building a bridge from a position of weakness because of the perception of the industry to a point where you have built trust and confidence *despite* the industry.

I recently had an experience which made me ashamed of my industry. The behaviour of an SEO company was so reprehensible as to leave me wishing to no longer be involved in the community. This is only one of the things that has led me to call increasingly loudly for some sort of regulation.

The main points of contention that seem to elicit the most arguments are around what to do and how to do it. With references to Google’s constantly changing algorithm, black hat SEO, lack of educational foundations and the large number of self-made SEOs happily working for companies or agencies who would suddenly be required to adhere to a set of guidelines, there is an amount of scepticism and fear in the industry around any sort of regulation – self or otherwise.

As can be seen with the extension to the ASA guidelines, if an industry cannot regulate itself, a body will step in and it will regulate that industry, whether they wish it or not. In a sense, all social media and a lot of SEO work is now under the remit of the ASA – a body that whether they like it or not will change the way they do business. Unless SEO wakes up and smells the self-regulation coffee, we will be absorbed into another industry, cease being unique and will become nothing more than an arm of marketing or IT.

Industry self-regulation is important for many reasons and some of them are related to the recognition of SEO as a distinct industry. SEO is often confused with web development or marketing. It is difficult, given the functions it performs, to know where to place it. This confusion, while not present in the industry itself, is why web development firms can claim to do SEO with little to know knowledge and why my father, who is a lawyer with minimal knowledge of SEO, could tomorrow decide to call himself an SEO and become a practicing SEO with little to no knowledge.

SEO works across multiple industry verticals, each with their own set of laws and best practice guidelines, When working with these companies, SEOs have to comply with these regulations, both being aware of them and having all work checked by experts. Having a set of rules will both help to clarify the what is permissible around issues like the permitted messaging in title tags as well as define a clear set of boundaries which are search engine agnostic.

Issues of black hat and white hat need to be set aside when looking at minimum levels of education, knowledge and/or skills to be able to self-identify as an SEO. While this will not stop unqualified people identifying as SEOs who do not meet the minimum required standards as happens with journalism, solicitors and other professions, it does help set a minimum expected level of knowledge. Grandfathering in all SEOs is not an issue – ensuring compliance with a set of best practice guidelines may be a problem but each step of the process takes time and guidelines won’t be introduced next month or even next year.

As the industry grows and the number of people working in it grows and the amount of money agencies make from SEO grows, it will quickly reach a point where it either regulates itself of the government steps in to do it for us. If a bunch of in-house SEOs and agency SEOs who have been working for between 5 – 15 years could come together and just set out some bare bones, we would have a place to start. Regrettably it has already failed once and who knows what it may take to start the process again short of a major court case.

I love the SEO industry and I would like to see it recognised for the specialist industry it is. I would like to see people within it adhering to some sort of code of conduct which stops them bringing the industry into disrepute (black hat is OK if it doesn’t hack or inject malicious code. But hey – what is a bit of cookie over-writing between friends, right?) and some sort of guidelines we all must adhere to. The IAB and ASA already do a lot of this but so many SEOs have no clue that the industry is in danger of being one of the worst offenders in history simply through ignorance.

Let’s come together and do something positive for the industry. Let’s bring it together and create a set of guidelines – the bare bones of a structure. Let’s come together and let’s do something for ourselves before it is thrust on us by force.