Developer Matt Gemmell has written a helpful article for people wanting to boost their online presence in a non-evil way, entitled SEO for Non-dicks.
The catalyst for the piece was an account of John McElborough's talk at Brighton SEO 2011, but Gemmell says the article has been bubbling away in his mind for a while: "Most people in the industry have had similar thoughts at one point or another, and as a blogger I see my referrers cluttered up with junk/fake sites, and as an internet user I see garbage search results and once-genuine domains whose registration has lapsed, and are now just link-farms or Viagra storefronts. You don't have to go very far on the web before your shoe squishes on so-called 'black hat' promotional tactics."
Is SEO corrupt?
We asked whether Gemmell thought SEO had been corrupted, or whether he considered those trying to game the system were in the minority. "I think pretty much anything that can be corrupted, will be corrupted in short order; it's just the human condition," he told us. But Gemmell also reckons that SEO as a line of work has a terrible reputation that's not entirely unjustified: "Before I started my own business as an app developer, I built web apps for several agencies, and we were in touch with various 'SEO companies'. Their advice was split between the blindingly obvious and the ethically questionable, and talking to them often gave that slick, slimy feeling that made you want to wash your hands afterwards."
Gemmell is quick to point out that SEO is a legitimate line of work, and important for anyone with a website. However, he believes you must be aware that not everything is 'optimisation' and that optimisation itself has too often become a euphemism for abuse and exploitation. "The rules of actual SEO haven't fundamentally changed since the early days of search engines, and you can learn them in half an hour without the need for further explanation. But the term 'SEO' has picked up so much unseemly baggage because of the underhanded, keep-one-step-ahead-of-the-law side of the business," he claims. "Someone who commented on my article said that they felt the 'S' should stand for 'snake-oil', and non-sequitur notwithstanding I think a lot of developers feel that way."
A better road
While Gemmell admits most people are decent and the really 'black hat' SEO guys are in the minority, the intensely competitive nature of search rankings must cloud some people's minds; furthermore, instant results for web traffic are too often demanded, reducing the desire to play the long game, in a more ethical manner. For those tempted by the dark side, Gemmell suggests you ask yourself a question: "Do your actions benefit you as well as the wider community, or instead of? Black hat tactics are in the latter category."
Gemmell thinks there's another, better road, which won't keep you from sleeping at night. We're now in an incredibly connected age of social media where content can rapidly go viral: "The means of spreading the word about your site is already out there: it's people, all of whom are eager for the next meme or interesting tidbit. Search engines aren't the monopoly on human attention that they once were. A lot of the black hats resent the gatekeeper quality of the search engines, but there are other places to generate buzz and build an interested community." His main tip is the oldest one in the book, that people are most genuinely interested in things that are genuinely interesting: "Put the energy and money into the thing you're creating, and let your visitors or customers do your SEO for you by word of mouth. Build it and they will come."
And, sure enough, Gemmell's post was number one on Google for ‘SEO dicks’ within hours of publication, due to his site being a long-running trusted source of information ... without a black hat in sight.