Search Marketers Divided, Time for New Definitions?


Yesterday we discussed this Wired article featuring well known Search spammer Greg Boser of Web Guerrilla. As a result of those discussions, and talks elsewhere, one thing has become very apparent: Search marketers are divided on how they define both what they do, and why they do it. This post will suggest that it might be time to look at redefining, or perhaps creating new terminology for the differing schools of thought.

Follow the title link for the full post.

Two Distinct Groups

There are two main schools of thought with regard to Search marketing for free listings, as opposed to paid advertising:

  • Aggressive algorithm manipulation - those that use all manner of tactics to gain links, optimize pages, and even spam blog comments and similar. This type almost always falls outside of Search engines' stated guidelines and their activities are often considered high risk.
  • Search friendly designers and content creators - This group generally do not break search engine guidelines and although they will, by very definition, manipulate search algorithms (even if that's only tweaking page titles), they will often seek links that are only "on theme" and concentrate their efforts mostly on content and usability.

There is also a rather weird subset of the second group that advocates doing nothing to a website that you wouldn't do if Search engines did not exist.

Although both groups call themselves Search Engine Optimizers, it's been clear for many years that neither group considers the other to be part of their own.

Explaining the Differences

To fully understand where the divide lies, let's take a look at both groups.

Algo SEO's
The first group, let's call them the algo seo's generally have a high technical capability and a high level of algorithm knowledge. This doesn't mean that they ignore content, usability or any other factors important to the marketing of a website, it just means that they tend to be more technically minded and more focused on the algorithm than the other group.

Content SEO's
The second group, we'll call them the content SEO's, are generally less technical. Whereas members of the first group will often have programming backgrounds, the second often do not. The content SEO's, as the label implies, tend to have a strong background, and bent for content writing; for writing compelling sales copy and informational pages. They still engage in the basic SEO endeavors such as tweaking page titles, hunting links from on theme sources and creating content specifically for keywords, but they would not be pouring over search results and analysing competitors backlinks even a 10th as much as the previous group.

The Big Divide

The divide comes from the search engines' stated guidelines. The first group see them as simply that, guidelines. They see them as something to be read, but not necessarily followed, and accept the occasional banning of a website by a search engine as part of their business and often plan for just such occurances.

They also do not, again in general, see themselves as doing any harm to either search engine, or search engine user. The point often argued is that if the user finds a relevant website in the top results when entering a query, everyone is happy.

The Content Seo's tend not to agree. They see aggressive manipulation of search algorithms as damaging to search engine and user both. They often argue that the actions of Algo SEO's push down other worthy websites in search results and that this is not fair.

There are bad apples in both barrels

Both groups have thier extremists. It's frustrating to both sides of the argument when individuals use the banner of "white hat" or "black hat" as marketing tools, to deliberately start trouble in forums, or as platforms for them to preach.

One such extremist was recently banned from the SearchEngineWatch Forums for repeatedly preaching and causing trouble under the Content SEO banner - and likewise, more than a few have been similarly expuled from discussions on the Algo SEO side. Etremists are a problem that all groups in society have to deal with, and they often drag good solid arguments into the ludicrous and hinder rather than help their cause.

Those folks don't really deserve much more mention.

Redefining Terms

It's clear to me from observing and participating in many discussions that set one group against the other, that it might be time to redefine what we now think of as the large, but divided group of Search marketing professionals.

Threadwatch member Buckworks bought this up here when talking about the Wired article and Scottie Claiborne had this to say, which really demonstrates the need nicely:

It's this quote that bothers me:

"An entire industry of search engine optimizers, called SEOs, has sprung up, many of which take advantage of loopholes in the way rankings are calculated."

Again, lumping SEO's into the "taking advantage of loopholes" category and ignoring the fact that many of us make real improvements to sites, removing technical obstacles, improving navigation, targeting in on better keywords, and actually building content worth linking to.

Oh, silly me... it's all about loopholes and buying links... I've just been doing it the hard way, I guess.

So what do you want to call yourselves?
I do like the term Content SEO, i think it describes group two very well, though im not entirely satisfied with Algo SEO - Perhaps you think both are wrong, some opinion on that would be welcome.

It's worth pointing out at this point, that the weird subset of group 2, that beleives that you should do nothing to a website that you wouldn't do if Search engines did not exist, really have no business calling themselves Search Engine Optimizers at all however.

As an aside: NFFC had suggested that Content SEO's call themselves "Professional Intuitive Site Strategies" heh...

Im aware that there are people in group two who are technically gifted, im aware that their are outstanding copywriters in group one - I have to generalize a little bit though otherwise we'd not get anywhere :)


Deceptive Advertising in Search Results

Link to a thread about manipulating search results being deceptive advertising. Link to a thread about SEO counterintelligence.

Still Won't Fly

I was promptly told that people "understood" black hat and white hat, but that high risk and low risk would never "catch on". The whole white hat, black thing is little more than Hollywood's version of the old West and there's something to be said about that.

The black hat villains depicted by Hollywood would have to have been totally stupid as well. Riding around under the western sun wearing a black hat on your bean is just plain dumb. If you want to cook your brain I can't think of a better way short of sticking your head in an oven.

I've seen both sides of the client experience as well. Clients told by low risk SEOs that they would make adjustments to their title tags, headers and content and they would eventually rank well for "phentermine", provided of course, that they just kept adding content and were prepared to wait until the miracle happened.

Then there were the high risk SEOs that wanted to scrape, cloak, stroke and smoke a branded domain name for 5 and 6 word phrases.

Both of them ignoring a fundamental rule that should guide ALL efforts. Identify the needs of the client. Personally, I think SEOs that want to continue to talk about "hats", should check into the milliner business.

i'm not taking credit for it :-)

...the high/low risk was something i adopted from some thread over at webmasterworld some time ago, it wasn't my invention. I just thought it was a good way of thinking about it and i have used it ever since.

high risk/low risk

That sounds like the best 'label' to me... Personally I choose the low risk route, but not out of any disdain for those who do differently, or because of any deep moral concern for the SE's rules or whatever... I'm just too lazy to put the time and effort into cutting-edge dodge-the-algo games.

High risk/low risk takes morality out of it, doesn't imply any technical deficiency on the part of the low-riskers or a moral deficiency on the part of the high-riskers, and generally gets to the heart of the difference, as I see it.

And besides that, who really cares? ;-)

Me too

i'll have to agree that there's such a thing as "content spam" with authors writing lots of mindless uninformed drivel just to get their ads targetted (or whatever). Good point NFFC.

I would agree with that too. But that's not SEO, it's spam.

content spam

- i'll have to agree that there's such a thing as "content spam" with authors writing lots of mindless uninformed drivel just to get their ads targetted (or whatever). Good point NFFC.

Bored with this

My last word ever on the subject.

The whole ethics as a marketing angle thing makes me feel physically sick, I think there are a group of people out there who can't even tell the truth to themselves never mind their clients.

Imho the greatest "damage" done to the SERP's and therefore the users experiance has been made by the "content crew". The sheer weight of "history of widgets" type crap pollutes the user experience far more than for example blog spamming.

Regardless, white hat / black hat won't make a bit of difference, its only the SE's themselves who can *really* make an impact. I think we are pointing fingers in the wrong direction.

I'm officially done with the black hat/white hat subject.

Its ALL about making money

If you think of SEO in terms of stock market investments

You get people who invest in high risk - high return short term investments (start-ups, futures) and those who invest in low risk - low return long term investments (bonds, blue chip stocks)

But MOST people will have a portfolio which includes a mixture.

There's a good thread at SEW

Related to this topic:

Is 'search engine optimization' a dinosaur?

A slightly more "civil" discussion. (So far ;-)


It is very unfortunate that both sides do get lumped in with their most extreme cousins. As I said in another thread here recently, the extreme spammers give the others a bad name, just as the extreme whitehatters give others a bad name.

That does seem to be the major problem. The extremists are often the loudest voices though, and for many poeple it's easy to lump everyone that has something in common with the extremists into his 'group'

Personally, i think we should all just cut those idiots out of the equation entirely and stop linking to them and quoting them - it does nobody any good in the long run.


Yes, I see you've edited my comments. Interesting...

guidelines schmidelines

It's all about perception Scottie, you lump anyone who breaks search engine guidelines into the vandalism category, i tend to lump anyone who holds SE guidelines as some kind of holy grail as the evanglistic whiners of the industry.

For the millionth time, the search engine guidelines have nothing to do with anything. I don't know any *true* SEOs who give a crap about the guidelines or who've ever given them more than a passing read just for chuckles.

It is very unfortunate that both sides do get lumped in with their most extreme cousins. As I said in another thread here recently, the extreme spammers give the others a bad name, just as the extreme whitehatters give others a bad name.

It's also appalling when people just assume that because someone might hang at a certain forum or that they may write articles about ethics, that they are dumb, or are an extremist.

Everyone needs to learn to more carefully listen to what the other side says (or read more carefully) before they jump to conclusions that they're a dickhead or something. There are certainly a couple of dickheads on both sides of the SEO fence. But they are few and far between.

Tidying up

Ok, you'll see i've done a little tidying up :) on both our parts... (sent you a pm Scottie)

So, again, yes: Fair game for dead blogs, but im not happy with it on live blogs, to me that's just rude, and rather pointless.

If it's a live blog, it'll be deleted anyway so why waste your time?


Is blog spam vandalism, or is it fair game?


Dead Blogs

Well, i'll tell you were i stand on it Gurtie - I think dead blogs are fair game.

The problems arise from amateur blog spammers that hit live ones (like i did when i tried this out last year), that just cuases no end of grief to the poor sods whose blogs you hit and takes the whole issue of blog spamming very much mainstream, when there's no need for it to be, which of course hurts the pro spammers aswell as the amateurs.

There will always be a little collateral damage, and that's regretable, but i dont really see a big problem with it in general if it's hitting long since abandoned blogs..


I think the victim is the people who DO care about their blogs who waste their time removing the crap posts. Just like email spam has no real "victim" except everyone who has to hit the delete key 80 times a day.

But I agree with you Gurtie- it would be easy to fix, so apparently they don't care! They've agreed to a nofollow attribute that has no teeth as a publicity stunt.

But I'm not going to base a client's marketing plan on blog spamming. And I'm not wild that a potential client might think I do that because their last company did.. if I had a simple way to distinguish what from automated spamming, it would help the "public" to get what the difference is and make the right choice for them.

Who's lumping?

No, I'm not lumping everyone who cloaks, keyword stuffs, hides content and links and creates doorway pages in with the vandals, I'm saying it's the vandals that really cause the most division and the ones that are objected to most.

I find there are very few people in the world who hold SE guidelines as "the holy grail". From reading here, I get the feeling you take the opposite extreme and lump those of us who improve sites into that "extremeist SEO slave" role. Are you the Anti-Doug? ROFL!

Blog Spam

probably a good time to throw this in - I'm totally undecided where I stand on it.

If a free blog is abandoned (say, hasn't been used for 6 months) is it reasonable or unreasonable to spam that blog?

I tend to agree blog spamming is nasty (although I have to confess I did and still do sort of comment spam all over the place, only I call it marketing when I do it (originally I wasn't even aware of an SEO benefit it's something I've done for years and I only hand write comments which are specifically applicable, lets call it targetted link dropping shall we :) )

However- if a blog is long abandoned is it then fair game for 'real' blog spamming? Does that hurt anyone? If the software providers cared wouldn't they do something about it? (lets face it it wouldn't be hard)

I know no crime is victimless and I can find victims for abandoned-blog-spamming if I look, but equally I can't get very worked up about it. Where do you guys with blogs actually draw the line on this?

Before things get ugly

Let me just say that even though I don't agree with the tactics, this isn't a personal attack. I usually end up hanging out with some notorious "black hats" at the conferences and I always have a good time. I enjoy talking to them. I like the people, even if I don't agree with how they do business.

AND... I'm not on a crusade to put that sort of thing out of business. I really believe if the engines WANTED to do something about it, they could. And they don't.

There is a demand for gaming the system...people who want to buy those services. Others are more than happy to provide them. I don't think posting in blogs and forums will ring the death knell for "black hat seo".

But I also think finding a way to separate the two sides would be beneficial to customers who often don't know what questions to ask and are easily lulled into a false sense of security by people who say, "I do this all the time with no problems." (See many threads on TP)

The problem is, I don't think "algo seos" want to be separated out as the seedier side of SEO any more than electricians who don't follow local code want to be designated as "non-compliant electricians". It's not a great marketing angle...


It's all about perception Scottie, you lump anyone who breaks search engine guidelines into the vandalism category, i tend to lump anyone who holds SE guidelines as some kind of holy grail as the evanglistic whiners of the industry.

Both are wrong.

There are many ways to break search engine rules without vandalizing other peoples websites, and there are many 'content seo's' that break guidelines as par for the course..

It just isn't a black and white issue is it? :-)

I think that IS the point though

The real divide, the reason one group doesn't want to be associated with the other, is that vandalism and cheating aspect of (I gotta say it) black hat tactics.

It's not that one group worries that the other group "knows more" than they do and "all they can do is write good copy"; it's that one group doesn't want to be associated with what they feel are unethical business practices.

>> It's rude and it sucks

I agree entirely.

I wasn't really refering to that in the original post. To me, that's not gaming search engines, that's vandalism, that games search engines as a result.

One more comment about "fair"

You say in the original post that "content SEO's" complain that "algo SEO" tactics are not fair.

I think using other people's sites without their knowlege to "gain an edge" is crappy. Blog spam, guestbook spam, page hijacking, cloaking stolen copy, referral log spamming... all those tactics that take advantage of loopholes and oversights on other people's sites are on par with email spam. It's rude and it sucks.

If "algo SEO" were only about finding ways to build pages that the search engines preferred, it would be one thing. But often, "algo SEO" looks for ways to exploit and steal from sites that have earned their rankings through hard work.

No one, not even an "algo SEO", thinks it's fair to have their hard work taken over or credited to another site. I have no issues with people who study the algos and learn how to match them... it's the people exploit others in the name of "taking care of the client" that I don't want to be associated with.

I'm of the opinion that some

I'm of the opinion that some of us take a marketing approach to SEO, while others take a mathematical approach. I don't think it has anything to do with technical skills, both sides have them.

It's more in how each group spends their energies. While the mathematical side sees the engine's algo as a puzzle or a game to be played, winning means breaking the formula and getting to the top.

The marketing side OTOH, is more likely to build a marketing plan, of which search engine rankings is part.

Both can achieve good results, but I think the definition of "good results" is different. A mathematical SEO "wins" when they hit the top of the rankings. Game over, time to move on. A marketing seo "wins" when the client starts getting more sales and conversions in addition to the rankings.

We've had the discussion many times about naming and I think they ought to be different. I say the mathematical side people ought to keep the title "SEO" because that's what they focus on- optimizing for search engines.

What you call "content" SEO's really are more marketers, we optimize for sales first and search engines are just part of the plan. Does that plan include technical skills? You BET. Search-friendly CMS, mod-rewrite, server header responses... all that stuff needs to be a part of the plan.

Does it include a detailed statistical analysis of the top 50 competitors and who links to them and what their aggregate rankings were over a span of 22 keyword phrases for the past 12 months along with each top ranking page's keyword density percentage and age in the index? Probably not.

It's not that the marketing side is incapable of doing that sort of analysis; we just don't generally feel the need to. The vast majority of sites don't need to be spammed to the top. Some do, (according to Yahoo)and those sites benefit from that sort of fine-tuned attention to minute trends and details and any slight advantage can make a difference.

that's my point

- you don't market your services as "high risk" or "low risk" - not as "black" or "white" hat either. You simply market your services as "SEO" and then the customer is free to choose his own risk profile from the full set of available options. The customer must make an informed purchase - you can then inform the customer about the alternatives in a sober and straightforward way.

This way, if there's a specific niche that you don't cover (for whatever reason) then you can send the customer off to a specialist in that niche if he - based on your expert advice - decides that this is the path he wishes to take. You get the benefit of (a) educating the customer and (b) sending him to where his needs are met best.

That way the customer is in focus, not the specific techniques (just like: "you can do it with ASP or PHP - ASP is good at this and PHP is good at that - i do PHP, but if you need to have ASP i know this really excellent firm that will do it for you").

But would you use that term?

I wouldn't mind telling my prospective clients that I use low-risk methods in my work. Would someone who uses high-risk methods -- even assuming they were completely upfront about those methods and their risks -- actually market themselves as a "high-risk SEO"?

i rather like

...the "low risk" vs "high risk" split in stead of all the hat talk... i mean, who even knows anyone that wear a hat these days?

The reason i think this is good is because it does not classify the individual firm/person, in stead it focuses on the services/actions. It appeals more to me that individual actions are classified and the firm/person is free to choose from the whole set. I think it reflects reality better.

Any definition is harmful because it is divisive.

I, too, am sick of the finger pointing and name calling. It is divisive to the industry. Let's not have 'definitions' at all, agree we all do things differently, and just leave it at that.

I know we don't have emoticons in here, but if we did I'd be posting the applauding hands right now, Brad.

My Pet Peeve

I've thought about this quite a bit.

Each approach to SEO is valid, but no one tool is appropriate for all websites. High risk techniques are pretty silly to use on a content site you want to be sure is still around 5 years from now. And you don't hand a cloaking script to somebody that just learned how to FTP their Buffy tVS fansite to the server the night before. Likewise, low risk SEO techniques are going to have a hard time getting a viagra affiliate page to #1 on Google quickly.

Those pet peeves:

I often get irritated when SEO forums posters only focus on high risk strategies. Not all the readers are affiliate marketers or shopping site owners.

I really hate all the finger pointing we SEO'ers have gotten into these last few years. (One of the reasons I like TW so much is that people from both sides can have a civil discussion, even disagree, here without it devolving to arguments.)

I'm all over

I think the problem in trying to devide the industry into such groups is that most people I know is in fact in them all - to some degree. My own services range from the darkest "black hat" stuff, if my clients request that (as is in fact the case in some of the industries I work!) and for other clients (typically larger brands) I am so white that even Allan Perkins or Dough would be proud of me.

The point is: Just because you know how to kick a.. dosn't mean you beat up anyone you meet on your way. Only that you know how to - if you feel you have to.

Absolutely right...

...Jill, but I'm guessing that's just the point.

Nice friday post Nick, that should get us through the weekend ;-]

I bet it's the "Tweenies" among us, getting the best of both content and coding in WHATEVER form, who are getting the best results.

Always hard to divide a whole community into two camps - heh. Most "managers" can take seven groups - no more. Two is maybe a bit too harsh.

Your description is completely off base

Nothing could be futher from the truth than to say that the SEOs who don't do anything that might possibly get a site banned (what I would call the non-spammers) do not have technical abilities.

That's just completely false, and it's part of the problem with dividing the types of SEO.

The type of SEO that the 2nd group perform (at least the good ones) very often does take a lot of technical ability. Not technical ability to spam blogs, mind you, but the technical ability to fix non-crawlable sites, perform appropriate redirects, and numerous other technical functions.

It's extremely annoying when people try to say that if you don't spam the engines you have no technical abilities. Pisses me off to no end! Any good SEO is a programmer or has a programmer they work with. If they don't, then they're not an SEO, they're just stupid.

Don't give a TOS

I think any time you allow yourself to be pigeonholed you are closing yourself off to opportunities.

perhaps that's come about because larger companies tend to be more agressive and impatient - thuse are more likely to hire members of the first group. Larger companies also tend to have their own marketing/design/PR departments who can handle the website issues themselves.

A website doesn't need to be well SEO'd to get a good conversion rate, so I do see them as two seperate but highly complimentary things personally (I also see PPC as a different job, again complimentary and possibly done by the same people as do one or both of the others but definately requireing a different skillset)

To me SEO is to increase a websites rankings. You may also be a marketing/usability consultant and that's a great asset to the client but it isn't strictly a part of SEO IMHO.

names are always changing

I agree with Adrian, I don't think there will ever be a consenus. I do feel that labeling agressive SEO as "spam" is not good for the industry since it can confuse non technical people with illegal email spam. It just seems like there are too many name games, like cloaking is bad but ip delivery is good. I guess I'll second the aggresive SEO vs passive SEO.

LOL - if that catches on, JasonD...

...I might add it to my SEO acronyms glossary. In short - it describes those who take any search engine's TOS seriously. Right?

Thanks for the disclaimer

I used to be a programmer (although it was only for a brief period).

I don't know what would be good names. Calling one side "algo SEOs" implies that the other side isn't at all concerned with algos, and that's not accurate. In fact, that "weird subset" of what I suppose would be my group doesn't exactly advocate doing nothing you wouldn't do if SEs didn't exist; as I understand it, their philosophy is that search engine guidelines are more or less irrelevant because they're just common sense, so they needn't be looked at. But I don't think that means that they ignore problems like spider traps, URLs that require session ids or cookies, etc. At least I hope not. I don't know. I don't consider myself part of that group.

I'm not crazy about being labeled a "content SEO" though. While I consider content very important, I don't consider it everything. And I'm not a copywriter. I bring copywriters in on my projects when they're needed.

I do look at competition -- maybe not as much as others, but I think I spend a good deal of time on it.

I am concerned with algos, but only in the long term.

I don't create pages for a single SE; in fact, I don't create pages just for the engines. Everything I do involves serving both humans and search engines.

Usability matters a great deal to me. I don't know how "algo SEOs" feel about it.

One thing I have noticed, and I don't know if it's universal: a number of people on the other side have insisted that an SEO's goal is improved rankings, and that anything beyond that is someone else's job. Most of the people I consider to be on "my side" believe that our goal is improved ROI, which involves rankings, usability, and conversions. Maybe that's a proper place to draw the line between the two sides: the goal of the work you do, no matter what methods you may use.

As a collective title for tho

As a collective title for the work that is undertaken how about:

Adjusted to
Experience &

I am definately one of those and undertake a mutitude of W.A.N.K. decisions everyday

Probably never going to agree but...

Not sure about 'Content SEO', that sounds like just copywriting to me. I would tend to be amoung the same group, but I'll happily use URL rewriting to make dynamic URL's more crawlable for example. As would many in that group. Content certainly covers many things that the group would use, but with some decent exceptions.
I know you know that, but you know what happens when people get labelled as something.

Maybe just as iffy, but what about Aggresive and Passive SEO?
The 'algo seo' would generally be a lot more aggressive in gaining rank, going out and finding various ways to boost a site up the listings. Buying/Exchanging links a lot and that kind of thing.

The 'content seo' is more likely to make adjustments to a site to encourage the SE's to get the right stuff, not going out there and dragging it in, more trying to entice it in. More passively.

But then, everyone's going to pick up on the negative connotations of either label and probably get upset by it.

And some will try making out they are Assertive SEO's ;)