Are SEOs the New Telemarketers?

A few days ago, I was catching up on episodes of The Good Wife – a great show, if you’re into legal/political dramas. At the start of the “Two Courts”, we’re introduced to the defendant, a man who has been accused of killing his father. His main concern (other than the fact that he’s being accused of murder, of course), is that the jury will be biased against him because of his profession. The first few jobs that popped into my head at this point were along the lines of the MOD Squad: tobacco, alcohol and gun lobbyist. The usual. But the dialogue was as follows:

First Lawyer: .. But the judge will see your occupation as irrelevant to the crime.
Client: It’s just… people hate what I do.
First Lawyer: Spam.
Client: Search engine optimization.
Second Lawyer: Don’t worry ..

Wait, what? He’s worried that the jury will rule him guilty of murder because he’s an SEO? Honestly, he had that whole jury bias bit covered, due to his penchant for dressing up as a Nazi and re-enacting WWII scenes. But I digress.

Since when did search engine optimization become the new telemarketing – a job category that immediately generates distaste and distrust? Over the past month, the topics of search and SEO have been getting a lot of facetime with articles about the morality of SEO and Google’s pitfalls. More and more people from outside the industry are commenting on the crap that often shows up in the results of common search queries.

A recent post at SEOmoz talks about “how organized crime is taking control of Google’s search results”. The points in the article are valid – a search for a product like “nike dunks” will give you a page full of counterfeit shoe venders. The same often happens when you search for full length tv shows online – a bunch of sites pop up in the results, ready to attack your poor computer with annoying pop-up ads as soon as you click that link. Or a slightly more benign situation, where you search for how-to instructions and get bombarded with Demand Media results. Which Blekko has apparently taken care of. Yes, these spammy results are indeed from the (minimal) efforts of search engine optimization in not-so-great hands.

However, does it mean all SEOs are immoral? As many have pointed out in this Quora thread, SEO is like any other tool. It depends on the user and website in question. Many in the industry work to optimize relevant websites for targeted search terms, ones that can bring in high quality traffic. They aren’t trying to hook visitors in for any malicious intent. In some cases, people are spending a ton of effort optimizing relevant websites in order to rank above the unhelpful spam that dominates in certain industries.

While it’s clear that some use underhanded tactics to push crap to the top of search engine results pages, labeling SEO immoral as a whole is shortsighted. And no, I’m not just defending SEO because it’s what I do for a living right now, hah.

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