Hopefully my mobile friends will allow me to switch to the other part of this blog’s title and talk about natural search again, after spending so much time on mobile-specific SEO. Before I start I want to remind my readers that this is a personal blog with a disclaimer stating that these are my opinions and not necessarily those of Resolution Media or our parent company, Omnicom Media Group.

I don’t usually post about what’s going on in the search industry because I’ve historically been client-focused, but as I start to speak at more conferences, meet with more SEOs of all types at the monthly Chicago SEO Meetup and write more articles on search, I’m noticing how obvious it is that there are people in this industry who seem to do something completely different than I do, and whose opinions on search seem almost entirely irrelevant as a result. Oddly these are some of the most popular SEOs in the industry. On the other hand, I’m honored to have met many in this industry whom I respect a great deal, and whom I have become a better marketer as a result of reading or speaking with.

To illustrate, and to promote the kind of example that I think is worth promoting, I want to highlight two discussions about brands that happened just recently.

The first discussion most people in the industry are familiar with: Aaron Wall’s reported Google update in which Google is preferential to brands on a large scale. I wrote why I disagreed with it on the FindResolution blog on Friday, and participated in a related discussion on Sphinn. The crux of the argument was that Google made a large scale update similar to Florida, but bigger, and that the update was preferential to “branding”. Matt Cutts mentioned on Sphinn that they did change the algorithm for certain queries, but denied a large-scale update. I mentioned some examples, along with Danny Sullivan and Vanessa Fox, that didn’t fit neatly into this theory, and said that I didn’t agree there was a large scale update, and that brands might be appearing in results more often because brands do SEO. The conversation around it was vague and unstructured, the responses were generally irrelevant if they were given, logical fallacy of argument from authority was used to justify a fallacious argument, and many SEOs started at the conclusion that the theory was right before examining the evidence for it. When I mentioned some of these things on Sphinn, the responses were generally childish ad hominem attacks, responses that were ignorant of what had already been written or loose justifications for an algorithm change or some lesser point that the original post did not argue. At the end of the day, it became obvious to me that there wasn’t much of a discussion happening, and that some people were not looking for the scientific method or analysis because they were already believers in the authority of the speaker, and weren’t interested in anything that fell outside of that belief. I must say, that if I thought this was the only face of our industry, I would be busy trying to find another job.

Fortunately, another conversation about brands got me rethinking my career change. Search Insider Gord Hotchkiss, whom I was fortunate enough to meet at SMX West, talked in his column about brands as well, but did a few things that Wall didn’t do:

  1. He used the scientific method when forming a hypothesis, and defined very clearly what he meant by brand. He listed the Wikipedia definition and he explained how he was speaking of it, specifically. This is important because with the Wikipedia definition of brands, Aaron Wall’s post would have meant that Google was doing a large scale update to be preferential to just about anyone. It seemed in context that he meant big brands versus small, but he never defined how big a big brand has to be to qualify, or how small. By defining his terms off the bat, Gord makes his argument clearer and stronger.

    Wall generally didn’t follow the scientific method at all in his post, as he skipped the first step and the last step, and didn’t draw conclusions based on the evidence, but stuck with the hypothesis in spite of data that didn’t fit in.

    Here’s the scientific method for those who need a refresher:

    1. Define the question
    2. Gather information and resources (observe)
    3. Form hypothesis
    4. Perform experiment and collect data
    5. Analyze data
    6. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
    7. Publish results
    8. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

    It’s true, SEO is not rocket science, but I agree with Rand Fishkin that sticking to the scientific method more often when making hypotheses would increase professionalism in this industry, and help us all have more informed discussions and reach better conclusions.

  2. Another thing that Gord did was ask a question that made a bold statement, rather than make a bold statement that didn’t hold up to questions.
    I know that many SEOs like Aaron Wall do what they do because it gets them inbound links, but to me it’s the difference between yellow journalism and Pulitzer Prize winning journalism, or between the Jonas Brothers and Mozart. It may make them popular, but it doesn’t mean that it holds up to scrutiny. And if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in the short-term, it’s unlikely to lead to long-term popularity.
    Better, in my mind, to take a more Socratic approach, and try to solve problems by asking questions until you get to hard truths.
    Gord does this by asking the question “Can brands keep their promise in a digital world?” and then proposes two potential ways in which brands might be able to keep their promise. It doesn’t make what he says any less authoritative, as it’s clear he’s an authority by having the foresight to ask the big questions, but it’s a different approach that tends to appeal to a different audience.

    There’s a book called Leading with Questions that argues the best businessmen are those who ask pointed questions rather than make bold authoritative statements. I would argue the same is true of the best businessmen who practice SEO.

  3. Gord’s answer to his question didn’t focus on toolbar PageRank, reverse engineering or gaming the system in order to make fast money because he’s a different type of marketer. In my experience his columns are generally forward-thinking in that they recognize the challenges all brands face in marketing to a brave new digital world. And they focus on long-term brand impact of these challenges rather than short term gains from loopholes that don’t focus on relevance. The answer to the problem facing brands, Gord suggests, is to pay attention to mobile and social media. This method probably isn’t going to get anyone fast disposable traffic and help them work at home, but it is a problem that brands are going to have to solve sooner than later if they want to remain relevant to their consumers.
  4. Aaron Wall’s supporters call him “the Professor”, and this may be the case. But I think he uses different methods than the professors that I follow, and he may be teaching a different class. The professors that I follow use the scientific method to form hypotheses, they focus on long term brand impact and how brands can succeed in a changing digital media landscape, and they ask pointed questions rather than pose grand theories. There’s room for all search engine marketers to follow this example, but right now I think only a few do it exceptionally well. Unfortunately those who do are not necessarily the most popular, but I would argue that they’re the best.

    In order to tip the scale a bit, and alert people to the professors that I have consistently learned from since beginning my SEO education in 2001, I’ve listed a few of these teachers below. This list is by no means complete, and should include about everyone at Resolution Media, where I’ve had the pleasure to focus on SEO for brands of all shapes and sizes since August of 2005. It’s also focused on SEO, and doesn’t include my many friends in the mobile industry.

    listed alphabetically

    Jeremiah Andrick, Microsoft
    Jonathan Ashton, Agency.com
    John Battelle, Federated Media
    David Berkowitz, 360i
    Jeff Campbell, Resolution Media
    Vint Cerf, Google
    Matt Cutts, Google
    Rand Fishkin, SEOMoz
    Vanessa Fox, Nine By Blue
    Aaron Goldman, Resolution Media
    Gord Hotchkiss, Enquiro
    Avanash Kaushik, Google
    Lance Neuhauser, Resolution Media
    Paul O’Brien, Zvents
    Steve Rubel, Edelman
    Chris Sherman, Search Engine Land
    Greg Sterling, Search Engine Land, Local Mobile Search
    Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land
    Eric Ward, Search Engine Land