Snake Oil SEO – Who’s Really Selling Something, Here?


 calling things scams when they aren't.

Snake oil 2.0 image credit to Hugh MacLeod

Another "SEO as Snake Oil" Blog Post

I read the umpteenth blog post last week that claimed that SEO was “snake oil”. The thing that struck me is that calling something a scam or snake oil for the sake of attention is the *real* snake oil.

I’ll start by saying I think a lot of the rampant hyperbole and apparent misunderstanding here comes from a misconception about the term “SEO”. I suspect a lot of activities I’d consider “SEO” related would be things the poster would just call “marketing” or use another term for. Regardless I think there are some opinions in this post that aren’t entirely unique to the poster, and so worth calling out.

Either way, here are some excerpts from the piece that I found particularly troublesome:

“One way I know SEO “experts,” strategists and consultants are selling you bumpkis is because no one, unless they currently write algorithms for Google or Yahoo, knows exactly what you need to do in order to be indexed and highly ranked by search engines. And probably not even a single of these engineers has every piece of the magical puzzle.”

This is sort of like saying that a poker player can’t create a statistical advantage for herself because she doesn’t know which cards will be dealt, or like accusing a pilot who couldn’t single-handedly assemble a plane of being no better qualified to fly one than you or I. One doesn’t need to “know the whole algorithm” to be able to observe tactics and best practices that increase their or their clients’ chances of achieving higher rankings.

A second quote:

“Another way I know is because I’ve had as much success with SEO as “experts,” and it’s not because I possess some special power. It’s because anyone with some concept of the Internet who can read, can figure out how to boost their ranking.”

I think this is a bit insulting to the legions of very bright people with poorly optimized sites, but either way, your being able to do something doesn’t render it without value. A CEO might be perfectly able to do a number of menial jobs and even some skilled ones within his company, but he hires specialists because there are so many hours in the day, and different people are better and worse suited for different things.

”Also, do you realize many developers/programmers snicker when they hear SEO “expert?” These folks know what’s up. (A lot of marketers do, too, cause they know a health elixir when they see one.)

Still another way I know SEO “experts” are selling you snake oil is because I’ve worked with them before, and I’ve had them tell me how they do what they do.”

This is obviously an extremely hyperbolic blanket statement; although it may of course be true amongst the people you’ve surrounded yourself with, who share your biases.

Finally, from the closing:

“SEO “experts” use publicly available online sources to know how to boost a page’s rank. In other words, they read the same things you can read to try and boost a page’s rank. They go to pages like this. They read them, they take notes, which they then repackage as a “formula for success” and then sell to you as their services.

If you’ve paid an SEO “expert,” you’ve essentially paid for them to do research you could do and manage site linking and code plugging that you could do.

Too busy to deal with SEO?

Hire an intern.”

Not unlike any profession, most reputable SEOs have:

  1. Studied the subject
  2. Practiced the subject
  3. Iterated and built on the things they’ve learned
  4. Produced consistent, documentable results.

I could get a high school student to visit a few how-to sites and have him or her knowing something about how a car works at the end of it. But they wouldn’t be nearly as effective or efficient as a veteran mechanic. When complex problems arose, they would be completely at a loss. Much as I suspect the author would be if I put you in charge of the SEO for a large website with hundreds of thousands of pages of content that drives millions of uniques a month and needs to maintain rankings for a broad portfolio of keywords to drive profits.

SEO requires you to:

  • Generate interest and links to your Website.
  • Create content that is easy to understand (so easy to understand, in fact, that you have to shape your content to the way people think about, talk about, and search for it!).
  • And design a site with an intelligent information architecture so that content is easily and logically accessible to searchers and search engines

Take a look at the list of things we believe. There’s no snake oil there. There’s nothing shifty or “quick” about continuous and iterative activities to promote your product and your content while trying to align the things you write with the way your audience talks and types. These are all functions of marketing that anyone interested in selling anything will religiously adhere to.

Before we cast aspersions about entire professions, it’s always good to dig deeper and to find out how these jobs typically function and who the majority of practitioners are. Otherwise, you’re the one broadcasting misinterpretations and pedaling misinformation as fact.

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Susannah Richardson
May 12, 2009

Great post, Tom, I love all the comparisons. He's also completely contradicting himself in saying that no one can help boost your rankings without knowing the whole algorithm, yet that's exactly what he claims he's been able to do after reading a few pages...

May 12, 2009

Thanks for this insight. I think this is why so many people who attempt to do their own SEO fail miserably. Because you cannot do SEO on a part time basis and be really successful at it. And as you touched on, SEO is really only a part of SEM. PPC is NOT SEM it is a part of SEM. That definition got misconstrued a long time ago and it is time to reel it back in.

I have personally been doing SEO since 1997 and I got off track for a few years and sis it "part -time." Yea, that worked real well, NOT!

You really have to be a good Internet marketing person to do justice to SEO today. You can't just do the same thing that has been done in the past. Services and offerings have to be up-to-date with technology advances.

One other thing I would like to comment on is what I just saw Tweeted on Twitter; "go ahead and try it" from a self-proclaimed expert. I replied;
"But not on your Primary/Money site." I must have 50 sites that I use to experiment and test different theories on organic SEO tactics. Better to sandbox a text site than my customers site's.

Doug Kelly
Owner/Sr. SEO Specialist

Tom Demers
May 12, 2009

@Doug: I completely agree re: PPC and SEM being considered synonymous; that bugs me to no end! Your point about testing is also a great one. There is a SEA of misinformation on forums and blogs; SEO Book and others offer great information that you can pay for, but reading a tutorial doesn't make you a great SEO in the same way a law degree doesn't make you a great lawyer. @Susannah: Very true!

Aug 30, 2011

I too have my share of seo experts and to date, after 5 years of paying good money to these experts and finally learning to do it myself, I concur they are all selling some form of snake oil.

sad really, for all their attempts at making it look hard, it aint rocket science. Now there are hundreds of seo firms screwing money from small business, simply bu adding their new customers to an internal directory they call link building. Of course this gets people to the top 10 as promised, but never to the positions that matter. I found top 10 is a breeze.

seo is a scam also because no one is going to spend time digging around looking for good backlinks. So they invent schemes to get around doing any work at all really.

The rest of em write blogs about how expert they are.

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