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by Stephen Logan on 12th July 2011
If I were to ask 10 average people on the street what SEO was, I’m fairly sure that (at least) 9 wouldn’t have the first clue. However, if I was the question those same 10 individuals on whether they had heard of Google, I’d expect a far more positive response.
As a key part of the aforementioned acronym, optimisation is probably the most overused word in the Internet Marketing world. Content has to be optimised, your Meta requires optimisation even your links aren’t optimised enough. It’s a case of optimise or die, but what on earth is optimisation?
If you’re using terms that only the most experienced online professionals understand, or where traditional context is twisted, then it’s little wonder that the common man is left confused and even suspicious of your activities. However, some might argue that it is inherent in any industry, especially one where most things are preceded by the unnecessarily complex http://www and in which HTML is the language of choice.
So is it in fact a Necessary Evil?
If you’re writing as an expert with an audience other experts, then jargon actually blends in rather nicely. People understand the use of initialisation and accept words that are largely used outside of their dictionary definition. You wouldn’t expect to hear barristers dumbing down legal statutes, or surgeons referring to the femur as a “that big bone in the top bit of the leg” – it simply wouldn’t wash.
However, it would be fair to say that SEOs, barristers and surgeons are worlds apart. Online marketing simply doesn’t have the prestige or history to command the same level of respect or understanding from its wider audience. This is why advocates and professionals must work harder to explain themselves and the processes they employ.
Of course, in the world of online marketing, jargon is usually surrounded by words like “should” or “probably”. There is very little certainty, which again fans the flames of suspicion. So, “if” I invest in “SEO” then my site “should” get more “targeted” traffic. Taking a step back from my slightly biased position, it’s easy to see why people would be suspicious of the language used within the industry.
Language Defined by Uncertainty
In fact one of the mantras of SEOs is that there are no guarantees. How much less reassuring can we be? Why would I want to part with hundreds, if not thousands of pounds to “optimise” my site, without a definite end product? With all these links flying around and keyword-optimised text being added, what will become of my beloved website too?
This is where I would like to return to my earlier analogy though. Whilst I would never claim that online marketing is as important as the judicial system or saving lives, there are similarities. For instance, you would never expect a barrister who represents you to guarantee that you’ll win the case. All they can do is apply their knowledge and experience to provide you with the best chance of a successful result. SEO isn’t ‘no win, no fee’, just as most respectable London Inns aren’t.
The same is true of surgeons, footballers, accountants and most other professions for that matter. It’s not like buying a product from a store, there are variables that are often beyond the practitioner’s control that could scupper even the best work.
I think there is a tendency to overcomplicate all avenues of Internet marketing, linguistically speaking of course. Terminology can be your best friend, but it can also become your worst enemy. You’ve got phrases like bounce rate, terms like Paid Search and Pay Per Click which basically mean the same thing and so many initials that it would be advisable to the Enigma decoding machine handy.
Making Yourself Understood
Getting to grips with the language takes time. This is why, for those looking to assist inexperienced clients and newcomers to the industry, jargon can be prohibitive – in my humble opinion. It shows a lack of understanding for your audience and may even suggest a certain arrogance. If I start blundering on about analytics goal tracking, the finer points of keyword research or the importance of negatives in PPC, I have to assume most people will be clueless. Clean up the wording, incorporate clear examples and relate it to their knowledge.
Now you can’t retrospectively clean up language, it is engrained within the psyche of an entire industry now. However, I would go as far as to suggest that it is perhaps one of the foremost reasons why there is mistrust surrounding what we all do. This is why it continues to be hugely important that SEOs drop the facade and educate people at their level. Accepting that by trying to sound clever, you are in fact doing quite the reverse might be the first step.
So whilst jargon might help me to avoid rewriting Search Engine Optimisation (which is in itself a completely out-dated, out-moded and almost worthless term) time and time again, it doesn’t do much for the man on the street. Our collective role, as online marketeers is to clear the fog and demystify an industry that has been unfairly tarnished; by both those who don’t understand it and those that should know better – perfectly demonstrated by Robert Scoble’s admission a couple of days ago.
Language is a great tool, but it’s one that still isn’t being used as effectively as possible. Does it damage SEO? Almost certainly. Will that change in time? Possibly. What is the solution? Don’t ask me.