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As a practice and an industry, SEO is maturing. It has been growing at apace over the last 15 years; there have been peaks and troughs along the way, but today it accounts for tens of thousands of jobs around the world and generates millions of pounds in revenue. It is, in short, big business.
So why are so many people still ignorant of how it all works? In The Telegraph today there is a rather soporific , bare bones analysis of what SEO is. Whilst there is nothing innately wrong with the article, it does perhaps pose the wider question of why this is still necessary in 2011.
The vast majority of the people currently inhabiting this earth of ours have used a search, even more are at least aware of what they are. Most offline businesses have also worked hard to develop an online presence, with hundreds of Internet-based companies joining them each day. So why do some still believe that Google rankings are an inherent right or an act of digital divination?
SEOs aren’t exactly the silent minority. It’s an industry that is built around branding and promotion, which means that we seep into every visible medium. But yet the message doesn’t appear to be making its way into the wider public consciousness.
Press coverage of SEO isn’t usually all that positive. Most of the time it centres on a scandal, such as the JC Penney gaming story, as exposed by the New York Times. This does little to promote the credibility of the practice and might go some way to explain why the industry hasn’t broken into the mainstream.
That might sound a little far-fetched, but as an optimiser of sorts (I’m actually a Copywriter, but hey-ho), saying I work in SEO is frequently met with blank looks. If I were to say that I was a website designer though, most people would understand exactly what I meant. So maybe it is the language being used [see: Does Jargon Damage SEO and Online Marketing?], or perhaps it is simply that there is no traditional equivalent.
For instance, we’ve had designers and illustrators for centuries, therefore by attaching the word ‘website’ it’s doesn’t exactly require a massive leap in imagination to understand the basics. So whilst web design has been around for around the same amount of time as SEO, it’s (arguably) more instantly recognisable as a practice. It has roots where SEO has none.
Businesses operating online will have a sense of what Search Engine Optimisation, or at least should. The wider Internet-using public do not though, and why should they? There are a lot of people who don’t fully understand how a car actually works but still drive one every day, so why would an search engine algorithm be any different.
Becoming mainstream doesn’t happen overnight, or indeed within a decade or so. So perhaps a little patience is required. However, there is an argument to suggest that the importance of SEO (for businesses especially) belies simple age. It helps shape the face of a multi-billion industry, every successful online business uses it, people should really be aware of what it is and the basics of how it all works.
So whilst the aforementioned Telegraph article is perhaps indicative of the problem, it does also perhaps show where a solution may come. Only through such mainstream media exposure can Search Engine Optimisation actually get the visibility it needs to break into the public psyche. Whether it actually needs to go mainstream is another argument of course.
After all, if every site was fully optimised, keywords would become hugely competitive and we’d all be competing over the finest of margins. More importantly though, SEO needs to clean up its act. Throw away the jargon, dump the black hat and start building a reputation – rather than destroying it. Otherwise it will remain a huge underground community doing good work for big companies.
The industry might even start to shrug off the misconceptions that have blighted its irregular forays into the world of popular media. This includes the infamous ‘Good Wife’ episode [click here for YouTube clip] in which a defendant wished to keep his occupation a secret from the jury, as it may hinder his case – and you can guess what that was. A few more Dilbert cartoons, like the one below might just start to turn the tide a little though – unfortunately we can only wait and see.