Posted by Ashley Tate
As an industry, SEO has struggled with setting standards of quality from day one. Even with countless professional SEOs doing best-in-class work, the industry as a whole is constantly battling the bad rap of being tactless, unethical, and sometimes even "dead."
Black-hat or black cat?
At SEOmoz, we find ourselves pleasantly surprised day after day by the array of high-quality SEOs that make our industry such a wonderful place to be. Unfortunately, the time finally came where we had to ask ourselves the nagging questions looming over our industry: where was all this negative noise coming from? Had we been missing a widely accepted fact in the SEO world? And, most importantly, was the current state of SEO really as awful as some were making it seem?
There was only one way to find out.
Inspired by a post highlighting the "sad state" of today's SEO consultants, we decided to conduct a survey of our own to determine the true, calculated quality of SEOs in 2012. Similar to the Webmaster World member whose less-than-awesome exchange with various SEO consultants sparked this hot debate, we chose to reach out to real, third-party SEO companies for advice on how to improve rankings to collect our data. But we wanted to do it bigger.
Enter: The PEPS Project
To collect data in the most neutral way possible, we knew we wouldn’t be able to use our own name for fear of skewing responses (i.e. if SEOmoz emailed you, asking for beginner-level SEO advice, would you believe us? No? That's ok, we probably wouldn't, either.). We decided to partner with the charitable organization and long-time friend of SEOmoz, Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS), to help us out. PEPS is a great organization that we'd been wanting to get some SEO help for for quite some time. In return for allowing us to go "undercover" as a PEPS employee when reaching out to SEO consultants for advice, SEOmoz would foot the bill for a complete site audit for PEPS. The consulting agency to conduct the site audit would be the best SEO selected from our study, and everyone involved would win!
The project design
After setting a Moz employee up with a PEPS account, it was time to get to work. We compiled a list of general, broad questions that a site owner new to SEO might ask in reaching out for SEO advice, all the while making sure that the questions would be solid indicators of an agency’s level of ethical or unethical SEO knowledge. Once we selected the top few benchmarks that should be hit, we pulled together an email including these four questions:
- Do you see any quick areas for improvement? Are we doing anything really wrong or dangerous?
- We've been hearing a lot of talk about the "Panda"and "Penguin" penalties from Google. Can you explain what these are? Are we at risk for these penalties? How can we tell if we've been hit?
- We have the opportunity to buy some domains that relate to our services, like ParentSupport.com. We were thinking of building a second version of our site on a .com site that is more related to our services. Is it better to have a.com or a .org domain? How can we leverage buying other domains that have to do with our services to help get more SEO traffic?
- We get lots of emails from people wanting to trade or exchange links with us. Should we be saying yes? Will this help with SEO?
With our questions ready to be answered, it was now time to select our SEO agencies. To keep the selection as neutral as possible, we ran three search queries for the terms "SEO Firm," "SEO Services," and "SEO Company" for the following locations:
- New York, NY
- Los Angeles, CA
- Chicago, IL
- Houston, TX
- Philadelphia, PA
- Jackson, MI
- Chattanooga, TN
- Overland Park, KS
- Temecula, CA
- South Bend, IN
- No location specified
We then took the top five organic and top two paid results for each location under each search query and added them to our list of companies to reach out to. After eliminating companies that didn't provide SEO consulting, we were left with 86 different SEO agencies to contact for the case study. The emails went out, and we waited anxiously for the *hopefully positive* responses to start flowing in.
Case study overview
Of the 86 agencies asked, 28 responded to our outreach with full answers to all four questions. Three clever dudes (Mark Kennedy from SEOM Interactive, Larry Chrzan from Blue Horseradish, and Brady Ware from Softway Solutions) quickly figured out SEOmoz was behind the project, and the remaining 55 declined answering through email. The two most common reasons for not answering the questions were:
"In order to help you out I would need to speak with you on the phone." – Anonymous
"You ask many very good questions below, and if you were a client I’d be happy to answer all of them. Some of the questions you ask require a fair bit of research and analysis to answer correctly and I do not provide free consulting based on an email inquiry. Please go ahead and get all the free advice you can stand, but when you're ready to commit to a paid SEO engagement, do keep us in mind." - Anonymous
The initial responses included an array of answers with an overwhelmingly high amount of white-hat, helpful SEO feedback. Ruth Burr, the lead SEO at SEOmoz, provided answers to use as a benchmark to guage responses. It was a pleasant surprise when the majority of responding agencies offered advice similar to Ruth's initial answers. Because our questions were asked on a broad scale, we categorized the answers as best we could. Here’s a breakdown of the responses per question with sample answers from various SEO agencies:
Question #1: Do you see any quick areas for improvement? Are we doing anything really wrong or dangerous?
It's interesting to note that over half (55.6%) of our respondents stated that they didn’t see anything wrong or dangerous right off the bat, with a high percentage of those respondents requesting more information before giving a complete answer. A whopping 11.1% decided that they needed a more in-depth view before giving any answer at all, and the remaining 33.3% gave helpful, more specific advice.
"Without looking under the hood of the website, it doesn't appear you are doing anything wrong or dangerous. For the most part, unless websites are either really old and out of date or people are using bad techniques, most people aren't doing anything dangerous. In terms of quick improvement:
- You should put your social media channels on your homepage so people can follow you. It was hard to find your Facebook page and I couldn't find you on Twitter.
- You should make your content shareable by including the like and tweet buttons so people can share it via social networks. Google does take these into account in its search ranking as it considers a tweet or like to be a good reference
- You have 13 web pages that return a 404 error meaning a link is broken so it goes nowhere. This doesn't hurt you, but it won't let those pages be indexed by Google.
- You use your name way too much on your site. This means that Google will index your page as Program for early parent support over and over again, which you rank number one for by a mile. One of the best things to do is remove that name off each page and replace it with more detailed keywords about the web page so Google know exactly what the page is about. This goes to the heart of SEO which is the keyword. We always start with a goal…what do you want to do with the website? Sell stuff? inform people? Make ad revenue? Once the goal is determined we start looking for keywords via Google's keyword tool that already have a lot of searches and low amount of competition meaning there aren't a lot of websites with that information. We then swap out the keywords and have Google recrawl your site so you can get indexed for those searches as well."
â€‹ - John Cashman from Digital Firefly Marketing
Question #2: We've been hearing a lot of talk about the "Panda"and "Penguin" penalties from Google. Can you explain what these are? Are we at risk for these penalties? How can we tell if we've been hit?
An overwhelming 88.9% of respondents gave the answer we were looking for in regards to the Panda and Penguin updates! We didn’t see any shocking or fully incorrect answers out of the remaining 11.1%, but they were a bit broader than we preferred.
"Panda: Google Panda updates are designed to target pages that aren’t necessarily spam but also don't offer great quality. In other words, sites with 'thin' content – really designed to do nothing more than hold ads and make money.
(Side note: it's important to follow this one rule that we always adhere to when building content for sites: Google is in the business of producing the absolute best result for any given search query. The best sites are built around this concept. Build using quality content and your rankings will follow. Of course SEO isn't really that simple – it's complex. But, that principle is where all good SEO begins.)
Panda really hit sites that were designed for ads only and offered no real content. Things like page layout and quality content have a lot to do with this. Panda was also designed to stop 'scrappers.' (Sites republishing other company's content.) I don't think you have an issue here, just browsing over your home page.
Penguin: According to Google, Penguin is an 'important algorithm change targeted at webspam.' And that is the very, very short explanation.
Penguin was designed to further cut rankings back on spam-related sites and push up quality sites that are offering regularly-updated and useful content and showing quality incoming links, articles and other content. People seeing problems from Penguin are using techniques like aggressive, exact-match anchor text, exact-match domains (overuse of these) poor quality blog posts and keyword stuffing, to name a few. In other words, spammy-style techniques designed to 'trick' the search engines into a ranking.
Again, we tell our clients is to always focus on quality content and don't try any 'tricks' to achieve rankings. This is always bad policy.”
- Kirk Bates from Market 248
Question #3: We have the opportunity to buy some domains that relate to our services, like ParentSupport.com. We were thinking of building a second version of our site on a .com site that is more related to our services. Is it better to have a .com or a .org domain? How can we leverage buying other domains that have to do with our services to help get more SEO traffic?
Although all four of the above categories are “correct” in one way or another (dependent on preference), 66.7% of respondents gave the answer we were hoping to see. The remaining 33.3% of answers were spread across the multiple categories, but there were no shocking or fully incorrect answers provided.
“It doesn’t really matter if you get a .com or a .org- whichever one you want is fine. If you wanted to have a separate site for a specific area of your industry, then you can do that as well, but you don’t need a bunch of URLs all pointing to one website in order to rank in the search engines.”
- Owen York from Stellar e-Marketing
Question #4: We get lots of emails from people wanting to trade or exchange links with us. Should we be saying yes? Will this help with SEO?
This question served as the most interesting indicator of SEO knowledge in our survey. We were pleased to see that 48.1% of respondents advised strongly against trading links with any other site based solely on email solicitation. 44.4% responded “yes” or “maybe” while cautioning PEPS to be selective on sites to trade links with. Unfortunately, 7.4% of respondents encouraged PEPS to exchange links with other sites that ranked well.
“NO! Do not buy or exchange link with anyone who contacts you. This is completely against Google's policies and if they were to find out, you could be penalized."
- Brad Frank from IT Chair
The (SEO) Fab Five
After comparing answers from all 28 responding agencies, there were five in particular that stood out above the rest. The top five consultants and agencies (in no particular order) were:
- John Cashman from Digital Firefly Marketing
- Dave Davies from Beanstalk SEO
- Kirk Bates from Market 248
- Brad Frank from IT Chair
- Owen York from Stellar e-Marketing
The answers we received from these five agencies included actionable, ethical SEO advice. (You may have noticed a few of their responses as our “Sample Answers” under the above charts – if not, check them out!) Each response went into great detail to provide the foundation and reasoning behind the piece of advice. Despite the topics being at a high-level of SEO knowledge, the responses were explained in a way that could be easily understood by a website owner new to SEO. We would recommend any of these five companies as an agency worth working with
And the winner is…
After a neck-and-neck race to finish between our top five SEO agencies, we decided to select Dave Davies from Beanstalk SEO as our case study winner of the PEPS site audit. Dave's company Beanstalk SEO showed up as the second result in our "no location specified" organic search. (They are based out of Victoria, BC.)
Dave was a front-runner from the beginning. His answers were lengthy, helpful, and provided a fantastic example of how an SEO can explain their work and its tremendous necessity to a potential, first-time client. When we let Dave know that he was on “SEOmoz candid camera” and had been selected to complete the audit, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to not only complete an audit for a charitable company, but to help show the current industry just how sustainable and ethical SEO truly is.
Beanstalk SEO, Inc. is a search engine optimization agency based in Victoria, BC. The Beanstalk SEO website even addresses their stance on unethical black-hat tactics in their “About” section. Beanstalk SEO follows guiding principles similar to SEOmoz’s TAGFEE mission, which made them a perfect fit for the PEPS site audit!
The current state of SEO consultants
When we started this project a few months back, we had high hopes for the responses. The project was driven by the opportunity to display irrefutable data whatever the outcome, but there was definitely some *selfishly-inspired* desire that the answers would help support our initial hypothesis. I’m happy to report that the outcome of our case study exceeded every expectation we set!
Out of our 28 respondents surveyed, well over 50% of surveyed agencies provided ethically sound answers for all four questions. Although we did receive a few responses that didn’t fall exactly in line with our expected answers, we did not see one shockingly black-hat response. If’s that’s not a true indicator of an industry with ethically-driven motivations from the majority, I’m not sure what is.
Although the experience documented on Search Engine Roundtable that inspired this project wasn’t pleasant, I have to argue that it is absolutely not indicative of the current state of the SEO industry. After analyzing the results of our study, it was clear that an overwhelming majority of respondents are practicing white-hat, sustainable tactics. There are SEOs who can be tactless and unethical in their work, and there will always be haters who claim the industry is “dead.” However, after our data assessment and analysis (coupled with our love of this wonderful industry), we couldn’t disagree more.
I want to give a big thanks to all of the agencies that participated in our study, Ruth Burr and Kurtis Bohrnstedt for gathering data, and PEPS for allowing us to go undercover. The faces we know – and plenty of faces we haven’t met yet – are a breath of fresh air who make this industry so vibrant, ever-changing, and full of possibility. There’s never been a better time to be involved in SEO, and we thank our lucky stars to work with you all every day.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the current state of the SEO industry. How do you think the industry as a whole is doing? What direction do you think we’re headed in over the next few years? What sustainable, ethical practices do you wish more agencies and consultants practiced?
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