The Importance of Scars

A Guest Post from Joel K

Dear SEO community,

I’m annoyed.

At this point we’ve all become well acquainted with Penguin and Panda, algorithms designed to unapologetically curbstomp the rankings of sites who were blatantly “doing it wrong”. And believe me, I get that this is a positive thing in the long term. The brilliance in the Penguin update, inconsistent and flawed as it was, was that it was just enough of a shock-and-awe carpet bomb to scare the living daylights out of SEO’s across the industry into embracing the wondrous golden calf we’re all calling “Content Marketing”.

Though we all lost ourselves for a little while in 2010 and 2011 while we embraced the bright shining disco ball of anchor text (which ultimately exploded in many faces in pretty twinkling shards), we’re now back to spouting the same old “create great content” lines – most of us with just as little initial clue as to how that make in the real world as we did before (be honest).

But hey, we’re getting much better. I mean it. At least now we’re trying – REALLY trying, because we’re just been scared enough to give this whole thing a real, genuine go. So we’re gloriously stumbling forward like newborns, doing our best to embrace our new roles as content creators and outreach specialists in addition to being information architects and code monkeys.

And damn if it isn’t an exciting challenge. There are clear thought leaders  in the “actually applicable content marketing” space now, smart guys whose names I need not drop for you to identify.  (But I’ll drop James Agate’s anyways).

And don’t get me wrong – all of this is positive. The day we can all worry less about finding ways to snap up anchor text and instead focus our efforts on turning online marketing into the act of marketing online (what a friggin’ concept!), the better.

But among all of the positives from the fallout is one enormously glaring negative: The demonization of those SEO’s who did get hit by algorithm updates.

“Hold on!” you say, “Surely you won’t defend the spammers!”

I want to make a case here not for bad tactics and shoddy SEO, but an appeal for all of us to plant a foot firmly back into reality. We seem to have this expectation that everyone around us ought to have learned to sprint before they learned to crawl.

We operate in a reality where clients want results and SEO’s want to deliver. The will to deliver is a strong one because it’s doubly motivated by cash. There are many genuinely smart, well-meaning SEO’s who can preach the rhetoric of white hat SEO just as well as you can – even know the real, tangible benefits of running pure white campaigns, but don’t have the means to do so.

We are not all sitting in the offices where the leadership “gets it”, no matter how badly we’d like to be. We can’t all fire clients who “don’t get it” either. A lot of us are already juggling so many balls (just trying to keep up on 40+ changes a month is a head spin, never mind reporting, link building, prospecting and building a business) that time becomes the enemy. A lot of us are SEO’s with small teams (sometimes teams of ONE) in agencies where enacting the change that enables that kind of SEO to happen is a genuine struggle with management and sales staff. There are SEOs who have leaned heavy and hard on gray while trying to paddle the barge of their companies around into less choppy seas out of necessity.

When SEO meets real world business, funny things happen.

Where’s our empathy? These are not the equivalents of quack doctors who sew additional limbs to patients for sport. They’re just people caught in challenging situations, trying to deliver results while simultaneously trying to turn things around. As they do so, they misstep. We pounce.

My point is not to make excuses for those who find themselves resorting to unsavory tactics or even to try and excuse taking a gamble with client money – but instead to point out what we all already know but seldom acknowledge in meaningful ways: There are genuine barriers that stand in the way of content-based SEO, and genuine people caught in these barriers.

So I’m extremely sick of hearing the audible noise of people slapping their own backs and proclaiming their own integrity. “Oh, I’ve NEVER bought a link. Oh, I’ve NEVER spammed a blog. Oh, I’ve NEVER done anything shady at all. I’m a regular patron saint of SEO.”

Honestly? Great. Good for you. And I don’t mean to diminish the fact that you’ve faced challenges of your own along that road, but to be honest, you’re not the only one I want to hear from.

You know who else I respect in this industry? The guys who played with the dark side and got burned. The people who have been mangled by algorithm updates and found ways to change and get better because of it. The people who have had to work to change an SEO firm from the inside out, starting with their processes.

No, not spammers. Just SEO’s with scars, who have endured real challenges, made mistakes and had to learn from them.

If you’ve got no scars; if you’ve never made a mistake; if you’ve never had to come back to a client and tell them “we messed up, and here’s how we’re going to fix it”, then there are things you simply cannot teach me. Scars tell a story. Scars speak of experience. Scars tell me you’re just as interested as I am in finding SEO solutions that work for real clients in real spaces with real budgets. The importance of scars in this industry is massive, and yet our propensity is to black label anyone who has them.

A little empathy. We’re all in this together.

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