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.

You can follow and abuse Joel on Twitter

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  • http://twitter.com/madeale Alessio

    is it lame I’m the first one to comment? well, don’t care. I respect Joel a lot as SEO and beyond so when I saw he published this I jumped to read it immediately.

    The sentence I like the most here is: real SEOs have scars. I mean, it’s really true. I’m SEO since a little bit more than one year, so I cannot say I have big and deep scars already , even because I work in a pretty safe environment.
    But only Trent Reznor knows how much I’m fighting every fuckin day to change something, to bring more ideas to the plate (maybe wrong sometimes, but still) , to bring some freshness on a sometimes-too-boring environment, to give dynamic to a sometimes-too-static minds.

    I love this kind of posts, because it makes me think about SEO from a human, personal point of view. I like the technical stuff , but I think I need this to understand a little bit beyond SEO in order to be – maybe – a better one in the future.

    Thanks for sharing Joel! and thanks Chris for hosting it, so basically for paying the host and stuff.

    • http://bestlookingmanintheworld.com Joel K

      Ahhh, Alessio. Can always count on you to actually engage. Love that.

      I think the human side of SEO gets glazed over by the theory side of SEO. We forget that every SEO strategy has to be implemented by real businesses with real challenges with real people under real constraints. I’ve called the kind of advice that ignores this “fluff evangelism”.

      In the race to be the brightest, shiniest SEO, don’t forget the importance of having acknowledging your shortcomings – we all have them.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jhtscherck John-Henry Scherck

    Excellent post Joel,

    I don’t think there is a single SEO out there without some type of battle scar. Not necessarily a gray hat link buying scar, but certainly a scar of some type. Everyone screws up from time to time, especially when we are first getting in the game. I have learned a whole lot more from my screw ups than my victories and I love when people share their war stories so I can learn from them too.

    People screw up things like architecture and keyword research, but it doesn’t have the same stigma as screwing up with links. I wish the industry wasn’t afraid to talk about their bruises, because I feel like we all would learn a lot more.

    Most blog posts I read are about how to do something better. I would love to read a a post that says, “listen to how I just crapped the bed… and learn from my mistake.” But – in an industry that’s so highly reputation based, I don’t see that coming any time soon.

    Oh well, wishful thinking I guess.

    • http://bestlookingmanintheworld.com Joel K

      The irony is that SEO’s posture themselves like they have none (with exceptions, obviously) because we’ve created this false front where it’s somehow bad to have dabbled outside of terms or service or employed tactics that actually worked.

      So true about the links stigma too – and arguably link building is the hardest part of what we do (no matter how many cleverly named blog posts try to convince me otherwise).

      But you nailed it. This industry revolves around reputation, so masks and polish are in high demand. Cheers for the comment.

    • Chris Dyson

      How do we handle the discovery of our own mistakes?

      Some SEO’s might shrug it off & carry on regardless. Some SEO’s might try to minimise it’s effect & try to remedy the holy shit storm they might have created. Some SEO’s might even step in with a lie (tut, tut). Most people, I hope, would admit their mistake.

      But how often do we expect them to announce it to the world from a proverbial hilltop. How often do we expect them to tell us — in the clearest language possible — that they screwed up, providing every detail possible about the nature of the mistake?

      I think we all should clear our consciences once in a while – http://davidmcohen.com/outing-post-im-outing-ive-done-crappy-marketing/

      • http://www.twitter.com/jhtscherck John-Henry Scherck

        @Chris – I love that post from David Cohen. I think I may have to write something about my outreach screw ups of the past. When I first entered SEO I was sat in front of a computer and told to do outreach…. no real training, just go do it. I got lucky, but I screwed up A LOT at first. I mean, just crappy link building attempts… out right asking for a link and not trying to add value to a site. Luckily things have changed, but I think I am going to have to write a post for new link builders to learn from my mistakes of years past… because there is a lot of them.

  • Calin Daniel

    Another beauty Joel.

    I think scars are just part of being an SEO consultant. Outside of Google, no one can say for certain what we should and should not be investing our time in. If you aren’t constantly experimenting, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and growing as a professional, then really, what are you doing?

    I like everyone else am tired of the white hat, black hat debate. This is the real world and it’s imperfect. Money, reputation, competition – all of these things force SEO consultants to push the envelope and sometimes it bites you in the ass. So in this case you’d be left with not just scars but ass-scars. Those are by far the worst kind!

    Great post – it was a breath of fresh air.

    • http://bestlookingmanintheworld.com Joel K

      Thanks Calin,

      Laughed about “ass-scars”. But honestly, this is more or less just a digitized version of conversations you and I have been having over beers for well over a year now. Appreciate you taking the time to read – and the tweet.

  • Anthony Pensabene

    It’s kind of like the difference between one of those la-studio stock photos or a real one on one’s site (I mean assuming you are not the best looking man in the world). Though not created for aesthetic-to-impress purposes, scars are more human, and perhaps in ways, more attractive to consumers. Mistakes are real. Scars are real and have lessons to teach. I think Scars keep close ties with Experience. Can’t get around that. Good message.

    This made me think of a Blind Melon tune, The Duke, I dig:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrWYO19sAvI

    • http://bestlookingmanintheworld.com Joel K

      Interesting point on the consumers – especially since our industry spends so much time trying to look like they are and always have been above board. To deny scars DOES deny experience, and I’m glad you took that away.

      Great BM tune too, I’m familiar ;)

  • http://www.webimax.com Chris Countey

    I’m glad you mentioned agencies here, Joel. I have my own scars (and some new wounds that I’ve learned from already) and it’s important for me to remember that my positive actions as well as my missteps will reflect on my coworkers and the brand.

    It’s easy to see a brand as a single entity; but there may hundreds of people working behinds the scenes, playing a game where the real rules are unclear and the competition fierce. Those people have families and the companies they work for have families.

    I’m personally and professionally jealous of my Tweet stream most days. I see great content, digital high-fives, SEO fame. And then I wake up and see an office full of people busting their asses, not giving a damn who got the most upvotes on Inbound or what Youmoz post made it to the main blog.

    Those are the people I look up to and I’m proud to show them my scars.

    • http://bestlookingmanintheworld.com Joel K

      Another good perspective, Chris: what we see on Twitter/Inbound certainly isn’t the whole story. I forget that sometimes.

      I think in some cases, there aren’t even hundreds – just handfuls. Maybe less. And whether teams are huge or teams are small, the challenges remain: we’re trying to adapt to a quickly shifting market while keeping our noses clean despite the fact that all of the “no-no’s” have been major wins in the past.

      I just think it’s funny that in an industry that shakes and shimmies so often we can be so ruthless on people who make mistakes. I understand if they perpetually live in those mistakes and don’t try to improve, but those people aren’t “scarred”, they’re in the pirahna tank.

  • Ryan

    “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.”

    Would you trust a Doctor that had never touched a Cadaver?

    Unfortunately we in SEO rarely have the luxury of experimenting at the agency level with dead websites.

    Well said man,

    • Chris Dyson

      Nice analogy Ryan,

      One of my favourite quotes is by

      Dr. David M. Burns – “Assert your right to make a few mistakes. If people can’t accept your imperfections, that’s their fault.”

      and the other is by

      Niels Bohr – “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

      • https://twitter.com/CaptainSpaceman Ryan

        Wow, I’m gonna have to remember those. Thanks Chris

  • http://www.risedigital.com Andrew G

    Great post. These people that never did anything shady are nothing more than sheep.

    Real SEOs know the spammy tactics and tools, and how to utilise them in a way that doesn’t get you burnt.

    It’s the people getting burnt that are doing the real SEO and working out what does and doest work.

    Subbed and about to RT this. Best post I have read in a while.

    • http://bestlookingmanintheworld.com Joel K

      Cheers Andrew, appreciate your frankness and you sharing this. I think it’s highly unlikely (read: impossible) that everyone out there trying to paint themselves as spotless actually is. And maybe that’s not a bad thing – as I tried to point out in the article :)

  • Spook SEO

    Cheers to this excellent post Joel! Yes, I absolutely agree with you that scars really tell a story. Scars speak of experience. Scars tell us we are just as interested as others in finding SEO solutions that work for real clients in real world with real budget.