Fear of a Black Hat: Inside the “Shadowy World” of SEO/M

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One of the liabilities of working in the field of search engine optimization and marketing is the cold fact that, without a year of tedious explanation, hardly anyone understands what we do. Explaining my job to politely interested relatives is roughly the equivalent of explaining the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal to a dog. My mother’s resorted to telling people I “work with computers,” experiencing, obviously, zero irony. C’mon, ma, who doesn’t? I’m pretty sure the last time I bought a Slurpee the guy ran my sale through one a them infernal machines.

The Newsweek article (“Hotwiring Your Search Engine.” Stone, Brad. December 19, 2005.) helped a little, in its Newsweek-y way, at least in that I could say “look, mom, Newsweek! They know what I do!” Sort of. The subtitle “Inside the shadowy world of ‘SEOs,’” didn’t do me a whole lot of good. Further, the article was peppered with terms like “manipulate” and (I like this one) “slyly unethical.” Nothing was mentioned in the meat of the article (the helpful accompanying graphic, at least the “Fair Game” column, was better) regarding how SEO/Ms not only use techniques to get our clients better search results, but that we assess the usability of the clients’ sites and help them recognize and remove roadblocks. We provide relevant content that we hope will not only generate search engine results, but interest among web users. Still, because our vocation is not only involved with the internet–which even today leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many Americans–but with how the internet works, we’re “shadowy.” Now my parents equate what I do to something that’s maybe not illegal, but maybe one day will be, once The Law figures out what we’re doing.

Apparently, according to a Pew/Internet study called “Digital Divisions,” 22% of Americans, and thus my relatives, not only don’t care what I or anyone else who “works with computers” does, they never will. Indeed, some of them “don’t like it,” they “hate computers…[as they’re] what’s ruining the world” (take that, global warming!) and think “it’s the devil’s work.” Dude, that’s black hat. That’s not the way we roll.

We’re pretty much regular folks, here. Many of us drive pickup trucks; many of those trucks are American. Some of us are parents; some aren’t. We shovel, by necessity. We try to support our home (Detroit) sports teams, which isn’t easy. We, almost as a whole, enjoy soup. We don’t conjure. We’re not con artists. We don’t trick the nice folks at Google & Yahoo, etc., to rank our clients’ sites higher than they should be. We use time-tested tools like exhaustive research, meticulous planning, and ethical, hard work to make things happen. And, thus, there is no “shadowy world.” I do occasionally wear a black hat, but it has a Detroit Tigers logo on it. And I’m definitely more embarrassed by that than I am by what I do for a living.

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