Being Certifiable – Verified SEO, SEMPO and Realtors…What???

Over the last few hours, I’ve become aware of the Verified SEO. In the past, I’ve written about SEO Certification in the past, albeit not very well. So, let’s try this again.

For more than two years I’ve been privately (well, at least not very loudly) advocating for a standards designation for search engine marketers. I don’t want regulations. I don’t want someone telling me I can’t do a certain tactic. But I do want to have a way to show that I’m not like the SEO who spams you three times weeks with guarantees of tremendous rankings or the “guru” who can teach you how to do search engine marketing over the weekend so you can make your first million.

The topic of SEO Certification certainly seems to bring out the most vile protests from the SEO community. I get it. We’re all rebels. We don’t want authority to bring us down. We want to grow our hair long and rock and roll all night….

But here is the bottom line – to most people you are seen in the same Spam boat as the Gurus and the Spammers. There has to be a compromise – something so that we can legitimately claim that we know our stuff – yet aren’t limited when we do “occasionally” recommend an off-color tactic for a client that really needs a boost (with the client having complete knowledge of the risks, no doubt).

Let’s think about the Real Estate industry. I don’t have to be a Realtor to sell real estate. I can sell my own house if I want to. Some people are adamant that using a Realtor doesn’t help at all. I’m not going to argue that – but what I will argue that the Realtor distinction has LEGITIMATE VALUE for it’s practitioners. There are many who wouldn’t consider selling real estate without a Realtor. Realtors are required to have continuing education – and if a Realtor really screws up, there are real ramifications and they can lose their Realtor status. Doesn’t mean they can’t continue to sell Real Estate, they just aren’t a Realtor anymore.

This model could work for the SEO world – not so much in-house SEO, but those of that sell search marketing to clients. But a certified (verified, legit, practiced, whatever you want to call it) SEO would be required to have a basic knowledge of current SEO tactics. Continuing education would be required. There would be a governing body that provides mediation between SEOs and disgruntled clients.

And right now, the best organization to do this is SEMPO.

I have respect for SEMPO, but I think that what they are doing now, with creating meetups internationally and putting out research that nobody of importance reads, is not in-line with truly helping the SEO community. From what I hear (completely unsolicited)  most people who aren’t involved with SEMPO agree with me. I think that SEMPO has a real opportunity to legitimize SEM and SEO with a designation like the Real Estate folks have.

I’m sure I’ll hear other thoughts on this – but I hope I can at least bring up a discussion.


  1. Tony,

    At least to a certain degree, I am with you on wanting to see our industry reach a new level of maturity, one way being through a professional organization that helps de-mystify the industry for those business owners looking to get through the noise. I said as much in my Search Engine Journal column back in January in an article titled “Cleaning Up the SEO Cesspool” (

    Where the problem lies currently I think, is there’s no real consensus on what the mission of such an organization should be. Verifying or certifying individuals or agencies in the Real Estate arena is much different and more straight-forward than it is for SEO. I know – having managed a Real Estate agency in the early 90s and having gone on to obtain my own license in that field.

    While Realtors must follow strictly controlled laws, and where the legal process can (and has, on many occassions), potentially lead to the Realtor being held liable for misrepresentation in what could easily be a multi-million dollar transaction, no such regulation exists (yet) in our industry.

    While continuing education in the Real Estate market is easy to achieve (based on individual State government regulations on the transaction process), SEO is forever changing, countless times each year. And as soon as any company comes out with a specific training curriculum, it’s at least partially extinct as a result.

    So who’s going to be the person, group or entity that decides what makes up the qualifying guidelines for this in our industry? Charles P. came up with what would, under any reasonable business model, be considered ludicrous when he said you’ve got to have no less than five years experience, and you have to provide his “group of industry veterans” TWENTY case studies.

    While that’s a ridiculously over the top threshold, what would a reasonable threshold look like? Or should there be an entirely different set of criteria? Maybe you wouldn’t need any such years in the business and not have to provide any case studies. Maybe, instead, you only need three real world client references.

    Or maybe all you need to do is commit to stick by a specific code of ethics. Or sign your name onto a document that says you only do X or Y.

    But even that’s not realistic given how effortless it would be for scammers to fake their way through such requirements.

    Testing is out of the question because of that moving target, and just as much because what YOU consider “reasonable” in terms of tactics, someone else will probably consider some of that black hat. You yourself in this very article mention what’s termed “gray-hat” tactics as having an appropriate use.

    So what makes you an authority with the right to say that? Let alone determine what qualifies?

    I’m not attacking you for that – just pointing out the challenge you’d face in making such a claim become part of this industry. Especially when the search engines consider some of those things to be a direct violation of their terms of service or guidelines.

    Which leads us to the even bigger problem – do we only give a blessing to someone who follows the search engine terms of service or guidelines? Or does this industry organization say it’s okay to violate those terms of service or guidelines, essentially, in some eyes, giving at least the appearance of impropriety being acceptable?

    No, I think, at this point in our industry’s evolution, verification or certification is an impossible wish. And instead, the first step should be to get a non-profit organization going where a primary mission is to be that clearing-house – not in how it gives its blessings to one company over another. But instead, more of a generalized information clearing-house. One that could carry the collective voice of our peer community in debunking the “SEO IS DEAD” type nonsense as well.

    Only after such a fundamentally basic organization is in place would I venture to guess that discussions on some loftier goal might begin.

    SEMPO is just completely off-track for this. Their membership fee structure already prevents the mass of our industry from participation, and they’ve got financial motive to learn in a number of directions that give favor to member or sponsor companies. Which I think corrupts, or at the very least, gives too strong a “belief of impropriety” for many others who could otherwise afford membership, to even want to bother to participate. They’re not a clean-slate because of these issues.

    Ultimately I don’t have any “how to move forward” notions beyond what I shared here and in my SEJ article back in January. And I do applaud you for taking the stance that you do, and blogging about it. Because it’s only through dialogue and discussion that we’ll ever, IF ever, see our industry evolve.

  2. Allan,

    It’s obvious you’ve put alot of thought into this. I remember reading your SEJ article and thinking that you and I shared some similar sentiment. I think the problem is that in the Internet Age we are moving at a speed that is too quick for a traditional certification too keep up with. And no, I don’t think that the certification should ban black or grey hat tactics – but should ban the practice of not warning clients of their inherent risks.

    I agree with you that SEMPO has become somewhat irrelevant to the majority of the industry. But it’s like politics. I don’t like everyone who is elected but I vote nonetheless. And SEMPO is pretty good about one member getting one vote – regardless of the size of the organization. There are lots of things to work out, and a certification process like the one I’m envisioning won’t be easy. If it was easy, it would have already been done. But it does need to be done. And it will take some balls to get it done. Many in the community will bash the idea, and those that don’t like how it is run will try and devalue it. But it can be done.

    Right now, SEMPO would be the only logical choice to run a certification program like this one. But they are not set up to do it. The membership of SEMPO will need to grow exponentially and the money to brand the value of the certification to the non-seo masses will be needed. It’s not there now.

    Maybe someday if I ever sell one of my start-ups and don’t have to work so darn much I’ll retire from agency and start-up life and take on the challenge…But right now, I’ve got my hands full just doing search marketing and running my companies, raising my kids and keeping my wife happy. Hell, just look at the lack of posting on my blog and you can see that.

  3. SEMPO has become “somewhat” irrelevant to the majority in our industry? They’re downright despised by a fair number of people I’ve spoken with.

    As a supposed “non-profit”, the fact that they charge what they do is ludicrous. And what does someone get for that pricing? Individuals, who make up the vast majority of our industry, get jack squat, and are clearly discriminated against compared to big corporations. Which is the direct opposite path that such an entity should be taking given our independent nature, and the concept that a non-profit organization should be HELPING everyone.

    Just one example – their member listings – why does it cost $5,000 to get four lousy links? And even then, why only a 3 line description? Come on. This is the web. It costs NOTHING to allow every member a full bio. Though that’s a lot more generous than the bogus ONE LINE an individual gets.

    And a corporate membership at $1,000 – for that you can’t even list multiple offices. Or advertise at their seminars! Individuals don’t get any discounts, on research materials…

    The list goes on. All painting a picture that they’re NOT the right organization for anything at all on a big enough scale.

    No, they’re neither embracing of who we are nor are they unbiased.

    So unless the entire SEMPO structure is scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up, they’re not the ones to do this.

  4. Alan,

    Who would be the one to do it? Certainly not the Charles Prestons of the world. No matter who does it, there will be those that protest. I agree with most of your criticisms of SEMPO – but I also know that alot of the people who are griping are merely loud complainers.

    Whether we like it or not, as the SEO industry evolves the big agencies are getting involved – and that is where the money is. I don’t blame SEMPO for courting that money.

    In our practice, we don’t take on Mom & Pops. It’s not that we don’t like them. In theory, they are my favorite type of businesses. Its just simple math and resources. A typical Mom & Pop organization expects twice the service of a larger organization, and at a tenth of the price. SEMPO faces the same problem – and probably should address this better.

    If the small business owners don’t like SEMPO, get involved and get elected to the board and make changes. If not, they can stand on the sidelines and complain just like they always do.

    I personally believe that certification is necessary, and will happen in the next five years. I believe that SEMPO will do it – but if they do it wrong then someone else will have to do it. Unfortunately, unless we want to go to someone like the IAB there isn’t another organization that’s strong enough to make this happen.

    Interested in any solutions you may have.

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