The Creation of Draft SEM Standards


Draft Code of Ethics posted

Proposed SEM Standards (Part 1)


As promised, I offer the following several posts to the SEM community as proposed draft Code of Ethics, Standards, and Guidelines.

First, a primer on how these 3 things fit together:

Code Of Ethics

A Code of Ethics is a general statement of common principles and ideals. They are usually not intended to deal with specific issues, but rather outline an overall approach and philosophy.

In law, this would be the equivalent of a constitution. It should rarely, if ever, change.

Example: SEO's shall avoid deceptive marketing practices.

This is fine as a philosophy, but of course it's not terribly clear what "deceptive" is in all cases. Sure, this would deal with directly and fraudulently lying to people, but what about something like IP delivery or cloaking, where there could be arguments as to whether they are deceptive or not?

Industry Standards

Standards are generally accepted and codified rules that are created to provide structure and guidance to a Code of Ethics. These can include definitions, best practices and so forth, but are generally at a high level.

Standards can change with the times, but should generally be written in such a way that such changes should be minimal. The idea here is to stabilize things and to give people something they can rely on.

Continuing with the legal analogy, if a Code of Ethics is like a Constitution, then Industry Standards are like laws or statutes.

Example: Avoid IP delivery methods that present substantially different information to search engines from what a human visitor would experience.

This is more helpful than "avoid deceptive marketing practices". It answers most of my questions and is the one-liner to take back to my client or boss. This would deal with 90% of the questions.

But what if I'm dealing with a technical issue that is more complex than this? I think I need more guidance, since I can think of a few examples where even this definition doesn't cut it. And what does "substantially" really mean, anyway? Well, now we look at Guidelines, which interpret the Standards.


The guidelines could be very large and detailed, and include information like alternatives to IP delivery, some example scenarios, or (worst case scenario) say something like "we don't know exactly what the result of doing X would be, as there is evidence that sometimes it works , and sometimes it doesn't. Proceed with caution."

Or, it could say: IP cloaking to go past verification pages is OK, but using it to go past paid login pages is frowned upon because it creates a poor user experience.

Perhaps a separate guideline would say that you can do this for paid pages if there is notification up front (before clicking on the result) that the page is paid.

Or it could actually be an entire forum thread with the whole community arguing their various points of view. That's OK. Some things are complicated, and often there are many ways to accomplish the goal.

Continuing with the legal analogy, if a Code of Ethics is like a Constitution, and Industry Standards are like laws or statutes, then Guidelines are Case Law: the individually tailored decisions of judges and juries based on messy and unique circumstances.

From my perspective, Ethics are easy, and standards could be set in a committee. It's the guidelines where all the fun happens. That's where the exceptions to the rules happen, where the weird situations get looked at, and so forth.

One of the big issues (and the source of most of the debate on this subject) is that many people think that proponents of standards are intending to put things that belong in guidelines into the standards or ethics. That would be a bad idea.

Debates like the proper use of nofollow, etc belong in the guidelines, because sometimes there is no clear, correct answer. Sometimes the best you can do is to make people aware that there is a controversy and what the issues and risks are. That's perfectly acceptable in a guideline, but not in a Code of Ethics or Industry Standards, which need to a reliable and clear to both SEM's and the public.

Once there ceases to be controversy over a guideline, it can be considered for promotion to a Standard. But it would not be unusual to have some guidelines never getting promoted. SEM's are a contentious, opinionated, independent bunch, and I expect our guidelines will probably reflect that.

At no point should the establishment of standards interfere with or prevent a professional from using their judgement or solving a problem. The standards and guidelines should exist to help and guide, not to hinder or hold back.

With all this in mind, and after reviewing the following (excellent) resources, I'll try to present some draft versions of all of this, hopefully to start a discussion and lend some structure to the debate.



Morgan said...

That is a very comprehensive and thought out plan. The only trick I now see is getting people to agree on what is what. Having a good framework to put everything in would certainly help, but I still think that it would be difficult to get everyone to agree on things. Who would determine what would comprise all of the sections? To me, that's definitely where the difficultly will devil will be found -- in the details.

DougHeil said...

Hi Ian, While I applaud you with all of this, I really do not think anything like this would be worth it. I feel it would have to go much, much further. It would have to be run by a new group that also includes the search engines and some very unbiased people experienced in this, and also include a few SEO types who have no vested interests from selling advertising to other seo's. This would be just the start of establishing things.

Not only does this have to educate the general public but it also has to include search engine guidelines. The goal being that only SEO's who follow those guidelines get to be included.

Just listing a bunch of things and calling it standards will not do much of anything at all.

Ian McAnerin said...

These are both good points.

@morgan: you are right - the details is where it gets messy. I have a degree in law and this is still one of the messiest things I've ever tried to tackle.

@dougheil:Hi Doug! Thanks for commenting :) I agree that what I've started here as a proposal would have to go much further to be useful. About the inclusion of search engine guidelines, I'm not opposed to it per se, but at the same time I'm mindful that there is more than one search engine, and Google has been making some odd choices lately, so I'm adverse to just turning everything over to them. Having said that, I think that if the SEO industry's guidelines do not contain almost identical copy of search engine guidelines, then we probably are not doing our job. I just want those guidelines to come from the SEM community, not to be dictated by a public corporation. If, for example, a search engine felt that turning over webmasters personal information to a hostile government was acceptable and required, I would hope that our industry would stand up against that.

Having said that, I don't see any serious issues with the current posted guidelines, and would expect them to be reflected in any Standards or Guidelines we created.

You've given me an idea - I wonder if a special committee (with search engine reps, advertising experts, independent third parties, etc) would be a good idea?