The Search Engine Marketing Leadership Void

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All policies are personal.

Whether you lean left or right, at the end of the day, the policies that affect your life are the ones you should care about most.

I have long been an advocate for our industry to become more involved in shaping the laws that govern the ecosystem that provides our livelihoods.

As an industry, despite valiant efforts, we have failed to create a united front that protects us from laws passed by bureaucrats who think the internet is a “hit show”.

Legislation is constantly being proposed by politicians who do not understand the ramifications these laws will have on our industry, our businesses and our customers.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social media platforms literally spend millions of dollars each year lobbying lawmakers, trying to influence legislation that could potentially upend their entire business models.

In the search industry, we lament our legislators’ lack of basic understanding of how the internet works – while sitting and watching the companies that help feed our families react to potential legislation in actions sometimes drastic measures that have decimated specific industries.

Executive orders

Before we talk about some of the actions Google and others have taken that have harmed legitimate industries, let’s take a look at the latest blow to the front of our livelihood.

On May 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to redefine a section of the longstanding Communications Decency Act (CDA) passed in 1996.

Section 230 of the CDA protects social media and other providers of user-generated content from liability arising from what is posted by their users.

Without these protections, it’s safe to assume that Twitter, Facebook, and even Google wouldn’t exist as they do today.

In fact, Section 230 of the CDA has been repeatedly called “the 26 words that created the Internet”.

Trump’s executive order appears to have no teeth, however, his public feuds with the social media giants are by no means over.

Section 230

I have been an expert witness several times on issues related to section 230 of the LOC.

I will be the first to admit that I think the law needs to be reviewed.

Protecting UGC publishers from litigation creates a nightmare for many small businesses that have been vilified by competitors, disgruntled employees, and even ordinary trolls.

There is a fine line between a UGC publisher creating an environment where comments and reviews are perceived as tacitly endorsed by an authoritative source such as Google, although as search marketers know that this editorialization is much more algorithmic than editorial.

But, by dismantling Section 230, we run the risk of decimating the internet landscape as we know it – including and especially Google.

There are no easy answers to this one.

But I think people who understand how Google works — and who don’t have a vested interest in Google’s financial statements — should provide guidance to our lawmakers.

Our industry does not do that.

The desert of the online advertising industry

There are many legitimate industries that are not allowed to advertise on Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms.

Google’s advertising policy page lists many categories of businesses that are either prohibited or restricted from advertising on the Google Ads platform.

Twitter and Facebook both have similar lists.

Everything from health care to financial services has pockets of their industries that are affected.

These companies are left with SEO as one of their only options.

Anyone who has done SEO in any of these “banned” categories knows that they are quickly becoming the “wild west”, where Google’s rules and terms of service mean very little no matter how the algorithm tries to improve.

To my knowledge, none of the major search engines or social media platforms has ever approached the search and social media industry to ask which companies should be able to advertise and which companies should not.

A stark example of what I consider Google’s overreach is the advertising restrictions placed on drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers.

You can find these restrictions here.

I don’t know anyone who would say society doesn’t need these facilities.

But I also understand why Google took this position.

Frankly, Google couldn’t tell the legitimate offers from the scammers.

So they outsourced the verification function to a company called Legitscript – but most of the installations involved aren’t even eligible for Legitscript’s services.

This leaves many small, sober houses and rehab centers without many options.

They are forced to participate in highly competitive and in many cases very risky referral programs which may or may not pay off.

Leadership vacuum

Our industry has been experiencing a leadership vacuum for some time.

The recent demise of the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO), which became part of the Digital Analytics Association, was the last gasp of our industry leadership.

SEOs can’t agree on who should lead us, let alone what path we should follow to move forward.

In our current state, the SEO industry is at the mercy of others who may not have our best interests at heart.

Google will continue to dictate what it deems best for the industry, which in many cases is not what is best for those who practice search engine marketing.

Where are the leaders?

Where are the people who will step in, take the hard knocks it takes to unify the industry and give us a seat at the big boys’ table where the discussions that really matter are happening?

I do not believe that the leaders are not there.

Our industry is full of tribes.

Tribes are tight-knit groups that help each other, care for each other, and freely share their knowledge – in most cases, without worrying about competitive issues.

But when it comes to making meaningful progress in influencing policy or improving the industry, we argue like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

I see everyday people in our industry with polar opposite political views helping each other with technical SEO issues.

I know the industry can work together to create a better experience for both practitioners and consumers.

But we need a unifier.

We need a person or a group that can get us all rowing the boat in the same direction.

Once we have that, I believe there is no limit to what we can do.

So who wants to step up?

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Featured Image: Created by author, June 2020

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