Why Are So Many SEO Experts Wrong So Often?

SEO expertHow often can the majority of people in a single industry be completely wrong?  You may think there is no such industry but when I look back at the disastrous track record of the online marketing, or search engine optimization, industry over the past ten years I can honestly say I believe it has become a perennial situation.  The people who were wrong about how search marketing works last year were also the people who were wrong about it the year before.  But being wrong doesn’t shake their confidence in themselves; and that explains why they continue to move from one bad idea to the next.

Web marketers hold and attend a lot of conferences.  The presentations from these conferences are often shared online, and many of them inspire blog posts that explain the details for casual readers, business decision makers, and other marketers.  With so much scrutiny you would think that people might notice from time to time when unbelievable nonsense is being handed out as if it is scientific fact.  But that rarely happens; and when people do stand up to denounce and debunk the nonsense they are often ignored.  Not shouted down.  Ignored.

John Andrews is a Seattle-area SEO consultant who has spoken at many conferences.  On more than one occasion he has explained in solemn, tedious detail why the egregious marketing claims of certain companies in the industry should be ignored.  He is usually on the money, but relatively few people pay attention to him.  Why?  We’ll get to that but the answer has nothing to do with John.

Bryson Meunier is one of the most brilliant conference presenters on the SEO circuit.  I have never seen or heard of him making a presentation that is not supported by solid research and verifiable information.  He has devoted more than a few conference sessions to debunking the paranoid psychotic arguments favored by some people who have a less than stellar track record in explaining anything, predicting anything, or fixing anything that goes wrong with large scale Web search.  And yet people ignore his counter-analyses and continue to repeat and follow the teachings of self-appointed gurus who, self-admittedly, started out pandering garbage and nonsense to their legions of fans.  Why do people continue to follow self-admittedly bad SEOs?  We’ll get to that but the answer has nothing to do with the quality of Bryson’s debunkings

The Problem With SEO Today

Search engine optimization has become such a burdensome label that many marketers have scrambled to get out from under it.  The Web is plastered with complaints from business owners and marketing department managers who have worked with SEO agencies and consultants through the years.  Thousands of companies have filed complaints with states attorneys general and the Better Business Bureau.  And all those consumer complaint Websites that SEO agencies hate to compete with in the search results not only share horror stories about horrible companies that mistreat and abuse their customers, they also publish complaints about SEO agencies.

If you practice search engine optimization and you have not rebranded at least once in the past ten years, I guarantee you have considered it because people in the industry complain all the time about how hard it is to persuade new prospects to become clients.  There is so much distrust and bitterness in the online marketing community that you would think people would give up on the whole concept and find a real job.  And yet, the ones most likely to rebrand are the people who get caught up in their own traps of self-deceit and bad logic.  Five years ago everyone was an SEO expert; today they are content marketers.

The Obvious Correlation No One Wants to Diagram

The level of incompetence in the Web marketing community is astounding.  You can gauge how widespread it is by finding Websites that mention certain popular companies and blogs.  The more testimonials you find from people who attend the conferences, seminars, and webinars put on by the leaders of the SEO industry the more complaints you’ll find about how hard it is to recover from Google penalties, to compete with certain kinds of marketing, and to get critical buy in on new strategies from clients and managers.

This legion of “great article! what can I do about penguin?” writers is typical and representative of the quality of the online marketing community.  They are not aberrations; they are the norm.  The common Web marketer follows a relatively small number of personalities or Websites in glazed-eyed fashion while at the same time struggling to solve problems that have been written about endlessly.

With so much information on the Web about all these SEO problems, why are there so many complaints from the people who are supposed to have the answers?  As it turns out there is a connection between those who fail to think critically about themselves and why they fail to think critically about themselves.

But A Little More on Correlation Analysis

It is virtually impossible to find a popular Web marketing presentation, case study, or tool that doesn’t throw correlation analysis into the discussion.  I admit to being partly responsible for that because I have advocated the use of correlative analysis for years.  Of course, I had hoped people would pay attention to all the warnings that I and others have made against looking for correlations to support what you want to believe in.  That is the single most common flaw with Web marketing correlation studies: they easily find correlations to support any position.

Random correlations exist in nature.  There is, for example, a strong correlation between queries about “bird seed” and queries about “4×6” in Google search data.  Now, before you start trying to rationalize the connection between queries about bird seed and queries about picture frames or whatever, ask yourself why it matters.  There is a correlation between these queries, but there is NO connection between them.  Seriously.  These queries are correlated but UNrelated.  You need look no further than that.

Correlations explain nothing.  When you identify a correlation, if it represents a connection, the explanation for the correlation lies elsewhere, always, in all cases, every time, and the correlation neither explains nor proves anything.  Correlation analysis can be used as a quality metric only when you’re dealing with known properties.  In search engine optimization there are no known properties.  Ever.

SEO correlation studies do serve one useful purpose.  You can use them to divide the online marketing industry into:

  1. Those who don’t believe correlation studies
  2. Those who write correlation studies
  3. Those who believe correlation studies

It’s not always clear if the people writing the correlation studies actually believe what they are writing.  Lately it seems like everyone publishing a correlation study is trying to sell you something that the correlation study just magically happens to show is the best thing you could possibly spend your money on.  Maybe it’s a “professional subscription/membership” to a great suite of tools; maybe it’s the latest algorithmic analysis; maybe it’s all that and more.

Correlation studies that are not tied to any company or service with something to sell are more likely (that is a probabilistic assertion) to be less pseudo-sciencey, but even then you have to ask if there isn’t some ulterior motive behind all the correlative language (my ulterior motive is to debunk Web marketing pseudo-science and keep you reading further).

The Common Complaint about Non-Correlative Analysis is the Wrong Complaint

If you don’t write a correlation study but nonetheless talk in broad terms about “most people”, “industry wide”, and other generalizations people tend to NOT believe you.  They demand data.  They want charts.  They want you to point them to other studies that back up what you say (although research shows that most people don’t click on all the links, but rather take them on faith).  To be honest, I tried to find a good paper on click-through analysis that explains this “give me supporting links I won’t click on” behavior but the best-written papers were published many years ago and Web design has changed radically since then (Web design influences user click behavior).  You can, however, probably see the effect for yourself if you use Google Analytics on your own Websites.  Use the “In-Page Analysis” tool on your most thoroughly researched articles (the ones with the most outbound links to supporting sources) and you should see a relatively low amount of click activity on any given referential link (functional links tend to get far more click activity).

It’s enough for people that you provide some backup, even if you’re only linking to something random.  So if complaining about the lack of references is the wrong complaint (in fact, it’s usually just a debating tactic meant to discredit an article you don’t want to believe), what is the right complaint about a non-correlative analysis?  Well, actually, you can find a lot of good reasons to complain about a non-correlative analysis.

For example, the analysis can make assertions that have been disproven outside the marketing field.  Telling me that some case study on Moz disagrees with me only discredits you.  Pointing me to a well-written research paper on Stanford’s Website that includes data and explanations for why I am wrong — that discredits me.  However, an appeal to authority never proves anything.  The problem with citation analysis in general is that the citations do not magically fix themselves (or whatever they are supporting) when new research turns everything upside down.

Had you asked Albert Einstein in 1927 if the universe was expanding he would have said no.  Belgian priest Monseigneur Georges Lemaître published a paper in 1927 arguing for an expanding universe (beating Edwin Hubble by 2 years); although Lemaître’s work was based on the Theory of Relativity, Einstein expressed skepticism (reportedly telling him, “Your calculations are correct, but your physics is atrocious”).  Lemaître (who went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics) had part of his work translated into English in 1931, thus documenting what we now call the Big Bang Theory of the universe’s expansion (2 years after Hubble’s announcement that galaxies outside of our local group were rushing away from us).  Anyone citing Einstein as an authority in arguing against Lemaître’s primordial atom would have been using a credible source, and appealing to authority.   And as best we can determine, they would have been wrong to do so.  Eventually even Albert came around to accept the idea of an expanding universe (but he was convinced by the data, not by citations).

Curiously enough, Lemaître’s work was dubbed “the Big Bang Theory” (allegedly as an insult, according to some of his critics) by Sir Frederick Hoyle (astronomer and science fiction writer) on a BBC broadcast in 1949; he had never accepted the idea (arguing instead for first a “steady state theory” and then a “quasi-steady state theory” of an eternal, eternally expanding universe) even by the time he died in 2001.  Hoyle is credited with explaining nucleosynthesis, the process by which stars make heavier elements out of helium.  When it comes to science — to astrophysics — it would be really hard to find two philosophical opponents more eminently qualified to disagree with you than Albert Einstein and Fred Hoyle.

So my point here is that, yes, non-correlative analysis can be wrong in many ways but you cannot prove it wrong simply by saying “so-and-so disagrees with you”.  So-and-so can be a brilliant genius or an absolute moron but his opinion doesn’t matter; what matters is what the data and math show us.

So Why Do People Continue Believing All the Wrong Ideas in SEO?

What is it about these charming case study writers and marketing industry thought leaders that people find so appealing?  Why are so many online marketers willing to blindly follow absolute nonsense and keep dragging themselves, their clients, and their followers into search engine hell year after year after year?

Science has discovered at least four reasons why people are so easily swayed by bad information:

  1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect (incompetent people overrate their own competence)
  2. Misplaced Trust and Faith
  3. Confusing Credibility for Correctness
  4. Group Dynamics

In 1999 Justin Kruger and David Dunning published a paper titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-awareness”.  The researchers found that the less competent people are in a given task, the more inflated their belief in their ability is.  In other words, true experts in a field of knowledge are less likely to be confident in what they say than people who don’t know what they are talking about.  And we call that the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  It is a fundamental principle of sales and marketing that you project confidence in what you are saying.  Confidence plays an important role in establishing many different kinds of relationships, and people who are seeking knowledge and enlightenment (or just “training”) are drawn to confident articles, presentations, and personalities.

You don’t have to be right to be confident, and people are more willing to believe in your confidence than in whatever is right.  In 2010 researchers asked university students to evaluate search results.  They found that the students placed the most faith in whatever site was shown first.  These students had grown up in the Internet age and using search engines was ubiquitous to them.  Nonetheless they often chose less reliable information simply because they believed the search engine was showing them the best result (which is rarely the case).  Being listed first in any context confers immediate credibility upon you because people place more confidence in the first item in a list than in whatever follows.  This is the classic Alpha Male response, and we’re just talking about listings of Websites.

In 1997 Jakob Nielsen wrote that “credibility is important for Web users”.  He went on to say that “credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links”.  The Stanford Credibility Project agreed with Nielsen’s findings.  In other words, consumers misplace their trust in Websites that seem credible.  In publishing this research, Nielsen, Stanford University, and other groups created the perfect checklist for marketers to use in building confidence and trust in their readers.  Although at the time when we first learned about these user trust signals we believed they were important, we had no idea of just how much pseudo-scientific babble would be published under these guidelines.  The search engine optimization industry has a well-earned reputation for teaching snake oil simply because it paid closer attention to what it takes to win people’s trust than most other groups.

And if people can place trust in the wrong Websites, they can also place trust in the wrong leaders.  In fact, research shows us that the qualities that make leaders so attractive to their groups are misleading.  You like your leaders to be confident, dominant, authoritative, and to have good self-esteem; and those are all the qualities of bad leaders.  Narcissistic leaders may be able to pull groups through a crisis by inspiring the troops when morale is low, but otherwise they just tend to not know what the heck they are doing.  “Good leaders facilitate communication by asking questions and summarizing the conversation,” whereas bad leaders just focus on what is important to them.

People in general don’t understand that credibility does not in any way indicate reliability, accuracy, or correctness.  In fact, given just how much marketers are prone to manipulate and influence audience beliefs and trust with credibility signals, the more credible a presentation seems the less likely it is offering correct or reliable information.  Credibility does not equal correctness; or, rather, there is no correlation between how credible a presentation seems and how correct it is.  There is no connection whatsoever between credibility and correctness.  Any liar can fool the masses by seeming more credible than the next the guy and that is what usually happens on the Internet.  The reason why I say a highly credible site is less likely to be correct is the amount of effort that goes into looking credible; there is a tradeoff in resources versus benefits and, frankly, I have sat in way too many planning meetings where people focused on how good the charts looked without really caring about the data.  It’s all about the charts, baby!

Group Dynamics is the invisible force that drives people to place their belief in the worst possible sources of information.  It begins with a simple quest to know more, or to experience more.  And so you go looking.  Eventually you find information that seems credible and, more importantly, it is presented by a group of people who all amazingly believe this information (so it must be correct, right?).

There are an awful lot of things that happen to you mentally and emotionally (and perhaps also physically) when you join a group in any kind of context.  You go through a bonding process that makes you more amenable to that group’s ideas and behaviors.  This is why, for example, so many religious people who would never harm a random stranger on the street become hateful and intolerant toward “other groups” (people of other faiths, people of other ethnicity, gay people, etc.) when their leaders proclaim “God’s will” on certain matters. It isn’t just that the leaders are the alphas and seem credible; group dynamics kicks in and suppresses individual critical thinking.

Research shows that people are far more likely to ignore their personal moral beliefs when they are members of groups.  We can sum up this effect by saying that people transfer the moral responsibility for their behavior to the group, rather than continue to bear that burden themselves.

Research also shows that people who are just barely included in a group are more likely to place value on that membership than people who hold the highest social status within the group.  Even when group leaders are not conscious of this unbalanced value placed in group membership they are quite likely to diverge from the group’s own behaviors (hence, many religious and political leaders exempt themselves from conformity that the group imposes on less important and influential members).

Research also shows that group-level narcissism responds to perceived threats with negative behavior.  In the search engine optimization industry anyone who challenges or disagrees with a widely held belief is quickly ostracized and marginalized, often by those with the most to lose (people who are selling services and products directly to the group), thus strengthening group membership by using punishment to coerce conformity.

And to make matters worse, researchers have found that group members will selectively remember details of bad behavior in order to absolve their own group members of bad behavior.  If you’re an outsider and you have good reason to dump on the group, group members won’t remember your reason; they’ll just remember that you didn’t behave well by their standards.  In the Web marketing industry evil spammers are almost always someone else; the group that is following industry-standard advice is just engaged in “best practices” and “doing what others do”.

Research also shows that when you hear the same opinion over and over again, either from within a group or from the leader of a group, you tend to believe that must be the majority opinion.  So if a relatively small number of people are presenting the same ideas over and over again via conferences, seminars, webinars, blog posts, interviews, and white papers audience members will gradually come to believe these are the majority opinions.  And, naturally, they subsequently do become the majority opinions because people don’t critically evaluate what they are being told in a sufficient context to challenge the credibility and authority of the preachers and teachers.

Overconfidence is also directly related to social status.  The greater your status within a group, the more confident you become in yourself and your abilities.  So those tentative articles you publish early in your career gradually give way to more and more confident articles as more people find and follow you.  The self-reinforcing vehicle of confidence and presentation should give anyone who has watched a popular Web marketer’s videos reason to stop and reassess what they have been learning:

Study 4 sought to discover the types of behaviors that make overconfident people appear to be so wonderful (even when they were not). Behaviors such as body language, vocal tone, rates of participation were captured on video as groups worked together in a laboratory setting. These videos revealed that overconfident individuals spoke more often, spoke with a confident vocal tone, provided more information and answers, and acted calmly and relaxed as they worked with their peers. In fact, overconfident individuals were more convincing in their displays of ability than individuals who were actually highly competent.

All emphasis is mine.

So what makes us believe all this crap in the first place?  Many people in the Web marketing industries do have a lot of education and/or experience that teaches them to be skeptical of suspicious claims.  It’s not like everyone just fell off the turnip truck and wandered into a bar with half-priced drinks for the first time.  Where does the cycle of faux credibility begin to mislead so many people?

One part of the answer to that question is all the charts and presentations that people now freely link to.  After all, someone at the conference circuit must be reviewing all this stuff, right?  Surely they wouldn’t allow just any old huckster to get on stage and start pitching snake oil to the audience, would they?  Ironically, research shows that is most likely what happens.  You are more likely to believe faux, pseudo-scientific nonsense accompanied by charts if you believe in science yourself.

Real science doesn’t look at charts.  It looks at the process that collects the data which is organized in the charts.  Sure, scientists include charts in their presentations but what makes their charts accountable to their audiences is the scientific principle.  If you adhere to the scientific principle (and scientists don’t always do this) then you will be reserved without misplaced skepticism.  Misplaced skepticism is a preconceived bias that makes it less likely you will believe the truth because it contradicts what you already believe to be true.

In fact, the more information someone presents to you, the less likely you are to believe it if it doesn’t already agree with what you believe.  Research shows that people are biased to see what they expect rather than what is actually presented to them.  So you kind of tune out the parts that don’t make sense to you as long as you find affirmation in some other parts of the presentation.  In Web marketing if you go looking for better ways to improve your search referral traffic you’re more likely to pay attention to people who tell you that “X is a better way to get more traffic” than the people who tell you that “anyone who does X is asking for trouble”.

You’re not expecting to be told about what is wrong, you’re expecting to be told about what is right.  And when you do find someone telling you what (they think) is right you will be more convinced of their correctness if they seem credible and confident to you.  And when you decide to follow that person you will place more trust in what they say over time because they continue to be credible and confident; and as you see more people applaud their efforts you will feel vindicated in your decision to trust that person because now you are a member of the group.

So here you are, a Web marketer who has been practicing what all the great bloggers tell you to do for years and years.  Either you’re one of those people who happened to pick all the right influencers (not that I believe such people exist) or you’re one of the people who has been hit by various algorithmic changes and you have expressed frustration with the search engines time and time again.

Now, it’s okay to be frustrated with a search engine that makes changes which don’t hurt your ability to adapt to change.  But if you’re frustrated because you followed “good advice” from all the “best SEOs” and you still got hit by the Blogacalypse, Penguin, Panda, Page Layout, PayDay Loan, Guest Blogging, or whatever update — print out this article and read it three times a week until it finally sinks in that you were not as critical a thinker as you believed you were.

The Web marketing industry is built largely on bullshit.  If you don’t believe that, you have a long, painful road ahead of you.

Everyone wants to get ahead in search, even me.  It just isn’t as easy as attending a conference and taking good notes.  Sooner or later those notes are going to get you into trouble.  That is why so many SEO experts are wrong so often.