A ‘Crash Course’ on SEO Ethics and Responsibility

Ian Lurie

When you go to a conference and present, you have a responsibility to give accurate advice or admit you can’t. That’s called professional responsibility. Especially in a relatively new field like search engine optimization.
I really enjoyed SEMPDX, and recommend it to everyone. All of the presentations were great.
With one exception.

What Went Wrong

The day started with a one-hour ‘SEO Crash Course’. The audience included total beginners as well as experts. Many folks were clearly hanging on the presenter’s every word, writing and typing frantically as she spoke.
With that attention comes responsibility: The presenter agreed, implicitly, that she wouldn’t lead the crowd careening off a cliff to be impaled on search engine rules.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she did.

Slow 301 Redirects? Wha?

The presenter made a few statements that were less-than-great about keyword meta tags and such: Bad advice, but nothing catastrophic.
But I was horrified when she discussed redirection: She stated that, when you redirect from an old site to a new one, or an old page to a new one, you should ‘slow down the redirect’ so that visitors see a message like “We will redirect you in 15 seconds” or some such. She said this in the context of search engine optimization, and stated that search engines preferred this.
She’s describing a client-side redirect, like a META REFRESH tag. Search engines don’t reliably follow redirects through a refresh. Using one can be disastrous for SEO.
Then, someone raised their hand and asked about 301 redirects. 301 redirects are the only way to redirect browsers and search engine spiders alike, hand off all the link happiness and not suffer penalties.
The presenter answered “As far as I know you should slow those down, too.”
All the SEO beginners in the crowd immediately scribbled that comment down, too. And threw themselves off a cliff.
Her answer arcs past totally wrong and soars straight to an SEO disaster. If I were a beginner sitting in this session, I would’ve immediately noted “Slow down redirects”. Then I’d go ask my webmaster to set this up. When the webmaster said “we can’t slow down a 301 redirect”, I’d switch to a META REFRESH statement.
Which effectively hides my new content from the search engines (at best) or gets you flagged as a potential spammer (at worst).

Why I’m Upset

If this presenter had stood up and said “I’m new at this, so please correct me if I’m wrong”, then these misstatements would’ve been fine.
If she’d said “I don’t know”, that would’ve been fine, too.
But she stood up there as a trainer from the Search Engine Academy of Oregon. The title and organization imply that She Is An Expert.
She had a large audience hanging on her every word.
She needed to do her homework, and stay away from topics of which she was unsure. Instead, she gave very, very bad advice to people who can’t yet judge for themselves.
The beginners in the audience will implement her recommendations. And get horrible results.
That gives Steve Rubel more ammunition for one-sided diatribes against the entire profession.
It forces me to spend time un-doing damage with new clients who think we should somehow slow down 301 redirects.
And it’s disappointing to those who put a great deal of time into researching best practices. It’s disappointing because these kinds of gaffes reflect on everyone in spite of years of hard work.

Professional Responsibility

When you present yourself to any group as an expert, you must do your homework. You’re taking responsibility for giving good advice. And your audience is trusting you to do so.
Research your topics. Fact-check your presentations. Then make a great contribution to your profession.

I have to insert a note here. I’m normally a sarcastic, edgy blogger, particularly when I’m making fun of major companies as they stagger onto the internet marketing stage. I’m not going to indulge here. While what I heard in this session infuriated me, to some extent, it points out serious issues in our industry. Plus the organization in question is a small one, and I know what it’s like trying to run a small business. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or livelihood, or get anyone in trouble. But we have to police our own profession.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. It’s good to see where this stuff comes from sometimes.
    But it’s discouraging to know that people are making money off this kind of information.

  2. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for posting this – I will point a client at this post who has been insisting on doing exactly this. (possibly due to some similar bad advice?)
    Personally I hate those slow redirects from a usability point of view too – if you’re going to move me somewhere else, why make me wait 15 seconds?
    My attention span is about a third of that… just get me there now. I trust you, I don’t need to be told…
    I trust your talk went well at the event!! Congratulations on the gig.

  3. Thanks Mike – yah my talk was great. The crowd was excellent.
    But I can’t shake a vague, nagging feeling of despair. If someone can teach at an ‘academy’ and give out this kind of information, what chance does our profession really have?

  4. In my part of the world, I have a lot of small businesses who look at me as an expert. Granted, I know a lot more than they do and I can definitely help them. However, I FREAK OUT anytime I have to give a presentation even on the smallest, most basic of search marketing principles. My fear? That I’ll tell someone something that is WRONG, and that they, in turn, will go and implement it.
    It is exactly that reason that I’m always second guessing my presentations, trying to fact check my information. And unfortunately, maybe I do get it wrong sometimes. But it’s not out of carelessness.
    We do have to police our profession – and I definitely want someone to point out flaws if I ever get something wrong. I’m still learning myself, and I hope everyone in this industry can say that!
    (BTW, I just noticed that the image at the bottom of the page under “NETWORK” is you times 4!)

  5. See, you worry about that sort of thing. So do I. So we research. This presenter clearly didn’t hesitate.
    Yup, that image is me x4.

  6. I do feel like I got to know you well enough on Tuesday at SearchFest to ask you why in the heck you didn’t speak up? If not immediately, at here question time.
    If I were in the session instead of running around the lobby, I would heve felt an obligation to do so, regardless of the embarrassment it may have caused the presenter.
    I do know Colleen, and can vouch that I think she would have been receptive to correcting herself. I agree that she should have said “I don’t know” too – Slow down a 301? sheesh!
    As it is now, the damage was done with no easy way to correct the misinformation.
    That said, I don’t disagree with anything you said, and we’re discussing it as a board. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  7. Trust me, I tried. Raised my hand, squirmed, even tried to interrupt.
    Then someone DID ask the 301 question, so I figured we were good. The answer she gave so totally blew me away I didn’t know what to do.
    I’m not comfortable disrupting a session like that. Maybe when I’m a celebrity.
    Again, I’m sorry to get someone in trouble. I do hope that folks read this post and correct themselves.

  8. IAN! Awww crud! – I’m sorry. Why did I think this was Marty?!
    Now I’m even more embarrassed – 😉
    Nobody’s in trouble, really, and your feedback is dead on, and totally valuable and appreciated. I hope you’ll edit so I don’t reflect even more poorly on SEMpdx or SearchFest. Thanx

  9. Ian – thanks for the recommendation Ian. Even more thanks for actually paying attention at the event & the critical thinking. I too think that’s kind of incredible & frustrating – who (in our biz) doesn’t know this? Anyway, as the SearchFest ’08 event organizer – I actually didn’t catch this as I was still dealing with logistics at this point in the day…
    I’m surprised that this is the first I’ve heard of it considering the number of people who sat in on this particular session (many of whom know that this is horrible advice). So, thanks for pointing this out.
    When you put these things together, you try to find the best people for each particular topic and let them do their thing. (That’s why we put you in on our analytics session) When we sit down as a group to talk about who we know that would be a good fit for a beginner’s 101-style session, the choice seemed fairly obvious…
    Anyway – this is only our 2nd SearchFest event, and we’re still learning as we go. None of us are professional event organizers. Feedback like this won’t go unnoticed as we plan future events and as we work on our follow-up communications with attendees.
    Thanks again for coming down to PDX and participating Ian.

  10. I really think that this particular gaffe doesn’t reflect on your conference, or even on the speaker in the long term.
    My real concern is what it does to the industry when stuff like this gets out. I do wish, in retrospect, that I’d simply shouted out “That’s not right” but frankly I suck at that.

  11. Ian,
    I was volunteering during this session and gave the questioner (Shona) the microphone. I didn’t really think to correct the information in front of the full session, but did make a note of it and found her after the next session in the hallway.
    I told her not to do the “slow-down”and gave her the correct information. She actually was/is dealing with a client who wants to (or possibly is) trying to make duplicates of the same site at different domains. I told her this was a bad idea and to fix this.
    Later, I was sitting next to her and Scott Fish from EngineWorks and he also gave her this advice. I have her card/email and will forward this link to her.

  12. I actually walked in right in the middle of this. I was getting my plate of breakfast at the back of the room, when I heard her say something about slowing down redirects. (hmm.. meta refresh? weird advice i thought, but maybe there was a reason…). But then when that 301 question came in and everything fell apart, I really was amazed too. And someone else on the panel jumped in at one point and made a comment and things got really confused.
    To be clear, SearchFest was great! All of the sessions I attended (and the one I spoke on) were very solid with great information. The keynote rocked. So this was the only weirdness on the day, but yeah it was definitely bad.
    Good job covering it fairly here Ian – and good job SearchFest for being on it too.

  13. You are right about my misinformation about 301 re-directs and I apologize for the incorrect information.
    I came into the morning with a cold and left in the afternoon with full-blown laryngitis which I still have today.
    I obviously need a refresher course on 301 redirects as I was not as well-informed as I thought I was on this topic.
    The information from my presentation is developed by the Search Engine Academy and we test what we present.
    This one is all my fault however…I fell technically short, but know that I teach many strategies and tactics that work. There are many, many students of the Search Engine Academy that have very successful websites.
    Believe me when I tell you, this will not happen again and thank you for calling me out on this one. It needed to happen, but remember, we all make mistakes. This just happened to be huge and very public!!!
    Again, accept my humblest of apologies for this one!
    Colleen Wright
    Search Engine Academy of Oregon

  14. Hi Colleen,
    Certainly accepted! Thanks for the correction.
    In the future, feel free to rely on the community. We’re all in this together…

  15. WOW! Ian, glad to see that amends were made already. But how were you ever able to keep your lips sealed during the session? I saw you at SMX West and you were like me, wanting to jump out of your seat sometimes!
    I wonder if the mailing list from the conference should get an email notifying them of the misinformation. That info is something that could kill sites!

  16. SEMPDX’s folks, and Colleen, did a good job of letting everyone know I think. And hopefully my worldwide fame will spread the word a bit too 🙂

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