There's been lots of talk lately on the subject of SEO bloggers backing up statements with facts. I absolutely don't want to discuss the specific events or the people involved that prompted the discussion, and that's my prerogative to do so. I do, however, see value in the broader discussion itself, so I'll give my thoughts on the general questions involved in this heated debate. I'd love to hear your thoughts as well.
First, do bloggers of any type need to provide backup data or proof of the things they state or imply are facts on their blog posts? Second, does the type of blogger or blog make a difference in those expectations?
I'd like to think that this would have some cut and dry answers, but I'm not sure they do. Blogs are generally thought of as opinion pieces, so in general, I think there's a certain amount of opinion implied in every post a blogger makes. However, public perception probably shifts somewhat if the blog is of a certain "type" or is that of some perceived "authority" in its field.
Blogs that routinely report on news events probably belong to the set of "blog types" that people would expect facts and proof of facts to be the norm. As the public shifts from mainstream news media to online news, some of the expectations we have are likely carried over. If I expect the mainstream media to verify its facts before it presents the news to me, then I'm likely going to expect news bloggers to do the same.
Likewise, if I am reading blog posts from a well-known authority in his or her field, I will probably assume that the posts are more factual than opinion, unless otherwise stated. If Alan Greenspan were to blog about what he believes our economic future looks like over the next 3 months, I would make the assumption that his post was based upon verifiable facts. He may or may not actually show me the proof that backs up his post, however. By the very nature of his authority, I, the reader, assume that he has such proof. I probably also assume that if he were to be asked to show such proof, he could.
I purposely chose Greenspan and the economy as my example because I believe it holds similarities to our SEO world. While there are strong indicators that Greenspan can cite as proof of his opinions, the fact remains that no one can absolutely KNOW FOR A FACT what the future of the economy is - even in the very short term. All of the stats and mathematical equations can make Greenspan's guesses extremely accurate most of the time, but his economic predictions are still not FACTS. They are predictions based on his interpretation of facts.
Likewise, we as SEOs have even less factual information than Mr. Greenspan has when we make our claims. If we state that doing A will result in B, then the very best we can claim is that we've noted this to be true in the myriad of tests and experiments we've run. In many SEO blogger cases, even that may not be the case. Many bloggers may only be spouting what they've heard elsewhere, and they haven't actually tested it for themselves. Because there is not a single one of us who can lay claim to having undeniable proof of anything when it comes to organic rankings, we have to assume that none of us can show undeniable proof of anything.
So, does that get us off the hook then? Does that mean we can say anything we want, present it as factual, and assume that the readers know that it is all opinion? I don't think so. Even if our audiences consisted of nothing but "experts" in the SEO field, I don't believe that would hold true. But since our audiences often consists of people who know nothing or very little about SEO, we have to make sure that they understand that what we say is opinion. And if, by some chance, we are lucky enough to be considered "authorities" in our field, we need to be even more mindful of how we present "the facts" to our readers. Why? As I mentioned above, I believe the public perception of an authority in his/her field automatically carries an assumption with it that what the authority blogger says is fact. It is just our nature to believe the words that are spoken by those we ourselves believe to be authorities. (Please note that when I say "authority" I do not necessarily mean someone in a position of authority, such as a political leader, for example. Many of us assume everything that "those" authorities say are completely untrue. LOL).
Because we, as SEOs, can never make the assertion that we HAVE THE FACTS, we need to make it clear when we state things that SOUND like facts, that those statements are indeed opinions. And it would be equally helpful if we would then show why we believe that our opinions are likely to be true.
Let me give you an example of a recent post I made. In the Google Butterfly Effect post, I made a claim that I believed an error in Google's crawl process caused some ripple effects in the rankings. I briefly backed it up by showing the timeline of "cause and effect", but I didn't go into great depths to prove my assertions. I did however, include the following at the end of the post. I said:
Note: It is entirely possible that this particular "oopsie??? and the ripple I noticed on the 7th are unrelated, but I have a strong gut feeling that there is actually a direct cause-and-effect relationship at work here. Still, I concede that I could be wrong.
I'm not saying that we should have to include such disclaimers every time we speak. However, any time we are making "cause and effect" claims, or telling our readers that A=B, I think we should do two things:
- Give some reasons why we think this, showing some sort of "proof", even if it not highly detailed proof.
- Make it very clear that we understand that what we are saying may not be true, even though we believe it to be true
We, as bloggers, don't know who may be reading our posts. Sure, we can see pics of the last few MyBlogLog readers in our widgets, but that only scratches the surface. Looking at my stats, I see that I receive over 3,000 unique visitors every day to this blog. I have no idea who 99% of those 3,000 visitors are. Many of you may be extreme newbies to the world of SEO. You need to know that the words I speak ARE NOT GOSPEL. You need to understand that if I present something as a fact, it is only a fact in my own mind. I can and should show you why I believe it to be a fact, but I should also make sure you understand that I could be wrong. Very, very wrong. And if I am ever considered to be an authority in my field, I'd better make doubly sure that you understand that.
So, that's my opinion of the subject. I'd love to hear your opinion as well. What I do not want, however, is a discussion of anyone in particular. I do not want to discuss who said what to whom in any past events. This should be general and theoretical in nature, and I'll prune anything that isn't. I'm telling you that in advance, so don't come back later to tell me I'm wrong to censor anything. For this one conversation, I will censor if anything goes beyond the theoretical, and I'm telling you upfront.
Now, I leave this "theoretical" conversation in your hands.
14 thoughts on “What Obligation Does An SEO Blogger Have?”
I think the key to this as I have mentioned in a few threads on [an seo site] is linking to alternate points of view.
Even in my “WordPress SEO Masterclass” post I linked out to alternative opinions on WordPress SEO which has merit, such as the one by [a popular blogger], because there are so many ways you can optimize a WordPress blog, and get equal results, and maybe you don’t need more than just adding an HTML sitemap.
Then again all we have to work with are things like site:yourdomain.com/* to work with to diagnose potential problems.
A reader recently asked me to look at his site, but I don’t do serious consulting, so I did it for free, mapped out everything he should change in his linking structure, and currently he has gone from 37 pages reported by /* to between 80 and 90 depending on whether it is raining.
He doesn’t have a lot of powerful link juice, and it takes time for Google to work itself out and /* might not mean anything at all.
He has also gone from 14th for his key money term to 9th, but again the weather outside has been quite variable this kind of year, not sure if that makes the Googlebot a bit uppity.
But the post has received almost no links from anyone in the SEO industry, I have had to rely on normal bloggers and a competition to get some links to it.
SEO communities are extremely insular, [some] especially, and linking to differing opinions is what blogging is about, and provides the safety net for factual proof that SEO bloggers are lacking.
[items in brackets were edited by me (Donna) – as i said, this is going to stay theoretical only – so no names]
Andy, linking to alternate points of view is definitely one good way to even things out.
I see one story that has been comprehensively debunked on several sites nearly a month ago. However it is still being repeated as “fact” in new posts on other sites even many weeks later.
There are many bloggers who simply quote some “newsworthy” story without checking any of the facts. If people aren’t careful, that will ultimately bring the whole medium into disrepute.
I mean, how many people trust wikipedia as an authorative resource these days, not just from the fact that it is mostly written by non-experts, but also from the effects of various vested interests editing their spin into the text, or suppressing the truth?
Linking to alternative views/opinions shows maturity and the ability to listen, in my mind anyway. I respect the writer even more when I see proof they have an open mind, and sometimes, heart.
Thank you for also caring about this topic, Donna 🙂
“2. Make it very clear that we understand that what we are saying may not be true, even though we believe it to be true”
So, uh, why didn’t you make it clear that it may not be true that we should all admit that what we say isn’t necessarily true? (I feel myself falling into ocean of self-referencing paradoxes! 🙂
I’m not trying to be facetious (at least not entirely), Donna. What you’re essentially doing is expressing an opinion about the way people should express an opinion. One just HAS to appreciate the irony in that, don’t you think?
I think that readers should realize the no matter what they are reading — blog, magazine, newspaper, anything — there is a POV and that they need to critcally evaluate any claims made. It’s nice when writers (in any forum) point to alternative viewpoints, but I don’t feel cheated if they don’t.
Just to toss something different into the conversation I think a certain amount of the responsibility resides in the reader as well. Very little is actually clean and indisputable fact. You can find data to back up most any point of view you have.
More often than not you’ll find the truth is something that tells you what you already believed.
As a blogger I do my best to show alternate points of view and I hope I make clear when something is my opinion and not fact. I think it’s fine to offer opinion, though you should make it clear it’s opinion and also offer reasons why you hold that opinion.
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Oh my. This sounds like an existential discussion of SEO. How can any of us be “sure” that our work has an effect. I suppose the key is find a purpose in the day to day work, and long term title tag strategies, as my old friend Sartre might say.
I agree with you that it’s difficult to ascertain the validity of blog claims as any one can say anything. I can cite a few examples of adjustments / tweaks I’ve done for clients whereby I can fairly surely attribute my work on their site as cause for moving up in the world…however which one or combination of which one I cannot say.
I suppose this really DOES boil down to philosophy: the philosophy of good SEO practices.
PS – New to your blog, really enjoyed the posts so far!
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