Ch. 15 – Separating the Wheat from the Chaff – Critical Thinking

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

 

I think this may be the toughest question of the entire batch. Given the burgeoning number of people calling themselves guru, expert and ninja these days, there’s a hell of a lot of chaff and precious little wheat to be found in the SEO industry.

But wheat there is! It’s just finding it that’s challenging.

Early in my SEO self-education, my method was to engage as many people as possible, in as many different venues as possible, and observe how they present their case, and how other people respond to them. As you might imagine, I heard a lot of conflicting points of view, and more than a few instances turned into exchanges of insults.

It didn’t take long to recognize the folks that made reasonable claims in a reasonable fashion. Likewise, I quickly learned to spot those that were as full of crap as a Christmas turkey. With time, my bullshit detection abilities developed sufficiently to spot a lot of the manure-pushers. But those are two different extremes. Like a classic bell-curve, the vast majority fall between the extremes, and those are often harder to classify.

My method was to simply engage people in discussions, and observe the discussions between others, and evaluate the worth of their claims, based upon my limited experience and the input from the other folks involved. It took a little while, but eventually, I was able to sort out which notions seemed to be unreasonable or unsupported and which were based upon solid logic.

In the process, I was also able to form my own opinions regarding the reliability of many individuals. And I was able to identify a number of things that I wanted to either investigate further or test for myself.

I honestly don’t believe there is a more foolproof method. None of us has time to test everything ourselves. But some reasonable analysis of the sources of information and the nature of that information can at least help us narrow down the field of necessary testing to a manageable level.

Whether you’re talking about a media source or an individual, I thing the process can be much the same. It takes some time, and a little effort. But if time and effort are commodities you’re not willing to invest, then perhaps the Internet isn’t the right playground for you.

 

We put this question to our contributors:

 

14. How do you suggest readers differentiate between good and bad advice?

 

Alan Bleiweiss

Get to as many industry conferences as you can get to, or even if you can, at the very least, reach out to industry people through Twitter for the same purpose.

Spend quality time one on one with as many people as you can.  If you think someone is worth listening to, ask around.  Not just one or two people.  Ask several.  In private.  Weigh that against your own moral compass, your own view on ethics in business.  Then take what you read or hear from that person, and test it for yourself.

Andrea Scarpetta

Interact, ask questions in public! Almost nobody in our sector is unapproachable and if asked nicely almost everybody will answer. Don’t take anything for granted! If you have the chance, ask the same question to different people and compare the answers.

Andrew Bleakley

In Internet marketing the difference between good and bad advice is usually in the supporting data. Far too many authors in our space publish as fact, theory’s they have never fully tested and more than a handful of young SEO’s have burnt client sites by diving in to eagerly.

Always look for the underlying data and never be afraid to ask someone what testing they have based their statements on.

Anthony Verre

First and foremost, consider the source of the advice. Is it someone you trust? But perhaps, the most important thing is to do a gut-check. Does the advice fly in the face of everything you know to be true? If it does, consider why it does.

Barry Adams

That’s easy: if it’s presented as a Killer Method, it’s bad advice. If it’s written by someone who hasn’t earned their stripes in the industry, be wary (but don’t discount it straight away, as sometimes valuable insights can come from those with fresh outsider perspectives). And if someone declares that New Gizmo ABC is the ‘death of [insert IM channel here]’, ignore everything they say.

Dana Lookadoo

1)       Put the advice to the test on your own domains.

2)        If the advice results in trying to fool Google or is against their Webmaster Guidelines, shove it under the rug.

Danny Sullivan

That’s tough, because if you’re inexperienced, you can’t really judge. Look for comments, for one. Are others raising critical questions and getting responses that seem reasonable? What are others saying about the source or author that you’re reading?

Dean Cruddace

This can be a tricky one because we are all different types of personality and my learning curve may not be the same as yours. We all want to achieve the same end goal of success for ourselves in our businesses our roles within our current employer & ultimately in this industry a continued success for our clients.

Differentiating good advice from bad comes through experience, experience is only achieved through mistakes we have made in the past that we have learned from, it sounds very cliche but its true. You do get a gut feeling from reading advice that is being offered via blog posts, conferences or even face to face when something does not quite sit right through your own past endeavours.

Keep an open mind about everything you read or hear but above all else if you have not already done so, test theories, test them again, don’t ever take anything as the gospel according to SEO, find your path.

Debra Mastaler

All advice is good until proven bad; test everything before you form an opinion.   Keep in mind most SEO articles are written with a single industry or handful of keywords in mind, what works in one area might not work in another.

Gabriella Sannino

Good advice has the pros and cons. Bad advice only has the golden pot at the end of the rainbow. That’s not reality. Nothing is 100% full proof.

Garrett French

I would recommend extracting the core principle from the advice and test that. Short of testing you could outreach to the author to get a sense of their character, which can shed some light on the value of their advice. For example ask about their methodologies and reasons for making such suggestions if it wasn’t mentioned in the advice itself. Lastly, I’d recommend they also learn the difference between good/bad and useful/not useful advice.

Heather Lloyd-Martin

I recently wrote a blog post about this. This can be tricky, especially since I’ve seen bad SEO information repeated on a number of sites  – so an inexperienced newbie may believe that X (say, a 5.5% keyphrase density) must be true. Really consider the source when you’re reading any new piece of information. Be critical. And make sure you are 100% sure that you know what you’re doing before implementing any SEO technique that you read about in a forum. Sometimes, the best (and safest) thing you can do is hire a consultant to double-check your strategy.

Hugo Gill

Check the background and reputation of the person giving advice.

Ian Lurie

If it seems too good to be true, it is. That’s it. I rarely see bad advice that makes sense. Take the keywords meta tag as an example: Really? An invisible tag on my page will help me rank higher? All I have to do is pour in a bunch of keywords? I don’t think so. Another example: Rented e-mail lists. What are the odds that a list you buy for $.03/address is going to generate any real value? Poor.

Good advice usually requires work. Bad advice usually requires leaving your computer on all night while a script runs, or cutting-and-pasting the same text 1000 times.

Jahnelle Pittman

First, use common sense – some of the stuff you’ll read just doesn’t match what you intuitively know. For example, if anyone ever tells you meta descriptions aren’t important, you can ignore that person; they may or may not be valuable from an SEO stand point, but from a usability and marketability stand point, they’re invaluable. Second, make industry contacts – people who have been around since before there was SEO – you can talk to if you have questions. Third, (if you’re an implementer) try their advice out on a test site before you ever put it on a live site, especially a clients. Finally, if it goes against usability for the visitor, it’s probably not a good idea.

Jey Pandian

It is difficult to trust the information online. Aaron Wall of SEO Book, once said that “an economic transaction occurs only when there is a perceived double inequality.” Always think  about why people wrote the things they did and look for this “double inequality.” It will save you more times than one from making a bad decision.

Joe Hall

Develop a strong intuition and live and die by it. Or “always listen to your gut”.

Joshua Titsworth

That’s really tough. I’d look at who else is sharing it and who has commented on it. If it’s a bunch of obvious bots tweeting it out and the only comments are from people that have the name “free Nike shoes” saying “great post plz visit my site”. It’s safe to say the article isn’t of much worth.

However, if high profile people in the industry are sharing and commenting on it, then I’d say it’s a good read. Even if the comments aren’t from anyone you know in the industry, but are thought provoking about the article, it’s also a safe bet the piece is worth reading once. It really comes down to the individual’s knowledge and skill set. A more experienced SEO won’t find the same articles as good as someone just getting started.

Justin Parks

While looking at the work completed on other projects is certainly one way to assess if advice is good or bad, it’s not always possible to do in every aspect of life. Talking to peers and associates will lead you along the right path most of the time, and having a wide range of people in your network helps you differentiate between what’s the flavour of the month or who actually has long term solid and lasting input.

The only other method is to roll up the sleeves and commit to doing the tests and gaining the experience firsthand.  Something that many of these other people begin with but cannot feasibly continue as their work load or direction changes so it boils back to you, what you know and how this stands up against what others are telling you.

Lyena Solomon

If you want to follow good advice, read more. I would also single out people whose opinion you trust.  For example, I follow SEOmoz because they are transparent: they tell exactly how they came to their conclusion. This way, you can disagree intelligently.  Most importantly, collaborate with other people, brainstorm, to find your unique way to success.

Michelle Robbins

To differentiate the good from bad advice, readers should get information from a variety of sources. If multiple, authoritative sources espouse a particular technique or tactic, it’s a fairly safe bet that it is a good one. A single source where tactics are concerned is never a good idea – unless that source is Greg Boser.

M.J. Taylor

Follow the source. Twitter, G+, forums, blogs – read everything the source has to say and see how others you respect respond.

Rand Fishkin

Try it! If you test and engage in things, even some bad advice on occasion, you’ll learn a remarkable amount and have a great sense for what might work vs. not.

Rebekah May

Differentiating between good and bad advice gets easier after you have been in the industry awhile and learned who is trustworthy and who is just blowing steam – but this doesn’t help those new to the industry know where to look or how to find that information.

The first suggestion I would give is what I would suggest with any advice – test it yourself whenever possible.  Secondly rely on any peers that you trust to validate the advice, you can also turn to Google and see what other people have to say on the subject – do most blogs in the field suggest different advice?

There is unfortunately no reliable method to always use when differentiating between good or poor advice.  Being able to tell the difference comes naturally once you have learned more, networked with individuals in the field more, and gained more experience.  If all else fails, stick with the first suggestion, or perhaps test it anyway just for the experience it will give you.

Steve Gerencser

Testing. SEO tends to polarize people when it comes to tactics that work vs tactic that don’t. When you gain more experience you can rely on that to help you find the path that will work best for you. But people new to the business of SEO tend to end up following one brand or personality and simply assume that that person is always right because the rest of crowd agrees.

S. Emerson

Anything you see on forums, if they do not provide a link to a respected, reliable source, verify yourself by reading the guidelines and respected writers of SEO information.

This is kind of a hard question to answer as SEO people cannot agree on some points. Hence why there is no official SEO certification program/criteria for certification.  You will have to decide for yourself which camp you want to follow.

Anything that breaks the TOS or guidelines set out by the search engines I would definitely stay away from on your most important site(s).

Taylor Pratt

Online marketing is much like everything in life – if it seems too good to be true and is made out to be ridiculously simple, it probably will fail. Think practically and don’t let others distract you with their supposed quick successes that resulted in huge dividends that they’ve conveniently detailed in their new book for only $19.99.

Thomas Fjordside

Does it make sense? Why would this work? Watch out for the word guarantee and lame graphs that says nothing. Ask yourself questions and ask your peers.

Tim Nash

I use a three step approach to advice: first is, does it sound too good to be true? Then it probably is. Does it defy logic and or common sense? Then it’s unlikely but not impossible that it’s sound advice. And finally, can it be tested against? If it can be, then the answer is to test against it. If it can’t be, then how can they quantify the advice?

William Slawski

I was at a court-wide meeting once, representing my office on a project to build an orientation manual for new employees. The top Court Administrator asked us to tell him what we didn’t know about what the other offices did. I raised my hand and stated that if we know that, we wouldn’t need to have the meeting.

While sources like patents and white papers, search engine guidelines and blog posts, conferences and forums and other sources of information can give us hints of how search engines operate, we do only have hints.

 

It’s important to approach new ideas and advice with some level of rational scepticism.  To keep in mind that what we don’t know about something can often be much more complex and complicated than we may be able to guess at. Or at times, much simpler.

 

When I do something like read a patent, my first reaction is to come up with questions that it raises that I might not have even known to ask before I read it. Many times they contain new concepts or terms or ideas that might have been guessed at, and many times they contain new ideas that open up completely new areas to explore.

 

My advice on differentiating between good advice and bad advice is to seek more information, to find collaborating sources of information about the subject in question, to attempt to understand implications that the advice might have in other ways.

 

You can begin with Chapter One of Critical Thinking for the Discerning SEO here.

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Doc Sheldon has worked in marketing since the 1980s and he's been writing professionally since the 1970s. He owned and published weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines during the ’80s, before becoming a business consultant and ultimately "retiring" in 2008. He began studying SEO in earnest in 2003, and now specializes in technical SEO. His passions are the development of the Semantic Web, trying to figure out what changes may be coming next from the search engines and eliminating misinformation.