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SEO Trademarker Responds: Community Standards

Remember earlier this week, someone was trying to trademark the acronym ‘SEO’? A helpful little comment on our post on that news just pointed me to the “enterprising marketer’s” response, posted Wednesday. And if you didn’t like his original idea, you’ll probably like this one even less.

First, Jason says that his exclusive ownership of the trademark won’t impede anyone else’s ability to sell SEO services:

I am helping the search engine marketing community establish an approved SEO process, which can be sold as an “SEO service.” A good example of a proven process that is delivered as a service is that any CPA working for a public organization must understand the GAAP process to properly provide accounting services. They can still provide accounting practices to anyone they choose, but cannot claim them as GAAP, unless they follow the GAAP guidelines.

Hm… The GAAP trademark was originally registered by a software company. “International GAAP” is a trademark owned by noted accounting firm Ernst & Young. And yet, I’m going to guess that neither of those phrases actually describe what accountants do. Their websites are going to say “accounting services” or “bookkeeping services” and possibly add “in accordance with GAAP.”

Meanwhile, most SEOs’ websites and business cards probably say “SEO services.” Trademarking that acronym will inhibit the industry’s ability to describe its services and market itself, especially using well-established, recognized terminology. That is, of course, only if Jason chooses to police the mark; if he doesn’t, he could easily lose control of the mark.

Jason continues:

While SEO as a process has plenty of processes suggested throughout the community, there is no “approved” process by any governing body. Because the Search community has no approved SEO process, the industry has been riddled with used car salesmen, con-artists and rip-offs, resulting in a black-eye within the industry, and thousands of ripped off businesses throughout the country. We can change this with the SEO trademark.

My goal in owning the trademark for the word SEO is not to try to force people to change their SEO process, but rather, prevent companies from selling “SEO” as a service under false pretenses.

Okay, all legit SEOs are upset that SEO gets a bad name because of these snake oil salesmen. But guess what. Jason’s first analogy, accounting and GAAP, is more apt here than his own efforts. For better or for worse, “SEO” is the name of the industry, with “SEM” closely related (though not entirely interchangeable, IMO).

There are two problems here with Jason’s approach. First, he’s trademarking the name of the industry and/or individual job title (which would be like trademarking “Accounting” or “CPA”), not creating a new trademark for a separate set of guidelines (“GAAP”).

The second problem becomes even more clear when Jason says that:

Rather than try to control the industry and choose the process myself I wish for the industry to create the “approved process.” I don’t want to stop people from performing the process of SEO however they like, BUT, if you are selling “SEO” as a service, it is important to follow the approved guidelines set by the community. Otherwise, our industry will continue to be viewed as a snake-oil industry.

Despite his protests to the contrary, it still sounds like he’s trying to force standards upon SEO practitioners “for our own good.” That’s great in and of itself, but the fact of the matter is that even people that I feel are absolutely wonderful, talented SEOs can’t agree on whether or not we should have standards, let alone what they should be.

If you’ve missed out on the latest round of debates, arguments have come from Jill Whalen, Lisa Barone, Michael Gray and Rand Fishkin, among many others.

And I have to say that if Jason really wanted to include the community in this decision, he wouldn’t have begun with the unilateral move of registering “SEO.” To get community support for this kind of thing, you don’t wait until the cat’s let out of the bag by SEOmoz. You start an initiative from the community, not impose one on them.

Jason’s personal vision for the SEO community, however, is even more far-reaching:

We will also be forming a board of directors to oversee changes to the process, and format in which SEO can be sold (basically the BBB for the SEO industry). We will restrict businesses from selling the process of SEO as an “SEO” service if they do not meet the process approved by the SEO trademark requirements. Those approved will use SEO as normal, but will now be able to use the term as SEO™, and will be able to claim that their SEO service is approved under SEO trademark guidelines.

Part of the reason why there are so many crappy SEOs out there is the fact that it’s really, really difficult to police them. Adding a ™ to the acronym won’t make it clearer to the general public what the difference is (and even explaining it on each and every single participating provider’s website won’t, either, because people don’t read and won’t absorb that).

The fact of the matter is that we DO have organizations like this already. SEMPO members, for example, are required to agree to “engage in Search Marketing practices which are not in direction violation of published guidelines from Google, Yahoo!, and other search engine providers.” I think that it’s when we try to get deeper than that, allowing or disallowing specific practices, as it sounds like this board will have to do, that the real standards debate begins.

In the end, this SEO board sounds like it will face the exact same shortcoming that SEMPO and and current organizations face now—the fact that the general public just doesn’t know about them.

However, the scenario that Jason seems to be proposing is far more insidious. He wants to create an “approved process” for SEO. This SEO board/approve process solution seems to raise more ethical quandaries than it solves.

What if legitimate, ethical people just don’t want to do this? If you didn’t see SEOmoz’s poll, 28% said that they wouldn’t subscribe to SEO standards for any reason; 40% would subscribe only if they agreed with the standards personally (good luck!) and saw tangible business benefits.

But back to my ethical quandaries. What if marketers lied when they got his approval to use the SEO trademark—who would police this and how? Let’s not forget that the Better Business Bureau, Jason’s analogy for the SEO board, basically only polices companies (who join voluntarily and aren’t offering “BBB services”) based on customer complaints. Are we really going to let the average consumer determine whether or not their providers are following SEO™ processes?

Then there are the questions of money. Will the SEO board of directors be paid, or will the directors be volunteers? Will those of us who do get his permission to use the SEO trademark have to pay dues? And if not, how does this board plan to pay for the legal battles which will ensue?

Do I think there should be standards? Generally, we don’t participate in this debate here on MP, but personally, I do think that a simple set of ethical guidelines, with completely voluntary adherence, couldn’t hurt. But I know that this isn’t the way to get that done, and I don’t know that there is one.


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