I think that I finally understand the discipline of Search Engine Marketing… It is my responsibility, to my clients and to my agency, to stay current with technologies and trends that impact how companies reach their publics. As search engines have surfaced as the predominant method online, I need to understand them at a base level. I’m not the only one striving for this; every day I’m barraged with marketing materials from newly formed companies promising to help my company to rise to the top of search engine listings. I’ve heard pitches from many and I’ve hired a few. I’ve seen some programs work, I’ve seen others fail. What I’ve found most interesting is that I’ve heard directly contradictory “expert counsel” from these experts… on my drive in today I had an epiphany and it became clear to me why this all is occurring.

It seems that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has been misunderstood by all of us. I don’t recall the specific parable but I do recall the theme: Where do you hide something that you don’t want found? In plain sight. And so it goes with SEO. My epiphany was that SEO is about optimizing the revenue streams of search engine companies, just like the name suggests. Case in point: The common theme that I’ve picked up in these conversations – amidst the jumble of acronyms, counsel and contradiction — is the “mysterious methodology” that determines search engine rankings and the speaker’s bemused expressions as they explain how Google changed its algorithm four times last year alone and that it takes a full-time effort to stay on top of it all and that’s why I/you/we need a solution just like [fill in the name of the vendor across the table] offers…

Every time that Google changes its algorithm, every person or organization that maintains an online presence to which it hopes to attract visitors has to revise its metatags or its site architecture or its linking strategy or its hosting strategy and on and on through all the rest of their online marketing tactics. But at the end of the day, we still have to rely on empirical methods to see if it works because of the cloak of mystery behind these “algorithms.” We don’t really know how the rankings are produced, what calculations are used, what factors are most significant, so we have to rely on the counsel of others who really don’t know either. But they seem to know more than we, so we’re left to a leap of faith: follow their counsel and see how it goes or reject it and bring in another expert and see if you like the sound of that counsel better. What we do know is that we have to pay for these services richly and that we can always reduce the discipline to the lowest common denominator and just pay for clicks with sponsored listing. It’s a self-perpetuating economy with Google as the market maker and all the rest riding the ripples of their edicts.

It seems that not everyone is ok with that approach, particularly not Norwalk, Calif.-based KinderStart.com that just filed suit against Google. If all goes as intended, the suit will mature into a full-blown class action one. Its claim: That Google’s mysterious ways caused material damage to its business, a claim that the courts will ultimately decide.

I for one, would like to see some measure of transparency. We all know the rules that the Post Office works by; as such, direct mail works in a predictable fashion. Similarly, CAN-SPAM and the Federal Do Not Call registry make telemarketing and e-mail marketing a pretty level playing field; but SEO, or search engine marketing, as it has quickly evolved to, is a wild, wild, West, with Google toeing the role of the corrupt sheriff.

— Eric Kushner