Recently, I have been noticing that search engine optimization, SEO, has been becoming more and more of a hot topic of controversy in the PR industry. SEO is the process of improving the volume/quality of traffic to a web site/web page from certain search engines, such as Google, Bing, etc. The results that come up for a search in a given search engine can be un-paid (organic) results, or they can be paid (search engine marketing, SEM) results.
The controversial topic that I would like to confront with SEO is whether or not the public at large, as well as PR practitioners, think that paid SEO, or SEM for that matter, may tarnish the reputation, legitimacy, and/or credibility of those companies that bid on and pay for high ranking results for its web site.
Search engines, such as Google, list the top SEO results that are paid for in a highlighted region on the top of the page, which indicates “sponsored links.” In my opinion, Google specifically indicates the paid results for protection and preservation of its own reputation, to let the public know that they are not taking money under the table which would alter the results that come up for searches, as opposed to those “organics” results. I think that this is a wise business and PR tactic that Google implements, which I also believe has kept Google up to the high standard and credibility that it has. However, my own curious, PR-oriented mind cannot help but wonder if most people know and/or even care that some of the top results that come up in searches on search engine web sites are actually there because of paid placement.
Even though these paid placements are higher on the result list, do people question the credibility and the legitimacy of these web sites because they did indeed pay for it? Will all search engine websites eventually resort to sponsored links and paid SEM? Will all of the top search results end up being ranked by highest bidder rather than “organic” hit frequently and customer-rated ranking?