Mind-spam: do you really need to be at the top of the list?

This morning I received yet another email from a Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) company, offering to get my website to the ‘top of the list’. I’m not generally entirely sure what they mean by ‘top of the list’. MartinTurner.org.uk is on the first page of Google for Martin Turner, but the bass player of Wishbone Ash is likely to be at the top of that list, except when I’m fighting elections, during which, for about six months, this site rises to the top. If you Google ‘how to write a sword fight scene’, then you will find me at the top of the list. On the other hand, if you Google ‘branding’, my company, Brand Motor Limited, will not be anywhere near the top of the list.

Should it be?

If you are an SEO company, absolutely. I am losing customers right now by the fact that my site isn’t at the top. But am I? And what would I do if I were? Actually, only one commercial company is on  Google’s first page for branding, and, given that it isn’t Wolff Olins or Interbrand, I suspect that some SEO jiggery-pokery has been taking place. Certainly, looking at that particular website (and it may all have changed by the time you Google it, so draw no conclusions), it isn’t exactly what you would call ‘top tier’, though they seem like nice enough people.

I spoke recently with a prospective client who told me that when they started up, they always tried to appear bigger than they were. Now, they are looking to appear only as big as they really are. I like that client: they have mastered the fundamental principle of branding—a brand is not a logo, but a promise, and the strength of your brand is based on your ability to fulfil that promise every single time you do business. Appear bigger than you are, and you will one day disappoint someone.

My first really big client came as a result of word of mouth—by far the best networking tool—and resulted, before we pulled the trigger on the deal, in me sitting with the CEO. His crunch question was: “Is it just you, or are there a string of recent graduates who’ll be doing the work?” As a new start-up business, it would have been terribly tempting to bluster and claim to be bigger than I was. “It’s just me,” I said. He told me how relieved he was. Every business that has hired consultants knows the danger of talking to someone who seems just right at the pitch, and then discovering that they are talking to a string of new-hires for the actual work. We did the deal, and three years later, won brand of the year for that particular industry.

This isn’t to say that a one-person start-up shouldn’t appear completely professional. If you have twenty-five years experience in your field, there is no reason to act otherwise. But, like enormous companies trying to appear much more home-made than they are, trying to be something you’re not only works for a while.

Which brings us back to mind-spam.

I had a call this morning from another client who was worried because their email to me had bounced back. For some reason it had been rejected by SpamCop. I don’t use SpamCop, and neither (she thought) did they. Somewhere along the internet email trail, though, someone did, and SpamCop didn’t like the look of their IP address, or mine, or one of the intermediate servers, or my email address, or theirs, or someone else it was cc-ed to, or the content of the email.

This is something that happens increasingly. I have nothing against SpamCop, and it is just one of the many similar systems that causes bounce backs. For a couple of years, the emails of one of the most trustworthy people I have ever met bounced back because he didn’t have his own name in addition to his email address in his settings, and the spam filters didn’t like the look of his email address. Why, I don’t know. In the end, I had to turn the spam filters off.

However, the work of these spam-filterers is entirely altruistic. They are desperately trying to hold back the tide of phishing, promotional, scam, virus, trojan and inappropriately bulk emails which flood the net every day.

I was at the Liberal Democrat conference this week, and happened to eat my lunch next to Mark Pack. Afterwards, we spent half an hour discussing some survey data. I sent him the link, and he may well use it. Or not. If he does, that data will have far more currency than it ever would on my site. Mark Pack is a top commentator on all things Liberal Democrat. He deserves to be. He writes regular, well-judged pieces that provide information which is otherwise very hard to get.

The SEO people would no doubt like to promise that they can get me above Mark Pack on the Google rankings. Perhaps they could. I don’t intend to invest however many hundred dollars it takes to find out. The thing is, though, if I did appear above Mark Pack, it would just be mind spam. I only occasionally write on political issues. I don’t have access to the data that he does, and I don’t put the work in to analyse it. Perhaps I should, a personal brand advisor might say. But should I? Even if I did do all the things Mark does (assuming I were capable of it), we would then simply have two Mark Packs, competing. If we were selling chocolate bars, this might be good for the market. But we aren’t.

In the mean time, if I paid my $500 to the SEO company, all I would be doing would be making Google rankings less useful. On martin turner.org.uk you will find much more about literature, broader notions of art, and the internet’s leading article on writing sword-fight scenes. However, if you were looking for the things Mark writes about, these would not interest you. You would feel cheated, and you would have been. Mark Pack is the best Mark Pack there is.

It’s not just on the internet that we mind-spam.

I’ve been to very many networking meetings where well-meaning graphic designers have stood up and explained that they do branding. I’ve then, when it was my turn, had to do intellectual somersaults to explain what I do without actually saying ‘a brand is not the same as a visual identity’. Graphic design is a crucial element in most brands, and there are some very talented designers who specialise in brand design. However, saying that branding is a kind of graphic design is simply misleading people who are probably already confused.

We all do it, though. When challenged, we talk ourselves up. A logo designer becomes a ‘brand designer’. Amateur musicians described themselves as ‘semi-pro’. People put the word ‘a leading’ in front of everything. The word ‘strategic’ gets used as an adjective meaning ‘particularly good’.

This week I met someone who told me she was a concert pianist. She gave me her card, and I quickly Googled her. She was (and is) indeed a concert pianist, leading exponent of four composers, and performer on Radio 3’s CD of the Week about a year ago. I was absolutely thrilled later to discover that she is married to one of my old college friends. We plan to meet up.

The thing is, if it wasn’t for all the mind-spam that we infest ourselves with these days, I would never have needed to check. People who really are in the top echelon of their profession lose the credibility they deserve because of all the people who aspire to be that, and talk themselves up. As it happens, you don’t see much of that in classical music, for the very simple reason that classical musicians are forced to put in such enormous amounts of practice and face so much rejection that people learn not to speak more highly of themselves than they ought. Plus the fact that, no matter how much someone talks themselves up, other musicians can immediately tell if they really aren’t that good.

If you are an SEO company reading this article, you can save yourself the bother of emailing me. I won’t be buying.

On the other hand, if you, like me, are one of tens of thousands of professionals who live by their reputations, let us agree together to fight against mind-spam not merely on the internet, but also in the way we describe ourselves.

It’s time to call our shovels ‘shovels’.

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