Teaching, Promoting, Cheering UX and SEO Since 2002

Reputation Management and Your So-Called “Expert” Self

It’s no secret to my friends that I’m extremely uncomfortable with the word “expert” or “guru” when it’s applied to myself. For me, the word has an added definition that says, “I know it all, there’s nothing else to learn, so I’ll teach you.”

Yesterday I referred to someone as an expert in his industry. I wasn’t sure what to label him, to be honest. I know him personally. I’ve seen him speak at conferences on his topic. His company is fully dedicated to his area of expertise, as are his staff and his blog. Interviews of him focus on his experience and successes. Does that make him a guru? Does he call himself one? I rarely see him refer to himself as an “expert”, despite the tremendous following and excellent reputation his company has.

There are people and companies who permit press releases and articles to refer to them as experts in their industry or niche. Occasionally I’ll discover someone claiming to be a respected expert in an area that I know is a real stretch. These are the folks who teach on topics that if you ran a keyword search on them, you wouldn’t see their name attached to the industry they’re claiming to be an expert on.

Press releases are modern day fairy tales.

I keep an eye out for companies in my local area who announce their new in-house SEO department or advertise they’ve added usability testing. I’d like to meet these people and invite them to some of the local networking gatherings we have. However, whenever I follow up on these great and innovative companies, in most cases I’m disappointed. The latest is the advertising company that had a announcement about adding search engine marketing and usability testing services, whose entire web site is in Flash. There was simply no finding them in search engines. I tried.

Whom to Believe?

I’m not a born marketer and no matter how hard anyone tries to make me one, it’s just not going to happen. I was the kid who mucked my horses stalls barefooted. Gross, when I look back on it, but yes, I wasn’t afraid to work or get dirty (or die, apparently.)

I was the silly woman who gazed adoringly at IT guys, gleefully pulling up a chair next to them, begging to be shown what brilliant thing they were making now. I felt that I couldn’t do my own job well unless I understood how and why they did their’s.

When looking for someone to do business with, how trustworthy and credible is their claim to be an “expert” or “guru” in their field? How do you verify their claim? Do you even bother? Is the term so over-used that it doesn’t hold any marketable value?

Whom to Trust?

Periodically I’ll hear from someone who finds a link on one of my sites that just sent them to Jupiter. They feel that no usability “expert” would tolerate this. I wouldn’t know. I own and run three web sites, write for many others, plus a print magazine, own a business, and am a wife and sports/homework/taxi/band mom.

(By the way, no women have ever written to complain about my web sites. It’s always been men. I think I should invite them to my house and let THEM deal with the teenage daughter and her boyfriend while trying to work in the home office. Whaddya think?)

The first thing to know about me is that I’m not perfect. I’ll never pretend to know it all because frankly, if that would ever happen, I’d be bored out of my mind. I’m happy to share what I learn and discover. I can guide based on data, conclusions drawn from my work and observations in the field.

I’ll introduce you to people or companies who have proven to me they know what they’re doing, who have displayed good work ethics or clearly show strong talent.

Some of my favorite “experts” are those who openly share as they go. This gets into some severe reputation management problems because when they make any mistakes, the public attacks are swift and fierce. The odd thing is this. I admire those who just fell in the mud, got back up, made adjustments based on the lessons they learned and they keep on going.

I trust them because they have nothing to hide or take a licking and keep on ticking, as the saying goes. Even if they continue to do something that I may think is hurting their business reputation, I give them points for continually asking questions because the moment they stop asking those questions is the moment they become frozen and unapproachable.

To me, the worst thing is a business person who is frozen and unapproachable.

Are You a Pink Pedestal or Well Used Umbrella Person?

For me, a genuine expert or guru is the one who will sit down with me on the floor, look into my eyes, and guide me towards solving my own puzzles without actually giving me the answers, because if they did, the lesson won’t stick.

I believe that learning never stops, we’re equals and you may know something in a way I hadn’t considered or experienced before.

I’d be interested in hearing from you. Do you like the term “expert” or “guru”? If you are referred to as one, do you accept the label? Do you think it’s true of you?

How many of you are content to just want to do the work without the hero worship?


  1. iamlost's Gravatar iamlost
    November 29, 2007    

    I still like the word ‘expert': a person with special (great) skill and knowledge. Or my favourite facetious definition: ‘expert: one who has gone from knowing nothing about everything to knowing everything about nothing’. Actually, of course, an expert does not know ‘everything’ nor is one infallible. Indeed, an expert, by definition, can only make major mistakes. :)

    I really really dislike the transferance of ‘guru’ from a spiritual (religious) leader/teacher to one who leads or teaches anything. It is become one with ‘weatherwise’ and ‘irregardless’. With some it is an intentional jibe, unfortunately for most it is not. The joke, as it were, flying high above their illiterate ignorant heads. – me thinks one of my buttons got pushed –

    I will refrain from commenting on the hypocrite’s masquerade of marketing…suffice to say that there is a sufficiency of manure..

    Not all experts can teach, some can only do, though they do what they do extremely well. An expert who can teach and is willing to mentor is a joy to be treasured. Especially one who can manage the time with teenage angst breaking out all about.

    For the record: I am quite willing to worship at your feet…here a nibble, there a tickle…

  2. November 29, 2007    

    For the record: I am quite willing to worship at your feet.

    I paid him to say that, LOL

    As it happened, I was reading an interview of a major conference organizer, who referred to their full list of “expert” speakers. I always wonder about that, what with all the conferences going on. How many experts could there possibly be? If they’re so busy speaking on the conference circuit, do they actually do hands on work?

    Is public speaking what an “expert” has to do to indicate their expertness?

  3. November 30, 2007    

    I can’t count have many times clients setup email and access accounts for me using “seoguru”, “seoexpert”, “webexpert” and the like. You can imagine how quickly that gets really old & sometimes ugly. They mean well I suppose, but I think it detracts from the collaboration.

    I have plenty of expertise, but I don’t feel comfortable being called “an expert”. It imposes a claim of superiority for me, upon team members who are clearly not expert and not expected to be expert. What good does that do?

    I prefer “specialist” because it implies I have plenty of expertise, yet I can play the role of facilitator without an elitist label.

    Unfortunately HR departments have adopted “specialist” as a catch all for low level specialized jobs these days.

  4. November 30, 2007    

    I am not a fan of the word expert or guru. In my experience you can often learn just as much from a person with limited experience as you can from someone who has years of experience. I am certainly not widely known in the Internet community as an expert, but have been referred to as guru or expert in the local area. It’s not a title I am comfortable with. People on my team might refer to me as an expert (usually they use less flattering terms), but for the most part they enjoy “animated” discussions, making me prove what I say, or them proving me wrong. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The day anyone feels there is nothing left to learn is the day they stop growing in their field.

  5. November 30, 2007    

    Hi Kim, I hear what you’re saying but it feels like a bit of a stretch. It’s nothing that couldn’t have been summed up with “Hey, the internet is ripe for all kinds of charlatans so if you’re really serious about getting the right information then you might want to check for some credentials.”

    But, as usual, such small, simple statements get fluffed up into lengthy articles to fill blog space and then what? It dares to suggest expertise on the topic.

    Your depiction of a guru is too romantic for a “how-to” article. Any of them that share all their information as they go along aren’t really gurus… they’re LEAKERS. A payment, even in spiritual endeavors (especially in spiritual endeavors) is always required for anything of value to be transmitted. Freely giving away information can be

    a) dangerous if not targeted to the individual or group;
    b) low self-esteem or low self-value;
    c) bait to lure in the unsuspecting.

    In fact, I think certain legal systems sum it up even more concisely than I’d recommended, “Buyer Beware” and, as I hope you’ll soon find, you can say everything you just said and people can nod in complete agreement and none of it really sinks in.

    But as long as you felt good writing it, I suppose there’s some value. ;-)


  6. November 30, 2007    

    It’s nothing that couldn’t have been summed up with “Hey, the internet is ripe for all kinds of charlatans so if you’re really serious about getting the right information then you might want to check for some credentials.”

    So true, and been done repeatedly by writers for years. Obviously, very few are checking credentials and since PR firms and writers know this, the habit of stretching the truth continues.

    Traditionally, those who follow this blog know I write a lot of “thinking out loud” posts. I’m looking for ideas and others who think and want to explore. I wasn’t looking for nods of agreement, nor did I write a “how-to” article. What comes across my desk is too much boasting of one’s so-called expertise and promotion of persons or services that are, in fact, pure baloney, in the SEO/M/SMM/Advertising industries.

    Thank you for commenting btw. 31 Sphinns so far at Sphinn, and not a single soul has anything to say in comments there? I guess it’s equiv. to the nods of agreement or there’s confusion over what I wrote or how I wrote it.

    I would like to see honest representation of one’s work or company. That’s all.

  7. November 30, 2007    

    We all need experts to learn from, and if you’re unsure who the charlatans are, then you have to count on people who you’ve come to know from your own experience (through blogs, articles, conferences)as experts and go with their referrals, which is why “recommended lists” are great. I’m continuously amazed at the youth of the experts in this industry. How could someone who just entered this industry a year or two ago be an expert? But that is what is so great about this industry. When people focus on a niche within this niche and spend 40+ hours a week living and breathing it, then they are qualified to be dispensing advice. And this industry is so new, it takes no time to create instant experts.

    I remember when I was at SES NY in March 2006 and there was that nighttime Q&A session with Danny Sullivan. I think it was the very first question asked and she asked exactly what I was thinking – there’s so much to learn, how can you possibly learn it all? How can you ever get ahead? It’s so overwhelming. And Danny said something like, “Start today and you’re ahead of the person starting tomorrow.”

    And I guess that’s how experts are created – they’re one step ahead of the crowd.

  8. November 30, 2007    

    @risa I have to disagree. Expertise is essential in this field, and intensive study of current events (even 6-9 months of folloing blogs, articles, current events) is not sufficient to consult as an expert.

    They may be qualified to contribute to a team, but what I see is they start handing out advice far beyond their experience sans necessary wisdom.

    Too bad the credentialing is useless for SEO. I can see how it might help when evaluating paid search (PPC) people, but only a little.

  9. November 30, 2007    

    Expertise can be attained pretty quickly by people with a knack and a passion for their niche. I’m specifically referring to the SEOmoz ladies – Rebecca and Jane, Neil Patel, Tamar Weinberg, and other young people who have launched successful internet marketing business, who are interviewed in industry magazines, and who speak at the conferences. I think if these people meet Danny’s criteria to speak at a conference, then they must be experts.

  10. November 30, 2007    

    @risa: ok, thanks for clarifying.

    I am of another camp — often disappointed that people are speaking at conferences when they (apparently) are not qualified to do so. I have a history of standing with that position, although it is not a popular position. Please note I am not specifically addressing the individuals you named.

    I continue to attend the sessions at the shows in order to remain qualified to make my own judgments on these issues of “credibility”, but I am often disappointed. Just as a popular news anchorperson is not necessarily a highly qualified “journalist”, a prolific blogger in the search marketing niche is not necessarily an expert at search marketing. Think it through — good speakers make for good conferences if the audience appreciates great presentation over great content. I believe that is the case for most of the shows.

  11. iamlost's Gravatar iamlost
    December 1, 2007    

    A difficulty people have with a label, i.e. expert, is that it is inclusive. Without modifiers it will cause arguments of definition and qualification. One who researches and studies and writes upon web marketing (I’ll be
    all-inclusive) may be a theoretical expert. A person who has learned by experimentation and failure and perseverence may have become a practical WM expert.

    Just as there are electrical, mechanical, civil, aeronatical, ad nauseaum engineers there are WM experts on blogs, content sites, ecommerce, with sites under 1000-pages or over a million pages, on SEM or SMM, etc.

    Yes there are basic similarities with each but there are also basic differences. Not all who write can teach, not all who teach can do, not all who do do everything equally well…yet each may (note the may) be an expert in that writing, that teaching, that particular doing.

    Because SEM is young and volitile, standards and definitions in flux, there are no firm delineations and an expert is frequently seen (or worse sees himself) as expert beyond his ability or area of expertise.

    I agree with Risa that there are many young SEM experts. I also agree with John Andrews that their expertise is necessarily narrow. That is not a bad thing. What is bad is seeing an all encompassing expertise that does not exist, seeing through celebrity glasses.

    Hubris lays low many a young expert. And, occassionally, one old enough to know better.

  12. December 3, 2007    

    I believe that nobody is SEO expert & SEO Guru. Because SEO is the wide concept and in the field of SEO you have to learn new each and everytime.
    So i think even SEO guru have to become SEO newbie for learning new things.

    Today in the market of SEO i know that so many people who haven’t proper knowledge or experience of in the field of SEO still they are advertise of your name with the banner of SEO expert and SEO guru.

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  1. Search Engine Land: News About Search Engines & Search Marketing on November 29, 2007 at 3:40 pm

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