Why Top-10 Expert Lists Are a Bad Idea

I knew I shouldn’t have checked Twitter while I was on vacation.

Recently, I received a Twitter notification that I was on a “top ten SEO expert to follow” list.  And I groaned, knowing the list post was going to cause an inevitable poo-show.

I was right. 

When I checked Twitter the next day, the company had gotten comments like:

How can X be on the list? They don’t even do SEO anymore.

What about these people? Why weren’t they on the list?

Only two women are on the list (and everyone is white).

Where are the LGBTQ people?

Two who don’t do SEO, one person who fakes it, two women, and the rest men. 

Why are lists like this even being made?

This list is lazy on the diversity front.

The post deserved to get slammed. It was poorly researched and written — Matt Cutts, for example, hasn’t been in the SEO world for years. Danny Sullivan’s bio was way out of date. There are many other, more talented people that should have been mentioned.

I imagine most SEOs read this list and rolled their eyes. 

It was obviously written by someone who had no clue about the industry and the major players. Not a good look for an SEO agency.

(Ahem.)

But here’s the deeper issue about why top-20 expert lists are problematic…

These kind of “top ten” lists — without having some sort of objective measurement — do nothing but piss people off.

If the author would have said, “These are the top experts I’ve learned from over the years,” great. 

But, when you randomly throw out a list of names, people are going to know WHY you chose those names.

And you need to be able to defend your choices.

Otherwise, you’re opening yourself up to valid questions like, “Why isn’t your list more diverse?” or “Why haven’t you mentioned X — she’s done amazing things in the field?”

Instead of being a valuable resource, your list ends up looking like a popularity content driven by a clickbait-y headline. It won’t impress your readers, it won’t impress the people you include on your list, and you won’t get the reaction you want.

Even if that was never your intention. 

And that’s on you.

(As a side note, Search Engine Journal created a top experts list that shared WHY they chose the people they did. You can see the article here.)

Want to know about anothe, popular list post that grinds my gears?

Top-10 experts lists where people can vote for their favorite choice.

Last year, a keyphrase research company ran a “best women in SEO” contest where people could vote for a number of women experts. (Yes, I was on it. No, I didn’t win.) There were multiple rounds of voting, which was probably designed to keep the PR value high and long-term.

Of course it got slammed. Of course people complained that it pitted women against each other. Of course, people gamed the system.

I’m sure the company didn’t anticipate the negative reaction — and in their own way, they may have thought they were promoting female experts.

For me, it felt like a weird high-school popularity contest flashback. I didn’t care about being popular back then, and I care much less today. 

If anything, it left a bad taste in my mouth. And in other people’s mouths, too. Many women asked to be deleted from the list. 

No matter how many times the company tried to defend their intentions, their attempts fell flat. At the end of the day, I wonder if the blog author (and the company) felt it was worth it.

I’d guess no.

So, Heather, should I avoid top-10 lists entirely?

There are publications that charge major bucks to include people in a top-10 list. Their business model depends on producing glossy advertorials that are light on substance and heavy on branding opportunities.

I don’t love them, but I know they exist (for instance,”Top 10 Plastic Surgeons” magazines.) That’s their own thing.

But when it comes to creating content for your blog, I’d consider one piece of advice very strongly:

Rank things, not people. 

Sure, people will still get mad at you if you write a top-10 best burger post and don’t mention their favorite hideaway.

But, that’s a much better scenario than the Twitterverse decimating your list because it’s not a true representation of an industry’s diversity.

Not to mention, the question, “How are you qualified to choose the top experts?” comes to mind. I’ve been in the SEO world for over 22 years, and I don’t think I’m qualified to make the “best experts” call.

There are a lot of smart people out there. Sure, I’ll share what I love about different experts. I’ll share SEO history and talk about some of the women who started the SEO industry

But I won’t put them on a numbered list. 

So my advice is — proceed with a “best experts” list very carefully. Consider avoiding them entirely. And know if that if you DO write one, be prepared to (rightfully) defend your choices.

And please, for all that’s good and holy, do your research and choose people who are, you know, actually working in the field.

It’s the least you can do.

(I’m not linking to the original post because it doesn’t deserve the search volume. If you’re curious, you can track down the exchange on Twitter. But really, it’s not worth it.)

P.S. I would also like to formally apologize to my husband for needing to talk me down from the Twitter “incident.” He was right. I was on vacation and it wasn’t worth it.

What do you think?

Do you love or hate “top expert” lists? Leave a comment and let me know.

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  1. […] A bit of cautionary advice about top 10 lists and how to do them well… if you choose to do them at all. […]

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