Why SEO is about more than just controversy


If you want to read a lot of misguided nonsense about SEO, then look no further than this post by Derek Powazek. Remarkable for its non-truths as well as its many oversights, it argues – unconvincingly – that search engine optimisation is not a legitimate form of marketing.

Utter rubbish. The SEO community is full of hardworking people who have earned an excellent reputation for excellent work. At Coast Digital, we prove to clients that SEO is marketing you can measure – if they didn’t get a good ROI, they simply wouldn’t hire us.

It’s true that not every so-called SEO expert is the real thing, but articles like Powazek’s have the power to cause damage to the good guys.

That’s why I’ve decided to give his piece a good fisking. Here goes….

Search Engine Optimization is not a legitimate form of marketing. It should not be undertaken by people with brains or souls. If someone charges you for SEO, you have been conned.

First came the web, and it was a mess. Servers went up everywhere, the net connected them all, pages bloomed like flowers, and no one could find a damn thing.

Then came the search engines. First primitive indexes of dumb keywords, then Google with its rankings of most-linked pages, we were finally able to find the pages we needed, mostly.

The ascendency of Google has meant that, if your goal is to get the most eyeballs possible (as any ad-supported media business’ goal is), then prominent placement in the search engine results became a top priority.

And so, like the goat sacrificers and snake oil salesmen before them, a new breed of con man was born, the Search Engine Optimizer. These scammers claim that they can dance the magic dance that will please the Google Gods and make eyeballs rain down upon you.

If they’re ‘scammers’, how come they can back up their work with real statistics? By all means, avoid anyone that can’t, or won’t. But a good SEO firm will use web analytics packages to prove exactly what impact their work has had on a website – the visitors, the key phrases that are being optimised, and revenue increases. It’s hard statistical evidence.

Do. Not. Trust. Them.

The problem with SEO is that the good advice is obvious, the rest doesn’t work, and it’s poisoning the web. I’m going to tell you about the problems, and then tell you the one true way to generate traffic on the web, based on my own 14 years of hits and misses.

1. The good advice is obvious, the rest doesn’t work.

Look under the hood of any SEO plan and you’ll find advice like this: make sure to use keywords in the headline, use proper formatting, provide summaries of the content, include links to relevant information. All of this is a good idea, and none of it is a secret. It’s so obvious, anyone who pays for it is a fool.

That’s the point – the good advice is obvious, especially if you’ve got the time to learn how best to apply various techniques, manage the link strategy for a site and gain the experience that only comes with looking after the SEO for a multitude of sites. What isn’t so obvious is the amount of testing you need to do, the trial and error of new techniques, the effect of industry changes and movements by Google. Realistically, I could do my own accounting, or write my own will; yet many people will pay an accountant or a solicitor because they will do a better job, and probably save money in the long run. They do it every day, all day – and you pay for their experience.

Occasionally a darkside SEO master may find some loophole in the Google algorithm to exploit, which might actually lead to an increase in traffic. But that ill-gotten traffic gain won’t last long. Google changes the way it ranks its index monthly (if not more), so even if some SEO technique worked, and usually they don’t, it’ll last for a couple weeks, tops.

This is what we call “black hat” SEO – deliberately contravening Google’s terms and conditions. The techniques (that I do not endorse) can and do work – and often for considerably longer than two weeks. The problem is that you can be penalized as quickly as you can see gains – not something that any ethical SEO practitioner would risk on a client’s site. On the other hand, there are lots of techniques that fall into a ‘grey’ area, not outlawed by Google, but perhaps not widely accepted as best practice. It’s up to the SEO in question to balance their white hat and grey hat techniques.

And when they do reindex, if they determine that you’ve been acting in bad faith (like hiding links or keywords or other deceptive practices) they’ll drop you like a hot rock. So a temporary gain may result in a lifetime ban.

Hiding links or keywords are black hat SEO techniques from about 1999. Any SEO worth their salt isn’t going to base a strategy around this kind of thing.

In the end, you’re sacrificing your brand integrity in a Faustian bargain for an increase in traffic that won’t last the month. And how valuable was that increase, anyway? If you’re tricking people into visiting your site, those visits are going to be bad experiences.

If you are encouraging the right visitors to your site by appearing more prominently when they search for keywords pre-determined by you, your site and your SEO team, there’s no question of the quality of the traffic. How can incremental visitors be a hindrance in any respect? If you drive 100 quality brand visits a day and they convert to customers or enquiries at a rate of 10%, and then we carry out some SEO that drives 500 visits that convert at 2%, there’s still a double increase in enquiries. Why would anyone not want double the new business? If ‘brand integrity’ is the tradeoff for exposure, I’d hate to guess how this guy runs his businesses.

2. SEO is poisoning the web.

Google’s ranking algorithm is based on links. So the most effective way to game their system is to plant links on as many sites as possible, all pointing to your site, linked from specific keywords. This is called Google bombing.

This is not called Google bombing. Google bombing was a term used to push non-related content to the top of the search engine by using inbound links – jokes in a sense. SEO differs in that the content at the destination page is related very strongly to the keyword links. Again, this is just one small part of the SEO strategy. If you imagine that creating interesting, newsworthy content generates a buzz online, this inbound linking is a natural phenomenon. Link building simply gives things a ‘gentle nudge’ in the right direction. The trick of the link builder is to obtain natural looking, quality links on high ranking sites, a sought after skill.

Ironically, writing rubbish like Powazek is a brilliant SEO technique because it generates oodles of inbound links.

SEO cockroaches employ botnets, third-world labor, and zombie computers to blanket the web with link spam. 99% of spam comments to blogs are these kind of links. The target of these links is not the blog readers, it’s Google.

In all of the years I’ve worked in search optimisation, I have done none of these things. Again, a very small section of the industry justifies this criticism. Google is very aware of web spam and works extremely hard to counteract it. That’s why SEO companies push ‘ethical’ techniques so much.

SEO bastards are behind worms that attack blog services like Blogger, WordPress, and Movable Type. Some hack into the blog templates themselves to insert links that are hidden from the readers of that blog, but visible to a Google crawler.

And they create programs to grab expired domain names, automatically create websites, filling the pages with content stolen from RSS feeds, creating billions of bad results for users.

It’s a game, and every link is a score for the SEO jerkwads and their disreputable clients. And every time they win, those of us trying to create quality work and good experiences on the web lose.

Again, this is a sweeping accusation. Hackers and Crackers break into these sites, not SEO consultants. Again, this is spam and Google penalises accordingly.

Worse than the hackers are the competent journalists and site creators that are making legitimate content online, but get seduced by the SEO dark side into thinking they need to create content for Google instead of for their readers. It dumbs-down the content, which turns off your real audience, which ultimately makes you less valuable to advertisers. If you want to know why there’s so much remnant advertising on online news sites, it’s because you’re treating the stories like remnants already.

You do need to create content for Google, otherwise you won’t have the reach that you could have. It’s a lucky thing that Google recommend that you write content for users, not the search engine, and they re-iterate that point frequently.  A better statement would be that “You should create content primarily for users, but have the search engine requirements in mind while doing so”.

Remember this: It’s not your job to create content for Google. it’s their job to find the best of the web for their results. Your audience is your readers, not Google’s algorithm.

If it is Google’s job to find the most relevant results for user searches, it must be the job of the website owner to ensure that their content is the most relevant. That is exactly what SEO is. Making the pages presented to Google as relevant as possible for specific keyword searches.

The One True Way

Which brings us, finally, to the One True Way to get a lot of traffic on the web. It’s pretty simple, and I’m going to give it to you here, for free:

Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.

That’s it. Make something you believe in. Make it beautiful, confident, and real. Sweat every detail. If it’s not getting traffic, maybe it wasn’t good enough. Try again.

Then tell people about it. Start with your friends. Send them a personal note – not an automated blast from a spam cannon. Post it to your Twitter feed, email list, personal blog. (Don’t have those things? Start them.) Tell people who give a shit – not strangers. Tell them why it matters to you. Find the places where your community congregates online and participate. Connect with them like a person, not a corporation. Engage. Be real.

Then do it again. And again. You’ll build a reputation for doing good work, meaning what you say, and building trust.

It’ll take time. A lot of time. But it works. And it’s the only thing that does.

He’s correct here. You should absolutely make your website detailed, with quality, fresh, unique content. But an SEO is a data analyst, amongst other skills, and if your content wasn’t good enough the SEO consultant can tell you why that might be, how to best fix it and how to make money from it.

But the ‘it doesn’t work, throw it away and start again’ attitude won’t cut it when we are talking about a £200,000 corporate web build, and there are directors putting pressure on you from above about the site’s performance. Similarly, to compete with large budget sites, smaller fry have to work hard to appear in the search results. Good content is a part of it, but the really enlightened website owner will combine great content with techniques that get it the exposure it deserves. Unlike Powazek, most sites can’t get massive exposure by shouting nonsense – looking idiotic is bad for most brands. And that’s why good, ethical, effective SEO is so important. Try us.

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