The Inconvenient Truth About SEO

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Do you own a website? Do you want to be number one on Google? Whatever you do, don’t spend money on aggressive search engine optimization (SEO). I know that sounds like an extreme position to take. However, a lot of website owners see search engine optimization as the answer to their search ranking woes, when things are considerably more complex.

The inconvenient truth is that the best person to improve your ranking is you. Unfortunately, that is going to take time and commitment on your part. The answer doesn’t lie in hiring a SEO company to boost your website ranking for Google. The problem starts with the term “search engine optimization” and the misconceptions surrounding it.

What SEO Isn’t

Most website owners perceive SEO as a dark art, shrouded in mystery. They have heard phrases like “gateway pages” and “keyword density” or have been bamboozled by technobabble about the way websites should be built. All of this has left them feeling that SEO is the purview of experts. This is a misconception reinforced by certain segments of the SEO community.

The problem is that these kinds of complex techniques do work, to a point. It is possible to improve placement through a manipulation of the system. However, although it can have short term benefits, it will not last without continual investment. This is because the objective is wrong. SEO shouldn’t be about getting to the top of Google for particular phrases. In fact, we shouldn’t be optimizing for search engines at all. We should be optimizing for people. After all, that is what Google is trying to do.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Optimizing For Search Engines

Google’s aim is simple: connect its searchers with the most relevant content. If you are more worried about a good ranking than providing relevant content, then you are going to be fighting a losing battle.

If you hire a SEO company to improve your placement and you measure their worth on the basis of how high they get you in the rankings, then you are out of line with what Google is trying to achieve. Your primary objective should be better content, not higher rankings.

Original, valuable content.1
Image credit: Search Engine People Blog2.

The SEO company can use every trick in the book to get you better rankings, but over the long term they will lose, because Google is constantly changing how it rates websites so it can provide more accurate results.

Remember, you shouldn’t be optimizing for ranking in search engines, you should be optimizing for users.

A Better Way

Google does not make a secret of how to gain a high ranking. It states clearly in its webmaster guidelines3:

“Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”

So how do you actually do that? Again Google provides the answer:

“Create a useful, information-rich website, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.”

In short, write useful content. This could include (but is not limited to):

  • Publishing white papers,
  • Writing a blog,
  • Sharing research findings,
  • Producing detailed case studies,
  • Encouraging user-generated content,
  • Creating useful applications or tools,
  • Running a Q&A section,
  • Posting interviews

The list could go on. The key is to produce content people find useful and want to share.

Yes, there are some technical considerations when it comes to search engines. However, any reasonably well-built website will be accessible to Google. You don’t need an expert SEO company for that (at least not if the Web designer does their job right).

As an aside, it is worth noting that if you take accessibility seriously for users with disabilities (such as those with visual impairments), then you will also make a website accessible to Google.

However, setting those technical issues aside, it all comes down to content. If you create great content, people will link to it, and Google will improve your placement. It really is that simple.

The question then becomes, how do you create great content?

The Inconvenient Truth

This is the point where we come to the inconvenient truth. It is hard for an outside contractor to produce the great content that will keep users coming back and encourage them to share. In my experience, this is much better done internally within the organization. The problem is that this doesn’t sit well with most organizations. Its easier to outsource the problem to a SEO company than to tackle an unfamiliar area internally.

Admittedly, a good SEO company will have copywriters on board who can write content for you. However, their knowledge will be limited, as will their ability to really get to know your business. Yes, they can write a few keyword-heavy blog posts that Google will like the look of. However, this won’t fool users, and so the number of links to that content will be low.

The truth is that if you are serious about improving your placement on search engines, it has to be done internally.

This truth is all the more painful, as most organizations are not configured to do this properly.

Organizational Change Required

The more I work with organizations on their digital strategy, the more I realize how few are structured to do business in a digital world. The issue of SEO is an ideal example of the problem.

Responsibility for the website normally lies with the marketing department. Although marketing is well-experienced in producing and writing marketing copy that outlines the products and services the organization provides, they are not best equipped to write content that will be heavily linked to.

It is not surprising that if you search on a term like “call to action4,” the top results are almost exclusively informational articles, rather than companies helping with services in this area.

The problem is that marketeers are experts in the product or service being sold, not necessarily the surrounding subject matter. For example, the marketing department of a company selling healthy meals will know everything about the benefits of their product, but will have a limited knowledge of nutrition. Unfortunately, people are more likely to link to a post on healthy eating tips than they are to link to some marketing copy on a particular health product.

What you really need is the nutritional expert who designed the meal to be posting regularly to a blog, talking about what makes a healthy diet. A blog like this would include lots of linkable content, would be able to build a regular readership and would produce keyword-rich copy.

The problem is that this is not how organizations are set up. It is not the nutritional expert’s job to write blog posts; that responsibility belongs in marketing.

The Long-Term Solution

Ultimately organizations need to change so that online marketing is a more distributed role with everybody taking responsibility for aspects of it. I am not suggesting that the central marketing function has no role in digital, but rather recognizing that they cannot do it alone. Others will need to have some marketing responsibilities as part of their role.

For example a company selling healthy meals should allocate one afternoon each week for their nutritional experts and chefs to share their expertise online. It would become the marketing department’s responsibility to support these bloggers by providing training, editorial support and technical advice.

Unfortunately, these experts are often the most valuable resource within a business, and so their time is incredibly valuable. The idea of “distracting” them from their core role is too much for many companies to swallow.

However, in the short term there is still much that can be done.

A Short-Term Solution

As we wait for companies to wake up and change the way they are organized, there are ways of working within the system.

If you haven’t already, consider hiring an employee dedicated to creating content for your website. You can partially finance it with the money you save by getting rid of your SEO company.

If that is beyond your budget, consider hiring a short-term contractor or a part-time staff member. You could even use an existing member of your staff as long as they have time set aside to prevent the Web being pushed down the priority list. Although this person won’t have the knowledge to write all the content themselves, by being situated inside of the business it will be much easier for them to get access to those within the organization who do.

Arrange meetings with these experts and talk to them about their role. Identify various subjects based on their knowledge and then either record a video interview or write up a blog post based on what they share. Also ask these experts what news sources they read or which people within the industry they follow. Monitor these sources and ask your expert to comment on what is shared. These comments can be turned into posts that add to the wealth of content on your website.

Finally, you may find that the experts within the business are already producing a wealth of content that can act as source material for content that users will find interesting.

For example, our fictional nutritional expert probably already has documentation on the health benefits of certain food types or how certain conditions can be helped through healthy eating. Admittedly this kind of material might be too dry or academic, but with some editing and rewriting it would probably make great online content.

The content you post does not have to be long, it just has to be link-worthy. The key is to share the opinion of your expert and provide content of value to your audience.

As that audience grows, start asking questions. Maybe even get some of your readers to share their experiences or knowledge. Over time you will discover that not only will your readers want to contribute, so will your experts. As they see the value in posting content regularly to the website, they will start blogging themselves. All you will have to do is suggest topics and edit their output.

I know what you are thinking: it just isn’t that simple.

No More Excuses

I realize this is a big cultural shift for many organizations. Marketing teams will feel they are losing control, the person responsible for blogging will feel out of their depth and the experts may resent being asked lots of questions. However, what is the alternative?

For better or worse, Google demands good content in return for high rankings. Pretending that SEO companies can magically find a shortcut that allows you to avoid this tradeoff just isn’t going to cut it.

If you care about how you rank, it is time to take responsibility for your website’s content. Once you overcome the initial hurdle, you will find that producing quality content on an ongoing basis becomes second nature.

Update (17.12.2012)

After a heated discussion in comments to this article, in social channels and via Skype, Paul clarified his position in the article How I See The Role of SEO5 in his blog. We are republishing the article for the sake of making his arguments clear and unambiguous — of course, with Paul’s permission.—Ed.

There seems to be the perception that I want to see an end to the SEO sector. Although I have issues with the name, I do believe they have a role.

Last week I once again6 expressed my concerns about website owner’s obsession with SEO in a post for Smashing Magazine7.

My message can be boiled down to the following points:

  • Website owners are unhealthily obsessed with their rankings on Google.
  • We should be creating primarily for people and not search engines.
  • The best way to improve your ranking is to produce great content that people link to.
  • That great content is better produced in-house, rather than being outsourced to an agency.
  • A good web designer can take you a long way in making your site accessible to search engines.
  • Before you spend money on an SEO company, make sure you have the basics in place first.

An Unfortunate Response

Unfortunately this caused a massive and aggressive reaction in the SEO community. Smashing Magazine was attacked for publishing the post, I was told I was out-of-date and ill informed (which is of course entirely possible), but worst of all there were a shocking number of attacks on me personally.

To be honest this doesn’t entirely surprise me. I have been working with the web long enough to be all too aware of the over reaction it creates in people. However, it is always hurtful when somebody attacks you as a human being, rather than your opinion.

Of course not everybody was like that. I had great conversations with Bill Slawski8 and Joost De Valk9, both of who attempted to put me straight personally and on their blogs. I very much appreciate them taking the time and they have helped to soften my views.

SEO Companies Do Have A Role

I think it is important to stress that I do believe SEO companies have a role. The problem is they are often brought in when there is still much work that could be done internally within the organisation.

To me its about return on investment. Why spend money improving your search engine rankings when you could spend the same money improving rankings and producing more engaging content? Or why not spend money on improving your rankings and building a more accessible website?

There are two exceptions to that general rule of thumb.

Content strategy

First, the SEO industry is changing. They are increasingly helping clients with content and that is great. However, if that is the role they are going to take then they need to stop saying they are about “search engine optimisation.” Creating great content is not primarily an SEO job. They have a branding issue there.

Also, although I am happy for an SEO company to help educate clients about content they shouldn’t be writing copy for them week and week out for them. Take the approach of a content strategist who trains up the client, provides them a strategy and then encourages them to take on the role themselves. Isn’t that better for the client?

Cleaning up after bad web designers

The second exception is where the web designer has built an inaccessible website. As Joost De Valk said in his response to my post10, it falls to the SEO company to clean up the mess.

This is obviously an issue that needs addressing in the web development community and why we need people like Joost speaking at web design conferences.

However, I wouldn’t expect a web developer to provide all of the technical subtleties of an SEO company. That is probably too specialist for most web designers to do.

I don’t doubt that these subtleties are important and do make a difference to rankings. However, once again it is important that we have the basics in place first:

  • Great content.
  • A solidly built website.

Setting The Right Priorities

Hopefully that helps clarify my position slightly. I am not for a minute trying to destroy the SEO sector (as I was accused of repeatedly). What I am trying to do is set priorities straight.

I guess in short it is the phase “search engine optimisation” I have a problem with. It implies we should be accommodating the idiosyncrasies of search engines above the needs of users.

That is something I will never compromise over and I am sure something the vast majority of SEO companies would agree with.

(cp)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.flickr.com/photos/sepblog/3649959481
  2. 2 http://www.flickr.com/photos/sepblog/3649959481
  3. 3 http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769
  4. 4 https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22call+to+action%22
  5. 5 http://boagworld.com/marketing/concerns-about-seo/
  6. 6 http://boagworld.com/marketing/i-dont-get-seo/
  7. 7 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/?p=150423
  8. 8 http://www.seobythesea.com/2010/03/good-seo/
  9. 9 http://yoast.com/seo-paul-boag/
  10. 10 http://yoast.com/seo-paul-boag/

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

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  1. 1

    It just so happens you could write an entire book on this subject. Hey! Next book idea!

    0

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