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The Inconvenient Truth About SEO


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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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) Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 Link

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.


Footnotes Link

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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.

  1. 1

    Well written HTML is the best SEO you can have.

    • 2

      …and good quality content to match of course.

    • 3

      The quality of your HTML code does not have a great effect on your SERP ranking. Just try it, even most of Googles pages are not HTML valid.

    • 4

      That’s a big misconception… If you do random results you will still find websites that don’t really care about proper (semantic) HTML design. Makes one wonder why they still pop-up on the first page for Google results.

    • 5

      On what measure?

  2. 6

    Great post Paul and to be honest this is what we have been trying to convince our own clients to pursue for years. Unfortunately (to some) it looks easier to “throw Money at it” and hire a silver bullet SEO team than it does to really knuckle down and break the mould of a new approach or process.

    • 7

      Here’s the unofficial timeline of this article:

      1pm: Article published.
      1:10pm: First comment.
      1:15pm: Flood of glowing comments from designers already lurking on the Smashing blog.
      1:17pm: After high-fiving, designers begin to get uneasy, look around and lick their lips.
      1:24pm: First designer openly disagrees.
      1:26pm: Peaceniks shout that it’s only linkbait, don’t get crazy, people.
      1:30pm: First SEO charges in and fires the first shot.
      1:40pm: SEO community crashes in, enraged.
      1:41pm: Designers flee to Reddit, cowering.

      • 8

        Sums it up perfectly lol :)

        Last time I post about SEO*, you guys are like the mafia of the web.

        * Actually i have some more thoughts on monday based on comments.

  3. 9

    Good stuff Paul. A reassuring read for small time bloggers (like me) as well. Just make sure your writing is top notch and ditch the shady tactics.

  4. 10

    Good post, Paul. Ya hit the nail on the head.

  5. 11

    We did this over two years ago. We ditched our SEO company, brought it in house, and changed the focus from explicit ranking methods to working on making the website best for the user.

    The sad reality though is Google are not completely innocent in how they rank websites. We know of competitors in our industry who are using automated link wheel software (the sheer number of fake websites/blogs they create makes it impossible to be manual) and lo and behold, they jump from absolutely nowhere to being top 5 position for the most competitive key phrases in our industry.

    It is so blatant what they are doing, yet Google allows it, and ranks them higher than companies like ours who engage in “genuine” SEO like all of the above.

    Incidentally, we do now rank higher than those we identified were using dodgy tactics. So you could argue it works out in the end. It’s just frustrating that it took so long.

    And when it comes down, purely, to a case of which method is going to get your business to the top and get the cash flow through the business – can you blame many for choosing the dodgier, frowned upon methods?

    • 12

      Agreed. Sadly that’s just the commercial reality. I think we’d all like to produce perfect HTML, original and engaging content. What works in the shortest term is often the route taken. I think google has to really take a huge chunk of responsibility for this because its system is still playable.

    • 13

      Nathan Giesbrecht

      December 11, 2012 5:08 pm

      I agree that it’s frustrating when black hats have success. But it’s always a joy knowing that you can sleep well the day of an algorithm update, instead of seeing traffic fall off a cliff, panicking and having to undo months worth of work :)

  6. 14

    Agreed Paul. What are your thoughts on doing design internally?

    • 15

      Absolutely. I have no problem with that. In fact in many cases that is the more sensible route.

      I guess you expected me to say otherwise :)

  7. 16

    Hi Paul,
    first of all, thank you very much for your article, even so I’d like to disagree in some points at last.

    Just imagine the case that a company, freelancer, artist, musician, band or whoever else created a wonderful website, with truly unique content that has not been published anywhere else but still won’t rank high enough in Google to be among the “Top 10” then what is it that he or the company has to do?
    Or what about a highly competitive market, a company that has to compete with 10 others (e.g. large format printers in Germany is one of those) and just fails in targeting the user the proper way? Isn’t the

    I agree with you that companies know their products better than anybody else but shouldn’t it be the job of a leading SEO-Company to learn about their client instead of just publishing “Marketing-Content” in the very first place?
    We found a way how to deal with our clients in a honest and good way. We do not tell our clients that we are some kind of magic boys and girls that have some secret knowledge. We care about our clients, about their story, their products, their goals. We take most of our efforts in learning about their products, communicating with the internal marketing department, engineers, sales persons. We spend the rest of our time with writing valuable, unique and honest content, placing it on the right parts of our clients websites – which is working out great so far. So our clients always know that we just do have the experience on how to create content that both (and exactly in this order) user and search engines like and help our clients to gain more success with their business.
    Usually we although tell them about how to do it on their own but as you might have experienced as well, some of them are either too busy or too inexperienced to do it properly.

    In my opinion SEO companies should concentrate a lot more on usability, true and valuable content for the users instead of tweaking a little here and there to make their clients believe that there is some kind of magic in SEO!

    • 17

      I totally agree with every word you wrote. It sounds like you are doing everything right.

      I do however have one question: Why call yourself an SEO company? Sounds to me that you are a content company.

      You are producing great content for your clients and their users. It just so happens that has a SEO benefit. Users first, search engines second.

      • 18

        Companies like Ben’s (and mine) call themselves “SEO” companies because that’s what we were before Google started truly ranking sites with good usability. In the infancy of SEO, Google was ranking sites totally differently from the way it ranks them now.

        “SEO” companies have evolved just as Google has. In my experience, we do operate more like the “content” companies you’re describing, but my gut reaction to the idea of removing the word SEO from our marketing strategy is that we would lose a lot of traffic from companies who know they want to break into online marketing, and only know that that means something about ranking on search engines, thus “SEO” speaks to those people a lot more strongly than “content” does.

      • 19

        Paul, I was going to disagree with part of your premise while agreeing with the main thrust but you caught up with me with this comment. I think companies still need outside expertise in managing content. You say stop calling it SEO, call it a content company and I know of several SEO companies who have made that switch (or branded themselves as infographic firms). The fact is, 1/2 your contents value is determined by it’s use to the user, the other half is determined by how many people actually see it. Content has to be managed and marketed properly. I mentioned infographics, one of my main income streams right now is developing social campaigns around infographics. We develop blogger networks and get links to the bloggers moving on social channels. The bloggers writing about the infographics then feeds the main site. It’s the sort of esoteric skill most companies don’t have in house and doesn’t merit a full time person with a full time salary and benefits package, but it’s necessary to market content. It isn’t traditional SEO, but SEO Agencies are the ones paying my billings here as a subcontractor. SEO isn’t obsolete, it’s just changing with the times. The key for some may be fire SEO, but for many others it is make sure you have an SEO Agency that understands how to navigate a web that values content and connectivity above all.

    • 20

      I agree Ben, but your company should not be named “SEO-Company”, you guys do more than that, you’re doing exactly what old school IT do (analysis, design , and programming). SEO community is totally lost, they don’t know what they are or what they really do, SEO’s intentions since the beginning was to create techniques (a mix of key words and key phrases placed in the </HEAD tag) oriented to cheat Google's ranking engine. That approach kicks them back when Google just did minor changes to their engine(s), and then SEO guys learn again how Google ranks pages, and now they are offering "Content creation strategies" sending millions of un-solicited emails.

  8. 21

    Paul, I couldn’t agree more. You’re spot on.

    My gripe lies with the scammer “SEO companies” who I see getting business and in reality.. stealing hundreds and thousands of pounds from clients.

    • 22

      He’s actually far from spot on you know…

      Your gripe however, is warranted. But that’s targeting those SEO’s who can’t tell their arse from their elbow or are only setting out to rip customers off.

  9. 23

    Paul, I would love to tap away at these keys pouting and defending SEO but you managed to do it for me by filling your author bio full of keyword targeted anchors.

  10. 25

    Do you know what ‘structured data’ is, and what its relevance is to search engines? Do you understand what a duplicate content issue is, and the impact it can have on a website’s visibility in search results? Do you know what a robots.txt does, or what use a meta robots tag has?

    You easily dismiss SEO as useless, but I would bet a sizeable chunk of money that you don’t have the faintest grasp of what SEO actually is. For starters, you don’t seem to understand the nuances between technical on-site SEO – a very important part of a successful website – from the manipulative practices which you so eagerly decry.

    You make some good points about content creation and taking in-house ownership of this, but unfortunately due to your misleading headline and confused introduction this will be mostly lost on your readers. All they will take away is that SEO is evil, content is key (ironically this is exactly what SEO focuses on, but hey, you obviously don’t know), and that hiring a SEO agency is a bad idea.

    You are doing your readers, as well as Smashing Magazine, a grave disservice by publishing such uninformed, misguided disinformation.

    (Also, you seem to have no qualms about using SEO best practices yourself, specifically in the anchor texts you choose…)

    • 26

      Thanks Barry, for showing both the author and the ones that, without any critics, agree with him, the real (Inconvenient) Truth!

    • 27

      This is exactly what I was about to type before you beat me to it. This article dismisses the technical aspects of SEO and makes the rather absurd claim that “if you create great content, people will link to it.” If I took this article seriously, it sounds like any decent writer with no technical experience can start a WordPress blog and start ranking for competitive keywords just because the Google Gods reward quality content.

      I agree that SEO isn’t a dark art, and there are plenty of “churn and burn” companies out there who try to exploit the system so that they can get top rankings for a few hours before Google burns them. But this isn’t the only type of SEO out there.

    • 28

      I have obviously made you angry Barry and I am sorry about that. You are more than welcome to disagree with me, but that doesn’t mean my opinion does not deserve a voice.

      Please don’t make assumptions about my level of knowledge. I do know about all of things you have talked about, I just don’t see evidence that they have as much value as writing great content.

      My primary argument is a simple one. We shouldn’t be optimising for search engines, we should be optimising for people. You can agree or disagree with that. That is your right, but in saying that I am merely quoting Google.

      In my opinion many SEO companies shouldn’t call themselves that. Good SEO companies are more like content strategy companies and are primarily focused on creating great content. They do themselves a dis-service calling themselves SEO companies.

      • 29

        “I have obviously made you angry Barry” – oh no. Trust me. You’d know if you really made me angry.

        “Please don’t make assumptions about my level of knowledge.” – that’s funny, as you seem to be making an awful lot of assumptions about what SEO is and what its value is.

        “We shouldn’t be optimising for search engines, we should be optimising for people. ” – Agreed. Guess what? People use search engines. A LOT.

        “in saying that I am merely quoting Google.” – do you understand how propaganda works? Google are masters at it. Don’t take everything they say at face value. In fact, distrusting everything Google says is a rather sensible approach.

        If, however, you want to genuinely believe that Google only ranks great content, I have some great seaside property in Switzerland you might be interested in.

        “They do themselves a dis-service calling themselves SEO companies.” – the debate about how SEO should call itself as as old as SEO. The litmus test is what customers understand. I can call myself a content strategist or inbound marketer or growth hacker all I want – if I have to explain it to a customer, I’m not likely to get the contract.

        I’ll stick with SEO for now, Paul. Why don’t you stick with design. After all, you don’t see me blogging about all that is wrong about web design. It’d be a bad blog, because I’m not a designer.

        And you’re not a SEO. Remember that. Your responsibility stops (more or less) when the site goes live. That’s where mine really begins. It’s easy to criticise whilst standing on the sidelines.

        You make websites – I make websites successful.

        • 30

          Actually I am not a web designer. I haven’t built a website for one of my clients in a long, long time. I provide consultancy services for my client and guess what, one of the things they ask for my advice about is whether they should hire an SEO company.

          Here is the problem the SEO community has been unable to persuade me why I should tell my clients to go for it. Surely that is an issue? Surely it is your job to explain to me what you do in a way that I get and clients get.

          You wrote: “The litmus test is what customers understand.” – Client see SEO as a magic bullet that gets them rated number one on Google. Is that what you offer? I don’t think so, so why call yourself an SEO company.

          • 31

            “Client see SEO as a magic bullet that gets them rated number one on Google.” – yes, partially because of blog posts like yours that paint an entirely inaccurate picture of SEO.

            “so why call yourself an SEO company.” – my company is actually a creative agency, and SEO is one of many things we do (and rather well, even if I do say so myself).

            The ‘SEO magic bullet’ issue has been a pervasive one, and not unique to the SEO industry. Yes, we need to educate people on what SEO really is and what its added value is (and trust me, there’s a lot of added value in proper SEO).

            But blog posts like yours don’t clarify anything – they make things worse. Do you genuinely care about the public perception of SEO? Stop writing ill-informed pieces like this one.

          • 32

            “Here is the problem the SEO community has been unable to persuade me why I should tell my clients to go for it.”

            Do you want searchers to find you or not? I think it’s really that simple.

          • 33

            “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!!!!”

            I guess this is the geek version of it.

            Ohhh I love being a nerd!

        • 34

          “Trust me. You’d know if you really made me angry.”

          Oh no, mister, I am so very scared of your implications and accusations on the internet. Please don’t hurt me! /sarcasm

          Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with everything Paul said, the sad fact you will come to understand sooner or later is that at the end of the day, the end-user cares very little about catch-phrases such as “SEO”.

          Most website viewers don’t know what they mean and nor do they care. They’re looking for good quality content, and if you can’t provide that then you won’t sustain a high user count for very long.

          It’s all well and dandy to be within the top 10 ranked sites on Google for your chosen keywords, and SEO companies can certainly help you get there, but it’s usually through means that may end up deterring end-users from ever bothering to visit your website again.

          My point? Getting on the first page of Google means jack-all if people visit your website once and never return. You want to retain users and gain potential customers? Then start writing good, interesting content. Nobody gives a crap about how awesome your keyword selection is or how far up you are on Google.

          • 35

            If no one can find your content, no one will give a crap how good and interesting it is. Ranking well for relevant, well-trafficked keywords is a means to an end. If you can’t understand the value in it, don’t “do” SEO. Maybe people will find your website by typing random things into their address bar?

          • 36

            Much of SEO is focused on the idea that “content is key” anyway.

            SEO and good content should co-exist with each other, and in most cases they do, but to say that other SEO tactics is the “be-all, end-all” of website management and SEO in general is absolutely ignorant.

            Like I said: It doesn’t matter how far up you are on Google’s page listing if your contest is boring, shallow and uninteresting.

            If you’re trying to make money off your website your goal should be retaining a regular atmosphere of viewers, not being in the top 1% of Google’s listings and having a high bounce rate.

        • 37

          I know I’m years late to the party, but just fair warning: your “profession” is slowly dying and will soon be automated. You should probably learn development so that you aren’t left out in the cold when search engines automate you out of a job. :)

      • 38

        Paul –

        These are not assumptions about your level of knowledge as you are blatantly unaware of the conversion improving implications of Barry’s examples when you state things like “I just don’t see evidence that they have as much value as writing great content.”

        Furthermore, ‘writing great content’ means absolutely nothing if no one can find it, whether that be through search engines or offline promotion – content created in a vacuum serves no purpose.


        • 39

          As algorithms get better then good content, a properly developed and designed website, with some social networking will get found in the long run. There are lots of good SEO companies that can really help a website get to the masses but this chicken and egg argument is getting ridiculous.

  11. 40

    I am but a small fry in the scheme of the web world but I wholeheartedly agree with this article. I would so much rather spend my time trying to help or inform someone than back linking from a thousand forums or jamming keywords down people’s throats. Being useful rather than spammy just feels right!

    • 41

      that’s a very small piece of SEO…

    • 42

      Andrea: I’m sorry that this is the perception of SEO that you have gotten from this article or elsewhere. What you are talking about though is Black Hat SEO (read: spam masters who hide under the SEO front). In reality it involves providing all the necessary information for search engine to crawl your site successfully and getting credit and reference from other websites (voluntarily) to help Google understand that your site is legit.

      Please do not be afraid to do research on this and any other topics beyond reading a single blog post (although I am guilty of that sometimes as well, especially when it comes to SM).

  12. 43

    I was on my way… thinking that your article was going to support my views on SEO… because I know it’s all a bunch of crap (dodgy techniques by shady companies). But you lost any authority at the word “reenforced”. I know this is just noise in an article that probably has a whole bunch of merit… but I stand by my point.

  13. 44

    I see your point, however SEO isn’t only about on-site optimization, A lot of time and effort has to be put into getting quality and relevant sites to link to you. It’d be a mistake to make site owners think that decent rankings can be achieved only by ticking all on the boxes on their sites. Yes it’s very important, essential even, but that’s not all it’s about.

    • 45

      Wrong. That IS what is about. If you are creating sites and content to link back to your site purely to improve your ranking you are being ‘evil’ as Google would say and messing up the internet for the rest of us. Get off!

    • 46

      Can I ask what you believe the number of reason people choose to link to you? Is it not producing content worthy of being linked to.

      • 47

        Of course it is. And I would never advocate spammy link building techniques or anything like that. All I’m saying is that while quality content is the basis for everything, it’s not all that’s going to make people’s sites rank well and it’s important they’re aware of it.
        @xdoomx Very nice comment. Is such attitude really necessary?

  14. 48

    Thank you. Finally someone saying it loud! I have always tried to explain to clients that there are no magic tricks involved in this issue, they just need good and properly structured content. Next time I will give them this article to read.

  15. 49

    Nice clear story. Thanks
    Indeed for small companies that drive on the people running it, the website and content should come from them and not from an outside SEO company. Technical articles, advise to customers, news about the market, stories about you and/or the companies ideas. We also try to do those things. Not always easy, but as you say, it’s all about the long term !

    I see in the comment above the remark about other website linking to you. In the long term other website will link to you when you have an interesting story to tell and information to give, not because for instance you pay them money.

  16. 50

    Great analysis Paul. As a webdesigner and developer I try to explain to my clients that they have to provide good content for their websites after I’ve done the design & development part (accessible and with the right mark-up of course) and that it will be their good content that will make the site rise on Google. No way, they simply don’t listen. They want SEO, SEO is the “magic” word and many SEO agencies just let them believe it! I completely agree with your article, but I think it will take a long long time before companies change their minds about this point. At the end, if your website is not first on Google, saying that the SEO company you hired was incompetent is far more simple than writing good content :)

  17. 51

    First things first. I’m a designer that works for a company where a big portion of turnover comes from SEO related services.

    As much as I respect Paul I dislike the amount of SEO bashing posts that appear in the web community and often see SEO related posts that do come out as rather basic and at worst inaccurate. SEO is poorly represented in this industry fueled by much misinformation.

    Our two communities lack the necessary cross flow of information for designers and developers to sufficiently understand the current state of the SEO industry. There’s is a younger industry than ours and while black-hat and spammy techniques are still undertaken in some quarters these are largely the actions of a young industry testing the boundaries, paying the price for failure and thus not undertaken by ethical SEO companies.

    The industry has grown and isn’t about gaming the system anymore instead its about providing expert guidance on optimising that last 10-20% of a site to ensure the site is as good as it can be; built correctly and containing good content that not only serves the users but is relevant to the search terms a company would wish to be found by.

    Much like our industry has grown to sell the services of UX professionals to take a website to the next level and have a website connect with it’s audience better so too can SEO’s come and ensure a website is connecting well with search engines. It’s foolish to think designers or developers have the necessary skills to ensure a site is the best it can be for search engines whilst having to learn and know so much other stuff too.

    Personally I’d like to see more SEO experts be invited to web conferences and not necessarily speak about the minute details of their job but give a better account of what being an SEO involves as too many in the web community have a grossly skewed view of what it means to be an SEO today.

    If that can’t happen then a response in Smashing Magazine from a highly respected SEO would be a good way to present a balanced argument.

    • 52

      You make a lot of good points Kean, but I have a couple of points of my own to make.

      First, it strikes me as strange that after having these discussions with SEO people over many, many years and working with many more, I still am to find a company able to explain the benefit of optimising for search engines. I am yet to be convinced.

      Second you write,

      “Optimising that last 10-20% of a site to ensure the site is as good as it can be.”

      There are so many companies who haven’t got the first 80% right in terms of great content and well built sites. I believe they should have these things in place before worrying about rankings. My problem with SEO is that clients become obsessed with this over anything else.

      • 53

        Certainly clients can become over obsessed with ranking number 1 for so called vanity terms but this isn’t necessarily the fault of an SEO company.

        I know that a good company manages the expectations of clients so much so they would advise against increasing rankings thus traffic if the company is unable to accommodate the increase in customers. Good companies focus on how SEO leads to increased profit and customer satisfaction and not just on rankings.

        SEO is only one small part of a bigger whole and my last 10-20% might be misleading. SEO’s should be hired much earlier in the process and not be seen as people to hire at the end of a new build. This way they become part of the larger team and everyone works more closely to achieve the best results with SEO’s advising early on potential issues they can observe in the build and the content.

        I hope the comments in this post give you (and others) a little more idea about the good work SEO can do above and beyond the more widely known techniques that many designer and developers should simply implement as standard. I think it’s a valuable part of the process and shouldn’t be simply dismissed by so many as it so often appears to be.

      • 54

        “I still am to find a company able to explain the benefit of optimising for search engines. I am yet to be convinced.”

        Paul, I think this right here is 50% of the problem, while many SEO’ers can make arguments for the amount of people that use search, very few (especially those “We’ll get you to #1” SEO companies) can make arguments for the ROI on SEO. SEO is so ambiguous that it is often not traceable accurately [keyword accurately], making a measurable ROI almost impossible.

        • 55

          Jonathan, you can measure ROI of SEO practices in the same manner as you would perform A/B testing on your site.

          • 56

            Dmitri, A/B testing is very popular in marketing and business right now. But, in scientific research, while it is used frequently, it is troublesome. First, it is full of potential bias. Second that bias is very difficult to account for. Research papers using A/B testing also have long paragraphs explaining exactly how the tests were constructed ( not just how they were done). A/B testing is hard to get right and even then should be taken with a grain of salt. So I think it is not so easy to just disregard Jonathan’s point.

  18. 57

    It is good to have a search engine optimized website but that is not the only thing you need. Content is very important. Page rank, keyword density and everything will automatically improve if your website is really useful to the users. Well said Paul Boag…

  19. 58

    What a polemic article. And yes, it did work. It raised enough attention (and anger) to make me comment. Well done, Paul. At least for that part.

    The way I perceive your article’s tone you seem to implement that SEO is indeed “dark art”.

    “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.”

    I could not disagree more! A (good) SEO company does not use “tricks”. It does other things like:

    – Helps you to learn and understand your users and their search behaviour. Simple example: Sony did some years ago a microsite (in Germany) for their projectors. They used the (technically correct) term “Overhead Projektor”. A big failure, because in Germany everyone (aka “the user”) calls them “beamer”. Another example: Notebook or Laptop? Similar usage for the consumer, different search volume makes the difference if you run a small specialized blog or notebook shop

    – Helps you to learn and understand your competitive environment. Who is your (Search engine) competitor? Very often, it is not the competitor ppl have in mind first. Example: For Mercedes Benz, BMW or Audi might be the biggest competitors “in real life”. In search engines, it is rather a used car market or a car magazine because BWM does not rank for many of the same keywords like Mercedes Benz.

    With other words: A good SEO agency/company/freelancer helps you to find or refine your search engine / keyword strategy. And it does more:

    – Helps you to avoid common technical mistakes. There are many websites accidentially have a “no index” mark which was set during the setup of the CMS and has never been deleted. There are many websites which does not have a valid robots.txt nor a valid sitemap. There are many websites having a lot of broken internal links (aka 404). The list is much longer… just some very common examples

    A good SEO agency helps you with onpage optimization so you can concentrate on content instead of technology

    The summary of your post sounds to me like “Just provide good unique content and the web will find you…”? Really?

    What if Google never finds you because you did not get a single link? Not a single social mention? Unrealistic? Not for many SMB or SoHo websites I came across when working with a big international hosting company! Especially for those website owners it is important to understand why (Back)Links are important. It is important to have an idea, a strategy where they can get links (aka recommendations) from. Because (good) link marketing or link building is nothing else than traditional recommendation marketing: just take care that your target group, your potential audience, your multipliers and your evangelists notice you – and if they like you, your content or product, they might recommend you (aka give you a backlink).

    So, don’t get me wrong: Content IS king, yes. You need to have unique, valuable content providing an added value for your users. But take care that your website does meet basic search engine requirements, that you are aware of the search behaviour of your audience and you do some recommendation marketing. And if all that takes to much time from you and stops you to produce valuable content, maybe call a (good) SEO company!

    • 59

      You will be shocked to discover I agree with you. However, what you have described isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) called an SEO company.

      You have described well designed and built sites. You have described a well implemented content strategy.

      By talking about SEO we are saying to clients that they should be optimising for search engines. But as you say, its not just about that, its about a lot more.

      Dump the name SEO and I think we would find ourselves in much closer agreement.

      Oh and by the way, SEO companies DO have a terrible reputation like it or not. There are those who using all kinds of techniques that are not advisable. That is the reality. Yes, it shouldn’t be that way but it is. As somebody who is obviously doing good work I would distance myself from that crowd by realigning the way you present the work you do. Hence dump the term SEO. It missells you.

      • 60

        Your argument of what the industry “should” or shouldn’t be called is null. The industry Martin is describing is what SEO has evolved into. Changing the name of the industry would confuse less digital-savvy business owners and drive business away.

      • 62

        “Oh and by the way, SEO companies DO have a terrible reputation like it or not. There are those who using all kinds of techniques that are not advisable. That is the reality.”

        – How many web designers are out there who do not think about site navigation or UX? Who code badly and don’t optimise images properly etc etc?? Every industry has cowboys.

        • 63

          while this is true, some of the bad press SEO gets is known by a more general audience. Web Design as an industry does not have the stigma SEO does even though a good portion of both industries are unutterably terrible.

  20. 64

    Very good, content is king, and interesting and engaging content will get you natural links and therefore improve your rankings. But a) not every website is a blog that you update every day. b) Not every e-commerce website is about interesting and engaging stuff (bathroom replacements, hoovers, cleaning services, electricians) and c) you would never rank well in google without having in mind the technical part of SEO (having well set your robots.txt, getting rid of duplicate content, having a website built in flash, loads of redirections…) or doing for example keyword research, not for keyword stuffing, but to look for the right opportunities in a market full of competitors that are doing SEO as well.

    SEO is much more than what you state in this blog post. Smashing magazine of course doesn’t need SEO… but most of the companies with a ecommerce website do.

  21. 65

    Addendum: it seems Paul has a habit of writing misinformed linkbait, and attempts have been made before to educate him about the differences between spam and SEO ( Alas, it seems he’s incapable of changing his flawed perceptions…

    • 66

      Totally agree. I was thinking this exactly while reading the article. There’s a big difference between best practice to achieve good onsite/offsite results and black hat gaming the system. Of course, black hat is so appealing BECAUSE it works (sometimes rather quickly!), and because updates like Penguin always have white hat casualties.

    • 67

      I am honestly wanting to be convinced. I have no axe to grind, nothing to prove. I have no vested interest. I just honestly don’t get it and am yet to read anything that changes my mind.

      I am sorry if I have annoyed people. I have not written this or anything else as linkbait. I have written this because this is my honest opinion.

  22. 69

    Link Bait. Well done Smashing Magazine. LOL

  23. 70

    The Floating Frog

    December 11, 2012 1:52 pm

    Possibility the worst, ill-judged article I’ve seen on SM in a long time. Too many disagreements to list, sorry Paul. SEO is too big for a lot of people to understand so I’d say stay away from the topic. Let’s just say is has a bad rep, but with our industry experts pioneering SEO, both on and off site, the web would be a much uglier place without SEO best practices.


    • 71

      Fair enough with disagreeing me. I can respect that.

      Lets say for a minute I am wrong. I am happy to admit I maybe. BUT i have honestly tried to understand SEO. I have put in the time and research. I have looked for evidence that this is worth spending money on.

      If I am not getting it then you have a perception problem. If I don’t get it then you can be as sure as hell I am not the only one.

      Somebody show me where I am wrong and prove to me this is the right place to spend your money.

      I don’t like being hated by the SEO community, but nobody is even trying to convince me otherwise.

      • 72

        I don’t understand what you are not getting? Why SEO exists and why it is worthwhile? Quite simply, many people make bad websites, not just from a design and UX perspective, but also in regards to technical elements that Google take into consideration SOLEY for ranking purposes.

        Why do you think Google has guides on ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ (SEO) ???

        Take a 301 redirect, using a 301 or a 302 makes no difference to the user (which is all you should care about according to Google) but the difference between a 302 and a 301 can mean huge differences for your search rankings and visibility within Google if implemented incorrectly. Clearly technical elements exist that only matter to Google and not to users. The 301 example is a simple one, many are more complicated. Does this make sense?

        Maybe you should read up on HREFLANG:

        Having the same content on your US site and your Canadian site does not hurt users (the only thing you need to worry about right?), but it may effect your search rankings in Google. Google recommend implementing hreflang to help them understand your duplicate content better and serve the correct language or regional URL, but implementing this is not simple and doing it incorrectly can harm your search visibility, a good SEO will help you implement this correctly.

        Does this make sense?

  24. 73

    Just because everyone knows it as search engine optimisation doesn’t mean that all SEO’s will only optimise for search engines! *sigh*.

    The industry has evolved, the web has evolved… And those still trying to manipulate search engines or purely optimise only for search engines are getting left back in the 90’s.

    It should be pretty common knowledge in the web industry by now that great engagement, great value and popular content is how search engines largely determine rank, trust, authority etc and as such, those in the SEO industry that are worth their salt, are building programmes and strategies centred around everything that ticks the right boxes.

    Serving awesomeness to users equals great performance in search. It’s a shame so many still debunk the value of SEO and what it really entails to the most technical level (and this includes a great deal of markup, code, structure, architecture, layout, scripts from a design/dev perspective). It really isn’t as simple as producing great content – and even then, many businesses would fail at that.

    In fact, it is a convenient lie to claim that the best person to optimise a website is the owner. They should input into content creation as they know their niche but as for the rest? Seriously. Or is that just because you actually don’t get what else makes a website perform?

    • 74

      “Just because everyone knows it as search engine optimisation doesn’t mean that all SEO’s will only optimise for search engines! *sigh*.”

      So stop calling it something it isn’t! It confuses clients and leads them to place the priorities in the wrong things.

      You may know its not just about optimising for search engines, I may know that but clients are not getting it. Call it what it is… content strategy.

      • 75

        Calling it just “content strategy” would be equally misleading. It’s not just about writing link-worthy content. It’s also about site architecture and clean code that is easy to read and navigate for search engines. These are changes that will go unnoticed by people because they do not effect users either negatively or positively, but they do a great deal of good in terms of getting a site indexed by Google.

      • 76

        The sad reality is that if they don’t call it SEO business owners/website owners will have no clue what it is. Another way to put it is Search Engine Optimization is a piece of SEO.
        We’re not going to change the world’s perception here in this comment thread :(

      • 77

        When the end user refers to SEO, they generally want their website to be found for high ROI key phrases and the like. This, wouldn’t be a million miles away from search engine optimisation – improving a website to make it perform better in search.

        Just because of the label it has, does not mean optimise for search engines and ignore your customer.

        We’re a digital marketing agency covering all realms of search marketing and SEO has a mention on our website, purely because that’s what the end user can relate to and understand – SEO makes up just one part of many from our service offering and within our SEO strategies for our clients comes content production/marketing, linkbait strategies and the such – but if it stopped there, it also, wouldn’t be SEO. It just forms a section of our offsite methodology or we can offer it as a standalone service if this is all the client requires.

  25. 78

    Great article Paul!

    When I think of great content, sound technical implementation, usability & user experience — i.e. everything that equates to quality and relevance — the *absolute* last place I think of is an “SEO” company.

    I don’t make claims to anyones competence in these areas, but the sad fact is “SEO” only exists as an industry because you could (and can still) game Google. Today I see many “SEOs” trying to transition into user-centric thinking to remain relevant, which is great. But drop the snake oil moniker, please?

  26. 79

    Hi Paul,

    Evidently, you still haven’t learned what SEO is since your last rant about SEO two years ago on Boagworld.

    A person who uses things like keyword density and gateway pages is not an SEO, and never has been.

    But, if you need help with hreflang, canonical link elements, parameter handling, rel prev and next values for pagination, XML sitemaps for pages and images and videos and news, Google Plus authorship markup, Facebook’s Open Graph meta data, implementation, and many other issues that great content alone will not solve, an SEO can help you with those.

    Your objective should be to make it easier for people who are interested in what you have to offer to find you, and see the great content that you offer. Relevant content isn’t “great content” Someone searches for a pizza on Google, and they don’t want prose from Hemingway or Fitzgerald on the history and origin of pizza – they most likely want lunch.

    An SEO adds value to what you create by making sure that it is presented within the framework of the Web in a way which makes it more likely that it will reach the people that you want it seen by, when they are looking for it.

    • 80

      Hey Bill,
      the following that you wrote is probably the best description of SEO specific things worth doing:

      “But, if you need help with hreflang, canonical link elements, parameter handling, rel prev and next values for pagination, XML sitemaps for pages and images and videos and news, Google Plus authorship markup, Facebook’s Open Graph meta data, implementation, and many other issues that great content alone will not solve, an SEO can help you with those.”

      This makes sense to me! In all my conversations with SEO experts and all the comments I have read to my posts on the subject, this is the first time I have had somebody list things that either…

      1. Are not essentially content strategy work.
      2. That are not things I would expect any half decent web designers to do as part of their job.

      This I get! Thanks.

      • 81

        I’d agree these are not normal areas for developers to work within, but a good developer can understand and work on everything in that list, and once it’s done you can have them on every project going forward just by changing a few settings in a config or even as part of a custom CMS.

        • 82

          A good developer can definitely understand and work with most of the things on that list but when things change (and things WILL change) is the developer going to be around? Is the developer going to know of the change? Even a custom CMS (which most small businesses cannot afford to build or support) cannot anticipate how search technology will change. Yes some things may be handled with a config tweak, but not all things.

          Most businesses are stuck with sites that are less than perfect when it comes to architecture and UX. Most businesses need help understanding the search landscape as it pertains to their business and more particularly to their business goals. A good SEO helps a business align their marketing to work with the search engine, not game it. Gaming search results has never been SEO.

      • 83

        I guess I’m not surprised no one’s listed these things for you, because it’s difficult/painful to try and explain such things to people who take an ignorant, stick-my-head-in-the-sand approach to SEO.

        SEO is an important marketing activity that any publisher should know, just as much as they try to understand how their sites will appear in different browsers. Absolutely, 100%, having great content is your bedrock to success.

        But if you have great content, and the browser can’t render it, do you think well all that design stuff is mumbo-jumbo? No. You make sure people can view your content.

        Search engines are like the most important browser out there, and if you can’t take the time to understand how they make your content visible, then you’re running the risk of being invisible to them and to potential readers.

        You should know all this, because you’ve been happy to cite Google’s webmaster guidelines, which are full of technical considerations. You’ve focused on exactly one sentence about making pages for users, not search engines. As a basic principle, right. But go back and read the specific page. It’s full of SEO advice over-and-over again.

        In fact, the inconvenient truth for your inconvenient truth article that no one needs an SEO company, and by extension anyone who specializes in SEO, is that Google offers an entire SEO starter guide (Google it) that it encourages publishers to read and follow.

        Apparently, Google itself thinks you should do SEO to the degree of writing a detailed guide about it. Do you think perhaps, given that, it might make more sense to say to you readers that that might want to ensure they understand these things?

        It is ideal if designers or content people understand all often-rapidly changing developments in SEO and implement those institutionally. It is sad that there is definitely plenty of snake oil that gets pushed.

        But the reality is that designers and content people often are actually so busy doing their jobs that they can use help, either a specialist in house or an external firm. You diss that entire concept. You might as well diss the idea that content people don’t need designers, because after all, it’s just the content that matters, who needs some design “professional” pushing things like CSS and other acronyms all around. Just put it on a WordPress template, and you’re done.

      • 84

        If you researched SEO, even a little, you would’ve seen all of Bill’s great writing on the subject and known this list, plus other stuff like:

        Site performance optimization
        Canonicalization beyond tweaking/fixing with rel=canonical

        I could start the list of things that developers and designers SHOULD do, but don’t, thereby requiring their clients to revamp just-launched web sites, but hey, who wants to go there.

        Oh wait, I just did.

    • 85

      Best comment so far…SEO is “to make it easier for people who are interested in what you have to offer to find you, and see the great content that you offer. ”


  27. 86

    Paul, thanks for this post – an excellent read :)
    Very good points, well made.

    This will be incredibly useful to pass on—to clients and web students alike ;)

  28. 87

    Paul, slaying SEO agencies as a whole, is simply stupid. While many agencies use “tricks & blabla” and do not educate their clients, many others do exactly what needs to be done: optimize websites, take care of other technical necessary stuff AND help the client understanding how to do their part in a regular, correct and consistent way.

    @Smashing Magazine: Articles like this are not worth sharing. Rethink YOUR content (and maybe your authors), please, if you want to keep your credibility.

  29. 90

    I’m not sure which reply I enjoyed more here. Barry Adams’ well thought out and clear response to this laughable article or Dean Cruddance’s bullseye.

    Bravo, gents. And bravo to Smashing Mag for publishing a perfectly aimed article. Guaranteed to raise the ire of genuine SEOs the world over, who won’t be able to help but respond. Like I have. Here. Now.

    It’s just a shame that a lot of organisations may now ditch their SEO companies, bring content generation in house, lose their vital search engine rankings and a tonne of business and then ask…why?

  30. 91

    This is really a bad post. A good SEO company will help and guide you in how to optimize your webpresentation. Off course your content should be written for users and not for SE’s, but a good SEO company can help structure your content so it will rank better without messing with the tone of voice:

    “Unique content is King, Optimized Unique content is Emperor!”

    Also SEO companies will help you building the website the right way so SE’s CAN index your content and can help you creating a strategy for linkbuilding and content based on Search Behaviour! And a honest and reliable SEO company will tell you the exact opportunities and the impossibilities of SEO
    for your business…

  31. 92

    Huummm…you see, there are sites and sites. What about e-commerce websites, for example. I know a bunch of them who invest heavily in SEO with great results. They will not “lose in the long term”, as there’s no long term for them and they are constantly changing to adapt to search engines modifications.

  32. 93

    I’ve been telling my clients (as recently as today) that search engine visibility can be enhanced on the following areas:

    1) Technology
    2) Content
    3) Linking

    Technological solutions, be it meta-data, canonical urls or semantic markup, can, and should, be done by the web developer. Content should be, as well stated in this post, created for the users, bearing their interest in mind. Linking, referring to external sites linking to your site, is usually a sum of the two preceding factors, and will further improve your site’s ranking on search engines.

  33. 94

    Any SEO agency worth their chops won’t be trying to get you to “number 1 for x keyphrase” – you’re referring to those jokers chancing their luck at some SEO fast-cash there. Times are changing. If you consider that there’s a number of SEO agencies who actually pin their goals on business profit and return on investment, then your whole argument falls apart.

    I work for an SEO company (as a designer incidentally) and I felt the way you did about SEO before I started here – and sure – everybody thinks their own sh*t smells the best – but trust me. If you have an agency who knows what they’re doing and has an ounce of sense about them – they’ll be following best practice, and making difference to metrics that matter, as opposed to touting stats about the “top spot” for whatever.

  34. 95

    This premise of this post is painfully contradictory. “Don’t make content for Google, make content for users”, then going on to say how “Google demands great content”.

    Make your mind up.

  35. 96

    We all must agree to disagree, right?!?! In this post the author states that all people, who own a business, should spend their time writing blogs, content etc etc etc.?? Ok and then who will run their businesses? At the end of the day someone has to do the SEO job (On-page, copy-writing, management, link building, researching, strategies, following the news, updates etc.) and someone has to take care of the actual business day-to-day tasks. Either way both of these guys have to be paid for the job, right? And here the author says that the business owner must waste his time on SEO-like activities, where he will surely fail and pay to someone else to run his business where this someone else may fail either. It’s completely senseless. Sorry Paul, but as long I increase my clients’ sales – everyone is happy and both parts benefit from that! And that is the real SEO – increasing sales, ranking is just a small part of all.

    • 97

      Great point, how many small businesses have the time to dedicate to great content…they have a business to run. Yet large corporations have a lot of their SEO/content done in house. How many of SEO companies work for Nike, Macy’s, Boeing etc…In the end the necessity is the mother of invention. The reason there are “SEO” companies is because there are a lot of small – mid size business owners that want to share their great content, but have no idea how to do it properly.

    • 98

      “someone has to do the SEO job (On-page, copy-writing, management, link building, researching, strategies, following the news, updates etc.)”

      copy writing, management, researching, strategies, following the news are not “Search Engine” optimization. These are content strategy, and general work on your business and website. A lot of what Paul is talking about is that calling these things “SEO” is just misleading.

      you can see Bill Slawski’s comment for some real SEO techniques.

  36. 99

    Having worked as a developer at an SEO firm I can relate to this. Huge sums of money went into the treadmill that was keeping up with Google. We paid a cheap service to write a daily article for websites. All I could ever think, every time I added one to the site, was who in their right mind is going to read this and if they do, they’re going to think this website is a joke.

    I’ve never had any problem ranking my sites and all I do is the basics along with hammering into the minds of my clients the necessity for good content.

  37. 100

    ‘It is hard for an outside contractor to produce the great content that will keep users coming back and encourage them to share.’

    Having worked in publishing and media for major companies, before starting my own business, I can attest to a legion of freelance writers, sub-editors and more who would disagree with this entirely.

  38. 101

    This article has sparked an important discussion and I have certainly learned a lot by reading all the points of view expressed thanks.

  39. 102

    But what if they call it “inbound marketing”?

    • 103

      I much prefer that. It does not apply that sites should be optimised for search engines over users.

  40. 104

    I love SM community. Part of the reason I visit this website is to see what are other people’s opinions. And I have to say that the response this one has gotten is brilliant.

    But one thing that gets me disappointed is the fact that the rant of this sort has been allowed on the website of such quality and caliber. Pretend I knew nothing about SEO, I could still tell that this essay takes one-sided negative view on a practice the author is not very informed on. This is sad. C’mon SM, you don’t need this crap!

    And for those who are still curious about wtf is everyone ranting here about, why not learn about SEO yourself? Check out “Whiteboard Friday” video series, maybe even start from their first one – they are brilliant, even entertaining and they will help you understand what this is all about:

  41. 105

    Hello Paul: I do appreciate the time you put into writing this article. And I do also agree with your assertation that we should be building our content for people not search engines. As a Partner in a Search & Digital marketing agency with +8 years of experience, I caution readers of your article to not assume that awesome content is the panacea. It’s only part of a well-rounded SEO solution.

    Yes there is “techno babble” in our industry (Is there not in yours?). We choose to ignore it and the pesky snake oil salesmen that are in in each and every vertical I can think of.

    The technical stuff (as mentioned in previous comments) is just as important as the content you so frequently mention. We have seen plenty of sites that have great written content that are not being found in searches because of some technical limitation(s). A good SEO Agency will identify these limitations.

    A good SEO will also audit a client’s website and let them know of such mundane (techno babble?) issues as www and non-www occurrences, lack of Meta Descriptions, etc…

    BTW the Headscape site could use some SEO TLC. It’s reachable by the www and non-www version. And I coudn’t find any meta descriptions…. and the sitelinks for your SERP are horrid (who would click on them?)… Oh never mind…. just depend on your site’s content…… It will get found.. It will convert….. ;-)

    • 106

      Hey Les,
      we are aware that Headscape isn’t very search engine friendly and to be frank it doesn’t matter. Our traffic is driven from that ranks very well.

      BTW, I appreciate your polite tone in the comments. Others have been less kind.

      As for your comment about “We choose to ignore it and the pesky snake oil salesmen”; I do think you have a major perception issue that needs addressing not ignoring. Your biggest problem is in the name SEO. That is my opinion anyway.

      • 107

        Fair enough Paul. As a “responsible SEO” I thought I’d let you know about the “issues” with your company’s website (tongue in cheek). I am happy that you have enough traffic and do not need any more (tongue still in cheek).

        There is no shortage of people that dump on the SEO industry. Rightfully so in some cases. Part of the issue we see is that the “price of entry” is low. So anyone who has a laptop and an internet connection can hang out a shingle and say that they are a “SEO expert”. Sad but true. Plus there is no (real) certification process.

        Eg: Whole businesses were built around link building – some (most?) of it shoddy. Why? Because Google said that you need inbound links. Now they say you need relevant inbound links. And they come out with algo improvements named after happy little creatures like pandas & penguins. These “improvements” will continue as will the flood of content to the Internet.

        Not everyone can afford quality SEO (I am trying to think of new more pleasant term Paul) advice. And as someone alluded to in a prior comment, you have to keep on paying. Of course you do! Nothing stays the same online. A business owner is not only trying to keep up with their competitors, they are trying to keep up with the likes of Google which is always tweaking algorithms. It is the most dastardly moving target!

        Back to your comment: “Our traffic is driven from that ranks very well.” This type of comment drives me crazy. Why? It’s not about ranking Paul… It’s about conversions. Who cares if you get 500 visitors a day to If none of them click through to the Headscape site….. and then make a buying decision, then you are pi**ing in the proverbial wind. We see it all the time.

        SEO… hmmm What about: “Website Help And Therapy” “WHAT”… Any better?

        Great comments… Too bad some folks are getting so upset. You have stimulated discussion. I like that!

  42. 108

    This is simply a case of old SEO versus new SEO. Old SEO was “tell me you keywords.” New SEO is “tell me your goals.”

    A true SEO agency will look for discovery/opportunities for the client based on what their goals are. They will also help the client make linkable content like infographics for “boring” companies.

    Sure companies can bring SEO in-house. But companies can also bring in-house advertising as well. Why don’t they? Because that’s not what they do. You don’t need multiple managers telling a team how to do SEO.

    Also is the in-house team going to have all the right software, analytics, know-how to make presentable presentations? Probably not, because that’s not their main focus.

    In-house is great if the company is really small. Medium to large companies will generally have in-house and outsource. Diversification is the only free ride.

    BTW I really like this font for your website/comments.

    • 109

      very good point, perhaps the author is just outdated on SEO best practices…they hardly recommended optimizing for search only. As far as the term SEO is concerned, despite changes to what we do we’ll never be able to change that association.

  43. 110

    If great content is enough, why do we need designers? Why do we need a CMS? We can just post something in our table-based web site from 2004 and the web will find us. Well, I don’t think so.

    • 111

      Design is content. A good CMS will take care of most of your SEO for you.

      Google’s job is to find the best content for the end user, not to find the best search engine optimized content. The fact is they don’t want you to have to worry about it.

      The point of the article was to get people to focus more on content than SEO. Not that SEO doesn’t exist or is bad.

  44. 112

    Thanks Paul this was a very helpful and informative post!

  45. 113

    This article seems to hint at understanding a larger truth, but gets bogged down in the inevitable trench warfare. The truth is, you can replace “SEO” with “HR”, “Customer Service”, “Accounting and Finance”, and almost any other aspect of business. Some organizations need outside help. Some organizations really need to run certain aspects of their business in-house.

    What really needs to happen is that businesses need to stop treating SEO as some mystical realm. Its an aspect of your business – measurable, definable, and governed by the same rules as the rest of your business. Would you really use “blackhat HR” or fail to ask your accountant for references and measurable results? Would you drive through neighborhoods in the middle of the night planting yardsigns about your business? Do you use UPS and Fedex or do you save some bucks by using Billy Joe’s Package Delivery and Waste Removal?

    SEO is not about sprinkling pixie dust around your site. If you wouldn’t use a canvas tent as a warehouse, don’t use outdated HTML and cheap/slow/insecure web hosting. If you wouldn’t use chat room conspiracy theories to determine sales tax implementation or locating manufacturing partners, don’t use it for web development strategies. Would you hire your accountant, or lawyer, or logistics consultant on Fiverr or Craigslist??

  46. 114

    You forgot to mention that you use SEO as a strategy for your own clients Paul

    “measurement should include review of your analytics to identify user behavioural change, monthly user testing and spot checks to ensure ongoing quality. It should also include removing out-of-date content, a continual programme of A/B testing and search engine optimisation.”


    • 115

      Yes but we don’t call it SEO. You might, but that is not how clients perceive it. When you say SEO you are saying ‘we will optimise your site for search engines’. All of those things you quoted from my site are not about optimising for search engines, they are about creating an effective site that meets business objectives. The semantics matter.

      • 116

        Paul, that is the whole crux, I understand that you are using the language your potentials are using. Call it by another name, the strategy remains.

        You call it out as the hook, then make some valid points regarding content.

        Sorry Paul the “I don’t get it” just does not sit right. Well played though, objective achieved.

        Lee Colbran below has already hit the nail on the head. Your technique here is your second foray into the SEO industry using the same technique.

        This would have been an even better piece if it was a co-authored one presenting both sides of the coin.

        • 117

          And I will keep saying I don’t get it until somebody convinces me.

          To be frank I am getting a bit pissed off now. I am happy for people to disagree with me, I am happy for people to tell me I have it wrong or am ill informed. However, I take offense at people implying that I am linkbaiting, being argumentative for the sake of it or lying.

          I wrote this article because it is my honest opinion. I gain nothing from linkbaiting (other than shit loads of grief) and do honestly have loads of unanswered questions & concerns about SEO.

          Instead of getting answers all I have got is abuse. I have written many, many posts and I never get attacked like I do when I write about SEO. It does not do the sector credit and dramatically undermines its position.

          There are exceptions. I have had great conversations with Bill Slawski, Barry Adams and Joost. They politely disagreed with me and tried to convince me of their position. But they did so with respect and never accused me of being deceitful in someway.

          If you want to win an argument, the answer is not to slag off the opponent. That is limited to american politics.

  47. 118

    There seems to be a lot of desperate SEO Snake Oil Salesmen who are downvoting any posts that agree with Paul.

    I’ve been telling my clients for years to concentrate on content, not pay money for some magic beans, sorry, ‘keywords’, that will magically shoot them up the rankings. And I’ve seen them part with £500 for some automated report that I’ve had to implement and then seen a big reduction in their rankings.

    Keep preaching, Brother!

  48. 119

    The problem here is that SEO is not Content Marketing and experience tell US that the biggest SEO issues derive from bad software and poor knowledge of the Industry best practices.

    There is a lot of disinformation on SEO and above all is difficult to explain how important is the technical part of this job.

    If you don’t know seo you tend to over-simplify and attribute strange behaviour to the wrong things simply because you don’t know what SEO is.

  49. 120

    SEO = selling baked air …
    I’m glad somebody comes out and tell us this in our face.

    I trie to convince my clients all the time.
    First you need a great webdesigner who writes structural html and then it’s up to the client/business to make it happen…

  50. 121

    Despite what others from the SEO industry have said above, I think you’ve written a good article about the subject. I don’t feel any need to get defensive, because you make valid points here. I work for an agency myself and we mostly focus on knowledge transfer and on enabling clients to do the actual work inhouse. When I get calls from prospects they mostly expect me to recommend that they outsource all the work to us, especially “building links”. Offering a different model that empowers them often takes them by surprise because it’s not what they are used to. I still think it’s in their best interest, so we continue with this model. It all depends on the type of business you are talking about.

    I agree wil Bill on technical expertise and experience though: while Google’s documentation is pretty good in most cases, there are professionals who have walked the path before and can offer advice, especially with the more recent stuff such as the canonical link element, hreflang etc. It’s very easy to shoot yourself in the foot with this stuff!

    Regarding content and marketing / PR (aka “link building”), I absolutely agree with you that in many cases, these should probably not be outsourced to typical SEO firms. But training developers / marketing / PR / corporate communications in the basic principles of SEO can help tremendously. That’s where SEO professionals add value.

    • 122

      I have to say Bill presented an excellent point. He went a long way to convincing me there is a role for an SEO company in certain situations.


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