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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

      Michael Raffaele

      December 11, 2012 2:02 pm

      …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

      Jonathan Coffey

      December 11, 2012 9:59 pm

      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

        Jonathan Coffey

        December 11, 2012 10:07 pm

        “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

    Lovely Templates

    December 11, 2012 1:45 pm

    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.


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