What The Heck Is SEO? A Rebuttal

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Bill Slawski is the president and founder of SEO by the Sea. He has been engaged in professional SEO and internet marketing consulting since 1996. Will … More about Bill Slawski, Will Critchlow ↬

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This article is a collective reply of the active members of the SEO community to the article “The Inconvenient Truth About SEO” in which Paul Boag discusses the value of search engine optimization for website owners. Written and edited by Bill Slawski and Will Critchlow, this article explains what exactly “SEO” means today and discusses the common view many Web designers share about the work of SEO companies. —Ed.

This article is a collective reply of the active members of the SEO community to the article “The Inconvenient Truth About SEO” in which Paul Boag discusses the value of search engine optimization for website owners. Written and edited by Bill Slawski and Will Critchlow, this article explains what exactly “SEO” means today and discusses the common view many Web designers share about the work of SEO companies.—Ed.

When I [Bill Slawski] saw a link to a Smashing Magazine article titled “The Inconvenient Truth About SEO” by Paul Boag a week ago, my fear was that the headline would lead to an article blaming SEO for global warming and other calamities.

Storm clouds gather
(Image: rossap)

The title intrigued me, as someone who has done SEO for more than a decade, and I clicked on the link not certain what to expect. As I read the article, I came across terms such as “keyword density” and “gateway pages,” which Paul associated with SEO in his article. Those practices aren’t the kinds of things that SEOs do, and they would trigger a response from SEOs who would consider the first to be snake oil and the second to be a practice that’s often been used to deceive consumers.

Of course, Paul’s article has nothing to do with global warming, and Al Gore wasn’t mentioned once. The “inconvenient truth” referred to in the article seems to be that throwing money at a website usually isn’t the solution to generating interesting, engaging and persuasive content that attracts visitors and traffic, links and referrals. The subject-matter experts who are often in the best position to share some of their expertise are the owners of the websites — the business people or journalists or people who run the nonprofit. As Paul was making this point, he cited the practice and practitioners of SEO as an example of a group who might be hired to create such content and presented their efforts in a negative light.

This rebuttal agrees with a number of the points Paul made in his article, but focuses on what an SEO actually does, what role an SEO might play in creating content and developing a content strategy, and how an SEO often tackles technical issues that designers and developers often don’t address.

After reading Paul’s article, I couldn’t help but respond in the comments with the following:

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 rel=“next” values for pagination, XML sitemaps for pages and images and videos and news, Google Plus authorship markup, Facebook’s Open Graph meta data, schema.org 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.

I have Paul to thank for the chance to write a rebuttal to his article. He recommended me to the editor of Smashing Magazine, who then received an email from Will Critchlow asking for the chance to write a rebuttal as well and to share the thoughts and opinions of some others who perform SEO.

I was asked if I was willing to collaborate with Will in writing this response. (I was thrilled with the chance to do so.) Will and I spent some time talking via instant messaging and thought it would be interesting to see if we could elicit some responses about search engine optimization from a number of SEOs who expressed interest in the original article by commenting on it, blogging about it or discussing it on social sources such as Twitter and Google Plus.

This article is in three parts, with the prologue written by me. The middle section includes responses to the questions I mentioned above about what SEO is, what role SEOs might play in content creation, and the technical issues that SEOs often see and the solutions they use to resolve them. The final section is an epilogue by Will, offering some final thoughts.

SEOs And Content Creation

Paul told me in a Skype conversation a few days ago that he didn’t understand or anticipate the reaction his article received from the SEOs like me who read it and responded to it in the comments section. His intent was to address website owners and influence them to take more ownership of their websites, to be more involved in the creation of those websites and the content they contain; to take the time and make the effort to create something that appeals to their audience, based on their own experience and expertise; or to hire someone with that type of knowledge to create quality information that provides a great experience to visitors to their pages.

I agreed with him — about website owners taking more control over the creation of content, that is. But I also disagreed. I told him about website owners I’ve worked with who were willing to write content but had no idea where to start or had no time to create it, people who needed coaching and help in writing in order to make it more likely that their great content would be seen by visitors and would be shown in search results to the people they were interested in reaching.

I’ve taught people to do keyword research to find and use the words and language that their audience might search with and would expect to see on their pages. I’ve explained how titles that are too long or too short or not very descriptive of the pages they title might not bring them the traffic they would like to see. The same with meta descriptions and page headings and other content.

What SEOs do when it comes to content creation and strategy is to help people work within the framework that exists for content created on the Web — a framework that dictates, for example, that a page title of a certain length is more likely to be seen in full if it is of a certain length, and that the title will be shown out of its original context when shared on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter or when saved as a bookmark. If it’s interesting and engaging in those contexts, then it is more likely to be clicked on and shared by others. SEOs study and explore the framework of the Web, of search engines, of social networks, and help others understand it.

SEOs And Technical Recommendations

Before I finish with this prologue, I want to share one of the technical issues I’ve seen more than a couple of times recently, to give you a sense of what an SEO actually does. And if it’s something that helps you, even better.

Many websites publish pages that are related, as part of a series, such as products in the same categories on an e-commerce website, articles that span more than one page, and galleries that show off related images, often with descriptive text. These often include pagination that enables you to go from page to page, often with numbers as links at the pages’ bottoms, and sometimes with a link to see all of the content on a single page.

These paginated pages often share the same HTML title element and meta description, and they could be perceived by search engines to be duplicative because of that. Google has defined a way that websites can overcome this perception, by treating these pages as if they are related.

Link elements within the head sections of the pages, with rel=“prev” pointing to the previous page and rel=“next” pointing to the next in the series, tell Google that this content spans more than one page. Here’s an example of what that might look like for a three-page series about blues music in Chicago:

  1. On https://www.example.com/chicago-blues.htm, the following should be in the head section of the page:

    <link rel="next" href="https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg2.htm">
  2. On https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg2.htm, the following should be in the head section of the page:

    <link rel="prev" href="https://www.example.com/chicago-blues.htm">
    <link rel="next" href="https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg3.htm">
  3. On https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg3.htm, the following should be in the head section of the page:

    <link rel="prev" href="https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg2.htm">

During a search, Google might identify relevant content on one page of the series and deliver you to that page, or it might deliver you to the first page of the series or to the “View all” page, if there is one. If a query that returned these pages as a result was “Chicago Blues,” then it might make sense for the first page to be listed in the results, since the whole series is about that topic. If the query was for “Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf” and the second page focused specifically on him, then Google might return the second page in the series because it is most relevant.

If you have an “all” page for your series of paginated pages, where all of the content is available on one page, then you have another thing to consider — you have two options for using canonical link elements on those pages.

In addition to using rel=“prev” and rel=“next” values in a link element as described above, you can use canonical link elements for those pages as well. A canonical link element tells search engines what the canonical version of the URL might be for a page.

Let’s explore how a canonical link element might work first. The home page of a website could possibly be reached in a number of ways, such as:

  • https://www.example.com/
  • https://example.com/
  • https://www.example.com/
  • https://example.com/
  • https://www.example.com/default.aspx
  • https://example.com/default.aspx
  • https://example.com/default.aspx
  • https://www.example.com/?jssessionid=gth2385756646353534434434
  • https://www.example.com/?ref=affiliate12342

This page might have a canonical link element in its head section that tells search engines that https://www.example.com/ is the preferred version of this URL. The code for this would look like this:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/" />

Ideally, you wouldn’t rely solely on a canonical link element to straighten out a website’s architectural issues. If you prefer the www version of URLs for pages on your website, then you would use a 301 redirect to send URLs without the www to the version with the www. You would also point all of the links on your pages to the www versions of your pages, instead of the non-www versions.

You would also want to be very consistent in how you link to the home page, using the canonical version throughout the website instead of using https://www.example.com/ in some cases and https://www.example.com/default.aspx in others. You could also set up a 301 redirect so that the default.aspx version redirects to the canonical version. Don’t rely solely on search engines to get things like this right by themselves if you have the ability to take matters into your own hands.

When you have a “View all” page for an article that is otherwise spread over multiple pages, Google might identify that full page as the best one to send searchers to. A Google help article on “Pagination” makes that point clearly:

Searchers commonly prefer to view a whole article or category on a single page. Therefore, if we think this is what the searcher is looking for, we try to show the View All page in search results. You can also add a rel=“canonical” link to the component pages to tell Google that the View All version is the version you want to appear in search results.

The help page recommends that the canonical link element for each page in the series be the “View all” page’s URL. The canonical link element for the page at https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg2.htm would be this:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-view-all.htm">

However, website owners often split up articles into multiple pages in order to get viewers to see advertisements and other information on each page as they go through the parts of the article. If you want that to happen, then you might decide not to include a “View all” page. If so, then the canonical link URL for each of the paginated pages in a series would point to itself, rather than to the “View all” page’s URL, as recommended in the snippet from Google above.

For example, the canonical link element for https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg2.htm would be this:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-pg2.htm">

If you still want to offer a “View all” page but don’t want it to be what Google shows as a search result for content on this series of pages, you could also use a meta robots noindex element in the head section of that page. So, in the head section of https://www.example.com/chicago-blues-view-all.htm would be this meta element:

<meta name="robots" content="noindex,follow" />

Knowing how these work together gives you a voice in determining which pages will show up for a relevant query. (Note: If you have a “View all” page but have put a noindex meta element in it, and people link to that version of the page, then you will lose the benefit of any PageRank pointing to that page.)

Prologue written by Bill Slawski (@bill_slawski).

What SEOs Say: SEO Tips You Can Use

We picked three questions to ask a range of professional SEOs. We wanted to present opinions and perspectives from a diverse set of people, as well as provide some real value to the expert designers and developers who frequent Smashing Magazine. Here are the questions we chose:

  1. “How do you define SEO?” Our hope here is that you will see common themes and ideas. Hopefully, some of them will resonate with you, and you’ll get a better sense of what we actually do.
  2. “What role should an SEO play in the development of content for a website?” One of the big themes in Paul’s post was the feeling that content should be the domain of the business owner or specialists. We wanted to show you some SEOs’ opinions on where they can add value.
  3. “Do you have a tip for Smashing Magazine readers about technical SEO?” We wanted to leave you with some actionable advice that you can take away and hopefully use immediately for your website and business. Technical tips tend to be the easiest things to implement immediately, so we asked our colleagues for their ideas.

1. How Do You Define SEO?

Bill Slawski:

SEO is the practice of making it easier for site owners and their audience to find each other, to meet the objectives of the site owner and the informational and situational needs of that audience. This means in part helping site owners find the right language to use that audience members will search for, and overcoming technical obstacles that might keep search engines from crawling and indexing the great content developed for that audience.

Gianluca Fiorelli:

It is not simply “search engine optimization” (we don’t optimize search engines), but more “search experience optimization.” Users are the main focus of real SEO, and that is something Google itself is preaching to all site owners (not just to SEOs).

Ian Lurie:

SEO means making sure search engines can find, properly classify and value content. “Properly” means “from the perspective of a human being performing a relevant query.” So, while link buying, etc. may help with rankings, it’s not really SEO so much as a way of getting around true SEO. That’s why so many “short cut” tactics get sites into so much trouble.

Patrick Altoft:

SEO is doing anything that will increase traffic from the major search engines. This could be anything from content to design to link building to online PR. We just do whatever we think is going to have an impact. If Google started to rank sites higher that did more TV advertising or had more Facebook likes, then those might become SEO, too. Currently, a good SEO agency does the things mentioned in my post, but that could change at any time depending on the direction Google is heading.

Richard Baxter:

I’ve been reading Smashing Magazine for years, and I’ve always found it an invaluable source of inspiration and instruction and a good source to discover new technologies and design principles. SEO practitioners depend on sources of information just like this. The truth is, we couldn’t work without great front-end design and development, ideas and inspiration. We’re working in an industry where great content is finally winning the battle against very poor-quality, badly designed and heavily over-optimized junk pages. I’m personally delighted about that fact because it makes my job challenging, interesting and closer to marketing than ever before. It’s what keeps me in search marketing, in fact.

I want to show you a search result in the UK: “laptop reviews.” Every single page in the first 10 results is, frankly, woeful — uninspiringly designed and there primarily to serve the needs of traffic generation over and above the needs of a user trying to find their next laptop. I believe that this search result is just one example of an opportunity to really help an underserved content niche by creating the best possible experience for users, by putting their needs first. There is an infinite number of these opportunities in search.

So, here’s what an SEO does. We seek opportunity, and we work to differentiate in order to gain competitive advantage. We build tools to help us achieve those aims, and the best SEO people spend a good amount of their time giving back to their communities by sharing their tools and teaching these principles. We should never put simple objectives such as “driving traffic from search engines” over and above user experience and conversion. Great design is fundamental to being able to achieve that goal, and we’re working to achieve this on every single touch point that a user might have with our clients’ (or our own) websites.

Mackenzie Fogelson:

SEO means focusing more on the customer and less on yourself. SEO means providing value. SEO means looking at the big picture and helping a company transform its business. SEO means identifying business objectives and determining the best way to go about realizing them.

Adam Melson:

[SEO is about] making search engines undoubtedly confirm that a site is increasingly valuable to searchers.

Value could be measured by the number of quality links pointing to a great resource. Value could be really useful, actionable or well-written content. Value could be changing a website to allow Web crawlers to index great pages that exist but that they’ve had trouble getting to in the past.

Will Critchlow:

We see SEO as being about succeeding in a world where users turn to search engines for discovery, research, validation and comparison.

In a practical sense, SEO is the process of making a website accessible to search engines, ensuring that it has well-organized, high-quality content that matches the needs and demands of its target market and that it becomes well known and cited.

2. What Role Should an SEO Play in the Development of Content for a Website?

Bill Slawski:

An SEO’s role is that of a helper, an assistant, an aide, to make it possible for the owner of a site to have a voice to share their wares or publish their message or educate others. An SEO does this with the experiences and expertise they’ve developed from having worked with site owners of many different types, from having studied the search engines’ guidelines and practices, and from having researched sources such as patents and papers and blog posts from the search engines and from others who study the search engines.

SEOs can help with the creation of content in a number of ways. These can include working with copywriters, researching keywords and competitors, and helping to develop a marketing strategy. The focus is on a collaborative effort with site owners that enables and helps site owners to improve their visibility on the Web.

Gianluca Fiorelli:

An SEO should be considered one of the most useful resources when creating content for a site. Their knowledge and expertise on how people search and in discovering what users really are searching for about a topic means they can provide invaluable input to content strategy.

Ian Lurie:

SEOs should help guide topic strategy through audience analysis. Few other marketers have the same insight into what the public really wants. We can find search phrases (obviously), questions (via Google Suggest and similar tools) and help analyze responses to content. We should also help with online content usability and writing best practices.

Patrick Altoft:

Any content strategy should be developed primarily for users. Content needs to be useful, but a content strategy needs to take into consideration the number of people who might want to read that content — this is where search engines and keyword search volumes come in. Create content that people are searching for, and that’s probably going to be better than creating content that there is currently no appetite for.

Mackenzie Fogelson:

When developing content for a website, an SEO serves as a knowledgeable consultant who will:
  • Define business objectives They will thoroughly understand a company’s overall business objectives, not just their objectives with SEO or social media, content marketing or traditional marketing. They know the company’s overarching goals for what they’d like the business to achieve.
  • Define target audience(s) They will conduct the necessary research to understand and define a company’s target audience(s).
  • Determine pain points, the conversion funnel and messaging They will understand the target audience or personae’s pain points in order to effectively develop content that helps customers get what they need at the appropriate stage in the sales funnel. Then, they will develop the messaging to fit.
  • Develop strategy They will consider business objectives, the target audience, pain points and the conversion funnel. SEOs assist companies in formulating a content strategy that will generate the content that really meets the needs of their customers.
  • Determine target keywords It would certainly be a shame to generate content that is never found. SEOs determine the keywords that customers are actually using to find relevant information related to their queries.
  • Develop a navigation structure Once a company knows what type of content their customers need, an SEO can assist in planning a navigation structure that helps a user find what they need quickly and easily. Ultimately, the structure will also allow the search engines to easily crawl all content on the site so that it can also be found and returned in a relevant search.
  • Develop valuable content A great deal of work is done before an SEO can help a client develop valuable content. Once they’re there, it’s a matter of generating authentic, engaging content that benefits the customer. This requires a partnership between the SEO and the client to effectively convey the right message at the right time.
  • Integrate appropriate keywords into content SEOs assist customers in finding the content they need by integrating the appropriate keywords into the content. This allows the search engines to properly crawl and index that content to be returned in a search.
  • Facilitate outreach They assist companies in connecting with people who would find value in the content that has been generated. This can be done in person, online through social media or through email marketing. Certainly, when content is effectively optimized, it will organically contribute to outreach.
  • Measure and analyze Based on data that is collected, SEOs measure and analyze the content that has been generated to determine whether it’s satisfying the needs of the customer.
  • Provide strategic direction Based on everything that has been learned from generating content, where does the company go next? The data collected will inform the SEO so that they can help the company make educated decisions about their content moving forward.

Adam Melson:

SEO should help guide content development where it makes sense for a business and its customers. Content creation has become so much less about cramming keywords repetitively on a page and much more about having great content.

Yes, keyword research should still be conducted and keywords selected based on criteria like conversion rate (potentially taken from PPC data), search volume and whether a term is a fit for the business (e.g. deciding whether “cheap” or “discount” is appropriate for the image of the company). Developing content that fits a business and its customers is what will be valued, linked to, shared and typically placed higher in results by search engines.

Will Critchlow:

Not all SEOs have exactly the same skills, but if we broaden the scope to “SEO agency,” we believe good SEO agencies add value to content strategy work, topic selection, concept development, production and promotion. In the strategy stage, SEO skills are particularly useful in research and competitor analysis, in topic selection and in convincing business owners to create more public-facing non-self-promotional content.

3. Do You Have a Tip for Smashing Magazine Readers About Technical SEO?

Ian Lurie:

Build fast and responsive. Most importantly, build for beautiful content. Text doesn’t prevent great design — it’s part of it.

Gianluca Fiorelli:

Imagine a site built for an international audience and created with different language versions. You want that site to be visible in the correct language or country version in each respective country’s search engine (e.g. Spanish in Spain, German in Germany). If you are in this situation, you should research rel=“alternate” hreflang=“X-x” to highlight to Google which version is appropriate for which market.

Adam Melson:

Watch out for the ways you could kill your site accidentally. Improperly using robots.txt, improperly using the canonical, selecting the wrong type of redirect when relaunching your site to a new domain, and disavowing all your links are just a few.


For me [Will Critchlow], the “inconvenient truth” is that SEO is a poor description of what we do today. We neither “optimize” for search engines nor “optimize” search engines. Despite running an agency that is best known for our SEO work, I would like nothing more than for a better name to take its place.

Why do we use the phrase “SEO,” then? A large part of our work is education. We want smart and informed clients — but first, those clients need to find us. I think I speak for most of the people quoted above when I say that most of our clients have come to us asking for SEO without really knowing what tactics they are seeking. They really want to make more money from their online presence. Our solutions range from “traditional” technical SEO recommendations to content strategies to conversion rate improvements. Step one is to make sure we agree on the best way to achieve their goals.

This is a world away from the short-term views described in the original article. Is it SEO? I believe so. To the extent that SEO is a useful descriptor, I believe that it’s about finding the ways to succeed in an online world where commercial discovery is dominated by search.

Now, I agree 100% with Paul when he talks about how “manipulation of the system” is a poor idea. To use that as an argument against (good) SEO agencies, however, is a straw-man argument, in my opinion. We are focused on finding the same long-term investments and returns that Paul describes in the remainder of his post. We may disagree on some details, such as whether there is a role for an external advisor or resource, but fundamentally we agree on the majority of tactics and strategies that Paul describes.

Paul suggests, for example, hiring employees who are dedicated to creating content for your website. We have advised our clients to do exactly that (and have even helped them identify, hire, train and support those individuals).

There are two other areas in which I believe SEOs (and agencies, in particular) can add more value. Paul touched on the first in his update to the original post — and that is the importance of technical help when building large or complex websites, when creating multiple language versions, when migrating a website or when cleaning up the after-effects of poor implementation or architecture.

The second is in the promotion of great content. I see this role as closely resembling a modern form of digital PR. As with content strategy, I’m sure Paul would point to specialists who do nothing but this, but I feel that (especially for smaller companies) it is good to have integrated services provided by an agency that brings together individual specialists under one roof.

Finally, I’m really keen that no one sees this as a sales pitch for my company. We aren’t taking on new clients until late in Q1 next year, and I’m not here to win business. I really want you all to make better websites, to market yourselves better and to make search results better for all of us.

Go on: make my team’s job harder by making your websites and your clients’ websites better and more deserving of ranking. I’d love to see that.

My Tips

I thought I’d wrap up with a few tips to keep you busy:

  • Browse around your website with JavaScript and images turned off, and make sure not only that you can get around, but that you can access the content.
  • If you publish video, use a video site map to highlight where your video is embedded, so that you get rich snippets (including thumbnails) in search results.
  • Read up on Google’s authorship and publisher protocols, and tag your content with the experts who wrote it, so that you get both reputation benefits and head shots in the search results.
  • If you are a local business, claim your local listings, and make sure that references to your businesses are consistent around the Web.
  • If you need to remove an already-indexed URL from Google, you can’t use robots.txt. Adding a meta noindex (or removing the content with a 404 or 410 error) is normally best.
  • Check carefully any use of canonical elements. One of the most catastrophic SEO failures we see is when a website owner accidentally adds a canonical link pointing all pages to the home page.
  • If you use WordPress, check the text-only cache (visit https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:YOURDOMAIN&hl=en&tbo=d&strip=1, replacing YOURDOMAIN with the URL of your home page) to ensure that the theme’s creator hasn’t included spammy links in the footer.
  • Use a 301 permanent redirect every time you move or rename a page.

Contributors to this post include (in nofollow’ed links):

Smashing Editorial (al)