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What The Heck Is SEO? A Rebuttal

This article is a collective reply of the active members of the SEO community to the article “The Inconvenient Truth About SEO”1 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 gather2
(Image: rossap3)

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, 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 Link

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 framework4 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 Link

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,
    the following should be in the head section of the page:
    <link rel="next" href="">
  2. On,
    the following should be in the head section of the page:
    <link rel="prev" href="">
    <link rel="next" href="">
  3. On,
    the following should be in the head section of the page:
    <link rel="prev" href="">

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:


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

<link rel="canonical" href="" />

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 in some cases and 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 “Pagination5” 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 would be this:

<link rel="canonical" href="">

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 would be this:

<link rel="canonical" href="">

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 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_slawski6).

What SEOs Say: SEO Tips You Can Use Link

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? Link

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 reviews7.” 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? Link

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? Link

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.

Epilogue Link

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 post8 — 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 Link

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 Web9.
  • 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, 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):


Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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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 Critchlow co-founded Distilled in 2005 with Duncan Morris. Distilled provides natural SEO and paid search services from offices in London, New York and Seattle.

  1. 1

    Great Job!

    I like collaborative posts. Kudos!

    • 2

      Hi Bill Slawski,

      First of all Thanks a lot for this post.

      But can you explain in detail regarding code , means how to write SEO friendly code ?

  2. 3

    Great article Will.

    As Head of Search at a large multinational (and previously head of content/head of web operations at other companies), I do tend to see this problem from both sides of the fence. From the web designer/developer side, a resistance to “SEO” is caused by many factors: not enough buy-in during development planning, meaning retro-fitting requirements; bad advice from previous SEO staff; the fact that Google changes, and a lack of education around that harsh reality, which makes some change seem like a doubling of the workload; and the fact that it can be viewed as another constraint on creativity.

    But the simple fact of the matter is that a well-designed digital experience should consider all the points you raise above, and more. Beautiful design is about more than just looks, as many good SEOs know.

    One of the key skills an SEO needs in the modern framework is persuasion. Getting the buy-in, both from designer and developer colleagues, and from board level, is crucial.

    • 4

      If you are considering one to be a good developer then he/she should be well versed with the running trends of SEO, content creation and optimization and importantly link building process, as these are surely to be followed in the present scenario. Also the buy-in, as you pointed out, holds true from the start to the running time of a site.

  3. 5

    Bill & Will

    I don’t know whether I want to thank you or praise you. This is a great piece, it’s very informative and it’s very well written. It’s also accurate, detailed and very poignant !

    So many content writers, hungry for work and sometimes fearful or angriest by a lack of success on Google plus a shared loathing of spammy and blackhat SEO (which I think we a share) – seem almost out to public ally castigate people who call themsvez SEO and this a trolling of the Highest order that has been playing out on blogs with 0 readers to big content farms like Forbes and Mashable.

    If Google has developed some kind of ‘great content. Variable and has managed to find content that we all like, it will have done the impossible. For every 50 shades of gray, there are five thousand other books that will be read by completely different people.

    Thank you sirs and well done

  4. 6

    So keyword densities are a dead-end lead? Or have I misunderstood ‘snake oil’ maybe?

    When I do SEO on my site, a lot of it involves tweaking the body text, title and descriptions of pages and making sure they marry in a similar way to the top 10 pages for whatever given term – including keyword density as well as semantics etc. Same goes for img alts and titles, anchor texts, H1-6 etc etc.

    It seems to work, but now I’m scratching my head wondering if I’m doing something wrong.

    • 7

      Hi Paul,

      Google does calculate an information retrieval score as part of the bundle of signals that it uses to rank pages on the Web, and the words that you choose to use on your pages, and how you use them can make a substantial difference in how your pages may rank in search results.

      One type of ranking signal that search engines have used involves looking at the frequency of use of words on those pages (term frequency, or TF), and if those same words appear in other documents on the Web as well (inverse document frequency, or IDF). This might be seen as similar to keyword density, except that it takes into account how commonly those words are used in documents on the Web, rather than just in the page you’ve created.

      It’s quite possible that the idea of using keyword density while creating content was something spearheaded by people developing SEO tools. These tools would give you the ability to check the keyword density of content you are creating against top ranking pages for a specific query. The approach ignored some important things, such as: (1) It didn’t take into account the relevance for those terms that anchor text pointed to those top ranking pages brought them, and (2) It didn’t pay attention to how rare or common the words you’ve chosen to optimize for might be on the Web.

      I have dug through many patents from search companies to seek out mentions of keyword density and spent many hours searching and digging through Google Scholar as well. The few mentions I’ve seen of it discuss how it might be used primarily as a way of determining whether or not keyword stuffing might be going on in pages, rather than as a ranking signal to sort and rank pages.

      There are a handful of patents from Yahoo and Microsoft that do mention keyword density as a possible ranking signal, but one that the methods they’ve developed in their patents are far superior to.

      It is important to include the terms and phrases you are trying to optimize a page for upon that page, and to use it in prominent places on that page if possible, such as the title, main headings, and the main body of content. But, if the page you’re creating is about those terms and the sense in which those words are used on your page, you should be using those terms naturally anyway. A simple mathematical formula like keyword density will not determine how well or poorly your pages might rank in search results.

      • 8

        I am glad you mentioned Information Retrieval, it’s often left out of discussions involving SEO though it is extremely important to search engines. However your idea of IDF is not correct.
        IDF is intended to balance weights attributed to frequency so that longer documents that may be less relevant don’t out rank shorter documents that are actually more relevant. Without IDF, longer documents regardless of their actual relevancy would always rank higher than shorter ones. So, it’s not just looking at other documents, regular frequency counts already do that. After all what good is a frequency count on a single document when you are ranking potential relevancy to a query? Information retrieval is about comparisons between a query and a set of documents ( in this case web pages).

        • 9

          IDF is intended to look at the occurrence of terms within documents in a corpus rather than within a single document. Roughly, a word that appears less frequently within that corpus is considered more important than one that occurs more frequently.

          Anyone interested in learning more is more than welcome to do some research on term frequency and inverse document frequency.


        • 10

          TF/IDF has been at the heart of information retrieval since the 1960’s and is part of the “locked in” nature of how search engines consume the text that they then store, retrieve and present as relevant results to user queries. It is the presentation element, not the retrieval element, that has been the focus of much sophisticated development over the last 10 years, starting with the revolutionary and inherently flawed PageRank algorithm. As it is no longer viable for SEO to influence the post retrieval output of search engines, I do believe that it has a strong role in influencing search engine input; what they crawl and store.

      • 11

        So we are going to correct all the idiots who think they know SEO..

        ok.. will start writing letters.. Thanks for the clear concise response.. I think i stopped following smashing mag because of that article… maybe i acted too quickly..


  5. 12

    Thank you to everyone involved with this. Thanks to SM for the opportunity, Bill for being so great to work with, all the contributors for their time and efforts and Paul for taking the time with Bill to work through where we all agree and where we have differences of opinion.

    Enjoy the holidays everyone.

    • 13

      I’d like to share my thanks as well. Thank you, Will for being so flexible with your time and for being so easy to work with as well. Thanks to all of the contributors who acted so quickly to make it possible for this article to go online before the Holidays, and had such great thoughts to share. And thanks to Paul Boag, who reached out for a chance to talk and discuss his thoughts and opinions with me and others.

    • 14

      SEO is an ever expanding domain, our skills in this industry must range from technical APIs to the latest social spaces and beyond into quirks from devices and attribution modelling. Its truly the best field to work in.
      Merry Christmas

    • 15

      So falsely American it’s annoying!

  6. 16

    Big kudos to Smashing Magazine for publishing this – it shows they’re genuinely interested in open and honest exchange of views. Refreshing and encouraging, and demonstrates that Smashing Mag is a truly great online resource. I know they were bombarded with requests for rebuttals, and I think they picked the right two people to provide that rebuttal.

    Second, Bill and Will have compiled a great article about the value of SEO and its place in the wider digital mix. A must-read for everyone involved in making websites – and making them successful.

    Third, I think Paul Boag probably got a bit of a hard deal over his original article. Like Will says above, Paul made some good points in his article about taking ownership of a website’s success, but unfortunately he used the wrong straw man argument to help get that point across. That does not make his core message any less valid.

    SEO is not going to go away. Since its very inception SEO has evolved with search engines, user behaviour, and new platforms to keep delivering maximum value, and unfortunately (like many other professions) it suffers from scammers, deceivers, and snake-oil salesmen. But that doesn’t make SEO any less valuable, just as finance and law and medicine and any other discipline suffering from its share of cowboys, quacks, and con-men doesn’t make them any less valuable.

    As long as people use search engines to find things online, SEO needs to be a vital aspect of any digital project.

    • 17

      Hey Barry,

      Yes, Paul made some good comments and valid observations. However, I can’t help thinking about how is blog post (and the many others in this vein) sound to me. Its this strange phenomonen where people have very limited knowledge/experience/understanding (for very obvious and real reasons) somehow feel encouraged/vindicated/forced to take it upon themselves to tell others how to conduct business.

      Its not like even the worst, or less experienced SEO’s are selling Ponzi schemes to little old ladies. SEO is a high level TLA. I’m sure we’d share many definitions but I’m sure how you work and how I work could also be very different.

      Businesses that rehire an SEO consultant/engineers/agency/whatever time and time again because of results are not mad.

      There’s something wrong with this type of “internet police trolling” that people feel that they have to call SEO dead/over/wrong and implore people to do something else.

      In the same vein, some posts are preposterous. A “study” published by a social media company who asked us to co-operate with, based ostensibly on the findings of an industry where we work produced numbers that exalted Social Media for generating 70% of the new business generated whilst relegating SEO to “an important consideration.” Given that the major contributor is supposed to be a company we work closely with yet we were never asked for any stats actually has the inverse of the stats produced makes you wonder: Is Social Media so hard up that its resorting to made up facts to justify itself speaks volumes about the company that is trying to flog its services.

  7. 18

    How very SEO to crowdsource an excellent riposte. I think people who are doing ‘SEO’ and who don’t identify with what is said here need to go away and think hard about the services they are offering.

    Good work, folks.

  8. 20

    Thank you.

    This article was like sinking into a warm bath after a long-haul flight.

    I shied away from “SEO” for years, caught between the two mindsets of it being “too complex to understand” and simultaneously “all smoke and mirrors”. Which it sort of is…and simultaneously isn’t.

    In essence, we should:

    1. Help Google help your target market find your site.

    2. Give visitors a great experience when they arrive.


    3. Be wonderful if/when they make contact with you.

    We can help with 1 and 2 – I agree content and coding is key.

    Using smart tricks to try to deceive google or humans is a waste of your time and your customer’s resources.

    Step 3 is down to the business itself…

    It takes a LOT of effort to get an organic searcher to hit SEND on your contact form. Don’t blow it, by being too lazy to respond intelligently and in good time.

  9. 21

    Fantastic post! I almost stood up and clapped at the end.

    • 22

      heh heh heh

      I think I might have cried a little. I suddenly understand Prince (artist formerly AKA’d as)

  10. 23

    Also – no G+ sharing button? :P

  11. 24

    Ok, this will sound controversial but all the techniques mentioned above are just common sense. I still agree with Paul’s view from last week that SEO is unneccessary if you have a clever developer and great content.

    You’ve had a big article to try and persuade me otherwise but all I’ve read is some advice on prev/next and canonical links meta tags. These are are just this year’s equivalent to keyword meta tags.

    The rest of the article is just meaningless rhetorical business-speak, like: “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.” Not very convincing.

    I know I’ll be downvoted by those working in SEO desperate to cling on to its assumed relevance in today’s web industry but my advice to clients is to forget about any approaches by SEO salespeople and consider spending the money on content, via copywriters or PR agencies for example. All they need SEO-wise is half a page of instructions about simple methods such as page title lengths, url structures, image alt tags etc. It seems to get them to the top of Google.

    • 25

      Hi John,

      Myopic maybe, but not controversial.

      I’ve seen many great developers not do things like use Google’s parameter handling to ignore session IDs so that sites with 1,500 pages end up with 1,200,000 pages crawled and indexed by Google, and PageRank for those pages distributed among the 1.2 million pages instead of the 1,500.

      I’ve also seen great developers try to just use canonical link elements to try to resolve multiple permutations of URL sorting and filtering in faceted search. That’s not how to do it. :(

      I could go on all day, but I’d rather work with people to help make good sites even better.

      Have a great holiday.

    • 26

      Will Critchlow

      December 21, 2012 4:04 pm


      You are right that much of technical SEO is nothing more than “do your web development right in the first place”. Unfortunately that common sense is nowhere near as common as we might wish.

      The really hard parts of technical SEO come in diagnosing where things have gone wrong, in mitigating risk during big platform changes and in trying to determine whether the cost of changing something is going to bring enough benefit to be worthwhile.

      I would be close to agreeing with “SEO is unneccessary if you have a clever developer and great content” if you also included some element of “getting famous”. In my experience, you need a way to light a fire – whether that be through PR, outreach, community building etc.

      At that point we are just arguing semantics – I would *define* SEO as being about those things (great developer, great content, great promotion – for the right definition of “great”) – so we are in raucous agreement.

      • 27

        I think SEO as discussed in your article and as you and Bill have expanded on in the comments has much in common with HCI. What I mean is that many people look at the results of HCI research and say those findings seem like common sense. And to apply the findings is common sense. But without the research we wouldn’t know which application methods are supported by evidence and which just seem correct. I think any smart, caring developer can apply HCI methods ( or UX, or what have you) but they aren’t the ones doing the research to find the methods that work. Much in the same way that people who practice SEO find the methods that others could apply to their development.

      • 28

        wow, thanks critchlow. It makes all sense to me very well with the term SEO where it can be used with or not. . . you are awesome !

    • 29


      It is common sense, the same way basic design practices and best web page development practices are common sense.


    • 30


      These techniques are common sense for who? So many business owners today provide incredible products and services and don’t know the first thing about the internet and web marketing. “What’s a Google?”. Many of them had a site built in the mid/late 2000’s and have been riding on it since.

      Good full-service SEO companies completely manage their client’s web presence. It essentially lets them forget about their website so they can focus on their product; because these techniques are not common sense.

      Good SEO companies invest in their own copywriters that get to know the client’s business inside and out; because not every business owner has the time to write content.

      Don’t bash the article because you already know the information. There are plenty of people that know these techniques and there are even more that don’t.

      Forget the “like so 2005” stigma attached to the SEO industry. We’re on the same team arguing points that we agree on.

      Great content and user experience is the goal.

    • 31

      A clever developer who is coding with SEO best practices in mind (crawlability, no duplicate content, correct meta markup, etc), and great, compelling, sharable content that is written in the language of the user about topics relevant to accomplishing business goals (keyword research, community building, TOFU marketing, etc) *IS* the modern practice of SEO. I think that’s the point of this article. It seems like what you are saying, then, is that if you are already doing SEO, you don’t need to hire an SEO. I absolutely agree, but the point is self-evident. Are these things “common sense”? No more than information architecture, usability, color theory, font selection, or any other number of topics that comprise the Smashing Magazine corpus.

      Should a company hire an in-house SEO or agency? That depends on what knowledge and resources the company already has available. Should a company hire a web developer if the owner’s teenage nephew has tinkered around a little with HTML and CSS?

    • 32

      I too read this and couldn’t help but smile that the post basically equates SEO to rel/prev – functionality that’s only been around a year or so, and some fairly fluffy rhetoric. Quite disappointing.

    • 33

      “It seems to get them to the top of Google.”
      Sure, for local businesses and/or in non competitive markets and where the competition are mom and pops who built their own site with Wix. What about in a highly competitive market? What about when your main competitor has more money to spend on “content, via copywriters or PR agencies”, and has been doing it 3-5 years longer? Do you just accept that you can’t win? Maybe there’s more to it…

  12. 34

    Umm….what a great way to celebrate the end-of-the-world day!

    I’m chuffed at the original piece by Paul Boag over at SmashingMag…and yes, like I’m sure tons of other SEO practitioners, terms like “keyword density” and “gateway pages” leapt out and me and I too turned off any hope of learning something by his post.

    And then to read Bill & Will (say, not a bad title for a new SEO channel eh?) rebuttal piece….ably supported by other SEO types I know and love to read – was a great way to really learn something here too.

    Appears to me, that once again, SEO is so misunderstood that it’s no wonder that SMB owners pay for programs that do not produce conversions via new web traffic….sigh….


  13. 35

    Gabriella Sannino

    December 21, 2012 3:26 pm

    Oops on my last comment (which seems to have disappeared) my bad I just noticed Mackenzie was included… okay all is well in the world again :)

  14. 36

    Regrettably SEO as it is sold to small companies today _is_ often about keyword density, gateway pages, paying for guest blog posts and many other such dubious, redundant or discredited tactics. You may not want it to be, and you may not wish to be associated with it, but it is and sadly you cannot wish it away just by saying it’s not SEO.

    • 37

      Will Critchlow

      December 21, 2012 4:07 pm

      We would be the first to admit that there is a lot of mis-sold, risky, poorly-conceived and poorly executed stuff done in the name of SEO – especially for small businesses.

      There are also incompetent and fraudulent practitioners of other professions as well – it doesn’t mean that there is no place for the good kind.

      It’s why we spend so much time on research and education – we are doing our best…

    • 38

      But that’s almost every web industry (and beyond the web really). From designers, to developers, to SEOs, to copywriters etc… it seems that the few do things right, push the boundaries and write these amazing articles and the majority take the easy road and fill our beloved web with crap.

      I’ve worked at/with and seen enough agencies to know how many do things so horribly wrong.

    • 39

      No need to wish it away, it goes away the moment we stop doing it.

    • 40

      yes, i have been seeing such things too, really thinking sometime, is this SEO and trying to do the things which isn’t fit under best SEO practices leader recommend. .

  15. 41

    Now this is content. Thanks guys for sharing so much great info. I have really enjoyed reading Paul’s article (and the 200+ comments) as well as this thoughtful rebuttal. There is a ton of solid best practice info to be gleaned here.

  16. 42

    This is a very helpful and insightful article, but I must say that my experience with so-called SEO experts has been far less than stellar. Many do border in the realm of snake oil, and some who are well recognized have completely and utterly failed to yield results.

    If there is a negative reaction to the term SEO, perhaps instead of looking at Mr. Boag as a target, you might look in your own ranks to try to assess what’s going wrong? We have to do this constantly in UX, where everyone and anyone who wants to build a website suddenly labels themselves a UX guru.

    A lot of the points Mr. Boag made with reference to content development and generation are important and very salient. I applaud you for outlining what SEO is and how it can help, but there is a reason why it is often cast in a less-than-flattering light.

    • 43

      Hi Michael,

      Unfortunately, what you say about bad actors in UX and in SEO has a lot of truth to it. There are bad people out there who take advantage of a gap in client knowledge and sell half-baked “guru secrets” and “expertise” where they have none to sell.

      Hopefully, what Bill and Will’s article demonstrates is exactly the opposite of that. There are lots of us who call ourselves SEOs very proudly, precisely because we’ve worked hard to gain demonstrable expertise, have been privileged to work with lots of companies over the years (small and large), and have been able to help them measurably improve the effectiveness of their web marketing channel.

      Good guys exist, as well as bad guys. I don’t take Bill and Will’s effort to impart some knowledge about what SEO is as “targeting” Mr. Boag, at all.

      Rather, they’re doing what they can to educate a broader audience, and in doing so, lessen the likelihood that bad actors can find an uninformed audience to sell to.

      What more could they do?

    • 44

      Anthony Pensabene

      December 21, 2012 7:17 pm

      my experience with SEO experts has been far less than stellar. many do border in the realm of snake oil, and some who are well recognized have completely and utterly failed to produce results .

      – very vague statement-are we having a valuable conversation?

      what’s going wrong? We have to do this constantly in UX..

      – what’s wrong..with what?..people trying to make money in a capitalist society? there are people full of shit in every vertical imaginable, those scrambling to make money first and provide something valuable second. sure, they are in seo, in medicine, in auto mechanics, the dude at Starbucks, your accountant, and so on..

      there are shitty seo services.. there are great ones too. SEO, and related facets of digital marketing, DOES BENEFIT BUSINESS. ( if you’re a business owner reading this, please at least get that out of all this.) that’s an absolute. it’s putting more thought/application toward communicating with a given is that bad?

      I applaud you for outlining what SEO is and how it can help, but there is a reason why it is often cast in a less-than-flattering light.

      -yeah, because there’s stark misunderstanding of what it is by the larger public. vague, unfounded, and negative statements about an entire school of marketing, and those who practice it, place us back to the starting point, which Bill and Will provided good thoughts and time toward addressing.

  17. 45

    Oh dear.

  18. 47

    Missing one tiny point.. #RCS

    • 48

      Thanks for adding that Shaun. All the greatest plans for #RCS are useless unless you first have a real company site, no large UX issues, very little indexing issues, contains a product/service/information that is worthwhile & can avoid constant site downtime.

      The list could go on, but a lot of people mistake #RCS for #crazyawesomelinkbaitrevenuegenerator and forego fixing basic issues that would deter potential customers as well as search engines from deeming their site trustworthy. This can lead to a bad experience for anyone thinking (or told by an SEO) that one quick RCS idea is THE answer to turning their site around.

      • 49

        Adam… RCS does not exclude what you listed, which are all things previewed in what we define as On Page SEO. SEO is still and still will be covering that side of job, and when it is done in cooperation and with mutual exchange of ideas with the devs and web designer, that will be the base of a great site, which, thank to RCS too, will be able to gain the visibility it deserves.
        To consider RCS as a synonym of linkbait or viral marketing is very simplistic. The real meaning of RCS is creating visibility opportunities thanks to the combo SEO/Content Marketing/Social Media. RCS is not just putting a nice zombies’ infographic in every imaginable context, but creating Content Marketing actions inspired by a deep data knowledge of what the (potential) users of a site/company really look for in a specific niche, and promoted first thanks to wise use of Social Media.

        • 50

          Gianluca – not sure where we differ here. People mistake rcs with just doing linkbait and that they don’t need to have a solid working site.

          Don’t try run before you can crawl. If your site has arch issues or other issues mentioned above, that should be the focus, making it a real company site.

  19. 51

    It is wonderful to read this rebuttal just by the end of the year. Nothing encourages more than reading this post for the next SEO year! Really looking forward to seo 2013!

  20. 52

    Andreas Voniatis

    December 21, 2012 6:42 pm

    I’m not really convinced the rebuttal (though lengthy it is) really covered how awesome SEO is in todays environment and the unique value SEOs can offer. I liked what Paul Boag wrote and think most (if not all) of what was written ring true as there are many domains that don’t require an SEO.

    @Gianluca Fiorelli – I don’t think Search Experience Optimisation is enough, optimisation by it’s very nature is fragile given the dynamic nature of a system of algorithms that are constantly tweaked with more than one algorithm being run at any time. We should be looking at areas of risk not optimising towards a changing unknown targets i.e. making areas of search experience more robust.

    I have published my thoughts here in my own attempt to summarise the core things SEOs actually do (the question asked by Smashing Magazine editor to Patrick in an email):

    In any case, if web designers, developers, PR Comms people do their jobs to the better that integrates the needs of users and making the web content more searchable, then readers and the editor need an answer as to what unique value SEOs can offer over an above the other project team members. Hopefully I did that in my post.

    • 53

      I agree with this. Honestly, all the quotes from experts sound to me like “I don’t know what SEO is or why it’s important, but I make a lot of money on it so I’m going to toss out some buzzwords and call it a day.”. I do really appreciate the practical tips at the end though. It’s good stuff, the first 95% of the article doesn’t do anything to rebutt the original article… maybe part 2 or 3 will?


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