An Open Letter To Derek Powazek On The Value Of SEO

Derek Powazek launched an attack on SEO yesterday that really said nothing that others haven’t ranted about before. I’ve responded to many of these attacks over the years in hopes of educating people about mistaken assumptions. I’ve largely given up. But I figured this time I’d give it another go with some personal illustrations I’ve encountered recently.

In particular, rather than do an article to counterbalance Derek’s post, I started to write him a private email. But as I composed that, I felt it might better illustrate to everyone why SEO is indeed a legitimate form of marketing and those who provide the service are not all “scammers” who are out to “con” you.

So Derek, I saw your rant, and it was disappointing. Your post was based on “14 years of hits and misses.” Well, my response come from my own 14 years of covering search engines. Of having answered feedback from hundreds of people. Of having talked with hundreds of people personally. Of understanding that the “you just build it; you just put it out there” approach to search engines, sadly, doesn’t always cut it.

Let me be clear. I totally agree with your core advice. Build a site for visitors. Have great content. These are the keys to success, not just with SEO but with anything you want to do. In fact, we just had an article on our site here reinforcing this.

Still, sometimes people have problems. And the stuff that you think isn’t rocket science — that anyone knows — is indeed a mystery to others. They want help, and sometimes they can’t find that web developer who also understands SEO issues. In the same way, you sometimes don’t find web developers who are also designers. Or designers who understand conversion issues. Or conversion experts who understand web development.

Let me tell you some stories.

A Mother Who Sells Homes

Two weeks ago, our local elementary school had a mixer for parents. I was talking with one woman who asked what I did for work. “I write about search engines,” I told her. That led her to asking if I know about how people get found on Google. Yep. So she started asking about her local real estate site, and how she might market it, things that she might do.

That’s a loaded question. See, for you, she just needs to believe in the real estate she’s selling, then tell her friends with personal notes, get out on Twitter, find places where her community congregates and “be real.”

But to really be real, let’s remember that she’s selling real estate in one of the most competitive areas of the country, Newport Beach, California. Her friends aren’t all going to buy homes she’s listing. Her “community” congregates on Google and does things like type in “newport beach homes for sale.”

To succeed in attracting that audience, she should have a great site and great content — agreed. But does she have individual listings? Then she probably needs to kick them out into Google Base, in order to fully be listed in Google. Does your mythical web developer deal with Google Base much? And where’s her web site now? Is she running it off Blogger? Using her own domain? These have impacts on how both the search engines may see her as well as how she’s perceived.

Does she have a blog in addition to a main site? That has an impact. Has she considered some unusual, creative ways to create content around real estate in her area, perhaps some catchy link bait, which may pull in the links she needs to rank better (which, by the way, is a recommended Google practice).

Does she have a local office? If so, has she claimed her listing in Google Local? If so, has she updated her title to reflect that perhaps she has “newport beach homes for sale?”

This is all SEO. It’s not your father’s (or mother’s) SEO that you rant about, the keyword stuffing, the link drops (none of which is best practices SEO anyway). But make no mistake, it’s SEO.

SEO & Baseball Practice

Later that same week, I took my son to baseball practice. I also took my computer, so that I could finish up work on an article and have the weekend clear when he was done.

Another father came over to me, asking what I do. “I write about search engines….” Which as before, led to the questions about how his company might show up on Google. Did I know much about that?

Sure. And since I had my mobile broadband card with me, I fired up his web site. Very sad. Same page title on every page. No keyword research employed, to think how people might be seeking out the industrial shipping cases they sell. Long, dynamic URLs that might pose indexing issues.

Where do you start with someone like this? In your world, his company should just “be real.” He sells industrial shipping cases. How real do you want to be about that?

His “community” are the people who realize they need a case like he sells and go online to places like Google and start searching for the products. And his pages are NEVER going to show up, because there’s nothing unique about his site and he had basic SEO errors that haven’t been dealt with.

If all he did was change things so that his page titles were different, he’d pull traffic. I know, I know — that’s so obvious. But it is NOT to him. His job isn’t to do web development. He’s not you or I with 14 years of having learned all this stuff along the way. He actually deals with things like ordering the products, overseeing workers and doing an array of offline marketing.

Meanwhile, his web developer clearly did NOT have any SEO thoughts in mind when building the site. That’s all too common. If I wanted to be snarky, I could do an entire post on why web developers are a waste of time and you should just employ SEOs who can also build web sites. But the reality is that a good SEO (and there are some) working to help direct the web developer could solve the site’s problems quickly. It’s called teamwork, and it’s awesome when it happens.

Mommy Bloggers & SEO

Over the weekend, I had a group of mommy bloggers over at my house. Not because I’m a mommy blogger but because my wife is a mommy blogger. The group was here because they’re all involved in a new project for mommy bloggers in Orange County.

My participation was to show up at the end of the meeting, not to say anything but just because I was coming home. I caught some of the closing conversation, and a question about Google came up. How was the search engine going to deal with their content, if these mommy bloggers put the same article on a publishers site as well as their own sites.

Answer? I don’t know. Google might decide to favor the publisher’s site not because it’s “more real” than the mommy bloggers but because it has built up more authority collectively over time. Certainly the mommy bloggers themselves are all “real” in what they write, how they put themselves out there to their communities and so on. Much depends on what they’re most concerned about.

If they had a key post that they absolutely wanted to be the primary source for, guess what? They’d better have some SEO savvy. They might need to tell the publisher to prevent the copy of their posts they provide from being spidered on the publisher’s site. Or if they allow it, then they might want to make use of the forthcoming canonical tag 2.0.

That’s not being “real.” That’s SEO. And that’s SEO that a good SEO will know — and many non-SEOs will not.

I’m glad, honestly glad, that you’re savvy enough to understand how good SEO can be incorporated into web development. I wish more web developers could do the same. But my experience has been that much good SEO gets overlooked. There are bad SEOs out there, who give the entire industry a bad name — just as there are bad bloggers, bad designers, bad cops, you name it. There are also excellent SEOs who work inside of companies as well as through agencies for hire. Don’t tarnish an entire industry that actually helps many, many people in ways I’m sure you would agree with.

For those who just can’t get enough of this subject, some of my past writings on the topic. They cover plenty of additional examples, plus the fact that Google itself recommends SEO:

See also the follow-up to this post, SEO FAQ That’s Not From The Land Of Unicorns.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: General | SEM Industry: Community | SEM Industry: General | SEO: General | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Gil Reich

    Lisa Barone’s post today started with a link to Darren Rowse’s article attacking the myth that great content markets itself. It’s really the same issue. People somehow need to believe that great products sell themselves, and that marketers, SEOs, etc. are thieves and charlatans. In other generations it was farmers going on angry tirades against bankers and traders. Some people are so obsessed with themselves that they will never accept or understand that other people in the chain legitimately add value. But Danny — the Angels swept the Sox and you have World Series tickets — don’t let morons like this get to you. Just be glad we’re living in an age where he’s not coming after you with a pitchfork.

  • nnnick

    Wow, that gets me fired up. I just sent you this link on Twitter, Danny, but I thought I’d post here. The first commenter to his “SEO FAQ” ( says “I think I will continue to produce quality posts (I hope) and ignore all this SEO stuff.” While I don’t think that was Derek’s advice at all, his rant is so misleading that I can see how his readers would interpret that…further ironic because that first commenters home page,, isn’t cached, despite meta code telling the robots to index and follow.

    To me, Mr Powazek comes across as a web developer with an ego bigger than the web itself, and seems to be making the argument that all companies should spend top dollar on SEO-saavy web developers like himself (just don’t call it SEO-saavy), as opposed to ever consulting with a firm that specializes in SEO or offers SEO without designing the site for you first. It’s a very self-serving argument.

  • Jonahstein


    Thanks for (once again) rising to the challenge of defending out industry from pople who attack with broad strokes and limited transparency. I was going to jump in the thread last night and then passed. I think the interview with Brent Payne goes a long way towards putting some real facts around why doing SEO is essential even if you have great content.

    Most of us can’t or won’t talk about particular SEO projects, but this is a really concrete example that shows Derrick is full of.. himself.

  • Webnauts

    Danny, I read that rediculous and misleading blog post of Derek before I arrived here. It is obvious that this guy just posts a bunch of BS to draw attention. That said, it looks like he really has a very serious problem. But definitely not with SEO. :)

    I honestly appreciate your approach, defending the professionals of our industry.

    Thanks and thumb up Danny!

  • http://b b

    Sorry Danny, but the situations you describe are still just good web development. Any decent web developer will know to do those things. Just because some developers don’t doesn’t mean SEO is a legitimate industry.

  • GopiKrishna

    Hi Danny Sullivan, i am total agree with you, SEO is not just getting listed at top of search engines, it’s a way to create your website user friendly manner, getting some traffic so users can know about you, it’s not an tactic it’s a open standards which are build to make web more meaning full….

  • purposeinc

    I agree. Something is only easy once you know how to do it. It is almost daily that I end up explaining to some business owner the basics of getting started with SEO. Just cause it is easy to you, does not mean it is not valuable. :)

  • tcbee

    Oh, it’s just the worst semantical mis-communication ever. The irony is that as an SEO, Derek’s post makes complete sense to me. I agree 100%, except for one tiny thing:


    He should have have said “SPAM” is not a legitimate form of marketing. “SPAM” is poisoning the web.

    I fight, fight, FIGHT to educate against spam on the web. It pisses me off and I take it reeeal personally that tacky tactics like that rub off on my mission to help people leverage exceptional online content even more by making it search-friendly.

    Email marketing has similar backlash: we all detest spam emails, but no one can deny that a ingeniously crafted, opt-in email campaign does nothing but improve customer loyalty.

    SEO can be used for good or evil. Derek’s ranting against the evil while completely missing the value that legitimate SEO brings.

    (His “under the hood” paragraph is also a messy misinformed miasma of reverse-engineering, but I digress…)

  • Arthur Coleman

    Danny, et al: my comments from yesterday were too long to put here. See

    Sorry if a bit rambling or dense – time is so tight that editing cycles get nixed.

  • Rolex24

    I don’t know. I think I agree with Derek, but I see your points. There are people out there that really don’t know thing one about a website or SEO. But does that mean we should charge them a lot of money to do something that is fairly common sense? Sure that’s fine. And I’m sure there are many people out there who would be glad to do it.

    Where I think it becomes unethical is when SEO experts make it seem like what they do is extremely complicated and could not be done without their help. I’m a writer, and I started seeing SEO on everyone’s resume’s, so I thought, I better learn what this is all about. I bought a highly recommended book and I was shocked in the first 15 minutes I had it how common sense it was (and how much I already knew). I guess my point is….for someone who has a clue about the web SEO should be friendly advice. You can find most everything you need to know here

    For someone who has no clue, and isn’t willing to learn they may be a better candidate for SEO services. But if they aren’t the type to really be clued in as to what they are doing online then it may be a wasted effort. Because as Derek said “You’ll build a reputation for doing good work, meaning what you say, and building trust.
    It’ll take time. A lot of time. But it works. And it’s the only thing that does.” If they aren’t willing to put the work in then they’ll never get very far.

  • Gil Reich

    Rolex, the same can be said (and often is said) about almost anything. You were “shocked in the first 15 minutes I had it how common sense it was (and how much I already knew).” OK, that would be true if you picked up a book in economics, nutrition, marketing, PR, writing, etc. I’m not an SEO. I work at a website. I have no axe to grind and no vested interest. But I will tell you that in my experience, as with most other things, common sense gets you pretty far but an expert can get you a lot further.

  • carps

    A brilliant defense! I think those who argue that ‘good’ web developers will just code things for SEO naturally in this comment thread are kind of missing the point.

    Remember Adam Smith’s description of the amount of labour that goes into making matches… the old ‘division of labour’ thing. A match requires someone to chop down the tree, someone to mine the sulphur for the tip, someone to create the chemicals, someone to create the machinery to shape the match and so on… It would be foolish to think that one person can make the perfect match without all this outside expertise.

    Websites are no different. Someone who’s great with visual concepts might not understand how a website is even put together. And the person putting the website together might not know how Google works. And then the owner of the site might blunder about spamming the internet because – hey! – they’ve got a business to run and don’t have any frame of reference for buying links or adding content to their site properly.

    So SEO is just the study of these things and the application of them to a website – not some kind of meta-criticism of web design or business.

  • tgiassa

    Danny, Thank you for writing this brilliant overview of a “hairy” problem many of us “out there” face!
    I am not a mommy but I sell homes, and, in a resort market like mine, having an effective website that is found when people go to Google and type in “Crested Butte real estate” or “Homes in Crested Butte” is uber-critical!
    I had initially hired an SEO guy that may fit into the not-so-good category. He never did the basics, ie: title, keywords, etc. … in fact, I’m not sure what he did for the $450/mo I gave him. So, I let him go and now am trying to educate myself on the subject. I am re-writing my pages and while having great content (I think), I am using some of the tools and tips I have picked up by spending hours doing research. It’s really hard to find the time to learn and implement but feel it is my best option at this point – besides I know the content best.
    My husband sent me your article and now that I found you I will be including your articles in my research — so keep the good stuff coming!
    Make it a great day! Trish Giassa

  • zuko105

    linkbait = achieved

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