Is Choosing Search Engines Over Users A Fatal Flaw In SEO?

I recently read an article by Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz, entitled “Terrible SEO Advice: Focus on Users, Not Engines” that could potentially set SEO back at least at decade, in my opinion.

In the article, he apologized to his audience of budding SEOs for having ever told them to do what’s right for their users. In fact, he called putting your users first, “utterly false and tragically misleading.”

If you listen to this advice, your SEO will be fatally flawed from the get-go.

Here’s why I feel that the advice, thoughts and recommendations in that article could have set SEO back many years. It can all be summed up in a simple piece of SEO logic that goes like this:

  • The goal of SEO is to bring targeted search engine visitors to your website and ideally convert them to take some action.
  • The goal of the searcher is have their problems solved, needs filled, or questions answered.
  • The goal of the search engine is to show the best, most relevant website to their users — the searchers.


Which leads us to the bottom line:

  • The sites/pages that should win in the search engines are those that best solve the searcher’s (user’s) problem, fill their needs or provide them with the information they are seeking.

Granted, not all search engines are created equal, nor are they technically perfect or even close to being able to judge the best, most relevant websites–but that is their ultimate goal. Somewhere down the road, they will be able to do that despite the best efforts of search engine spammers. Google has come a long way in this regard which is why they are leaps and bounds ahead of their competitors.

Ignore the needs of the searchers at your own peril

If you ignore the needs of the searcher, you are (in reality) also ignoring the needs of the search engines. Do this at your own peril and only if you enjoy chasing your tail, as well as the latest algorithm of the day.

In fact, in Rand’s update to the article he said:

“My argument in this post centers specifically around the practice of search engine optimization and the idea that tactics which are engine-focused (like XML sitemaps, anchor text, link architecture, webmaster tools usage, etc.) can be ignored because they’re not “for the user.”

This is confusing at best!

Certainly descriptive anchor text is helpful to users, isn’t it? Which link is better for a user: the one that says, “click here” or the one that says “click here for more info on green widgets”?

The same can be said for link architecture. If you bury a specific page by making a user click 5 levels deep to find it, surely it can’t be a very important page of the website, right?

On the other hand, XML sitemaps and the use of Webmaster tools or nofollowing internal links for PR sculpting are indeed things that one would do just for a search engine, and offer no value to a human visitor. But guess what? They aren’t, in my opinion, any value to SEO either (other than as diagnostic tools). Imagine that!

Forget what search engines tell you to focus on

Rather than focusing on things that search engineers try to claim are important (so they can gain more of your website’s data) you should be ensuring that your websites keep on answering searcher questions and filling user needs so that the search engines have no choice but to show them to their users.

You should also make sure your websites convert those highly targeted visitors into customers; not by concerning yourself with how many times any particular keyword phrase is placed on the page regardless of whether it makes sense, but by remembering that real people will be reading your content.

You should be spending your time making sure that your website provides those searchers with exactly what they’re looking for.

In other words, make sure your website fits the searcher’s original search query (those pesky keyword phrases you researched) to a tee. After all, you’re not doing keyword research for search engines as Rand suggests, but because you need to get into the mind of your target audience.

As for link building, anyone who was in SEO before Google came around, spent plenty of time building links to their sites. Not for search engines, mind you, but because it’s how you market a website. Fancy that. It’s still the reason why you should be doing it today.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is a pioneer in SEO, beginning in the field in the early 1990s and founding High Rankings in 1995. If you enjoy Jill's articles at Search Engine Land, be sure to subscribe to her High Rankings Advisor Search Marketing Newsletter for SEO articles, SEM advice and discounts on industry events and products.

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  • Webmaster T

    Jill, nice post I agree totally especially since the Social Media factors are human and the lines between SEO and Social are being blurred. Those who don’t see that and don’t go back to the basics of discovering content needs of users coming from Social network sites and making that info visible in search engines will not do the job of SEO2.0 which is bridging Social to Search gap. Keyword obsession will be a thing of the past and keywords are what drives the strategy of the “man in the yellow shoes”.

  • Ash Nallawalla

    Hi Jill, Totally agree with you. Rand’s post had me baffled – it was like reading a “The Earth is really flat, after all.” article from an authority. Quality content for a human will lead to traffic, which will be noticed by search engines. By all means, tweak the website for best SEO practices, but that is secondary.

    However, I don’t think he meant to imply that the user should be ignored. In a comment he wrote, “I’m getting really worried that because of how I phrased the title and the intro to this post, the message I was trying to communicate (that you can’t only focus on user-targeted SEO tactics if you want to succeed) has been lost… A follow up post is likely in order.”

  • metapilot

    Plain and simple: Those who have designed websites believing they can disregard SEO so long as they focus on what’s best for the user have made up a substantial part of my client base over the years.

    Regardless of how much information is out there, people get just as confused about what “designing” for the user” means as they do about what “SEO” means. As professionals, let’s not get caught up in that argument.

  • gnwendy

    I disagree very strongly with your post, for several reasons, but the main thing that I keep getting hooked up on is

    “…that should win in the search engines are those that best solve…”

    You chose to emphasize “best solve”. If you instead emphasize “should” in that sentence, then we get to the core issue. In theory, you are correct. However SEs do not return the page that “best solves the issue” since the SEs have no idea what that page is.

    I am not saying ignore the user, because then you become very dependent on new traffic and will have very few returning users. I feel the main take-away from Rand’s post should be, that when you have a choice of A vs B, where A is SE friendly and B is user friendly, you should choose A. In matters not relevant to SEO, you should do your utmost to focus on usability.

    Perhaps in the future we will see a convergence of SEO and usability where one does not exclude the other, but that day seems a long way off this Friday.

  • Gil Reich

    Sorry Jill, I don’t think this post was fair. Rand wrote “SEO starts with the user (of course), but cannot ignore the incredible importance of search-engine targeted (and specific) tactics” and “SEO is a task that requires paying close attention to the needs of both users and engines.” Your article pretends that Rand told people to ignore the users, and that he apologized for ever telling webmasters to do what’s right for their users.

    Rand argued that the statement “just focus on the user and not the engines” was simplistic and misleading. I think he’s right. And if you think he’s wrong, I wish you would have only argued the point and not also misrepresented his stance.

    I’m sorry, but I found Rand’s post balanced and carefully argued. I don’t think this post lived up to your standards. It was hyperbolic (a decade to recover from Rand’s post? Really?) misrepresentative, and IMO simplistic in its implication that you should only focus on the users.

  • Jill Whalen

    @Gil a big part of my beef is that SEO tactics that Rand claims are for search engines are actually for users as well.

    And until people start thinking that way they’ll continue to make bad SEO decisions for their websites.

  • http://melcurtest Melcurtest

    Surely it must be obvious that the object of the exercise (from a website ownerw view) is users but the way of getting your message to the user is via search engines> One or the other?

    Bah Humbug!

  • Splinter09

    First of all I agree with Gil Reich and think Jill missed the point on Rand’s post. His post as Gil said was well balanced and carefully argued. Rand never said to focus only on SE or only on users.

    And second, SEO nowadays is all about finding that balance between Users and SEs, as Gill said in her comment :

    “SEO tactics that Rand claims are for search engines are actually for users as well.”

  • thefraj

    Basically we cannot ignore the visitors needs anymore than a business can ignore the customers needs. But this does not mean you don’t have room for creativity. Google likes variety … particularly on the first page! Provided that your suggestion lies somewhere within the realms of the searchers topic, (and isn’t wildly irrelevant!) then I certainly wouldn’t see this as a bad thing.

    Like many things in the Universe, I think of it as a Zen-like balance. If you are overly focused on the search engine, you lose site of your visitor. Equally we write pages with search engines in mind, and if we didn’t we probably wouldn’t have any visitors in the first place!

    Becoming overly focused in any particular direction is not particularly helpful.


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