Coming back from our SMX Advanced conference last week, I found myself doing some soul searching. How was it that some people could wonder if advanced SEO means spamming search engines? And have I been contributing to this confusion? For the record — no, advanced SEO doesn’t mean you have to spam. Not in my book. But as SEO has matured, I find myself wondering if the importance of good site architecture – search engine friendly design — has become lost as an advanced technique itself. And has the battle for links caused us to segment too much into different halves of an SEO "house?" Is SEO splitting apart?
Lisa Barone blogged on Friday in her review of the show that it seemed more black/grayhat than last year. In particular, she was struck by the very same thing at the show that struck me. Microsoft’s Nathan Buggia, leading off in his presentation for Search Friendly Development on the second day, opened by saying he’d talked to some people the previous day who were confused. Did they need to do some of the blackhat things that were covered in sessions on the first day? Was that what advanced SEO was about?
He reassured them not. And I completely agreed with him. Indeed, sitting in the audience (well, standing — it was a packed session with not enough seats), I was horrified that anyone might have had that idea. Horrified and perplexed. How could any advanced search marketer assume that?
In part, I realize now we had some people new to SEO attending, developers who were attracted to the Developer Day sessions. Some of those attendees knew nothing about SEO in general. I can see in retrospect that if they’d come to both days of the event, they definitely were tossed into the deep end of the pool on the first day. I should have considered how to handle this better, perhaps by running Developer Day on the first day. That’s how I handle things with beginners for a general purpose search conference like SMX West. Fundamentals purposely get covered first.
I also realize that despite the show being billed as "only come if you’re advanced," some non-advanced people came anyway. To me, anyone attending an advanced show should already know there are blackhat tactics out there, have already decided what makes sense for them and their clients, and would be aware of design issues. Warnings shouldn’t have to be issued to people who really are advanced. Having said that, I did consistently hear speakers — when covering blackhat tips — repeatedly warn that such tactics might be risky. Over and over again, I heard this.
Advanced SEO Means Content, Too
Still, there was some confusion with some people. I apologize for that. Aside from confusion, I’m concerned that even some experienced people might think that "advanced means blackhat." I worry about this, not from a show perspective, but whether it’s an industry trend. That over on the other side of the "SEO house," non-designers might believe that being blackhat is what defines advanced SEO. That over the years, there’s been so much focus especially on links that the importance of design and design advancements with the search engines may have been lost.
Yes, Blackhat Should Be Covered
I’ll come back to design in a moment, but let me first address the issue of why blackhat tactics would be discussed at all. I’ve had to revisit this again and again over the years. There are some who think nothing blackhat should ever be discussed. I’ve tended to be a realist. Regardless of what "hat" you wear, you should be aware of the overall environment out there. That links are bought and sold. That how this is done can pose risks. That people can buy links and point them at you. That yes indeed, people do still cloak — and knowing how that happens may help you understand something puzzling your mind. You might not want to cloak, but you damn well as an SEO may want to know more about it so that you can identify others in your space who are.
We could bury our heads in the sand and pretend blackhat doesn’t exist. I’ve preferred to let the information out, figuring education — done responsibly – is generally a good thing and that people can make their own decisions. And I thank the speakers at SMX Advanced that did this, who broadly shared knowledge that some feel ordinarily is only out there if you meet the right person in a bar. But as I said earlier, if I had beginners getting exposed to blackhat tactics and somehow thinking they had to do these, I apologize. That has never been my intent, for anyone to view those as a starting place or even as something that you ever have to do.
The Rapidly Changing Rules Of Search Engine Friendly Design
Now let me come back to the design aspects. One of the things I’ve long hated about search engine spam guidelines is that they fixate too much on tactics, rather than intent. For the longest time, hidden text was bad. You’ll still hear search engines say this today. It was bad because some people might try to stuff irrelevant copy on pages, so the entire concept would get tossed out. So much for the poor person with an all-Flash site, where they might have text but no way for the search engines to actually latch on to it. Hiding it in other ways was bad. And you with that membership-only site! Sorry, search engines can’t crawl it — so you feel compelled to cloak the full content to search engines but let their visitors see only a membership sign-up page. That’s banning territory.
We’d get these rules, slight exceptions, when the question in my mind was the tactic overall. Was someone trying to actively harm the relevancy of search results, deliver misleading and poor information to searchers? If not, who cares if they cloaked (and in fact, many search engines have long turned a blind eye to cases of cloaking if the content was relevant).
Things have been changing. Changing rapidly. Last year, Search Engine Land itself came under fire for hidden text, because our logo rendered as a text link saying "Search Engine Land" for those who didn’t have images or CSS on. I hadn’t caught this during the design process; our designer had no idea it was a bad thing. We fixed it. And not two months later in a discussion forum, I saw a Google rep saying this exact tactic wasn’t bad if the text matched identically.
Similarly, at SMX Advanced, Google spent a lot of time revisiting its definitions of cloaking and various methods of content delivery in preparation for the event. One of the things made formal for the first time to my knowledge was that "First Click Free" was now fine for web search results. The idea is that you can show search engines members-only content as long as you’ll allow visitors hitting that content to also read it without payment or registration. Previously, some would have considered this cloaking and bad to do. Now, you’re good to go.
These types of changes, along with other methods of making Flash content more accessible, might be lost to some SEOs. Things that previously weren’t acceptable gain support, and sometimes this might slip past people. As a result, people might still think they have to break rules when they don’t.
Developers & Designers Get New Site: Jane & Robot
That’s one of the things I loved about the Developer Day track. The session on Microsoft & LAMP Stack considerations? That was damn advanced SEO. There was really good cutting edge white hat stuff in it, and I loved having it.
Vanessa Fox organized the Developer Day track, and she, along with Nathan Buggia, also have something else that the industry has long needed – Jane And Robot. Their new site is expressly for developers and designers, to focus on SEO from that design perspective.
This brings me back to the "lost our way" aspect. How is it that we haven’t had a site like this by now? Look at our blog roll here on Search Engine Land. I’ve got sites listed that cover just paid search. Sites on link building. Even a site focused on search patents. But a site just focusing on the intersection of development and design? No (and we could use one on keyword research, plus I miss the copywriting and SEO newsletter that Jill Whalen and Heather Lloyd Martin used to do). The topic of search and design has been long covered by Shari Thurow through her speaking and her book, Search Engine Visibility. But a dedicated web site to the topic, to keep ahead of the changing space? That’s a good thing to finally get.
In part recently, I wonder if the frenzy over links has kept our attention off design, as an industry as a whole. If so, it’s understandable. Let’s be realistic. You can build the most search engine friendly site in the world. You’ll even get some nice traffic. But you’re going to do better if your site picks up some authority from links. Links still rule — still dominate — the ranking algorithms.
I hesitate to write the paragraph above because I don’t want those designers and developers who may be reading to think why bother with the other stuff. You should bother. It IS the foundation, and it can bring success if only because if you do that part right, links sometimes naturally follow.
But links rule so much that the link economy exploded. Buying and selling links has simply continued on, and last year’s war on them by Google (Microsoft doesn’t like them but still doesn’t flat out penalize for them) just made it worse. Some predicted that it would just drive the link economy underground. I think that’s correct.
Indeed, I feel like search engines and SEOs have made great, huge strides coming together. Things like Google Webmaster Central, Yahoo Site Explorer, and Live Search Webmaster Center all offer tools and support that were hard for some, including myself, to ever believe would appear. At the same time, I feel like things are getting even more adversarial on other respects, most especially in the area of links and Google’s perceived domination of the web. And how to solve that, I really don’t know.
Meanwhile, if you can’t buy and sell links, even more attention is now focused on link baiting. Link baiting is all good, as Google itself has said on numerous occasions. But now look what’s happening. We have fake link bait — and then Google has to decide if those links can be "allowed" to count. In turn, that causes some people to think Google’s going too far. And when you have people feel one party is stepping over a line, it makes it easier for others to ponder why they’re following rules at all.
Don’t take that as me saying it’s all Google’s fault. I’ve grown weary, so very weary, of people who reach for that excuse at every turn. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But if things are getting more adversarial — if people are pondering blackhat more — this is another factor in the mix.
Back to SMX Advanced, I saw one link building tactic using social media sites that made my jaw literally drop. The exact tactic will come out later (there’s a 30 day embargo on what was discussed at the Give It Up session). But I watched it being described and honestly did not know what to think. It was clever. Super smart. And done right, I don’t even know that I’d think it was spamming or misleading. I can think of many real world examples that would correspond to it. But it’s also another extreme.
When Marginal Is Advanced
Somewhat related to the linking frenzy was the amount of discussion over PageRank "sculpting" that occurred at the show. Formerly PageRank hording – also called siloing by Bruce Clay — the concept is that you don’t let all the links on your pages get link love by using nofollow to "block" the less important ones.
It’s picked up speed over the past year, in part because in the middle of last year, Matt Cutts talked about the concept to a group of SEOs and how YouTube was using it. Rand Fishkin did an article; others did too, and suddenly it was a new thing to try.
Worthwhile? On the Bot Herding panel we had, Nathan asked how many in the audience were doing it. Plenty. How many felt it did them any good, he then asked? Few. So why bother potentially confusing people at a conference discussing something that both he and Matt (who help popularize it) describe as being a marginal aid to rankings, especially in light of other things that can be done? Shouldn’t time be spent on more important things?
Well, I agree with the view that sculpting is a marginal activity compared to other things that can be done. But if you’re an advanced SEO — even someone advanced in terms of working with design issues — maybe it’s not so marginal. The search engines themselves are saying it has some value. They’ve not said it’s a flat out waste of time. And if you’ve mastered all the other things that are much more important, then yes, something like this may very well be worth giving more attention to.
What Is SEO?
I also realize that confusion about just what SEO means is an issue again. I first started writing about search back in 1996, as I was focused on content-driven SEO. My first publication was "A Webmaster’s Guide To Search Engines." By webmasters, I was writing to developers, designers, and anyone who was trying to understand why their site might not do well in search.
In particular, I was trying to stress issues they had to keep in mind: the importance of descriptive titles; the importance of being crawled properly; how design elements like frames and tables could inadvertently harm rankings a site might otherwise attain. Search engines, as I later explained, were like browsers – and designers should consider how well they "render" just as they were testing for Internet Explorer and Firefox.
The first time I saw a "doorway" page, it perplexed me. Why would someone do this rather than just focus on good content for their own "real" site? And surely the search engines wouldn’t allow it. Except they did, some of them. And I also discovered that SEO didn’t just have a content-driven house. It also had an element that was looking for traffic from search engines independently of content — simply to get leads, however those were obtained.
I addressed this once before in my "Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense SEO" article, when I came back from another conference to discover people were thinking that SEO was all about "snake oil." At the time, I proposed that maybe we needed a term "CSEO," for content SEO, to distinguish the work done on content sites from non-content SEO:
So how did SEO turn into a synonym for many people to mean tricking search engines through bogus links, comment spam, and other unsavory tactics? It’s happened because there are other flavors of SEO that have developed and dominated the impression of the industry.
Consider the above tips as part of "content-based SEO." Need an acronym? Perhaps CSEO or SEFO, for "search engine friendly optimization." I won’t say that this is the "true" SEO, because for as long as there’s been content-based SEO, there’s also been other flavors of SEO and tactics designed just to generate traffic from search engines regardless of content….
Jeremy "Shoemoney" Schoemaker recently asked me along with others to define SEO overall, and I gave back what I’ve long said:
An SEO is someone who understands how people search for information (on the web and in other ways) and ensures that they or their clients are visible in the unpaid listings that are provided. A search marketer, by the way, is someone that ensures listing in both paid and unpaid listings.
Maybe we do need a different term for those who are working in the design and development process. Maybe we should no longer call what they’re doing "SEO" to help distinguish that from SEO as a general activity. I don’t know. That’s something I still need to think more about, and there’s not a good term for it that springs to mind.
The In House SEOs
Somewhat related to developers and designers, certainly we have more in house SEOs these days. The two are closely related because both groups need something more than blackhat advice. It just goes beyond the core activities of the D&D bunch. And for in housers, blackhat tactics come with the risk of harming not just a branded site but a brand itself.
Indeed, Matt Cutts during his talk at the end of the day at SMX Advanced sort of had some rebuttal time to the blackhat stuff that was raised, asking how many In House SEOs were in the crowd. Lots — well more than half the audience.
I talked with some of those In House SEOs. Just as they may have told Matt they couldn’t use some blackhat advice, I also had them tell me they still found the blackhat stuff useful for educational reasons. And it’s important to remember that we did have great advanced white hat stuff covered as well, not just within the Developer Day track, but during both days of the Organic Track – and even from supposed "blackhat" speakers.
Still, reading this is tough:
SMX Advanced was quite informative, excellent place to meet and network, but not enough "White Hat" I can really take back and apply to my clients’ sites. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of “burning” a site or two in pursuit of rankings and conversions. And, my guess is, neither do most of you. So, my hope is that next year, there will be ONE Give It Up, not several Give It Ups under the guise of “White Hat” Sessions.
I want people to have it all. I want them to understand what’s going on in the blackhat world, presented in a responsible manner. I want them to have killer whitehat tips, as well. If the first SMX Advanced felt too "whitehat" for some, and the second felt too "blackhat," then I’ll keep working to get the balance right.
As an aside, our SMX East show will have an In House Day similar to the Developer Day we did for SMX Advanced. Jessica Bowman, a long-time in-houser, and I spoke about it during the SMX Advanced show.
Talking Is Good
The discussion all around helps. Be critical of the show; defend it — I appreciate and respect the feedback, regardless. For some of the places with ample discussion as well as conference coverage, see:
- SMX Advanced Goes To The Dark Side, Bruce Clay Blog
- SMX Advanced Goes To The Dark Side, Sphinn Discussion
- SMX Advanced – A View On Tone & Content, SEOmoz
- SMX Advanced ’08 - Day Two Recap, Search Engine Land
- SMX Advanced ’08 - Day One Recap, Search Engine Land
Overall, I’ll say again as I started with. No, advanced SEO doesn’t mean spamming search engines. We should be paying more attention to how sites are constructed, to make them search engine friendly from the start.
While search engines are improving on the design front, there’s still much we need to do for them. Yahoo has a dynamic rewrite tool — the others do not, so URL rewriting is an advanced skill that needs to be learned. The search engines came together recently on robots.txt, but really only to jointly say where they agree and disagree. I want them to agree — and soon.
As for whitehat/blackhat issues, again, as I’ve said, I think anyone involved in SEO should understand both "sides." As a brand owner myself, I’m not going to employ blackhat tactics. But I sure want to know what’s going on out there, and I appreciate those that share. And for the whitehatters, yes, I’ll work to bring more advanced tactics for you, as well.