SEO FAQ That’s Not From The Land Of Unicorns

I guess Derek Powazek isn’t done with attacking SEO. Now he’s published an SEO FAQ page which, sorry, really doesn’t provide much FAQ about SEO. So what the heck. I’ll deconstruct it. Be sure to also read my previous post, An Open Letter To Derek Powazek On The Value Of SEO.

What’s SEO?

First, any good FAQ ought to define what the subject is, right? So what’s SEO? Turns out, we have an SEO page here on Search Engine Land that explains this succinctly.

SEO — search engine optimization — is the process of getting traffic from the “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” listings on search engines. All major search engines have such listings, where web pages, web sites and other content such as videos or local listings are shown and ranked based on what the search engine considers most relevant to users. Payment isn’t involved, as it is with paid search ads.

You can read more on our page, along with some links to past coverage, a guide from Google and additional information

Notice in the definition above, I’ve mentioned things like videos or local listings. Search engines, and SEO today, aren’t just about web pages. That’s why when Derek rants that SEO is just some web developer’s job, he exposes a real lack of knowledge of the current state of SEO itself. In turn, frankly, he’s not giving out good advice.

SEOs Are All Scumbags

You know, I went to the gym today. Exercised with a personal trainer. All that trainer did was do stuff with me that should be common sense if you read a book, looked at the instructions on the machine and so on. Why isn’t he some scumbag that’s ripping me off? He’s a professional. He knows exercise intimately, in a way that I do not. It is his job to be an expert in this area. I want that expertise, someone who is totally dedicated to that area, not someone who dabbles in it.

SEO is a profession. Companies from MTV to the New York Times to the Wall St. Journal to Yahoo, to name only a few, employ full-time people who are responsible for SEO (and they aren’t scumbags, either). These companies have some of the best content in the world. And yet, they can still have major issues in how their sites are built or written or constructed that prevent them from doing well in Google or other search engines.

These SEOs, by the way, struggle with web developers who “think” they know SEO but don’t. Web developers who think that despite what an SEO tells them, a 302 redirect is the way to go. And thus the International Herald Tribune loses thousands of links because who wants to trust the scummy in-house SEO, right? I’ve got story after story of web developers and designers who think they know SEO but don’t, who cause major problems for web sites, and yet NO ONE ever writes a blog post blasting them.

There are bad SEOs. There are scummy people who there who spam blogs, who try to go black hat against search algorithms, who figure all’s fair in the fight for traffic. There are also bad people in any industry out there. You don’t count out an entire industry with helpful people because of your outdated ideas of how things work on the web. Especially if only deal with a particular type of web site (Derek doesn’t, for instance, seem to deal much with shopping sites, as best I can tell).

Deconstructing Derek’s FAQ

With that setup, let me go through the “FAQ” points Derek’s put out there and comment on them:

I publish a magazine and I know a lot of magazine publishers. And they are forking over embarrassing sums of money to charlatans who say they can raise their search engine rankings. These magazines can barely pay their writers. That’s wrong and it has to stop.

If you’re a company that’s about to pay some SEO expert, please, I beg you, take that money and hand it to a talented writer or competent web developer instead. It’ll be much better spent.

If you’re a company that hasn’t reviewed your site for SEO aspects, I beg you, consider this. Unless you like the idea of potentially wasting money, it pays to ensure you’ve done the basic things out there that will give you traffic for free. Maybe everything’s all perfect already, that your web developer who also knows some things about SEO has it all down. But it’s cheap insurance for many sites with a budget to ensure they’ve implemented SEO properly. Or, you can buy AdWords and pay by the click for that traffic from Google.

As for charlatans out there, yes, there are some. Just like there are some bad writers, bad designers and bad web developers. Ask for references. That’s not rocket science.

But I use SEO for good. Then you’re called a Web Developer. Good web development includes using proper formatting (like putting headlines in H tags) and understanding how the web works, search engines included. Valid code also has the side-effect of making your pages more accessible for your users, which is the point. Making your pages more accessible to robots is for robots.

Hey, I can fire up WordPress using the Thesis theme and make a nice site. Am I a web developer now? No need to pay some web developer hundreds of dollars per hour. I’ll do it for you as well.

Web development is not SEO. Good web developers will understand the fundamentals of SEO, in terms of good site architecture, crawlability and so on. But they probably won’t be ensuring that authors of a site are tapping into keyword research tools to ensure that when they write an article, they’re using terms that an audience seeking that article might use.

More important, few of them are dialed into how to handle giving Google and others a shopping feed. Or a feed of real estate listings. Or the completely separate ranking aspects that impact YouTube (the world’s second most popular search engine). Are they putting out a full-feed that Google Blog Search prefers? Are they checking that the URL shortener you use on Twitter spits back a 301 rather than a 302 redirect or worse, frames stuff up via a 200 code?

This isn’t 1999. This isn’t put stuff in a H1 tag and you’re good. This isn’t a world where we lack important tools such as the ability to feed sitemaps or even today, a way to see pages exactly as Google sees them. SEO encompasses any type of search engine dealing with any type of content.

[Insert irate defense of SEO here.] You sell SEO, right?

Yes, some of the people who are defending SEO also either perform it or are related to the industry. And some of those same people will readily admit that the industry has a terrible reputation. But then again, they actually KNOW SEO. They’re responding because unlike people like Derek or others who launch rant posts like his every six months or so, they deal with confused people all the time. They pick up the messes that web developer make. They solve the real problems out there that just being “real” won’t help. The don’t deserve to be written off. They actually deserved to be listened to, because they have lot of valid things to say.

If you’re so smart, prove it. I’m not that smart. But I can say that I am Google’s third result for “Derek” (I was number one until Wikipedia came around). And after less than 24 hours, my post about SEO is the ninth Google result for “SEO”.

Well, if Derek’s SEO strategy was to find people and convert them into sales for those seeking “Derek,” congrats. But actually, part of SEO is understanding what a target audience is after, in terms of your content. And I don’t care who are. Unless you’re doing a personal blog with absolutely no particular audience in mind, you do have a target audience. You’d better understand how that audience might be seeking your content. Otherwise, you actually might not get found. Good SEO starts with good keyword research or at least an awareness of it.

As for Derek ranking of SEO, welcome to the world of “query deserved freshness,” where Google will reward fresh posts with a relevancy bump. Does your web developer understand that? Because if they don’t, then when their boss starts complaining in a week how your great ranking just went away, they might start messing with your site to regain it — and make things worse.

How did I accomplish these magic SEO feats? Exactly how I said I did: Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again. I’ve been doing that (or at least trying to) since 1995.

In this case, I wrote a passionate post. I posted it to Twitter and Facebook. And I sent one email to a friend about it. That’s it!

Sure, Derek is passionate about an industry that has a lot of haters. Guess what. I’ve been writing about SEO since 1996, telling people the good ways to do it and why it helps. And you know, it HAS helped lots of people.

If SEO is just all snakeoil, why am I still here? Why is SEO still here? Derek is hardly the first to have a rant. I’m easily into double-digits of rants like his I’ve read over the year.

The answer is that it ISN’T all snakeoil. SEO really is and can be useful. It’s just a pity that more people who do get helped by it who aren’t SEOs themselves don’t speak up for it. But here’s another tip. If your company does well with SEO, you usually don’t want to talk about it — because you’re hoping your competitor is listening to people like Derek who say SEO is all bullshit.

SEO is needed because of bad web design. Wouldn’t it be better to make competent websites in the first place?

Yes, it would. And when the miracle happens when all web developers are doing that, please let us know. In the meantime, perhaps instead of antagonism, we can talk about ways that a good web developer can identify a good SEO to work with? And also understand that even then, SEO extends beyond web pages these days.

It’s easy for you – you’re an expert. I’m using WordPress (which is free software) and the DePo Skinny theme (which I designed and released for free). You can download both of those and have a site just like this in a few minutes. No need to pay anyone for SEO. Then comes the hard part: Spend over a decade making things. If you do that, you’ll be an expert, too.

So just be an expert in selling ranch fencing, and you’re good. Or one on hazardous waste disposal in your local community, and you’ll rock. Or toss up a blog about your local locksmith site, and you’ll be cooking along. Or not (see Searching For Small Businesses, Coming Up Frustrated).

Passion is great. Wonderful content indeed rocks. And even “boring” businesses can tap into viral popularity. But you also have some boring SEO stuff you probably want to attend to, as well.

[Insert personal attack here.] I may have tarred a so-called “industry” but I didn’t attack anyone personally.

Really? Let’s review some statements:

Search Engine Optimization is not a legitimate form of marketing.

If someone charges you for SEO, you have been conned.

A new breed of con man was born, the Search Engine Optimizer.

SEO cockroaches employ botnets, third-world labor, and zombie computers to blanket the web with link spam.

SEO bastards are behind worms that attack blog services like Blogger, WordPress, and Movable Type.

It’s a game, and every link is a score for the SEO jerkwads and their disreputable clients.

Yeah, that’s a personal attack. Derek is calling each and every SEO out there someone who is not legitimate, someone who cons, someone who apparently runs botnets and worms and only has disreputable clients.

None of that’s qualified. He points it at each and every person who specializes in SEO. Part of me is amazed more people haven’t emerged to call him out on this type of hateful, unfair and inaccurate attack. But part of me figures these days, plenty of big voices hear SEO and either don’t want to speak up for them or based on their experiences as blogging rockstars think that everything that works for them must work that way for everyone else.

This may be obvious to you, but it’s not to everyone. You’re right. I regret saying that this stuff was obvious without explaining what I meant. Here’s what I meant: Good SEO techniques are just good web development techniques. They should be obvious to anyone who makes websites for a living. If they’re not obvious to you, and you make websites, you need to get informed. If you’re a client, make sure you hire an informed web developer.

So I heard Chris Brogan speak recently, and he joked that his book Trust Agents (cowritten with Julien Smith) was just full of common sense. Which is true. But what’s common sense to someone who knows their field is uncommon wisdom to those who don’t. Some SEO techniques are also good web development ones. A good web developer should know them or should educate themselves. But plenty do not. Or plenty assume they know it all when they do not.

CLIENTS: If someone approaches you about optimizing your search engine placement, they’re running a scam. Ignore them. If your site isn’t showing up in Google, fire whoever is making your web pages and hire someone better. Sign up for social media services (Twitter, Facebook, etc) and participate there. Pay for quality writers and designers – that’s what will actually raise your ranking in the long term.

Agreed, if someone approaches you out of the blue — you get that email offering to do some analysis, etc. Ignore it. Might not be a scam, but it is generally not a sign of a company that’s in demand because of a satisfied client basis. As for firing your web page builder, um — maybe. Or if you like what they’ve done with the site, and SEO might be able to work with them and allow you the best of both worlds.

WEB DESIGNERS: Learn to code your own pages. If you can’t, hire someone who can, and listen to them when they tell you why putting all that text in an image is a bad idea.

Those people who can, by the way, are called SEOs. You know, those scumbags you shouldn’t be listening to.

WEB DEVELOPERS: Educate your designers about proper web development. Educate your clients about how the web works. Follow Google’s advice. Read A List Apart. Writing good code won’t just help your Google rank, it’ll make certain your site is accessible to screen readers, mobile devices, and all the browsers out there.

Well, I don’t regularly read A List Apart, so I can’t comment on the quality of the SEO advice over there. But yeah, read Google’s. In particular, read their SEO starter guide here.

You might take in a conference or two. At our SMX East conference last week, we had an entire track devoted to technical SEO and developer issues. Want more? Jane & Robot started last year is devoted to developer & SEO issues, and they have events.

You can check out topics here on Search Engine Land, such as our 100% Organic column and our Google SEO, Microsoft’s Bing SEO, Yahoo SEO and How To SEO sections.

SEO SPECIALISTS: If all you do is SEO, you need to expand. Hire a visual designer and some kickass coders and become a real web agency. Start making sites good from the get-go instead of cleaning up other people’s messes. Besides, if all you do is SEO, your days are numbered. Social media is rapidly becoming much more important than Google. (Number one referrer to my site this week? Twitter.)

Again, this isn’t 1999. There are plenty of agencies that offer SEO services. Some of these were pure SEO companies that grew. It’s also no newsflash to many good SEOs that social media has grown in importance. In fact, the real news seems to be that Derek doesn’t realize they already know this.

GOOGLE: Would you look at all the crazy you’ve created? You could fix this by making your engine more inclusive of websites with common mistakes, introducing some randomness to the order of results (why should everyone’s results be in the same order?), and unforgiving punishing the businesses that have sprung up to exploit your popularity. Get on it.

Yes, they do. That’s one reason why Derek’s ranking for SEO at the moment. It’s also the reason that plenty of people like him can say you don’t need to do SEO. Because for lots of them, especially if they have promient blogs, Google does do the right thing.

But it’s not perfect, and you can help it. That’s why over the years, it has rolled out a ton of tools at Google Webmaster Central that any good SEO will know about.

Complaining that Google should just “fix” everything also reminds me of web developers who have long assumed that problems with search engines and Flash would just eventually go away, so they didn’t need to do anything. I’ve heard that for over 10 years. Despite advances, the basic advice remains the same. Try not to lock your content up in Flash.

When developers will test their pages to make sure they work in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome, not testing against the biggest browser of them all — Google — is foolishness. What Derek’s written above is the same as complaining that Internet Explorer has some bug that’s screwing up his web pages, and rather than fix it, he thinks IE should solve the problem. Sure, IE should — but in the meantime, you workaround it.

Postscript: Let me make clear my intent in this piece isn’t to attack Derek personally. I have issues with many of his statements. Since these statements seemed based on his personal experience, it’s difficult to avoid addressing him on this by name. I’ve read through this piece again, and I really don’t see a personal attack him Derek. On Twitter, in reference to his original post, I did say things like:

yes, let’s make heroes out of people who rant ignorance & harm others who do good work. hurray! (here)

& sadly plenty of SEOs provide good non-sleezy, useful, legit, google-backed services but get tarred with usual ignorant brush (here)

see my tweets earlier today. it’s just the latest in years of ignorant slamming of SEO but (here)

I didn’t mean a personal attack by calling what Derek wrote a rant. That’s just a fact. It was. He called it the same himself. Heck, I rant all the time. There’s nothing wrong with a good rant, though I prefer one that’s also thoughtful and backed up by facts.

That’s where the ignorant part is. I don’t think Derek is ignorant or stupid in general. But I do think much of what he wrote seems to be ignorant of the current state of SEO. Ignorant as in not aware. A better choice of word, which might not have seemed perhaps personal, would have been uninformed.

Anyway, hopefully Derek and I will talk more about this tomorrow rather than playing dueling posts. My intent was never to attack him as an individual, but I certainly wanted to raise some awareness and balance to the issues he put out there.

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


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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  • sabrina168

    SEO is not just a web- developer’s job. There are people specializing in it. It is a part of the web development cycle. SEO contributes a lot to the SERP.

  • Kalena

    I can’t believe Derek thought your post was a personal attack yet his wasn’t. The ignorant hat fits perfectly IMO.

  • MauFournier

    This is the best article I’ve read in a long time, it got me excited in a way usually only a film or a good book can.

    It made me register so I could comment!

    It’s really not fair for him to make those assumptions, and by the way, I know WAY more scamming web developers than SEO experts/agencies.

    Thanks Danny, you’ve definitely earned a new fan today :)

  • Gil Reich

    Danny, he called all SEOs “cockroaches, bastards, evildoers, spammers, and jerkwads,” and said if you’re not all of those, then you’re not an SEO. Then when SEOs respond he Tweets that SEOs are so touchy. He then plays the victim wondering why people are attacking him personally. In his moral universe, condemning a group of good people is somehow better than calling out an individual’s reprehensible behavior. Maybe you’re right that attacking him personally would be wrong. But he certainly deserves to be called (as you and others did) for projecting his darkness onto a community and publicly slandering them.

  • http://cimaich00 cimaich00

    Great article Danny,

    The world is full of people like Derek who know better (than everyone else, in fact I work with one, a complete plumb) and I am guessing he was dropped at birth and that disloged all reason, common sense and understanding.

    I know what Derek is doing though, bad press is press for him (there will be people with his opinions too who will get him to do work for them, thats life). People like Derek are not worth the effort in this article. More noise is good noise for the like of Derek, he is currently rubbing his hands awaiting traffic and the poor old souls who agree with his tripe.

    OK there are poor if not pathetic SEO socalleds out there but there allways will be in life. Do some research of your own, ask and ask questions, get examples of work, call the potential SEO’s client, they will be ok with this if they good at waht they do.

    From an honest SEO Manager.

  • K.S. Katz


    I don’t think anything you’ve said was a personal attack. Some of the comments left by others on his post and yours are insulting; however, my mother always said, “If you can’t stand the heat, don’t put your hand in the fire.” Derek started the conversation, and he’s now reaping the positive and negative effects of it.

    I’ve been an agency and in-house SEO, and worked with a lot of developers: the good, bad and ugly. Most of my bad and ugly experiences came from ignorance, anger and fear. I’ve met some developers that claim SEOs are scammers and black-hearted bastards…and in the end it came down to this, they saw me as a threat in some form or fashion. They felt my existence threatened their job, made them look bad or took away from something they had to offer. My gut feeling on this is Derek’s rant stems from his own resentment and insecurities. It’s him, not you that’s making this personal.

    You’ve done an excellent job pointing out how both communities offer value to the the Internet. Thank you.

    - Kathryn

  • wietog

    Um – writer in the PNW here backing you up. Here is the hierarchy of roles as far as I’ve gathered over the last decade:

    Product Managers
    Project Managers
    Water delivery

    And it’s nearly impossible to get resources for in-house tools for publishing, bug/broken link checks, etc.

    I COMPLETELY agree with you about designers. Flash kills SEO and should be destroyed. I HATE IT. Few designers respect the language, and often mangle the copy, to be posted forevermore on a crawling, useless, soon-to-be outdated/outmoded visual graphic.

    Websites are NOT magazine covers, people!

    Developers: guess what? You don’t know everything just because you can build it. The contractor of a house is not the interior designer, the landscaper, nor the realtor. And by the way, one false character and the whole house falls down – how come the same respect isn’t there for the LANGUAGE we use to communicate in order to…MAKE MONEY (which is then used to PAY YOU.)


    And designers: Content often drives the design. Sorry, but it does. And SEO is part of that. An SEO specialist knows about keywords and linking and hovertext and ranking, etc. Again, there is a very important reason for this: no one cares what a site looks like if they CAN’T FIND IT. And the prettiest layout is useless if the font is tiny and users get lost.

    The last developer I worked with screwed the pooch in terms of SEO and the clicks nearly evaporated on our relaunch until we learned of his laziness on the backend. Repaired – and traffic surged. But it had to be brought to his attention over and over and over.

    In other words, though I am obviously coming at this from a similarly disrespected writer’s position, can’t we all get along? The relationships when building sites are integrated. Respect must exist all around. Because frankly, the lowliest broken link or incorrect re-direct can cut out huge percentages of potential customers. All roads need to lead to the gold you offer on your site. Where you come up in search is crucial.

    Language helps: for example – a bank once hired an SEO and requested that all terms relating to lend, lending be used. They were informed that perhaps they should focus on borrower, borrowing, as the customer’s perspective re: search was key, not the internal value proposition of the company. Ergo, check with the experts.

    I think Microsoft is to blame a lot because they are so developer/engineer-driven and think they know how the entire population thinks. Clue: our brains all work differently. That’s why specializing search is foolish – Bing will never dominate, and Google will. Because you can’t guess what someone is searching for, but you need to cover all the possible bases and create tools to allow them to a) search robustly, and b) learn how to search from repetitive use.

    A good way to improve SEO, in my admittedly unwarranted opinion, is to approach every potential search from the user’s point of view, and then tailor the path according to the multitudes of ways that existing search engines work. Hence, the need for SEO experts. It’s a lot of responsibility crafting a quantifiable method to increase traffic, instead of throwing glistening cooked pasta at a wall.

    FYI: I searched for this article on your site using the terms: SEO FAQ as well as SEO and SEO scumbags and it didn’t show up.

  • voyager360

    Since Derek seems to know it all about SEO, why don’t we put Derek up to the challenge?

    Let’s call Derek out on the carpet here. I challenge Derek to an SEO fight. If he thinks SEO is so easy to do, let’s run a public contest.

    I will put ny name in the hat first and ask that Danny and Aaron jump in, maybe Bruce Clay too and we each take a customer who needs SEO from scratch, and a brand new website and we will see who lands a top page rank first? Nobody gets charged one dime for SEO. This is just a test of skills.

    My bet is that we will have our client’s web site ranking first and Derek will be the loser. We run the contest for 6 months. To make this a fair fight, we all have to pick the same market, moderate to hard penetration for ranking, new customers, new website and in six months my bet is that Derek will be the biggest loser.

    If Derek loses, he has to wear a Chicken Suit to the next SES show.

    Aaron? Danny? Bruce? I’m in if you are.

  • seorecipe

    For me, it has been a great help using search engine optimization. I consider it as a great tool in my work online. It is indeed cost effective because before I don’t really trust other types programming of some sorts because I didn’t know anything like this before. Even some of the friends I know, they are aware that it is necessary also in the growth of any business nowadays.

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