So, You Think You’re A Search Engine Optimization Expert?
A few years ago, I wrote a three-part article series about the different levels of SEO skills: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I placed copywriters at the beginner level, information architects and interface designers at the intermediate level, and web developers and programmers at the advanced level.
At the time, I was pretty confident at the delineations, because it seemed that is how the perception of search engine optimization had evolved. Now, as I re-evaluate what I wrote, I am not so sure. Instead of seeing a continuum, where a true SEO expert can effectively perform the skills at each level, maybe these three groups represent three unique skill sets. Some of the skills in each set can overlap, of course (I know plenty of people who are both web designers and developers).
So now I stop and try to reassess my perspective, and perhaps the search industry perspective. Is an SEO professional with advanced programming skills truly an SEO expert?
Keyword researchers and copywriters as SEO experts
What inspired my reassessment was a conversation I had last week. I was showing a usability test participant some early web-page prototypes, and out of the blue, this question popped out:
Question: Would you hire a programmer to write your web site’s copy?
Answer: [Expletive] no.
Intrigued, I asked more questions, since this person obviously had a strong opinion about the subject. In a nutshell, she essentially thought my questions were completely absurd because she felt no one in his or her right mind would allow a programmer or web developer to write or edit website copy.
Yet, this happens all of the time in the SEO industry—people who possess very technical skills are also the ones doing keyword research and writing/editing copy. Is this a good or a bad thing?
In my personal opinion, some of the most undervalued SEO professionals are copywriters and keyword researchers. I really do not care that they cannot configure a server or do the latest image replacement workaround. What I care about is that they identify the right keyword phrases and present them in the best possible light to site visitors. Apparently, I am not the only person who feels this way.
And by “identify the right keyword phrases,” I do not mean that they know how to calculate KEI (keyword effectiveness index), which sounds like pure programmer jargon to most people. I’m waiting for Scott Adams to write a Dilbert cartoon about that one.
By “identify the right keyword phrases,” I mean going beyond the available keyword research tools and really understanding what searchers and site visitors respond to. A truly gifted keyword researcher understands that searchers respond to words that they (the searchers) do not necessarily type as search queries.
Are advanced search-engine friendly copywriters any less advanced because they do not have the skills to implement the latest image replacement workaround? I do not believe so, but I do believe it is a common industry misperception… and not only in the search industry, either.
And that brings me to the next group, whom I often hear state, “Keywords are useless if search engines do not have access to that content.” Which can be true, but…
Web developers and programmers as SEO experts
I accept that I might take some heat for this opinion: I have never believed that having advanced IT skills automatically means that a person has advanced SEO skills. I do not believe that having advanced IT skills is a requirement for being an advanced SEO expert.
Granted, the “science” part of SEO certainly requires some technical skills. And a multi-talented SEO professional usually has a combination of creative and technical skills, a union of analytical and creative thinking. But I do not believe an advanced SEO professional is a person who has technical skills at the exclusion of other skills. Just as I do not believe that an advanced SEO professional is a person who has copywriting skills at the exclusion of technical skills.
Even though a search-engine friendly copywriter might not be able to implement a Flash or image replacement workaround, he or she might need to understand what it is and when it is appropriate to implement it.
Believe me, the information architects and interface designers will certainly have more colorful opinions on that subject, and their perspectives might be incredibly valuable. Frequently, the interface designers will tell you not to implement a technology in the first place because users don’t want it (because they test this sort of thing all of the time) and because users do not effectively, and successfully, complete desired tasks. Why implement a workaround when your site visitors don’t want the technology in the first place? I know, I know. Because management told you to do it, marketing is only responding to ndustry buzz, and well? Web 2.x (insert current numbers here) is cool.
I hear these statements quite often when it comes to SEO workarounds, “You are against this workaround because you don’t know how to do it,” or “You are against this workaround because you don’t understand it.” These types of statements come from SEO professionals and even potential clients, who are usually people in the IT department. For example, one prevailing attitude seems to be: if an SEO professional does not know how to do optimization using Ruby on Rails, then that person isn’t an an advanced SEO professional.
Okay, I’ll bite. I prefer working with Cold Fusion. Now if I say that an SEO professional who doesn’t know how to implement the Cold Fusion URL workaround isn’t an advanced SEO…I hope you get my point. SEO professionals often have a wide variety of skills, and having one skill doesn’t automatically make a person more advanced at optimization than having another skill.
So what am I trying to accomplish with this article? Honestly, I would really like the search industry to re-evaluate what they consider to be advanced SEO skills. I do not believe that advanced SEO skills are necessarily “black-hat” skills. Nor do I believe that persons with little or no technical skills are not advanced SEO practitioners.
I do believe that an advanced SEO professional understands how all of these levels are interconnected, the big picture. Who knows? Maybe my opinion has the making of a Dilbert cartoon. I am very interested in what others have to say about this subject. How do you define advanced search engine optimization?
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