After last week’s “Does SEO = Spam” debate erupted, I had a number of follow-up emails where I explained privately more about why SEO has such a bad reputation in some quarters, as well as what SEO is and isn’t, from my perspective. I wanted to share some of that below.
Bad Advice Sucks: From SEOs Or Web Developers
I can completely understand the frustration people can feel when they hear SEO advice from someone positioning themselves as a “professional” that seems to be all about tricking search engines. As someone who has been preaching good, content-driven SEO since 1996, I also encounter people who get confused or offered bad SEO advice.
At the same time, I have many friends and colleagues in the print industry who struggle with web development “professionals” who think they know all they need to know about search engines. These professionals will refuse to implement 301 redirects rather than 302s, telling the SEOs that they somehow know better. And thus we get situations like when the International Herald Tribune lost pages it had in Google.
Time and again, you also discover some developer who created some all-Flash or all image web site. They get the basic idea (eventually) that search engines are, by and large, textual creatures. They want text in the way that radio wants sound and TV wants pictures. So they give the search engines some text in the wrong way, hiding it all with CSS code to make the text invisible by rending it in the page background color or pushing it off the visible screen entirely.
SEO Doesn’t Equal Spam
Publications do need good SEO. My concern about anti-SEO posts is that they often equate SEO with spam, as if they are the same thing. That’s like saying email marketing is the same as spam, or that all advertising is spam, or that all web development is the same as having badly designed web sites.
Yes, publications should have good writers. They should have good content. Trust me, a good SEO would love nothing more than to deal with a site that has outstanding content from the get-go.
SEOs Love Content But Need To Speak Louder About That Love
I realized that as part of this debate, as with similar debates I’ve engaged in over the years, that many outside the SEO world don’t understand that within it, plenty of good SEOs know that content is king. It’s understood. We know that’s the foundation, so we don’t focus on it any more than someone might focus that to be alive, you should breathe air.
But it’s a good reminder to everyone — content rules. Anything you do builds on top of that. And without it, you have a longer struggle. And without it, you might decide on shortcuts that don’t yield long-term gains.
The Spam Speaks Louder Than The SEO
There is indeed search spam that happens, as you’ll find with any other type of marketing activity. The worst, which I hate more than anything else, is automated link spam or comment drops. It adds no value to anyone. It creates major headaches for site owners. It causes people to assume that all SEO is like this (it is not).
In 2005, I tried to get the greater SEO industry to come out against this in a loud way. I had no particular luck. Last year, I wrote a long piece that called bullshit on the practice. In some keynote talks earlier this year, I also spoke that it shouldn’t even be a joking matter in some quarters. That to me, it’s becoming like hearing someone tell a racist joke. Yesterday, I also posted a personal look at how link spam has impacted my own wife’s web site.
Link and comment spamming won’t go away. It just won’t. It is unfortunately what we suffer from having open systems that allow people to submit anything without moderation and review, in a climate where occasionally, gathering links in this way can still work in the short term. But I’d love to see it go. I also don’t know any reputable SEO who is going to suggest to any reputable publication or web site that they should link spam the hell out of the web. If someone raises that as part of their SEO “plan,” publishers should run fast the opposite direction.
Related to this would be the creation of low-quality doorway page or microsites that have no other purpose that to be search engine fodder. That still goes on. I wrote about it in 2005, saying:
I come across search spam all the time — which to me is irrelevant content that’s overtly attempted to get a good ranking. I dislike it immensely when I hit this type of content, because I know exactly what the person has done to be misleading.
Yes, I’d like to see that go. I’d like to see people focus on building out really good content that works in the long term.
SEO Is More Than Web Pages
Just as SEO does not equal spam, it also does not equal just making sure your web pages are search engine friendly. SEO these days also covers things like video search, local search and blog search. Some of these aspects are well outside what a web developer would normally deal with. Even some web search aspects might not be familiar to web developers (such as how Google creates those small sitelinks below some listings).
Part of the bedrock of all this is keyword research. Plenty of people who do personal blogs will be vocal about how they rank for whatever they want or that they don’t care, they have no terms in mind that they are aiming for. That’s terrible advice for the majority of people out there.
Search engines are where people go to seek information. They express what they want using their own words. They’re having a conversation with that search engine, and part of the conversation back comes from the web sites that hear what they say and speak the same language. If they’re asking for “concrete security barriers,” but you’ve written your entire web site NOT using those words and only saying “revetment,” you’ve hurt your chance to speak to that person.
I don’t think web developers typically think of the keyword research aspect. They typically are not marketers. Heck, it’s hard enough to get writers to think of that aspect. But they should. A good SEO, aside from site architecture and inclusion issues, would also ensure that an organization is tapping into keyword research tools or has some awareness of the important of the words they choose.
That does not mean then stuffing all those words into a page. It doesn’t mean writing nonsensical articles that repeat the terms in a mishmash. It doesn’t even mean that you always say “concrete security barriers” instead of revetments on every page. But you do understand that you should use the terms searchers are using in an appropriate way.
SEO Is More Than Search Engines
Let me also revisit my definition of SEO:
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.
Anywhere people search, there are listings. SEO is understanding how these listings are generated and ensuring that you are well represented within them.
That’s why in the definition above, it’s important to note that “search engines” is broader than traditional search engines. For example, Urbanspoon is a popular mobile application to locate restaurants. You don’t even have type type in a keyword to show up there. Yet there are SEO aspects to how you are listed. If you’re a restaurant, part of your SEO efforts include understanding how Urbanspoon gets its data and the things you should be doing to appear well within them.
That understanding is more than what a typical web developer will do. No offense to the web developers out there. It’s just that keeping up on web development — the actual development of a web site — is a full-time job. Trying to also master the marketing of a web site on things that are not traditional search engines, that don’t even read your web pages in some cases, is probably more than a single person can do. That’s where a good SEO or a good marketing person can help. Together, they make a great team. They shouldn’t be enemies.
The Bad Spam Keeps The Debate Going
Why does this debate about SEO continue? Certainly there is a problem. The SEO industry has a terrible reputation. In part, it’s because the worst part of it makes the most noise. The people who most need work go out and cold-call, cold-email or whatever. The good professionals aren’t doing this. That’s because they’re often fully employed and can’t take on more work.
Also, anyone can call themselves an SEO, but we have no defined standards of what that is. So, you can get bad people doing bad work that generate a further poor reputation for the industry overall.
Unfortunately, the industry itself also has never been able to unify around standards. One reason is is because there are some people who disagree with the search engine standards that are issued. Google doesn’t like paid links, for example. Some SEOs simply think that for their industries, they have no choice but to buy them. Certainly you have plenty of “reputable” publications willing to sell them, who get nothing but a slap on the wrist from Google if they do so. No one has actively tried to pursue this further.
One thing I’ve suggested in the past is that perhaps there can be unification on deliverables. Many SEOs, regardless if they are “black hat” or “white hat,” likes the idea of someone who is just ripping off a client, not really doing any work, overhyping what they can really do or offering “guarantees” that when you look closely aren’t guaranteeing anything worthwhile.
The “Bad” Web Developers Impact Fewer People
Having said all this, there’s no standard among web developers. Anyone can simply say they are a web developer, but they don’t have to necessarily follow some accepted practices. You’ve got web developers who do sloppy work, who can create a mess of a web site. And I get out-of-the-blue annoying cold call emails from them, as well. Just fewer than the SEO pitches. Also, bad web developers only tend to impact their clients. Bad SEOs — people doing the comment spam — impact many others across the web, just as email spammers do.
Developers Have A Responsibility, Too
Despite all the spam that gives SEO a bad name, I think the design and developer community adds to the problem by often equating SEO with only the bad, without realizing the good out there.
Good SEO is often good site design. Good SEO can go hand-in-hand with good web development. But in my years of dealing with developers, it seems a second or third priority thing to some of them.
The top aspect is just build the site, test it with the major browsers, maybe test it with some users. Far too often, no one considers the impact those long, dynamic URLs may have on search engines. Or that Flash remains largely invisible. If SEO is considered, often it just seems dismissed as the crap it is perceived to be, rather than the assistance it can provide.
Alternatively, SEO is dismissed with a “I shouldn’t have to build my site to please search engines” attitude. That’s like saying you shouldn’t have to adjust your all-visual TV ad to air on radio. Except, unlike that example, SEO considerations are far less radical and help users, too.
Ironically, web developers and designers also fail to recognize how much work has been done by SEOs that improve their lives. It hasn’t been developers who’ve lobbied for Google and other search engines to better understand dynamic URLs, for example. That’s been the SEO community. Similarly, the serious issues with duplicate content? Years, and I do mean years, of lobbying by the SEO community helped bring forth the canonical tag. Meanwhile, if people are less able to “hijack” your listings in Google, you can thank SEOs who kept hammering Google on this issue until they improved things.
Can’t We All Get Along?
Derek Powazek, who kicked off the latest debate last week, has done a fresh post apologizing for grouping the good work with the bad:
To the people out there doing good work for real clients under the auspices of SEO: I’m sorry. I lumped you in with the bastards because I thought of what you did as web development, not SEO. I cast too wide a net and caught some good fish in there with the bad. I apologize.
That’s appreciated. And his advice to those in SEO should be also heard:
If there is going to be such a thing as “good SEO,” then the good guys need to fix their industry – put a stop to the evil practices or find some way to distance themselves from the evildoers. The way to silence critics is not to attack the critic, but to change the target of the criticism (especially if the criticism is justified).
I agree. But all I can say is that’s there’s no Team SEO that can swoop in and wipe out the spam, any more than Derek can police web developers who run ads in the Wall St. Journal promising to do both web sites & SEO for the low, low price of $695. Or the TV ad I just saw this weekend from Intuit, suggesting that for only $5 per month, I can have a web site and also get found on search engines.
Bargain. For only $60 per month I can have a site & rank on search engines? Clearly both web developers and SEOs are big rip-off machines, right? All you need is a template.
The good SEOs can’t stop the spam, but they can distance themselves from it. And they do so, time and again responding to posts like those from Derek and others over the years, to speak up and say SEO is not spam. They speak, they preach, they educate. I guess they’ll have to keep speaking, preaching and educating even louder.
But as they do it, I hope they do it with patience and care. Avoid personal attacks. Take the high road.
I’m often asked why I don’t give up. The reason is that people do listen. You can have conversations and attitudes can change. Make more good SEO visible, and maybe the spam won’t be the main thing that seems to speak for the industry.