Yes Virginia, SEO Is Rocket Science – Defending Search Engine Optimization Once Again

Like Greg Boser, I saw the articles and counter-articles emerge from Did-It’s swing at search engine optimization back in October, rolled my eyes and moved on. The argument’s been done before, done to death. But Greg’s got his back up now, and he provides an excellent read in The Half-Truths of Talking Frogs. I’ll highlight part of his post defending SEO plus jump in along with him.

I read Kevin Lee’s ClickZ column that got Greg fired up and didn’t personally take it as saying all organic results are spammers. Kevin wrote:

There’s no reason organic search should be more relevant than paid search. Quite the contrary. SEO spammers don’t care if they manage to get a high position for keywords and keywords phrases that are less than perfectly relevant, because a high SEO position delivers clicks for free, be they perfectly targeted or only marginally relevant. PPC search marketers, however, have no such luxury. They pay for every click, and any click with a poor chance of converting due to poor relevance has an ever-increasing cost.

Greg took away:

Kevin’s relevancy argument clearly implies that the sites showing up on the left side of the screen are using “risky�? spamming tactics that will ultimately cause irrelevant pages to show up. He is pushing the message that allocating money for organic SEO is synonymous with being a spammer

I took it to mean that Kevin felt there was nothing to limit the potential of spam in organic results, not that all organic results were the same as spam. In other words, since advertisers have to pay for paid listings, they don’t want to be putting up irrelevant stuff. In contrast, the organic results have no payment barrier to entry. Potentially, paid listings should be more relevant.

It’s a nice argument, and one I’ve discussed before. But the barrier for entry into the top page of search results for terms is higher than in the past — the more wild west past that Greg does an excellent job detailing. You don’t just fire up 100,000 doorway pages and say thanks for those page one results, Google. In contrast, despite the human review that is supposed to be happening, I routinely find ads showing up on Google and other search engines that seem to be nothing but broad match targeting without thought or filtering.

Here’s a search on danny at Google. In the US, it shows me:

Biography, Photo Collection, Film
List & more – Visit MovieFone Now!

Oooh. How relevant. Go on, click through on the link. I’ve removed the paid portion. There’s nothing I find particularly relevant to this page about Danny. And in the UK, I get this:

10 Years Younger
Have Toyboy
Have Fun

Toyboy, for those who don’t speak Brit, means a younger guy who is with an older woman. This Danny isn’t a toyboy — and I find the relevancy of the ad period to be odd. The page says nothing about Danny or Dannys on it. Do we really think someone searching on "danny" was thinking please Google, show me a toyboy ad?

So let’s dispense with the notion that either side of the screen, the organic left or the paid right, is somehow going to be more relevant that the other. For each search, various factors will come into play.

But back to the SEO argument. Here’s what Dave Pasternack wrote originally:

Sure, marketers (especially in fiercely competitive verticals) may need to consult an expert to pull ahead in a head-to-head battle with a competitor for highly contested organic rankings. But SEO isn’t rocket science, and just about every marketer who invests a bit of time, research, and elbow grease can realize its benefits without paying a fortune to an SEO firm.

Actually, it is rocket science — if you know nothing about it. Most recently, I talked about this in my SES Chicago keynote earlier this month and in a Daily SearchCast episode in November. That episode has me going on a real rant about it.

Look, I am absolutely sick and tired of the SEO community forgetting that what they know and do is NOT second nature to the vast majority of people. I’m not talking spamming or black hat stuff. I’m talking about that "simple" stuff, the loads of things that can make a real difference to how well a site does in the search results. Ignore these things on purpose or accidentally, and you miss out on valuable traffic.

Yes, you can invest time to learn these "simple" things. But if you know nothing about them, they can see like rocket science. Over the years, I’ve talked with plenty of people who weren’t even aware of the basic tip that every page should have a unique, descriptive title tag. They think "title" means the biggest text on the page, not the HTML title tag. Talk of HTML title tags – that IS rocket science to them.

In November, I was on a site review clinic at PubCon. We had one woman who was unable for some reason to access anything other than her home page. So, she put meta tags for all her other eight internal pages on the home page. She somehow thought this would magically tell the search engines the information for the other pages.

But it ain’t rocket science. Everyone knows this stuff.

Have you blocked off all your print only pages to avoid possible duplicate content issues, like Google recommends? Hey, are you delivering all your page content through AJAX now? Are you aware this means search engines might not see any of your content? Everyone knows about these things, right? How about that local listing? Did you register with Google to get your postcard allowing you to change your title and information, which can have an impact o how you rank?

This is rocket science. SEO is only not seen as rocket science BY THOSE WHO ALREADY KNOW IT. Everyone in the industry forgets how much knowledge they’ve acquired, learned, absorbed to the point it becomes second nature. I’ve joked at that some point, how second nature it is reminds me of a classic scene from The Matrix:

It’s hard when you’re in search marketing not to see all that stuff. I’ve described it to some people like that scene in the Matrix, when Cypher is staring at those three monitors with streaming code that looks like nothing. He tells Nero:

"I don’t even see the code anymore; all I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead"

When I do a search, it’s hard to look at just the content I’m being shown. All I see is seo, seo, seo.

So don’t diss SEO. I’m not having it. Don’t diss it to yourself, underestimating how much you’ve learned and how valuable you are to yourself, your clients or your company. Don’t diss it outside the industry because you think it’s so "simple." It’s not, any more than all those "simple" jobs I do around the house seem complicated to me because I don’t do them for a living.

I love both sides of the search marketing how, the ads and SEO. Both sides can and should reinforce each other.

If you want to pick up more on this most recent debate, these two threads at the Search Engine Watch Forums are good for linking to articles spurred by the original Did-It article and some responses:

And I’d really encourage you to read my Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO article from April 2005. It’s goes in more depth why SEO deserve greater respect plus why that’s been lost along the way.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | SEM Industry: General | SEO - Search Engine Optimization | 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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  • ★ ★ Search Engines WEB ★ ★

    People who are patronizing SEO, are probably doing so because of their inability to get consistant high rankings for competative queries.

    Any who Google has the option of JUST searching the PPCs as exclusive listings. The overall results are relevant but mediocre.

    It is now impossible for a spam site to get a decent ranking for any reasonably moderately popular query on any of the major search engines.

    Collectively, the top 20 on the majors are as spam free as they have been since their beginnings.

    One could disagree with their relevance prorities – but no one could point to any spam making it that far and staying.

    One downside to all of this, is the plight of the new sites or the small businesses to compete visibly – and therefore – have no other option but to use PPCs or get a Yahoo directory listing.

    Another downside to this is that for certain popular searches, Google is now showing Reference sites in the SERPs; it has then become more efficient to excusively search PPCs for commerical sites.

    Sergey did justify this bias by stating that
    they felt people searching for competive terms were seeking information as opposed to shopping.

  • st0n3y

    Nobody would think that a 1000 piece puzzle is rocket science, but very few people have the kind of time or patience to put one together. SEO is similar to putting together a puzzle, but instead of 1000 pieces that can be put together by site, they must be put together by knowledge. The knowledge is out there and attainable, but not many people have the time or patience to do it. changing oil in a car isn’t rocket science, nor is tiling a floor, but I do neither of those because I don’t have (nor want) the knowledge, I’d rather pay someone else who does. To me, both of those things ARE rocket science for that very reason.

    SEO is a lot of work and requires a lot of time to do it and do it right. Those that don’t respect that prove that they really know nothing about it at all.

  • Michael Martinez

    You may not want people to diss SEO, but the SEO community does a horrible job of explaining and promoting itself. Today we’re still wrangling with the issue of ethics, making us look like a gang of tin men.

    The extortion campaign currently being conducted against Ted Leonsis for control of his name space (look at the paid ads running under that query) is a perfect example of just how low some people in the community are willing to stoop.

    I think SEO is in for a year or more of being beaten up on by all sorts of pundits.

    It’s probably an ass-kicking that is long overdue.

  • diditcom

    Danny correctly surmises that I nowhere have equated SEO practitioners in general with SEO spammers. Quite the contrary; SEO practitioners, for the most part are NOT SEO spammers.

    However, some SEOs or the salespeople working for SEO firms sell SEO as a way to get a site to the top of he listings and never ask (or mention) that the marketer’s site will actually have to be both relevant and respected (based on links) to stay there.

    On the other hand, as Danny points out some sites don’t get the rankings they deserve based on the quality of their content and their reputations. These marketers should absolutely either learn SEO, or hire a professional. Those seeking to learn SEO have several options, including all the usual conferences plus the upcoming Search Marketing Expo. Courses and training are also available from the DMA, SEMPO (coming soon), as well as several other organizations.

    As to the relevance creep of paid listings over organic, this may take years, but the economic drivers are in place and the transition will occur in the fringes first (local search where a searcher does not specify city/location is already much more relevant for paid listings most of the time). Marketers are being pushed by all engines, to use more exact match, make landing pages more relevant (to increase conversion and quality scores), and make the titles and descriptions highly relevant. Economic friction slows this process down for the low volume terms. Both SEOs and paid search enthusiasts are mining the tail, but the paid search enthusiasts will have to remain relevant as soon as the competition joins them in the tail.

    The search engines have two very strong incentives, one is to push to make the paid listings more relevant so they can monetize their traffic better, the other is to keep the organic listings as relevant as possible or risk losing their audience. That means the engine’s anti-spam teams are working heard to make sure that only ethical SEO works, long term. Instead of testing SEO/PPC relevance for Danny, let’s instead look at the keyword SEO. Results are mixed ;-)

    The next few years are going to be very interesting.

  • Brokerblogger

    While I wasn’t surprised to see Kevin Lee defend his partner’s position, I was surprised to see a member of the board of SEMPO appear to resort to “Donald Trump vs. Rosie O’Donnell “attack hook” (Todd Malicoat’s appropriate keyword evaluation) tactics. The producers of the “View” love the “ratings bait”, but I don’t think that prospective advertisers get a “warm and fuzzy” feeling from reading this kind of overall negative clutter when they are trying to decide where to invest their limited marketing budgets.

    My opinion is that Kevin fails to see that the “economic drivers” are in place for organic too, as prices for both SEO and PPC go up. Why, because marketers will have to learn more quickly that quality conversions and ROI are king for both, and not just clicks. The bottom line is if the organic results don’t continue to grow in relevancy, the PPC ads will get viewed, clicked on, and converted less for that “lag behind” SE, as well as for the PPC service companies and their clients. The “trust factor” will always be with the organic results, IMO. The consumer end-user is ultimately “in control” as the president of the ANA recently said. Those analytic results will eventually control the advertiser-marketers.

    Kevin is now being more diplomatic in explaining his position better, but I can’t help taking away from all this an analogy of “Tupac SEO vs. Notorious Did-it

  • Fionn

    What I find most dissapointing in all of this is that the leaders of a major agency in the search engine marketing industry would be so reckless about attacking another area of the industry. The industry does not need this. The industry needs unity not public fighting. What the industry needs is debate on how to raise the profesional standards in the industry not industry ‘leaders’ taking cheap shots at any one sector that they do not provide services in. I too have a lot of respect for Kevin Lee I never heard of David Pasternack until this incident but in my opinion this is very careless and insensitive.

    More confusing and in this case inaccurate information being served up to the already completely confused consumers of search not good not good at all.

  • wilreynolds

    I think we all hit a threshold where we start thinking this stuff is simple, but Danny you hit the nail on the head. All it takes is a few meetings / conferences to realize that we have a lot of knowledge that is just *snap* at our fingertips. But we have confidence in that info because many of us have been researching / testing for a while.

    With that said, I recently spoke with a company who has been burned by 3 SEO companies and were out there looking for a new one. One firm told them cold fusion couldn’t be optimized, the other mentioned something about needing at least a page rank 5 to compete for terms.

    It just shocks me at the amount of know it alls who run SEO (or sell it) who don’t know squat, hurting the industry as a whole. I can’t wait for a shakeout. ARGHHH!!!! I find myself educating so many people I can’t even work with just to hopefully keep them from getting snowed by BS SEO companies.

    Rant over, Danny thanks for the defense, well done.

  • Craig Danuloff

    The mistake trail begins with Dave’s initial assertion that slow revenue growth for SEO firms has something to do with the complexity of SEO. It likely has a lot more to do with the marketing of SEO – clients pouring millions into paid search don’t understand even the basics of the organic side – they don’t know why to spend big money on SEO or what they’ll get if they do. If Kevin’s post forces SEO’s to better explain what they do and its value then he just may have done the industry an unintentional favor.

    I’ve taken a shot in this post pointing out that while basic optimization is easy, great results are definitely not. If marketers don’t understand the value and poential of SEO they’ll continue to stick exclusively with the very easy to understand paid side.

  • M/C/C Public Relations

    user Id test..

  • M/C/C Public Relations


    You and I (paisley) have been doing this for years… You’ve made a career talking about it.. (gotta love Meckler Media!)

    Some people (Jill Whalen) make a living talking about it at seminars.. (i guess she makes a living, i don’t know..)

    Some of us, keep our mouth shut, file copyrights on our SEO practices and do good work following the rules and don’t play into all the this, link exhange, that crap..

    until pontiac does stupid advertising locally.. or..

    …until an assclown like Dave Pasternack decides that he knows something and tries to do a lame ass PR stunt.. (we will give $1000 dollars to charity X if you link to our page….. )
    by discrediting SEO.. SEO the right way like I’ve practiced since webcrawler.. well since they banned my old URL for being all of the the top 30 results for 8 terms back in 1996.. and i got my hand slapped..

    No, it’s not rocket science, it’s ontology, (DMOZ, Yahoo! Dir.), it’s psychology, (what terms do people search for concerning my client that are specific to those people that are in my client’s industry, i.e. “epc engineering”), it’s HTML, it’s XML, it’s php vs. asp vs. perl vs. cgi, it’s noticing that Yahoo! on a monday will use your directory listing as the title but on tuesday they were using the stuff from my “title” tag, vs. all those other jerks out there using doorway pages, decpetive redirects and .. which I just removed from a client’s site but can’t state who due to an NDA here.. but try Googling their name (the SEO firm’s) and notice they don’t come up.. lol..

    Dave Pasternack shouldn’t be as hard as pontiac..
    but he just became the poster boy for PPC twits..

    March 1st is the date… what time? and yes it matters… what geographic location will the search be made from? yes that matters too.. he wants to call the legitimate SEO Professionals out.. ok.. i’ll step up.. Geesh, no talent PPC Assclown..

    FYI.. anyone else particiapting in the public bitchslap of Dave Pasternack.. please follow these guildines…

    - No links to or any pages on his companies website..
    - mention his title and his name and the company he works for.. let’s make sure everyone knows his position.. and who he works for..
    - anyone having personal information like his cell phone, wife’s name, SSN, home address, vehicle license plate.. if you aren’t sure the legality of what’s posted send them to me..


  • Search Engine Optimization India : SEO HAWK

    The situation is really grave on Google Adwords. Few months back we observed one of our client’s websites received hundreds of clicks from competitors.

    We tried reporting to Google that we were advertising on, and the clicks we have received are from different country. Moreover 100 clicks were fouund from one single location.

    When we mailed Google we were surprised to find that they justified clicks, and reported back that even if somebody from one IP clicks 100 times on your AD, it will be considered as 100 different authentic clicks :(

    Google is following a monopoly to maximize their revenues through Google Adwords. This is something which is making Google lag behind other search engines like Yahoo, and MSN.

    Google became popular because of its latest/accurate results. These days Google is surely aiming to deliver accurate results , but their ranking filters and algorithm can eventually hit back Google like a Boomerang.

    They are trying to maximize their Adwords/Adsense revenue, and to enable this they are deliberately holding back ranking of several useful websites. Whenever I have to search for some latest news, free software, free script etc etc, I have to rush immediately to MSN since it delivers latest results. Moreover their Image search is far much advance than Google ;)

    These days even Yahoo is gaining pace over Google by delivering latest results in their search engine. Surely Google has to wake up before it is too late. Their useless filters are making life miserable for genuine websites/forums to score top rankings on Google. Moreover it is making life miserable for search users by restricting their search results.

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