An Open Letter To Derek Powazek On The Value Of SEO

Danny Sullivan on
  • Categories: Channel: SEO, Features: General, SEM Industry: Community, SEM Industry: General, SEO: General
  • Derek Powazek launched an attack on SEO yesterday that really said nothing that others haven’t ranted about before. I’ve responded to many of these attacks over the years in hopes of educating people about mistaken assumptions. I’ve largely given up. But I figured this time I’d give it another go with some personal illustrations I’ve encountered recently.

    In particular, rather than do an article to counterbalance Derek’s post, I started to write him a private email. But as I composed that, I felt it might better illustrate to everyone why SEO is indeed a legitimate form of marketing and those who provide the service are not all “scammers” who are out to “con” you.

    So Derek, I saw your rant, and it was disappointing. Your post was based on “14 years of hits and misses.” Well, my response come from my own 14 years of covering search engines. Of having answered feedback from hundreds of people. Of having talked with hundreds of people personally. Of understanding that the “you just build it; you just put it out there” approach to search engines, sadly, doesn’t always cut it.

    Let me be clear. I totally agree with your core advice. Build a site for visitors. Have great content. These are the keys to success, not just with SEO but with anything you want to do. In fact, we just had an article on our site here reinforcing this.

    Still, sometimes people have problems. And the stuff that you think isn’t rocket science — that anyone knows — is indeed a mystery to others. They want help, and sometimes they can’t find that web developer who also understands SEO issues. In the same way, you sometimes don’t find web developers who are also designers. Or designers who understand conversion issues. Or conversion experts who understand web development.

    Let me tell you some stories.

    A Mother Who Sells Homes

    Two weeks ago, our local elementary school had a mixer for parents. I was talking with one woman who asked what I did for work. “I write about search engines,” I told her. That led her to asking if I know about how people get found on Google. Yep. So she started asking about her local real estate site, and how she might market it, things that she might do.

    That’s a loaded question. See, for you, she just needs to believe in the real estate she’s selling, then tell her friends with personal notes, get out on Twitter, find places where her community congregates and “be real.”

    But to really be real, let’s remember that she’s selling real estate in one of the most competitive areas of the country, Newport Beach, California. Her friends aren’t all going to buy homes she’s listing. Her “community” congregates on Google and does things like type in “newport beach homes for sale.”

    To succeed in attracting that audience, she should have a great site and great content — agreed. But does she have individual listings? Then she probably needs to kick them out into Google Base, in order to fully be listed in Google. Does your mythical web developer deal with Google Base much? And where’s her web site now? Is she running it off Blogger? Using her own domain? These have impacts on how both the search engines may see her as well as how she’s perceived.

    Does she have a blog in addition to a main site? That has an impact. Has she considered some unusual, creative ways to create content around real estate in her area, perhaps some catchy link bait, which may pull in the links she needs to rank better (which, by the way, is a recommended Google practice).

    Does she have a local office? If so, has she claimed her listing in Google Local? If so, has she updated her title to reflect that perhaps she has “newport beach homes for sale?”

    This is all SEO. It’s not your father’s (or mother’s) SEO that you rant about, the keyword stuffing, the link drops (none of which is best practices SEO anyway). But make no mistake, it’s SEO.

    SEO & Baseball Practice

    Later that same week, I took my son to baseball practice. I also took my computer, so that I could finish up work on an article and have the weekend clear when he was done.

    Another father came over to me, asking what I do. “I write about search engines….” Which as before, led to the questions about how his company might show up on Google. Did I know much about that?

    Sure. And since I had my mobile broadband card with me, I fired up his web site. Very sad. Same page title on every page. No keyword research employed, to think how people might be seeking out the industrial shipping cases they sell. Long, dynamic URLs that might pose indexing issues.

    Where do you start with someone like this? In your world, his company should just “be real.” He sells industrial shipping cases. How real do you want to be about that?

    His “community” are the people who realize they need a case like he sells and go online to places like Google and start searching for the products. And his pages are NEVER going to show up, because there’s nothing unique about his site and he had basic SEO errors that haven’t been dealt with.

    If all he did was change things so that his page titles were different, he’d pull traffic. I know, I know — that’s so obvious. But it is NOT to him. His job isn’t to do web development. He’s not you or I with 14 years of having learned all this stuff along the way. He actually deals with things like ordering the products, overseeing workers and doing an array of offline marketing.

    Meanwhile, his web developer clearly did NOT have any SEO thoughts in mind when building the site. That’s all too common. If I wanted to be snarky, I could do an entire post on why web developers are a waste of time and you should just employ SEOs who can also build web sites. But the reality is that a good SEO (and there are some) working to help direct the web developer could solve the site’s problems quickly. It’s called teamwork, and it’s awesome when it happens.

    Mommy Bloggers & SEO

    Over the weekend, I had a group of mommy bloggers over at my house. Not because I’m a mommy blogger but because my wife is a mommy blogger. The group was here because they’re all involved in a new project for mommy bloggers in Orange County.

    My participation was to show up at the end of the meeting, not to say anything but just because I was coming home. I caught some of the closing conversation, and a question about Google came up. How was the search engine going to deal with their content, if these mommy bloggers put the same article on a publishers site as well as their own sites.

    Answer? I don’t know. Google might decide to favor the publisher’s site not because it’s “more real” than the mommy bloggers but because it has built up more authority collectively over time. Certainly the mommy bloggers themselves are all “real” in what they write, how they put themselves out there to their communities and so on. Much depends on what they’re most concerned about.

    If they had a key post that they absolutely wanted to be the primary source for, guess what? They’d better have some SEO savvy. They might need to tell the publisher to prevent the copy of their posts they provide from being spidered on the publisher’s site. Or if they allow it, then they might want to make use of the forthcoming canonical tag 2.0.

    That’s not being “real.” That’s SEO. And that’s SEO that a good SEO will know — and many non-SEOs will not.

    I’m glad, honestly glad, that you’re savvy enough to understand how good SEO can be incorporated into web development. I wish more web developers could do the same. But my experience has been that much good SEO gets overlooked. There are bad SEOs out there, who give the entire industry a bad name — just as there are bad bloggers, bad designers, bad cops, you name it. There are also excellent SEOs who work inside of companies as well as through agencies for hire. Don’t tarnish an entire industry that actually helps many, many people in ways I’m sure you would agree with.

    For those who just can’t get enough of this subject, some of my past writings on the topic. They cover plenty of additional examples, plus the fact that Google itself recommends SEO:

    See also the follow-up to this post, SEO FAQ That’s Not From The Land Of Unicorns.


    About The Author

    Danny Sullivan
    Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.