SEO “Best Practices” Are Bunk

On this, my maiden voyage as a columnist here at Search Engine Land, I’m going to rant about the empty buzzphrase “best practice.” Nothing like a little rant to get things started, right? This column is called Industrial Strength, with topics centered on search and social media marketing in the enterprise. While “best practice” talk […]

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On this, my maiden voyage as a columnist here at Search Engine Land, I’m going to rant about the empty buzzphrase “best practice.” Nothing like a little rant to get things started, right?

This column is called Industrial Strength, with topics centered on search and social media marketing in the enterprise. While “best practice” talk is prevalent at every level of marketing, the consequences of this type of thinking hit especially hard at the enterprise level online, where the scope is large and the change continuous.

“Best practice” is a stale buzzphrase that offers zero competitive advantage. There, I said it. SEO best practice in the enterprise? To me, that is nothing but useless marketing-speak. It doesn’t say anything about creating a competitive advantage in search, and it barely scratches the surface of SEO—especially industrial strength SEO, the focus of this column!

Important disclaimer: in-house SEOs work hard to train content teams, developers, UX teams, PR folks, and many more key stakeholders on SEO best practices. You’ve got to do this, and I do it too. But it’s not the point here. The point is to call out run-of-the-mill thinking and stale SEO campaigns.

A little history of flawed thinking

The idea of best practice grew out of organizational techniques popular in the mid-to-late 1990s (Six Sigma, Total Quality Management). These theories, and others, helped create the idea that certain groups had achieved “best practices” within an organization, and that these practices could be taught to the company at large, proliferating their “bestness” company-wide.

That’s all fine and dandy, and from a practical point of view, probably has merit. But at the strategic level, there’s an inherent flaw here: the whole idea of “best practice” signifies that we have achieved what is best, that we can practice that and follow a procedure, that the best is based on a ruleset that can be taught, repeated and spread out across an entire organization. Does that sound like SEO to you? It sure doesn’t sound like SEO to me—at least not valuable SEO, the kind that delivers significant returns at the bottom line. It sounds like SEO 101.

Ramifications of SEO best practices

We are reaching a point in SEO where established ideas are no longer good enough (this is magnified at the enterprise level, where the stakes are high). It’s always been moving that way, of course, but today there is such an extreme level of competition that we will soon see the men separated from the boys, as it were, in the search engine result pages (SERPs). (Sorry ladies, you’re awesome too! It’s just a saying.) This is a natural evolution for search marketing: you can get away with being sub-par for awhile, but sooner or later, you’ll fall off the back.

Let me ask you this: Do you think you can separate your company from the competition in SERPs with SEO best practices?

As Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh recently quipped:

Tony Hsieh on best practices

Best practices are weak at best

By their very nature, best practices are rulesets that are standardized and formalized procedures. There is no competitive advantage in having best practices, at least in SEO. There is only a summation of basic webmastering (e.g., place relevant keywords in the title tag, make pages semantic and relevant, etc). That’s simply not cutting it anymore, because frankly, that stuff represents the basic price of admission. Best practices are neutered, stale and massively reproduced conventions that have been used (and sometimes abused) to the point of ubiquity. SEO and ubiquity don’t mix.

By definition, a best practice:

  • is a static ruleset
  • is a standard to be followed
  • has worked in the past (read: is old)
  • has been popularized (read: is average)
  • limits judgement, evaluation, and strategy (cornerstones of quality search marketing)

Any time we feel satisfied with having achieved the ‘best’ (what a pipe dream!), we miss great opportunities that are always present. We miss the opportunity to fail quickly, find out what didn’t work, change it, and find something that does work. That type of thinking and risk taking is what contributes to cutting-edge SEO, and it also contributes to great companies.

In contrast, best practices are procedures that seek to be easily duplicated and reproduced. This offers no competitive advantage, a serious limitation that’s emphasized in competitive fields such as internet marketing.

There is a place for SEO best practices. For example, so-called textbook SEO, where title tags and basic on-page optimizations are followed, can be fairly easily standardized (and even automated). There will be some nuance, especially in regards to keyword selection, but optimizing title tags and basic on-page elements is a pretty straightforward affair.

I’m not saying that key company departments shouldn’t have training in SEO best practices. They should! Teach content teams to think about SEO. That should be a preliminary tactic, which opens the question: what’s next?

Think radical change and innovation

SEO for enterprise-level sites has become much more about brand and authority, about influence and partnerships, and about wider marketing principles than conventional SEO can ever touch. Instead of following best practices in this environment, I like to follow something akin to “radical discontinuous change“—now there’s a phrase that fits the SEO mindset! Instead of stale, common best practices, think of the key strengths of your corporation, of unique competitive advantages. This type of approach is:

  • dynamic
  • unique to each organization (and even each department)
  • current and future-looking
  • requiring of judgement, experience, evaluation and creativity

Theoretically, SEO at any level is about reinventing strategies continuously based on what works, removing what doesn’t, and always striving. Sure, we need some pragmatic processes developed and spread across key departments in the company. That’s a given. But at the macro level, we need to think in terms of creating big ideas, not in terms of SEO 101; and that means thinking in atypical ways, which is directly contrary to following best practices or procedures. This key concept will separate the average SEOs (who are a dime a dozen) from the truly great ones (who are pretty darn rare). And no, I don’t count myself as one of the rare ones (yet). But I’m working on it.

You don’t achieve dramatic results by following the herd. You achieve dramatic results by thinking in new, weird, and creative ways. It’s true in business, and it’s true in SEO.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Adam Audette
Adam Audette is SVP SEO and Data Science at Blend360. Adam started his career in the early 2000s by co-founding the SEO agency AudetteMedia. He was the global head of SEO for Merkle / Dentsu for nearly eight years. He now works at Blend360 combining the worlds of data science and SEO. Adam and his teams have worked with many of the world’s leading brands, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Zappos, Walmart, Target, Experian, Samsung, Walgreens, and many others.

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