The role technical SEO should play: It’s makeup
Columnist Clayburn Griffin argues that while technical SEO can make your site more attractive to search engines, it can only go so far. Once you've implemented your technical optimizations, you still need to have something of substance to best your competitors.
Being attractive is a nice advantage. People are more inclined to like you if you’re attractive. And makeup can make anyone look better. It can touch up blemishes and smooth out your skin. It can outline your eyes and make them stand out.
While using makeup right can make you more attractive, applying more makeup doesn’t always make you more attractive. At some point, you’re done. You’re made up. More makeup would be futile.
Technical SEO is makeup. You can use it to make your site more attractive to search engines, but at some point there’s nothing more to be done. You have to move on to less superficial qualities to increase your website’s attractiveness.
Yet for some reason, I’ve noticed an odd trend in our industry of assigning too much value to technical SEO. “Technical SEO is quite literally the least you can do.” That was one of the kinder statements I made in a recent LinkedIn Pulse article.
My intention was to provoke, to cause controversy, and that’s definitely what I did. The response was great, with many people unable to disagree with me as much as they wanted to. The typical reply was along the lines of “I agree, but…”
Patrick Stox even wrote a great post here on Search Engine Land responding to my article, saying, “I am amazed to find myself agreeing with him in many ways after revisiting the post.”
Still, there were quite a few readers who became so outraged that they missed the point entirely. So, I thought I’d try a less inflammatory approach this time around because it’s an important message that needs to be heard — one that’s easily explained through makeup.
Everyone’s wearing makeup
Let’s not kid ourselves. We all have the same access to fake eyelashes, an assortment of lipstick colors and XML sitemaps. SEOs know what they’re doing, and no good SEO is going to walk out in public without putting on their face.
So, how do you make yourself more attractive when plenty of people are just as dolled up as you are? With SEO being a rather standard product these days, it can be difficult for any one SEO or agency to show their value over anyone else. “SEO Best Practices” are more or less the same wherever you go. That’s why they’re called best practices.
What’s an agency to do? Most of the time, it seems like they turn to more and more technical SEO. Agencies are always on the lookout for great technical SEOs. More makeup to slather on their clients’ websites.
Large brands see pitches all the time, and SEO pitches are nearly identical. They go something like this: “28% of your URLs have incorrect canonicals. You have 120 internal links that lead to a 404. AJAX is hiding content on your FAQ page. Your internal search is creating 50,000 duplicate pages.”
When a brand manager is hearing the same technical SEO checklist read to them in every pitch meeting, it says to them that it doesn’t matter who they pick. Hell, they could probably just forward the pitch deck to their dev team and not even hire an SEO agency at that point.
For something that is so fundamental and limited in its benefit, I can’t understand why so many agencies want to stuff their eggs in that basket.
Makeup can only do so much
Now, my analogy isn’t a perfect one here. I don’t mean to say that technical SEO is totally optional the way makeup is. Indeed, unlike makeup, technical SEO is both important and necessary. You can kill off all your organic search traffic with a technical miscalculation.
The problem is when it comes to technical SEO, there are no big wins; there’s only recovery from or prevention of big losses. Other than fixing what’s broken, technical SEO is not something that can get you increased search traffic. And isn’t that the true purpose of SEO?
You can optimize and optimize, but eventually you hit the ceiling of technical SEO. If your website is 100 percent technically sound, what’s left to do? You don’t just keep smearing on lipstick expecting to turn into Scarlett Johansson.
Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever really hit 100-percent technical perfection. There will always be something to improve, and there will always be new changes that may break things entirely.
But the truth is that those last few percentage points of technical SEO won’t move the needle much. Time is better spent elsewhere rather than obsessing over a couple of milliseconds of load time or schema-marking up all the things.
While it may certainly be true that with some technical optimization, you can get a few more organic search visits, think about the opportunity cost that goes beyond mere organic visits. Do you spend time applying more mascara, or do you work on learning a new language? Do you try a different shade of lipstick, or do you hit the gym?
Go beyond the superficial
If you expect to stand out, you can’t just worry about looking attractive. You have to be attractive. This means your personality, your philosophy, your character. How do you choose to relate to the world? Who are you as a person, and why should someone like you? For a website, this comes down to strategy, content and backlinks.
Every decent SEO is going to fix technical issues. Which one will build a winning strategy that goes beyond technical SEO fixes? Agencies should look for strategic thinkers in tune with the bigger marketing orchestra, not someone just tooting their own SEO horn. If you can present SEO as a tool for solving meaningful business goals, you’re going to win more pitches.
I’ve seen SEOs on $100k accounts try to dictate strategy for $40 million television campaigns instead of finding the best way for SEO to support cross-channel efforts. Put a technical SEO in charge of Zappos, for instance, and they’d most likely rename it “Buy Shoes Online.”
So don’t hire an SEO who’s going to stubbornly fight for SEO best practices just for SEO’s sake. (And don’t be that SEO!) Hire an SEO who sees the big picture and their place in it. When someone understands that, they can focus on the things that really matter.
If you can take a moment to put down the concealer stick, you might find that time is often better spent building something useful to offer website visitors. A good piece of new content will help SEO, but it has the added benefit of bringing in social and referral traffic, too.
Same goes for links! Sure, you could hack away at your source code to get that baby running smoother than a springtime rose petal, but you’d get more return on your investment doing some good old-fashioned PR.
Search engines want to see a technically pretty site, certainly. But that kind of beauty is only skin-deep. Their user experience depends on serving good, relevant websites to searchers. This takes a lot more than a technical skill set. You have to think strategically, be creative and understand the human relationships behind the Web.
Sadly, it feels like these qualities are largely lacking in the SEO industry. Other disciplines take all our great strategic, creative and social minds. They leave us with imitation developers.
There is no shortage of good technical SEOs — the backlash over my LinkedIn article was proof of that. Technical SEOs all around the world were coming out of the woodwork to defend their overpriced salaries. So while technical skills are great to have, they’re hardly in short supply.
Makeup is the easy part
The next time you’re doing a pitch, keep technical SEO to one or two slides. When you’re hiring, look for creative problem solvers and socially savvy marketers. Don’t obsess over technical SEO. It’s makeup.
Wear it and look pretty, but don’t think it’s going to turn you into someone people actually want to spend time with. That’s the hard part of being attractive, and it’s the hard part of SEO.
Technical SEO is easy, breezy, beautiful, but it’s no game-changer.
Editor’s note: Since this column was originally published, we’ve added a response from another contributor, Patrick Hathaway, with a very different point of view.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.