SEO Is Not A Product

One of my biggest business frustrations in 2009 has centered around Search Engine Optimization (SEO): peoples fundamental misunderstandings of what SEO is, what it theoretically accomplishes, and the large number of shysters scaring businesses into pursuing activities not nearly as important as they are made out to be. Inquires usually go like this..

Preston,

My business–ACME Tires–has a basic website for customers with our logo, contact information and such, and am interested in generating more business out of it. I have asked a few people for recommendations and am now talking to several SEO providers that can provide service ranging from $100-$1,000/month. What do your SEO services cost and what guarantees do you make? (I need to be #1 on Google.) Thanks,

Alice

My initial natural inclination is to leer at my computer monitor and internalize a snide response, however, it’s not the customers fault for having a convoluted understanding of SEO, so I often send a polite, brief response, from a science and engineering standpoint. At this point, the recipient usually dismisses the information and goes about spending 1000% more than they should on services. Here’s the lowdown in plain English..

Legitimate Motivations For SEO

ACME stands to see legitimate value in several key ways from having their web presence tweaked by an “SEO expert”. Notably:

  • Higher rankings in Search Engine Results Pages (SERP). When I search for “tires phoenix, az”, ACME wants to come up as the #1 organic search result. This increases visibility over competitors and thus increases the liklihood that the searcher will click on the ACME page synopsis (and be directed to the ACME website).
  • Low Advertising Costs. When ACME uses Google AdWords to pay for ad placement in search engine results pages, Google must determine an appropriate cost for a click-through event on the ad. (In other words, ACME will pay Google whenever a user click on an advertisement and is directed to the ACME website.) The algorithms for making the cost decision are not public information, but are based partly on relevance of content. If Google thinks ACME Tires is the best thing since sliced bread, costs will be lower than if Google thinks ACME is a bakery or jeweler.

Illigitimate Terminology

The very legitimacy of the term and notion of “Search Engine Optimization” is debatable. The core function of a search engine is to guide people to content in such a way that the “right” resources can be found using brief, relevant terms. The job of the ACME Tires website is to provide information and services to ACME customers regarding tires. It is not ACME’s job to be an expert in the search engine marketplace. It could be argued, then, that the notion of SEO is a moot point, as it should be the job of the search engine vendor to figure out how to best index and present content in an optimized way. This being said, the Developer of the ACME website does have a list of technical tasks that need to be done to assure that content is well indexed and legitimate best practices are used–which I will not go into here–to put the most important site concepts at the forefront of search engine visibility. But we should NOT think:

  1. the ACME website is part of the search engine itself,
  2. the site cannot be “picked up” by search engines without extensive blackhat techniques, or most importantly,
  3. it is ACME’s job to make sure search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo! etc.) function properly.

The term “optimization” as used by most SEO companies can be better described as “gaming”. Search Engine Gaming (SEG) is a more accurate term than SEO because it reflects that the intent of site tweaking is to gain marketing favor, and improving content from the standpoint of the consumer is of secondary concern, if at all. From this point forward I will refer to activities that both improve marketing value and improve content consumability as “SEO”, and activities that improve marketing value but are indifferent to or negatively impact content as “SEG”.

Blackhat SEG Shysters

An unfortunate number of sleezeballs sell ethically questionable “SEO” services. This is not to say that there isn’t technical work being done nor that they cannot show marketing results, but they choose to do so in ways that make reasonable engineers cringe in disgust. No definitive list of “black hat” activities is completely agreed upon, and as with issues like U.S. health care, it’s a highly subjective topic wherein opinions greatly vary. Unfortunately, those that have the most to gain (vendors) are often leading the debates and giving the seminars, which is skewing public perception of SEO and what is/isn’t necessary. Common activities that I consider black areas (or grey, at best) include:

  • Keyword Stuffing. One of the easier ways to increase SERP placement is to cram as many important keyword and search phrases into your website as possible. I personally define keyword stuffing to be, “Page copy intentionally packed with a set of repetitive phrases to the point of becoming frustratingly redundant, difficult to comprehend, or otherwise awkward to read.”
  • Referrer Parsing. Whenever you click the ACME ad, the server running the ACME website knows the website from whence you came. When you come from a search engines, the site may be able to determine the search terms you used to find the link. This detection can all happen before the ACME website is rendered, which means when you search for “tracktuff tires, az” and click through to the ACME website, the ACME webserver can dynamically generate a headline reading “TrackTuff Tires Now 50% Off In Arizona!”, regardless of how relevant the “tracktuff” name or brand actually is to the ACME website. Now, for some reason, all the SEO consultants I’ve met that are doing this seem to think they invented it. (Seriously, I even know one guy that’s trying to get a patent for it.)
  • Automated Article Submission. Databases of articles are a great place for users to do general research and discovery. If you’re automating “article” submission to hundreds of databases simultaneously, however, you’re submissions will almost certainly be little more than biased PR and marketing content oriented towards getting links to ACME. Actually, there are many “article databases” that fully acknowledge and support this as a way to increase visibility of their own ads.
  • Automated Link Generation. Business adopting social media as a form of customer service and marketing often complain of the time required to pursue the natural creation of inbound links. This makes the business very receptive to vendors claiming to have solved the “social media time commitment problem” by automating responses to social networking and social media comments. To an engineer, doing so obviously misses the whole point of social media/social networking technology and is another form of spam. Additionally, the value of doing this on blogs and forums is next to nothing (due to the rel=”nofollow” attribute). Plus, the best links will generally come from partner websites and large-scale references in protected, reviewed publications such as journals and newspapers, which cannot be automatically generated for obvious reasons. In short: it’s pretty safe to consider automatic link generation a form of spam.
  • Email Spam. This is obviously a Bad Thing to do, but that doesn’t stop tons of vendors from doing it legally. The U.S. CAN-SPAM act does not require people to explicitly opt-in to be put on a mailing list, given they have some form of “relationship” with the company. Also, certain types of organizations–notably religious and political–may be exempt from some of these laws entirely.

Stupid Guarantees

A SEG company making a “#1 on Google in 24 hours!”-type claim is almost certainly using blackhat techniques and/or getting you prime placement for a term so long and specific to the point of being useless. For example, it shouldn’t be surprising that “acme tires phoenix arizona” would turn up the correct page first on a search engine, because:

  1. the intent of the searcher is almost certainly to find this one specific business website, and
  2. there are probably only a handful of resources on the web that match these terms well.

A search engine like Google might even return a map to the store in the first results page. Getting #1 placement for “tires arizona”, however, will be much more difficult since the search phrase will match many more web resources than the first, and, from the perspective of a small business owner, some of the competitors will have the time and money to put magnitudes more content online, and supplementing that content with marketing campaigns and PR.

Closing Thoughts

SEO/SEG is a technologically and ethically grey area, and vendors not defining clear boundaries of what they do for your money should generally be avoided. Do spend some effort making sure copy and syntax of website pages are thoroughly written, well-designed for usability and structured for search engine comprehension. But instead of paying a monthly service contract to an “SEO guy”, put that money into continued development of content that will please existing customers and help attract new ones. Pay attention to your placement in search engine results, sure, but at all times, stay focused on building value and meaningful business relationships over click-through rates and SERP rankings.

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