I'm a huge fan of the web designer and magazine publisher Derek Powazek, but I couldn't disagree more with his rant that calls all search engine optimization (SEO) a con game:
Search Engine Optimization is not a legitimate form of marketing. It should not be undertaken by people with brains or souls. If someone charges you for SEO, you have been conned. ...
The problem with SEO is that the good advice is obvious, the rest doesn't work, and it's poisoning the web.
I tried to respond on his blog, but he's closed comments. Saying that good SEO is obvious is like saying that good web design is obvious. Lumping all SEO consultants with scammers and spammers is unfair to thousands of people who do that work honorably.
The kinds of things he's saying about SEO were being said about blogs back when mass-audience tools like Blogger and Movable Type helped popularize the medium. The publishing style of blogs -- short frequent items with category links and heavy link exchange among bloggers -- had a considerable SEO benefit and helped blogs rise to the top of search results, making a lot of static-site publishers angry.
If I'd been able to comment, I would have posed this question to Derek: Have you ever tried to help a small business launch a new site and be discovered by potential customers on search engines? It's a difficult task that's vital to their livelihood. The black-hat junk that he slams makes it even harder for them.
Good SEO is essential to these businesses, which aren't in a position to simply "Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again," since they are not web auteurs with a 14-year track record of launching great sites. Try explaining to a company that provides environmental cleanup services across two states that it doesn't need SEO because it just has to create something cool and tell people. Or a local chiropractor. Companies throw hundreds or even thousands of dollars at yellow-page publishers for a single ad because their need to be found by customers is so strong. A lot of people never look at those tree-killing phonebooks anymore. They use Google.
As obvious as Derek believes SEO to be, he missed one of the most basic techniques by omitting a title in the URL of his blog posts.
I'm not an SEO consultant, but I've learned about the techniques over the years because I run a one-man shop that can't afford advertising. Most SEO techniques are about learning how Google works, not trying to game it inappropriately. The first thing I would hire, if my business could afford it, is an expert in SEO. That talent pays for itself more quickly than any other skill in web publishing.
Photo of Derek Powazek taken by Isriya Paireepairit and redistributed under a Creative Commons license.
We go way back, and I'm a huge fan of your work as well. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I just wanted to say:
1. I just closed comments on the post to move the discussion to the update. Feel free to add your thoughts here: powazek.com
2. "Have you ever tried to help a small business launch a new site and be discovered by potential customers on search engines?" Many, many times. With a lot of success. And never once did we hire a SEO specialist. Because valid code and understanding search engines is part of my role as a web designer/consultant/whatever.
3. Stuffing the title into the URL is exactly the kind of "thinking of robots instead of users" behavior I hate. First, it doesn't work anymore. And second, it prevents people from copying and pasting your URL into an email (the longer it is, the more it breaks). This is the kind of SEO voodoo that is exactly the problem.
4. The fact that you wrote everything here means you already know more about this than most SEO consultants. Please don't waste your money on them.
Thanks. Putting titles in URLs doesn't have to make them unfriendly to share. On sites I create, a shorter ID-only link always redirects to the longer one.
You mentioned WordPress in your followup as a reason people don't need SEO experts. One of the reasons WordPress has exploded in usage is because Matt Mullenweg and his team are mindful of SEO. Their shared tag clouds and automatically generated related posts feature are big-time SEO.
Although I do think I'm reasonably fluent in SEO at this point, I'm always running into something I didn't know that would help me. Danny Sullivan mentions one tip in his open letter to you. I had no idea that kicking content into Google Base could favorably affect Google rankings.
I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but I disagree with the giant bucket you've dumped all SEO into.
As an aside, there are times that I prefer to concentrate on making robots happy and ignore humans. After 14 years of publishing web sites, sometimes humans get on my fucking nerves.
Humans, nerves, I hear that.
BTW, is this copy of your post used with your permission? watchingthewatchers.org
I don't think the problem is SEO in itself, but that there's so many people that ARE sheisters and conmen advertising their SEO services, causing that shellgame through bad practices that keep the target moving. It's people taking advantage of webmasters and search engines to make money, without actually helping anybody significantly - and that's a spam issue, no matter what industry you're talking about. There's lots of ways SEO is a good thing, and Powazek touches on making it as much a component of webdesigner's skills as CSS, DHTML, and graphic design are, which is probably the best way SEO should be applied, rather than outsourcing it, which would help kill off the SEO abusers. As long as SEO is seen as something you buy - a product with no initial investment or overhead, the favorite of spammers - there's going to be shifty people selling it.
And, Mr. Powazek - I'm a Derek, too, and (refering to your second post) I used to be Derek #1 or #2 once upon a time on Google. Just thought I'd share because it's an elite club, which used to include Derek Jeter, but apparently Google kicked him out, too.
BTW, is this copy of your post used with your permission?
Yep. Watching the Watchers is one of my sites.
I was the No. 1 Cadenhead, but I was defeated by fine Scotch whiskey.
My problem with SEO is that it's pretty hard to quantify and you're working with a black box - Google will give you general tips but they aren't going to tell you how to game PageRank.
I think in general the games catch up to you, and to me Derek is right - building pages for robots instead of humans will just scare the humans away in the end. Plus it tends to catch up to you. If search engines (particularly Google) figure out that you're abusing a loophole, they'll slam the door on you in a hurry, and you'll be on page 100 of the search results before you know what hit you.
So a good designer should be aware of the issues, but the problem is that there aren't enough good designers. I don't think it's a bad thing to have an "SEO Expert" come in and tell you to use meaningful markup any more than it's a problem to have a security expert come in and tell you to use prepared statements instead of pasting together strings to make SQL.
Thanks for writing this so I didn't have to - I'm on the same page as you, especially since I used to be a reflexive anti-SEO ranter until I realized I was looking at this from the perspectives of one (rather insular) community instead of with any kind of objectivity.
The funny thing is, most folks who've piled on the anti-SEO bandwagon (including myself in the past) are just as likely to strenuously object to blanket assertions of negative intent around bloggers. "Don't judge our craft by its worst practitioners!"
Seems like a fair policy all around -- every community has jerks; Only thoughtless outsiders would care to define a community by those outliers.
You've said it better than I ever could, Anil (which is only to be expected).
I've been thinking that good SEO could be called "findability", like we have "usability" and "accessibility" specialties. And, just as sometimes accessibility is about thinking in terms of the limitations and quirks of assistive technologies, so findability is sometimes about thinking in terms of Google.
Let's take a concrete example: Google only shows a limited number of characters from a page's title. A good findability strategy is to ensure that the page title accurately and clearly describes the page content in a way that's concise enough to fit within Google's display and is easily identified as relevant when looking at a page of results.
This isn't really designing for machines as it is designing for human users of those machines " and it's neither spammy nor particularly obvious.
Building websites with clean code and good content, wins out every time. Unfortunately, most web designers that we have run across do not build good sites with good content. I still see web designers building giant websites with tables?!
My company works with lots of businesses that have had crap sites built by the yellow pages that do not/will not show up in the first 20 pages under any search term you choose to type in. It's not a magic act and it's not easy... we don't guarantee results, yet retain over 85% of our client base.
Don't lump everyone into that category as we have found a great niche in fixing others mistakes.
I think the problem is that SEO means many different things to many different people. There really is no true definition for it and everyone thinks they have the answer. If SEO meant to build a business through quality content and effort over time would you still call it voodoo? Since when is building a brand or business online through proactive online marketing efforts wrong? So what you are saying is that when a client who doesn't know what a "URL" is online they should just continue to "hope" their business grows online because SEO is an evil effort?
There is a difference between people who tarnish the industry and people who provide value for others who are less fortunate with understanding how search engine marketing works.
"The first thing I would hire, if my business could afford it, is an expert in SEO. That talent pays for itself more quickly than any other skill in web publishing."
I can agree with that statement. But, you already have the skill of building websites, so you presumably won't be hiring a web developer. Consider the small business that wants to have a web presence, they'd need a web developer as a first stop, so what do they do:
A.) Hire the cheapest web developer around, and pay an SEO to correct things
B.) Hire a web developer who has good practical experience of SEO-like issues.
The common scenario here is that small businesses are doing the first part of A, and then forced into the latter part because they got what they paid for.
Derek's crusade against SEO is largely a crusade against people selling themselves as web developers without knowing the best practices of building websites. Once he wades through that chaff and meets some real SEO talent, then he'll realise how offensive his posts have been, and notice the real issues in the SEO world.
And all that time, the real Black Hat SEOers are laughing their heads off. I think Derek has no inkling as to how capable this particular group is.
I disagree with that idea as well. The thing is sometimes people write such things in order to provoke others and gain visitors. I don't see why SEO is not another form of marketing, i can't even find a real argument supporting that argument.
Like any profession, there are scammers out there, so I am not sure why Derek (who is he anyways?) to suggest its not a valid form of marketing. As a home based business owner, it took me over a year of really understanding all areas of SEO.
If you are paying some so called SEO expert, then you will know if what they are doing is working by results. Plan and simple. Based on agreed upon keywords, if you website shows up on page 1 of G, then you know its working. Part of the issue I think Derek or whatever his name is referring too is that how you accomplish top positions has hundreds of different ways to produce results.
It really comes to writing valuable unique content and getting back links. Everything else is icing on the cake in terms of ranking in the SERP's.
Rinse and repeat
Now if you hire an SEO firm, they should either have internal web designers or have access to someone that can produce a high quality website depending on your needs.
Derek - pay attention - like any profession, it takes time, patience and knowledge to understand all the ins and outs of SEO. Everything on the internet is in constant flux. You may have a lot of knowledge or not on SEO, but most people simply do not for various reasons. Many people don't have time to learn this art and science and really many don't care.
If you are thinking of hiring an SEO firm, like any contract, make sure you get your questions answered and if they baffle you with tech stuff, ask them to explain it to you so that you do understand.
I Think SEO firms do help people get their webpages in a good position in SERPs. The problem is that, most of the info about SEO is based on guesses.
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With SEO is the end of SERP monopoly of big ol' sites. I don't know if that right or wrong, I guess it's not so bad at all.
You Have rightly said about what SEO can do to lift your website. SEO is a wonderful profession, and is an integral part of website development team. Its a wonderful job profile and perhaps a backbone of any website.
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SEO techniques are very well important. What is the use of if you buy a car, park it in the parking lot and then you bring a friend to show your car and you cant spot it among the the other cars. Very well the car is there, but you cant find it. That is what many websites are lost in the vastness of the Web. Who make them possible to be found are the SEO. It is a very important profile.
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I agree with this. The internet is a powerful way to promote and is a way for normal people to get the word out about what they have to offer. Let the internet be free forever.