The great SEO swindle

I have been writing about the Web since it was nearly invented in the early 1990s and one of my continued sources of amusement is the snake oil search engine optimization vendors. Repeat after me: content is king. Everything else is just a shell game.

In our rush to better our rankings, we tend to forget why people are using search engines to begin with: to find the best content. Those search sites that don’t deliver (remember Altavista? Or Yahoo, for that matter?) are going to find out really quickly that their users will go elsewhere.

What does that mean for you as a Web site owner that is trying to move up in the charts? It means you first have to focus on your content, and deliver what your visitors want. It is a matter of managing expectations, but also about making sure that your content is continually tuned and adjusted to meet the needs of your ever-evolving audience.

What it doesn’t mean is hiring some SEO firm to tweak your meta tags, flog your links, and hire a bunch of offshore keyboard pushers to promote your pages.

I got a PR pitch for an SEO company that I would rather not promote here, but the essence of their existence is that charge their clients only after the desired rankings have been achieved, with a sliding scale depending on whether you end up higher or lower than your goals. This is just utter nonsense, although the company is growing by leaps and bounds.

Here is why it is nonsense. Let’s say that I am foolish enough to hire Vendor X for this purpose. They go send forth a thousand unskilled people to click and mouse around my site. Next week the search engines push me up the rank. Yeah! I am now the king of my page rank. I pay them.

Two months from now I am back to where I was, at the bottom of my heap, because there has been no increment in traffic. Yes, I got the results that were promised. But time moves on, and the people that clicked on my link in the search page found nothing to see here and moved on.

Meanwhile, people with real content will continue to move up the ranks, as they should, because people found it useful.

I coincidentally was meeting with a young entrepreneur here in St. Louis last week who runs a real business that is based on carefully tweaking search engine results. His name is Mark Sawyier (mark.sawyier@offcampusmedia.com), and his business is in listing apartments near major colleges around the country. (Movingoffcampus.com is just one of dozens of domains that he owns.) He is the cyberspace version of a major urban real estate developer: he understands SEO, Google Analytics, and how to play in a game where you live and die by your rankings and page views. He has managed to up his pay per click rates from his sponsors because
a. He has tons of content – in this case apartment listings,
b. He has tons of relevant content – the apartments are listed by proximity to campus and other things that students are searching for, and
c. Results – because the people searching actually end up as renters more often from his site than his competitors.

He told me: “The fact is that the combination of the constantly changing algorithms search engines use to calculate rankings with increased competition from other websites, guaranteeing someone a rank and still playing by the rules, to me, is almost impossible. They would need infinite resources and time and have to have a ridiculous amount of startup capital to get it going.”

I offer my own modest example to buttress what Mark says. I have a page on my Web site that I have maintained for more than a decade. It is a simple list of dozens of Web conferencing vendors, with some basics on what they cost and what client platforms they support. I spend about an hour a year on maintaining this listing.

A few years ago, I started getting unsolicited emails from vendors of conferencing products who wanted me to list them on my list. Then I realized why: a quick Google search on the term “web conferencing services” has me in the top ten results. Did I stuff my page full of keywords? Did I abuse my meta-tags? Did I hire a bunch of third-world keyboarders to hit my page? Did I pay some SEO firm to work their magic? Did I have some special insight into how Google ranks my page?

No, no, and no. I just doggedly set out to provide good content, week after week. And gradually, this got results. It may take years, but eventually, as Mark says, the best content will win.

So instead of gaming SEO or hiring someone to push you up the page charts, think about making a quality website with tons of content. Mark reminds me: “search engines are ALWAYS trying to connect people that use them to search for information online with the absolute best websites to provide it – the minute any of them lose sight of this objective, they will stop being a good search engine. This is the core concept behind all of the variables and algorithms that go into calculating search engine rankings. And while external links and proper SEO coding are certainly important elements in the battle, at the end of the day, the most important thing is having a website that provides the right answers and information to the searchers.”

And if you really must hire someone to do your SEO, think of hiring Mark. Off Campus Media offers campus, social media and search engine marketing services using his own experience with building his own Web sites.

17 thoughts on “The great SEO swindle

  1. AMEN! I’ve been working on semantic search engines for over 5 years and I can’t agree with David more. SEO versus content is like a poke in the eye versus a trip to the Bahamas.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, what are people driving all of that traffic to if they have garbage content that the user will never return to? On a side note see my related blog post about backlinks and why most webmasters just don’t get it.

  3. Spot on David!

    SEO snake oil salesmen myths still abound, but soon will fade. I can’t believe we are still banging on this one. Next you should take on the social media marketing gurus. The trouble is, the average (and perhaps struggling) small company hears something about this stuff, gets worried and needs to trust someone. Arrogance somehow translate to competence, right?

    For example, there is a giant SEO company in St. Louis that somehow manages to bilk buckets of SEO money out of corporate clients.. “Don’t cry for me Argentina” you say – but one of their top guys makes a nice personal side business by telling the little guy that he can leverage the mother ship’s “data, cluster, and SEO magic”…just wonder if the mother ship would be cool with that. Ride the wave as long as the cash is there I guess. Just be honest about best practices.

  4. Nice article Dave – As an editorial director, developer, and what-have-you over the decades, I am consistently amazed that each time I dive into the SEO well, I discover that is it *still* all about excellent editorial. But I’m afraid you give short shrift to how difficult it is to achieve excellent editorial. When a writer knows the interests his or her audience has in an article, and writes it well to fulfill those interests while delivering the truth of the thing, and then headlines it well to bring out the right value, and then does this consistently, day after day, week after week, (etc.), then there is no way that algorithmic tricks will beat out that terrific content.

    The problem is that 99% of the time it isn’t happening the way I described above. That’s come very clear to me in the years since I’ve been free of the declining newspaper and magazine business and on my own helping people and companies develop their own content. Hell, why should it – in the newspaper and magazine business it only happens about 50% of the time!

    There’s also an obvious contradiction in your column. It’s in the dichotomy between your generalized attack on SEO and your praise for Mark Sawyier. And therein lies truth: it’s not that SEO is inherently bad; there’s such a thing as valuable SEO, which is focused on the content and then the basic technical support and platform that helps a search engine to find and evaluate that content correctly. Sounds like that’s what your buddy Mark does. I actually know many others, including my buddies at Stein Rogan + Partners. Great SEO is one part excellent editorial strategy and execution, and one part basic stuff that everybody should know and be able to do if they sat down and thought about it – but they don’t. Who has time to sit down and think about anything that isn’t core? Or for that matter, even if it is core?

  5. Fail. I think your article is just one more in a series of SEO haters who think they get it but don’t. There’s no doubt that content is king. A comment like that should be met with a resounding “duh!” I would expect your readers want more than a restatement of the obvious. But that’s not all there is to it and you should know that. Great content doesn’t guarantee high rankings in the search results. If it did, my clients (all of whom produce great content) wouldn’t need me.

    To say that content is king and then try to impress upon your readers that’s all that really matters is like telling someone that job experience is king all that really matters so you don’t really need a resume. Or tell a business that great products and services are all that really matters and they don’t really need to promote themselves.

    Things are much more complex than that. There is a way to present great content properly and then there is a way to be your own worst enemy standing in the way of search rankings befitting your great content.

    I see it again and again. Great content does not equate to great rankings and you do your readers a disservice by telling them otherwise.

    BTW: I think the comments made by Mike Azzara above are more accurate and consistent with my point of view.

    • Myron,

      Would you care to be specific? Maybe with some examples of websites with great content that don’t come up in search rankings?

      ted

      • There are many. Here is the very first search query I ran on Google: [symptoms of breast cancer]
        http://www.google.com/search?q=symptoms+of+breast+cancer

        Let’s see. About.com comes up as the #1 result beating out:
        Mayo Clinic at #5
        WebMD at #7
        BreastCancer.org at #15
        The CDC at #28
        Wikipedia at #29
        Cancer.gov at #32
        The Merck Home Manual ranked #49

        I’m sure About.com has fine content but the very simple point here is that best content doesn’t win this game and having great content doesn’t guarantee you top positions. If you’re not presenting your content in the most search friendly way and following SEO basics, you sink to the bottom of the pile, just like poorly written resumes. That’s the way it is.

      • Based on Myron Rosmarin’s post, and since I’ve been doing a lot of content audits lately anyway, I decided to do the same search and visit the first few sites mentioned: About.com, Mayo Clinic, WebMD and BreastCancer.org. The results confirmed my suspicion.

        About.com does, indeed, offer the superior content experience for an average person looking to learn the basic information they would likely want to know. It’s a single page that summarizes key need-to-know info in plain language, and in classic inverted pyramid style (i.e., with most important info at the top). The design allows the eye to capture the sought-after info in seconds.

        The pages linked to on the other sites offer excellent information too, with the Mayo Clinic’s page (again, given my respect for Google, unsurprisingly) offering the second-best experience. But the problems with all these pages are a profusion of too much information – most of these pages link to a multitude of sub-pages for the core info that I, as a consumer worried over my breasts (yes, as they all point out, men can get it too) would want to know fast.

        So while I know for a fact there are pages out there that game the system, I think this example shows just how superbly Google is able to discern the pages that best meet the intent of the searcher’s string.

        For the record, I am NOT anti-SEO, because well-done SEO is an excellent tool to help the right people find your content, and thinking about SEO is an excellent tool to keep your editorial team strategically on point. And my read of all these posts is that we all are in violent agreement that there’s good SEO and swindlers. And reading Strom’s post closely, I’d have to say he agrees.

        But maybe he needs an editor? We all need an editor, Dave!πŸ™‚

        mike

      • Mike, I’m happy to know that you ran the search to look at the results yourself. I’m disappointed however by your conclusions and that you justified About.com’s #1 position as being based on them providing the best “content experience” and that Google was somehow was able to discern the quality of their content experience simply by crawling their site.

        Here’s what I see when I look at About.com’s page. I see 57 instances of the word “symptoms” and 51 instances of the words “breast cancer”. I see a page that has been very well constructed by a team savvy in the ways of SEO. I see a title tag, a URL, an H1 tag all well optimized with the words symptoms, breast, and cancer very much in contrast to the other sites that are supposed to be purveyors or great content.

        It is no accident that About.com ranks first. And it is NOT because of their great content. I mean honestly, when was the last time you ever heard someone refer another person to About.com to find the best, most trusted or most up-to-date medical information? That simply doesn’t happen.

        In reality, the reason About.com ranks #1 is because the guy who led About.com’s SEO efforts — Marshall Simmonds — knew a thing or two about SEO. He is now responsible for SEO at The New York Times. (oh wait, imagine that … the New York Times who I’m sure you would agree produces great content whether you agree with what they write or not, needs someone to lead their SEO strategy).
        See: http://www.labnol.org/internet/search/seo-guide-marshall-simmonds-newyork-tricks/1193/

        I’ll reiterate my main point. Great content doesn’t win the SEO game alone. You have to know what search engines look for to discern a page’s relevance to a query and the quality of content. THAT is what good SEO is about.

  6. Strom,
    You are very passionate about this topic, and the article is well written.

    Other than your buddy who is a beacon of hope in a sea of snake oil, it seems the rest of the SEO types are frauds according to you. I disagree – any SEO consultant worth their weight stresses content first and foremost – you know this, you just used a broad brush to stereotype all [except your buddy] as bad guys. And when is stereotyping good? The SEO activities such as meta, page titling and links etc. all _support_ great content. If you have all the SEO and no content, then you have failed. If you have great content and great SEO, then you’re at the top of page 1 within weeks. How do I know this? Every one of my clients is experiencing that success, and for a modest monthly fee by the way. I do NOT make ‘buckets’ of cash.

    I am aware of certain client competitors that have authoritative, top quality content, and they simply do not exist in the serps. I also know they have done little or no SEO work. I am in no position to claim this is the rule, but in my own personal daily experience, it is reality.

  7. Pingback: Netmedia Blog : We Post IT – Apuntes de Social Media Parte 2: Organic Search Best Practices

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