My Pragmatic Take on SEO

Wed, Mar 24, 2010

I've been thinking a lot about SEO (Search Engine Optimization) these days. Mostly due to a pretty controversial article by Paul Boag, Why I don't get SEO. I get the point of the article but I think it misses a few considerations. I want to summarize my own thoughts on SEO in a pragmatic way. Disclaimer: I'm not an SEO expert and I do not work in the field so I could be wrong. This is just a Web Developer's pragmatic perspective.

Why do SEO experts exist?

SEO is complicated. Most people wouldn't say that and I wouldn't even say that myself. Different language optimizations, designing a good robots.txt file, small details like rel="nofollow" on links that shouldn't be followed, watching out for duplicate content, multiple domains, sending relevant headers on redirects, 404s, the list goes on.

These are things that could be affecting your search ranking and/or indexing, but you wouldn't even know about it. Add in Javascript navigation and you're in trouble.

SEO is a craft

Search Engine Optimization is a craft. There are good craftsmen and there are bad ones. If you get a bad builder/contractor to fix up your roof,  your roof will leak. If you get a good one, it will not. That's not to say that your roof will become awesome, it won't be come a balcony, another house or the most popular house in the street, but at least it will prevent you from sleeping in a wet bed.

Black Hat vs White Hat techniques

Black Hat SEO techniques are ways in which to manipulate the search results as to "trick" the search engine index to include you higher in the ranking order than you should be. The search engine's job is to place relevant stuff in the right place and by using Black Hat techniques, you are NOT helping. You are also in the risk of getting yourself removed from the search engines' index.

White Hat techniques on the other hand are basically best-practices that a website should follow. White hat techniques are encouraged by the search engines. If you structure your website correctly, it helps the search engine index your website and rank you correctly. These are things like using proper headings, normal links, etc.

"What's the best way to rank higher [in Google]?"

Google got to become the best search engine back in the days by basing website ranking on links from other websites. If a lot of websites linked to your website with a normal web link, the index recognized that and placed you higher than a similar website with fewer links. Of course traditional text search is used as well, but this combination proved to be very effective in searching and most, if not all, the big search engines use this logic in their rankings today.

The logic is obvious: If you write a great page with information about horses and a lot of people like it, find it interesting or engaging they will want to link to your page from their page.

Things have changed a lot and search ranking and indexing is much much more complex now and I'm not even going to pretend to know how things work today, but the basic principles are the same. I think it will not be said too many times:

Produce content that visitors find engaging or interesting and you WILL rank high!

This should be your mantra. You could actually f**k up your SEO completely and make a mess of it all but if people like your website, you will automatically (with a little time) rank high. This is the holy truth of SEO.

Where to spend the money

Of course if you have no knowledge of SEO but you're running your own website, money spent on good SEO practices are well spent, but similar to the Pareto Principle (80-20 rule) which states that 20% of the effort leads to 80% of the results, you will get as far as you need to just by insuring that basic SEO practices are held. As soon as you've done that, each dollar you spend will probably have a very limited effect on your ranking and site growth.

Instead, you should spend your dime on paid search results, keyword analysis, social media efforts, finding new ways to engage your customer and get your customer involved in your product. Social media gets a lot of hype these days, but there are good reasons. Trust me, you can spend a 1000 dollars on an PPC campaign on Google, Facebook or something like that and you will see much better use of your money than spending the same amount on an SEO expert (unless you haven't done the basic search engine optimizations)