February 8th, 2007

The Truth About SEO

by

When a controversy foments to the point where both sides are shouting at the top of their lungs and can’t even hear each other, the truth is typically somewhere between the two extremes. Such is the case it seems with search engine optimization, or SEO. Jason Calacanis thinks that SEO is bullshit and that 90% of SEO practitioners are scammers. Some of the smartest search folks came out in force to try to show Jason the error of his thinking, including Danny Sullivan (in a virtuoso post), Neil Patel, and Andy Beal. (I’m linking to these folks because it’s part of being a good member of the linking web — more on that in a minute.)

Much of the controversy over SEO can be reduced to these two fundamental truths about SEO:

Truth #1: Links matter most

This was Google’s innovation, and it remains the driving force. This doesn’t mean that site design, content tagging, keywords, etc. don’t matter — but a site that gets lots of links can overcome most shortcomings in other SEO elements. Publishing 2.0 has never been “search optimized” (other than being on WordPress), which means I’m probably leaving search traffic on the table, but I’ve got tons of links, a PageRank of 6 (doesn’t mean as much as it used to, but still a directional indicator), and lots of search traffic. I write stuff that people often link to, and I’ll bet that matters more than anything else.

Truth #2: There are two types of content on the web:

1. Content that other people want to link to

2. Content that nobody wants to link to

SEO is controversial because everyone who produces content in the first category thinks that SEO is all about scamming links for content in the second category, and that the only legitimate approach is to produce content in the first category. BUT…good SEO IS about helping people who typically produce content in the second category to produce content in the first. There are sites like Brian Clark’s excellent Copyblogger that explore this topic in great depth.

SEO is also controversial because linking is both a fundamentally social activity and a fundamentally network-driven activity. Linking is social because when you link to a site, simply because you think it merits a link (as I did above), there is no guarantee that you will get a link back. But the more you link to others, the more they tend to link back to you. It’s just like developing good friendships. There are no guarantees in life, but you generally have to give to get. Linking is network-driven because linking tends to snowball for several reasons, e.g. joining a blog “conversation” by linking to something everyone else is linking to, getting your trackback to show up on a highly trafficked post that’s getting a lot of links, and other similar dynamics where links beget more links.

It’s the social aspect of linking that makes people instinctively uncomfortable with many SEO link strategies — kind of like buying friendships. But the reality is that controversy, “trolling,” and other link baiting strategies, which non-SEOs like me sometimes use, aren’t all that friendly on the surface.

So, that explains some of the SEO controversy, but not all of it. There’s another aspect of SEO and online marketing generally that make people like Jason Calacanis and me, who have a background in traditional media, instinctively uncomfortable.

To illustrate this aspect, I’m going to pick on someone who has a fantastic reputation for cranking out smart, high quality content that lots people want to link to, and whose reputation needn’t fear my little exercise — Darren Rowse of Problogger. Darren made his reputation in part as a “six figure blogger,” but it’s fairly evident that the volume of ads on Darren’s excellent Problogger site can’t alone be generating all that income. So what does? Sites like this:

digital-photography-blog.jpg

This site is called a “blog,” but it’s all other people’s content (e.g. CNET Australia has a preview of the Casio Exilim EX-Z1050 and writes, ” OR Vnunet has a review of the Nikon D40 and writes, “). There are LOTS of ads and affiliate links, including those that masquerade as content (e.g. “tips“) and those that link to advertorials like this:

digital-photo-secrets.jpg

When you look at the site, you wonder, what would ever compel anyone to come here? It’s appears to be (and appearance is key here) just a formulaic aggregation drenched in marketing. The answer to the mystery is in the site’s Sitemeter referral stats:

digital-photography-blog-sitemeter.jpg

That’s right, it’s all search engine traffic:

google-digital-camera-review.jpg

Search Google for “digital camera review,” and there, amidst original content sites like Digital Photography Review and DCViews (at least I think they’re original content — it’s so hard to tell, which is much of the problem), is Darren’s site, which produces little or no original content and simply “points” to other people’s content.

In fact, when you search on Google for “digital camera” from Australia, Darren’s site is the #1 MOST RELEVANT site on this topic:

:google-au-digital-cameras.jpg

So, what, you may ask, is wrong with this? Well, maybe nothing. Maybe Darren’s site has done the best job aggregating the best camera reviews on the web. Maybe Darren’s site delivers the highest possible value for anyone in Australia interested in digital camears. If that’s the case, the maybe it deserves to rank #1 on Google.

But nothing about the site gives me the feeling that it’s a high quality editorial site. And the problem here, and its implications for SEO, is really about gut feelings — about whether there’s an imbalance of value between publisher and consumer.

Based on what I know of Darren from Problogging, I have absolutely no reason whatsoever to impugn Darren’s integrity. In fact, I feel guilty using this example because I’m sure there is much here that I don’t understand — Darren, I apologize for my ignorance and any resulting misunderstanding about how your site works.

But that’s precisely the problem. SEO is judged on appearances, and the appearances of things that even highly reputable people do can leave an uninformed layman with a certain amount of uncomfortable doubt.

So ask yourself this — if SEO were transparently all about helping the best sites rank as high as possible, and thus improving overall search result relevancy, would there be any controversy?

But let me be clear — I am really NOT trying to impugn anyone’s integrity. I learned my lesson when I attacked domainers, only to meet a bunch of them and realize most are honest folks just trying to run their businesses online. Lot’s of people have used SEO to make lots of money online WITHOUT using link farms, spamming, or other shady practices that are of questionable integrity.

I am NOT a search expert (clearly), but I have read a lot about search and SEO, I’ve been to Search Engine Strategies, I’ve received many very well deserved lectures from Danny Sullivan (and tried to learn from them), and I’ve read a good chunk of Aaron Wall’s excellent, encyclopedic SEO Book. (It’s not as if there isn’t a TON of information about SEO out there by smart folks like Danny and Aaron.)

But if I still have doubts about SEO, there’s a good chance that most other non-search experts are in the same boat. That doesn’t mean I would take Jason’s extreme stand, but let’s just say even after reading Danny’s impassioned defense, I still can’t help feel a connection to Jason’s point of view. I might have talked to someone like Aaron or Danny before writing this post, but part of the point here is that my unvarnished, semi-informed perspective on SEO is part of SEO’s liability.

Part of me thinks, if publishers like Darren can rank their sites high through SEO, well then more power to them. Live and let live. But part of me is still uncomfortable with it on the surface.

Here’s a challenge to SEOs: Can someone produce a list (perhaps it already exists) of the top 10 SEO practices, and also a list of 10 sites that deserve to rank higher in search engines but don’t because of poor SEO?

To any SEO’s who might read this, there are two approaches you might take:

1. Karp is an uninformed idiot (understandable).

2. If Karp doesn’t get it, is it just his problem?

Comments (37 Responses so far)

  1. Based in part on Calacanis’s recent tirades, Scott Karp recently published a great post about SEO from an outsider’s perspective.

  2. quantitative measures such as keyword analysis and the quantity & quality of pages linking in. I call that ‘innocent use’. There’s nothing wrong with advising your clients on what makes your pages more relevant (Aaron Wall has a nice response to Scott Karps request for 10 good whitehat SEO tips). But the concept of ‘optimizing’ a given site to perform better against another purely through the creation of faux sites, link bombing, disingenuous lists, astroturfing, etc is simply disgusting.

  3. [IMG] Scott Karp / Publishing 2.0: The Truth About SEO — When a controversy foments to the point … 15 minutes ago

  4. optimization, or SEO. Jason Calacanis thinks that SEO is bullshit and that 90% of SEO … Much of the controversy over SEO can be reduced to these two fundamental truths about SEO: … Original post by Scott Karp

  5. Danny covers how his story made popular on Digg but disappeared quickly because Diggers apparently hate SEO. CalacanisCast with SEO folks…, kind of enjoying watching what is going on from Jason announces he wants to have an SEO person on his podcast. Trust About SEO from Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 shares views on SEO. Talk Talk Talk from Aaron Wall shares views at SEO Book about the debate. Greg Boser and Todd (Oilman) Friesen hope to talk to Jason on their podcast,

  6. Scott Karp recently published a great post about SEO from an outsider’s perspective.

  7. The Truth About SEO

  8. SEMPO Survey Reveals Major Shifts, Part 1, ClickZ Personalized Search – The Feature No one is Asking For, Graywolf’s SEO Blog Getting Started With Web Analytics: Step One – Glean Macro Insights., Occam’s Razor The Truth About SEO

  9. The Truth About SEO — Great comment detailing some simple white hat SEO techniques. #

  10. use the terms you want to be found for. Site architecture: If the site is blocked from spiders by a bad dynamic system, frames, you have problems. Links: good, relevant links from key web sites are very important Source Feb 20, 2007 in Blogging | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

  11. The Truth About SEO — Great comment detailing some simple white hat SEO techniques. #

  12. use the terms you want to be found for. Site architecture: If the site is blocked from spiders by a bad dynamic system, frames, you have problems. Links: good, relevant links from key web sites are very important Source

  13. SEMPO Survey Reveals Major Shifts, Part 1, ClickZ Personalized Search – The Feature No one is Asking For, Graywolf’s SEO Blog Getting Started With Web Analytics: Step One – Glean Macro Insights., Occam’s Razor The Truth About SEO, Publishing 2.0 Why Links Matter: So Simple a Monkey Could Understand It, Sugarrae How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot with Search Engine Optimization, GrokDotCom UK SEO companies, Cornwall SEO The Enormous Linkbait list

  14. Based in part on Calacanis’s recent tirades, Scott Karp recently published a great post about SEO from an outsider’s perspective.

  15. I’ll take a stab, Scott. It’s late, I’m tired, so I’ll start off with just five:

    1) Keyword research: knowing what terms your target audience is searching for is a key component of SEO.

    2) Titles: Every page in your web site gets a unique title that reflects the key terms you want that page found for. Despite link, this simple change drives lots of search tail/long tail traffic that is link independent.

    3) Body Content: Good, solid textual content making use of the terms you want to be found for. This also means not all images, not all Flash.

    4) Site architecture: If the site is blocked from spiders by things like a bad dynamic system, frames, you have serious problems.

    5) Links: Good, relevant links from key web sites are super important can sometimes save a site from not having done the other things.

  16. Thanks for the mention Scott. Glad you like my book so far :)

    I think you were spot on with your conclusion that a portion of the black eye for SEO is due to people wanting to think there is this other group that just wants to push low quality content and bad ideas, and it also allows them to outsource the fault for their ranking failures if they feel they deserve to rank but do not. But the truth is that nothing is really black and white…everything is some shade of gray, but being in the middle is a less linkworthy story, and if it is somewhere in the middle it is hard to judge intent.

    Numerous times I have seen mainstream media publications write stories about how shady SEO is, and then the same day get emailed or a phone call from their own SEO department asking for clarifications on some of the tips in my ebook.

    I guess here are 10 (or so) clean SEO practices
    – preventing search engines from indexing low quality (duplicate content, user tags, etc) or low information web pages (so that more of your link authority is focused on the high quality pages)
    – writing page titles that satisfy search engines and searchers and are interesting enough to be linkworthy
    – researching keywords to determine how deep one can profitably go covering a specific topic
    – encouraging social interaction, consumer feedback, and integrating user feedback into the site in a meaningful way
    – creating self reinforcing authority ideas, improving mindshare, and brands that build links
    – requesting links or coverage on high quality websites
    – buying relevant advertising that may lead to indirect links or directly improve your trust scores (for example, Google recommends submitting sites to the Yahoo! Directory)
    – look as search logs from search engnies and internal site search to see how well your content satisfies those demands, and using keyword modifiers and semantically related words to help the page rank for more related phrases (a page which is too focused on a core term but lacks supporting vocabulary may get filtered out of the search results)
    – create additional content where your site is lacking, or in related fields that relate to profitable fields
    – restructure a site’s internal link structure to ensure important content is getting indexed and place emphasis on popular or profitable pages
    – correct search engine indexing or ranking problems caused by content management system issues, site hacking, or other potential problems
    – linking within content to drive conversions
    – (for ad driven sites) balancing ad revenues with site credibility and forward linkworthiness

    the problem with listing 10 sites that deserve to rank but do not are:
    a.) if we know of them we already found them somehow (by search or recomendations on trusted sites)
    b.) we don’t know what we can’t find
    c.) if we know of it and it is not ranked then there is typically some sort of a nepotisitc relation, or at least an assumption of such

    To get past the nepotistic stuff, it might be worth noting how search engines act themselves (since they should follow their own guidelines more than anyone else if they make them up and push them on others).

    Yahoo! is one of the biggest link buyers on the web (why are they buying links if they don’t believe in SEO?)
    http://www.seobook.com/archives/000455.shtml

    Google was caught cloaking
    http://www.threadwatch.org/node/1774

    Google accidentally banned their AdSense blog at one point in time
    http://www.davidnaylor.co.uk/archives/2005/08/26/spam-blog-crackdown/

    Google and Yahoo! BOTH published ads on the largest warez site at one point in time
    http://www.threadwatch.org/node/5107

    Google continued to let a spam adsense site syndicate adsense ads even after they removed it for spamming, AND use it in internal spam detection traning
    http://www.threadwatch.org/node/4995

  17. [...] in part on Calacanis’s recent tirades, Scott Karp recently published a great post about SEO from an outsider’s [...]

  18. Search is a subjective thing, there is no right answer. But using links to rank sites is unfair to newer sites. It favors established sites. I can give you a whole search engine of sites that deserve to rank higher on search engines but don’t its at http://www.tallstreet.com/

    We want to change the game so its not links that matter most but creating a site for your users!

  19. Here’s what I’d put down as my ten best practices, in order of how important they should be…

    1) On page content should be relevant to the terms you want to rank for. This isn’t so much about not trying to sell steak to vegetarians; it’s more about not giving them a steak with a lettuce leaf on top, so they don’t know what they’re getting. Try and make your site rank where it should, and not where it shouldn’t. The basis for this is the page content.

    2) Title tags and any/all meta data you may want to put in should be relevant to the terms you want to rank for. See above.

    3) Only link to a page/site/resource if it’s something that someone on that page will find instantly useful at the exact moment of reading. Sure, you might think that they should now go buy from your affiliate link, but is it actually going to help them? If it’s not highly relevant and offering real, tangible benefit to the user right now, don’t put it there.

    4) Make sure the site navigation all works, and all pages are easily accessible. Moreover, if there are other articles/pages/sites that may be of interest, based on what they’ve just read, put some links to them at the bottom of the post/page. But again, make sure it’s relevant and enhancing the user experience.

    5) Make sure the navigation flows logically and smoothly. Allow people to wander through your site as they wish, with fluid, simple navigation. Make sure every page has links to the major sections of your site, and the major subsections in the area they’re currently in. Well planned navigation helps users, and helps search engines identify the more important areas of your site so they rank properly.

    6) Have a well laid out sitemap. It’s not just there to get your pages indexed. It’s a table of contents for your site. Make sure that users can find at a glance the pages/sections they want. For top level sections, use a bigger font, or bold it, or a different colour. Make things stand out so people can drill down. Maybe even lay it out like a family tree. Just make it easy.

    7) If you’re getting people linking to you, try and keep an eye on who they are and where they link to. If they’re a horse racing site, and your site is on consumer electronics, you may want to check where they’re linking. That great humorous article you wrote comparing the two might be what they’re aiming for, but they could be pointing at your site as a whole. Make sure they point at what they want to. You’ll stop links that could hurt your rankings, help users coming from their site to yours, and help them learn to point links properly.

    8) Track everything. If you’re getting ten thousand hits a day, but they’re all leaving in less than ten seconds, something is wrong. Make sure your site offers what it should. If your traffic is running a mile, look at why, and fix it.

    9) Make sure your site works in FireFox and IE. This isn’t so much an SEO thing as a web design thing, but to me, it’s worthy of mention anyway. Nothing annoys me more than a site that will work in IE, but not in FireFox. Or visa versa. It smacks of a lack of thought.

    10) Have a forum, post articles, store your newsletter on a blog… encourage new traffic to stay around, generate new, fresh, interesting, relevant, content rich pages. Get that long tail traffic in. If people are going long tail, they want a specific answer to a specific question. They’re looking for a page, not a site. Make sure your articles stay on topic, and that they answer the question. Make sure your newsletter is findable by individual posts. Make sure your forum is searchable. Get great content in, but make sure people are finding the things they want, not an article that directs them somewhere else to answer that question they have.

    Basically, with all things in SEO, from my point of view, it comes down to one question:

    Is this enhancing the experience of someone coming to my site? Are they finding what they’re actually looking for? If the answer is yes, then you’re optimised well. SEO isn’t about traffic quantity, it’s about traffic quality. Make sure that you get the best qualified traffic by ranking for the right things. Control the ranking elements to do that. That’s what SEO is to me.

  20. [...] now there are tons of sites that look like this one, found by Publishing 2.0. It’s basically a husk wrapped around a bunch of advertising. The actual reviews that this [...]

  21. [...] Karp has a question for Darren Rowse about his digital camera site asking: So, what, you may ask, is wrong with this? [...]

  22. 10 sites is a bit much for those of us that have to earn a living, but here’s a tried and true example:

    Notice the absence in the top 10 of a certain company who’s obsesed with putting a swoosh on every living and inanimate object on the planet? And it’s not like lots of people aren’t searching on ‘running shoes’. Isn’t Nike a reasonable site for them to end up on?

    Part of good SEO is figuring out how to balance your web design and marketing efforts that are not particularly search friendly (Nike may be an industry leader here) with content that is engine friendly and can not only be indexed, but will attract lots of attention overall. I’m pretty sure some of Nike’s better pages are plenty link-worthy without much buzz.

  23. [...] real truth about getting noticed is to set yourself [...]

  24. Scott – As someone who has worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies who could not be found in the 10 ten for key brand related terms I have plenty of examples, email me and I’ll send you a list. I would hate to call anyone out, who has since optimized their site in a public forum.

  25. [...] Scott Karp [...]

  26. Woah, you seem to be very worried about offending Darren. His site makes tons of money, it’s true, but it looks like crap, and much of the content is scrapped from CNET. If you’re going to be critical, don’t kiss butt so much.

  27. [...] The Truth About SEO – Scott Karp [...]

  28. [...] The Truth About SEO [...]

  29. [...] I found a great article at: Publising 2.0 of Scott Karp, discussing SEO and its practices: The truth about SEO.  Scott exposes its position about SEO, mentioning that “there’s an imbalance of value between [...]

  30. [...] on Avangate Interview with Google’s Matt Cutts about Next-Generation Search on Read-Write Web The Truth About SEO by Scott Karp Response to SEO Questions by Rand Fishkin The 5 minute Link Value Test – 6 Link [...]

  31. Hi Scott,
    Something I found interesting in this Blog is this line:

    There’s another aspect of SEO and online marketing generally that make people like Jason Calacanis and me, who have a background in traditional media, instinctively uncomfortable.

    I heard this distinction before in connection with SEO, but I don’t understand it. What you describe above about Darren Rowse happens in traditional media as well.

    There are so many publishing companies that, besides their high-quality publications, publish crap that sells good. If they upgrade the quality it sells less, this is especially true with some newspapers. The only difference with the internet is that the internet is a medium that enables someone with a low budget and a head for business to make money (and crap).

    So, what Darren does is a question of using his head and marketing to make money. It does not matter that it’s on-line or off-line.

  32. [...] found a great article at: Publising2.0 of Scott Karp, discussing SEO and its practices: The truth about SEO.  Scott exposes its position about SEO, mentioning that “there’s an imbalance of value between [...]

  33. [...] found a great article at: Publising2.0 of Scott Karp, discussing SEO and its practices: The truth about SEO.  Scott exposes its position about SEO, mentioning that “there’s an imbalance of value between [...]

  34. Some people just get lucky and happen to know someone with a site that has a very high PR. They get one link from that site, and they end up on the front page for whatever keyword they are optimized for. I just got done looking at some blog by some lady that was on the front page for a rather popular search term. She receives near 100,000 visitors a month. Her blog is about 6 months old. Her blog absolutely sucks and there is no content on it whatsover that is worth reading. She just happens to have some high inbound links from high PR sites. Plus she might have paid for a few. But it’s unbelieveable how a site with no good information on it by some twit can land on the front page.

  35. [...] to the Jack Bauer . . . is sound. NOODP WordPress plugin is worth a read. I found the article The Truth About SEO nice. SEO on the mind was marvelous. http://www.typepadhacks.org has a wonderful piece. Don’t forget [...]

  36. Great post, l will checkout some of these seo techniques myself.

  37. I love this stuff and I’ll bookmark this page and wish to share it to all my friends. Thanks for your post. I hope people realize how valuable this kind of information is.

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