February 8th, 2007

The Truth About SEO

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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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jaisne

    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.

  • 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.

  • Sebastian

    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.

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