February 27th, 2007

What I’ve Learned About SEO


  1. There is a very real body of knowledge about how to manage search that is not fairly characterized as gaming of the system.
  2. There are some very smart people who are masters of this knowledge base.
  3. There are many SEOs who, in addition to possessing this knowledge, appear to be very honest brokers. (See this post for some SEOs I like.)
  4. Based on 1, 2, & 3, it’s fair to conclude that there is a segment of the SEO industry who provide real, valuable services, and who are probably well worth hiring, depending on your needs — I’m going to be talking to some of these SEOs about a number of projects I’m working on.
  5. With the good side of SEO clearly defined, there is indeed a dark side, which is characterized by arrogance and a willingness to take advantage of people’s ignorance, often by deliberately making them feel stupid. Not to mention practices that can be fairly characterized as gaming of the system. BUT, having a good side and a bad side is not unique to SEOs — it’s true of any group of consultants or contractors.
  6. If you need to hire an SEO, judge them of course by their reputation and skills, but also judge them based on their degree of humility and how they make you feel about your own knowledge of search. If they talk down to you, run. If you read their blogs and you see any signs of arrogance, run. Be sure to look up their profiles on forums like Threadwatch, WebmasterWorld, Digital Point and others, i.e. track them down where they live and see how they act among their peers.
  7. Search remains a black box.

In trying to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the online world, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I feel like I have a fairly good grasp of what’s going on, subject to daily learning, testing, and correction. Search, however, stands out as an area of where people keep saying to me, well, duh, Scott, how could you not know X, Y, or Z? Or, duh, why don’t you stick to topics where you’re not so totally clueless. Or, for example, duh, how could you not know that it’s easy as pie to name bomb someone simply by putting their name in the title of your post, if your site has some authority and/or you get a few links to that post?

(For the record, if it’s so easy to rank your post for someone’s name, then knowing this and still putting someone’s name in the title of your post, particular in the “Joe Schmoe Doesn’t Get It” format, imeans that you’re not just engaging in a “debate” but also actively gunning for someone’s search results. This is an area of online etiquette where, if in fact all you really want to do is engage in an honest debate, you need to tread carefully, lest you be misinterpreted as being more hostile than you really are.)

I keep making the mistake of characterizing the black box of search as an SEO issue, when that’s not really fair, so I’m done with that. Because the reality is that the black box is Google (and other search engines). SEOs have learned how to get inside that black box, and they make a living off of their knowledge, but they didn’t create that opacity.

I will point out, however, that people (like me) are inherently suspicious of an ecosystem that thrives on a certain amount of opacity — and I’m speaking here of all parties involved (i.e. the entire search industry), without pointing any fingers specifically — because an outsider can’t help wondering whether that opacity is maintained, by one or more players in the ecosystem, on purpose. (It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of business.) Remember, you can explain the reality until you’re blue in the face — it’s all about perceptions.

With all that said, I’m done with the SEO outsider blogging and provoking name bombing posts on Threadwatch. I hope you’ve learned something useful from my travails. I’m moving on to calling up some SEOs and seeing what they have to offer. If I have anything further to say on the topic of SEO, it will be from the inside.

  • During my research into SEO companies I've come across so my rip off companies that try to blind people with all this SEO stuff. Of course there are many companies and people that are willing to guide people with honest knowledge - Which is really a good thing.

  • It's funny to see how people react to SEO; mostly because it’s new and so many people find the Internet itself so daunting and incomprehensible I suppose.

    Really, SEO is no different than any other job in the world; some people get it and some people don’t… but that shouldn’t stop you from using their services. Look at it this way:

    I understand the basics of how my car runs, but try not to open the hood unless I have to; to me, everything in there is essentially a black box… but I still drive

    I understand the basics of how my government works, but the internal workings of a cabinet are a mystery to me… but I still vote

    I like going to the grocers and picking up fresh(ish) fruit in the winter, but I don’t understand how my bananas get from Costa Rica to me while they are still green… but I still eat them.

    I make my living but using a computer, I can replace parts whenever I need to. But when I look at a chip or a board, I cannot comprehend the mystery of the little metal paths that criss-cross the surface… but I still use my computer.

    You do not understand the internal workings of a search engine... So let me do my job.

  • I'm just learning about SEO. I do find it sadly interesting the large number of "get rich quick" type SEO sites I have found already. Really leaves a bad taste.

  • You can always save money with Search Engine Oil

  • Matthew,

    Of course Google has to be opaque. But again, it's a perceptions game. Is Google being more opaque than it has to be. Is it colluding with SEOs to keep the system more opaque. Probably not, especially the latter, but in an opaque system you just have to take everyone's word for it. So no evil by default. Just the inherent suspicion of what you can't fully comprehend.

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