February 27th, 2007

What I’ve Learned About SEO

by

  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.

Comments (20 Responses so far)

  1. 5 Tips for Content Distribution Networks, Online Marketing Blog SEO Clinic : Submit Your Site for SEO Advice, Search Engine Journal SEO Reputation How SEO Confronts Its PR Challenge In The Blogosphere, The Blog Herald What I’ve Learned About SEO, Publishing 2.0 A Challenge To The Well-Intentioned SEO Industry, Publishing 2.0 Dave Pasternack – Master Chef Extraordinaire, Greg Boser Only Hire SEOs Who Rank?, Marketing Pilgrim Shopping Search

  2. 5 Tips for Content Distribution Networks, Online Marketing Blog SEO Clinic : Submit Your Site for SEO Advice, Search Engine Journal SEO Reputation How SEO Confronts Its PR Challenge In The Blogosphere, The Blog Herald What I’ve Learned About SEO, Publishing 2.0 A Challenge To The Well-Intentioned SEO Industry, Publishing 2.0 Dave Pasternack – Master Chef Extraordinaire, Greg Boser Only Hire SEOs Who Rank?, Marketing Pilgrim Shopping Search

  3. 5 Tips for Content Distribution Networks, Online Marketing Blog SEO Clinic : Submit Your Site for SEO Advice, Search Engine Journal SEO Reputation How SEO Confronts Its PR Challenge In The Blogosphere, The Blog Herald What I’ve Learned About SEO, Publishing 2.0 A Challenge To The Well-Intentioned SEO Industry, Publishing 2.0 Dave Pasternack – Master Chef Extraordinaire, Greg Boser Only Hire SEOs Who Rank?, Marketing Pilgrim Shopping Search

  4. is not fairly characterized as gaming of the system. There are some very smart people who are masters of this knowledge base. There are many SEOs who, in addition to possessing this knowledge, appear to be very honest brokers. (See this post for [...] (Read on Source)

  5. 5 Tips for Content Distribution Networks, Online Marketing Blog SEO Clinic : Submit Your Site for SEO Advice, Search Engine Journal SEO Reputation How SEO Confronts Its PR Challenge In The Blogosphere, The Blog Herald What I’ve Learned About SEO, Publishing 2.0 A Challenge To The Well-Intentioned SEO Industry, Publishing 2.0 Dave Pasternack – Master Chef Extraordinaire, Greg Boser Only Hire SEOs Who Rank?, Marketing Pilgrim Shopping Search

  6. >>>and provoking name bombing posts

    Now wait a minute Scott. Someone using your name in the title of a rebuttal post is nothing more than that — a rebuttal. You’ve made a name for yourself with contrarian opinions and often antagonistic posting… and that’s part of what makes me pay attention to you. Agree or disagree, you are always worth listening to because you are always thought provoking.

    However, accusing someone who disagrees with you of “name bombing” is wrong. It’s as if you just discovered that the inflammatory conversations you like to start can go on your “permanent record” with Google, and you don’t like it. Sorry, that’s the way it is.

    It’s not “name bombing.” You’re using that term in a way that is a bastardization of an entirely different concept. What was done to you is rebuttal; it’s not the same as the “Google bombing ” that was done to George W. Bush using the anchor text “miserable failure.” If you don’t understand the difference, I’m sure Aaron Wall or Natasha will take the time to explain it to you. Or do a quick Google search. This isn’t rocket science and every question you’ve raised about SEO could have been answered by your own research.

  7. Brian,

    Looks like I’ve opened a very interesting can of worms here. See my response to Natasha here.

    I agree with you that I’m appropriating a term beyond its previous use. But I believe I’ve latched on to a real issue of online ettiquete here, and I’m not backing down, just yet.

    Here’s the gist of it again: To effectively disagree with someone publicly, it is NOT necessary to put their name in the title of the post with a phrase like “Scott Karp Doesn’t Have a Clue.” Just like it’s not necessary for me to disagree with you by calling you an idiot. I can say, more politely, Brian, I respectfully disagree. SO, if somone chooses to diagree with such a post title, knowing that they will have done more than publicly disagree, but also ensure that the post title shows up in someone’s Google result, THAT action, like calling someone an idiot, comes across as an escalation, i.e. making it personal.

    So, Brian, with all due respect, it’s not that I didn’t understand the concept of “Google bombing,” it’s that I believe I have identified another aspect to this issue that many have failed to take in to consideration. And I think they should.

  8. Well… I concede to a degree. Being savvy in such things does bring another element to it that seems “gamish.” When Aaron Wall interviewed me recently, I joked with him about trying to rank for my name… since it was in the title. Brian Clark is a lot tougher than Scott Karp. ;)

    However, looking through some of the posts that do rank for your name, you’ll notice that those authors also used you name in the title, without complaint from you. You’ve only “taken this into consideration” when a post spoke negatively of you in respone to an issue you raised.

    So yes, those of us who have been at this awhile know we can rank (often temporarily) for someone’s name by posting about them and including the subject’s name in the title, but I still don’t think we’re talking about the same thing here. Look at the SEO moves against Ted Leonis for example. That was more akin to what you think was going on with you. I just don’t see it here.

    I like you way to much to fight about this, but you also know I’m not one to keep my mouth shut either. So there you have it. ;)

  9. Do people also think librarians are evil? Search optimization is a natural extension of the library and information sciences. It is a librarian’s job to make it easy for someone to find what they are looking for. Google was founded on the library science of bibliometrics but someone must still fill in the blanks. Do people also think that the person who does the filing in their office is a bad person?

    The search engines have made billions because search engine optimization specialists have organized, titled, tagged and given descriptions to a very confusing mass of content. Without these professionals the web would be chaos.

  10. I for one am grateful for the thread of posts and comments. I think most people who read this blog are well enough informed to appreciate the insights and debate that takes place and draw their own conclusions. I’d say the more heated the exchanges very likely the more important the subject. Thank you!!

  11. Brian,

    It’s a matterof degrees. What seperates a group effort to take over someone’s search results page and a one-time post that will rank for someone’s name is a matter of degrees. It’s also a matter of intentions, but the result is the same.

    When other people have attacked me personally in comments here or outside of the title of the post, of course I react differently. Ad hominem is ad hominem. I’m also reacting differently now because I’m dealing with people who understand how the system works, and thus understand the consequences of how they post.

    Gerry,

    The difference is transparency. If you ask a librarian to explain the Dewey Decimal System, they would explain it in excuriating detail, if you so desire. If I asked Google to explain in detail how it organizes information, I’d be told, sorry, that’s proprietary. Lack of transparency is not inherently evil, and I never suggested that was. BUT, it does leave you to wonder what is going on behind the curtain.

  12. If they talk down to you, run. If you read their blogs and you see any signs of arrogance, run.

    You got it, BUT sometimes you want the doctor with the big ego doing the operation yes? I am an SEO and I judge other SEOs by how they treat people in the areas you listed. The ones who also spend time in Google Groups and SEO forums helping (while asking for nothing in return) are the ones to hire. Though these individuals are not often easy to find, in “SEO” those who yell louder often get the microphone even if what they are saying is from the devil’s tongue.

    These individuals self promote a close circle of friends via text links to control the conversation. I have been called stupid by a few of the popular SEO elites simply because I pointed out the obvious about incorrect snake oil advice. It is true of any industry though, their will always be snakes on the train.

    Very observant for someone who blogs from outside the circle Scott, I have been watching this whole thing closely.

    The advice I would give is to hire one outstanding, honest individual to take care of your needs, if you need another have him hire someone who mirrors his/her excellence. You also might find that a webmaster who also knows about SEO will go the distance in building a larger, longer lasting internet footprint. This SEO is serious work.

    Good luck,

    Aaron (no relation to Aaron Wall) Pratt

  13. The opacity is a necessary evil. Without it, there would be no end to the successful gaming of the search results by all number of interests. As it stands, *effectively* manipulating the engines is limited to a group of people that the engines probably see as relatively small. If the algorithms weren’t a black box, there’d be more spammers than lawyers, if there aren’t already.

  14. 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.

  15. You can always save money with Search Engine Oil

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. [...]  SEOs aren’t all bad, really. A lot of them are very, very smart. [...]

  19. [...] SEOs aren’t all bad, really. A lot of them are very, very smart.I also blog daily at V7N… PermaLink [...]

  20. 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.

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