Why Search Engine Optimization Isn’t Snake Oil (Even If Dave Sifry Says It Is)

Last fall, I attended the Oxford Social Media Convention 2009, where Technorati founder Dave Sifry proudly announced that SEO is snake oil, and that if anyone in the audience was approached by someone offering SEO, they should run. The audience chuckled and moved on. I think I must have been the only optimizer listening, because looking around me, no one was sneering at him like I was. I guess it’s to be expected, since aggregation doesn’t involve the same kind of strategic targeting that underlies search engine strategies. I regret not shouting obscenities at him across the auditorium and defending my craft, but I had kinda… well… snuck in to the convention as it is, and decided to keep my mouth shut. Shame. This will make me feel better.

Unfortunately, most people in the audience probably didn’t know all this, so Sifry managed to successfully land a jab at my industry with an unfortunate credibility and even more unfortunate misinformation. Hopefully I can help to change that impression, by first addressing why people might think that about SEO, then providing arguments for its clear value that even Dave Sifry can’t argue with.

I’d like to clarify that my work places me in a hybrid-role, a merged spot between social media and search engine optimization that finds balance between the two. They are not mutually exclusive, and work together quite nicely, in fact.

The Frauds

In every service there are charlatans. There are singing teachers who convince tuneless shriekers that they can improve, just as there are mechanics who break more than they fix. SEO is still relatively new, relatively unknown, and relatively expensive. These circumstances make it a nice breeding ground for snakery, but they hardly damn the actual process and work when it’s done right. The buyer must beware, of course, but the market is far from an intraversable minefield. I wrote an article on how to know if your SEO company knows what they’re talking about, that can hopefully help root out the unfortunate underbelly.

The Google Ethics

There are searches every month for “ethical search engine optimization”. This has nothing to do with anything humanitarian, philanthropic, or criminal, but with an adherence to guidelines as defined by Google, guidelines designed with their own business model in mind. This has had a polarizing effect, and has brought a special kind of morality into the industry perception. All marketing is laced with marketing dubiousness, of course, but “ethical SEO” has taken things a step further, sullying overall impressions with thoughts of “unethical practices” that site owners might now think they have to worry about.

Even if a case was made for Google-defined SEO ethics to be reasonable, this shouldn’t take away from what Google considers ethical. My impression is that the distinction isn’t always understood clearly by the public, and so perceptions of the craft have been unjustly poisoned.

Undisputable SEO

There are numerous basic search engine optimization strategies that an optimizer can help with, and to dismiss them in dismissing the industry on the whole is straight up foolhardy.

Sifry tied off his point about SEO by basically saying that all you really need to do is create great content, and the rest will happen naturally. This oversimplifies not only SEO on the whole, but even the content creation aspect of SEO.

So, you want to create content. What should you create? SEOs can research topics using keywords that are highly searched, for which there is current insufficient content ranking in Google already, or for content which produces more revenue in programs like Google AdSense, if you swing that way. All else being equal, why wouldn’t you consider aspects like these? They can have a large effect on your traffic numbers, and in no way compromise the integrity of your site. Search engine optimization helps to guide and add strategy to your content creation.

Also, are you sure Google can even read and index your content? Many well-wishing site owners are unaware of important on-page optimization criteria for which Google encourages optimization. Things like page titles, meta descriptions, and proper use of headings are easy to overlook and worthwhile to fix, making it clear to search engines what your content is about. Robots.txt files can unwittingly de-index your whole site, if you’re not careful. Not to fear-monger, but there is just a lot of optimization work that doesn’t just appear naturally, and can actually significantly impact search traffic on your site.

I can go on with more super clean tactics that just make sense (having crawlable URLs, being strategic about keywords when someone’s offering to link to you, using a proper SEO oriented 404 page, and heck, extremely keyword-oriented pay-per-click advertising), but you get the idea. Google has a system, and not every site on the internet is equally fit to succeed within that system. SEOs are facilitators. If you think there’s any value in anything to do with Google at all, optimizers are useful.

A Rejection of Search Engine Traffic

So, the only other area in which someone could conceivably attack SEO is whether there is significant return to be gained from the effort. Far more than other online marketing strategies (and perennially in social media), SEO gives extremely measurable return, and has an accessible set of useful metrics.

Anyone who has really gotten their feet wet with e-commerce knows that purchasers like using Google, and that a searcher’s intent can very easily lead to sales. It’s some of the most qualified traffic out there, and there’s a lot of it across the world’s niches. Being aware of this fact and responding to it can be extremely rewarding, as many of the world’s most successful online entrepreneurs have learned.

This doesn’t have to work against “conversation” style social media sales and successes, and in fact is a nice lead in. Not only does the qualified traffic help build the community, but even presence on social media sites can be improved with search engine optimization strategies.

The Future of SEO Perceptions

As the general public becomes more aware of the SEO and its value, I can only expect that perceptions will shift to somewhere nice and trusting. There are good people out there doing good SEO work, and buyers made too wary will be missing out.

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