It would seem we're about ready for that biennial discussion about the state of SEO, what it is and perhaps what it should be. John Andrews put me on this train of thought with his recent piece on Why SEO Sucks.
There is a reason why SEO sucks for many, many people. It seems SEO is HATED even, in many cases. I usually ignore that SEO Hater stuff because many, many people don’t really understand what SEO is, and some people like to foster SEO F.U.D. (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt… the same stuff that sells backup systems and certain unnecessary insurance policies). Whatever.
SEO Lovers versus SEO Haters
I pondered on how the world splits between SEO lovers and SEO haters. Google Insights provides some help here if you compare how people are clicking on SEO love and SEO hate.
Perhaps surprisingly SEO love provides the 100 benchmark here and that reflects the current view. Over the years, SEO love has been gradually picking up its adherents.
- 2006 25
- 2007 31
- 2008 47
- 2009 62
- 2010 75
'SEO hate' was not even on the radar screen with a 0 reading until this year, 2010, where it now has a score of 7. Clearly something is stirring here.
What was SEO?
Before we pile too much analysis on here, it is important to define what we're talking about. Danny Sullivan, SEO's defender if ever there was on, has just weighed in with Does SEM = SEO + CPC Still Add Up?
I’ve found it annoying that over the years, more and more people use SEM to mean paid search, as if SEM excludes SEO. That’s not how I defined SEM — search engine marketing — back 2001. I’d still like to see the original definition retained. But I might be swimming against the tide. …
SEO has been the term used for gaining natural listings and also for people or companies who do such work. The letters stands for Search Engine Optimization. No, SEO is not about spamming the search engines. It’s an acceptable practice that search engines actively encourage. In the search world, SEO is equal to PR in the “real” world. Good SEO can’t guarantee good search engine “coverage,” any more than good PR can guarantee a favorable newspaper article. But it can increase the odds, if done within acceptable boundaries.
He goes on with some interesting information on what this all may mean. However it focuses on definitions and perhaps the real discussion should pick up some wider issues.
What is SEO?
That simple question is as difficult to answer as an exactly parallel question, What is Marketing? There are no clear cut, black and white answers when you try to tackle apparently simple issues like this. Every individual has by now built up a whole set of associated concepts and emotions. Here we have prime examples of that old picture of the 7 blind men standing around an elephant and trying to explain to the others what this elephant thing is: it's a wall, it's a tree, it's a tube and so on.
When it comes to marketing, no one has been trying to promote the concept in a major way so whatever it currently is has arrived by an evolutionary process. Different views have been debated and worked with and in society we now have a very wide mix of how people view marketing. This society view is even to an extent created by the actions of marketing practitioners. Hear the word marketing and some will think instantly of trying to force our children to overeat sugar and of unwanted telephone calls just as you're sitting down to supper.
The evolution of how SEO is now interpreted by the individual or entrepreneur in the street is even more complex. SEO has not just evolved naturally by the interaction of a host of players. In this case there is a huge gorilla sitting in the corner of the room. For many people, SEO is synonymous with having a high ranking on the Google search engine report page (SERP) for important keyword queries. Google sets the rules for that although it is somewhat elusive in giving guidance on how to achieve those high rankings.
How then does Google define SEO. Here is what they currently offer:
SEO is an acronym for "search engine optimization" or "search engine optimizer." Deciding to hire an SEO is a big decision that can potentially improve your site and save time, but you can also risk damage to your site and reputation. Make sure to research the potential advantages as well as the damage that an irresponsible SEO can do to your site.
Although many people will not have read the Google definition, perhaps that growing score for 'SEO hate' shows that more and more people are feeling as Google does and moving to that end of the scale. What is causing society to increasingly accept that view of SEO? Perhaps the biggest factor is the most obvious factor – how SEO gets marketed.
SEO Marketing defines SEO
Marketing is all about communicating with prospects and clients. If there is a great deal of marketing activity, then it would not be surprising that this has a big influence on society's views and perceptions of a topic. In this case, there are two major influences In SEO marketing.
The first major influence in creating the demand for SEO is Google itself. It has been extremely successful in suggesting that keyword searches are the way to find information. The word is out: your website must be visible in important keyword searches. Having planted that idea, Google then has built a huge business on this foundation by selling ads that will help you be visible when people do keyword searches. Unfortunately at the same time, this marketing has created a large measure of FUD. That stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Google understandably cannot give out too much information since then all would know how to be at the top.
Unfortunately the Google algorithms are not perfect and do allow spamming websites created merely to be at the top of keyword queries to succeed, at least for a time. Google may warn against SEO firms and web consultants or agencies that send you email out of the blue. They often promise thousands of content web pages and thousands of back-links for surprisingly low costs. Such methods may work for a time but will result in long term harm. Google is clear on this:
Reserve the same skepticism for unsolicited email about search engines as you do for "burn fat at night" diet pills or requests to help transfer funds from deposed dictators.
Despite all this, the SEO market place is largely defined by these high output/low cost SEO 'experts'. It will not be surprising to see that 'SEO hate' grows even more.
How to preserve your SEO Sanity
One might be depressed by this worsening situation for SEO. So many thought SEO was the magical silver bullet that would bring Internet success. How does one keep whatever good may be represented by SEO and ignore the irrelevant and possibly damaging aspects of SEO.
It really is very simple. It is important to remember:
SEO is necessary but not sufficient.
SEO is only part of the toolkit that must be kept in the marketing box. There are many other aspects to developing websites that perform and achieve a company's goals. It should not be a company goal to get a high ranking in a Google keyword search. It should be a company goal to be in contact with as many potential prospects as possible and convert as many of them as possible into customers who make purchases.
This involves the look and feel of the website, the usability of the website as visitors explore what is there and the ability of the website to create trust and convert visitors to buyers. All these other dimensions must be optimized in a way that does not jeopardize the search engine friendly aspects of the website.
Perhaps a final confirmation of this view can come from Google itself. It provides tools for measuring a website's performance with its Google Analytics metrics. Here is how they describe what they measure:
Improve your site and increase marketing ROI.
Google wants you to attract more of the traffic you are looking for, and help you turn more visitors into customers. Use Google Analytics to learn which online marketing initiatives are cost effective and see how visitors actually interact with your site. Make informed site design improvements, drive targeted traffic, and increase your conversions and profits.
There's not a mention of SEO there, even though many of the resulting improvement ideas may fall under that topic. That's the way to love SEO. It has its place, but it's not the be-all and end-all.