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Ignorance: The Trouble with People Who Claim SEO is Snake Oil

Mark Jackson
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An article in a major publication last week disparaged SEO, calling it "snake oil" once again. How did the columnist decide SEO doesn't work, and that its practitioners are a bunch of snake oil salesmen? Well, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (I hasten to give him any attention, as that's what he and his editor are after) had rewritten his URLs to make them search engine friendly, but lost traffic in his efforts.

Here's his exact quote:

Search engine optimization (SEO) has turned into a big business, and from what I can tell it's the modern version of snake oil. The unproven nonsense spewed by so-called "SEO Experts" simply doesn't work. And worse, it's screwing up the elegance of the Web.

Ugh. Here we go again.

First off, dear readers, I exchanged e-mails with his editor-in-chief, and even offered to rebuke this column in a column of my own on his Web site. I just can't let false claims such as his stand uncontested. When people write columns like this, it affects our industry.

We, as an industry, accept that many people have jumped on the SEO bandwagon, calling themselves SEOs when they have a difficult time even writing compelling title tags. We know that some people will quickly respond to RFPs, get a prospect to cut a few checks, and deliver little in return. Then, there are those of us who have studied for years to understand what good SEO is and worked hours helping our clients achieve measurable results.

OK, time to respond to the column. Begrudgingly, I'll link to it so you can read it for yourself. At least we can discuss something that works for SEO: good URL structure.

Optimizing URL Structure

The columnist refers to the "fact" that long URLs don't work. Here's what he wrote:

My blog had typical, efficient WordPress default URLs, such as http://www.dvorak.org/blog/?p=3100 or some such thing. Now on my current blog, that particular URL -- which used the simple story ID number to access the post -- has been supposedly SEO-optimized behind this URL: http://www.dvorak.org/blog/2005/10/20/hollywood-unions-want-cut-of-itunes-pie/.

From what I can tell, this guy did at least one thing wrong -- and possibly two -- with this one element of proper SEO. I wish I could speak with him directly to confirm my suspicions, and perhaps even teach him a thing or two about what real SEO involves (much more than just one thing).

First, there's really nothing "wrong" with his original URL structure (/blog/?p=3100). There are only two trailing backslashes.

So what if the URL has a couple of dynamic characters in it (the question mark and equals sign are referred to as "dynamic" characters). Search engines nowadays do fine indexing and ranking these. So long as you're keeping your content as close to the root as you can, you should be in good shape.

However, it's not "optimal." How do we make this optimal? We "optimize."

Four Simple Rules for Optimizing URL Structure

Optimizing URL structure is nothing to play around with. If you're enjoying high rankings and quality traffic, I might recommend that you not touch a thing. However, if you wanted to proceed in the hopes that you can do even better, you need to follow a few simple rules:

  1. Include keywords within your URL structure.
  2. Keep your content as close to the root domain (www.example.com) as possible, without affecting site maintenance/usability. For example, you might use www.example.com/service/name-of-service rather than www.example.com/name-of-service, to increase usability.
  3. Don't forget to 301 redirect each of your legacy (old) URLs to the new URLs.
  4. Hyphens (-), underscores (_), or none of the above? This debate will rage on. That is, some prefer that you separate your keywords using a hyphen, some say that underscores perform better, and some say just cram all the words together.

Now, let's take a look at this columnist's "new and improved" URL structure: http://www.dvorak.org/blog/2005/10/20/hollywood-unions-want-cut-of-itunes-pie/.

The first part looks OK (dvorak.org/blog) and then we have /2005/10/20 before we get to the post. Is it really necessary to include the date stamp within the URL? No. By doing so, you've pushed the content three levels deeper in the site structure. If you look at his original URL structure, he had /blog/?p=3100.

To sum up: the original URL had two trailing backslashes once you landed on the content page, while the new URL has five trailing backslashes. And the new URL structure resulted in worse rankings than the old one. Coincidence? My experience would tell me, "No."

Just the Facts, Please?

This guy has the experience of one Web site telling him that SEO doesn't work. This was based on his experience with only one aspect of SEO (URL rewriting). And that one aspect wasn't even implemented correctly. He screwed it up and then blames our industry?

I also wonder how this person became a columnist on matters regarding SEO. What happened to journalistic ethics? If this magazine wanted a column on SEO, they should have done a little more research or had someone who actually knows about SEO write the piece.

Ignorant.

I'm not calling this man "stupid." There's a big difference between stupid and ignorant. I'm just saying that he doesn't know.

In my e-mail, I told his editor-in-chief that he should have someone who actually knows about SEO write about the topic.

Me? I've probably overseen roughly 400 SEO projects.

This guy? One.

Yet, his one experience (which appears to have gone badly by his own fault) with one aspect of SEO (URL rewriting) managed to reach thousands of readers (I can only imagine), and will affect each and every one of us.

Aaron Wall has a great post, which points out some reasons why SEO is valued, and also features a video from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named talking (bragging?) about his SEO efforts. From Aaron's post:

Many of the media outlets that publicly dismiss SEO have an in-house SEO team. (On multiple occasions I have been called or emailed - the same day - with questions from an in-house SEO at a publishing company that just published a piece denouncing SEO)

Funny enough, Aaron. You're more right than you can imagine. Here is the one response that I did get back from this guyâ””s Editor-in-Chief:

Actually I thought Dvorak's column was interesting and provocative, all things that a good column should be. What's more, I also wonder about the efficacy of long URLs. That said, I believe 100% in SEO and have used it to boost the fortunes of PCMag.com.
--Lance Ulanoff
Editor-in-Chief
PCMag.com

A Call to Arms

I suggest that each of you who have a blog or relevant Web site link to this column with the words "SEO Snake Oil" in the anchor text. I want this post to serve some good. Perhaps we can get this to rank and show that SEO really works.

With your help, we may just take some bad commentary and turn it into an opportunity to do some good for our industry.


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