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Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO

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Worthless. Shady. Criminals.

Do SEO? This means you. That's how you're being described. Those characterizing search engine optimization this way are unfairly defining an entire industry, often ignorant of SEO issues, definitely stereotyping and shortsighted in not realizing the value SEO offers to every site.

I hope this article will educate some about why SEO is not all bad. At the very least, I want to examine how we've ended up in this sorry state of affairs and why it isn't helpful to critics and those doing SEO alike.

The SEO/Designer Disconnect

Last year, I was amazed over an uproar that came out of a session we held at Search Engine Strategies San Jose last summer. Someone who attend the panel about how search engines interact with CSS, JavaScript and frames (short answer -- not well) felt the panelists were offering snake oil solutions rather than focusing on content.

His blog post inspired another post from CSS guru Eric Meyer. He roundly condemning the panelists, the conference organizers (that's me) and by implication, SEO advice in general. It even ended up with the Web Standards Project taking a slam at the "clowns" on the panel. I found that deeply ironic, given my own Search Engine Standards Project had been inspired by the WSP.

The good news is that further conversation ensued. I commented at both of those blogs, as did two of the panelists. It wasn't snake oil they were pushing. Instead, they were pointing out the basic fact that search engines simply don't read pages in the way designers may expect. Eric ended up posting a heartfelt apology, and the Web Standard Project did its own follow-up, saying:

If the message of the SES crowd in the comments is indeed what they were preaching at the conference it seems there's more than a little overlap between their concept of best practices in web design and ours.

Indeed there is. Good SEO can often mean good design. That's long been the case. But the uproar made me realize that somewhere along the way, that concept was lost. Designers and search engine optimizers, once in my view partners, have apparently drifted apart.

Search Engines: The Third Browser

I can remember back in the late 90s working closely with designers who welcomed having someone come in to help them understand search engines. They knew how to design sites for the two major browsers of IE and Netscape, but they didn't know how search engines -- what I often called then the third major browser -- viewed their sites.

Third browser? For ages, we lived in an Internet Explorer and Netscape world. Pages had to work with both of those browsers, and time would be spent testing that this was so. After long IE dominance, we're getting back to a two browser world of IE and Firefox.

But for all the time designers are investing to ensure pages are Firefox-compliant, are they also checking that they have search engine friendly sites? If not, they are missing out on the third "browser" that millions use each day to view the web -- search engines.

How can search engines not be considered by designers? More people use search engines than Internet Explorer and Firefox combined, because EVERYONE uses search engines, regardless of their browser. If you haven't constructed your site with search engines in mind, they may not properly index and rank your pages. In other words, you built it -- but no one may come.

Good SEO Doesn't Mean Bad Design

SEO doesn't mean that you build a site to "trick" search engines. It doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice good design. It does mean that you consider some basic tips that even the search engines themselves will tell you to do, such covered in Shari Thurow's recent SEM and Site Usability article or some of the examples below:

  • Relevant content in HTML text that can be read by search engines. An all-image or Flash page is like showing a picture to a blind person. Search engines can't see the words in your images.
  • Relevant and unique HTML title tags on each page. Even in today's link-obsessed world, I still have people telling me that fixing their page title problem brought in better traffic.
  • Removing barriers to indexing. Sites constructed in frames, using dynamic delivery systems, session IDs and other issues can in some cases prevent search engines from reading their content. What you can't read, you can't show to others.

Content SEO & Other Flavors

The points above are good SEO tips that anyone should consider. They are specifically about ensuring that your existing content has no barriers preventing it from doing well with search engines.

So how did SEO turn into a synonym for many people to mean tricking search engines through bogus links, comment spam, and other unsavory tactics? It's happened because there are other flavors of SEO that have developed and dominated the impression of the industry.

Consider the above tips as part of "content-based SEO." Need an acronym? Perhaps CSEO or SEFO, for "search engine friendly optimization." I won't say that this is the "true" SEO, because for as long as there's been content-based SEO, there's also been other flavors of SEO and tactics designed just to generate traffic from search engines regardless of content. For example:

  • Doorway pages: Maybe you have existing content, but you don't feel your content optimization is effective enough. Maybe you aren't allowed to make a site more search engine friendly by your management. Maybe you are an affiliate who simply wants traffic to send to others. In any of these cases, you might create new pages designed to get traffic and serve as a "doorway" from which you send people to other pages.
  • Link Building: Even before search engines relied on them, building links was an online marketing tactic. Link building has its own flavors, which range from making requests and hoping a link will be granted, to buying links, to using automated tools to create links in guest books, blog comments, forums and other areas allowing open access.

CSEO Is A Must

Going back to CSEO, it's a flavor of SEO that everyone who builds web pages needs to sample. Designers especially need to understand CSEO or work with someone who does. There's no excuse not to. Good designers need to understand the problems that their designs may present toward search indexing, just as they need to understand the problems their designs might have on browsers.

That knowledge will often help them make a few simple changes -- not tricks, not black magic -- to improve search engine traffic without destroying site design. At the very least, they'll fully understand if a particular design requirement will impact search engine visibility. That knowledge can then help the site owners understand that there are other tactics, such as paid search, that they need to rely on.

What about other flavors of SEO? Those are separate issues that each person can decide to pursue, if they want. But CSEO is a must, in my book. It's the bedrock, a foundation any site with decent content should start from, in terms of search engine marketing.

SEOs Should Respect Design

It's also a two-way street. SEOs who work with designers need to remember that there's a life outside of search engines. Standards are being pursued in design for good reason. Pushing some things purely meant to help with search engines can have unintended consequences, nor necessarily help with search engines at all.

I'll draw from some examples for another panel we had at Search Engine Strategies, in Chicago last December. Called "Web Standards, Good Design and SEO: You Can Have It All," it brought together the aforementioned Eric Meyer plus two of the panelists from our previous San Jose show that had attracted such an uproar. A summary of the session can be found in this recent SearchDay article as well as this SEW Forum discussion.

Eric led off explaining why the design community and others are pushing for and adopting web standards. Pluses include things like lower bandwidth costs, a big issue if you run a high-traffic site. Portability of code is another plus -- write it once and output to various platforms (browsers, cell phones, TV, even search engines) is easily done.

Matt Bailey came next, spending time talking about how standards can help those with disabilities. His presentation especially brought home the impact of abusing design standards for SEO reasons.

Images have long been able to have ALT text associated with them. That's designed to help those who can't see the images for some reason -- such as Matt's father, whose declining eyesight due to multiple sclerosis makes him more and more reliant on a screen reader.

Unexpected Consequences

A screen reader reads all the text on a page, including that in ALT text. So imagine the person who comes across the an image tag that repeats a term hundreds of times, in futile hope that will somehow boost rankings for that page. You didn't have to imagine in this session. Instead, Matt demonstrated how long it took the screen reader to go through all the words stuffed into just one image. It was painful to endure.

Here's another example. I snipped the content below from a page that came up relating to repairing Rolex watches. It was all hidden text at the bottom of the page, words stuffed by someone hoping it would improve search rankings:

rado watch skagen watch watchwatch replica watch tag heuer watch hamilton watch winders pocket jacob michele watch movado watch cartierwatch rolex watch seiko watch fake watch watch swiss watch watch band tag watchswatch mens watch watch titanium watch watchwatch wrist watch baby g watch swiss army watch fossil watch diamond watch nixon watch watch gucci watch omega watch geneva watch casio watch wholesale wristwatch tissot watch sport watch guess watch box watch batteries suunto watch

That hidden text actually went on for ten times the length shown above. Pity the person with a screen reader hitting that page, because they're in for a long reading of all this text.

Trees Vs. Forest; Elements Vs. Page

Shari Thurow concluded the session, with the main point to me being that new design techniques such as using CSS are causing people to wonder how they can be applied to SEO. Can text for search engines be hidden from users via layers? Should the title attribute be added to links in a quest to boost rankings?

At the end of the session, the conclusion I reached was that sadly, some in the SEO space may be reaching for new element-driven techniques to boost rankings in the way "ordinary" HTML has been used in the past.

What I mean is that in SEO, people sometimes obsess over making use of certain page elements rather than viewing the success of the page as a combinations of many factors. Did you have a meta keywords tag? Did you put text into an H1 tag? Are you using ALT text?

Design elements are something to consider, but no single element has generally been a make-or-break factor with search rankings. Pages will succeed even if terms aren't in ALT text. Pages with no meta tags do well. Some pages can even do well despite having non-descriptive page titles, due to the influence of link analysis. Nevertheless, it's easy for people fixate too much on page elements.

Emerging design standards mean that people are contemplating all new ways to lose sight of the main focus of CSEO, ensuring that good content on the page is made friendly to search engines by eliminating barriers and making use of particular page elements appropriately.

In other words, do you have a good page to begin with, good content on the topic that you hope to be found for? That's the forest of the CSEO world that you need to see. Viewing a page first from the element basis (Do we have terms in X, Y and Z areas?) is focusing on the trees too much, keeping you from seeing the bigger picture.

The Reputation Problem

Going back to Matt Bailey's screen reader presentation, the type of unexpected impact due to inappropriate SEO reminded me of Mike Grehan's Google PageRank Lunacy article we ran last year. In that, Mike explains how guest book spam had an terrible impact on a memorial site of a friend he lost:

Not long after his funeral, I received an email from Penny, Ed's wife. She was obviously very upset and explained that she'd been to Ed's memorial page to read the new entries and couldn't believe that "someone had placed adverts on it."

It wasn't too long before I found myself receiving notes every couple of days from people who had been to the memorial page and were horrified to find promotional messages for ring-tones and other affiliate type programs. And so I started my daily vigil of downloading the memorial page and cleaning off the junk.

What Mike describes isn't CSEO -- it isn't based on improving your own content. Nevertheless, that type of activity is seen as part of the larger SEO sphere. It's no wonder so many people have a dim view of the entire industry, when encountering such things. Even Mike, a long-time search marketer, was frustrated:

Even common decency may be abandoned in futile attempts by desperate (or simply less educated) online marketers and others who will seemingly stop at nothing to try and gain links in hopes of seeing more green in their Google toolbar....

....but even if you don't believe me and my writings about effective link building, are you really prepared to commit yourself to the virtual desecration of someone's memorial site and bring pain to their loved ones to sell a ring tone? If so, then why not head out to your nearest cemetery with a can of spray paint and plaster your URL's on the tombstones. Your actions in the virtual world of the web are the same.

I share that frustration. Trackback link spam on the Search Engine Watch Blog has grown so much that last week, I finally shut off trackbacks. I was sorry to do so, but it was no longer worth time to remove 20 or so bogus links each day, even with the automated removal tools I have. In my recent article about WordPress spam, I also cover an example of not finding a phone number I wanted due to word stuffing on a page.

Such things are annoying, even to search marketers! But it also behooves everyone not to tar the entire industry with the same brush. For all the bad things that people want to lump under the umbrella of SEO (and really search engine marketing, of which SEO is just a part), there's also plenty of good. Decry a particular SEO tactic, if you want -- but don't decry the entire SEM industry as being rotten. If you want to do that, then here are some other stereotypes you'd also better buy into:

  • All car salesmen are crooks
  • All lawyers are crooks
  • Teachers teach because they can't do
  • Bloggers don't check facts
  • [Insert Race/Culture/Nationality Here” is [Insert Derogatory Comment/Stereotype Here”

Realistically, I don't expect the SEM reputation problem will go away. Could the industry do anything itself to help improve it? Pushing that there's "good SEO" or "ethical SEO" has been raised in the past and is a difficult issue for many reasons. I'm going to revisit this in a future article, plus look at some things that might help. In the meantime, some reading on the topic

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

Scheme preys on people who mistype 'Google.com'...
CNET News.com Apr 27 2005 4:12PM GMT
The Web: Search engine privacy threats...
World Peace Herald Apr 27 2005 3:32PM GMT
Findory Redesigns...
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Google Puts RSS Advertising to the Test...
eWeek Apr 27 2005 2:44PM GMT
SearchChannel cuts to the chase on online info...
Chicago Sun-Times Apr 27 2005 2:20PM GMT
What's the Score? Basic Web Analytic Terminology...
Search Engine Guide Apr 27 2005 2:17PM GMT
How to Hire a Professional SEM - Part 2...
Search Engine Guide Apr 27 2005 2:16PM GMT
Report: Local Search vs. Search Engines...
iMedia Connection Apr 27 2005 2:13PM GMT
Advertising body revamps for web boom...
Netimperative Apr 27 2005 2:11PM GMT
RSS: Cool Tool for Search Engine Marketing...
Pandia Apr 27 2005 2:09PM GMT
Palmolive begins search marketing push...
Netimperative Apr 27 2005 11:08AM GMT
Spyware, Phishers Play Off Google.com...
Information Week Apr 27 2005 9:45AM GMT
Search engines, startup media sites dream of becoming video hubs...
Online Journalism Review Apr 27 2005 7:53AM GMT
Google foundation may invest in for-profit firms...
USA Today Apr 27 2005 5:42AM GMT


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