It is important to state at the outset that “Critical Thinking” by “Doc” Sheldon Campbell is intentionally not a “how to” book. You won’t find any instruction or direction from the author as to the rudiments and mechanics of search engine optimization (SEO).
Rather, the author seeks to introduce critical thought as an overarching approach to the scientific method required for successful SEO practice. Campbell starts by examining the all-too-common issue of information overload (in SEO), reflecting on personal experience when first learning SEO and the problem of where to seek knowledge and how to filter the vast range of information in any meaningful way.
“I realize now that what I did was far from efficient...Something like checking restrooms at all the gas stations in town, in hopes of finding a few pearls of wisdom scrawled on the stall doors.”
I asked Campbell in advance of reviewing the book, if the interest in critical thought (per se) pre-dated his SEO experience.
“I was an engineer in a former life, and a business management consultant for the last 15 years prior to "retiring", so critical thought has always been a big piece of my makeup. In fact, I can trace it to a conversation with my father when I was about 10 or 11 years old. It's been the way I address all questions, and it's served me well.”
“Critical Thinking” is a qualitative piece of research, compiling a range of responses to a series of open questions, set to a group of contributors. Using a range of themes, (from mentoring, to tools, to future developments) Campbell introduces each chapter with personal reflections and some background to the chapter’ question posited to a range of 31 active industry participants, each with a variety of backgrounds and a wealth of experience. Questions include
- “What do you believe is the single greatest challenge facing SEOs today?”
- “What is the one aspect of internet marketing that you feel yields the greatest results?”
- “If you could follow one single source of information pertaining to your internet work, which would it be, and why?”
Contributors come from all over the globe and reflect different specialism within SEO and closely related disciplines and are Alan Bleiweiss, Andrea Scarpetta, Andrew Bleakley, Anthony Verre, Barry Adams, Dana Lookadoo, Danny Sullivan, Dean Cruddace, Debra Mastaler, Eren McKay, Gabriella Sannino, Garrett French, Heather Lloyd-Martin, Hugo Gill, Ian Lurie, Jahnelle Pittman, Jey Pandian, Joe Hall, Joshua Titsworth, Justin Parks, Lyena Solomon, MJ Taylor, Michelle Robbins, Rand Fishkin, Rebekah May, S. Emerson, Steve Gerencser, Taylor Pratt, Thomas Fjordside, Tim Nash, and William Slawski.
A number of recurrent themes appear throughout the responses in “Critical Thinking” that should serve to direct further test and research for the reader; particularly a feeling that link volume and anchor text is either already being downplayed or will be usurped in the recent future; that social mechanism and social data layers are pretty much already integral to understanding optimization; that over-reliance on too many data points may often obscure solution and that producing the best solution-oriented content you can for your audience should be (if not already) a primary focus.
At 180 pages, and with some repetition and overlap, it’s quite difficult to pick out stand-out points, as each contributor brings additional perspective and occasional originality; plus a reading of “Critical Thinking” is by nature quite personal (given it isn’t instructional) though I’ve attempted to précis a couple of aspects.
In particular I found question 2 “If you could mandate just one change to the dynamics of search ranking, what would that change be?” to be most entertaining, with responses ranging from “Removing the maps from the desktop searches” (Andrea Scarpetta), to “Remove all links that aren’t in the flow of page content from the ranking equation” (Ian Lurie), to “As a searcher, I’d like the ability to choose the algorithm that I use to search with. Let me decide whether I want the help of a reference librarian to power my results...” (William Slawski).
I also asked the author if it were possible to choose any one standout point that resonated with him. Campbell states:
“There were several that struck me as insightful, and of course, those that agreed with my own sentiments resonated most. I think that was most striking in comments by several people, indicating their belief that the impact of links in ranking pages would continue to diminish. That was a bit gratifying, since I published that notion over a year ago (and took a bit of ribbing for it, at the time).
The response that resonated with me the most in that regard, however, was Michelle Robbins', in Chapter 7, Foreseeing the Future, where she said:
“In the next year or two, I think brands, the social graph and off page factors will continue to grow in importance where web page – or more accurately, whole web site - rankings are concerned. With personalized search, mobile and other location aware searching, as well as social sharing, reviews, etc. - the ability for a search engine to develop a better, holistic picture about the content of a site overall (vs. just a given single page) will continue to improve. As for optimization, I see larger teams comprised of individuals specializing in specific channels (social, ppc, apps, mobile, offline) working together on more integrated campaigns – a more traditional agency style approach, with brand development as the primary goal.”
That, to me, is an inevitability, which has been voiced by very few SEOs.
In terms of the best bits about the format, Chapter 16: “Takeaways” is an extremely helpful summation of the most salient points in each of the preceding chapters. Again, the author isn’t dictating thought but suggesting the most critical points on which a reader may wish to focus, while recognizing that this will of course be quite personal, based on the reader’s own knowledge and experience. I must say that due to the vast amount of content and occasional repetition this chapter is most welcome.
Room for Improvement?
There was a lot of repetition in response, which is quite natural given that we have 31 industry-leaders; however it would’ve been nice to see the number of responses (per question) limited to the top 10 to 20 most original and disparate, with respondents rotated so each contributor gets “air-time.”
In addition, the author could have taken more of a heavy hand in evaluating what we can actually learn about the scientific method (thereby critical thinking) from the responses given at the end of each chapter. As an example in question 5 (If you could only follow one single source of information pertaining to your internet work, which would it be, and why?), only one respondent (Slawski) cites a primary data source (USPTO) as a single source to follow; which could have led to a critical evaluation of types of data sources, their usage and limitations – thus teaching the reader more about “how to think”, not “what to think”, which is the authors stated ambition.
What Did I Learn?
- I need to add “The Blind Five Year Old” – to my reading list; as recommended from Jahnelle Pitman (thanks) and completely new to me.
- I must set aside some time to really get to grips with Schema.org (thanks Alan Bleiweiss and Taylor Pratt)…
- …Starting with a reading of the Google paper “Webtables: Exploring the Power of Tables on the Web” (thanks William Slawski).
Definitely worth a read for those experienced in SEO practise but seeking a little inspiration, reassurance or re-invigoration.
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