On Magic & SEO: Open Letter to Forbes, Bill Barol

Dear Bill Barol,

Let me open this letter by saying that I am saddened by the evident lack of depth and breadth in your reading list that has led you to say “I have never, not once, read anything by an SEO expert in which the author spoke comprehensible English”.

As someone who feels in command of the English language, I am writing to you in order to rectify your situation and express my disappointment at the blog post you penned for Forbes entitled, “Sex, Free iPad, Naked Pictures of Cat Deeley, 8 Ways to Get Rich Right This Second and Lose Weight While You Sleep“.

I am an SEO practitioner and editor for this publication on search marketing. I am also the proud owner of a degree in Literature & Philosophy. The two careers have always been connected for me. In targeting search terms that people type into a little box on Google, literature helps me understand how people construct their intentions and philosophy helps me to anticipate what their information needs might be. In a nutshell, that’s SEO. Everything else are pretty superflous methodological pointers around that core principle; that core idea is what the SEO industry represents to me.

Regarding your post, what seems to have been a piece motivated by frustration and despair felt towards a bad presentation on SEO, oversteps the boundaries of a fruitful discussion and descends into head-bashing for its own sake. It is more than a little irritating that you saw fit to use the faults of one person as an opportunity to drag an entire industry through the mud. Especially when you have even determined yourself that the presentation in question was not even written by an SEO expert, but instead a jargon touting VC with 4 years SEO experience, on a publication that is not about SEO or even online marketing tactics.

Whilst we could debate the material value of the SEO tips presented by the VC, what I can also say with a fair degree of certainty is that he clearly wasn’t selling ‘arcana’ or ‘the keys to the kingdom’ as you seem to have suggested. In fact it was pretty plain speaking from the outset, “While the web has evolved, the basics of SEO are the same.”

I can’t detect anything deliberately misleading here that bolsters the “shabby reputation of SEO”. So why does your article reproduce this trite perception for it’s own sake? If “hits are easy”, why have you resorted to scandalizing an entire industry on the slightest misunderstanding?

You would have been better arguing that people who don’t know how to give meaningful presentations to a general audience (without descending into “flashy, imprecise and weak” concepts), should not be given a platform by mass market publications. You might have even called the publication out for allowing the post to run in the first place and held them to account for not understanding their readers’ needs. In effect, you could have used your own qualifications to bring some authority to the debate between content quality and driving page views from a journalist or publishers perspective – a debate that is nigh on eternal in search marketing circles.

The reason we SEOs have this debate is because, since the dawn of search engines, broadsheet publications (i.e. those of an assumed ‘quality’) were getting crowded out by dross. This was because most publications arrogantly assumed that Google should automatically recognize their quality. But, Google just isn’t that smart and this problem is compounded by the point which you actually try to argue – that quality itself is ‘incalculable’.

The innovation which Google brought to search engine algorithms was to try to derive content quality signals from the context of a page on the web – namely to count external factors, such as links, as a vote for the content. By counting all the votes to a page, they could derive a kind of visceral agreement among web users that functions as a concept of quality that can be read by a computer program.

iRobots DOT TXTHowever, as computer programs are not capable of making editorial decisions, by its very nature it could only be an approximation at best. If you have followed the developments made in Google’s algorithm over the last 12 months, then you should have seen that they are frantically looking at many new types of external signals they might be able to use. For instance, they are trying to look at the number of times content is shared on social networks and the latest is in whether they can validate the author via their own social network, Google Plus.

In your mission to champion quality on the web you are guilty of conceit and obfuscation yourself. It’s ironic that where you become most plain speaking, you make the least sense. Meaning truly is hard.

In your penultimate paragraph you coddle the SEO industry with a kind compassionate but manufactured injustice. On the one hand, you let the entire world into the open secret that quality is not easily defined, only then to label SEOs self serving ‘peddlers’ and ‘hucksters’ for even trying to measure quality by the same metrics that Google does. Yet, in a final flourish, you proceed to distance yourself from that claim by invoking the idea that there is a general perception out there that “SEO is a con,” rather than one specifically held by you. You would have us take comfort in the fact that in reality it was this one VC, nay rogue SEO, who let our team down. Now, tell me again, who is using language to “obscure and misdirect”?

All of this leads to my main objection. Your conclusion that “it’s a waste of time to strategize toward the wrong ends, using the wrong tools” is completely unfair.

Targeting content to what people are searching for is no less a strategy than writing content that you simply think people want to read about. SEO is the right tool to make that content more visible on search engines. As for recycling imprecise concepts, in most cases, search engines themselves are struggling with the quality problem, as much as the writers who wax lyrical on it. The science itself is imprecise, so much so that Google has hired an army of human Search Quality Raters.

Even among your own readers, that the intention of your own article is lost in its own vented spleen is a case in point. You couldn’t even use the tool most suited to your purposes, namely the Pharmakon (the ancient Egyptian name for the concept of a written language), to explain the dissonance between intention and meaning. Why should a lifeless computer program fare any better in assessing a definition of quality that works in real life, for real people? The very idea that a computer is even capable of this task is little more than a hunch (we’re a long way off from a true semantic web).

Spam's Labyrinth - An SEOfilms competition submission by @Lordmanley

And what a dangerous hunch not to question – why should SEOs get a kicking just for trying to explain how that program works? The fact that, in reality, it doesn’t work 100% is what SEOs are passionate about. In my personal opinion, the position I get most passionate about (that doesn’t include expanding my funnel in Google Analytics or Thailand), is me going as far to say that Google Search is fundamentally broken and it’s not the SEO industry that broke it, but the internet itself. I’ll leave you hanging on that statement. If you want to take the time to find out how it is broken – why don’t you do some research into why SEO works in the first place? A truer picture will start to emerge (like Dorian Gray, it’s hidden in an attic and it’s called PageRank – but that’s just my little literary joke to share with you).

SEOs are simply the messengers that Google is not perfect and all the search engines are not getting the right signals from content producers. SEOs can tell businesses how to fix that based on what we have learned from working with search engines over the last 15 years. Aside from the core principle, we really have one consistent methodological message – the internet is constantly evolving and that, in turn, it is changing the way search engines work. We can help you keep up with those changes.

It was not and is not the search marketing industry that perpetuates the myth that attaining Google rankings is black magic. Search Engines have become so much part of modern life that everyday “normal people” even use Google rankings as an indicator of quality without even questioning how it got there.

Why not give us some credit for saving people thousands of dollars in opportunity cost for making a terrible website that Google cannot find? We take those same websites that self important VP’s of Marketing, CEOs and VCs assume is high quality with their even more esoteric internal calculations (put simply, their own irrational sense of quality), and re-engineer the site to meet Google’s own computationally calculated concept of quality.

Optimizing sites for search engines is an online best business practice, equivalent to building your store in a good location and ensuring you are promoted locally offline. Companies owe it to their shareholders to make sure customers can actually find them. That just about summarizes the need for SEO.

Lord of the Bings - An SEOfilms competition submission by @heatherbuckleyThere is zero magic in SEO; it’s entirely data-driven. That SEOs do often have to refer to key concepts and principles to explain their work is as much down to the inherent complications of fulfilling a task as enormous as “organizing all the world’s information” as it is down to the fact that most business owners do not have time (or inclination), to keep up with Google’s ever-changing requirements.

These days a webmaster needs an SEO in much the same way that a business needs an accountant just to keep up with the latest changes in tax law. And, just like an accountant, some people are better at interpreting this data and keeping up with Google’s ever-changing requirements than others. You get good ones and bad ones. Similarly, there are other industries plagued by wanna-be’s; writing or design, for example.

SEO work is just as susceptible to the Project Triangle too: Don’t expect good, fast, and cheap, you can’t have all three. People who manufacture crap content are those same people looking for something for nothing.

Finally, as is the case for journalists and bloggers, the same business pressures exist in the SEO space. In both industries we all strive to uphold best practices but that doesn’t mean there are not individual offenders. Publications have to skirt the fine line between editorial independence and responding to the interests of the market – at the risk of being marked as hacks and schills. When the interests of business destroy the editorial value of a publication, the market reacts. But we don’t rail against journalists and bloggers in general – we rail against the company who forced their hand.

SEO Wars Rise of the Black Hat EmpireTo our credit, as a young unregulated industry, SEOs are remarkably self policing. Most SEOs aspire to be genius inbound marketers, eschewing ‘the tricks’ and take it upon themselves to promote ethical awareness around search engine spam. Whilst it may be an inadequate defence to say “they made us do it” it is worth highlighting that there is a double standard at play.

In my experience, it is senior management possessed by the profit motive whom express disdain for Google and other search engines. They are the ones encouraging the SEO skill to be used to push the limits of Google’s editorial guidelines.

Forbes is one of the worst offenders – and according to TechCrunch, they play dumb when they are discovered and Forbes themselves even write about how Google Penalties are ineffectual. So it’s probably your editors who conspire to say, “oh yeah, why don’t we go ahead and attack the SEO industry today, because that will get us some links and shares right? I heard somewhere that gets you top of Google.”

So, to end with declarative sentences. Please get your handkerchief out of my face and take your hand out of my pocket. You got me with your headline and advertisers paid you for my visit. The VC did not present a dumbed down version of what SEO entails or reproduce endemic supersitions about the industry. You did. At the expense of the quality editorial you claim to stand for.

Yours Sincerely,

Jonathan Allen

Director, Search Engine Watch


Article Picture Credits: iRobots.txt by @RichardFergie, Spam’s Labyrinth by @LordManley, Lord of the Bings by @BuckleyHeather & SEOwars by @aschottmuller

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