SEO Crisis: User Experience vs. Backlinks

Over at Entrepreneur, Jayson DeMers wrote a controversial SEO guide that is technically correct, but potentially misleading to small businesses. His thesis is pretty straightforward: “The happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank.” Simply put, you don’t need advanced technical skills to do SEO right. Just create great content, lower your bounce rate, and watch your rankings rise.

He suggests that the key to successful SEO campaigns involves six points:

  1. Great user experience
  2. Quality content
  3. Being recognized as an authority
  4. Social media marketing
  5. Building your local reputation
  6. Using modern content management systems

Those are six great pieces of advice for any SEO campaign. They’re also overly simplistic to the point where small businesses end up a bit confused. Doesn’t every recent SEO article also say, backlinks are still a major ranking factor? Are we to believe they will magically appear when great content is produced?

Understandably, people, particularly small business owners, so badly want to believe this is true. After all, it’s easy to believe a lie you really want to believe. SEOs’ jobs would be so much easier if we didn’t need to worry about XML site maps or diagnosing site crawl issues, or earning great backlinks. Unfortunately, the thesis here – that SEO boils down to making your users happy – is true, but it’s not the most immediate issue for many small business websites.

“Ultimately, there’s only one motivation that drives Google: the experience of its users,” DeMers says.

Hey, I wish I could believe that, too. I wish I could believe that Google, in its infinite benevolence, sits around Silicon Valley dreaming up ways to make its users’ lives better, rather than trying to maximize their advertising revenue and coming up with new ways to spin the message that all you need to succeed at SEO is great content, low bounce rates, and happy thoughts. But when I look back on our most successful SEO campaigns, I can think of dozens of technical skills we needed to get that Page One ranking, including great backlinks we earned along the way.

Picking Keywords is Part Science and Part Art

If anyone tells you focusing on keywords doesn’t matter anymore, they are over-simplifying too much. Honing in on the right keywords is still a crucial first step in any campaign, but it involves a lot more than picking out the most searched keywords from a list and a title tag adjustment.

The best SEO companies know how to pick keywords that small businesses can actually afford to target. And that means breaking down the numbers for them, including the cost of PPC campaigns for that search term and the amount of money it will take to see traction on their keywords. If you don’t know how to pick the right keywords and manage expectations, you can easily bite off more than your client-particularly a small-business client who’s depending on you to do SEO right-can chew.


Technical Skills are Just as Important as Ever

Entrepreneur is hardly the first publication to suggest that you don’t need to know coding languages, like HTML or CSS, to practice good SEO. Again, that’s mostly true, but let’s see what Moz has to say. Rand Fishkin breaks down exactly why this is not the end of the story:

“First off, there’s no acknowledgment – and I find this a little disturbing – that the ability to read and write code…can take your SEO efforts to the next level…So being able to look at a web page, view source on it, or pull up Firebug in Firefox or something and diagnose what’s going on and then go, ‘Oh, that’s why Google is not able to see this content. That’s why we’re not ranking for this keyword or term…It’s because it’s loading it after the page from a remote file that Google can’t access.”

Then, there are the regular adjustments that surprise Penguin and Panda updates will require. And yes, most modern CMS platforms make designing and updating a website simpler than ever, but does the average small business owner have the skills to ensure their site is optimized for mobile devices, too? A decisive 83 percent of consumers expect local businesses to have mobile-friendly sites. And with more people searching for those businesses with their phones, anyone who lacks the coding skill to redesign a website will fall behind, and fast. That means you’re failing a very basic SEO test because you lack technical expertise, to say nothing of the more advanced SEO tests you’ll have to pass on your way to Page One.

Just Write Great Content!

Since at least 2012, Chicken Littles have been warning that the “content bubble” was about to pop, raining destruction down on search marketers the World Wide Web over. But, I think most of us would agree that content remains one of the most effective digital marketing strategies in our toolkits, period. Unfortunately, the content naysayers are right about one thing: there is a lot of content on the Web in 2015.

How often have you heard the advice, “Just write great content?” Again, this is wishful thinking. First, most people lack the writing skills to produce engaging content on their own, to say nothing of crafting the perfect headline and the most clickable meta description. Plus, too many people forget that not all content is written. Few people have the time, skills and desire to design an eye-grabbing infographic, produce a video or organize live-streaming webinars.


Social Media Marketing: If it were Easy, Everyone Would Have 10,000 Followers

No matter what you’ve heard, it’s not enough to just write great content. Without an effective marketing plan in place, that content will disappear within hours under a mountain of similar content. This philosophy of SEO seems to follow the Field of Dreams approach to content marketing. If you build great content, they will Tweet it. Nope.

A solid promotion strategy is an SEO requirement. You need a network of social media followers already in place. Plus, you need to know how to effectively market that content without getting flagged as a spammer or unfollowed by Joe Facebook, who thinks you’re posting too much: a delicate balance for even the most experienced SEO experts.

More than likely, most business owners don’t realize that after all the hard work to build a strong Facebook and Twitter following, posts aren’t always visible to all of their followers. Add “learn about promoted posts/Tweets and figure out how to set up campaigns” to the list of technical SEO skills.

The Big Picture

Finally, it has never been easier to track the results of an SEO campaign – if you know how. Without the experience that comes from running hundreds, even thousands of SEO campaigns, all that data is just noise. Sure, you can write great content, lower your bounce rate, and provide a great user experience. But will that help you identify the problem when you suddenly see a surge in traffic from spammers? Will that help you figure out exactly why you aren’t seeing any traction on a particular keyword? No. The insight that comes from managing and analyzing many campaigns simultaneously is essential to troubleshooting problems (and there will be problems).


While it is true that focusing on the user experience will greatly improve your chances of ranking, it is also true that this oversimplification is confusing to small businesses. A focus on the end user will help you build better content, which is required for great SEO in 2015. But so is a technical understanding of onsite SEO, and attention to the continuing importance of backlinks.

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