Getting Ready for the SEO Grilling

November 24, 2008

For the last 20 years, I have been attending and participating in the International Online Show. The show is now in the capable hands of Incisive, a UK based company. Each year, there are one or two sessions that catch my attention. The show next week in London promises to be interesting for me. I am giving a talk about the future of search and participating in a panel about search engine optimization. I can summarize my endnote in one word: Google. My talk explains how Google will have more impact in the enterprise search market than it did in 2008. If you want to know how and what, you will have to attend or wait until I post a summary of the speech. I don’t make a PowerPoint deck available before my talks. I prefer posting a PDF of my speaker notes and letting those interested link to that version of my remarks.

But SEO. That is the session that could cause me to gulp another blood pressure pill.

SEO: Consultant Heaven

I want to be crystal clear: SEO is a practice that annoys me. The reason is that content and correct code are  what I value. SEO is a package of hocus pocus designed to create the sense that tricks will cause a Web page to appear at the top of a results list. Since most people don’t create substantive content, most Web sites don’t provide the indexing systems with much to process. Other outfits use a content management system like the ancient Broadvision or the remarkable Vignette. These systems generate Web pages that some Web indexing systems cannot process. Other people create Web pages with scripting errors. Sure, my team and I make scripting errors, and we try to fix them. If we can’t, we create a page without the offending function and live with the simplified presentation. Other companies pay 20 somethings from Cooper Union to create Web sites entirely in Silverlight, Flash or Adobe AIR. When a Web indexer or crawler hits these sites, the indexing system may not have much to work with or have to work overtime to figure what the site is “about”. I could list some other flaws in Web sites, but you get the idea. Click here for a listing of SEO experts.

Will you be the victim of an SEO consultant’s hold up?

Now people who are clueless about what good content is or what resources are required to create good content, don’t show up in a Google, Yahoo, or (maybe a new name is coming soon) results list. You can see this problem by running a query for “financial services.” You don’t get much meat because the phrase “financial services” has been co-opted by the SEO consultants.

Furthermore, if you are a financial advisor in Louisville, Kentucky, you may not appear in the first 500 pages of a Google or Yahoo result list. The advisors have spent good money on their Web site and it gets almost zero traffic. Yes, zero traffic. I am not sure how many billions of Web sites there are anymore, and I don’t really care. The high traffic sites are where the action is, and you need content backed with useful services to break into the top 300,000 Web sites in terms of traffic.

This means that if there are 50 billion Web sites and 300,000 get most of the traffic, the SEO consultants have a market opportunity sized in the 49,999,700,000 range. If you know something about technology and have a nice personality, you can make big money in the SEO business. I met a guru from San Jose who wrote a McGraw Hill book about SEO. The author “borrowed” information from me and used it without permission. I yelped. This type of dealing is pretty typical of the SEO business, and I stay away for these reasons:

  1. Web masters, fearful of their job security, need traffic and will pay charlatans, nice people, and unemployed programmers to generate traffic.
  2. Internet Service Providers, eager to make a buck, sign up as resellers of automated services that will improve a Web site’s ranking. Some of these services are little more than key word stuffing systems; others add more bells and whistles. But people unable to afford other types of marketing buy these services like my boxer eats his morning bowl of kibbles.
  3. Consultants, ever alert to a billable opportunity, make claims that their services will improve a Web site’s ranking in a results list.

Therefore, SEO is a mainstream consulting business that I prefer to ignore.

The Problem

SEO sessions are well attended. Those in the audience often have a real need to improve their site’s performance. In a lousy business climate, the Web site becomes one of the “white knights” that should be able to make sales and generate valid sales leads. Online advertising can be expensive, but improving a Web site’s ranking in a results list only costs the time needed to make changes to code.

SEO sessions, then, are hugely popular. I quit attending SEO conference because the desperation about Web site performance was palpable. Sure, I know some ways to improve a site’s ranking, but the likelihood that adding a few index terms to a site without substantive content is silly. More work is needed. Furthermore, cadging some backlinks can boost a site’s ranking, but more search systems are looking at user behavior or encouraging user input to help identify sites that are useful. I find it uninteresting to engage in a battle of wits about how to trick Exalead, Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo, among other Web indexing systems.

One search vendor complained about the cost of tracking SEO activities. The vendor preferred to let content and traffic be key indicators. Instead, the vendor had to allocate significant engineering resources to the tricks the SEO experts were using to spoof the relevance ranking methods in use.

My remarks in SEO sessions, then, often put the SEO consultants’ on the defensive. The marketing people who do need to improve their Web sites’ customer effectiveness become uncomfortable. I point out that the “fix” to a lousy Web site often involves taking a close look at what the site is supposed to do for a visitor. Then the technology used to create the site has to be considered. The Flash lovers want to gut me like Tokyo sushi chef handles a yellow tail at lunch hour. Finally, we have to discuss the difficult subject of content.

No one wants to talk about these three pivotal issues–purpose, technology, and content. The people in the audience want a high ranking. Now. If you don’t promise this, then get the heck away from the podium. Unfortunately, I fill my allocated 20 minutes with examples of the problems that result from SEO craziness.

It is surprising to me that people looking for traffic don’t realize that their ranking could go down, not up, as a result of SEO antics. Some sites can be removed from an index. I have a slide of the goofiness that BMW used to get a high ranking for one of its automobiles. That bit of metatag spamming got the company’s Web site removed from the index.

The problem, then, is that the hopes of the Web masters thump into the reality of what has to be done to get a Web site to meet a user’s query and appear on a Web page that a user may actually inspect. A very small number of people click to the second page of a search results list. The search system, the system, and the system use different types of results displays to provide an “overview” of the potentially useful information.

My own research reveals that only 10 percent of users look beyond the top five or six results. The reason ads are effective is that ads offer a short cut to a lazy or busy researcher. The notion of doing research is not fun, so the short cuts and innovative results displays are one way to provide “assisted navigation” to a user.

Most users seem to want the search system to tell them the “answer”. Mobile phone search is a good example of where search is going for the mass market. The temptation to “sell” the answer is going to increase. This means that the “answer” won’t be an answer. The “answer” will be an ad.

The Fix

I have resigned myself to the fact that SEO has become a big business, and it is going to get even bigger. I even explain that some of my team can perform the three step process outlined below. My suggestions for those who want to improve their site’s ranking in a results list are:

  1. Take a hard look at your Web site. Does it provide actionable, useful information to a visitor? Is the information clear, substantive, and frequently refreshed? Can a person perform the important functions without delay?
  2. Think about the technology used for the Web site. Can the pages be indexed by a crawler? Is the code valid? What are the hurdles the technology raises or lowers when you need to add content, make a change, or reorganize a portion of the Web site?
  3. Consider the information. Does the Web site have content? Is the content original, fresh, and clear. Are the index terms, the url, and the vocabulary used on the Web site related, on point, and free from fuzzy wuzzy terms that require special context to understand?

Armed with information from these basic questions a Web master can figure out what changes to make and how to keep the site useful. If there are no resources to update or improve a Web site, make the site brochureware and live with what you have. Tricks may do more harm than good.

One final word. Check out your SEO consultant. Do you want to hear what you want to hear? Then just hire whoever pleases you. Do you want to improve your Web site and hopefully your Web site’s ranking in a results list? Then prepare to do some careful thinking followed by continued hard work and investment.

Stephen Arnold, November 25, 2008


9 Responses to “Getting Ready for the SEO Grilling”

  1. Daniel Tunkelang on November 24th, 2008 12:06 pm

    How timely! I wrote a similarly themed post only hours ago about Life, the Universe, and SEO that offers the advice Douglas Adams might have given on the subject, had he lived to see the growth of an SEO cottage industry.

  2. Jim Slinowsky on November 24th, 2008 1:56 pm

    Stephen –

    I think for most of your article you are tarring SEO consultants with the same brush, be they ethical and interested in actually helping their clients increase their site’s conversions or conversely SEOs only interested in making a quick buck by getting a page to a high ranking using marginal or black hat techniques.

    This is like labeling anyone who sends email a spammer or anyone who makes a phone call a telemarketer.

    Not everybody can make the time or is even interested in knowing the best practices required for a web page to show up on the first page of the SERPs. Fewer still make the investment in time or money to be able achieve a reasonable conversion rate of that traffic to a desired result.

    I personally believe there is scope for people and companies with a conscience to fill those knowledge gaps and help web site owners maximize the ROI on their investment in their sites. I know that is my goal when I take on a new client and based on the final few paragraphs of your post, it sounds like it is yours as well.

    best regards,


  3. SEO Consultant on November 24th, 2008 1:56 pm

    Great information first of all. I would like to add that Technical SEO goes beyond starting blocks. It actually involves how search engines crawl, index, score, and rank web pages. The indexing process of a commercial search engine continues to be one of the most misunderstood areas of SEO, as there is a perception gap between the human experience (visual) and search engines (parsing) that most SEOs are unaware of.

  4. Stephen E. Arnold on November 24th, 2008 4:13 pm

    Jim Sinowsky,

    Feel free to hold forth on the values of the SEO industry. My goal is to make my views clear so if you attend my session in London you know my position. Keep in mind that I am an addled goose and achieve whatever miserable Google rankings I have via content, not skullduggery. Because I am an addled goose, I also define “skullduggery” quite broadly.

    Stephen Arnold, November 24, 2008

  5. Stephen E. Arnold on November 24th, 2008 4:15 pm

    Consultant, Hi Rank,

    Addled geese don’t create great information. Addled geese outrun the paté chef. Thanks for the kind words, but I remain anti-SEO. The feeling is more than gray goose features. The distrust is in my hollow bones and webby feet.

    Stephen Arnold, November 24, 2008

  6. seo news | SEO Blog on November 24th, 2008 7:44 pm

    […] Getting Ready for the SEO Grilling : Beyond Search […]

  7. sperky undernet on November 26th, 2008 12:00 pm

    While totally off base, I salute you for your principles and idealism. I read your blog precisely for its content and I continue to learn from it.

  8. Stephen E. Arnold on November 26th, 2008 9:26 pm


    A goose is not off base. A goose is cooked or addled.

    Stephen Arnold, November 26, 2008

  9. watson on November 27th, 2008 6:08 am

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