When I read Chris Dixon’s piece claiming that SEO is “no longer a viable marketing strategy for startups”, I didn’t know what to make of it—ignorance or linkbait? The one-dimensional blurb headlines the article, which is supposedly supported by evidence of lower value websites outranking high value ones due to link popularity.
SEO is not the problem, people that use SEO to index garbage content of no value are the problem.
2011 SEO ≠ 2004 SEO
According to Chris, high-quality content is losing the battle of the SERPs because of the tens of thousands of blackhats working to “game SEO”.
Yes, we know many that claim to be SEOs are selling nothing but links, keyword spam and directory submissions, but anyone that equates SEO in general with the spammy blackhat demographic is obviously more than a bit confused.
When you criticize SEO as being a “dark art” or snake oil, you’re confusing the shady work of internet hustlers with skills of search visibility professionals that work on a daily basis with content strategy, Web usability, Web standards, content marketing and Web analytics.
Dixon goes on to condescendingly offer that “Some of the SEO industry is “white hat,” which generally means consultants giving benign advice for making websites search-engine friendly” (my emphasis). This is where his lack of knowledge regarding search visibility becomes crystal clear.
SEO isn’t just about keywords and anchor text anymore.
Before you accuse SEO, take a look at yourself
There is a lot of garbage on the Internet. Sharing that same garbage heap—you know, that one with the shady, spammy Internet hustlers—are members of the media that sniff out current news items, take them out of context (usually without understanding the subject matter) and run with them around their pathetic little sensationalist race track. This is even more damaging than black-hat, spammy, snake oil SEO, because at least the stench of the latter is obvious, unlike editorial FUD disguised as fact.
Criticizing SEO because of spammers is just as silly as criticizing journalism because of wannabe-relevant authors and their misguided editorial efforts.
I was happy to see some recognized search professionals chime into the comments on Chris Dixon’s piece; including Laura Lippay, Alan Bleiweiss, Dharmesh Shah, Andrew Shotland, AJ Kohn, Ross Hudgens, Terry Van Horne, Doc Sheldon, and others. All good examples of people in the industry that know the difference between adding value and pretending to add value, à la blackhat.
Competitive search visibility can make or break a business, and that fact has many sales teams drooling for a piece of the action.
I’ve seen salesmen’s jaws drop when learning of the huge profits attainable by selling a service that is actually legitimate, and won’t land them in legal hot water. Yes, it’s fair to say that SEO is the salesman’s wet dream.
Pitching SEO like a real
Whether the unlucky target of the stereotypical, greasy salesman is the recipient of a cold call proposing Web services, or has been passed to the sales team of one of tens of thousands of fly-by-night, cookie cutter SEO operations, the tone is the same: overconfident, aggressive, and fast talking. Very fast talking, because we all know that coffee is for closers.
Salesmen love simple metrics
That sales guy in the back room doesn’t know what it takes for a Web presence to succeed, so he needs easy to grasp, easy to demonstrate concepts for his sales pitches. He knows enough about SEO to sound convincing. He’s a specialist in tapping into client emotions, and uses the right lingo to cast illusions of SEO supremacy.
But his prospects often know less about search visibility then even he does. Perfect.
Instead of complicating an SEO sales pitch with confusing details, seemingly logical illusions work best to gain the confidence of his mark. After all, it’s much easier to dazzle a naive—and I mean that in the least insulting way— prospect by presenting rudimentary performance indicators than it is to try describing the search visibility benefits of Web usability, structure, semantic markup, content strategy, content marketing and Web analytics (let alone understand them).
So, dear consumer, without further ado, here are the 3 favorite lies that the SEO salesman loves to sell you on:
Lie #1:You need hundreds more backlinks!
Backlinks play a major role in search visibility; it’s true, we all know that. The role they play, however, isn’t a part of a numbers game, but a quality game.
Novice SEOs/pro salesmen love the directory link package because there’s no work involved (it’s outsourced), the markup is huge (sometimes 10x), and they can easily use false logic to demonstrate its value.
All a salesman has to do to prove his supposed point is open a backlink checker and compare your domain with that of one of your competitors that happens to have thousands more backlinks. It doesn’t matter if those links are mostly site wide hotlinked images, or from scraper sites or anything else. Only the numbers are meant to dazzle.
The truth is, hundreds of directory links can’t compete with even 2 or 3 backlinks from authoritative websites, no matter how relevant he says those few hundred directories are.
Certain directories do help with a website’s search results, especially for visibility in business listings, but they number much fewer than even 100, and for true organic listings, their value is negligible.
You are the weakest backlink!
And so, dear client, that I want—and can do—the best for:
Do you really want me to spend a few hundred dollars outsourcing some directory submissions to India or anywhere else and charge you $1000 to $2000 for a worthless “service”? Say it with me No, I don’t.
What do you want? You want me to add value to your site with content strategy and improvements to usability and structure. Compelling, original, useful content teamed with a cunning marketing strategy is the best proactive method of acquiring the types of links that actually help rankings. But that actually takes planning and talent; sometimes a problem for the sales team turned “SEO Company”.
The next time a client tells me that the other SEO company says they’ll get them 500 links, and asks how many I can get them, I’m going to curl up into a ball and gently cry myself to sleep.
Lie #2: The pages of your site should pass W3C validation!
Fool’s gold at the end of the rainbow
Snake oil salesmen love this one.
Running a webpage through an HTML validator is so easy that a monkey could probably do it.
Any syntax errors in the page’s markup result in a big red banner displaying their number, opposed to a page that passes validation, which boasts a reassuring Congratulations over a green banner. So official looking! “We must fix these errors at once, right? Then the search engines will love us, right? Right?” Wrong.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m a huge fan of the World Wide Web Consortium and Web standards. I’ve been manually coding websites according to strict Web standard guidelines for several years, and Web pages I code pass validation. I can assure you though, that passing W3C validation isn’t part of my SEO strategy.
Many Web standard practices do help search visibility, but valid HTML isn’t an accurate measure of Web standard compliance. Far from it, actually. The validator is merely a syntax check, alerting the developer to deprecated HTML elements and errors.
Semantic HTML and website accessibility, on the other hand, are examples of Web standard recommendations that add value to on-page SEO, but they’re much more difficult to understand, achieve, and demonstrate, so they have less visual impact on a sales pitch.
Lie #3: Top rankings Are All That Matter!
First place garbage is still garbage
Let’s imagine that the outfit our eager little salesman works for is able to somehow achieve rankings that are anywhere near competitive or have conversion potential. Are their clients’ sites being optimized in a way that compliments content strategy, or do keywords get thrown into content similar to ink flicked against a canvas?
Competitive search visibility is worth only as much as the number of visitors that take action (and hitting the back button isn’t the type of action I’m talking about).
If visitors are greeted with keyword crammed, unintuitive, valueless marketese and fluff, they’ll like bounce off the site and never return. Yeah, it can be really lonely at the top.
Many other lies are told by SEO-wannabe salesman, but few bring his company as much profit for little work as the ones I mentioned above.
Lie #3 Top rankings Are All That Matter! and its associated keyword littered garbage content and title tags, take up most of the company’s time (when they can pull themselves away from the cold calls) but they can’t really get around that one. They need to get some first page results for their poor clients to avoid being sued.
Just about the time that the elation of first page results (for what are usually less than ideal keyphrases) wears of, the client starts to realize what an atrocity their site has now become.
What we can do as professionals
Business owners, desperate for more business, sometimes lose site of the big picture regarding their web presence. They become so enamored with the idea of beating their competition in the natural search results that they lose focus of everything else. This is the perfect time for snake oil salesmen to swoop down and catch their prey.
Remind your clients that the best SEO is practically invisible, and done properly, won’t harm their brand, it will help it. Remind them that SEO tactics worth their salt for longterm search visibility also improve their site’s usability, not detract from it. Show them data and metrics, but encourage them to hold on to their common sense. Remind them that if something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.
Remind them of the value their site should offer, and how far that can go to helping both their rankings and their bottom line.
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