From the archives…[Note: The original blog post by Alex is no longer live on his site.]
I recently came across a post Alex Bosworth did a while back called “Google is destroying the web and you don’t even know it” in which he said:
“Unfortunately this [that everyone uses Google for search, and therefore online businesses need to be found on Google] means you need to do Search Engine Optimization. SEO is the worst thing ever invented. It’s destroying good web application development.”
I hesitate to even post on this because the “SEO is evil personified” argument has been rehashed to death. For instance, see this post on Search Engine Land that recaps several of the recent debates. Jeremy Schoemaker doesn’t like 95% of SEOs. Jason Calacanis thinks SEOs are snake oil salesmen. This idea of SEO as evil certainly isn’t new.
And his post is from last October, so it’s not new either, but it’s gotten some renewed interest online and I do think it’s still the case that many people don’t think of SEO as part of marketing. They think of it as a necessary evil rather than part of a larger strategy.
I do think that as businesses move online, more and more site owners are going to have the perspective that Alex has and I think that understanding how search engine optimization fits into a holistic marketing plan is important for the long-term vitality of businesses who want to participate in the online space.
What Do I Know, Anyway?
First, let me back way, way up and provide some context on my perspective. My background is in communication. I have spent years working on communicating effectively with your target audience. My degree is in English. After college, I worked on corporate policy: making sure both corporate and store employees knew everything they needed about whatever their jobs entailed — whether that was creating marketing programs, buying fixed assets, or processed defective merchandise. And I did it in whatever ways worked best: written documentation, in-person training classes, software systems (as long as those software systems worked on AS/400 and didn’t require the internet — this was the early 90s after all).
Later, I worked in marketing. I started building web sites, starting with my company’s in 1995. I also spent years writing documentation for developers, doing audience analysis, and thinking about user interfaces (whether those were windows or SDKs), product strategy, and everything involved with a better experience for customers.
Much, much later, as many of you know, I was was the product manager for Google Webmaster Central and really dove into both the search engine perspective and the site owner perspective on search engine optimization. A big part of the search engine perspective is the searcher perspective, so when I look at the SEO issue I’m looking from a point of triangulation. I understand that searchers want the best result as quickly as possible; I understand that search engines want to understand the web so they can deliver the most relevant results; and I understand that site owners want to market their content effectively to the right audience.
While I was at Google and since I’ve left, I’ve reviewed countless sites for SEO troubleshooting, customer engagement, usability, and overall strategy. I’ve spoken and written about all varieties of online marketing: from technical infrastructure problems in the context of SEO to social media engagement.
Which is to say, I have an opinion about online marketing, particularly as it relates to search engine optimization.
The Age Old Debate: Build For Users Or For Search Engines
In his piece, Alex said:
“If you want a huge amount of traffic, the way to get it is not through community features, it is not through great writing and content development, but it is through optimizing the crap out of your site so that Google will send more and more searchers your way. Now the most important thing to you is no longer, “how can I make my site better to use”.”
Sigh. In my view, this misses the point entirely. Yes, most people on the internet find sites through searching. So, yes, you can get a lot of traffic if you rank highly for relevant keywords. But traffic alone is meaningless. You have to look at traffic + engagement. Traffic + bounce rate. Unless your entire goal with the site is to monetize through CPM-based ads on the home page, your site needs to be compelling to the searchers who land there so that they’ll stay. In other words, if you abandon great writing and content development, if you neglect the question of how to make the site better to use, you are simply being short-sighted and are ignoring all the rules of marketing. That’s not Google’s fault. That’s your own fault for not looking at the right metrics.
If you “optimize the crap” out of your site so that you rank #1 for relevant keywords, but your site isn’t compelling to searchers, that ranking will be completely meaningless as those new visitors will click right back to the search results rather than engage with your site.
He then said:
“Do you think having your site name in your page title is a good idea? Google doesn’t.”
I generally don’t like to speak in absolutes, much less speak for Google since I no longer work there, but I can definitely say that this statement is completely false. Google does think having your site name in your page title is a good idea. Of course you want your company name in your title and it makes no sense at all that Google wouldn’t also want you to be found in searches for your company name. But take Google out of the equation for a minute and think of your customers. They’re searching for something. Using words.
Imagine you have a paint store — an actual physical store on the street. And just imagine for a moment there is no internet (it isn’t hard to do). You want people to come to your store to buy paint. You might get customers who see your sign as they drive by or they might look you up in the yellow pages or perhaps you run TV or radio ads. If your store is called “Buffy’s Store” then how the hell do you expect those people driving by to have any idea what you store might contain? You sit there, with your brushes and your rollers and your five gallon buckets and you wonder where everyone is. Then try changing your sign to “Buffy’s Paint Store” and see if your customer traffic patterns improve.
Making your title descriptive isn’t evil Google oppression. It’s common sense.
I have had this exact experience several times over the last few weeks — once while stranded at a Caltrain station, trying to figure out when the next train was coming and I can tell you that I was not looking for innovation in my Caltrain menu. I was looking for information. It is not difficult to gracefully degrade your site so that anyone who is visiting it with a browser that doesn’t support your fancy technology can still access your content. If you are a good web developer, and I’m sure you are, you can build your site in a way that is both innovative and universally easy to access.
“And your user community might even die, but who cares, comparatively they are a tiny minority of your overall user base. You’re too busy dealing with scaling your servers to cope with the millions of hits coming from Google to care about those ten thousand monthly visits from loyal users.”
I admit, I don’t understand this at all. What exactly does he want with those millions of hits if not to add them into the user community? I really don’t get it. Is he building a site or creating a made for AdSense page? He’s complaining that Google is sending him too much traffic and thus it’s somehow Google’s fault that he’s chosen to ignore audience engagement? It’s completely baffling to me.[2015 update: actually, I get this a bit more now and hopefully soon I’ll have time to write more about it.]
The bottom line is this. Yes, if you want your customers to find you using search, then you have to understand search engine optimization. And you should want your customers to find you using search because search is the entry point on the web. But if you are operating an online business, you absolutely should understand online marketing. I don’t understand people who say it should all just work and they should be able to concentrate on their core business. (Looking at this from a search engine’s perspective, however, I think they should and certainly they are working on ways to make sure it all just works, because it’s in their best interest to provide searchers the best content on the web, whether the owners of that content understand SEO or not, but that doesn’t negate the point.)
If you have an offline business, you have to understand offline marketing and customer engagement. If you are opening new stores and your core skill set is painting, you will likely hire others for other aspects of your business: determining the best location for the store, branding and advertising, merchandising. You will probably ensure your store is attractive, both inside and outside. You’ll arrange merchandise on your shelves so that people know where to find stuff and can easily reach it. You’ll make your aisles wide enough for carts.
You wouldn’t open your paint store with no sign and a broken door in a back alley that had a brick wall blocking the road. Why would you do the same on the internet and then blame Google?