SEO Is The Worst Thing Ever Invented

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.

“Do you think that javascript widget you made for navigating your archives is really awesome, intuitive and innovative? Google disagrees, it thinks it’s a big black hole of nothing.”

Yes, search engines need to evolve and get better at crawling new web technologies. But so do mobile browsers and screen readers. If you want your site to be accessible, you have to make it easy for your audience. I access the web on my phone A LOT. And if I’m trying to navigate your site and all the menus are in javascript so that I can’t get to them on my mobile browser, I can guarantee you that I’m not thinking about how awesome, intuitive, and innovative you are. And I bet blind people aren’t either.

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?

33 thoughts on “SEO Is The Worst Thing Ever Invented

  • Eric Lander

    Excellent, excellent article Vanessa! I love the final paragraph, as it sums things up ideally for those who are on the opposing side of the fence.

  • Scott Clark

    Nicely written, Vanessa. I think many SEOs have become far too focused on driving huge quantities of traffic and less considerate about getting the right people to the site. It’s less about “how much” and more about “who.” There are too few out there who measure and test to know which types of customer visits are the most profitable. I wish they would because it brings the SEO discipline, value, and execution into focus.

  • Martin R. Bowling

    Great post Vanessa, definitely a great read and one that I will pass on to many. I have come across alot of clients who their own goal with an SEO effort is to just get traffic. They don’t care about enriching anyone’s experience on the web not their customers, not potential customers, not their employees – they just want more people. I try and help focus the campaign on getting quality people to a quality site and hopefully having someone take something away from a site. I think if more people looked at the totality of the web and stopped trying to pollute it so much the web would be a much nicer place 🙂

  • Julio Fernandez

    Great post Vanessa. But I feel that while we can’t control the 800 lbs gorilla, the community should work on tools to “try” to make the gorilla responsible all of the time.

    As a public company, they need to answer to stock holders, and they are happy now. Well, they lost a little ($15 Billion) last week, but they are still happy.

    But I’m concerned with the Googirl controversy:

    as well as the problem multinational are having with Google’s redirect policy and location of domains for our global sites.

    But with you and Danny keeping them honest, there is hope!

  • Brian Utley

    Nice post Vanessa. Blind people everywhere say amen.

  • Todd Mintz

    Ideally, an SEO’ed page is a page that only SEO’s can tell has been SEO’ed.

    Also, any conversation about SEO that doesn’t include talk about sales conversion / lead generation is worthless.

  • Brent D. Payne

    I haven’t had a chance to read the entire post (at work) but I can think of one industry that writes their sites for Google and the other search engines and thrive on it . . . Song Lyrics web sites. They look like crap. They are full of spyware, adware, etc. and yet they still dominate with lots of traffic and lots of money.

    I’ll read more later . . . but let me know your thoughts on industries such as song lyrics sites that see success from ignoring the user and capitalizing solely on the ‘search of the minute’.

    Note: Full disclosure, I started a music lyrics site ( back in October of 2005 but have since given up on this ‘project’ and use it mainly for doing some SEO tests. The site is functional but rarely updated.

    Brent D. Payne

  • wsb

    Our site seems to be somewhat SEO’d in mysterious ways, since it performs well in searches even for things we mentioned only tangentially. But as a content producer, there is one thing about SEO that makes me a little wistful … once I learned about it, I realized I couldn’t write catchy little post headlines any more … if the items are going to be found, they need to be meat-and-potatoes JUST THE FACTS, MA’M. Easier, to be certain … more successful, you bet! … but causing my creative-writing background to atrophy. Guess I’ll just go write haiku, offline, or something, to flex the muscle.

  • Vanessa

    West Seattle Blog – Likely your blog has pretty good PageRank generally so for “long tail” searches where there’s not a lot of other good results, your blog gets pulled in when you even have offhanded mentions of the terms.

    As for headlines, that has definitely been the subject of much debate, particularly among newspaper reporters whose stories are now online. The descriptive rather than witty headline is useful for those reading from an RSS reader as well as for search engine optimization purposes.

    But, you can always do what I’ve done in this post. I’m using Stephan Spencer’s SEO Title Tag plugin so that the page title can be different than the post heading. Not many people will be searching for “seo is the worst thing ever invented” so I didn’t want to use that in the title tag, even though I wanted it as the post title. So, I used the plugin to make the page title “Search Engine Optimization (SEO) As Part Of A Larger Online Marketing Strategy”, thinking that might be what people would be searching for.

  • Charlie Anzman

    Hi Vanessa. Great to see you updating more often. I think a great deal of the confusion comes from the rapid growth of social networking (and yes, a ‘few’ snake oil salesmen :). As you know, I sold a home through 100% SEO (It fell through but there’s a new contract in place (finally!). Same method. No realtor. No PPC.
    The simple fact is there’s a group of people putting ‘get rich quick via click’ sites out there, and then a bunch of ‘real companies’ that actually should be ranked, and need a little SEO to ‘help’ the search engines find and rank them accordingly. I think that’s where a lot of people miss the entire point of SEO. REALLY sorry couldn’t make SMX! Next time for sure. Great piece. Charlie

  • Colin Cochrane

    Great post Vanessa. Your responses to Alex’s points perfectly illustrate why SEO ought not be the bane of a web developer’s existence. As a web developer turned SEO myself I have found that the best optimization always starts with foundation of best-practices that *should* be in place with any well-developed web site.

  • Internet Marketing Joy

    I totally agree with you Vanessa. It is really important not only for your site to score high on Google but also it should be useful for the readers and searchers so that you’ll have returning traffic not just one time traffic.

  • Ramenos

    Thanks for this great article, Vanessa 🙂

  • Robert

    What you should do first up, is realise there is a significant difference between SEO it’s definition and the way it is used and, well, a new term that more closely matches your intent, of aligning the structure of of web site so that it will more accurately reflect the end users search intent with the search engine they use, perhaps ‘search engine alignment’, you know, get things in balance. Not the SEO spam to flood every users first patch search results with results and web pages they have no interest in. New instructions and a new hand out to create the market shift.

  • Sébastien Billard

    In fact, the ultimate goal of any search engine is to mimic the judgement of an human person. This is why doing things for users, in an usable and explicit way is the way to go.

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  • Alex Bosworth

    Oh wow a response

    I wrote up my thoughts here

  • Brendan Picha

    I was told I can SEO my refrigerator to find the best results for tonight’s dinner however the end result was a unique visit from Great Wall #1 Chinese delivery. Am I doing something wrong? This Google fridge magnet isn’t helping!

  • Seb

    I have to say I agree with the original suggestion that SEO is the worst thing ever invented.. although I’m not sure Google is to blame per se. SEOs are like hackers, marketers who take the rules and try to work around them as well as they can to gain maximum benefit. Maybe you could compare them to lawyers too.. That’s their job. I think the change has been more to do with the change in the nature of the Internet, when websites are run by marketing departments rather than IT departments.

    I entirely share the original author’s frustration that you now have to think more about SEO than about the users.. I know Google explain that users come first, but the problem is that Google, (and indeed many users for that matter), can’t understand the ‘perfect ranking’ well enough. I guess with the personalisation things will improve but I think they still have some way to go to deal with the conflict that arises from PPC sites which engineer their position. Being the dominant advertiser really puts Google into a difficult position financially.

  • Spencer Lavery

    “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?”

    By the same token, you wouldn’t open a paint store on a high street with fashion imagery and luxurious looking clothed figurines in the window, and that is exactly why a lot of SEOs are despised. Misrepresentation.

    I don’t so much dislike SEO as SEM, I actually love SEO because cleaner code purifies my soul. But I digress.

    The trouble is, most of the sites getting optimised and getting positions don’t deserve to be there because they are horrific sites fronting horrific businesses.

    I prefer SEO as part of the consultation/design/development process, not as an afterthought on a badly created website. Until SEO reaches that stage as commonplace, it will always be associated with “evil” websites.

  • Tin Pig

    This is a good post from the perspective that it highlights he need for basic SEO best practices. I agree 100% that online marketing should be a part of an overall corporate marketing strategy, and SEO fits into that.

    The problem, I believe, that most people have with the SEO industry stems from how it’s evolved from best practices to slightly underhanded tactics to outright deception. Respected members of the SEO Community are openly advocating these measures. Here’s a case in point:

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  • Intermediate SEO

    I met Vanessa at SES Miami. Between talking to her and reading Jim Boykin’s blog, I learned some basics about SEO. Write well with meaningful keywords. Structure sites well. Create great demos and other useful stuff that people will link to. To me, it sounded like retail. Have good window displays and interesting useful stuff to look at. And a great URL (location). SEO is online location building which is linked to merchandising and location. It sounds like sour grapes to me.

  • Maurice

    Oh Dear

    probably an overly anal flash developer in both senses of the word.

    probably thinks that super dooper flash sites are the bees knees. Unfortunately the proof of concept site we developed kicks the major brand names into the middle of next week.

    odd thing is I’me going for an interview with an agency which has one of these sites tomorrow.

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  • Ephena

    Absolutely, all thr talk about what Google likes and doesn’t like. Sites they greybar and penalties for sites that link to them. I mean the Internet does not belong to Google, it belongs to noone and should be a place for anybody to publish and link to whoever they want and somebody like Google not gro to a monopoly size where they can dictate who can be found on the public Internet.

  • Tonnie Lubbers


    It is good to go to the basics and remind us what it is all about!


    You don’t have to use Google, no one is forcing you. No one is telling you what to place on your site or where you should link to. You are free to build your own search engine or use the dozens of other ones that exist.

    It is true that Google grew into the most important search engine, but all based on user experience. It does give the best answers in the opinion of millions.

    To do so it has to maintain a certain standard. If you don’t want to adopt that standard, thats fine. But you can’t expect Google to switch to your standards.

  • Link Builder

    hey xD

    yeah nice rebuttals. Though I have to read the opposing side’s story first before saying you’re right. But of course, I’m supporting the seo since i need it O-o


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  • Nick Stamoulis

    Like every aspect of running a business it is important to have a basic understanding…SEO is no different. As a business owner understanding “how to” helps you make better and more informed decisions.

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