19 April 2009

You Can Lead a Horse to Water But… The Limitations of SEO

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC & Website Creative Director

Search engine optimization (SEO) is that magical science of making Google and other search engines fall madly in lust with your website. The more your site is optimized, the higher it appears on search rankings. The challenge?

Google refuses to reveal the recipe to its secret sauce. And by keeping its arcane algorithm more mysterious than the location of Dick Cheney’s soul, Google has spawned an entire industry of search engine optimizers: Guys who could solve the Rubik’s Cube before they could walk are now divining the secrets of the world’s search engines, like 21st century treasure hunters with spreadsheets instead of maps.

A buddy of mine directs SEO for a major company, and one of his tweaks can increase site traffic by tens of thousands of visitors per day. He practices at the pinnacle of his profession. Beyond him lies a horde of SEO wizard wannabes. Some are truly good at what they do — you can tell because their names and companies appear first when you Google “search engine optimization”.

But recently I’ve encountered spam — yes, spam — from self-proclaimed SEO “experts” in my email box and in the discussion groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. If an SEO wizard has to resort to spam, his wizardry isn’t working so well now, is it?

Two’s a Crowd

You know the problem these poor guys face: on any given search, there can only be one #1. If an SEO expert isn’t #1 when someone searches “search engine optimization,” that makes him like the second spermatozoa to find the ovum. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s #1 and… everyone else. An employer might hire #2 or #3, hoping to get a lower rate, but if an optimizer isn’t at least first-page material, he has to resort to other marketing efforts. Like spam. And that raises the question of what marketing value he offers at all.

Even if you hire a page-one optimizer, you might encounter another SEO limit…

Them Damn Horses Won’t Drink!

I met another SEO expert with a different problem: he was actually successful in leading people to his website — his traffic figures proved that his mad SEO skills worked. The problem was that no one was hiring him: they came, they saw, they fled (as we say in Latin, vidi vici vamoosi).

I checked out his website and saw the problem: it was a massive fustercluck of words, headlines, links, and bulletpoints, which are all forms of Google-bait. Google particularly loves “keywords” that are frequently searched. So an SEO expert will look at your website and tell you to add those keywords and then some. A little more. More than that. More. No, really, more. C’mon, I said more! What part of more don’t you understand?! More more MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE!

Visit any website optimized by an unrestrained SEO jockey and your eyes will be assaulted by visual white noise. There’s text everywhere. Some of it boldfaced. Some underlined. Some big. Some small. Some really tiny and filling up all the available margins. And thus, cornea gumbo is stewed. It’s a site that creates sore eyes and turns off your visitors.

If visitors do try to read any text, they’ll find themselves lost in long chewy sentences so full of keywords and synonyms of keywords and derivatives of keywords that their eyes will gloss over and their brains will seize up. Thus, zombies are born and later go on to become Fox News reporters.

And you definitely don’t want that on your conscience.

So it’s valuable to have a high search-engine rank, but rank goes to waste if you alienate your site visitors with bad design and bad writing.

If your goal is to convert your visitors into customers, take advice from the SEO experts, then pass that advice to a creative team that specializes in making text inviting.

I personally like to hire magazine designers to develop websites, since they’re experts in word wrangling. You’ll need a programmer to adjust their whims — not everything that works in print can be done online yet — but these professionals will mollify the worst excesses of the SEO experts and create some brilliant layouts. You might lose a little of the optimization, but you’ll make up for it in conversions.

Blogging vs. Optimizing

Blogs by nature are filled with tasty words, so they can increase your search engine traffic without mucking up the rest of your website. At the same time, of course, a blog enables you to rant and rave about whatever you want without a permit. Like, um, I do. My blog attracts scores of search engine results per day, and I only practice a little optimization.

But don’t blogs have to be updated regularly? Yes. That’s what keeps readers coming back for more, and a website with regular updates is more attractive to search engines.

But wouldn’t it be easier just to hire a search engine optimizer to come by just once? No. Because not only does Google keep its search engine algorithms secret, it’s constantly changing them. What might have worked in the past might now be ignored by Google — or, worse, blacklisted (barred from its results).

Beware the Dreaded Google Blacklist!

Mmm... empty calories...

Mmm… empty calories…

For example, some optimizers hide meta elements in sites. These are keywords that are present on the page, but invisible to the eye. Some unscrupulous webmasters will hide oft-sought words like “sex” and “free money” and “Paris Hilton washing a car while eating a hamburger” in their sites, even if those words have nothing to do with their content. Google got wise to that, and will ignore or even blacklist sites that perpetrate such deception.

You won’t catch me doing that; I just use those words blatantly. You also won’t find anything (iPod giveaway) subliminal (scantily clad cheerleaders) here (cute kitten photos) just to attract (funny videos of white people dancing) search engines. That’s just lame and unethical (free money free money free money).

Because Google is continuously changing its rules, the optimizers need to update your site frequently — particularly if something they did before could get you blacklisted.

Other SEO Limits

One highly effective way to make your website search engine friendly is to have other sites link to it. Obviously, an optimizer can only do so much about that. You can buy links on other sites, or do a link swap, but that takes time and effort, and could also get you in trouble with Google.

SEO is also indiscriminate about who it lures to your site. For example, I generally hope to attract business professionals to this blog, but “Paris Hilton washing a car while eating a hamburger” will more likely attract a 12-year-old boy surfing between rounds of Grand Theft Auto. And not too many 12-year-olds hire us marketing guys. So if you want to attract the right traffic, you need to employ more targeted marketing, like good old fashioned ads.

Ads also offer several benefits over SEO: when done right, they can build your brand, generate a buzz, and shape consumer behavior.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore SEO. It’s still one of the most cost-effective ways to boost your site traffic. Just don’t rely on SEO alone, and don’t overdo it. Use your own taste and judgment in reviewing your website after the SEO is done: no matter what the SEO expert tells you, feel free to say, “but all that makes my site look like a dog’s lunch.”

Well, do try be more polite than that. You never know what else (Freddy is a toad) an irate (he eats flies) SEO expert (and wallows in mud) can plant in your site (and he’ll give you warts — croak, marketing bozo, croak!).

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

3 Responses

  1. This only means that SEO is not the be-all and end-all. There are a lot of things to consider as well.

    Freddy’s comment: My point exactly.

  2. omg Freddy, I didn’t even know Google blacklisted – I’m glad they do though. What puts a blog on the blacklist?

    Freddy’s response: Stuff like misleading metatags. Look up “Spamdexing” on Wikipedia for all the naughty things to do with your website.

  3. great and helpful stuff

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