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There Is No Such Thing As SEO

In summary, your PageRank is outside your control. How well your site fares in search engines is pretty much at the discretion of the web. The best thing you can do is make lots of your own links and encourage other people to link to you. There are of course other options if you want to artificially inflate your search ranking (mainly keyword clustering) but…

…Google et al are cleverer than we are. They employ the best graduates from the best universities in the world. If a rival publisher makes a better page than you but your page gets a higher search ranking, users will find a new search engine that returns better results. And Google etc would lose their business. The clever people aren’t about to let that happen.

So from an information architecture perspective the best advice is to keep things simple. Design and build with the established tools of the web: HTTP, URIs, HTML, CSS. If you make a site that’s usable and accessible for people, chances are it’ll be useable and accessible for search bots too. Search engines are only trying to reward good behaviour and good content.

Designing for your least able user

Michael Smethurst, BBC Radio Labs

Smoke and mirrors

A lot of web agencies offer expensive search engine optimisation (SEO) services for your website. They are ripping people off.

Because search engines' algorithms are proprietary intellectual property — trade secrets like the recipe for Coca Cola — nobody outside them knows exactly how they rank websites.

People dislike uncertainty so wherever you find it in life, there you will also find a vibrant community of people claiming they know exactly how things work and offering to sell you an expensive product or service. Of course it is in their interest to keep you uncertain so you continue to require their expensive help.

This is nothing new, of course. Look how long we have had disreputable car mechanics, homeopathy and management consultants.

The web is simple

Perhaps some SEO-touting web agencies are not trying to pull a fast one; they might not actually understand how the web works. Napoleon said, “Never ascribe to malice that which may be explained by ignorance.” Either way you don’t want them to build your website.

The web is about links. That’s why it’s called the web.

The web is a system built on open standards.

It follows that a good website conforms to the standards, links to other good websites, and is linked from other good websites. That’s it.

Search engines operate in the context of the web. They rely on the same open standards and links as everybody else. They don’t need a sprinkling of fairy dust as well.

There’s no difference between a standards-based website with good content (which people will want to link to) and a website which does well with search engines. At a high level, there is only one recipe for a good website and it makes everybody happy.

Why SEO does not exist

When a web agency produces a quotation which lists building your website and SEO separately, it implies they will build you a bad website and then charge you to fix it up.

On the other hand if you have a website already, and it doesn’t fare well in the search engines' rankings, you might be tempted to engage an agency to do some SEO work for you. However the only solutions are to make your site conform better to the web’s open standards, and to improve its content. That’s not optimising for search engines; that’s simply building a better website.

Consider the categories of readers of your website. You have people using various different browsers on their computers, people using mobile devices, people with visual impairments, people from different cultures, and search engines. There is nothing special about search engines. Improving your website will improve it all round.

Given there is nothing special about search engines, it follows you can’t optimise for them. Therefore SEO does not exist, and people who try to sell it to you are either shifty or confused.

In fact of all the categories of people and computers who look at your website, the odd one out is Internet Explorer (IE) users. This is because IE does not conform well to the web’s open standards, so you have to deliberately mar your site to make it work also with IE.

How to build a good website

Although building a simple website is easy — everybody has a ten year old nephew who can “make a website” — building a non-trivial website is surprisingly difficult. The technologies themselves aren’t conceptually hard but there are quite a few to get to grips with.

Are you comfortable, for example, with persistent URIs, the REST architectural style, domain driven design, linked open data, HTTP, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, at least one programming language (e.g. Ruby, Erlang, Python, Java), SQL and relational set theory, caching, at least one web server (e.g. Apache or NginX), at least one application server (e.g. in Ruby-land Mongrel, Thin, Passenger), at least one database server (e.g. MySQL), unix system administration, etc…?

Note that all these are free and freely available. The only constraint is your willingness to learn.

Anyway, you can get yourself off to a flying start by reading How BBC Radio Labs makes websites, again by Michael Smethurst.

You’ll notice there’s no section entitled SEO.


Although with your overall theory, that SEO shouldn’t be thought of a separate step, I think it can be thought of as an interesting perspective on whether you have built a good website or bad one.

As you allude to, a lot of SEO techniques are actually the result of good web site building. Things like having the page’s title in the URL make your site more intuitive for the end user AND help your search rankings.

In a way you can think of search ranking as a way to determine if your developer has done a complete job or not. Of course this has to be taken with a grain of salt and the content producer’s work has just as much to do with as anything.

I guess my overall point is that don’t ignore good practices just because they happen to be apart of the SEO school of doing things. View each practice on a case by case basis. Also, if you aren’t getting good rankings, it is a good idea to ask yourself, “What can I improve about my site?”

Walter McGinnis • 17 March 2009

@walter - according to conversations with google having the page title in the url has no effect on PageRank. It MAY have an effect for other search engines. There are of course usability benefits BUT the trouble with keywords is they change over time. And persistence is the key to working well with the web (and therefore search engines). Personally I don’t think the tips, techniques and tricks of SEO give us any more clues on how to develop well for the web than established web standards and in many cases are myths that lead only to confusion.

The sad truth is that developers often know how to work with these tools (http, uris, rest, html, css…) but get overruled by managers who want something shinier. The same managers then have to bring in highly paid SEO guess-perts to make the results findable…

Michael Smethurst • 18 March 2009

Andrew Stewart • 17 March 2009 • SEO
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