SEO Should Respect Design
Search engine optimizers who work with designers must remember there's life outside the search engines. Design standards are pursued for good reason. Pushing some things purely intended to help with search engines can have unintended consequences, and not necessarily help with search engines at all.
Last December, we had a panel called "Web Standards, Good Design and SEO: You Can Have It All" at SES in Chicago. It brought together Eric Meyer and two panelists from the San Jose show, Matt Bailey of The Karcher Group and Shari Thurow of Grantastic Designs.
Meyer led off, explaining why the design community and others are pushing for and adopting Web standards. Pluses include lower bandwidth costs (a big issue for high-traffic sites), and code portability: write it once and output to various platforms (browsers, cell phones, TV, even search engines) is easily achieved.
Bailey spoke next, discussing how standards can help people with disabilities. His presentation went far in bringing home the effect abusing design standards purely for SEO reasons can have.
Images have long been able to have ALT text associated with them. The rationale is to help those who can't see the images, like Bailey's father, whose declining eyesight due to multiple sclerosis makes him increasingly reliant on a screen reader.
A screen reader reads all the text on a page, including that in ALT text. Imagine coming across an image tag that repeats a term hundreds of times in the futile hope it will somehow boost page ranking. Bailey demonstrated how long it took the screen reader to go through all the words stuffed into just one image. It was painful to endure.
Elements vs. Pages
Thurow pointed out new design techniques, such as using CSS (define), cause people to wonder how to apply them to SEO. Can text for search engines be hidden from users via layers? Should the title attribute be added to links in a quest to boost rankings?
Sadly, some in the SEO space may be reaching for new element-driven techniques to boost rankings the way ordinary HTML was used in the past. People sometimes obsess over using certain page elements, rather than view a page's success as a combination of many factors. Do you have a meta keywords tag? Do you put text into an H1 tag? Are you using ALT text?
Design elements are something to consider, but no single element is a make-or-break factor with search rankings. Pages will succeed even if terms aren't in ALT text. Pages with no meta tags do well. Pages can even do well despite having non-descriptive page titles, thanks to link analysis influence. It's nevertheless easy for people to overly fixate on page elements.
Emerging design standards mean people are contemplating new ways to lose sight of content SEO's (CSEO's) main focus: ensuring good page content is friendly to search engines by eliminating barriers and appropriately making use of particular page elements.
In other words, do you have a good page to begin with and good content on the topic you hope to be found for? That's the forest of the CSEO world you must see. Viewing a page primarily from the element basis (do we have terms in X, Y, and Z areas?) focuses on the trees and keeps you from seeing the forest.
The Reputation Problem
Last year, author Mike Grehan explained how guest book spam had an terrible effect on a friend's memorial site:
Not long after his funeral, I received an email from Penny, Ed's wife. She was obviously very upset and explained that she'd been to Ed's memorial page to read the new entries and couldn't believe that "someone had placed adverts on it."
It wasn't too long before I found myself receiving notes every couple of days from people who had been to the memorial page and were horrified to find promotional messages for ring-tones and other affiliate type programs. And so I started my daily vigil of downloading the memorial page and cleaning off the junk.
What Grehan describes isn't CSEO; it isn't based on improving your own content. Nevertheless, this type of activity is viewed as part of the larger SEO sphere. No wonder so many people have a dim view of the entire industry when they encounter such things. Even Grehan, a long-time search marketer, was frustrated:
Even common decency may be abandoned in futile attempts by desperate (or simply less educated) online marketers and others who will seemingly stop at nothing to try and gain links in hopes of seeing more green in their Google toolbar....
But even if you don't believe me and my writings about effective link building, are you really prepared to commit yourself to the virtual desecration of someone's memorial site and bring pain to their loved ones to sell a ring tone? If so, then why not head out to your nearest cemetery with a can of spray paint and plaster your URL's on the tombstones. Your actions in the virtual world of the web are the same.
I share that frustration. Trackback (define) link spam on the Search Engine Watch Blog has grown so much that I finally shut off trackbacks. I was sorry to do so, but it was no longer worth the time to remove 20 or so bogus links each day, even with the automated removal tools I have. In a recent article about WordPress spam, I cover an example of not finding a phone number I wanted due to word stuffing on a page.
Such tactics are annoying, even to search marketers. Still, it behooves everyone not to tar an entire industry with the same brush. For all the bad things people want to lump under the umbrella of SEO (and really search engine marketing (SEM), of which SEO is just a part), there's also plenty of good. Decry a particular SEO tactic, if you want -- but don't decry the entire SEM industry as rotten.
Realistically, I don't expect the SEM reputation problem will go away. Can the industry do anything to improve it? Promoting "good" or "ethical" SEO has been raised in the past. It's a difficult issue for many reasons. I'll revisit this in the future, plus look at some possible solutions. In the meantime, further reading on the topic:
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Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.
March 19, 2014