SEO: Art, Science, Bollocks Or What?

  |  January 8, 2007   |  Comments

Can you train a monkey to do SEO?

This may be a new year, but it certainly ushered in and fired up an old debate. I missed most of the initial tirades because I actually did switch my laptop off for a few days over the holiday.

The debate? SEO: Rocket science or not?

You can pretty much get the gist of what happened by reading part one of my colleague Kevin Lee's recent response. It was his business partner who wrote a column declaring, "SEO isn't rocket science," which caused the wave of blog posts, forum posts, and ruffled feathers that ensued.

It even led to the great Danny Sullivan responding with a blog post declaring that SEO is rocket science. I do hope this was just Danny being a little analogous to the fact that, to the uninitiated SEO could appear to be like rocket science.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, I can tell you: SEO is not rocket science. Not even remotely. Regular readers of this column will know I've been hauled over the coals a few times by the SEO community for daring to suggest that it's becoming a dying art. And that classic SEO, or textbook SEO, as I refer to it, doesn't really cut it any more when it comes to achieving those top ten hits.

Truth is, I could probably train a monkey to do "textbook SEO" in an afternoon. What seems to have gone without any mention at all in the ongoing debate, however, is the real science behind search. And that, believe me, is very much akin to rocket science.

Over the holidays, I finished reading Web Dragons: Inside the myths of search engine technology. It's a book about information retrieval (IR) on the web. It's not a general IR book, it's specifically about the challenges the Web presents to current technologies and science as applied by search engines. I should stress here that neither is it an SEO or search marketing book. Though references to SEO are made, they're mainly in the negative sense when covering the topic of spam.

The book is written by three scientists/researchers from the fields of computer science, digital libraries, machine learning, artificial intelligence and network theory. And it's reviewed and endorsed by, no less than, Craig Nevill-Manning (Engineering Director, Google), Prabhakar Raghaven (Head of Yahoo! Research), and Jonathan Grudin (Microsoft Research).

Both Craig Nevill-Manning and Prabakhar Raghaven I know personally. And I can tell you, we're talking some serious heavyweights in the world of search here (Jonathan Grudin included).

Well-written book as it is, I didn't learn a great deal from it. Most of what it covers I've written about both in my own book and in the many articles I've written over the years. However, it did draw my thoughts back to how remote the absolute bollocks I frequently read online from so called SEOs really is, compared to the true science of information retrieval.

And you know in this business, if you don't try and get your head around IR on the Web, you do your clients a disservice. What's the future of search technology? Where's it going? Will simply dynamically adding meta and title tags to hundreds of thousands of pages continue to keep clients happy enough, and provide enough revenue to pay your employees?

Textbook SEO (as is the case in question, I believe, from the original firestorm article) cannot sustain revenues that grow businesses, or create employment and wealth. And to that I agree 100 percent with Dave Pasternack, author of the original article.

So many things are changing on the "organic" side of search engine listings. All this continual SEO technical hoo-hah about crawlers and getting indexed is completely overshadowed by the simple fact that getting ranked at the top is what clients want. Becoming visible at search engines -- period.

Who wants to be in a search engine index if they have as much chance of being found as Glenn Miller?

Popularity versus Authority

The term authority is used a lot in our industry after Jon Kleinberg coined it in his groundbreaking paper PDF download. Yet he and most other researchers, scientists and practitioners in the field know popularity doesn't essentially mean authority. That's one of the reasons you never hear me use the phrase "link popularity," because that's not what it's about.

Linkbuilding: The final frontier for ranking?

Absolutely not.

The Web continues to develop as the mainstream source of information in every home, and will do so ad infinitum. And search engines are becoming the gatekeepers to information. With their access to so much end user data, clickstream analysis, defining communities and searching within them, personalization, defining social space and objective reality, "textbook SEO" really will be a redundant commodity.

So what do we do than? We become true marketers or die, that's what.

Now here's a good question: is marketing an art or a science?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Grehan

Mike Grehan is Publisher of Search Engine Watch and ClickZ and Producer of the SES international conference series. He is the current president of global trade association SEMPO, having been elected to the board of directors in 2010.

Formerly, Mike worked as a search marketing consultant with a number of international agencies, handling such global clients as SAP and Motorola. Recognized as a leading search marketing expert, Mike came online in 1995 and is author of numerous books and white papers on the subject. He is currently in the process of writing his new book "From Search To Social: Marketing To The Connected Consumer" to be published by Wiley in 2013.

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