Does Textbook SEO Really Work Anymore?, Redux

In my last column, I reached out to the SEO (define) community for feedback. Boy, did I get feedback!

Yet the column seems to have been taken completely out of context by some. In fact, a certain has-been industry commentator used it as a platform to launch a personal attack on me (a cheap, attention-grabbing shot). Some baying forum hounds almost demanded my public execution for daring to declare, “SEO is dead.”

Let’s clear things up. First, in the thousands and thousands of words I’ve written relating to SEO, nowhere have I suggested SEO is dead. Period.

Also, I used the term “textbook SEO” in a euphemistic way. I can’t really think of another way to describe it, other than bluntly stating: “SEO circa 1998.” After 10 years, maybe we should have a word for old-fashioned SEO. But I’ll continue to use “textbook” until the SEO intelligentsia come up with a new term for it.

Last week at ad:tech San Francisco, I gave my SEO session audience an exclusive advance listen to clips from an in-depth interview I conducted with Google’s Matt Cutts. Cutts helped to substantiate some of my thoughts. That helped the audience to understand what I’m trying to achieve a lot better.

Let me explain in one simple term what I’ve been talking to various people at search engines about when it comes to the SEO side of the business: “survival.”

My company’s one of the largest in the industry, if not the largest. If we continue to implement systems and processes that have been predefined as industry standard, yet add nothing to the success ratio of our clients, we have a bleak future.

So I’m not asking search engines to tell me what their proprietary technology is (I can usually figure that out with enough digging). What I’m asking is, “What should we not waste time doing?”

If we continue to implement systems and processes that belong to the dark ages of search and therefore fail, but we still send invoices, we’ll lose clients. And when you lose clients, invariably you lose employees. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake here.

Last week, heading over to San Francisco, I conducted a workshop in London. Afterwards, I was approached by a guy who had invested a substantial amount of money in an SEO program with a large U.K. SEO firm. I seemed to contradict what they’d told him, he said.

The firm had sold him a package of “textbook SEO,” which included the whole on-page paraphernalia I covered in my previous column. And it wasn’t working. He was told he had to have H1 tags on the thousands and thousands of pages on his site. Search engines almost insist on it. He must have meta tags. Search engines almost insist. He must do keyword-density analysis. Search engines almost insist. And he must be linked to by high PageRank pages to win. Yes, search engines almost insist.

I asked whether he believed he could rank at number one at Google not only without any of those things but… wait for it… without ever having had his page crawled by Google.

Here’s an example: Over the weekend, my wife and I took a trip to Napa Valley (we were both doing a little research on wine). Search Google for “pinot grigio,” and look at the top result. There are times, as mentioned in my previous column, that search engines know of a page purely by analyzing the link data on the frontier of the crawl. I see it regularly. This proves that, when your linkage data is that strong, you don’t even need to be crawled, let alone have on-page paraphernalia, to rank number one. (This one is different, though, as I discussed with Cutts. You’ll read about it in another column.)

Yes, this is an extreme example. But it does prove my point. I talked to Cutts about on-page paraphernalia and whether we get our optimization tactics in the right order. It’s a top-down approach, says Cutts. There’s no point in doing textbook stuff unless you have enough great content and the reputation within your community to be a challenger. Listen to my interview with Cutts for more on this.

On the subject of keyword-density analysis, I previously asked my good friend Dr. Edel Garcia to explain why this is a snake-oil sell. It’s scientifically not possible to measure keyword weights unless you have access to the entire corpus.

You can only stand a chance of ranking if you’re linked to by high PageRank pages? Nonsense! Should we value the price of a link from a page by its PageRank? No! Listen to what Cutts has to say about the importance of PageRank.

Search on Google for “wine tasting,” and look at the top result. That’s how all search engines will go soon. Within the taxonomy of search, a new characteristic is developing: resource location.

See how the top result has a kind of Web site contents listing (“Serving Wine – Tasting Wine – Tasting Etiquette – Wine Terms”)? This proves two things:

  • Aggregate linkage data can tell so much more about the subject matter and content of a site.
  • End-user data proves that people who were interested in the initial search query were also interested in other information-related to the topic.

Does anyone believe textbook SEO has anything to do with that kind of result?

There were two overall opinions in the feedback I received. Those who have nothing other to sell than textbook SEO say it works. Those who pay for it (clients) and get no results say it doesn’t. Pretty much a forgone conclusion, really.

I’m only including one of the many responses I received, because it’s the one that really hits home for me:

A brilliantly posted question on a topic of critical importance to those of us in the field.

A key derivative question might be, “How much longer will clients pay” for traditional SEO when such techniques are so hit-and-miss these days?

Link building requires a huge shift in the mindset of most of my clients still in the mode of having us “take care of their SEO stuff.” Link building actually means they must get involved, which means lots of overhead and relationship management — each of which calls for a large increase in billable hours. This is not something that my clients are taking very well.

“Can’t you just tweak the tags some more?”

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