Worthless Shady Criminals: In Defense of SEO, Part 1

Worthless. Shady. Criminals.

That’s how SEO (define) is being described. Those who characterize it this way are unfairly defining an entire industry, are often ignorant of SEO issues, are definitely stereotyping, and are shortsighted in not realizing SEO’s value.

SEO isn’t all bad, so how did we end up in this sorry state of affairs? It isn’t helpful to the critics or those doing SEO.

The SEO/Designer Disconnect

Last summer, I was amazed at an uproar over a Search Engine Strategies session in San Jose. The panel covered how search engines interact with CSS (define), JavaScript, and frames (short answer: not well). An attendee felt the panelists were offering snake-oil solutions rather than focusing on content.

His blog post inspired another post from CSS guru Eric Meyer. Meyer roundly condemned the panelists, conference organizers (that’s me), and, by implication, SEO advice in general. It even ended up with the Web Standards Project (WSP) slamming the “clowns” on the panel. I found this deeply ironic, given my own Search Engine Standards Project was inspired by the WSP.

The good news is more conversation ensued. I commented on both blogs, as did two panelists. It wasn’t snake oil they were pushing. They were pointing out a basic fact: search engines simply don’t read pages the way designers may expect. Meyer ended up posting a heartfelt apology, and the WSP did its own followup, saying:

If the message of the SES crowd in the comments is indeed what they were preaching at the conference it seems there’s more than a little overlap between their concept of best practices in web design and ours.

Indeed there is. Good SEO often means good design. That’s long been the case. The uproar made me realize somewhere along the way, that concept was lost. Designers and search engine optimizers, once partners, apparently have drifted apart.

Search Engines: The Third Browser

In the late ’90s, I worked closely with designers who welcomed help in understanding search engines. They knew how to design sites for the two major browsers (Internet Explorer and Netscape) but didn’t know how search engines viewed their sites.

For ages, we lived in an IE and Netscape world. Pages had to work with both browsers. After IE’s long dominance, we’re getting back to a two-browser world, now it’s IE and Firefox.

Yet for all the time designers invest to ensure pages are Firefox compliant, do they also ensure they’ve created search engine friendly sites? If they don’t, they miss out on the third browser millions use each day to view the Web: search engines.

How can search engines not be considered by Web designers? More people use search engines than IE and Firefox combined, because everyone uses search engines, regardless of browser. If you haven’t constructed your site with search engines in mind, it may not properly be indexed and ranked.

Good SEO Doesn’t Mean Bad Design

SEO doesn’t mean you build a site to trick search engines. It doesn’t mean you sacrifice good design. It means you consider some basic tips even the search engines themselves advise you to do, such as those covered by Shari Thurow in a recent column. Shari offers good SEO tips everyone should consider. They’re specifically about ensuring your existing content has no barriers that prevent it from doing well with search engines.

Content SEO and Other Flavors

How did SEO become synonymous for many people with tricking search engines through bogus links, comment spam, and other unsavory tactics? Other flavors of SEO have developed and dominated the impression of the industry.

Consider Shari’s tips part of content-based SEO (CSEO). I won’t say this is the “true” SEO. Because for as long as there’s been CSEO, there have been other SEO flavors designed just to generate traffic from search engines, regardless of content. For example:

  • Doorway pages. Maybe you have existing content but don’t feel your content optimization is effective enough. Maybe management won’t allow you to make the site more search engine friendly. Maybe you’re an affiliate who wants traffic to send to others. In any of these cases, you might create new pages designed to snag traffic and serve as a “doorway” from which you send people to other pages.
  • Link building.Even before search engines relied on them, building links was an online marketing tactic. Link building has its range of tactics, ranging from making requests and hoping a link will be granted to buying links, or using automated tools to create links in guest books, blog comments, forums, and other areas permitting open access.

CSEO Is a Must

CSEO is something everyone who builds Web pages should try. Designers in particular need to understand CSEO or to work with someone who does. There’s no excuse not to. Good designers must understand the problems their designs may present toward search indexing, just as they need to understand the problems their designs may have with certain browsers.

That knowledge often helps designers make a few simple changes (not tricks, not black magic — changes) to improve search engine traffic without destroying site design. At the very least, they’ll fully understand if a particular design requirement affects search engine visibility. That knowledge can then help site owners understand there are other tactics, such as paid search, they can rely on.

What about other SEO flavors? You’ll have to determine for yourself what you’ll pursue. But CSEO is a must. It’s a foundation any site with decent content should start from in terms of search engine marketing (SEM).

Next: SEO should respect design, too.

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