Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An open and hurried response to Derek Powazek's SEO diatribe

Derek Powazek of PixishImage by Amit Gupta via Flickr

Yesterday I read Danny Sullivan’s open letter to Derek Powazek. It was the first time in ages I’ve been on Search Engine Land as my readership dropped away when the popular site swapped full RSS feeds for partial RSS feeds.

The decision to switch from full to partial RSS feeds was a business and marketing one that Danny and his team made. You could imagine that they launched Search Engine Land will full and open access in order to build up their readership (which is now at an impressive base) and then morph into a content business model to coincide with their busy conference agenda. You might call this marketing, a business plan, digital marketing, search marketing or, perhaps, even search engine optimisation.

I didn’t actually read Derek Powazek’s diatribe until Google Reader’s recommendation engine put it in my face. Now I feel as if I have to chime in.

I’m no Danny Sullivan. I don’t even have the time (I’m pleased to say) to give a full and open response to Powazek in the way that Danny has. It’s in my DNA to say something, though, so I will – quickly, between meetings and while checking my voicemail.

One of Powazek’s complains against SEO is that some of it is obvious. Don’t trust SEO consultants he says. They’ll con you.

I trust the obvious. In business the obvious is often only obvious in hindsight. Hindsight can be very costly and it makes perfect business sense to pay someone who’s fought the fight before to share their hindsight with you.

That’s obvious, right?

My main complaint with Powazek’s article is that he, like many others who chirp on against SEO, first encountered it in the late 90s or early 2000s and are now stuck there. Time freeze. There were snake oil salespeople then as there are snake oil salespeople now. The significant change in that time is how the best SEO agencies and experts have evolved.

Today we’re cutting edge. In the past SEO experts looked to the past and tried to work out keyword frequency. Today we look to the future to forecast tomorrow’s keywords. We coordinate with huge TV and radio budgets. We work with advert script writers to weigh the pros and cons of inserting a unique phrase into the dialog just so the multinational brand can optimise for it.

Today we work with fairly impressive technology. Google’s proposal to crawl AJAX based sites involves everything from headless browsers to mapping complex URLs to ‘pretty’ URLs. Why are pretty URLs important? Your search consultant will let you know.

Today we work with multivariate testing scripts to scientifically analyse the best layouts and messaging for PPC campaigns. We do this in such a way that the tests don’t leak into natural search and confuse the search engines on the actual content of the landing page or ruin the multivariate test with unassigned traffic.

That’s not “poisoning the web” – that’s working with Google to make content discoverable. That’s helping curate the web.

Helping a site migrate from one URL structure to another in a way that doesn’t leave tens of thousands of dead URLs peppering search engines, blogs and the web as a whole isn’t poisoning the web. It’s best web practise. It’s SEO.

I often think of SEO as a form of usability. Just as people can visit a site, get lost, not find the relevant content they were after and then leave the site failing to appreciate that they’ve just visited an authority on a subject – so can the search engine. In some ways SEO is about improving that search experience of the site; making sure Google (and Bing, et al) has all that it needs to judge the site fairly and accurately.

Some of what Powazek says is true. There are SEO ‘experts’ out there who recycle domains with scraped content. That is bad. That is poison. That’s not the entirety of SEO though.

Is Derek Powazek a blogger? I could write a diatribe about bloggers. I could cite all the un-verified rumours that some traffic hungry news blogs post. I could lambast bloggers for awful web design and poor English skills (look at this blog for an example!) and I could call them all blogger jerkwards.

That would be like Powazek using the phrase ‘SEO jerkwads’. It wouldn’t be fair. I’d be using the worst examples of a vibrant community to define the entire community.

If I’m going to have to come up with a summary then it’ll be this: Powazek’s stuck in the past. He needs to catch up with ethical and successful corporate search engine optimisation. He needs to consider the skill set from the top down rather than the bottom up.

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