Don’t lose perspective for the sake of good search engine placement

Paul Boag

Admit it, you want to be number one on Google. We all do. However, if you let it become an obsession it can ruin your site.

I have never really understood website owners obsession with search engine optimisation. In fact not long ago I wrote an article entitled “Why I don’t get SEO“. Boy was that a mistake!

My post basically outlined 5 reservations I had about search engine optimisation…

  • It’s a continual investment
  • It’s manipulating the search engines
  • It damages user experience
  • It’s a passive form of marketing
  • It doesn’t carry the weight of a personal recommendation

Personally I thought I was raising some reasonable point. However, shortly after publishing the post it all kicked off big time. I obviously offended the SEO community and quickly feared for my life. But hey, I often seem to offend people. It must be my winning personality.

Image of a riot

kojoku, Shutterstock

Ultimately I think it was a risk worth taking. A number of people wrote excellent responses to my post (1) (2) and it had some great comments .

I discovered I have been unfortunate enough to work with the most evil SEO companies (hence my negative view) and that SEO has a serious image problem.

Worst still, many website owners and quite a few web designers have a false impression of SEO. That is what I want to address in this post, starting with the universal truth – there are no quick fixes.

There are no quick fixes

I am not sure which came first, the website owners unrealistic demands or the SEO companies outrageous promises. Either way both sides are living in some a make-believe world where driving tons of new traffic is as simple as fiddling with the code of your site and getting a few people to link to you.

Back in the real world things are different. SEO is a long term commitment and will not provide results overnight. Always be hesitant of those who tell you otherwise.

Put users above search engines

As I said at the beginning of this post I think SEO has an image problem and it lies in the term ‘search engine optimisation’.

The name implies that you are ‘optimising the site for search engines’. However, from what I have learnt this is not the case. Reputable SEO companies always put the user first.

Search engine optimization

kentoh, Shutterstock

Think about it for a minute. Why do you want to be number one on Google? The answer is almost always to drive more users to your site. Why do you want more users? Again the answer is almost always to convince those users of something. That might be to buy a product or embrace an idea. Whatever the case the entire scenario revolves around the user.

SEO shouldn’t be about making your site more friendly to search engines but about making it more findable by humans.

Now you could argue these are semantics. To make the site more findable by humans it needs to be optimised for search engines. However, if you don’t make that distinction it is easy to start compromising the usability and accessibility of your site in order to gain a higher ranking.

Always remember a higher ranking is not the aim. The aim is to convince as many users as possible to respond in some way to your site.

SEO should reinforce (not undermine) best practice

When you make your goal better search engine placement it can begin to compromise a lot more than user experience.

Done incorrectly SEO can undermine the code of your website too. Before you know it your sites code is stuffed with headings and even in extreme cases hidden content.

You could argue that code doesn’t matter. After all that doesn’t impact our overall goal of converting users. However it does have other significant impacts on…

  • Performance
  • Site maintainability
  • The cost of future redesigns

It can also directly impact those using mobile devices or assistive technology (such as screen readers).

The irony here is that done right SEO should actually enhance the quality of your site’s code. In fact if your web designer has done their job properly your site should already preform well in search engine rankings.

Unfortunately too often web designers do not do their job well and SEO companies resort to excessive code manipulation to improve rankings.

It is important to find suppliers that understand the importance of best practice and respect it so preserving code quality.

SEO should improve not damage copy

In the same way that good SEO should improve code, it should also improve your site’s copy.

The one thing that has made me madder than anything else is when SEO companies screw with a site’s copy. Too often I have worked with companies that want to stuff well written copy with keywords or add excessive words to a page just to increase it’s ranking.

Keyword Research Tool

There is no better way of driving users away from a site than making the content of your site long and unreadable.

The bizarre thing is that actually SEO should create better copy, not worse. In order to write copy that ranks well on search engines it is first necessary to understand the terms your target audience use when searching. If used correctly this keyword research should improve your copy encouraging you to writ in the tone of voice and language used by your visitors.

A good SEO company should have a copywriter who can do this research and then write engaging text that uses the language of your users. It is the copywriter you need as much as the SEO wizard.

SEO should be apart of a broader marketing strategy

Many website owners become so obsessed with SEO that they focus on it at the detriment of all else.

In reality SEO should be just one component of a broader marketing strategy that includes both online and offline elements.

A good SEO company should also be able to help you utilise social media, paid advertising and other forms of online engagement to attract a larger audience. They should also be able to encourage your audience to promote your site through word of mouth recommendation.

The traffic vs conversion divide

To a large extent I think the problem of SEO derives from how the industry sells itself and what website owners ask for.

User clicking on a buy now button

Vitaly M, Shutterstock

In both cases the emphasis is on improved ranking. However as I have already said that is not the ultimate aim. An increase in conversion numbers is what website owners really need. This is achieved through a mix of increasing traffic and converting more of that traffic.

The worst scenario (which I have personally encountered many times) is where the SEO company is responsible for driving traffic while the web design agency is judged on how well that traffic converts. The result of these sometimes conflicting priorities is disagreement.

In the perfect world a single agency would be used for both roles. However, where that is not possible there should be a single metric for all involved. This should be how many people complete a specified call to action.

You maybe saying to yourself that your site has no call to action. If that is the case then why does the site exist? Even an informational site should probably have a call to action such as signup for a newsletter. If it really doesn’t then use another metric like a combination of dwell time and unique visitors to rate success.

Whatever metric we use it should not be how high the site ranks on Google. This is a means to an end not the end in itself.