The uncomfortable truth about SEO

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not an SEO professional. I don’t work for an SEO company and I don’t charge for SEO in any way. But I have been developing websites for a long time, and in that time I’ve been involved in a lot of SEO projects. I’ve had sites at the top of Google, and I’ve had sites blacklisted. I’ve been shafted by black-hat SEO companies, and I’ve employed black-hat techniques myself. I’ve witnessed the rise of CPC advertising, I saw the demise of ‘Top-Pile’, and I’ve voted for the ‘president of the internet‘… In short, I’ve learned a few things…

Having just had a conversation with yet another ‘SEO consultancy’, I’m simply amazed that there are still people out there disseminating these crackpot ideas of what SEO is. That clients of mine, unsuspecting business owners with little or no knowledge of the intricacies of SEO, are still parting with inordinate, over-inflated lumps of cash to these cowboy companies for a service they don’t understand, and are therefore unable to accurately gauge the effectiveness of, simply angers me.

So here, in an attempt to enlighten as well as entertain, is my compendium of uncomfortable truths about the world of SEO in 2009.

Google has got it right

(Or: ‘How your favourite search engine is smarter than your SEO company’.)

Google has been around for a long time. Since its inception in 1996, Google’s main goal has been to crawl and rank every website on the internet according to the relevance of its content. This is for the benefit of the public, not the owner of said website.

Google is very good at this, and has some of the brightest minds in the industry working hard at refining their ranking algorithm to do just that.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that being at the top of Google for any particular key-phrase would have a lot of money making potential, and so from very early on, lots of ‘non-genius’ people crawled out from under various rocks and offered their services doing just that – getting their clients to the top of Google.

For a while, they were fairly successful and their clients, on the whole, happy. But as more and more companies realised the potential of #1 rankings, and more SEO companies (often from Lancaster, ever notice that?) cropped up ready to take their money, a virtual arms race ensued with SEO companies trying more and more ingenious ways to trick poor Google into ranking their clients higher than their competitors.

Many techniques emerged over the years, including keyword stuffing, gateway pages, micro-sites, gateway domains, link triangulation, bombing, cloaking, etc.

Of course all of this was very much against the spirit of the whole thing and Google spent most of its time refining its algorithm to identify these ‘Black-Hat’ (read: cheating) tactics and penalise sites accordingly.

Google was always bound to triumph in the end and the turning point came around 2004, when they finally tipped the scales and managed to make the SEO industry implode in one fell swoop.
Many high profile businesses were wiped out from the listings overnight.

With the old black-hat techniques causing massive penalisation, a huge percentage of ‘have-a-go’ SEO companies went bust immediately. Those that were left were quick to claim they had never used those techniques in the first place. (They did… They all did.)

The bottom line is that Google doesn’t want SEO companies to dictate where your website ranks in their listings. They want to deliver the most relevant content to their users for any given search and that’s exactly what you should want too… Because your website is better than your competitor’s, right? So what good is it if after putting all that effort to create the perfect online resource for your target market, your inferior competitor can just simply hire a better SEO company to outrank you?

Where does it all end?!

Thankfully, Google has become very good at sorting out the wheat from the chaff and right now, the best way to rank well in their listings is to develop good quality, regularly updated content. Just look at the BBC…

There is no such thing as guaranteed rankings

That’s right, I said it.

If any SEO company offers you any kind of guarantee, including of the ever attractive ‘or your money back’ variety, politely (or impolitely depending on your demeanour and how pushy their salesperson is) decline and go about your day.

This seems obvious, yet people are taken in by it every day: If every SEO company offering ‘guaranteed top five rankings’ was actually able to deliver, tens if not hundreds of competing companies would have to share those top five positions. It’s clearly not possible.

The fact is that SEO is not an exact science, or indeed a science of any kind. It’s educated guesswork at best. There are so many factors that influence a site’s ranking that it is impossible to make any kind of guarantee… The fact that many SEO companies actually offer a guarantee is simply because this is what their clients want to hear. ANY SEO company that offers a guarantee is unscrupulous, and is to be avoided.

And while we’re on the subject, 20 top five rankings ‘across the major search engines’ is useless. Trust me – No-one is searching for ‘[your product’s stock code] from [your company name] buy online from [your city] in [your country]‘ on Lycos. They’re searching for ‘[your product name]‘ or ‘[your industry name]‘ – possibly with an area modifyer – and that’s about it.

If you’re not already ranking for ‘[your company name]‘ then you’ve got problems with your website that go way beyond the remit of your SEO company.

New sites are at a disadvantage

Sorry, but it’s true. The more popular a site is, the more people will link to it. Google loves to see lots of incoming links to your site. Now, that doesn’t mean you should immediately start signing up to link directories, banner farms and exchanging links with anyone and everyone – Google only really cares about ‘relevant links’ – that is to say, links from sites with content that is similar, or relevant to yours. If you run a site about bowling, Google isn’t going to be too interested in that link from your friend’s fishing site; but one from your bowling league would be rather handy.

The idea is simple: Google wants to know that your industry/community/peers ‘approve’ of your content and find it valuable to them. This is an organic process and usually takes time, effort and patience.

There are of course, exceptions. If for instance, your site offers a genuine cure for cancer, you can bet that as soon as one media outlet picks up on it, the news will spread like wildfire and you’ll find yourself with links from news sites, blogs & social networking sites all over the globe. The news sites especially are considered ‘authorative sources’ and will generally hold a lot of clout with Google.

But for the most part, you’ll have to wait around for your site to be found and linked to by the masses – for it to grow organically. It certainly can’t hurt to contact relevant sites to ask them to link to you, but the bottom line is that the competitor of yours that’s been online for five years is going to have many more links, reviews, and general ‘buzz’ about their site and it will take you a long time to gain that kind of a reputation.

The best thing you can do is the same as any offline business/venture: offer a better service, cheaper rates, better content and a website that people want to link to. Short of some very clever marketing tricks, there’s no shortcut for this – certainly chucking a couple of grand at an SEO company isn’t going to cut it.

There is no place for your SEO company in today’s web

A controversial statement, I’m sure – but one I believe is true.

The fact is that good rankings come from good content and well developed sites. What’s required is a fundamental shift in the way companies view their online offerings. Rather than spending money on competing for better positions for their content, companies should be spending money on developing better content for their sites.

An SEO company may be able to write copy laced with your key-phrases, but a good copywriter will create insightful, thought provoking content that people will link to and pass on.

An SEO company may add code to your site that is designed to be picked up by search engines, but a better web developer will create semantic, valid and accessible code that will be easily digested by the search engine spiders, and will be much better for your visitors.

Your company and search engines have one common factor: You both have human beings as customers. You should be creating sites for them, not for the search engines.

Dump your SEO company today, and make the web a better place.

SEO is not the same as marketing

(Or, ‘Gary does a bit of backtracking’)

A lot of people I’ve spoken to recently, consider these views to be something akin to heresy. To be fair, most of them run SEO companies… but still I think it’s worth pointing out that what I’m referring to here is specifically search engine optimisation – the art of getting your site to the top of the organic search listings for specific phrases using good meta data, content with a high keyword density, external links, and in many cases, hidden bits of code and whatnot. It’s my contention that you shouldn’t need a separate company to achieve this – a developer and a copywriter will do the trick nicely. The argument that developers don’t understand how to optimise a site for search engines is defunct: Hire better developers.

There are of course other avenues of marketing, and specifically search engine marketing, which are best left to professionals. Anyone can run a CPC advertising campaign, but you’ll find more success with an expert who can create multiple campaigns with individual landing pages, specifically aimed at niche areas of your target market – and more importantly, analyse the results.

The evils of marketing as a concept are way beyond the scope of this post, but it’s important to note that there is a difference and I don’t want to undermine the job done by people who know far more about it than I.

Tags: ,

Filed under: SEO, Website Development.


  1. Paul Randall

    Mar 17th, 2009
    1:49 pm

    SEO is always a hot bed of debate, but you can’t beat good content.

    I love it when these companies phone us up, asking if we would like to improve our SEO….

    Me: “How did you find us?”
    Them: “On the Internet” (Cue realisation of statement…)
    Me: “So, we can’t be that bad then”

  2. Jamie Knight

    Mar 17th, 2009
    3:26 pm


    I agree with most of that, the only part i don’t fully agree with is the last point, or more specifically your definition of SEO.

    SEO is optimizing content for search & search engine performance. Part of this is the ability to react and tune what you have.

    A copy writer will not be able to go to a statistics package and deduce that the order of words in a product name is loosing them traffic and by changing the order you could increase traffic 10%?

    I don’t know many developers who can go away and do some competitive analysis, or do some research into the popular search terms within a market? If they do, i am pretty sure they will agree that is byond the scope of “Developing”.

    I DO offer SEO advice to clients for a fee, for that fee, i review their site statistics, provide interpretation and help guide them to what keywords they may wish to use, how i would estimate those keywords to affect their ranking and discuss with them how they wish to target their site. Are people finding their site through products? or by company name? Location or price related keywords? This interpretation and the time taken to implement any changes which can be made are what i am charging for.

    I am not an SEO company, and the sites i develop (i am a developer / design / one-man-one-lion-band) are built using the techniques you are talking about. But that is only one element of the solution, its a good start, but working further on the site as more information is available gives better results.

    So, in summery, i agree with 99% of what you have said, but not the last bit.

    nice post and i enjoyed the twitter discussion to.


    Jamie & Lion

  3. Gary

    Mar 17th, 2009
    11:33 pm

    Hey guys, thanks for the comments.
    Jamie, you make a good point – I suppose that keyword analysis and conversion ratios aren’t really in the remit of the developer, although if a company is large enough, I’d expect their marketing team to be able to deal with this.

    Personally, I find myself giving this advice to my clients for free, as part of an ongoing relationship with them. Obviously I want them to succeed and periodically, as much for my own reference as anything else, I’ll check their stats and possibly suggest improvements to them. This often results in more paid work for me, so everyone wins really.

    As valuable as this is, I’ve never come across an SEO company that does the same thing. I don’t want to tar them all with the same brush, but those that I’ve dealt with are usually only willing to do the initial optimisation or content generation for which they are paid.

  4. Teifion

    Mar 23rd, 2009
    2:47 pm

    When you employ SEO people you are employing marketers just as when you employ a PHP person you are employing a developer. And just as there is no one language to solve all problems there is no one marketing solution for all sites. In some cases yes SEO is a brilliant idea and perfectly suited to a given site; on others however it is not.

    Case in point, we got a client 1,800 visits because we got them high up on Reddit. I have met several black-hat SEOs and the good ones are well aware of what the consequences are, generally you’d not use black-hat on a client site unless you were competing in a really tough area such as pills, porn or casinos. You are quite right to say that there are no such things as guaranteed rankings, mostly because you cannot predict how many people will link to you and with what anchor text (short of hacking sites anyway). The point I want to concentrate on however is your statement that there is no longer a place for SEO companies. There will always be a place for them as long as Google’s rankings can be influenced for the simple reason that if somebody can move you 1 step closer to the top spot it’s worth money.

    At the end of the day the job of a company is not to make the web a better place, it’s to sell stuff. If I can sell more stuff by employing an SEO to alter my site then I’m not going to give even a moment of consideration to the “state of the web”.

    At the end of the day there are a lot of people that think that SEO is easy and like Paul demonstrated, they’re not hard to show up. The same however goes for both designers and developers and I think you are focusing only on the bad ones, maybe because you’ve simply not yet worked with a good one or maybe you just hate SEOs 😛


Simian Enterprises is the trading name of Gary Stanton, a freelance web developer working by the sea in Brighton, UK. Gary's been creating websites since 1996 and still loves it. Read more


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