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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Most of SEO a Boondoggle? Jill Whalen Sticks to Her Guns

After sending a congratulatory email to longtime SEO voice of reason Jill Whalen, for her plucky article Is Most of SEO Just a Boondoggle?, I sent a few followup questions, hoping for elaboration.

As typically ensues in this seemingly perennial debate, some of those who disagreed with Jill in comments took to personal attacks. Other raised specific technical points. All in all, the debate highlights the need to take the open questions more seriously: in what direction is the measurement of relevance going, and what should companies *really* be doing to improve their search visibility?

Unsurprisingly if you know her, far from backing down in response to detailed questions, Jill kicked it up a notch! Sit back and enjoy an entertaining and informative interview.

Traffick: So you've associated much of the SEO industry with "boondoggle," defined as "work of little or no value, done merely to look busy." Reminds me of unnecessary road paving projects! So are you saying that we should maybe pull a few hundred thousand unemployed folks into no-account SEO service, just to give them some work and self-respect, and to stimulate the economy, like a white collar version of the New Deal? Why didn't Bernanke et al. think of that?

JW: This may already be happening, judging by the fact that many of the larger SEO companies are hiring even though the rest of the world is laying folks off.

Traffick: Seriously: there are still SEO companies offering to fix meta keyword tags, and do URL "submissions"? Yikes! But isn't that because there are tons of uninformed clients out there (who will say flat out to you with some pride that they know "just enough to be dangerous") asking specifically for those functions? So why not give them what they want, seems to be the response of some shady operators. In this equation, how far does the client's responsibility go to be educated enough to ask roughly for the right services, or to do a good job selecting a vendor? How can they go about getting that type of education?

Whalen: It absolutely does fall on the client's shoulders to get themselves educated about SEO. Which is a lot easier said than done because no two SEOs agree on what's helpful and not helpful. Plus, of course, every website is different and has different needs. That's actually one of the most important things that clients need to understand. We often see SEO RFPs that ask for all this boondoggle crap and when we tell them, "no, we won't do that, but we'll do this" they're not interested. You can't really answer an RFP if it doesn't address the actual website's needs. This is why it's critical that when a client is looking for SEO services, they don't send out RFPs, but instead, talk to a variety of SEO companies and find out if they feel they can increase your targeted search engine traffic. Different clients will be a good fit for different SEOs.

Traffick: You imply that some SEO knowledge "expires" but on your website you also make the point that classic fundamental SEO techniques don't require much by way of constant change - it's only tricks that make you have to change tacks every year. What, in a nutshell, is classic fundamental SEO?

Whalen: I don't think I meant to imply that some SEO knowledge expires. What expires is the propaganda that Google throws out to SEOs like bones to a dog. Many SEOs, especially those that weren't in biz before search engines started throwing out bones, are all too eager to believe anything Google says. Be it via Matt Cutts or their Webmaster Guidelines, they seem to think that the information will help them perform SEO. It won't; It's just a smokescreen. Pretty much anything Matt says has to be taken with a grain of salt, imo, as his objective is to keep the Google results free from spam. That said, I agree with most of what he says, as I too want to keep Google free from spam. But it doesn't mean it's really the way Google does stuff.

In a nutshell, fundamental SEO is what my High Rankings tagline says, "making sites be the best they can be." I know it sounds cliche now, but I'm happy to say that through the 10 or so years I've been using that tagline, more and more SEO consultants have come to the same conclusion. (Usually after chasing their tails on SEO tricks for so many years.) SEO has always been--and will always be--providing the best, most relevant page to the searcher who's at the other end of Google looking to solve some sort of problem or answer some sort of question. It's nothing more, nothing less. It's not H tags, sitemaps, submissions, or Meta tags.

Traffick: What do you say to the rapid-tactic-shifting SEO's who define SEO as pretty much just that? That if you don't do "SEO" the way they define it, you're lazy, or living in the past? Does "classic fundamental SEO" also evolve? What have been some of the main areas where evolution has been rapid?

Whalen: First I ask the rapid-tactic-shifting SEO if they have their house completely in order. In other words, is their website in perfect shape with all the fundamentals? If it is (and most company website's never are) then go ahead and experiment with whatever little trick you may have thought up. There's certainly no reason to just sit on your hands and do nothing. I have nothing against experimenting, or even with pushing the envelope a bit to see what can give you that little bit of extra edge. But not until you have already exhausted all the other important items on your to-do list. That's where my beef lies. People are pushing the envelope instead of fixing stuff that's actually broken.

As far as classic SEO evolving, it's hard for me to recognize the evolution because it happens so incrementally and I barely notice it. But it certainly does, or maybe it doesn't, but we just figure more stuff out? For instance, having the appropriate site architecture that is most valuable to the search engines is something I never knew about in the mid-90's. Does that mean it wasn't important to search engines back then? I don't really know if it was or it wasn't. It was just something I realized at one point many years ago and so I began to recommend it to my clients once it was apparent how important it was. So the question is really does SEO evolve or does our knowledge evolve?

Traffick: By pointing factually to detail SEO techniques that have little or no real-world impact today, you leave some tantalizing questions open. For example - H1 tags have no special merit. I believe you. But is there a deeper principle at work here? Since on-page SEO is keyword-oriented, we can agree that keywords are still important. Why not so much in H1 tags? If not there, in what page elements (other than the obvious, title tags)?

Jill: H1's have always been a point of contention between me and most other SEOs. Back in the 90's they were already thought to be of significance by everyone in the industry. I was on the bandwagon then too. But then I had a number of client's whose website backends just didn't support the addition of H1's. So we did without. We still had great keyword rich headlines and the like, they just weren't wrapped in H tags. To my surprise it didn't seem to matter at all. Now, of course, it's impossible to say for sure for those websites that if we had used an H tag instead whether that would have pulled them up a notch. But many years later, I did do some experimenting where I could and still could not find any verifiable differences between using an H tag for a headline or simply a B tag or any others.

As to what page elements really do matter, yes, definitely the obvious Title tag (although you'd be surprised how many still don't use those correctly!) but it's also just within the content in general. It doesn't matter what tags you use, as long as you talk about your product or service on the page that you want to rank for that product or service! The other extremely important element for keywords is within anchor text. Many have still not come round to the importance of your internal labeling of your links. Basically, using your keywords in a way that makes the page more understandable to the reader of that page, is good for SEO as well. You have to imagine the person at the other end (or the search engine) knows nothing about you or what you offer and describe it at that level. While a person is apt to be able to figure out what you're all about even if you're not all that clear by using visual cues, the search engines aren't that smart (yet).

Traffick: What about keyword density!? Hehe.

Whalen: Blech

Traffick: If XML Sitemaps are relatively useless, why do you think we collectively headed down this path?

Whalen: Because Google told us to. 'nuff said.

Traffick: Has it ever occurred to you that certain vehicles, like XML Sitemaps or wikified SERP's, have unintentionally morphed into great ways for search engines to study spammer behavior, and maybe even to triangulate who the most vigorous spammers are and what they tend to get up to? Like the Wile E. Coyote putting out "Free Bird Feed."

Whalen: It most certainly has occurred to me. Although, where you say "unintentionally" I am more jaded and would say "intentionally."

This is the main reason why I never did an XML sitemap when they first came out (still haven't actually). Remember all those poor saps who as soon as they'd submit an XML sitemap in the early days suddenly found their sites missing from Google SERPs? Coincidence? It seemed to happen way too often, imo. Who even knew about XML sitemaps at the time? Only those interested in SEO for the most part.

Traffick: That brings up the whole evolving puzzle of SEO ranking factors. We can all agree that life has become more complicated with SERP's being personalized to user histories, geography, and keyword intent. We can agree that universal and blended search, as well as paid search, have changed what people see on the page. But for what's left, as far as SEO ranking factors goes, is that an incredibly complex puzzle in your view, or less complicated than people let on?

Whalen: It became more complicated when Google became the only engine worth caring about. It used to be if you couldn't get rankings in one engine, it didn't matter too much because the other 4 or 5 were fine and brought you tons of traffic. Now it's rank in big G or bust!

And yes, the fact that rankings can no long be accurately used as a measure of success does suck. I used to long for the old days when our job was to just get rankings and whether or not that brought in traffic or conversions wasn't our job or our concern. Rankings are easy. Traffic and conversions, not so much. Why do you think most SEO companies are holding onto their rankings boondoggle?

Traffick: What do you think of the expert surveys, such as the one put together by SEOmoz, that aggregate SEO expert opinion on what are the most salient ranking factors? Do they give SEO's any kind of blueprint to work from? Like you, I participated in the survey. Did you understand all the questions? Most?

Whalen: The SEOmoz ranking factors survey was the most ridiculous thing I ever read. Seriously. It might as well have been written in Latin (was it?). Where they ever dreamed some of the crazy theories asked about in that survey I'll never know. Much of it had no resemblance to SEO as I've ever known it. I just hope that clients aren't actually paying to do some of the things that were being asked about in the survey.

Traffick: If working on stupid stuff is boondoggle, then do we need to change how SEO's are perceived? Compensated? What do you think of the proposals put forth by Richard Zwicky and others to place more weight on performance (increased traffic or revenue) in SEO compensation?

Whalen: The problem with performance based SEO is that it has to be tracked through the SEOs own server, rather than the client's. And typically when the contract is up, the client is left with their pants down and no traffic or sales. It's a great business model for the SEO of course, but if I were a client I wouldn't want to do it as it doesn't address any fundamental problems you may have with your website. Of course, if it makes the client more than they're paying, and they don't mind paying forever, then there's certainly nothing wrong with it if that's how they prefer things to operate.

Traffick: What do you say to the legions of SEO's who will no doubt reply to you with case studies proving their "boondoggles" provided a lift?

Jill: If it works for you, then keep doing it. But don't assume it will work for every site, and don't assume it was just that one thing that provided the lift. Also, I'd suggest testing specific elements in isolation as much as possible as that's the only way of really know what works and what doesn't. But if the only thing you offer to do for a company put their headlines in H1 tags, then you're ripping them off. (I don't actually know any companies who would only do that, thankfully!)

Traffick: I notice from your website that you offer an array of SEO services from full service, to lite or full audits, to various coaching and teaching types of offerings. Regarding the latter, do companies typically follow through once they're introduced to the key SEO techniques and concepts, or is there still a wide chasm between awareness and implementation?

Whalen: [Big Sigh] Unfortunately, many companies do not follow through. Many don't ever implement even one thing. Not even the easy things. Honestly, I don't understand it. The ironic thing is that it seems that the more a company spends on SEO, the less they implement. I don't let it bother me anymore and still make myself crazy by making sure I don't miss even one little thing that might help them when I'm writing my reports. I do often wonder why I work so hard at it knowing deep down there's a good chance it will never even be read.

Some of my best and favorite clients were ones that chose lower priced options because they actually performed most of the suggestions and then realized amazing results. Those type often come back later and spend a little more to learn more and gain additional results!

Traffick: If the chasm is often wide, does that mean companies are essentially "not doing SEO" after being introduced to it and getting a partial start? Shouldn't they scour the planet for a quality in house SEO, or quality agency, to go deep and stick with the project through to something closer to completion?

Jill: Yeah, of course they should. I think perhaps part of the problem is that they go into SEO thinking it's one thing (H1's and sitemaps perhaps?) only to find out that it's actually a huge amount of work. I guess they get discouraged by that so they do nothing. But those who do follow through as always amazed at how much more their phone rings and how much more qualified traffic they receive. SEO is still amazing that way when done well. We have one client who never quite understood what we were doing or why, but still let us do whatever we wanted. She told us recently on the phone that she's completely booked up now and can't even take anymore customers. Not only that, but those who call her are ready to sign on the dotted line and don't need to be sold to because her website now explains very clearly exactly what her company is all about. It's so cool when that happens!

Traffick: What's on the horizon for you and High Rankings?

Whalen: Well, right now we're just trying to make it through the recession. We're always testing different SEO consulting options and educational opportunities to find what best fits the current market. So far so good, but it's certainly scary out there! It seems to me this should be the time to increase SEO budgets not decrease them, but I'm not sure if that's what's happening.

We're continuing with our very customized in-person SEO training classes, and we're also working on some online SEO training, which I will have more info on in the Fall.

T: Thanks for speaking with us! Have a great summer, Jill!

J: No problem, you too!

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