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The Great SEO Swindle

In our rush to better our rankings, we tend to forget why people are using search engines to begin with

I have been writing about the Web since it was nearly invented in the early 1990s and one of my continued sources of amusement is the snake oil search engine optimization vendors. Repeat after me: content is king. Everything else is just a shell game.

In our rush to better our rankings, we tend to forget why people are using search engines to begin with: to find the best content. Those search sites that don’t deliver (remember Altavista? Or Yahoo, for that matter?) are going to find out really quickly that their users will go elsewhere.

What does that mean for you as a Web site owner that is trying to move up in the charts? It means you first have to focus on your content, and deliver what your visitors want. It is a matter of managing expectations, but also about making sure that your content is continually tuned and adjusted to meet the needs of your ever-evolving audience.

What it doesn’t mean is hiring some SEO firm to tweak your meta tags, flog your links, and hire a bunch of offshore keyboard pushers to promote your pages.

I got a PR pitch for an SEO company that I would rather not promote here, but the essence of their existence is that charge their clients only after the desired rankings have been achieved, with a sliding scale depending on whether you end up higher or lower than your goals. This is just utter nonsense, although the company is growing by leaps and bounds.

I coincidentally was meeting with a young entrepreneur here in St. Louis last week who runs a real business that is based on carefully tweaking search engine results. His name is Mark Sawyier (mark.sawyier@offcampusmedia.com), and his business is in listing apartments near major colleges around the country. (Movingoffcampus.com is just one of dozens of domains that he owns.) He is the cyberspace version of a major urban real estate developer: he understands SEO, Google Analytics, and how to play in a game where you live and die by your rankings and page views. He has managed to up his pay-per-click rates from his sponsors because:
a. He has tons of content – in this case apartment listings,
b. He has tons of relevant content – the apartments are listed by proximity to campus and other things that students are searching for, and
c. Results – because the people searching actually end up as renters more often from his site than his competitors.

He told me: “The fact is that the combination of the constantly changing algorithms search engines use to calculate rankings with increased competition from other websites, guaranteeing someone a rank and still playing by the rules, to me, is almost impossible. They would need infinite resources and time and have to have a ridiculous amount of startup capital to get it going.”

I offer my own modest example to buttress what Mark says. I have a page on my Web site that I have maintained for more than a decade. It is a simple list of dozens of Web conferencing vendors, with some basics on what they cost and what client platforms they support. I spend about an hour a year on maintaining this listing.

A few years ago, I started getting unsolicited emails from vendors of conferencing products who wanted me to list them on my list. Then I realized why: a quick Google search on the term “web conferencing services” has me in the top ten results. Did I stuff my page full of keywords? Did I abuse my meta-tags? Did I hire a bunch of third-world keyboarders to hit my page? Did I pay some SEO firm to work their magic? Did I have some special insight into how Google ranks my page?

No, no, and no. I just doggedly set out to provide good content, week after week. And gradually, this got results. It may take years, but eventually, as Mark says, the best content will win.

So instead of gaming SEO or hiring someone to push you up the page charts, think about making a quality website with tons of content. Mark reminds me: “search engines are ALWAYS trying to connect people that use them to search for information online with the absolute best websites to provide it – the minute any of them lose sight of this objective, they will stop being a good search engine. This is the core concept behind all of the variables and algorithms that go into calculating search engine rankings. And while external links and proper SEO coding are certainly important elements in the battle, at the end of the day, the most important thing is having a website that provides the right answers and information to the searchers.”

And if you really must hire someone to do your SEO, think of hiring Mark. Off Campus Media offers campus, social media and search engine marketing services using his own experience with building his own Web sites.

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More Stories By David Strom

David Strom is an international authority on network and Internet technologies. He has written extensively on the topic for 20 years for a wide variety of print publications and websites, such as The New York Times, TechTarget.com, PC Week/eWeek, Internet.com, Network World, Infoworld, Computerworld, Small Business Computing, Communications Week, Windows Sources, c|net and news.com, Web Review, Tom's Hardware, EETimes, and many others.