Riddle me this . . . why don't the SEO companies that promise to make you number one on Google show up in the number one position for SEO when you search for them on Google?
I begin this post with some trepidation. You see, after posting the above comment on Twitter, I received a deluge of emails from people offering to make my site "number one on Google and other search engines" (as though there are other search engines worth considering; I'm only partially joking). If a Twitter post got me this much automated response — it's not like human beings are actually looking at your site or your posts — imagine what a somewhat lengthy post on the subject of Search Engine Optimization (aka SEO) will deliver upon me. Yet I still wander into the churning waters of criticism.
I posted my opening question question on my various social feeds after getting a small deluge of people telling me that they could get my name, Marcel Gagné, to the number one site position on Google. Newsflash! A search on my name already serves up my Website as the number one result on Google. If an actual human being had checked on this, they would have noticed. But I digress . . .
Friends and colleagues had their own take. The first answer I receive to my question came from Aaron Seigo, who summed it up by saying, "same reason fortune tellers never know you're on your way to see them ;)" To which I added, "or win the lottery." Seriously, you never read about psychics winning the lottery; I wonder why.
When I'm not writing about free and open source software or Linux, I run a computer consulting company. In that role, I sometimes get customers calling me up for advice about SEO. When the question arises, a battle erupts in my subconsious, torn as I am between calmly explaining the concept, theory, and methodlogy behind SEO, and running away screaming.
Hiding out on the East Coast, Jon Watson said, "SEO is the 21st century's snake oil. It's an industry in conflict. It attempts to figure out search engine algorithms which is exactly what the search engines spend most of their time protecting and changing. Total waste of money paying someone for that IMHO."
Jonathan Blaine, a tad closer in Toronto, said "I find it interesting, when looking at logs, that these bozos say I'm not highly ranked when I can see the search parameters they used to send me their crap via the form on my website… and the Google or MSN search string they used shows that I am… (um, and why would they send it to a highly ranked marketing company website in the first place?)"
Another friend of mind, Al Katerinski, quipped "Oh no! I'm getting OPTIMIZED!!! (Yet no changes occur in my status or rankings whatsoever.)" And yes, Al's comment inspired the title of this post. Thanks, Al!
Look, it's not that there's no truth behind SEO, but there's truth behind almost anything if you dig deeply enough. Frank L. Baum, in his famous "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was truthful in saying that you should take cover when a tornado approaches or that having a house fall on someone is likely to result in that person's death. So it is with SEO. Sure, it's possible to do things with your site that will make it more likely to rank in Google's search algorithm, but by how much? And how much of your personal and business ethics are you willing to give up in order to secure that spot?
SEO is largely a thing of the past, at least in the sense of putting key words and search terms in the meta tags. Google scans things like Meta tags for what is sometimes referred to as 'keyword stuffing' and they will punish you for it, effectively pushing your result further down for 'trying to trick them'. In fact, Google recently added another twist to their algorithm to punish what it calls "low quality sites" that push out stale search engine grabbing content in cookie cutter fashion on site after site. Read Jon Watson's response again and tell me if this sounds familiar. It's sort of like virus writers and anti-virus companies or spammers and anti-spam tools . . . one is always trying to defeat the other.
Because of Google's success (and because webmasters tried to cheat them into providing higher rankings), most search engines use a Google-like algorithm for searching. What that means is that while sites are indeed indexed for words, every single word in a site to be precise, they are also indexed for relevance. Google defines relevance by a number of factors including the number of sites that point back to your site or the number of times your site is mentioned elsewhere. The more sites link to you, the higher your relevance and the more likely someone searching for 'Burlington' or 'Tourism' is likely to find you. You can add all the keywords you want in your meta tags; the best result is that nothing will change while the worst is that you'll get pushed down in relevance for keyword stuffing.
Perhaps SEO shouldn't be about trying to trick Google into giving you top spot. Perhaps rather than working against Google, you might want to try working with Google.
So, how do you optimize your site in the age of Google? Basically, good SEO means good design and what I meantion is essentially distilled from Google.
– Use a relevant domain name. For instance, "A domain name like tourismburlington.com titled "Tourism Burlington" pretty much says that the site is about tourism in Burlington. You can't get much better than that.
– Include the keywords you want, not in the tags, but on the main page. If you want are in the business of hybrid flowers and you want to be indexed with further relevance, then mention hybrid and flowers and write something about hybrid flowers several times as part of the text of your page, not the header tags. Headings (like H1 tags) are given additional weight.
– Update regularly. Sites that never change are given lower priority.
– Do what you can to make sure your partners, customers, and so on, link back to you. You do that by having the links be part of text, rather than justhttp://yourcoolsite.dom. Think of it this way; a partner has text on their site that mentions "visiting the wonderful boardwalk" with that text linking to your site. Consider creating a product or company button that people can put on the site.
– Give others in your community reason to blog about you, talk about you, and then link back to you. Those back links are gold, which is why the tactic of some less than honest SEO companies is to use spambots to stuff comments into forums of sites they have no business visiting.
Finally, I'll repeat myself. Don't try to fool search engines into giving you higher priority. In this day and age, that technique can only end badly. If you want to know, in detail, how to rank higher on Google, why not visit Google and read what they have to say about it.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to prepare myself for an unusually large number of emails from SEO companies telling me how I can get this post to number one on Google.