Worshipping at the Feet of Google

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This is written as an opinion counter-point to Paul Boag’s “The Inconvenient Truth About SEO,” an op-ed piece over at Smashing Magazine.

Google has long told business owners to always “do what’s best for the user” and that Google will catch up. Paul Boag echoed this benevolent sentiment recently when he wrote “We should be optimizing for people. After all, that is what Google is trying to do.” Boag goes on to speak of the evils of SEO and how these wicked companies are all just out to trick Google. If only these companies didn’t exist, perhaps we could finally reach the blissful Goo-topia for which we all yearn.

Unfortunately Boag’s premise presumes that if you build it, then surely Google will come (as long as you don’t use an SEO company to help you). Google is not perfect, evidenced by the fact that it’s constantly evolving and improving its algorithm. Don’t get me wrong, it’s by far the best system we have and I wouldn’t trade it for any other. Boag writes, “The key is to produce content people find useful and want to share.” I think that’s a great sentiment and I always urge business owners to try to do that, no matter what kind of business they are in. But this simple sentiment hides a simple fact: Not all people are born to write.

In Boag’s perfect world, the best plumbers are as eloquent as Longfellow and the best HVAC repairmen as bold as Hemingway. After all, which content would you rather share? Boag ignores the fact that we are living in a world of content inflation. In a world where everyone has a voice, only the best voices will be heard.

Let’s get this strawman out of the way

When Boag talks about SEO techniques it’s clear to anyone who knows about SEO that he’s really talking about blackhat SEO. He talks about manipulating search engine rankings using shady methods and then goes on to condemn the entire industry as if a part represented the whole. There are good companies and bad companies in every idustry, including web design. When SEO is done right it doesn’t manipulate search rankings; it gives a business a chance to be heard and found, so that the public can decide if it’s worthy or not. In many cases, SEO helps bring equality to the web.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that SEO is perfect— there are plenty of shady blokes out there doing bad things and cluttering up the results with junk. But to throw the entire industry out the window is just silly.

Most small businsses only need a few webpages to be relevant and get business. Some print shops might thrive from writing lots of content about printing and how it’s done. But if I want a brochure quickly, I’m very happy to go somewhere local. While I’m all for them writing buckets of copy about how they set ink and what kinds of printers they’re using, utimately I’m just looking for someone who’s good at what they do, not at writing about it.

Starting a business is hard enough

Google favors the entrenched. If your domain is old and your backlinks set, then you will be highly favored of Google. What is a new business to do? According to Boag, every business must figure it out for themselves because it should somehow be intuitive. While you’re at it, why don’t you find the best way to dispose of your garbage, set up your own phone network, build your own webserver, and build a building for your business yourself?

Boag argues that well-built websites should automatically get Google points, but what constitutes a well-built website is different to many designers. Boag says, “[a]ny reasonably well-built website will be accessible to Google. You don’t need an expert SEO company for that (at least not if the Web designer does their job right).” Who is fit to judge if the web designer has done their work correctly? An SEO expert? Surely not, so we’ll just have to trust in our web designer, and we’ll just have to trust in Google. If all goes well, in 6 months you’ll be rankings and getting some of that sweet search juice, right? Who knows, we’ll just have to wait and see if you’re a good enough writer, or if your web designer did his work correctly. Gee, it sure would be great to have an expert you could ask.

Who you’re really optimizing for

Chuck Testa, NOPE

Boag writes “Remember, you shouldn’t be optimizing for ranking in search engines, you should be optimizing for users.” That’s pretty close to the mark— let me be clear, I wouldn’t ever sacrifice user experience for SEO, but with good SEO you don’t have to. Boag misses something crucial: users are one thing and customers are another. For taxidermist Chuck Testa, having 12 million people view his Youtube video (and 6 million views on the autotuned parody) didn’t actually help his business. When asked if the video had spurred business Testa said “No, none, zero, I’m still broke.”

So where did Chuck Testa go wrong? Why didn’t he get more business? Too bad we can’t ask a search expert; we fired them all.

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