SEO Nonsense

I read the following phrase on my travels this past week: "we'll just have to wait till the SEO does it's thing." This is sort of a typical phrase that gets throw around on the "commercial internet," and it wasn't out of place. Indeed, I think all the readers of the article probably understood what the author was trying to convey. But it struck me as sort of odd. Here's why:

It's a completely empty statement. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) refers to the collection of techniques that are used to "raise" a given web page's ranking in search results. Because there isn't a hell of a lot of competition in this market, basically this amounts to trying to "game" Google.

Which... is sort of a loosing proposition. Google's algorithms (or the key components) are top secret, and what we do know about how google arranges searches is that the more pages link to a given page, the more favorably Google's algorithm's view that pages, this lets Google's search results reflect a sort of emergent semantic organization of the world wide web. This means that when we search google, more often than not, we're mostly searching the most interreferential pages on the internet.

It's true that there are a lot of sites that don't have a lot of "juice" in Google, and that's really frustrating for people who create websites, but Google's domination of the internet-search marketplace is due largely to the quality of results that this reference-based system plays.

And in light of this, I hope it's pretty obvious that SEO is mostly a crock of shit. You can't game Google, and more to the point you don't want to. Though I think the prevalence of SEO an interesting admission for the "commercial internet" that traditional advertising-based marketing models has utterly failed on the internet.

To my mind the ideological parent of SEO was "search engine submission" services, which would purportedly "submit" your website to search engines so that people could find your site. For a fee, usually. Clearly this didn't work, because the return was so diffuse, and because no one really wants to use a search tool where the results are based on "submissions" which are paid for by the content producers. There's a reason why most of us use Google and not AltaVista, AskJeeves, Excite, Lycos, Infoseek, and so forth.

Now having said that there are some things that you can do to encourage your site's ranking in google (ie. get people to link to you on their sites,) I'd call this "good writing," or "effective communication," or "best practices," not "SEO" but you know whatever works. Here's what I think really works.

1. Be interesting, and have something to say. No one wants to read a website that's boring. That's why my readership is so low ;) but if you can't make the attempt, no amount of good mojo is going to help your site.

2. Post regularly. Really regularly. This resonates with this idea, the way to get good at doing 1., and make sure that people keep reading your site (and linking to you) is to provide dynamic and fresh content.

3. If you're a company, write not only about what you do and your clients, but also about what your clients are interested in. This might mean talking about and linking to your competitors, don't worry, rising tides raise all boats.

4. Participate in real life conversations. Most people learn about new websites via word of mouth connections formed in unusual contexts. There's a reason why most of the leaders of the independent web (bloggers) are either: in New York City, San Francisco, or have been going to SXSWi since the beginning. (There's also a minority of L.A. based bloggers). Talk to people, talk about your work, and talk to the other people who are creating content.

5. Write emails. This is the second stage of what starts in 4. Digital networking connections rest mostly on one-on-one email correspondences, and listserv conversations, despite all sorts of next wave technology like twitter, facebook, and linked in. Getting really good at writing quick, meaningful emails and staying on top of your correspondence is requisite.

6. Top load your content and titles. This falls under the category of good practice, and it mirrors the way newspaper columns are structured. Give as much information away as soon as possible, put all the details at the end, and write in a style that's simple and designed to be easily and quickly read. There's a lot out on the internet, and the the less time you take to make a specific point/joke/insight, the better.

7. Provide full RSS feeds, and don't put things behind "cut/fold" tags so that people have to click through to "read more." The former is good sense, and represents reaching out to other content producers (the people who read your site,) and the later is just good sense. [1] Other content producers are the people who have the real power over your search engine ranking, and making your content accessible is the first step in getting the content read.

8. Use a site design which maximizes readability and visibility, so that people can--you know--read your content, rather than marvel at your superior design capabilities.

Basically write a good site, network well, and don't waste your time on snake oil and chants. /end.

[1]The exception to this rule is live journal, as many people read LJ via the "Friend's Page" which induces a slightly different community standard. In general though, it provides yet another obstacle between a reader who would might read your, and in general your design/style should work to be more inclusive.
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