What's wrong with Search Engine Optimization

From Derek Powazek, a scorching indictment of the Search Engine Optimization industry, who offer a mix of obvious advice and sleazy tricks that break the web. Derek's SEO advice? "Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again."

Look under the hood of any SEO plan and you'll find advice like this: make sure to use keywords in the headline, use proper formatting, provide summaries of the content, include links to relevant information. All of this is a good idea, and none of it is a secret. It's so obvious, anyone who pays for it is a fool.

Occasionally a darkside SEO master may find some loophole in the Google algorithm to exploit, which might actually lead to an increase in traffic. But that ill-gotten traffic gain won't last long. Google changes the way it ranks its index monthly (if not more), so even if some SEO technique worked, and usually they don't, it'll last for a couple weeks, tops.

And when they do reindex, if they determine that you've been acting in bad faith (like hiding links or keywords or other deceptive practices) they'll drop you like a hot rock. So a temporary gain may result in a lifetime ban.

In the end, you're sacrificing your brand integrity in a Faustian bargain for an increase in traffic that won't last the month. And how valuable was that increase, anyway? If you're tricking people into visiting your site, those visits are going to be bad experiences.

Spammers, Evildoers, and Opportunists


  1. I agree with the comments about exploits and shady practices. I don’t think companies are foolish to pay for SEO as long as they are not getting taken advantage off. The company I work for offers SEO for the websites we build. We are transparent about what SEO we do as well. You are right that most all solid legit SEO techniques are not secret, but our clients come to us (and pay us) to do it for them so they do not have to learn up on it. Its no secret on how to build a website either. I would would also agree that the SEO industry has grown big enough to where people are abusing it excessively and getting rich.

  2. Thanks for this article, this information really needs to get out there. I’m going to keep the link on file.

    Internet development really has seen the birth of a whole new breed of snake oil merchant. I am constantly asked if I can guarrantee a position on Google, or to add a blog to someone’s website, when it’s a really bad idea.

    “Why do you want a blog, you’re a retailer and fitter of budget car tyres?”

    “I went to an internet marketing seminar. I need to make my website web2.0.”

    “Sooooo, you want to build credibility in the market by establishing a thriving budget tyre resale and fitting customer community?”


  3. Bit harsh really. I worked in the internet marketing game for about 7 years and to be fair there are plenty cowboys out there all ready to rip you off but there are a lot of honest companies too. The fact is that most companies don’t have the manpower, know-how or time to implement comprehensive SEO strategies. All too often doing it right means going back to the drawing board with the website and redesigning from scratch.

    It costs a lot, it’s a lot of effort, but if it’s done right it does work. I’m not going to evangelise about the industry or my previous employers – I left both on bad terms – but I’ve seen this work myself, and work amazingly well.

    And saying that the legit tactics are obvious is a bit dishonest. They may be obvious to web designers who spend a lot of time hanging around SEO sites and forums but certainly not to your average Joe with a start-up business or the CEO of a multinational who still has problems switching his computer on when he gets to the office. Loads of people need help with this stuff and there are honest folk out there who can do it.

    One bit of advice – if anyone uses the word ‘guarantee’ in their pitch to you, stay the hell away. The only guaranteed traffic out there is paid for by the click. Anyone who says otherwise is a fraud.

  4. As a professional SEO who has worked in the industry for years (including running my own SEM firm for several of those) I feel I must point out this isn’t always the case.

    My driving mantra that I repeat to myself and employees is “is this activity making the web a better place?” If someone stumbles upon a piece of content that I created I want them to find it useful. A little bit of extra effort is the difference between spam and a useful contribution.

    To address the argument that the tips and tricks are easy and anyone who pays for them is a fool – It’s true that SEO is easy. Optimizing your website and then building links are all relatively straightforward, and we’re always honest about this with our clients. In fact, I often encourage clients to participate in the work as a way to learn what is going on and also to save them money.

    The reason people pay is because they either don’t wan’t to learn how SEO works or they don’t have time themselves to work on it. It’s the same as paying any employee to do anything.

    I admit that many of the companies I encounter are not always on the up and up, but all I can do is encourage people to educate themselves and find honest search engine marketers.

    -Insert link to random product here-
    (just kidding)

  5. Some sloppy tarring going on there, but he knows it and his commenters know it. SEO is simply a type of design, so he might as well say “graphic design is obvious, and anyone that pays for it is a fool”, or “engineering is obvious…”, etc.

    Easy for him with 15 years of professional experience behind him, and since he can create “something great” at will.

    I am curious how you “tell people about it” in what is effectively an empty room. He of course is a specialist at community building, so he would tell his community. But not everyone has that resource, and must rely upon the common-area billboard (ie: google).

    But I am pleased to note the SEO’d URLs here at BB.

  6. Completely naïve and spurious advice from this Derek Whatisface. “”Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.” Good luck with that. I have many posts at #1 on Google – through quality backlinking. And they stick. Google doesn’t change it’s algorithms “monthly if not more” to wipe out those SERPS. Complete rubbish. If Google thinks your post and/or site highly relevant and your backlinks helpful thye’ll rank it accordingly. But a lot of other stuff comes into play also – do you have a good rep. with Google, do you not link to “bad neighborhoods”, do you engage in paid links etc. Quite a science and nothing to do with “snake oil selling” as this so-called veteran of 13 years in the web biz would have it.

  7. True SEO is, these days, about quality. It’s a set of rules about structuring the information you’re providing: write sensibly and coherently, have good semantic architecture, and you’ll be rewarded with good results.

    I run a tiny single-handed business and have taught myself SEO: I get better google search results for my field of work than my massive competitors because I write clearly about my services, with the mark-up clearly indicating to the search engine spiders what I do, & where I do it.


  8. Search engines use robots to model what web pages might be interesting to humans. Search engine optimization does one of two things

    • Makes it easy for robots to find your genuinely-interesting content (That’s normally a page of advice Google will give you for free, but sometimes it’s helpful to pay somebody to do the implementation work for you.)
    • Helps you lie to the robots so they’ll rate your not-interesting-to-humans content as interesting, so you can trick humans into reading it.

    People in the legitimate former category don’t usually call themselves SEOs – they’re more likely to call themselves “web designers”. People in the latter category don’t usually call themselves “scum who should be exiled from the web”, because “search engine optimization” sounds much more like something people would pay money for, but that *is* what they are. There are a few other market niches there – people who’ll advise you on making your not-very-interesting content more interesting, whether for goodness or greed, but again, they’re not SEOs.
    Way too much of the web is filled with pages intended to attract readers to advertising banners without offering the readers any legitimate content in return; it’s astroturf at best. For some kinds of information, like medical advice, the spam and astroturf makes it hard to find the real content, and the SEOs are at least pretending to help that process.

  9. “It’s so obvious, anyone who pays for it is a fool.”

    This simply isn’t true. It’s not magic but there’s absolutely no reason to assume it’s obvious to everyone. You could say the same about anything.

    Am I a fool because I pay a decorator? Why not cut my own hair? I can do both of these things with limited success but I’m better off doing the stuff I do well and paying somebody else to do the rest.

    I think the biggest problem the SEO industry has is being associated with people who claim to do SEO but in fact are selling snake oil, or are doing ultimately counterproductive activities like running link farms or posting comment spam.

    (also, the original article is bound to have gained the author a whole load of inbound links, so that’s SEO in itself ;-)

    1. “the original article is bound to have gained the author a whole load of inbound links, so that’s SEO in itself”

      Glad someone said this.

      So, is linkbait SEO or “something great”?

  10. Search Engine Optimization is not synonymous with Web Design;

    It’s perfectly possible to build a site that’s great for people but not great for Google’s robots, even though the robots are designed to mimick people.

    This is not just a limitation of the robots – Google ranks sites highly that contribute to a linked up web, because they feel that’s the best kind of web for users. But sites can be good and informative without being linked to other sites, and people who are aiming to make good and informative sites might not realise linking is important. In other media you don’t worry about how your book or article connects to other authors’ books and articles, you just write the best thing you can. Promotion comes later.

    If you agree that a linked up web is a good thing, then Google are doing a good thing too by encouraging it to happen and it’s good they’ve helped create a mini-industry of people trained to do it.

  11. The main argument pro SEO seems to be that website owners don’t have the time to gain knowledge about how SEO works and how they can influence their page rank by editing their sites, or by building a better site.

    This is a fair point, but why are these websites not SEO friendly from the start? Could it be because the site developers didn’t know about SEO (because they were cheap) or didn’t get paid to implement it (because the site owner was cheap)?

    Any professionally built site should and will have SEO built in, right from the start. If you skimp on the devs, you have to spend on the SEO specialists afterwards.

    Business as usual.

    1. You can build in the technical infrastructure for SEO, but ultimately the SEO work comes down to words describing a specific piece of content. That work cannot be automated effectively. In fact, much of white-hat SEO can’t be automated at all. It’s part of writing content, not implementing a design or layout; and it may need to be revised from time to time. So it really does require frequent attention.

  12. OK point of order. All the sites I build are Search Engine Optimised, in that they follow the kind of basic guidelines discussed here to ensure search engines have clear visibility of the content. I wouldn’t argue that these guidelines are common sense to those outside the profession, but that they should be standard practice for those within the profession.

    I think this article is fairly clearly targeting the SEO industry, the people who are guaranteeing position, and who are prepared to try and outsmart google to do it, and charge a big overhead for it.

  13. Most SEO agencies I dealt with were concerned with propagating these (often relatively simple) best practices and encouraging companies to actually have some properly written content on the site rather than some canned speech.

    I would understand the vitriol in that article if I saw the simple guidelines followed as a matter of course on most websites. However that is often not the case, often because the client cares more about whizzy Flash content than making it bot readable and hence have the content indexed on Google. Due to this many web designers I meet make SEO a very low priority if they even consider it at all in their tight schedule.

    I’d consider it in a similar light to building websites which meet accessibility guidelines. Yes they made websites better and available to a broader audience but it often is an afterthought.

  14. The advice may be obvious, but that doesn’t mean people don’t need it. Many small businesses, political campaigns, local clubs, etc. on the web have no clue how the web works. They don’t even know enough to ask the right questions in order to search Google for the answers.

    The reason why consultants exist is that most people are unable to follow the obvious, solid advice. In fact, good consultants PREVENT people from going for the tricks that may get them in trouble and simply keep them on the right path to long-term success.

    By the way, I am not a SEO nor have I ever paid one. I knew enough to find the info. On the other hand, I do know the value of a competent, qualified consultant to any organization that is either uneducated or undisciplined.

  15. It’s far from obvious. If it were, the URL for this article would include the keywords “Search Engine Optimization” or “SEO”. Good SEO is more about what to avoid. It’s also a lot more boring than what scammers sell, and it takes time (a big factor for good rankings beeing trust, which takes years to achieve).

  16. i used to do web work at a company whose clients demanded that their site be the top hit on google TODAY. found old bad-form code that had gotten some of these sites blacklisted from the search engine… it was probably in these pages because these same clients were making those same ridiculous demands of the former employees who made the pages way back when. i think the SEO industry is a sham, and a nuisance, but i almost think the “i want it nownownow!” jerks who don’t understand how indexing does/should work kind of deserve to get ripped off.

  17. I’ve got 4000 pages of content at my site connected by a complicated content management system using query string variables. This is not supposed to be optimal. What did I know? A lot of people who learn PHP and build dynamic sites don’t know about SEO, and then it can be kind of a drag. I never use header tags either. I just increase the font in CSS. Who knew? Supposedly Google has worked the query string thing out though.

    The most important things for Google definitely seem to be having a site with real, unique content and having inbound links (with keywords in the anchor text) from respected sites in the area of interest. For my field, this is okay because people are actually interested in the thing itself. If it were something like hot tubs, SEO would be a real puzzle.

    But ultimately I think this article is off base. If you want to get into the top ten at google for a competitive keyword, it is not going to happen if you don’t understand how Google works. I’ve learning about SEO to be a really positive thing. By writing to sites with a related interest and asking for a link I’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations. I’ve learned a lot about what’s on the web. I’ve had the opportunity to make guest posts. But I definitely recommend people read a book on SEO and try to do it for themselves instead of hiring a professional. You can meet a lot of great people on the web!

    In one month I’ve taken my site from nowhere (>200) for my key search term to 67! (up from 85 yesterday). Consciously pursuing an SEO strategy works, but for me that has meant making sure my titles are good on the site and promoting my site.

    One thing also. I definitely recommend the various SEO toolbars. Every time I visit I get to see that Boing Boing has a pagerank of 8! You guys rock!

  18. Like with many business services – it all comes down to this: people would rather pay an expert than do it themselves.

    All too often snake oil SEO people are lumped in with the people who do it legitimately and it’s unfair.

    Good SEO is about content, site architecture and natural linking strategies. Search engines are pretty open about what you need to do. It’s just a matter of doing what they say.

    I’ve come across it time and again – most web developers don’t think about SEO and that harms their client websites.

  19. I worked for Network Solutions for about two years, nothing serious, just on the call center side. I literally had to leave the company because I was racked with guilt over selling small companies $2800-5800 SEO packages (Well, pay was horrid too).

    At first I bought into the idea that “our SEO specialists” would get the jog done and make good on the huge investment (for a lot of these companies, $2800 might be a quarter of what they normally take in on the website annually) our clients were making. Checking up on my clients I would find that not only were their websites often black listed before they would get on the first page of any search engine, but that this did not render the guarantee invalid! Network Solutions’ spin doctors had worked the contract over so much it read like a scam.

    So while some companies likely do offer a valid SEO product to their clients, it’s very important that companies and small business owners educate themselves on what their options are, and that paying the highest dollar does not guarantee quality.

  20. I’ll reiterate that paying for SEO is indeed stupid.

    To address points brought up above — any company that builds a web project for you , should build one according to the basic SEO principles. If they request a separate fee / billable / line-item to implement things , they are crooks. If they offer a separate fee to train your staff on SEO techniques and continued management, they are a true partner.

    If you are building a web-project in-house, between your CTO, COO, CMO and Product Manager / Producers , you should have all of your SEO needs within reach — and clearly specced out before people build a website. If you do not, then those people are not doing their jobs.

    The only SEO billables your organization should be paying for are (re)training and education. Needing any sort of implementation or ‘strategy’ means that your team does not know what they’re doing — which is proven by the consultants all offering either common-sense approaches or unethical loopholes.

  21. This article is just wrong. I’ve been a web developer since 1996 when I started mucking about with html and flash. I know the principals of basic SEO, because I took the time to read through google’s and yahoo’s long explanations and commit it to memory. However, this is not every web developer’s field of expertise, nor should it be. It is not that simple, there are a lot of details that make a difference. And an experienced SEO company can make a difference even on a page that follows basic SEO guidelines. For example, an SEO company once put one of the sites I made from 5th page on a google search for a certain keyword phrase my client wanted to 3rd place on the first page in one week. And it stayed that way, not for a month, but over a year up until the last time I checked. They used their vast network of keyword sites to push it there, basically gaming the system, but google did not change their algorithm or knock their results down.

    One of the main things that moves up your page on a search is having the keywords exist on your page and other pages on the web linking to your page. SEO companies often have a large group of websites that they can add keywords and links to, crosslinking across all of them and leading to your site. This still works to this day. BoingBoing does it too! But they do it by making trades to other sites and using things like digg, twitter and facebook.

    When you’re building a website doing that networking is not part of the deal. If I ever have a client that says “I want to be on the first page of a google search for keywords” I tell em to hire an SEO company…

  22. The people who pay for SEO probably dont care about your methods. It’s a number game that driven by results, which are really simple to determine…

    Track the number conversions of visitors to action/sale/lead and divide by cost. Is that worth what you paid? (please remember to look at large data sets, and not just a couple week’s worth of data)

  23. I’m an SEO. And I totally agree with this article, except that anyone who pays for it is a fool. Unfortunately, SEO is time consuming. It may not be rocket science, but it is time consuming, and that is why my job exists. Any serious business owner doesn’t have the time it takes to make his web site what it needs to be to get good amounts of traffic, just like the CEO of UPS doesn’t have time to deliver every UPS package himself. It is a menial, tedious job that a monkey can understand, but there is still reason for the work to be outsourced. My clients are not fools.

  24. As a non SEO/Internet professional who has recently made a major investment (for our small company anyway!) in SEO, this thread has been really interesting reading for me, especially post #23 regarding SEO companies having large networks of keyword/link sites which they can use to move you up the rankings.

    We engaged an SEO company last April 2009, after shortlisting 10 potential suppliers and meeting with 3, we made our selection convinced we had chosen the best one based on their presentation and achievements with other customer sites. They claimed to engage in “Ethical SEO techniques” and derided short term “Black Hat SEO” on their company literature.

    8 months on, our “new” website built by them still has flash video from our old site (which I now understand is non SEO freindly?), looks probably worse than our old site from a user perspective, and as far as I can establish in regards to link building, our $15k spent with them so far has bought approximately 60 links, the majority of which I have traced back to non relevant sites which are controlled by them (although they have been clever about hiding this), although their use of keyword anchor text has led to improvement in our SERPS (i.e. from ranking 100th to now ranking 50th for phrase A, ranking 20th to now ranking 10th for phrase B, etc).

    We have had no consultantion on keyword selection or density, link building strategy, link baiting, press releases, etc, etc, and the only return for the money we have spent so far (aside from the dubious new website) has been a Yahoo Directory link, which from what I have gathered reading SEO forums over the past 8 weeks is $299 well spent – so at least that hasnt been wasted!!

    Other than that we have had seen no new in links from any “authoritative” sites which would be relevant to our industry.

    Our contract is for a year so we still have another $15k to pay them, although we have currently suspended payments to them, and they have now offered a further 12 months SEO for the remaining part of the contract as they have admitted that the work so far has been “disappointing”. They have defended their actions regarding their link network as saying that all SEO is, if not Black hat, at least Grey Hat, in that you are attempting to manipulate the SERPS.

    I’ve therefore taken it upon myself to try to learn the basics of SEO, and in line with comments here, it appears to me that its reasonably straight forward, providing we invest time and thought in our link building, generate content that people in our market place will find useful and relevant, and perhaps invest a modest budget on gaining specific technical advice regarding our site structure etc etc to make it SEO friendly.

    My gut feel is that paying these guys anymore than we already have would simply be throwing good after bad, and at the end of the 12 months they could simply “turn off” their network links anyway?!

    Sorry for the long post, but any views, help or advice would be really appreciated! And yeah, I know, we were very naive last April!


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