SEO: Trading Tactics for Craft

I just finished 3 intensive days at MozCon 2012. Not for intellectual sissies or social introverts, the days were spent listening to presentations, demonstrations and exhortations from a list of luminaries.

There was something for everyone: link building is the road to perdition, how-tos on link building, agile all over the place, data modeling, crunching, predicting, and wrangling. As many kittens rescued were killed, bullet point by bullet point (You remember that bullet points kill kittens, yes?.

SEO was much discussed, duh! It’s about marketing, it’s about engagement, it’s about content, it’s dead, it’s alive and not-so-well, it’s in the target sites of Google, it’s about marketing (reiterated a number of times over the course of the conference).

A phrase from the Hollywood would describe the conference well: “I laughed, I swore, I wept” about what SEO is and where it is going. Strangely (and sadly), in these conversations no one mentioned the searcher (our customer).

Up until Google’s Penguin and Panda shots across the SEO bow, we did not have to think much about the person behind the keyword phrase query. SEO focused on the search engines in a Wiley Coyote/Road Runner way, tactic meeting tactic. The wailing and teeth grinding from the SEO community over the last year should be an indication that effective optimization for search engines will require a deeper knowledge of our customers along with a more nuanced, strategic approach.

Searcher as Sub Process

Jaron Lanier takes on our diminishing influence on technology in his magnificent manifesto on You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier tells us that the machines we created now treat us as sub-processes.

Search engines are a prime example. We treat them as if they are omniscient. They are not. Search engines are a collection of software components that run a set of instructions in a specific sequence. They cannot make judgments that involve thinking outside of their “orders.” They cannot create. Search engines take input, follow orders and assemble results.

There was a lot of Google smack talking. We loved Google until we made them very powerful. Then Sergey, Larry and Matt started treating us like sub-processes. Google proclaims: “You WILL have a good user experience (Panda) and we won’t give you details on what our algorithm thinks that is.” Or: “You WILL earn links the right way (Penguin) and we won’t tell you what that is until it is too late, hold you accountable for legacy work and make it possible for your competitors to negative SEO your site or sites extort money from you to remove links.” In other words, Google says “jump” and the SEO community asks “how high.”

At the conference, Rand Fishkin said Bing is now his primary search engine – and smartly so. If you don’t like Google, then stop helping them. Discontinue using Google as your default choice. Search engines learn from searcher behavior and mine the hell out of usage data. The slight variance between Google and Bing SERP are the result of Google having 4x the amount of data to mine and that is a lot of data. So, join the subversive fun with Rand and I and give Bing a go first before going over to the dark side.

SEO as Craft

The night before the conference, I saw the Pixar movie “Brave.” As all  Pixar films, the story telling is first rate and the animation complex, multi-layered and nuanced. This is craftsmanship at the highest level and certainly on par with the grand masters of Looney Tunes and Disney if not surpassing them due to technologic advantages.

Flatland animation doesn’t cut it anymore.

I got to thinking that maybe this is what we should focus on as we approach SEO vNext. Let us take a lesson from our animated brethren and return to the days of our own craftsmanship when those publishing to the online space had a clear idea of who they were messaging to, cared about what they were saying, and described it in a way that made sense to the intended audience whom they knew because they were one of them.

We understand user experience in a real and direct way that search engines never will, no matter how many algorithms their developers apply. It is human experience, not logic, that now drives the Google’s algorithms. Selection of a search result is an emotional or intellectual choice, not a logical one. This we inherently understand.

SEO isn’t dead or dying, according to the Moz masses. However, it is a bit punch-drunk from being slapped around by Google for the last two years. When SEO is a strategy that includes content, information architecture and treating the searcher as a customer instead of a sub-process, the search engines become our tool instead of the reverse. When we apply our ability to make decisions based on critical and forward thinking, we trump machine learning with that which it does not have and never will. It will not be that hard:

  • <title> tag optimization after content strategy,
  • sitemap.xml generation after information architecture review,
  • link earning/acquisition/building after thoughtful examination of what the site is about, how customers look for that information and what they find valuable.

When we treat the profession of optimizing for search engines as a craft instead of a trade, then our depth, emotion and intellect become passports to visible rankings and the search engine is the sub-process. And sooner rather than later is key because we’ve already discovered that Google’s understanding of “to serve man” is very much different than ours.

Let’s be brave and give it a shot.

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  1. I love your writing style and technique! Very gathering and intelligent, resourceful, factual information that will assist myself and others. Finding what customers value is a culture that needs to be identified by people. When we tend to allow analytic machines do this we become unproductive and dependent upon numbers. I totally agree with you, great article!

    1. Many thanks Ronald. My writing style has gotten me out of trouble as many times as it has gotten me in. So, I’m stuck with it. I’m very excited by the direction that we’re going in as it brings search engine optimization further into the realm of user experience where I believe it belongs.

  2. Based on what I have seen in SEO over the past year or so, I don’t think the term has much meaning. Aside from the suggestions you mentioned, most of the SEO “best practices” consist of a short list of “do’s” and a much longer list of “don’t do’s” (many of which had been in the “do” category for years).
    The people saying SEO isn’t dead are those who are in the industry. It seems to me that if we now consider SEO to be some basic, easy architectual settings, plus an organized content strategy that aligns the topic of our sites with what people are searching for, then SEO barely exists.
    The goal is to create better and more interesting content, and not try to trick Google.

    1. We are on the same “quality content” page David and I’d add to that with realistic expectations on which queries will see that content in the top results. All too often, clients want to rank for term phrases where their site may not deliver the best “experience” to the searcher.
      This is what I believe that Google is trying to mandate, a good user search experience. However, I also believe this is not as easy as stringing together a set of binary instructions around where content is on the page and the level of interaction. Searching is an emotional and environmental activity as well as intellectual.
      This will make SEO more successful at the initial stages of site design/content strategy instead of at the end, just before launch, where it has all too often resided for the last many years.

  3. That was a very valuable insight you had in your training. David also has a point here. Rap on the knuckles with every google algorithm update is hard to bear especially after all the hard work that goes in making ourselves visible. Treating SEO as craft instead of using tactics might help . But the more preferable way to please google is to adhere to its guidelines and you see yourself soaring high in rankings.

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