Before I even became an SEO I learned to hate SEOs. After all, SEOs would take the beautiful, functional site the designers and developers spent their nights creating and cram it full of footer links, anchor text, H tags, nofollows, and any other piece of code they could think of until the site couldn’t breathe.
Next, SEOs would spend weeks plastering the website’s address anywhere they could; clogging up blogs, forums, and message boards. SEOs would then have their developers try new tricks and tactics to serve secret content and hide text in different places.
The brave new world of SEO
Then, one day all of that changed. Google cracked down on link spam. Bad practices were devalued. We could add fonts and functionality to sites in ways that didn’t hide the content. Designers, developers, and SEOs everywhere rejoiced, new friendships blossomed, and we all marched hand-in-hand to this new era of web design.
Except not really. In fact for many, all of those views out there about SEOs, what we do, and why we do the terrible things we do are just as they always have been. Most SEOs are familiar with developers that don’t take you seriously or designers that won’t take your calls. So what gives?
Common complaints about SEOs
To find out I decided to ask web designers, developers, and managers all over what they thought about SEO. I got 7 responses. Well, 8 if you count one response from a message board: “SEOs are spammers. There’s your quote.”
But let’s get to it. What’s going on here? Well, it turns out there’s lots of things SEOs are still doing wrong that we need to fix if we want others to take us seriously.
SEOs don’t get the big picture
“The priorities should just be dependent on the goals of the project. Sometimes SEO is the prime objective, sometimes it’s something else.” Rick Murphy, Web Designer, Hardly Code
“It’s very rare to find an SEO group who thinks about overall site experience, as opposed to magnifying the attractiveness of single screens. This myopic view is usually at the detriment of context or user interaction. It’s rare to find SEO teams that consider brand or experience as a factor in what they’re trying to accomplish.” Andrew Heaton, Web Designer, Revinity
SEO is an important part of the site. I mean without SEO no one will ever see your site, right? Well, here’s a hard truth for all SEOs: Sometimes SEO is not the most important thing.
Are you OK? Things like making sure the cart works or incorporating the brand into the site often are, in fact, higher priorities. It’s true. We can huff and puff about how they don’t get it and how they need us, but that’s probably not going to help our likability.
Designers and developers have a million things to take into account when building a site, making our pleas to give all the images alt attributes seem like just another seagull squawking among a whole flock of irritating Internet marketers.
SEO involves a lot of different things and we need to be able to distinguish between a vital problem that will block the entire site and a minor change that will help a single page rank. This way our fellow webhead can prioritize our suggestions among the other countless things they need to make the site work; which brings me to our next problem:
SEOs don’t get what’s involved with the implementation
“As a product manager, I devote my energy to trying to come up with ways to improve user experience. With a complex website and a diverse audience, nailing down the right new feature is a daunting task. However, the experience of seeing that feature come to life and the anticipation of getting real user feedback is thrilling; that is, until I’m forced to roll it back on day 2 because—gasp!—we’ve experienced a rankings change.” Brittany McCullough, Program Manager, Guide to Online Schools
“Custom CMS builds mean sites are all different. Changing something may take 10 seconds or 2 hours; it all depends on how familiar I am with the CMS being used, and how well the templates were originally developed.” RJ LaCount, Web Designer, RJLaCount.com
A lot of SEOs aren’t designers. Some of us aren’t the world’s greatest coders either. Very few of us are programmers. So when we tell our clients to “consolidate images into CSS sprites” or “use more keyword-rich URLs,” how many of us actually know what that involves? What CMS is the site built on? How many of the images are actually able to be merged into a sprite? Tiled images in backgrounds can’t be used in CSS sprites; but all of you already knew that right?
When you casually tell another web professional to do something that requires a complete overhaul of the site, all you are doing is telling them that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. How receptive do you think the developer will be the next time you give them a recommendation, especially ones that have less to do with their immediate skillset? Some of the more vague recommendations we give, in turn, lead into the next problem:
“For our clients who may or may not be the most tech-savvy people on the planet, listening to us (the computer geeks) explain SEO to them, even in simplest terms possible, may still feel like they are sitting in a classroom being taught Japanese. Over the years I have gained quite a few analogies (thankfully) but still find this to be the most difficult part. A client that doesn’t understand how something could help their business is not going to buy a product, thus making client understanding a difficult but essential hurdle.” Danielle Nyhof, Web Interaction Designer, DK Designs
“Context, it seems, is the great missing variable no SEO group wants muddling up their equations: too squishy, too volatile, too hard to quantify.” Andrew Heaton, Web Designer, Revinity
Most of the SEOs I’ve met are pretty good talkers. We can talk about page authority, crawlers, link juice, canonicalization, C-blocks, trust flow, nofollowed links, and cross-domain snippet rank indexation (did I make that up?) for days and days and days. So what do all of those words and phrases have in common? They don’t actually mean anything. Seriously.
If you’re an SEO then they might make sense (though I would argue that we are overusing them) but to everyone else they’re gibberish. This makes it sound like a) You’re explaining something no one can possibly understand or b) You’re making it up. Designers, developers, managers, and other professionals are usually smart people. So they go with b. In fact, there is one very specific thing that all the web professionals have no problem calling us on:
We don’t know the algorithm either
“Search engines have the ability to change their algorithms at any time. I already have to devote a lot of my time to keeping up on development changes.” Chris McGrath, Web Application Developer, ChrisMcGrath.net
“They’re just as in the dark about what Google is doing next as anyone else, and building your strategy around certain tricks can sometimes backfire or have no effect at all.” Anonymous Web Designer
“Is this rankings change random? Maybe. Will it even last? Maybe not. Have we given the users a chance to give us feedback via their interactions? Definitely not.” Brittany McCullough, Program Manager, Guide to Online Schools
This is how this line of reasoning works.
SEO: You need us because the algorithm is always changing.
Experienced Web Professional: But you don’t know what the algorithm is, either.
Congratulations! You’ve not only killed your own credibility with your client, but mine as well. And all the other SEOs out there, too. We need to stop using “the algorithm” as a reason to do anything. We are helping people find websites. Yes, the algorithm is part of the process, but it’s not the reason. And as much as we might like to think we’re John Connor using his Atari Portfolio to hack into Google, we’re not. So we need to stop using this to make us sound more mysterious.
SEOs do real things. We identify traffic opportunities. We fix technical problems. We give content ideas. We don’t need to hide behind the facade of an advanced computer program we’re predicting because most of us aren’t doing that. Most are doing actual SEO work (see above). Another problem, though, is that some of us aren’t:
Some of us are still giving outdated advice
“I have read quite a few articles online from mom-and-pop SEOers (as I like to call them) who still believe in keyword stuffing. These individuals are the only negative experiences I have had recently as they are marketing themselves as knowledgeable SEOers and are filling the population of our potential clients with incorrect information and wildly high expectations.” Danielle Nyhof, Web Interaction Designer, DK Designs
“There’s no shortage of amateurs with a high profile in any field, and SEO is certainly no exception. We’ve all encountered the “SEO expert” who’s still working with methods and mentalities from years past, still clutching that last keyword choked meta tag as if it were a drop of virgin’s blood, a Gríma Wormtongue trying to sway the client with promises of free traffic and that top-spot on the first page of Google results.” Andrew Heaton, Web Designer, Revinity
Whether it’s out of laziness or stubbornness, people are still giving bad advice. Keyword stuffing, comment spamming, and footer links are all classic examples. Though Penguin, Panda and the other updates have definitely cut down on the bad advice being given these days, the bad aftertaste still lingers. Remember, Penguin is only 10 months old. That means for many web professionals, the last SEO they worked with could have been giving them all the same, spammy advice that they were using for years.
So what can SEOs do?
Now that we’ve identified some of the popular reasons why other web pros avoid us in the cafeteria, what’s the solution? Well, all of these complaints center around 2 things: knowledge and communication.
Know your stuff from top to bottom. Be able to explain how to implement page speed suggestions. Understand how the URLs are being generated. Be able to explain how to get text on the page without affecting the design. Familiarize yourself with how fonts work and how to position text. Boost up on trivia. For example, most SEOs know dashes are better than underscores. But can you explain exactly why? (Hint)
Then we need to be able to talk about it. Practice talking about how a site ranks without using SEO terms like link juice and domain authority. Be able to explain how the SEO process works at both a fundamental level and at a technical level.
But most of all, we need to stop trying to trick people and get better at we actually do. We do SEO and it’s a real thing. Because frankly, we were never really tricking anyone other than ourselves.