Ignore The SEO Snake Oil And Build A Site People Find Useful

Everyone and their dog has an opinion on how to perform “search-engine optimisation” (SEO) and make your online business more visible in major search engines; how do you distinguish the potentially useful tactics from the snake oil salesmen? The simple answer: put your energy into building a quality site rather than worrying about the search impact of what you have done.

Searching is the way that many of us interact with the internet. Indeed, there’s evidence that for many people, using a search engine is the main way they access even well-known sites with familar URLs; the most common search terms on Google are online giants such as Facebook, YouTube and even Google itself. So it’s understandable that when small businesses decide they need an online presence, they’re highly susceptible to being persuaded that performing SEO is an important task.

Since SEO often appears like a complex, arbitrary and technical task filled with its own peculiar terminology concerning normalisation, page ranks and link manipulation, it’s also understandable that it can seem like a good idea to pay someone to perform it. That might perhaps be a sensible idea if you’re starting up an entirely new, online-only business. But for most business operators, the energy and money spent in hiring an SEO consultant would be better spent maintaining an existing site, promoting it via other means such as Facebook and Twitter, and generally concentrating on day-to-day business maintenance.

Why SEO is often a waste of money

There’s really one fundamental reason why SEO is a waste of effort for a small business, especially if it already has a physical storefront presence and isn’t solely reliant on online traffic: The goalposts are constantly shifting. In order to ensure that the results they return are useful, search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo! constantly change the way in which they generate and sort results. While elements of those plans are often made public (Google recently made no secret of dumping content from low-quality “content farms”, for instance) the details of exactly how those results are generated are a closely-guarded business secret.

That constant change and secrecy is undoubtedly part of the reason why SEO consultants continue to remain in business. If the means of appearing near the “top result” keep changing, they’ll need to keep tweaking — and you’ll need to keep paying.

It also means that much well-meaning “free” SEO advice is out-of-date; for instance, not a day goes by when I don’t receive multiple emails inviting me to “exchange links” with another site to boost our respective rankings on Google. While the number of links to a site undoubtedly plays a role in how it is ranked in search results, that’s only one of hundreds of factors that are considered, and certainly not one that makes it sensible to link to some spam-generating idiot I’ve never heard of on the off-chance my site might become more visible, diluting the appearance of my own site in the process.

And that leads to the other reason why SEO can be a bad idea: You lose control of your presence. While some SEO changes happen to your page code “behind the scenes”, they often involve altering and manipulating the content. I can’t imagine any store owner agreeing to let someone splash a new coat of paint over their premises without careful planning and consultation, but the equivalent happens all too often during the optimisation process.

What you should do instead

The standard advice offered by Google to make your site more visible is simple: make it interesting, keep it relevant and update it frequently. That strategy has an obvious bonus: it also ensures that you have a site that the audience will found more compelling. Setting that as your main goal should be the key part of your SEO strategy.

Beyond that, equally simple tactics can also deliver helpful improvements. Use a consistent site structure so that your content is easy to navigate. Make sure that you check content for spelling errors before putting it on the site, and make sure that individual sections of the site have individual titles. (Far too many sites still display nothing but the company name in the text which appears in the title bar or tab name within a browser.)

Some older advice does pay dividends. Choose a reliable hosting provider; if your site is frequently down, the end result will be that a hosting error page may be your main Google entry. Don’t put large amounts of text in graphics without also including the same information in text form somewhere on your page. When your site launches, submit it to Google’s index crawler to make sure it gets noticed. And promote your site through Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. All those tactics are free, and they’ll serve you better in the long run than an SEO-centric strategy.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


  • Both agree and disagree. Yes, there are MANY SEO Snake Oil companies out there. But not all.

    Some, like me, take a holistic approach to SEO, where link exchanges are part of the past, and the key focus goes to construction (if the Googlebot can’t get around the site, you’re screwed) and content (if the Googlebot sees irrelevant rubbish, you’re screwed).

    The unfortunate thing is, the link and blog spamming that many companies do these days rather than good, solid and SUSTAINABLE SEO actually works – for now.

    What people have to remember is though that once those links are out “in the wild”, the majority of them stay there. I’ve audited sites where many of their backlinks have turned into “bad neighbourhoods” – not particularly good for maintaining a Google rep.

    On the whole, a good article – just be aware people that not ALL SEO “experts” are snake oil salespeople. Some actually care about their clients’ results and want them to succeed.

  • While I do agree that most SEO companies are simply taking people’s money there is some good to those that stay on top of the every changing algorithm and updates from Matt himself and apply those to their clients. Many companies simply don’t have the time to do all it takes to set up and maintain an online presence while still doing their actual job. This is where an organic SEO company can help manage keywords, searches and meta data, compose well-written local blogs and articles and get the word out there by press releases, articles and ads. This all creates more of an online presense and although it’s probably not as good as a company doing it themselves, it at least fulfills a need they serious lack.
    But I do agree that MOST are nothing but scammers out to take people’s money for stuff they can do themselves.

  • Nothing new here, for the most part it’s what white-hat SEOs have been saying for years.

    Newflash – SEO is a huge, broad area and involves social media among other things. Yes, use Twitter and Facebook. We encourage you to do so – not only will it help you connect with potential customers but it can also help your organic search engine visibility.

    Newsflash #2 – Yes, the goalposts are shifting. This is why so many business owners hire SEO professionals to take care of it for them. Most of the time it isn’t because they don’t think they can do it on their own. They can, and they know (and if they don’t I tell them and point them to freely available educational resources). They simply don’t have the time or desire to keep on top of the changes themselves. They have a business to run. However, everyone already knows that while algorithms may change the purpose of search engines remains the same – providing quality, relevant content to human visitors. We know this. By paying attention to individual on and off page ranking factors we can turn the tide to our advantage, but in the end nothing beats creating high quality content. Again, nothing new here and reputable SEOs do incorporate fresh, solid content into their clients’ campaigns.

    Newsflash #3 – Any self respecting SEO will not send you a link exchange request. Nor offer to optimise your “meta keywords”, for that matter.

    And #4 – A good SEO knows very well that you can’t just splatter keywords all over the place at the expense of user experience. SEO copywriting is an art of subtlety – not ramming keywords down people’s throats.

    PS: Submitting your website to “Google’s index crawler” does nothing if you’re talking about things like “We’ll submit your website to thousands of search engines!” Or did you mean submitting the XML sitemap to Google’s Webmaster Tools?

    Quality content, promotion through Twitter and Facebook, a search engine accessible website and a website that adds value to visitors ARE all parts of an SEO-centric strategy. To me it sounds like you’ve only had experience with the “I’ll link to you if you link to me” email spam SEOs. That is not what SEO is and I would implore that you dig deeper before calling SEO useless while making points that SEOs themselves have already been making for years 🙂

  • Saying you don’t need to spend money on SEO is like a publisher saying they don’t need to employ journalists because they know how to write themselves. There are lots of “free” ways to promote yourself on the web – the trouble is most SMEs don’t have the time or expertise to invest in them. Both Liza and Rob are ‘giving away’ what would normally be professional SEO advice. If it’s not then you are indeed employing the wrong people.

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