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Against Search Engine Optimisers…

In the middle of the comments for a fairly interesting article about the Googledance that never ends there’s a post from a professional search engine optimiser. He says:

My consulting business website ranks highly in google for a number of search terms that are pertinent to my business. I didn’t get that way using a search engine optimization service. It didn’t cost anything but my time and the sweat of my brow. And it’s really very simple how it works. I tell all my methods in How to Promote Your Business on the Internet.

In summary:

  • Put content on your site that visitors will want to read – and return to. Not just material aimed at potential customers, but stuff anyone will want to read.
  • Post new content regularly
  • Ask for links, and offer reciprocal links

That’s the method I used to make a Google search for software consultant turn up my resume as the #4 search result.

I want to make something clear. This is probably one of the best statements about search engine optimisation I’ve ever read, and it’s still horse-shit. The thing that it says that’s actually useful is that you should have a good site. First and foremost – put content on your site that people want to read and update it regularly. That’s a really really good point and something that people should remember. But it’s not something that a search engine optimiser can help you with, so that leaves you with link-exchange. Which is horse-shit. I’m going to say that again because I enjoyed it so much. It’s horse-shit.

Ladies and Gentlemen, listen very carefully when I say this: There is absolutely positively never any reason whatsoever to go to a search engine optimiser and they may damage your business as much as they help it. The reason they may damage your business is because – for the most part – they are designed to hack the system – to find short-cuts and tricks that fool a search engine into believing your site is something it isn’t. And search engines change their indexing methods all the time to compensate for these tricks. All the time. Google do it monthly! And if they find someone using them – often they’ll penalise the sites concerned.

Here – then – is the big secret of search optimisation. Search optimisation isn’t really about optimising for a search engine at all. It’s about making good quality, cleanly designed, semantically-constructed sites that people want to read, that people can link to and which people can get the gist of in a few seconds. If you make a website well for human beings, then as a side effect – more often than not – search engines will spider it well and rank it highly. And they’ll do this because it’s the best site, not because you’re trying to fool them.

For the most part this is all you need to know:

  1. Highly complex and flashy animation does not help you, it hinders you – your site needs to be easily spiderable and that means that tricky navigational elements probably won’t help. If you have to use them (like I do for my archives above), present alternative simple ways to get around your site as well that use basic boring run-of-the-mill links. This is not a search optimisation tip – this is good navigation design.
  2. Meta-tagging is not that useful any more. But if you’re going to use it, do it properly. Specifically, if you’re going to put in description and keyword metatags – keep them short (twenty words most), accurate (actually reflecting the content in the body of your page), and don’t put the same metatags on every single damn page of your site! That’s not going to help at all! None of this will affect Google, who don’t pay any attention to meta tags and make up 50% of the searches performed on the web at the moment.
  3. Make it easy to link to things! This means, don’t use frames! This means, try and put discreet chunks of content on clear separate pages. This again is not optimising for a search engine at all – it’s how to build an information-delivery site properly.
  4. Use <title> tags properly! They sit at the top of every one of your pages and they’re designed to make it easy to spot things when you bookmark them. So tell people the title of the page you’re on – and do it honestly! Keep them short and clear, don’t use marketing speech at all, don’t try really really hard to find the right keywords, just use the title that explains what’s on the page best. To help people who bookmark you then you should probably put the name of your site at the beginning or end of the title, and if you’ve got a shallow site hierarchy, you can even put the path to the current page in the title as well. These things are helpful to people! Unsurprisingly, search engines try to use the same criteria as actual people do.
  5. Use semantic content whenever possible. This means when something is the title of a page or a section, stick it in a <h1> tag and use CSS to style it appropriately (and before you say anything, I’m aware that I don’t do that – but there’s a really good reason for that). Also when you’re linking to things don’t use terrible words inside the links like “click here” but actually use read words. This is good for people and helpful for search engines. Don’t lie! People would find it more useful if you linked to a page about sportscar GT with a link that said “We have a comprehensive section about sportscar GT“. Search engines – weirdly – do too!
  6. Bugger link-exchange! Google specifically penalises people for using known link-exchange programmes because they’ve been designed specifically to circumvent Google’s attempt to find quality sites that are well-respected and rated. Don’t try and fool the search engines unless you’re prepared to pay for search engine optimisers to come in and fix your site every two weeks.

God there’s loads more stuff I could say, but the rule of thumb is the same for all of them. Build sites that are easy for people to use, try not to let the technology get in the way of delivering the information and aspire to making things that work the way the web works, and you’ll never have any trouble with search engines.

Addendum: There’s an interesting article on Google over at Salon today in which – yet again – some of the people who try to mischaracterise the usefulness of their own sites by gaming search engine algorithms claim that not being allowed to lie about their site’s relevancy is terribly terribly bad. I have absolutely no respect for these people at all…