A skeptic amongst the SEOs

Written by Jamie Freeman

"Hands up everyone who's a search engine optimiser?" All but a few of the 30 or so people in the room put one hand up. "Keep your hand up if you have a working understanding of the phrase 'Semantic HTML'." Three hands stay up. "Oh dear, you lot are in big trouble..."

A few days ago I found myself speaking in front of an audience at BrightonSEO, a regular 'meet up and mini-conference' for Search Engine Optimisers. I'd heard they were looking for speakers and I thought, well, let's see if they can stomach what a skeptic has to say about the subject. I'm not a fan.

Holy Trinity of SEO

I based my talk on an article I wrote a couple of years ago called The Holy Trinity of SEO, which can be summarised as "You don't need to specifically 'SEO' your website; just make it relevant, build it right, and link to it". The Holy Trinity are relevant content, standards compliance and inbound links. Or even more succinctly, 'Content, Code, Connections'.

"Out of interest, which of these three do you think is most important?" The general consensus in the room is that inbound links are the most important of the three. I couldn't believe the answer... really? More important than the content the user will see when they actually get to the site? Surely, without relevant content then what the hell is the point of all this?

I was flabberghasted. But perhaps I was being unfair; after all, the subject of the mini-conference was SEO after all, so people perhaps mis-understood my question. Maybe they thought I meant 'what's most important to SEO?'

Still, it serves to demonstrate a clear divide between 'us' (those that build good websites) and 'them' (those who serve solely to improve search engine positioning). Lynda summed it up nicely:

  • We are user-centric
  • They are client-centric

Call a spade a spade

The reason I asked about semantic HTML was that it is an extremely simple and basic tool of the web developer's trade. If I have a headline on a page I'll call it a headline. If there's a sub-heading (or second level heading) I'll call it a sub heading. Why would I call it anything else?

In reality this means you mark up your HTML using standard tags to describe the enclosed content. 'h1' for level one headings, 'p' for paragraphs, 'ul' for unordered lists and so on. This allows the user agent (e.g. your browser) to correctly understand the meaning of that content. Safari sees an h1 and thinks 'OK, I know what to expect. I'll display it accordingly'.

More importantly, as regards SEO, Google is also a user agent. When Google sees some content wrapped in an h1 tag it thinks 'OK, this is the most senior piece of content on the page; everything that follows is subservient to this content.' And it marks your page accordingly, so you really don't want to get that stuff wrong.

Unfortunately, most of the people who claim to be 'search engine optimisers' don't seem to know this core technique. Which is odd, because everyone seemed to at least pay lip service to the notion of the Three C's outlined above.

What would Jeremy do?

Jeremy Keith explains it very nicely. Google is busy optimising for humans, it attempts to know how to respond to the requests that humans make. SEO's are meanwhile busy optimising for Google's bots. Why not cut out the middle man and optimise content for humans?

The rising tide of 'content' (and I feel I must enclose it in quote marks) on the web is largely driven by the futile desire to beat Google into believing your site is more relevant to searchers than another site. If people were to simply make great content then the job of actually finding it would suddenly get a whole load easier!

Tools of the trade

Another of the talks (about Drupal CMS) highlighted another issue regarding SEO's level of technical understanding. It appeared that Joomla is often the tool of choice when SEO's commission web 'development', despite the very poor adherence to standards it offers.

Don't people realise that clean, lean code is a key component of good search engine friendliness? Google doesn't want to wade through a bunch of code (even compliant code) to find the one and only thing it's interested in - text content.

Perhaps that's why SEO skeptics such as myself do very well in terms of findability - we might not spend our time sweating over keywords to tweak content for the bots, but we do dot the 'i's and cross the 't's when it comes to the web fundamentals. And Google loves that!


  • Peter Handley -

    I found your presentation really interesting, as I said directly afterwards.

    I suspect that whilst you dont do it in the name of SEO, your work includes a certain amount of creating search friendly websites by virtue of your approach.

    A lot of my time is helping to make the site as search friendly as possible, and then ensuring that a websites content matches what kind of traffic they are looking to gain as a result of engaging an SEO company.

    I was one of those claiming to not know a great deal about semantic web, but on reflection, I believe that I do, it's just that I wasn't confident what the term referred to.

    Always good to hear another perspective of our industry from someone on "the other side" :)

  • Jamie Freeman -

    Hi Pete. Thanks for your comments. I must say your approach (in the talk you gave) was interesting and honest compared to many I have come across. You seem to focus more on the end result (e.g. sales) than in pure numbers. You're right, we do indeed build 'search engine friendly' websites; it's a phrase I've used for many years. All the best :-)

  • heather buckley @SBTtraining -


    The problem is that it's no good having a brilliant website if nobody sees it, google may like it becuase the content is good but it will be placed way below competitors if it's short of quality backlinks and isn't optimised for the web, even if that means including some unecessary keywords on the page.

    Businesses need to sell to stay in business, I know from experience that when we get it right and are at the top of the engines we sell more.

    On the other hand we are currently very involved with social media, which includes producing a constant supply of good content, this has increased traffic and we hope brand awareness. It also provides us with a plenty of backlinks (although many are nofollow)

    I think that what all the SEOers are getting at is being found is as important as providing good content.

    Heather @SBTtraining

  • Jamie Freeman -

    Hey Heather, thanks for that. Good points; I don't have an issue with 'marketing', it's what we're all doing. Maybe sometimes it sounds like I do; I need to watch that.

    You use the phrase 'optimised for the web', but Google isn't 'the web'. Surely SEO's are optimising for search engines (hence the name!) which is not the same thing as optimising for the web - that's what we do ;-)

    Also, thanks for posting that pic on flickr!

  • mike ashworth -

    Like a breath of fresh air.

    I've heard some boggor stories from SMB's in Brighton about promises made by SEO's and also outrageous pricing too.

    The people who do this tarnish the whole industry and when a lot of Brighton is web, social media, etc. this can be a nightmare for the local economy too.

    The geek in me wanted to answer the security question "is ice hot or cold" with "compared to what" :-)


  • Jamie Freeman -

    Haha! You should have; maybe you'd have won a prize! ;-)

  • heather buckley @SBTtraining -

    As Google has the lions share of search users we need to optimise for Google for sure. We, as a buisiness, know the value of a No. 1-3 in Google we can see the diffence it makes in sales.

    Just posted up our take on the Black Hat v White Hat SEO debate http://www.siliconbeachtraining.co.uk/blog/black-hat-versus-white-hat/ causing quite a stirr already!! Will be publishing the Death of Journalism - future of Journalism piece on Friday watch this space.

    Heather - Silicon Beach Training

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