"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!