Matt Gemmell

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SEO for Non-dicks

3 min read

I recently read an account of John McElborough’s talk at Brighton SEO 2011, wherein he advocated some ethically questionable SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) tactics involving creating a private network of fake blogs.

I don’t know John or his work, but this entire side of internet marketing and promotion makes me sad - and a bit angry. I fully acknowledge the value of, and need for, actual SEO; I just think that in many cases, the tactics employed under that title would better be described as Search Engine Manipulation or even Abuse.

I periodically check my blog’s referrers, and there are a huge number of sites out there containing duplicate content and links, some of them extremely convincing when viewed in isolation. It’s sleazy, it’s pathetic, and it damages the internet for everyone.

I’m asked sometimes for advice on building an internet presence, and I usually have to fumble for an answer - because I haven’t pursued any particular strategy beyond the glaringly obvious: create original, relevant content repeatedly.

The key thing to understand is that the rules of SEO aren’t magic or arbitrary. They’re based on the goals of a search engine, which is to find relevant results. Relevance implies genuineness, and genuineness implies trust. So, shockingly, you should try to make your site’s content trustworthy, genuine and relevant. All of the rules have come about due to their utility in detecting those three positive metrics. Good SEO is a by-product of not being a dick on the internet.

Consider a few examples of tried-and-tested “SEO tactics”, and why they actually came about.

  • Use descriptive URLs, ideally containing the page’s title. Those URLs are easier to remember, easier to search for locally in your browser’s history, and provide a preview of the page’s topic. They’re desirable for the same reason that a well-crafted email subject increases the chance of your message being read.

  • Make sure the page title matches the first heading. Why wouldn’t you do this? I mean… what else would it be? It’s the title. It’s what the page is about. It’s about trusting that you have any concept whatsoever of what a “title” even is.

  • Incoming links are good. If people are linking to your stuff, it’s because they think it’s relevant or interesting. It’s the ultimate natural, organic process on the web. Real people, really thinking your stuff is worth showing to others. The message isn’t “create incoming links yourself”, you cretin, it’s “write something fucking interesting”.

  • Use titles that are relevant to the content. The reason this happens is because you actually went to high school, and don’t have either a crippling brain-injury or a Monty Python-esque penchant for the surreal. The title should describe what you’re writing about, in a way that’s either immediately meaningful or will rapidly become so upon starting to read the piece.

  • Use descriptive anchor-text for links. When you read an article online and the author references another page, you hate it when the link is simply “this” or similar. The reason that’s dickish is because you’re forced to choose right now whether to read it. You can leave it until later, but you do so entirely without the context it might have provided. If, instead, the anchor-text summarises the article, you can at least make an educated decision regarding if and when you want to follow the link. Is that difficult to understand, or unexpected? No.

  • Keep writing. Relevance is a democratic process, and it also naturally declines if not actively maintained. That’s what relevance means. If you’re not willing to keep updating your site because you actually have something new to say, you don’t deserve to be thought of as relevant. Just accept it, and move on. Do something else. Be relevant elsewhere. You don’t strive for relevance; you just are or aren’t, to whatever current degree the rest of the internet feels appropriate. Some topics retain relevance more than others, but ultimately it quite rightly declines.

And so forth. This site doesn’t get massive traffic by any means (around 8,500 feed-pulls per day, and about 125,000 page-views over the past month), but this “strategy” scales. It’s how to do SEO the right way; honestly. The value of your content will never entirely go away, but much more importantly your trustworthiness will only increase over time.

Anything else is trickery, and an attempt to cheat the system. It may work for a while, but eventually you’ll be found out and rightly penalised. By going for search engine abuse instead of actual optimisation, you’re dooming yourself to eternally be finding new ways to deceive people and reduce the effectiveness of the very technologies you’re relying on. That seems sleazy, depressing, ignoble, tiring and unsustainable. It’s also why any job title including “SEO” is seen as slimy at best, and often not a real job at all.

Stop wilfully conflating optimisation with being a slimy liar. Stop being a dick on the internet. Write something interesting, and keep doing it for months and years. SEO will then follow naturally.

(Footnote: You might also be interested in Google’s SEO Starter Guide, and if you liked the tone of this article, I sound like that on Twitter too. Oh, and to prove I know what I’m talking about, this post was number 1 on Google for SEO dicks within 5 hours of publication.)