Is SEO a Waste of Time?

About a month ago I got a call from “one of the country’s biggest search engine optimization firms,” based in California. Since the sales guy was appealingly non-pushy, I agreed to talk with an SEO technician next. He turned out to be the man with the sales patter and claimed to be able to do lots of impressive things — including so-called “offsite optimization” — without telling me how he’d do it. So I ducked the follow-on conversation (by not answering any calls from a certain area code for three weeks).

This week however we were on the receiving end of some “offsite optimization” for someone else. Our site got hundreds of comments on blog posts and articles, all liberally embellished with the urls of sites selling things such as “cheap Prada shoes.” We spent an exciting morning deleting spammy comments; making comment submission more difficult; putting all comments through an approval queue; and finally, when none of that stopped it, shutting off the comment facility altogether.

So back to that SEO company. If you were to go to their site and look at what they claim to do (after filtering the boilerplate), you’d find three things:

  1. Offsite promotion
  2. Onsite SEO Optimization
  3. SEO Content Development

How much sense does any of these make?

1. Offsite promotion: We now know how they do this; they pay people somewhere to post spammy comments loaded with keywords and urls on other people’s websites and blogs. Since I presume most victims do what we did, i.e. block and delete them, that must generally be a waste of time.

2. Onsite SEO Optimization: 10 years ago we all tried to do this, making sure we had the right alt tags, meta tags, and keywords in the url, for instance. But even then there was clearly a diminishing return on effort expended. Many of us were handed a hard lesson in the transience of on-site optimization with Google’s Florida update in 2003; and if you were too young for that one, Panda in 2011. Both of which drove a hole through much of the optimization we’d already done, but actually gave more prominence to sites with good content. Google has continually devalued what I’d call arbitrary site attributes. In September it sent the SEO community into a tizzy by reducing the importance of keywords within urls. The trend is very clearly in the direction of ‘onsite optimization’ irrelevancy.

3. SEO Content Development: The man with the sales patter had promised me this service, oblivious perhaps to the fact that our business is content development. It apparently never occurred to him that it’s not something we’d ever hand off to an SEO company. Here’s for example, what the spammers wrote to promote their cheap Prada shoes:

“Cheap Prada shoes: 10 Ways to Rejuvenate Your Brain While You Work While these are good qualities for engineers and computer programmers to have, the Microsoft questions and later the Google questions, as they came to be known, became a sort of fad, says William Poundstone, author of How Would You Move Mount Fuji?”

If that’s the best they can do, why would I let such a firm write my blog? (Smart-Alec replies will be deleted.)

What they are right about of course is that content is now critical to search engine rankings. If you looked at the same SEO firm’s site 6 years ago (I did, courtesy the Wayback Machine), there’s a passing reference to content i.e. “Write additional content if needed for your web pages.” Today the same site waxes lyrical about creating content strategies and themes in addition to writing all your content.

But is creating quality content a subset of SEO? I don’t think so. Writing content that Google will value is increasingly the same thing as writing content your visitors will value. That’s not SEO, that’s VEO — visitor experience optimization (which I’d like to claim I invented, but Google tells me 19,000 others got to first). And optimizing it offsite is what other people do for you, for free, if they like it. But the SEO industry appears to be corralling content under their service offering, as they quickly did link building when that became one of the requirements for success. According to the Forrester US Interactive Marketing Forecast 2011 to 2016, SEO is a $2.2 billion industry, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down yet.

But if building your own links is a waste of time, and writing content is not SEO, what is there left to do that genuinely is? Making sure you have good keywords in your titles definitely helps you get found. Beyond that not much. So don’t sweat it. Also, don’t answer calls from SEO companies.

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