The Top Five Myths of SEO (IMHO) - Myth #3

In this third post in the series, I want to dig into the incessant focus on on-page optimization factors.

But before I do, I need to address a little housekeeping. Anyone who's been following me on Twitter recently, or any of the threads emanating from the first posts in this series, may have noticed that the as-yet unpublished fifth post in the series has been scooped a couple of times by friends of mine.

Ed Lee, in the comments on my second post in this series, raised this excellent point:
...the problem with a series of posts around SEO implies that there are a series of simple problems that need to be fixed. nothing could be further from the truth. SEO is, in truth, a complex and ever changing subject... that, like all aspects of communication, relies on an integrated approach that blends technology, content and authority.

He's quite right, of course. As I said in my response to Ed's comment, there's always something new to learn with SEO and website optimization in general; it's a moveable and ever-moving feast of experimentation. My 5th Myth was going to be a piece all about how SEO has to be an ongoing process, not a discrete series of tactics.

I was also going to talk about how this is just way too complex, and volatile a subject domain for anyone to fully understand and that it requires near-constant study to keep up with. Some of the speakers at the upcoming Search Engine Strategies conference spend a significant portion of their daily work lives doing precisely that - studying and experimenting in the space. People like Andrew Goodman, already mentioned in an earlier post. Or Jeff Quipp, whose firm, Search Engine People employs:
...a dedicated research group, with the sole mandate of performing ongoing real time statistical analysis and experimentation to help understand search engine algorithms as they evolve.
This stuff is hard. Too hard to be boiled down to a series of five little myths by a search dilettante.

The other thing I was planning to say at the end was that any list of "Top 5" this or "Top 10" the other, is inherently suspect. Something my great friend Frank Paynter pointed via Twitter. All true.

It seems lame now, but I had intended this series to work on one level as a bit of a self-referential joke. Blog posts with "Top 5"-type titles tend to work well as linkbait and search engine fodder - especially when your blog is set up to forge meaningful URLs from the title of each post. So here I am laying into SEO chicanery, whilst indulging in a rather sad little example of the game itself. It sounded a lot cleverer in my head.


The third big mythical nit I want to pick with the SEO snake oil peddlers is the disproportionate emphasis placed on "on-page optimization" by many practitioners in the space.

On-page optimization is, essentially, the sum of all the various tweaks, edits, keyword sprinklings and structural massaging you can do to optimize the pages of content in your website. In my definition of on-page factors, I'd include such things as: paying attention to the page titles, those dreaded meta tags, header tags, your use of appropriate and relevant keywords (yes, I know), internal links between pages within your site, images (and the appropriate Alt Text for each image), etc.

The whole point of on-page optimization is, as the name suggests, to understand and focus on how a search engine sees the individual pages of your site. There are some groovy tools out there that can help when you're playing around with this - sites that will let you look at your own website the way a search engine spider would. (Sadly, my favourite spider simulator, Seebot.org, has been offline for a couple of weeks).

By contrast, "off-page optimization" is all the stuff that goes on outside of your main home on the web; the linky-love that draws direct traffic, attention and, ultimately, search karma to your site.

If on-page optimization is the sum of all things you can do to your own web pages, you can think of off-page optimization as all the things other folk might do that would help pull direct people to your site.

They might write about your organization and include a link to the site, or bookmark your site at delicious.com, submit one of your pages to Reddit or Digg, mention you in a forum, post a link on Twitter, or even (to stretch the thought a little) chat about you over the garden fence.

Another word for this might be: publicity.

[Aside: Yes, naturally I'm going to be a little biased here - my business is, in many ways, the publicity business, although I've always pushed back at that label as a simplistic and narrow view of what PR is really all about. Only one part of my job actually includes generating tangible publicity. At the same time, I have to love the first factor listed at the Wikipedia entry for off-page optimization - it points to news releases as one of the ways to draw attention to your site. Yay!]

On-page stuff you can tweak and fiddle with as often as your budget will allow; the off-page stuff is, to a degree, outside of your direct control. Sure, you could submit your own pages to something like Digg, but that's cheating (and will quickly get you flagged as a spammer).

At the heart of this, though, is why I like to see a balance between on-page and off-page efforts. While on-page tuning is important, I think it's even more vital to stay focused on the overall authority of your entire site and surrounding ecosystem.

If you were to look at the web through the blinkered lens of an on-page purist, you'd be surprised to find that there are many millions of crummy, poorly optimized pages that still seem to come up very high in the search engine results. But how can this be?

It's because the human web -- you, me, the dude in the next cubicle, and millions of hopeful searchers like us -- are teaching the machine through our links, clicks and every online action. When enough of us find something online that's useful, valuable, interesting or just funny, and we share that something with our friends, the off-page optimization happens. The linky-love happens. The inbound traffic and search rank happens.

So how do you optimize for off-page joy? C'mon, Bunky, you can figure this one out...

Focus on creating stuff that is useful, valuable, interesting, funny (or accurate, informative, entertaining, new, different, authoritative, well-researched, short on BS, etc.).

Again, very few people really know how the search engines do that voodoo they do do so well, but one thing seems clear: a huge part of your search rank is built on popularity. Google's PageRank is one version of this (although the business is way more complicated than just that today). In simplified terms, it's a measure of how many other sites and sources are pointing at yours.

In this sense, search rank is a gift you receive from others in return for producing quality material. Your web content is like an American Idol contestant who just received the most votes for a rip-roaring cover of "Play That Funky Music" (yeah, I kinda liked Adam too). When people like your stuff, they vote with their links. The more votes you get, the higher up the search rank you climb.

You can tweak the living blue blazes out of every SEO-friendly toggle and widget on your site, but if the core material is a gently steaming pile of ordure, you're still not going to get any votes. If your writing just plain bites, people will stay away in droves. If your ideas are rank, your rank will be... er... you get the picture.

Achieving that elusive high search rank is not all random karma for creating good stuff, of course. There are specific things you can do to help improve your off-page reputation and inbound linkflow. You'll find plenty of checklists and ideas for off-page optimization online if you hunt around for them -- some good, some a little dubious. Use discernment and avoid spammy techniques.

The point of all this is to demonstrate what I see as an increasingly close connection between intelligent SEO and just good online communications practices. I'm not saying that on-page optimization is irrelevant, but the slavish focus on the tools and techniques for tweaking individual pages and site architecture sometimes gets in the way of sound communications.

Assuming you have a finite budget, it makes sense to me to seek a balance between the SEO basics within your site and paying for original, creative, interesting content. If you're using both an SEO consultant and a professional communications firm, have them work together.

As I said above, I'm naturally inclined to look at this from the perspective of someone whose principal product is words, but I've heard quite enough about the technical aspects of on-page SEO, with little attention paid to the quality of the content and the outbound marketing and communications activities needed to really drive awareness and interest from outside your site.

In trying to figure out how to express this, I threw together this Venn diagram, showing how I think the three sisters of search engine. Let me know if you think this makes sense.

In short: do worry about optimizing your site pages, for sure, but don't forget the creative quality of your ideas and your core content, and the way you spread the word.

Back to:
Myth #1: The Importance of Keyword Meta Tags
Myth #2: The Magic Keyword Density Percentage
Next up - Myth #4: Google partnerships and multiple site submissions