SEO Is Not Dark Magic

Many "SEO experts" attempt to complicate the search engine optimization process to confuse clients and pad their invoices. The truth is that SEO is much simpler than they make it out to be and that most of what they do is ineffective.

I really hate to see it when people spend a lot of money on SEO. Not that I blame them - every business owner would love to be high up in search engine listings for what they do. Too often, businesses throw much of their marketing budgets to agencies who go through a bloated and ineffective search engine optimization process. Sadly, this budget could have been used for more effective things, like improving the content and functionality of the actual site they want people to visit.

I will state this plainly: some SEO firms are merely selling snake oil. They capitalize on their clients not being knowledgeable on the subject of SEO and make it out to be larger and more complex than it actually is. Complicate it however you want, but in simple terms, SEO is merely the "street cred" of your site on the web.

Most agencies are honest and do mean well, but SEO services often amount to blindly throwing darts and hoping they hit a target. On average, Google changes its search algorithm more than once a day, and nobody will admit that they don't know with certainty what they're doing.

I don't want you to waste your money, and if you do go with a firm that offers SEO services, including me, you should be armed with some key facts.

The most important thing: your site's content

Here is a very simple version of how search engines work: they read every page of your site* and determine how to catalog your site based on its content. For example, if you run a news site about video games, you will be cataloged as a video games news site. Your individual pages will also be cataloged too. In general, if your content is well written, you've already done the most important thing in SEO.

  • It's important to have a consistent theme overall and on each individual page. If you write about Super Mario World, search engines will know to catalog the individual page as something about Super Mario World. It also helps search engines know your entire site is about video games.
  • On the other hand, if you have a page that doesn't have a strong theme, search engines will not know how to catalog it and it will hurt your cred as being a site about video games. If you write a bit about Mario and then about chocolate and then about Marxism, this will confuse search engines.
  • The only way a search engine can figure out what your page is about is by its content being obvious. Google would do horrible on the SAT.

Most SEO experts will keep harping on things called "meta" content, especially "keywords". This is merely an invisible list of words in the code of a page. With our example of an article about Super Mario World, a list might be something like "Mario, Nintendo, Super Mario World, 16-bit". If you see them doing this (and they will) - stop them. Google and Bing don't care anymore. At one point in time, before search engines were smart, this keywords list would tell search engines how to catalog a page. These days, search engines are smart and only care about what is actually on your page, not what you insist it's about.

The second most important thing: people need to talk about you

You can make the biggest, best, and most comprehensive site about video games on the web, but if actual people don't know it's there and aren't talking about you, it's almost as if you are invisible. Today, search engines track how many people mention you and link to your page, whether it be on other sites or popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

This is the primary reason why SEO firms will want to make you a presence on every social media site you possibly can. Making profiles and accounts alone doesn't do a thing, however - you need to get people actually talking about you. This is why I will emphasize again that good content is the most important thing about SEO. You can't make people care about something that isn't worth caring about.

Some SEO firms will try to game the system. Be wary of SEO agencies that suggest:

  • Link farms: These are pages that are nothing but links. Search engines ignore these pages and submitting your page to them might actually hurt you more than it will help.
  • Fake blogs: Some bloggers are on the payroll of these SEO firms. However, since these bloggers have no street cred with search engines, search engines won't care.
  • Fake sites: Sites are created merely to talk about you. Most of the time, these have no street cred with search engines and just make you look shady. This is also very expensive to do, which is why SEO agencies love suggesting it.

Agencies may suggest releasing articles about you to PR and news wire sites. As long as you are persistent in doing this, it can help. One news blast to these entities won't do much good over the long haul, though.

The third most important thing: results may vary

There are certain variables that we cannot control: competition, a user's location, and a user's history. These variables greatly impact search engine listings.

  • Competition: If you are fighting for attention in a crowded marketplace, you're already facing an uphill battle. Take our video game example - there are lots and lots of sites about video games. This means that you need a great site and lots of press to jump in search engine listings. If you have many competitors, it's especially important to have other people talk about you. At some point, there is only so much you can do with your content alone. For temporary (and costly) results, some companies choose to run ads for certain keywords. The catch-22 here is that in order to get good ad placement for a decent price, you need to have good SEO to begin with. Google, for example, will charge you more for buying an ad for a keyword it doesn't think is related to your site.
  • Location: Location is very important to search engines these days. Search engines will attempt to find a user's physical location based on IP address or GPS coordinates. If you do a search for "pizza" in Columbus, OH, it will look much different than the results you would get in Ann Arbor, MI. This may or may not be relevant to your business, but it's something fairly new. In the case of restaurants, you're also at the mercy of Yelp and Urbanspoon reviews.
  • History: Search engines track a user's search history over the course of time in order to guess what the user will find relevant. Does it ever seem like Google finishes your sentences for you when you search for something? This is why.


Those are the basic things you need to know about SEO, and as you can tell, you can probably do most of it yourself with the help of your web developer.

Have some horror stories with SEO firms or even success? Hit up the comments below.

* This assumes that search engines are able to access your pages. If you're loading your pages dynamically via JavaScript, search engines can't index this content right now.

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