SEO doesn’t matter

Note (April 22, 2011): I rarely second-guess myself after posting a blog entry, but this was one of those rare cases. I reconsidered the post due to the fact that shortly after writing it, I observed a case with a client where SEO did matter. But upon further, um, reconsideration, I decided the post did still have merit, because the type of SEO we were dealing with was not the type of SEO I’m talking about here. In fact, “the type of SEO we were dealing with” is something I’m reluctant to call SEO at all, even though that’s denotatively what it is: search engine optimization. But there’s a huge difference between semantic HTML, well formed title and meta tags, and carefully constructed sitemap.xml and robots.txt files, versus “gaming the system,” which is the negative connotation SEO typically carries, and what I’m focusing on in my criticism here. So… on we go. With a few edits for clarification.

There, I said it. Well, actually I’ve been saying it in various ways for years, so what I actually mean is: there, I made it the title of a blog post. And if SEO does matter at all, then people who don’t think SEO matters (and somehow feel inclined to express that sentiment in Google’s search box) will soon be viewing this post. (Huh?)

Today I was perusing my RSS feeds (a good way to find information that is relevant to your interests, often much more effective than just searching for random terms on Google), and I came across a blog post entitled Whitehat SEO Is a Joke. Intrigued, I read it, and it made some sense. The argument in a nutshell is that whitehat SEO is, really, just ineffective SEO. This spawned a satirical response, Blackhat SEO Is a Joke. It made some sense too. And that’s when the thought really coalesced in my mind: all SEO is a joke. Not because on one end of the spectrum it’s ineffectual and on the other it’s unethical. Because manipulating search engine rankings shouldn’t really matter to a sustainable business model.

To the Twittermobile!

Forget SEO. If your business model depends significantly on search engine rankings, you're doing something wrong.

After some thought (and a few minutes of research), I followed up with this:

To wit: Google "Minneapolis web development" and I don't come up until page 4 of the results. IT DOESN'T MATTER. I have plenty of work.

So, what do I really mean here? In this specific example of my own work, what I mean is I don’t depend on random people googling “Minneapolis web development” to get work. I get most of my work through the network of contacts I’ve developed over a decade and a half of professional experience, and through referrals from past clients. And even if I do want people to be able to find me on Google, which of course I do, I expect they would type Room 34, not Minneapolis web development. Go ahead and google “Room 34.” I’ll wait.

Welcome back. And guess what? I didn’t spend a cent on SEO consulting, and I didn’t spend much time of my own thinking about SEO either. I thought about well-formed semantic HTML and relevant content and that just happened. But it still doesn’t matter because I don’t depend on search engine rankings for business.

If you’re building a website as a means to promote your business, or if the website is your business, you’ll certainly want to appear in relevant search results, but ultimately your goal is quite simply to get people to your website, regardless of how they got there. Search engines are therefore a marketing tool — hopefully only one of many you’ll be employing — and if search engines don’t lead visitors to your site based on its own merits, then the problem is not the search engines and their confounded algorithms, it’s your site.

Don’t ask me what the other marketing tools are or should be. I’m a web developer, not a marketer. For myself, word-of-mouth and business cards have been the only marketing tools I’ve needed. Other businesses need other strategies, and the first thing any business needs to do when developing a marketing strategy is to figure out where its business is likely to come from and how best to reach that audience.

Regardless of whether you’re deeply immersed in the world of SEO or you hold it at arm’s length like I do, there are some interesting and relevant points in the two blog posts I linked to above, but I think the most salient is this, from the blackhat post:

If however you have a web property that has some value to it, then true blackhat strategies are not the way forward.

Black, white or gray, all SEO (apart from basic web design best practices, careful [and responsible] use of legitimate tools like sitemap.xml and robots.txt files, Google Webmaster Tools, and meaningful, relevant content) is essentially about gaming the system. Some techniques may achieve more immediate impact, and others may have more lasting value, but ultimately I see only two reasons to engage in any of them:

  1. Your content and/or its presentation doesn’t have enough value on its own.
  2. Your business model itself is based on gaming the system.

If the latter is true, there’s nothing I can say or do to help you or to persuade you to act otherwise. We’re simply in this world for different reasons and will never see eye to eye. If the former is true, however, there’s an alternative. It’s a lot more work, but in some ways that’s the point: make your content better. And that will often lead to an even broader, harder, and more important task: figure out what you’re really trying to do in the first place. Because if you need to be on the first page of a generic Google results page to stay in business, maybe you don’t really have much of a business at all.

Addendum, a few hours later: Like I said…
Google search for "SEO doesn't matter"

Forgot your password? Firefox may be able to help with that

A couple of days ago, I changed my password for the CMS on my website. Unfortunately, Firefox has refused to “remember” the new password, auto-completing the field for me with the old password every time I open it. In the past, when I’ve changed a password, Firefox has offered to remember the new one, but in this instance it did not. (I think I know why, but trying to explain that is outside of the scope of what I care to discuss here today.)

A little query into the Firefox help site provided an answer. Pretty easy, right? But then that got me thinking. Take a look at this screenshot:

You click that “Yes” button, and Firefox is going to display all of your saved passwords in the clear on your computer screen. That’s both incredibly handy, in case you need to remember a password that you’ve forgotten (maybe not even for the site it’s saved with — I’m sure most people reuse the same password[s] most of the time), and incredibly dangerous, in that someone else accessing your computer could open up Firefox and find out all of your passwords.

This leads me to recommend some “best practices” for managing your personal passwords. I follow these rules in order to keep my information (relatively) safe:

1. Don’t use the same password everywhere. It’s unrealistic to think you can remember a different password for every website, but I have a mental store of about 5 or 6 different passwords.

2. Complex passwords are more secure. Your passwords should not contain any dictionary words, and ideally they should contain a mix of upper- and lowercase letters along with numbers and punctuation marks. Also, the longer, the better. It’s really quite amazing how much longer it would take an average modern-day desktop computer to crack an 8-character-long password using this mix of 96 possible characters (23 years), compared to a 6-character-long password using just lowercase letters (30 seconds). Even if you just use lowercase letters, length makes a huge difference: a 20-character, all-lowercase password would take 63 trillion years to crack.

3. Don’t use the same password for your bank that you use for Facebook. This relates to the first item. Reserve your most complex, hardest-to-crack password for the most critical uses: your bank account, PayPal, etc. Generally, anything involving money or the possibility of identity theft (such as a site where you need to provide your Social Security number). Granted, you should probably have a pretty strong password on Facebook, too, but the bottom line is, don’t use your banking password anywhere else.

4. Password-protect your computer, too! This is probably the hardest case for me to make. Especially if you have a desktop computer that just sits in your house all the time, it’s really easy to not bother protecting it. But think about it: if someone breaks into your house, they may be able to steal some of your valuable personal property, but if they’re granted unfettered access to your computer, they could do much more damage than that. In fact, a deft criminal could get in and out without a trace, except that they logged into your computer and stole all of your passwords. If you take your laptop with you to public places where you might leave it unattended at some point, the risk is even greater. And if you’re accessing public networks, physical access to your computer is not even necessary, so a strong password to log into your computer is just as important as the password on your bank account — especially if Firefox has stored an easily-discovered copy of that password on your computer. Which leads to my final recommendation…

5. Resist the temptation to allow your browser to save your most important passwords. I let Firefox “remember” almost all of my passwords. It just makes using the web a lot easier. But I never let it remember my passwords for my bank or PayPal. If you’re only going to file away one convoluted 20-character string in your brain, let it be your bank password. Don’t leave it to Firefox to remember that one for you.

Need more? Symantec has some good recommendations as well.