Search Engine Optimization (SEO): the good, the bad and the (mostly) ugly

Years ago I first encountered a mysterious acronym: SEO. I bristled when I learned what it meant: Search Engine Optimization. The term can be both innocuous and poisonous. In its innocuous form, it means, quite simply, presenting your site in a way that is most likely to lead to prominent placement in search results. In its poisonous form, it means deceiving the algorithms search engines use, in essence, tricking the search engines into listing your site when they shouldn’t.

That the latter connotation has become the primary meaning of the term is unfortunate, as there is a legitimate role in web design and development for tuning your website for maximum effectiveness in search engine listings. Doing it the right way does not involve gaming the system. In fact, the principles of sound search engine optimization aren’t really about search engines at all: they’re simply rules of good design, ensuring that your site is well-formed, well-organized and intuitive. In short, the best honest ways of appealing to a search engine’s algorithms are going to be the same ways of appealing to the real target of your website: human users. After all, the goal of a search engine like Google is to deliver the most relevant results to its users. And if your site isn’t relevant to a particular user, it shouldn’t be coming up in their search results anyway.

Derek Powazek has an excellent blog entry called Spammers, Evildoers and Opportunists that pulls no punches in criticizing the dark side of SEO. So much so, in fact, that one questions whether there is any other side to it. Ultimately, maybe not. The question then is what to call the best practices in web design and development that just happen to also be the most effective legitimate ways to optimize your site for search engine placement. I don’t have an answer, but I have to admit that after reading his blog, I’m reluctant to use the term “Search Engine Optimization” any longer.

Some background here: for the past year or so I’ve been including a brief section in all proposals I’ve created for new clients, entitled “Search Engine Optimization,” wherein I talk about these best practices, criticize unscrupulous SEO tactics, and give my recommendations for how best to build a website (in ways that also just happen to be good for search engine placement). I give this information away for free. I do, however, charge my clients for work I do to these ends. It’s not smoke and mirrors, and it’s not snake oil. But it is actual work, it does take time, and if it’s not something the client can or will do for themselves, then it’s something I need to bill them for. Powazek says:

Look under the hood of any SEO plan and you’ll find advice like this: make sure to use keywords in the headline, use proper formatting, provide summaries of the content, include links to relevant information. All of this is a good idea, and none of it is a secret. It’s so obvious, anyone who pays for it is a fool.

Right on, brother. But here’s the thing: while I will gladly share this information with any client for free, there is still work involved to implement these ideas. And if I’m the one doing the work, I bill for it, just like any other work I do. I believe what he’s really criticizing is the practice of charging simply for sharing this information. Much like the late-night infomercials that promise riches in real estate, the real get-rich-quick scheme is in selling the information itself; the person who’s going to get rich is the one selling training books and videos, not land.

Let the information be free. Here, word for word, is the information I include in every proposal I write:

Search Engine Optimization

“Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) is a common buzzword today, but what does it really mean? Many web consultants will offer “advanced SEO techniques” and submission to thousands of search engines. But most of these techniques are dubious at best, and most of the thousands of search engines are irrelevant to directing significant traffic to a website.

Ultimately there are a few simple principles that, when implemented on a website, will help to ensure the site receives proper placement in the search results of the most popular search engines, like Google, Yahoo! and MSN. Because the principles are so basic, and correspond so closely with the principles of simple, clean, well-organized web design in general, Room 34 offers these recommendations, free of charge, as a standard part of all website proposals:

Title Bar

The web browser’s title bar is easy to ignore, but a well-structured page title is one of the most important ways to ensure that your site is listed prominently in search engine results. The title should be clear, relevant, detailed, and specific. Each page of the site should have a title that accurately reflects what is on the page. The page title should begin with this specific information, followed by general information that is the same for every page: your business name, the nature of your business, and if relevant, your city and state.

Meta Tags

Meta tags do not appear anywhere on the web page, but they are included in the HTML header of the page to assist search engines in identifying the relevance of a web page if its textual content does not fully reflect its purpose. There are two primary meta tags used by search engines: keywords and description. Keywords is a comma-separated list of words or phrases that describe the content of your page. The description is a sentence or two that can be used in search engine results to summarize the content of your page. Meta tags should be as concise and accurate as possible. Excessive repetition of terms, or content that does not accurately reflect what is on the page will hurt search engine rankings rather than help them.

Semantic HTML

Semantic HTML means HTML that is built to reflect the logical structure of a web page document, with visual presentation separated into CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) rather than embedded within the HTML. Fonts, colors and visual layout elements should be restricted to the CSS. HTML tables should be used for tabular information only, not layout and positioning. The content of the page within the HTML should be organized such that the page is logical and readable with CSS turned off. Also, it is increasingly important that documents be formated with valid XHTML rather than older HTML specifications. Pages should be checked against an XHTML validator ( to ensure accuracy.


Building web pages with proper accessibility for visually-impaired visitors also helps to ensure a semantic HTML structure that will improve search engine rankings. All images and other visual content should include “alt” text. Content that requires Flash, JavaScript or other browser plug-ins should also include a standard fallback version to allow them to “degrade gracefully” for screen readers, browsers without these add-on features, mobile devices, and search engines. By organizing features like site navigation into standard HTML unordered lists instead of elaborate table layouts or Flash elements, pages will be both more widely accessible and more relevant in search engine results.

Relevant Links

Most modern search engines like Google use cross-site links as an indication of a site’s popularity and relevance in a particular field. By exchanging meaningful links with relevant sites in a particular field, a site can improve its search engine results. There may be a temptation here to exchange links with sites that are simply aggregators of links. This might provide a temporary boost to search engine placement, but ultimately if the links are not on sites that offer real live users a meaningful web experience, they will not provide long-term benefit. Before exchanging links with another site, consider whether or not it is a site you would visit and trust as a resource. If not, it is probably not worth the effort.

No Magic Bullet

There is no secret weapon to ensure top search engine placement. Many promises of search engine optimization rely on short-term “gaming” of a search engine’s relevance ranking algorithms. But just as the “gamers” evolve their tactics, the search engines are constantly being enhanced to counteract them. Ultimately the best way to ensure long-term relevance within search engine listings is to stick to the principles of well-organized, validated XHTML documents and meaningful content.