Nov 25 2008

A Moving Target

I’ve been doing this webmaster/sysadmin/programmer gig for over ten years now, with varying degrees of feast and famine. One thing I was always able to avoid until recently was SEO—trying to get people to the top of the search engine results. Whenever a client would ask me how to get to #1 on the search engines, I’d patiently explain that search engine positioning is total voodoo, and there was nothing I could do. If they pressed, I’d offer to find them companies they could pay big bucks to do it for them. If they didn’t like that idea, I’d change the subject and hope they’d forget about it.

Well, now I’ve gotten roped in. Those clients were all brick-and-mortar businesses that provided a web site as a service for their customers. They would have liked to get higher rankings and more traffic, but it wasn’t life and death for them. Now that I’ve picked up some client sites where the owners make a living from the sites and 85% of their traffic comes from search engines, I can’t avoid the SEO stuff anymore. It drives everything else: page design, what software we use for different things, what features we should add, and so on. If their search engine traffic doubled, their profits would nearly double, and I’d get paid more. If they dropped way down in the rankings, I might not get paid at all.

Eventually, after dodging the topic and letting them hire real SEO “professionals” that failed to accomplish much, I gave in and started tackling it myself. It’s just as bad as I thought it would be. I should like it, in a way: SEO work involves a lot of numbers, figuring percentages and odds and stuff that I do enjoy. There’s a lot of research involved, figuring out what keywords are best, and testing to determine how best to use them. I enjoy all that lab-work type stuff, and it’s kind of a game.

The problem is, we’re all playing without a rulebook. If I need to rebuild my truck engine, I get a Chilton’s shop manual for 1993 Dodge pickups, and it’ll give me step-by-step instructions with pictures. If I want to fix my Google rankings, there’s no such manual. Oh, there are tons of books and web sites that claim to be able to tell you what to do, but they’re all making educated guesses, and they disagree with each other often as not. There’s no “shop manual” from the search engine companies themselves, to break the engine down and say, “Look, here’s exactly how it goes together, piece by piece.”

So the job ends up being 3/4 archaeology, digging through your own pages and seeing how the search engines react to the elements that make them up, and comparing your findings with those of other people exploring in the same field. The other 1/4 is doing the actual work of making your pages fit the rules you came up with—if you ever get that far. To top it all off, the search engines are constantly changing, trying to keep us all guessing. It would all be kind of fascinating if I were doing it as a school project; but when I’m doing it for a client who is paying for results and wants straightforward reasons why page X is only ranking #52 when a competitor’s similar page Y is ranking #4, fascinating isn’t the word for it. Frustrating, maybe. Teeth-grindingly, head-poundingly, take-ten-deep-breaths frustrating.

Fortunately (or not), I seem to be getting a handle on it. It’s always going to be a moving target, but I suspect I understand it about as well as any one person who’s doing SEO part-time along with other webmaster duties. For anyone starting a new web site, the key is to write your content as naturally as possible. It’s fine to use key phrases suggested by keyword research, but don’t stuff pages with them. And don’t come up with schemes to create a web site with thousands of pages that have no content but plenty of ads. That kind of thing used to work, but the search engines are getting smarter, better at knowing what real people want to see. Publish for real readers, and the search engines will bring them to you.

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