Larry stirred up quite a controversy last week with two posts that made some bold claims. First, he said that SEOs suck at PPC because they don’t approach it with the right mindset . (Later, he amended the post to say that SEOs sometimes suck at PPC – he also told me he was mainly thinking about himself.) Then he said that the idea that SEO has more long-term value than PPC is a myth .
This didn’t sit too well with some of our readers (many of whom are advocates for and practitioners of SEO – as, frankly, we have always been in the past). We had some vehement disagreement in the comments from people who thought Larry was over-generalizing or conflating “SEO” with webspam and unsustainable black-hat tactics. For example, Matt Bennett said, “you've taken your own experiences of SEOs and applied them to the industry as a whole, and as a result you've inadvertently made yourself look naïve.” And here’s Kieran Flanagan : “I actually think you make some good points in this post but it's packaged up in some really poor misinformation. You are comparing images of sites who have been hit by Google’s updates to combat spam and using it to make a kind of self serving point about SEO vs PPC.”
Unfortunately, what could have been a really interesting debate about the relative merits – and costs – of paid search and organic search got a bit ugly because the posts, in their original form, did overstate their claims, and key terms (like “SEO”!) were poorly defined. The posts have since been edited to reflect the fact that we both (Larry, as the author, and me, as the blog manager) agree the posts were potentially misleading.
But, shitshow aside, there was some really interesting debate in the comments! There were also a couple of related posts this week that I want to bring to your attention, in case you missed them.
Undebunking (Rebunking?) the Myth of the Long-Term Value of SEO
Michael Martinez of SEO Theory directly addresses some of Larry’s points in a (characteristically) long and detailed post about “low-maintenance, long-term SEO .” Michael says that he agrees “whole-heartedly” with the claim that what qualifies as “good SEO” changes over time.
However, he totally disagrees with the idea that “SEO costs more and more to maintain over time.” And his point here is really important I think:
Well, frankly, the way I look at things (and I am only expressing an opinion), if your costs are rising and your return on investment isn’t rising correspondingly then you’re hardly optimizing for search — so whatever you’re doing really isn’t SEO.
The fact is, two things are true about our SEO costs at WordStream:
- Our SEO budget has been getting higher over time; we need to spend more to keep our SEO traffic numbers on the rise.
- We get ROI from that SEO spend; otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
What Larry’s post should have said (in my humble opinion) is that the actual dollar amount you spend on search marketing doesn’t really matter, as long as you are getting ROI on that spend. That’s true for SEO or PPC.
About that Whole “Good SEO” Question…
As I mentioned above, Michael Martinez didn’t quibble with Larry’s point that the definition of good, clean, Google-approved SEO has shifted over the years, but a lot of people did. For example, Nick Ker said “it really is not hard to tell where the line is. Just read Google's Webmaster Quality Guidelines and SEO Startup Guide … It really isn't a big mystery.”
Personally I think it’s a little more complicated than that. There are specific techniques that Matt Cutts used to talk about (e.g. PageRank sculpting and the use of rel=canonical tags on multi-page documents) that Google now says are overdoing it . The basic best practices may stay the same, but most people in the SEO industry have played around – sometimes extensively – with more advanced techniques that go beyond the basic stuff in Google’s webmaster guidelines. And that’s where you run into gray zones: What’s light gray today might be dark gray next year.
Aaron Wall at SEO Book released an infographic that addresses this question – what’s the difference between good SEO and SEO spam?  It lists out a bunch of tactics that are a no-no according to Google’s guidelines, but that Google freely engages in itself. The lesson for webmasters? As ever, do as they say, not as they do.
More Web Marketing Highlights
Google continues on its vertical acquisition streak with the announcement that it will buy Frommer’s travel guides  for an undisclosed amount.
Cyrus Shepard did some testing and found that changing his Google+ profile picture  (the one that appears in the SERPs if you’re using authorship markup) had a notable effect on click-through rate.
Here’s an interesting thread on Quora about its practice of hiding answers from search engine visitors . Is that Google-nay or Google-OK?
Filmmaker Errol Morris writes in the NYT’s Opinionator column about how font choice affects the believability of your claims . (Do NOT use Comic Sans in your board presentations!)
"Good versus Evil" image via Helico