Another Week, Another Battle in the War on SEO

September 11, 2017

If you've been working in the search marketing industry for long, you know that every so often some scheming troll (or major news corporation) comes along and delivers a rant against SEO, usually including most if not all of the following sentiments:

  • Search engine optimizers are snake oil salesmen (Would that those fighting the war on SEO were also familiar with the war against cliché)
  • SEO is just common sense; it's obvious
  • Most of what SEOs do is smoke and mirrors
  • SEOs are scam artists
  • Information on optimizing a site is freely available on the web, so why pay for it?

This week, that troll was a Derek "Powa-jerk" Powezek (hat tip to Ken for the wrestling name), who I guess is a designer (his actual job titles include Creative Director and "Chief of Awesome"). Powazek's rant about how SEO is "poisoning the web" brings very little that's new to the table: a snake oil here, a scam artist there. He makes the classic specious argument about there being no reason to pay for SEO:

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.

Among the "obvious" holes in this argument: Time is money, dogg. A lot of business owners don't want to spend their time educating themselves about how to do SEO—even if there's a lot of free information on the web—when they have so many other demands on their time. It's actually way more cost-effective for them to pay someone else to do it. Same reason why lawyers don't wallpaper their own offices just because there's an eHow page about it.

Furthermore, however obvious SEO may seem to Powazek, a lot of people still don't get it—even the very basic stuff he thinks (or pretends to think) SEO is limited to. You can tell an old-school journalist, for example, that headlines need to include keywords, and first up, they'll balk and scoff; next they'll pick an arbitrary phrase and call it the keyword. It doesn't help to know that the headline should include keywords if you don't know how to do keyword research and probably don't want to.

Powazek's arguments would only be convincing to people who already agree with him (kind of like a Michael Moore movie—watching some guy be mean to Charlton Heston isn't going to turn my Republican father into a supporter of gun control); his audience, clearly, is other web designers who seem resentful/fearful of SEOs encroaching on their territory and poaching their work. He's preaching to the (willfully ignorant) choir. Take this commenter on the post:

Right on the money, Derek. There is no real world value in SEO. It’s smoke and mirrors to make it look like you’re doing something for your client when you’re actually sitting around getting paid to ruin the internet [emphases mine]. Thanks, douchebags.

Where does this inane idea that SEO is "ruining the internet" come from?? Powazek says: "It’s not your job to create content for Google. It’s their job to find the best of the web for their results." Well, clearly, Google isn't doing the best job of that if they're turning up spam for your (vanity) searches and raining all over your internet parade. Spam is created by spammers, not SEOs. The point of SEO is make damn sure that Google finds you, and many of the principles are actually ways to avoid looking like (or being) spam.

SEO isn't about "tricking people into visiting your site" any more than web design is about tricking them into looking at it. SEO is about making yourself as accessible as possible to the people who can benefit from what you offer. Powazek's advice for "getting your name out there" is to forget about SEO, just build something great and "Then tell people about it. Start with your friends." Sorry, but telling your friends isn't a business model—your friends aren't usually your customer base.

Per usual, a number of people in the SEO community leaped to the defense of SEO and poked holes in Powazek's argument. The responses include:

  • Danny Sullivan's open letter to Powazek: "The stuff that you think isn’t rocket science — that anyone knows — is indeed a mystery to others. They want help, and sometimes they can’t find that web developer who also understands SEO issues. In the same way, you sometimes don’t find web developers who are also designers. Or designers who understand conversion issues. Or conversion experts who understand web development."
  • Peter Da Vanzo on SEOBook: "The problem with 'making something great' is that the search engine may not think it is great. This is because a search engine is stupid. It's a machine. And like any stupid machine, it may not recognize greatness, especially if it can't crawl it, or if that greatness doesn't exist in a form it finds palatable. SEOs help make sure the search engines don't miss greatness."
  • Virginia Nussey of Bruce Clay Inc.: "Sure, it's obvious common sense. Once you know what, why and how. Too bad few business owners know the what, why and how yet. Most business owners have never heard of SEO, or thought in-depth about the opportunity afforded in search, or considered how navigable their Web site is for people (let alone for the most important traffic referrer at their disposal: the search engine)."
  • SEO by the Sea's Bill Slawski: "The practice of SEO isn’t spamming the Web […] it’s helping people make intelligent and creative decisions that help them reach an audience that is interested in what they have to offer." Bill also offers 10 good, thoughtful questions "that search engine optimizers might come across, that I wouldn’t expect most developers to have spent much time thinking about."
  • Greg Jarboe on Search Engine Watch: "Apparently, Powazek missed the 2005 post by Gord Hotchkiss, who retold the story of my dinner with a black hat SEO. In between the courses, a confession came out that stopped me in my tracks: 'Black hat stuff is getting too hard. I'm actually thinking about turning legit.'"

Sadly, I don't expect any of these calm, rational responses to sway the angry anti-SEO crowd. We too are preaching to the choir.

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Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.