Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Search engine optimization: snake oil?

Search rulz! Yes, we all know that making sense of the online morass usually starts with search. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (in that order) control the majority of search. So what's a marketer to do about ensuring they are where their customer's action is?

Some pursue Search Engine Marketing (the Sponsored Links one sees in a search result).

Some pursue Search Engine Optimization (the 'organic' result).

In theory, search engine optimization is more credible or relevant...because it presumably reflects the truth of what your site contains. In reality, an entire industry has cropped up purporting to deliver superior organic results.

Two thoughts:

1. There are things you can do--and legitimate companies to help you do them--to garner effective organic results. These are not secrets. The search engines even tell you how to accomplish them (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo) on their sites about search.

2. There are promises that can be made--by companies who purport to know secret forumlas--that won't necessarily be fulfilled.

The major search engines don't want to tell you the specific algorithms they use (which are always changing)...what value would they have if everyone knew how to game them? They do want your site to be appropriately indexed...and they tell you how that works.

Here's Google's advice (from their webmaster guide [PDF]):

"Many site owners fixate on how well their respective web pages rank. But ranking is determined by over 200 criteria in addition to PageRank. It’s much better to spend your time focusing on the quality of your content and its accessibility than trying to find ways to ‘game’ a search engine’s algorithm. If a site doesn’t meet our quality guidelines, it may be blocked from the index."

So when pursuing an optimization strategy, here's 5 simple questions to ask a potential SEO partner...if they suggest a simple "yes" answer to any of these questions, you might consider a second opinion:

1. Can a number 1 page rank be guaranteed?
2. Are techniques used that are able to fool the search engine algorithm?
3. Does every website need a search engine optimization effort?
4. Are large lists of keywords necessary to be programmed into each page?
5. Will pages be created that only the search engines will see?

Search Engine Optimization isn't a miracle cure for ailing site traffic. And it's not a supernatural mystery to solve with chants and witch won't lend itself to simplistic will yield to best practices and logical actions...tied to site objectives, user needs, and the competitive space a site operates within. A trusted SEO partner knows this and shares it.

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