Saturday, 26 February 2011

What's Really Wrong with SEO?

I have little sympathy for companies who've been doing SEO and are now finding it not working and I find it most surprising that people are objecting to Google's recent changes. So here I try to spell it out in the most elementary terms what is wrong in principle with SEO as a practice.

Writing content to improve your search engine rank is like teaching to the test. It's letting that which is supposed to be measured, the quality of your webpage, be shaped by the metric, its position in search results pages, rather than the qualities the metric is designed to measure. Good metrics should be indicators of success, but that can be undermined when there is a focus solely on the metric at the expense of that which the metric is supposed to measure. If your scores are improving as you pursue the real objective, e.g., good authoritative content or clear understanding of the subject material, that's very likely as it should be. And if you're successfully chasing the objective and the metrics don't reflect it, possibly so much the worse for the metric.

But one should never make the metric itself the primary goal. The reasons should be obvious. One may very well end up over-fitting to the metric and gaining "improvements" because one has keyed in on secondary or indirect or ephemeral, but easily quantified, features of the quality under consideration. As the metric becomes better understood by those being measured, those indirect features are then purposefully exaggerated and, as a result, no longer act as reliable indicators of what they once indicated. Consider link text, the feature that Google used to use so heavily. At one time it was a great indicator of popularity. But as soon as people realized that Google perceived it as an indicator of popularity, they started using it to create the impression of popularity and it ended up becoming a far less reliable indicator.  Of course, Google had to change the extent to which they relied on it to measure popularity. This is inevitable when everyone attempts to game Google.  And we shouldn't be surprised or complain when Google changes their measurement tools in response to a change in the characteristics that they're trying to measure.

As an example of what I'm talking about, I read this objection to Google's attempt to penalize content farms. The author lists some methods of SEO:

* Research keywords
* Select keywords that have existing traffic
* Write pages based on those keywords
* Publish pages
* Get those pages ranked against those keywords

S/he goes on to ask, "How is this different to what a Content Farm does? So, if Content Farm pages are undesirable, so too is SEO content?"  (apparently "content farm" is worthy of capitalization!) Can you imagine the great writers of history using anything like these techniques for writing high quality material?  These aren't strategies indicative of someone trying to write useful, relevant, clear content; they're strategies for people trying to be manipulative, advertisers or propagandists. Insofar as people prefer not to get advertisements or propaganda in their search results, Google is right to penalize these methods. Rather than whining, people should go back to thinking about how to write web pages people want to read and let Google worry about ranking them.

No comments: