Do Search Stats Dictate Your Agenda?

The latest trend in perfecting “the message” in the internet age has been to optimize content for search engine indexing, aggregation, and delivery through the voodoo of search engine optimization – SEO. Let me be plain: I think most sites and web services are spending too much time worrying about what the Google crawler sees. I can hear every one of you website statisticians howling at me right now. “We get so much traffic from Google results, it just doesn’t compare to direct hits.” I know, I know, and I’m not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand and ignore those numbers. Instead, I think most site administrators are aiming their efforts at reaching the 10-yard line, instead of the end zone. Walk with me… Off the top of your head, what do you think are the most important things to include on a site that will improve your SEO? If content wasn’t the first or most emphatic idea you had, you’re doing it wrong. Under Google’s own Webmaster Guidelines, the following appears as the third bullet in the “Design and content guidelines” section, after emphasizing internal linking and site map submission.

Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.

Keep in mind that the focus of the page is on how to build crawler friendly pages. The “Quality guidelines” are even better. Here Google is pushing the need to avoid the blacker arts of SEO voodoo, such as link schemes, but here’s how they start…

Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as “cloaking.” Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

Seeing the pattern? Even when the king of search engines is focused on talking SEO, they talk early and often about the importance of building a positive, informative user experience. Sure there are other tasks you need to do in order to get properly listed—meta tags, submit your site for searching, build a sitemap, etc.—but you’ll see the best results by building a library of good content. However, note that I said “primary focus;” You are seeing a significant influx of users from searches, after all, so I’m not suggesting that you leave them out in the cold. Just keep in mind that at the end of the search is a real person, who wants to see real content.**

** Good content equals users, equals links, equals page rank, and the numbers should ideally help you identify hot spots and weak points in your digital library. To place your primary focus on anything else is rolling the dice on what Google and other search engines think of your stuff. That may get users to the site, but it won’t keep them there. I say all this because the negative effects of misplaced emphasis run deep on a lot of sites. Placing time and energy onto a search crawler’s keyword hits detracts from your efforts to enrich your visitors’ experience. It’s a 1:1 inverse relationship, and applies to every site regardless of staff size… * Did you put a designer or developer in charge of your SEO effort? Fairly obvious time-share problem there. * Oh, you went all out and hired someone explicitly for SEO purposes? How about hiring someone to write more content instead, or even gasp! another developer? Lord knows there’s always plenty to do, and never enough developers on staff to do it (at least that’s been my experience; if a developer is reading this because his/her plate is clear right now, please drop me a line informing me where I can submit a resume). * If you have gobs of money and can hire all the staff you need, I suggest you ask your developers and designers how much time a week that SEO person (or people, ick…) saps away from tangible site development.

Regardless of your SEO approach, I can promise you that any excessive attention to it is detracting in some real way from what should be your true goal: delivering an ever-better experience, leaving your users more satisfied with each return visit.