Okay, maybe ‘hate’ is a strong word, but Search Engine Optimisation (or SEO, presumably pronounced ‘Cee-O’ by some just to accentuate its general gittish-ness) is one of those things that makes my skin crawl, like millipedes or Piers Morgan. Back in those dark pre-Internet days, when men were men and women weren’t, the most your typical SME could do to optimise its chances for being discovered by people was to give more money to the Yellow Pages who would then give them more real estate in its gloriously monochrome tome. Or, you know, they could actually do a decent job and get some good word of mouth going.
Nowadays when everybody has a website or a Facebook page or, most probably, both, the SEO company has arisen from the primordial soup with its promises of more visitors, more business and more money. The concept is simple: in today’s information-saturated world, the average Joe will, when faced with a need to find a company that offers a product or service, head straight to Google and type in the name of that product or service. Given that almost every search term nowadays will result in around 500,000 results, Average Joe will then be confronted with a plethora of pages stretching far into the ether. They will panic and click on the first link they see, after the yellow sponsored ones that everyone ignores. Please note that I may have over-simplified my description here for the purposes of mockery.
All of this means that it’s very important that your website gets as close to the top of the results as possible, and this is where SEO comes in. If you so wish, you can bung an SEO chappy (or chap-ess, the industry has no barriers to sex) a chunk of cash and they will analyse your website and tell you what you can do to make it more appealing to those robotic spider things that index search engines (and hopefully aren’t the same robotic spider things that were in the Matt Le Blanc/Gary Oldman film version of Lost In Space, otherwise we’re all in trouble). One of my problems with this is that, in my experience, your typical SEO analysis will probably tell you a mixture of the following things:
- You need to use some meta tags in your web pages, even though they will admit that Google doesn’t really use them any more (though Yahoo might, and we will all know how many people still use that);
- You need to use <h1> and <h2> tags to put your headings in;
- You need to have a single paragraph somewhere that Google can display as content text;
- You need to link to other sites which are highly linked, like Wikipedia, even if they have no relevance whatsoever to your contents;
- You need provide a site map;
- You need a robots.txt file. Nobody really knows what these do;
- You need a lot of static content as search engines can’t as easily index dynamic stuff (depending on how it’s done);
- You need URLs that mean something, so http://www.yourwebsite.com/this_page_shows_photos_of_cakes/ rather than http://www.yourwebsite.com/products.php?cat=3 .
See? I’ve just done an SEO analysis for you, and it’s cost absolutely nothing. No, no need to thank me, I do it all for the sake of humanity.
Aside from the fact that 90% of what an SEO company will tell you will be the same no matter what your business, the other thing that annoys me is that their strategies either don’t work, or they don’t work, and that’s even worse. As quite a regular user of the Internet, I get increasingly frustrated by all of these sites which have been designed and tweaked just to get Google’s attention. As a programmer, I often have to search for specific phrases to find out just why (for instance) GlassFish server isn’t working in the way I’d expect it to. What I’m usually confronted with is a hit that seems to provide exactly what I’m looking for, but in actuality is just a web page listing the search term that I’ve just given and no content whatsoever. Or I get Experts-Exchange.com, they always come up.
By promoting certain tactics to get people higher up search rankings, SEO companies are making these rankings less useful for everyone. Of course, Google often change their KFC-style secret formula to try and combat this, but for all their annoyance, the SEO people are clever and persistent. It’s ultimately self-defeating, though, because the more things that get to the top when they obviously shouldn’t be – and people are generally quite good at spotting this – the less we’ll all trust the results and, therefore, the top position is lessened in importance.
I can see why businesses feel the need to use SEO, particularly if all their competitors are, but really it’s a result of the fact that the Internet is still a very new thing and we don’t truly understand how it can be used or how it can make money for people. There’s still a big confusion between the Internet as a searchable repository of all humankind, and the Internet as a place where business can be conducted. Google and other search engines attempt to coagulate both, and are being exploited by the latter at the expense of the former.