I had a chance to catch Craig Buckler over at sitepoint.com talking about 10 Common Mistakes Made by Novice Web Developers. Bullet point #9, "Scorning SEO," caught my eye. As Craig says, the way SEO is presented as "a mixture of psychoanalysis, technical complexity, and mysterious black arts," it's no wonder that novices scorn it.
Working as an online freelance writer, I have gone over the years from tolerantly humoring clients who want SEO magic, to strenuously warning clients that what they want is witchcraft, all the way to flat-out bolting from a client the second the subject comes up. Even if you're waving fistfuls of cash in my face and offering a sports-car as a signing bonus, merely mentioning SEO will suddenly cause me to realize that my schedule is way too full to accept new clients right now.
It's no longer a business question. It's just disturbing and scary now. I've become an SEOphobiac. It's like watching an emo cut themselves every day. Even if it's their body and you're very liberal, you eventually just don't want to watch any more.
Just browsing off the top, here's some of the amazing nonsense I see SEO people preaching. I'm not going to link to examples because I'm not singling people out and don't want to... upset them... but see if you recognize these:
One guy says that one-page sales-letter style sites work best of all. Think, when's the last time you saw one of these? You know, the kind "direct marketers" had on places like GEOCities? He goes on to say that this is because every time you force a user to click to a different page, more of them abandon the sales letter. How would you prove this? And what, are visitors these robots who are kept helpless reading long pages because they are powerless to escape?
The "keyword formula." You can recognize one of these mad SEO scientists when they spout pages of scientific-sounding phrases. "Long-term SEO strategy," "focus-selected keyword phrases," "optimal keyword attack formula," "backlink normalization," "optimally-related keyword phrases." There's this percentage, you want your content to have X% keywords. How much? 15%. No, wait, it's 3%. Actually it's 4.0032145%. Yeah. We tested it. We wrote random numbers down and showed them to the dog until he barked at one.
Then they turn around and debunk real jargon. One guy's putting down "latent semantic indexing," he says it's all hooey. To summarize in the quickest way, to avoid bringing actual tears of boredom to your eyes, it has to do with putting search terms into context. Like when you type in "hound dog," it should try to figure out from other words in your query whether you want the dog breed or the song made popular by Elvis (but written by Leiber and Stoller for Big Mama Thornton!). Anyway, this guy puts it down. Why? He says so.
People hate SEO because it works. Man, I'd love to link to this one, because it wins the circular reasoning prize if ever there was one. It also goes on to say, that SEO works because there's a market for it, that Google is lying about not liking SEO because Google hosts Webmaster Tools, and that it's the search engine's fault that we have to use SEO. This goes on for paragraphs. The same guy also uses "SEO" interchangeably as a noun, verb, title, adjective... "SEOs SEO their SEO SEO."
The limit to get into the first page of Google results for competitive terms is two years. Once again, how can you possibly substantiate that claim? I know legitimate websites that have been around for a decade that don't front-page for anything, despite books' worth of content, and yet, if, say, I started a new site about 'malignant mesothelioma' and got enough people on Digg to link to it through buying votes, it could pop to number one in a week. I just searched for that exact phrase and got one site on page one that whois says was created March 2009.
One guy says he uses a software tool to spy on his competitors and what "link baits" they are developing! Wow, that's pretty good. It reads minds? Right through the tin foil and everything?
Link exchange still works in Google. You see this insistence on clinging to decade-outdated tricks everywhere. No it does not work, Google says so. What do the nay-sayers do to back up their counter-claim? They just stand there going "Does too! Does too! Desu desu desu!"
And one guy announces the stunning discovery that you can improve the situation for a page ranking PR-0 by getting more links to it. Hey, finally, something that's definitely true! Of course, knowing that fact isn't the problem. It's like saying "water puts out fire." And all these years you've been using rubbing alcohol, you silly goose.
Woo, n., "a term used among skeptical writers for pseudosciences with certain common characteristics." To understand the spirit of this term, say "Wooooooooooo!" while making a fishface and dancing your fingers in the air, as if you were making fun of somebody for believing in ghosts. Now explain to your co-workers what you were just doing.
SEO is so infested with woo, you can mine it all day long and hardly come up with a true fact to show for your trouble. You really can't prove anything right and wrong most of the time. You can use common sense, though. You can simply ask, "Would a search engine that allowed itself to be easily gamed remain popular for long?" Let the implications of that hang in the air for a minute.
Perhaps it's just inexperience. Search engines have been big business for only about 15 years now, tops, and only about 12 if you count the dawn of Google as the start of the serious SEO arms race. It's the pioneer days, but time isn't going to heal this wound. I can tell, because I see the woo pile up and get worse every year.
You just have to wonder...
Update 11/27/10: And here's 5 terrible SEO tips, which goes to show how much snake oil there is being pushed out there. About half the SEO "experts" you'll find out there still believe in keyword stuffing, cloaking, and link farming.