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What Do You Mean by SEO?

In this month’s newsletter on how SEO works, I mentioned an article published in the New York Times last year about a particular online retailer that had discovered a way to turn negative online reviews into an increased PageRank—something that should be discouraging to any consumer, or anyone at all for that matter. Reflecting upon this prompted some thoughts that didn’t make it into the final draft of the article but which are worth considering just the same…

A wise man once said, you can’t judge a philosophy by its abuse. True right? And yet, most of us do just that all the time. I can think of plenty of examples from every corner of my life, but here’s one that is relevant to you: I stumble upon quite a bit of material written about search engine optimization (SEO) on the web—most of it disparaging critiques of a system perceived to be against consumers, against design, and against truth. (In fact, one in particular prompted me to add this article topic to my editorial calendar in the first place.) Because SEO is a big part of what we talk about with our clients, I brace myself and read each and every one of these articles. Most of them misunderstand how Google works—among other facts—and just continue to propagate myths and bad practices. But you know what? Some of them also make great points about how frustrating the web experience can be due to very real abuses of SEO. But does that mean SEO is all bad? Well, it depends upon what you mean by SEO.

The trouble with acronyms is that, sometimes, the more they’re used the farther away their meaning gets from the original set of words they represent. So, from search engine optimization—the process of making information on a web page more available and understood through search engines, based upon an understanding of how they work—we get SEO, which can mean all kinds of things to different people. To some, SEO simply means a method of getting a website to be listed on the first page of Google search results. To others, SEO is a title—Search Engine Optimizer—for those who’s job it is to optimize their clients’ content. But neither idea is quite on point. Being listed on the first page of Google search results is meaningless unless it is for search queries relevant to the information contained in your content. And, in my opinion, anyone who creates content for the web should be a search engine optimizer. In fact, those who actually create the content are much more equipped to do this well than a third party, provided they understand how search engines work.

That idea—that if you create content, you should be proficient enough with search engine optimization to not need to hire a consultant—has been at the core of our SEO philosophy since the beginning. We don’t sell SEO services. Doing so would contradict almost everything that we’ve built our business upon, not least of which is the idea that a good website is one that is under your control.

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