Letting go of SEO

If you want people to be able to find your site on Google, Bing or any other search engine, you are best off forgetting about SEO. Here’s why.

Search engine optimisation or SEO, as it is frequently called, is the practice of optimising your website so that it ranks as highly as possible in search engine result lists. Ranking highly in search results is a good thing, because it brings more traffic to your site. But is SEO really the best way to do that?

The primary goal of search engine providers, such as Google and Bing, is to help their users find the web content that best matches what they are looking for. The better they are at doing this, the more highly regarded they are. Google became  a household name because they did a much better job at this than any other search engine at the time. 

It is not the purpose of search engines to put your website on the first page of results. Search engines don’t care what website owners want, only what their users want. Never-the-less, SEO strategies are about achieving the high search rankings that website owners crave.

SEO has been around as long as there have been search engines. In the early days some website owners would try and trick search engines into ranking their sites highly by putting “hidden” frequently searched words on their web pages. For example, the word “sex” might appear hundreds of times on a page that had had nothing to do with that topic. Webmasters would use tricks like making the text white on a white background so that people viewing the page couldn’t see these words. But search engines reading the HTML code on the page could see it. People searching for “sex” would find your page even though it had nothing to do with what they were searching for. Search engines got wise to this and started excluding such sites from search.

The next trick was to put lots of misleading keywords in the web page’s metadata. Metadata is information that is included with the web page, but not displayed on screen. The primary purpose of keyword metadata was precisely so the site owner could tell search engines what the page was about. The search engine could then match up the keywords with the search terms people were entering. Because the use of keywords was being abused for “SEO”, most search engines now ignore keywords altogether.

Just as search engines have evolved and refined their methods for ranking web pages, so too have some people tried to find new ways to trick them into ranking their pages more highly, even though they may not best match what the searcher is looking for. This in turn drives further changes in search engines to exclude these new tricks. Any SEO strategy that relies on tricking search engines into ranking your page more highly than it should is going to lead you into a never-ending game of cat and mouse with search engine providers.

Not all SEO strategies involve trying to trick search engines. Many instead rely on presenting your website in the best possible way to search engines so your pages rank as highly as possible, without resorting to any tricks. These strategies often rely on best-practices that search engine providers themselves publish. However, recently it has emerged that Google may penalise your site if it thinks you are making changes to try and improve your rankings, even if you are just following their own guidelines. So what do you do?

Forget SEO! Think about the primary goal of search engines, which is to link their users with the sites that best match what they are searching for. Make your site the best possible site for your intended audience, and in the long run your search engine rankings will look after themselves. In future articles we will look at just how to do that.

Published: Monday, 10 September 2012