SEO: What Works and What Doesn’t (Spoiler: Cheating Doesn’t)

two hands holding a small plant with a banner that says social media management across it

If I had an “I told you so” dance, it would look like this blog.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a little bit of a nerd with a real passion for apple polishing. Which is one of the reasons I always disliked the practice of SEO or Search Engine Optimization. When clients or companies I worked for asked for SEO, I did everything I could to change their minds about it, and if I couldn’t turn them off the idea, I would tell them to find someone else. This is because the practice of traditional SEO is totally cheating. While I may have some rough edges here and there, I really can’t stand a cheater.

Anybody who owns a domain name (which should be all of you, BTW) has gotten spam emails and comments on their site promising a massive influx of web traffic overnight. This is the very bottom of the barrel of the SEO community, but their practices aren’t that far from what a legitimate SEO manager would do for you in the long run. Which is to get you blacklisted from Google so that even if you change your ways, your URL will forever be unsearchable.

The only way to come back from a Google blacklist is to buy a new URL and start over. Google, of course, is extremely tight-lipped on how their search algorithm works or what exactly will result in a blacklist, or if there is, in fact, even a blacklist in the first place.

SEO is like website doping. The basic principal is to trick the Google spiders, the web crawlers that employ Google’s super-secret, ever-changing search algorithm, into thinking your site is more relevant than it actually is. To that end, SEO managers purchase piles and piles of URLs like redshoes.com, tennisshoewharehouse.org, and shoesforsale.net and turn them into backlink warehouses. They fill the site with embedded links like “buy shoes” that track back to your site. They also write terrible and unhelpful articles that they stuff into free article sites like articles.com, the only purpose of which is to make it look like a variety of different people are talking about you and recommend your product.

I admit, as a young and hungry college graduate I wrote a few of these very awful sham articles. I was not popular with SEO managers because I tried to make my articles at least marginally helpful and wasted valuable backlink space with things like reasearch and sentence structure. We can’t all be good at everything. Besides, this is where I learned how to hate SEO.

Working online and being an SEO detractor wasn’t always easy. Before this year, when Google released two back-to-back updates called Penguin and Panda that cut SEO off at the knees, backlinks and article farms where extremely successful. It was really difficult to convince people to stay away when competitors were shooting to the top of the Google rank for just a couple hundred dollars a month sometimes. I felt very much like the only bank not offering sub-prime loans for awhile there. I even started to doubt myself, maybe this is a “pay to play” situation, and I just have to get on the SEO bandwagon. But Penguin and Panda meant sweet vindication.

SEO managers will try and tell you that the medium is not dead, but content producers like myself, who have been working on adding real value to the sites we work with know the truth. If you’re making something online and you haven’t left that space better than you found it, you’re doing it wrong.

The real way to optimize your search results is, and always has been, though principled content production. Link to relevant articles, create unique content, make things that people want to talk about and comment on, ensure that your site is accessible to disabled people, and your Google rank will rise. Slowly. But solidly. And the traffic you get will be meaningful.

It’s not called the high road because it’s easy to get to.