An open letter to SEO professionals

Smashing Magazine recently published The Inconvenient Truth About SEO by Paul Boag which roused some intense responses. The article was intended to be provocative and I think it was a brave decision for the respected site to serve it but I was still surprised by the heat of discussions. The author’s points are legitimate and while the article may be a slight to SEO bread-winners that doesn’t make it wrong. There is always an issue of faith when discussing search optimisation as advice is usually conjecture and often contradictory. As with many web issues there is no scientific right or wrong.

It’s no secret web designers and developers do not enjoy working with SEO companies but it isn’t (always) because we feel their advice is patronising, homoeopathic bullshit. While the SEO pros are riled I thought it would be a good time to clear the air, share grievances and move on.

“Provide information that isn’t scarce”

David-Michel Davis presented a short talk at Metaphwoar last year comparing American social media gurus to real-estate agents. While the presentation was for fun his summary was sincere, explaining that the information both provide is freely available and abundant. The same can be said for SEO, even the search providers themselves openly publish insight (including a YouTube channel straight from the horse’s mouth) into what they favour when crawling a website. Unlike social media or real-estate we’re working with open standards defined by an international community.

It takes a little savvy and time to aggregate the information out there but tools are freely available (and easy to use!) to analyse a page and suggest improvements. The bulk of my interaction with SEO companies has been via large binders filled with automatically generated lists that could realistically have been summed up in a few brief bullet points. Weight of paper handed over is not proportional to better value.

“Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines”

I have many change requests that hinder site usability and two are consistent bother. The obsession with page titles as buckets for keywords is ridiculous. Search engines do not have a hard time deciphering if a page belongs to a website but a user does if the page title is not succinct. A good page title for a taxonomical site may follow the pattern “Item name | Item category | Site name” which seems ideal; it should be unique and it’s easy to distinguish. Unfortunately we have often been advised to implement unwieldy patterns such as “Item name, Item keywords | Item category 3 | Item category 2 | Item category 1 | Site name, Site description” which is not designed for easy scanning and totally fucks over users accessing the site with assistive devices.

More seriously the practice of maintaining “link juice” by redirecting users instead of returning an error is confusing and disingenuous. Redirection is for pages that have moved and should not be abused for content that no longer exists. For example if a user follows a link to a product that is no longer in stock either tell them so or display a not found page with helpful suggestions of which action to take next. Automatically forcing a user to the product category or site home page is confusing and frustrating.

SEO ≅ Quality Control

The bulk of recommendations I’ve been provided with by SEO agencies can be filed under quality control. Budgets, deadlines, platform, scale and quality of testing influence how many bugs and details slip through but the bottom line is that good web developers know how to write HTML documents and structure a website. All projects need a keen eye and time to find issues, just don’t call this service “SEO” and pretend it is dark art for the enlightened.

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A photo of Matt Hinchliffe

About Me

I'm a 29 year old web developer building new stuff at the Financial Times based in London. I specialise in crafting scalable, performance-driven code, tackle accessibility issues and keep an opinionated interest in the latest hotness. I like my tea robustly brewed, white and with no sugar, thanks!