#002 - Why do I shudder every time someone says SEO?
I have a long standing and well-documented struggle with the phrase 'SEO'. Let's journal about it.
Want to hear a red flag statement?
“I can optimise your SEO”
Not just because they’re saying, “I can optimise your optimisation”, but because it reflects a trend toward considering SEO as a single, monolithic, silver bullet thing.
It’s where ‘SEO’ has become a standalone
buzzword tactic, instead of the culmination of the many content interventions that can optimise your content to be read by humans (and also search engines).
It’s why I have a well-known response of yelling “SEO isn’t a real thing!” at anyone who will listen. Although that’s mainly just business owners asking my opinion on the cold email they just received, offering them their chance to “rank #1 on Google”.
Optimising for search is a byproduct of doing everything else in a human focused way.
Yes, you can do things that may help search engines (which, let's be honest, usually means Google) better find, and be more likely to serve up your content. But even Google doesn’t want you putting them first.
A lot of people make a lot of money selling SEO services.
Some of those people are very clever and ethical and deserve all the success in the world.
Some of them (at least based on the bills and results I've seen) are downright dodgy.
Too many businesses have been burnt by backlink factories, churn and burn blog writers, and following “hacks” built to serve algorithms, not people.
A new copywriter recently asked me,
"How is SEO copywriting different to standard copy? Is the intention with SEO to get Google's attention first and then the audience?"
Like all digital marketers, people who specialise in selling SEO services are really good at marketing SEO services. Over time, this has created an environment where we think of SEO as a stand alone thing, with entirely different priorities on content than other disciplines.
There are people who focus on getting Google’s attention first and then the audience.
But what does Google say?
"Focus on people first content".
This is from their August, 2022 'Helpful Content' update. But even they say that the advice “to create content for people, not for search engines” is “long-standing” (own emphasis).
The drive to make content helpful, useful, usable, readable, isn’t new.
But in a world where we feel like we need to create for algorithms (whether that algorithm belongs to Google, Meta, ByteDance or someone else) it bears reiterating.
We’re all part of the problem
The more we publish online, the more we make our own lives harder.
Let’s take a short, and entirely selfish, trip back in time to 2008.
There was a lot less stuff on the internet in 2008. And it was already huge.
I was the Australian Community Manager for an online business networking platform (it struggled to make a mark next to this other growing platform on the market, LinkedIn, maybe you’ve heard of it?).
Every week, I'd write a series of blogs to attract new users. Our content niche? Almost anything. Our blogs? Short, snappy, summaries of information you could find elsewhere. The headlines? Packed full of buzz words that people might search for.
We published with great abandon, but without a great understanding of our audience, and without adding anything new.
It was the ideal 2008 content strategy.
The late 00s and early 2010s were marked by a feeling of “too much, too fast” when it came to online content. And in many cases we’ve kept up this pace of publishing.
The “internet” grows exponentially every day.
The more and more stuff we publish. The more and more stuff we have to sift through to get to what we really want.
So, we have clever search algorithms do the job for us, or we'd never find what we were looking for.
Every day, smart people at places like Google work to build a smarter search robot that thinks like a human, so they can serve us the exact answer to our questions. Yes, these are highly technical Sarah terms for what actually happens at Google outside of playing ping-pong and chilling on bean bags.
The problem with how most people view SEO is that they create content for a robot that's trying to be a human, instead of just creating for the human that the robot is trying to be.
Unless you control the algorithm, the other ways you're driving visitors to your site, and every other potential publisher on the internet, you can't guarantee where your content will appear on a search results page.
All you can do is influence.
It's [insert tech bro's company here]'s sandpit and we're just playing in it.
Taking a people-first perspective
When I say “SEO isn’t a thing”, what I really mean is I don’t like when people use ‘SEO’ as a phrase, in a way where it is,
Considered as a single specialist technical activity, done outside of conversations about the audience and user journeys.
Prioritised over human driven content.
Driving bad behaviour.
Cause yeah, there is a lot of bad behaviour excused under the guise of SEO. Things like,
Churning out content just to get traction with search engines, not because it adds value to your audience or because it offers something new to the discussion.
Using AI or content factories to answer common questions, with little consideration of the usefulness or quality of the content.
Keyword stuffing, where keywords shouldn't be stuffed. For example, you can find advice out there to fill your image alt tags with search terms. Alt tags are designed to provide alternative access to visual content, maybe through a screen reader or through how it appears on screen if the image can't be downloaded. Stuffing them with search terms instead of a description of the visual content? Not useful and frankly a dick move.
Good search performance comes from good content and a technically sound website.
So what does it mean to create human driven content?
One way is to think of all the things that make you cranky on the internet, and not do that.
Make it useful. Answer audience questions, using the words and phrases your audience use. And, if you promise something in the heading, deliver it in the content.
Make it logical. Structure your content with logical heading levels. Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 etc aren’t just there for fancy formatting. They help all people - and search engines - scan your content with their eyes, ears (for those using screen readers), and little robot tentacles.
Make it findable. Just because I talk trash about the phrase ‘SEO’ on the internet, doesn’t mean I don’t think search engines are super important. If it makes sense, create multiple pathways into your content, and if you know it's useful, and you know it's high quality, and you know what fields are searchable, use them.
Make it accessible. Colour contrast, font choice, alt tags, appropriate labelling - there are so many things that contribute to digital access. Actively research what makes your content accessible, and do it.
Make it meaningful. That is, name things in a meaningful way. For example, page labels, and image and video files.
Make it work. Make sure your site loads quickly, and works across different devices.