The perils of search engine optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) tactics often make it harder for customers to do what they need to do.

If Google wanted to get found in Google would it have the homepage it has? No. It would have a homepage with lots of content on it. This content would repeat keywords such as “search engine.” For example, a classic SEO statement would be. “Search with our search engine. We are the best search engine to help you search.”

The above is clever SEO but dumb content. But variants of this dumb content are being produced by a great many sites in order to “get found”. Let’s get back to Google. Today I searched for “search engine” on Google.

The first result was for Wikipedia, then came Dogpile,, DuckDuckGo, Bing, etc. The Google search engine didn’t appear until the third page of results, which means it might as well be sitting on top of Mount Everest from a search findability perspective.

The Google homepage is absolutely atrociously optimized for search engines, but tremendously well optimized for people who search. The Google design is focused on what the customer wants to do, which is to search and find stuff. Google is not focused on getting itself found but on helping customers find.

Strangely, many websites don’t have that focus. What needs do you satisfy? How well do you satisfy them? These are vital questions to answer.

Yes, it’s important to get found. But what happens after you get found is crucial. From a customer’s point of view, finding a particular website is just the first step in completing a task.

Google wasn’t always popular. Once upon a time it was a totally unknown website run by two students. Its strategy to get found was based on being useful. That’s by far the best philosophy. Let’s focus much more on helping people be successful once they get to our website.

That may mean doing the exact opposite of what many SEO tacticians tell us to do. I have seen many examples of when 80% of the content got deleted from a site; sales jumped, support calls dropped and general customer satisfaction rose significantly.

There’s no point in bringing lots of people to your website if they are going to feel frustrated and annoyed when they get there. You must focus on helping them do what they need to do as quickly as possible. That very often means reducing pages and then stripping as much content as possible out of the pages that remain in order to simplify them.

Of course, it’s not always about removal. I have worked with websites where they didn’t have enough content in particular areas. The larger point here is that we should not focus on the content itself. If Google did that it would have a content rich homepage that would be terrible to use. And if that were the case, we wouldn’t be talking about Google because nobody would be using it.


8 responses

  1. Gerry, you’re describing on page SEO from 5 years ago and more. There are hundreds of factors involved in the ranking of a site, some on-page some off-page (links) and other technical factors. Writing content like you describe now would likely result in worse rankings - the Google Panda update tries to remove low quality pages such as that from the index (see ).

    Google pioneered the ranking of results based upon the incoming links and analysis of the anchor text used to describe the page or site being linked to. If you analysed the inbound links to those sites you may find that fewer people link to Google with an anchor text of search engine than other results.

    Also, and I think most importantly in this case, Google aggressively use user data from users of their site to help influence the rankings. I dare say that users searching for “search engine” on Google rarely click the Google result. Therefore that result will drop lower over time as it would appear to their algorhythm that users don’t want to visit the google site for the search term “search engine”.

  2. There is a fundamental dilemma / issue here. It’s all very well to say (old-fashioned) SEO can make your pages less effective. But few sites can rely on a fundamental advantage in the service it offers to build traffic, which Google did when starting out.

    Firstly, the sample content is not optimised in that it doesn’t read well. Over the years I have taught a lot of small business clients that they need to rethink content if it becomes clunky or reads like you are forcing keywords into it. Indeed, the sample content could actually hurt your SEO as it is “over optimised”.

    A good SEO understands that content needs to work for people and engines. The challenge is to balance those needs and generate traffic from engines that takes the actions your site promotes.

  3. In response to clever SEO/dumb content: Google is making it easier for SEOs by becoming more “synonym-savvy”. This enables copy writers to write better content for readers and still get the SEO in the text. Here’s a conversaion between an SEO copy writer and Matt Cutts of Google explaining this:

  4. Thank goodness! Let’s have an end to the trash talk about SEO that has blighted the work of copywriters for the last decade.

  5. Most SEO is voodoo: a lot of handwaving and then, if the site rises slightly in the rankings, through normal, random fluctuations, “We’ve succeeded - pay us more money”, but if it stays the same or drops “Ah, something wasn’t quite right, let’s try again - pay us more money.”

    People think SEO is a magic bullet but it’s not. Google is a popularity contest and the ONLY way to get on that first page is to be a really good website. I always tell people: if there was any way to cheat Google, everyone would do it, we’d all move up and the ranking would look the same.

    There are things to avoid, which will drop you down the google ranking, but little if anything you can do to move up it. Sites that do well on Google are there because lots of people visit them and lots of people use them, and that’s simply because they are very good sites. End of.

  6. I think you make some valid points, Liam, but it would be still true to say that the Google homepage is not well optimized for being found but it is tremendously optimized for people who want to search. There is a real challenge / balancing act between creating really simple pages and pages that work well with search engines.

  7. Agreed, Mike. The best SEO is: be useful.

  8. I dare say that users searching for “search engine” on Google rarely click the Google result. Therefore that result will drop lower over time as it would appear to their algorhythm that users don’t want to visit the google site for the search term “search engine

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