In which I clarify my feelings about SEO

I’ve said in the past that I’m deeply sceptical about the role of SEO in achieving good Google rankings, but, in light of what I’m seeing as a result of my local search experiment, I think it’s time for a clarification.

When I asked about SEO being BS, I should have been more specific. Certainly there are some basic rules of web writing which I think you’d be a fool not to follow if you’re concerned about rankings. Get your keywords up high, preferably in the title, and use them as much as you can without destroying your writing style. This may make for more repetitive word use than hardcore literary stylists prefer, but such is the way of the web.

My objection to the SEO industry is its promotion of the idea that SEO is more important than content in boosting your rankings because, while it’s old fashioned, I persist in the belief that content is still king.

My little local search experiment has, however, taught me just how effectively truly bad SEO can kill your good content, as the following results — taken from an actual search that landed the searcher at this blog — so aptly demonstrate. The only reason I’m beating the Gazette at its own game on its own turf is its abysmal SEO — or its complete lack of SEO.

Update on my local search experiment

Almost two weeks ago I started an experiment to see how fast a web page on this blog, featuring Montreal Italian restaurants, would move up in the search rankings.

My hypothesis was that newspapers could own this kind of local search if they’d just unlock some of the information hidden away in their archives and optimize it for search engines.

So, you ask, what have I discovered?

Well, despite having a page that would instantly confuse any first time visitor, my Italian restaurant page still ranks — at the time of writing —

on page three of the Google SERPs for “Italian restaurants Montreal.” That’s higher than any Gazette page on the subject, if only because there is no Gazette page on the subject, despite the fact that the source of much of my information was Gazette articles available online. The newspaper simply doesn’t organize or curate its articles in a way that makes sense to search engines and searchers.

I also noticed yesterday, after someone arrived here who had searched for “La Cantina restaurant Montreal,” that my page was on the first page of the Google SERPs for those keywords. Once again, the Gazette was nowhere in sight, but this time it wasn’t just due to failure to optimize content that was present online, but because its La Cantina review isn’t even available on the web. The citation I used came from a private database.

To really make my point — that newspapers could own this poorly served local search market in a flash — I would have had to be on page one of the Google rankings, but the fact that my confusing page — poorly designed to review restaurants and with zero brand recognition — is even where it is demonstrates that this market is wide open.

Newspapers, what are you waiting for? Consumers want the great content you already have. Get it up online and optimize it. Or some other smart aggregator — who isn’t just relying on empty restaurant templates and user generated content — is going to beat you to it. Tick tock…

Why does rank so high?

Whenevever I look at comScore ratings, I’m always floored by the results, and not just the fact that Yellow Pages ranks as high as it does but that it supposedly has almost half the number of monthly unique visitors as Google sites.

Frankly, I find that more than just a little hard to believe. I consider my online habits to be not unrepresentative and I certainly don’t have bookmarked and only use it if I do a Google search — usually for a local product or service — that brings the site up as top listing if not the top listing.

Just as the results it offered in print were always spotty, so too are the online ones, which is why I believe newspapers — with their archives of valuable content, reporters and connections to plugged-in local freelancers — could fairly easily grab a large portion of city search traffic and advertising.

Really, the only reason I can think of to explain the growth in the US — highlighted by this graph at Niki Scevak’s site — is that more people are searching online for local products and services than ever before.

Anyone else have a different explanation?

P.S. I’ll get graphs and tables up shortly but Blogger won’t let me for now.

Update: Yellow Pages does so well because it also includes white pages phone listings so every time you look for a number, they get clicks. Now, that makes more sense.