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.

Local search experiment faces setback

Oh dear, this morning we had dropped down page four, from the number one spot to number six or so.

I linked from a relevant post at another one of my blogs to try and give the page a bit of a boost. I’m also going to go in and freshen it up since Google tends to reward new material.

Here’s the background if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Is SEO BS (cont’d)? The Digg Factor, subdomains and metatags

First off, many thanks to Guillaume Bouchard of NVI for his participation in the comments at Friday’s “More Reasons to call BS on the SEO/SEM industry” post. I don’t want to monopolize his time but, alas, every answer he gives raises new questions for me. I’d be interested in his take on why making the Digg homepage has proved so much more valuable for his projects than it did for Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0.

As for Guillaume’s comment that my articles don’t have the same impact because they’re on a blogspot subdomain, I’d like to see some actual sources on that theory because I’m having a bit of a hard time with it. If he’s saying that one extremely successful Canpages blog post can cause traffic to the entire directory site to explode and that this would not be the case with a blogspot address, I’d like to know in layman’s language exactly why this would be so.

Frankly, one of the things that bugs me about the whole SEO world is that its denizens often don’t address well-known conflicting opinions. For example, last year, I posted on SEO hero, Marshall Simmonds, and his advice. He counsels, among other things, the use of metatags for every page, but when I looked into it further, I found that there’s a large constituency of opinion that’s been arguing for several years that metatags are obsolete, so what gives? And where is the person or article that says, “Look I know a lot of people will tell you that metatags are obsolete, but I think you should absolutely still be using them because of A, B and C.”

More reasons to call BS on the SEO/SEM industry

I’ve said before that I’m sceptical about the SEO/SEM industry — and here’s yet another example of why.

Guillaume Bouchard from the Montreal Montreal-based SEO/SMO firm recently told a conference how he used social media tools to generate brand awareness and increase the “online street cred” of Canpages, a Canadian directory company competing against Yellow Pages Group in Canada. The Praized Blog reported:

It starts with the creation of original and quirky content in the Canpages blog. His team then seeds that content in the various social news sites like Digg and Reddit. Working with a large network of friends and contacts, he’s able to catch the eye of online influencers who might (or might not) promote that piece of original content.

His best success so far with Canpages has been this blog post about “Weird Canadian Restaurants”. It was submitted to Digg and generated 676 diggs and 101 comments. It was promoted to the first page of the site and generated good traffic (he did not disclose how much) for the Canpages blog. It was also favorited by people in StumbleUpon, another social tool that has the reputation of driving a lot of traffic. The post was well enough crafted to be picked up by Dan Mitchell from the New York Times, which generated some more traffic to the Canpages blog.

Ok, fine. So I decided to see how Canpages ranked when I googled Montreal restaurants and the answer was nowhere in the all-important top-10 Google results. Sure it’s there for Canadian restaurants, but who googles Canadian restaurants when they’re in a Canadian city looking for a place to eat? That’s why it’s way easier to rank high for Canadian restaurants than Montreal restaurants — because it matters way, way less.

Now, I do think the Canpages blog has some fun content like this post on plumbers, but surely it’s not a coincidence that it uses the same photos of Lee Marvin and Joe Cocker as this earlier piece on famous plumbers. You’d think that at least some credit would be due, given that this is social media, after all, and that the web has a link-driven attention economy, but, alas, there’s not even so much as a mini-font hat tip.

What’s more, when I google Montreal plumbers, Canpages doesn’t make the top-10. Only its paid ad appears on page 1 of the Google results.

While I definitely think this is a potentially interesting strategy that may pay off in the long-term, it also doesn’t strike me as SEO but rather as good old fashioned content creation. And isn’t it rather ironic that the ultimate confirmation of “online street cred” is delivered by that number one bastion of the MSM, the New York Times?

As Jason Calacanis pissed off alot of SEO types by saying, most SEO is BS, and if you create good content, they will come — and the Google rankings will follow. It’s entirely possible that all this quirky blog content will help Canpages catch up to the Yellow Pages, or maybe the New York Times will realize that, with its headstart, it could still win at this game by beating out all those others who need its links for “online street cred.”