John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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Maturity is Knowing You’re not All That

If there is one thing I have learned in life it is that I have a lot to learn. That is why I study. That is why I keep my eyes open. And that is partially why I suffer frustration and disappointment when I encounter cheaters who disregard the common good to gain some short-sighted goal (e.g. polluting to environment along the way to earning a living wage). I so wish they were not so ignorant, or that at least they recognized that they were capable of learning.

If people would simply recognize their own ability to learn and advance, we could all avoid some pretty dangerous situations (like global warming, or major recessions, contaminated drinking water, disease spread, vehicular accidents, etc). I do recognize situational blindness — the inability to see reality due to the stresses of a situation. In those cases, I look to those who have some influence over the situation to be responsible (the boss of that wage worker who knowingly pollutes the environment because that’s the only way he can accomplish his assigned tasks and get paid).

I believe in enlightenment. If you don’t, then please look back at your past and explain how you could have been so ignorant back then to have done what you did. The context doesn’t matter.. we can all look back and see when we did things badly because we simply didn’t know what we know now. And that demonstrates enlightenment. So, perhaps, we actually all do believe in enlightenment?

Anyway, a big part of maturity is knowing you’re not “All That“. Yes, you may be great and knowledgeable, but if you think you are ALL knowing or REALLY GREAT, chances are you will suffer some reality blindness. The consequences depend on your risk management, but for SEO people, thinking you really know what you’re doing across different web publishing situations can be an expensive trap to trip.

Here are just a few “basic SEO” questions which in my view, should challenge your confidence no matter what “level” of SEO you have achieved. I ask them directly in the common ways, but then add more detail in an attempt to better demonstrate the potential traps:

Q: Does the order of content within a web document matter for search engine optimization?

SEO people will tell you that an HTML table should be adjusted so the search engines get the meaty on-theme content first, instead of the column headings or row labels, and that makes great sense. Some SEOs will say go to CSS and stop using tables altogether, because the control CSS gives you on content positioning makes a big difference for SEO. Some people will say put the javascript into an include, so the search engine has a shorter path to the meaty content you want examined for theme relevance. Some still say the search engines only read 50 or 100k of content per document, and advise you to get your meaty content up front into that chunk. All seemingly sound arguments… but are they accurate?

Google has become very good at parsing web pages into segments, in order to “understand” the intent of the published page. This has been going on for over a year now. As Google parses the page and determines sectional intent (presumably in order to properly weight core relevant content more heavily than superfluous filler or cross-referencing content), how does content order play into that process? How does one tell? CSS is great for separating style from content, which can be a much biger aid to search marketing than positional ordering. HTML tables are an optimal tool for presenting tabular data, and in some cases tables are the only sensible way to mark up data (which should be styled via CSS).

Q: Do keywords in the folder and filename help search engine optimization?

Some SEOs say it doesn’t make any difference. Some say it helps a lot, and some even define an approach to setting keywords in folder names or filenames such that they exact-match search queries or Hn tags or page titles. Some SEOs say it might help, if not today then maybe tomorrow, so why not do it? Some SEOs recognize that creating keywordy folders and filenames can be a very large undertaking, as it represents a completely different content management approach (with filenames and locations now housing page-level meta data courtesy of that “SEO requirement”). Some might even suggest that for SEO, URL management can be even more important than content management. Who to believe? What to believe? Who is right? Personally I don’t think any SEO not integrally involved with the development team should pretend to suggest the right move in this situation.

Q: Which is more important, quantity of back links, quality of back links, or distribution of back links? Deep links to themed sub-pages, or themed links to the home page?

A great question, with a variety of answers posted all around the web. There has been so much focus on page rank and link juice flow and aggregate summation of linking effects, it often seems SEO people have completely forgotten that Google is a collection of smart people working on the search/Internet/relevance problem every day.

Google moved past much of that link stuff long ago. They use links and link profiles in creative new ways, whenever research suggests that links and link profiles strongly correlate with any signal of quality under consideration as a potential quality improvement opportunity. Sure they have problems countering paid links and third-party reciprocals and the like, but I doubt there is as much benefit to be had on that front compared to other fronts where Google might now be trusting linking and link profiles for select quality measures. Which is more important for ranking? How can any SEO defend taking a position on that, outside of the specific context of the site under consideration?

Q: What is the optimal length of a title tag?

I see this so much it hurts. Some SEOs say it should be an optimal length, while some say it should avoid being longer than some limit. Some say as short as possible to focus on the target keyword, and others say stuff it full of related keywords. Some point out that it’s a page element, not a tag, and cite W3C specifications for proper use. Who is correct? What is optimal for Google? For Yahoo!?

I could point to several live examples of almost every case. How then, do SEO people publish SEO advice on the topic with authority?

Q: Should I have one deep, rich web site, or should I break it into smaller, niche sites which follow some crafted interlinking scheme?

This also shows up on plenty of SEO forums and advice web sites, and is oft-debated on web master community sites like WebMasterWorld. Many have strong opinions, and state with authority why one should have one deep site or perhaps many small niche sites. Which is accurate advice? Which authority is really an authority?

Q: Should I worry about Yahoo! and Ask, or just focus on Google?

Many SEO people say Google serves all the traffic today, so best focus on SEO for Google. Some web publishers report that Yahoo” traffic converts better thanGoogle traffic. Some even state (with authority?) that Google traffic is more research-oriented, serving information seekers, while Yahoo! is more product-oriented, with more shoppers than information seekers. Some say Ask is not worth even considering, because it sends so little traffic. Which SEO advice is good advice? Who’s right? Or perhaps the best question to ask here, “What Say You, Mr Expert?

So then, who do you believe?

In my opinion, if you have strong convictions for any of the above questions, you maybe reality blind with respect to SEO. In my experience, each of these issues depends heavily on the specific markets and publishing scenario under consideration… or at last it may. We’d have to check, wouldn’t we? And if that is true, what is the measure of a good Search Marketer?

I put critical thinking at the top of the list, along with creativity, experience, and determination/passion, in that order. Least important, and potentially last on the list of factors to consider when choosing an SEO consultant? Public profile established via speaking engagements, professional association, or SEO information published with authority on the Internet. There are many other factors to consider when choosing any consultant (e.g. work habits, reliability, integrity, honesty) and some of those may be evaluated through examination of public speaking engagements etc., but when it comes to SEO qualification, in my view if you think you’re All That, you’re probably not.

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22 Responses to “Maturity is Knowing You’re not All That

  1. gamermk Says:

    I think the real difference that a qualified SEO can offer is actual proven results. If I were trying to actually be an SEO as my profession I would have to have numerous websites on the go testing the answers to your questions across various niche markets and trying to limit the number of variables as best I could. This would definitely require a ton of different unique websites, but the result would be actual useful information and guidance to offer your clients.

    I think that’s the problem with a lot of the SEO industry. Too much of it is read up on and not enough of it is consultants who can actually show you a site and say this site is working b/c I did this and this site is not working b/c I did this. This is the kind of site you want for this niche market and this should be your approach to the content of your site. Not to mention the following areas will offer you the best chance to acquire quality inbounding links.

    1. Test it.
    2. Recommend it.
    3. Go back to step #1, never skip it.

    Clients are not your testing ground. You need to have a testing ground and constantly be testing it for what works and doesn’t. Do your crazy stuff there and for clients use the techniques you know will lead to reliable long term gains.

    In the end this means to be a true SEO business today, you should have already been testing last year and more than likely the year before that too.

    Anyway I’m done now cause this is wicked long and perhaps somewhat ranty. Nice post John.

    @gemermk: While in theory your idea sounds good, in practice it doesn’t work. If I am active in your market already I am competing with you, intentionally or not. There is no way to manage the risk of complications from that, as every adjustment to the living body of indexed pages influencing a SERP has potential to disturb the client success negatively. The only model I know of that works in such cases is the traffic selling model, where the active SEO can offer his already-earned market share to the client. That doesn’t work well either, because there is a market for traffic already, and market forces will prevail, eliminating the value of the middleman in short order. That leads to the common perception that “any SEO worth his salt would not work for clients, because he could make a lot more working for himself”. I usually disagree with that position, because I enjoy working for clients and I know I deliver value. But if I were to work for clients within the same market as my own sites, I’m afraid those guys are right – it doesn’t make sense to give away those profits, even before considering the cost of the risks of conflict of interest.

  2. shor Says:

    Are there really any people who believe they ‘All That’ or omniscient when it comes to SEO?

    How is that possible if the goalposts in SEO are constantly moving?

    Webmasters and search engines are like blind men and elephants – what can we really see in front of us?

    The parts of the elephant that I can prod and poke may not be the same as Jo Blo webmaster. Heck, my elephant is a probably completely different size, type or age to what Jo Blo has in front of him.

    Will the blind man that has had the most experience with elephants have better advice that the blind man whose elephant most closely resembles mine?

    As you say, it all depends on the situation. Whenever I give search-related advice, I can only tell the audience that the evidence I present is based upon my own experience.

    However, I do believe that search marketers should pay even more attention to what current and ex-search engine employees like Matt and Vanessa say – as the one-eyed man in the land of the blind is king!

    @shor: I can’t say what they believe, but many of the presenters at search conferences state things very directly as fact with authoritative tone and assertion. Even the context supports that impression, as “panels of experts” and “Q&A”, “expert site reviews” etc. promise “the real facts” etc. on seo and search marketing. I’m not adressing the cases where disclaimers are made or fine print suggests your mileage may vary. I’m concerned by the fact that so few experts tell their audiences that these factors are market, niche, and search query dependent in many cases. In fact, I am not at all convinced they are aware themselves of that “fact”, or consider it probably, or possible, likely, etc.

  3. sir jorge Says:

    If the title is true I’ve been mature since age 12…the year I began calling myself and idiot.

    @jorge: too funny.

  4. Simonne Says:

    In the beginning I believed everybody, but very soon I got totally confused by so many contradictions, so now I believe only what I’ve tested myself and proved to work (and even then I still wonder if tomorrow rules won’t change). The funny thing is that clients have a hard time in understanding why I cannot promise them the first two spots on Google for certain keywords.

    @Simonne: Yes, but this is a technical field. There are reasons for everything that happens, whether caused by the Google Algorithm or a Google employee or a competitor. You can’t test and  deduce everything you need from your own personal experience, without limiting yourself to a pretty low ceiling. And at the same time: what you said. So is the search marketing community a complete failure, since it can’t support  its own members the way other industries support themselves?

  5. Danny Sullivan Says:

    Top of the list: decent client references (or other suitable, verifiable signs of success). That’s really important, too — because just as there’s no correct or easy answer on the issues, those answers can vary from client to client, site to site.

    Some SEOs are individuals who work only for themselves, on one site. They make assumptions based on one site that might not apply if they’d seen more. Individual working on multiple sites but doing all the same industry. What works for that class of sites might not fly with others. Working with a large corporation? What you can do with them for SEO — some of the brand things you need to consider and so on — may require entirely opposite advice that a smaller site might need.

    I get asked a lot about hiring search marketers. My advice is references. Get them, find search marketers with good references that seem to be working with businesses akin to your site and nature.

    @Danny: I’m afraid we disagree again (-ducking-). I have found references to be one of the most unreliable indicators of likely success in search marketing. A consultant can claim Colgate as a client, yet do nothing at Colgate but sit in on meetings at a divisional level, because the director has funds for research for a long term plan that is more likely to advance his career than rank in Google. Call and that exec will tell you what a great SEO mind he is, yet really — is that a valid reference? Another had an impressive run at a major online property, which I later learned involved doing any job that was asked as the company churned through staff and managers during several years of rudder-less transition. Big budget PPC management, SEO manager for a major organic site, even significant staff management (that one was especially clever). One truly excellent SEO had done nothing but agency work, in confidence, for many years. No references there (the agency had them all), but one helluva SEO who could not only do most everything but could work with most anybody. I could go on and on on this “references” bit, because I have always found it to be very, very unreliable.

  6. Danny Sullivan Says:

    John, missed your response to shor on the issue of people stating things too authoritatively. Yep. That happens on blog, on forums and in conferences. In terms of the conferences I’ve run, for years I’ve given speakers prep materials covering this very issue. Here’s what they currently say:

    Facts & Opinions: Search marketing problems and issues often have no one correct answer. There may be a variety of opinions about what works or how things work. Because of this, it is often important to qualify what you say with phrases such as “in my opinion” or “based on my experience.”

    Do this especially if you are not 100 percent certain of something you state (you have a theory, for example), you know that what you are discussing might be disputed by others or if there might be several solutions someone might choose from.

    Qualifying statements like this is especially helpful to attendees, who might be new to search marketing and hearing conflicting opinions. It helps them understand that there ARE different opinions, so they can ultimately make their own decisions based on what they learn.

    @Danny: Kudos for handing that out. Did Shari get a copy? (ducking again).  But seriously, disclaimers are better than nothing, but the message still seems to be that the speaker knows best. Perhaps it should be speaker manages it best, or does it best, or understands it best, or has the best insight, etc.

  7. gamermk Says:

    I think where my approach would work John is that in order to create a test environment of a meaningful size, you wouldn’t be able to dedicate sufficient time to truly cause those sites to blossom. The result would be you’d have an understanding of what that market is about, what doesn’t work in it, and what kind of content the market needs. You wouldn’t have the time yourself to do it across all these niches, but if a client came to you a part of that niche, you’d know exactly where he needed to be important and who his visitors were going to be. The idea being that using your small samples you could help your client’s websites become something massive.

    @gamermk: I hear you gamermk, but for me, that is all information I can gleam from the actual live SERPs with a SERP analysis. I don’t need test sites in many cases where the SERP is stable and managed by a few key players, and there are few signs of Google interventions. It’s much tougher when Google messes around with the marketplace, or it is highly competitive (so everyone is gaming it). Often the most canbe learned from unchallenged markets, but someone has to fund the effort.  

  8. aaron wall Says:

    Are you trying to hype enlightenment John?

    That is the sort of post you will rarely read because nobody wants to admit (and is afraid to admit) what they don’t know. Luckily for you I read your blog, and the answer is 183. :)

    Nice post dude.

    @Aaron: thanks for the compliment, but don’t call me dude ;-)

  9. Alex Says:

    Besides critical thinking I think that common sense is also being ignored in SEO. Too many people from clients to consultants rely on “algorithms” and heresy to make their decisions. Sometimes, if you step back for a minute you can see that it boils down to common sense.

    @Alex: I don’t agree it’s common sense, but I know what you mean. Despite what some marketers say, I think this is a technical field. What appears to be “common sense” is often common only in a tech community or more recently, a generation raised on technology. The common man doesnt know what HTML is, let alone a header or a response code or what the word “parse” means. They don’t know a title (Hn) from  a graphic, so they don’t have the vision you have. A friend just asked for some help understanding search spiders and I found myself knee high in Linux shell scripts… just for a few minutes to demostrate the underlying process, but seriously. Who in marketing can do that?

  10. joe Says:

    re: keywording your URLs
    “Personally I don’t think any SEO not integrally involved with the development team should pretend to suggest the right move in this situation.”

    Agree very stongly with you on this. IME this can be a game changer for large dynamic sites – but its something you really have to think hard about (like for example where are you in the development cycle on the site, are you going to have to change it again?) The SEO has to be there not just to make the recommendation, but to quality control the work after that because you can’t just throw that recommendation down in the hole and expect that its going to end up all working perfectly, wot with the many mysteries of .htaccess and all.

    @joe: Nice to hear from someone who’s been there. Totally true. And for me the worst part is that the key IT guys who “get it”  and carry the mission forward typically advance in their careers, leaving a functioning project without similarly insightful tech leadership. There is very little worse than a 3/4 of the way implemented URL management system designed for long-term SEO benefits. See my response to Danny Sullivan’s comment about checking SEO references for a hint at how that can lead to problems for the SEO, despite having done such a great job everyone on the team got promoted or pulled out into startups ;-)

  11. Joy Says:

    I agree with you John. Life is a continuous process of learning. Everyday should be a learning process for us. We also need to keep in mind that in everything we do, it’s not important whether we failed or succeed. What’s most important is we’ve learned something from it.

  12. Danny Sullivan Says:

    No need to duck, John. Good point on the references, though I still think they should be checked. An amazing number of people don’t see to do that.

    That’s also a business for SEOs — being the consultant brought in to check on others. I used to do some of this years ago when I had more time. Client would be confused about four different SEOs offering different advice. Bringing in a one-off consultant, say an SEO no longer doing active work but can call bullshit, they don’t have an investment in any particular of the choices doing well (hopefully).

    On the speakers, it is a huge issues — and an important responsibility for anyone who is a speaker (or even writing about SEO) — to really take to heart the need to qualify and pull back on trying to say you have the final word. OK — be decisive on those things you know 99.9% of others might back you on. But it is super easy for people to present their experiences as given fact for everyone, and you are a much better speaker and educator in this space if you constantly do not do that. That’s my advice to anyone (who cares), just as it’s the advice we give to speakers.

    For attendees, that’s not a disclaimer. Attendees aren’t going to read those. That’s why as a conference organizer, I deal with the issue by having multiple speakers on panels. That’s generally the rule for shows I do — most sessions will have a ton of speakers. It’s hard — it means people don’t get to go as long, but I think that’s vital to ensure you have a diversity of views. It allows speakers to (politely) call bullshit on each other — and it really works.

  13. john andrews Says:

    Hey Danny why not poll speaker and session evaluations at SMX? I know it’s a hassle, but we have technology these days that might be helpful. Good design can filter out the popularity votes, and good management can get the comments to the speakers without making it all too public.

    In academia everyone hates student evaluations, but everyone basically agrees they help a great deal if managed properly.

  14. Danny Sullivan Says:

    John, we have evaluations after every session and for every speaker. If a session isn’t up to snuff based on the evals and other feedback, we go back and reshape it. If a speaker rates poorly — you bet. I go back to them with the feedback. I generally make some suggestions on what they might want to change, and they generally get a second shot. Long time speakers are long time speakers because the consistently rate well and do a good job. Probably the key exception I make is if I know someone is rating poorly because maybe they aren’t that dynamic or great a speaker, but I know they’ve got great knowledge they are passing on. But even in those cases, which are relatively few (most people seem to rise to speaking amazingly well), the generally rate well above average.

  15. Rae Says:

    >>>but when it comes to SEO qualification, in my view if you think you’re All That, you’re probably not

    Agreed. There is no one end all authority on SEO. First off, the space has become so large, it is impossible to be an expert on everything… PPC, on page seo, link development (organic), link buying, marketing, social media, online video, podcasting, feeds, social networking, problem solving, monetization (which has a whole subset itself)… the list goes on and on. To me, I’d be looking for someone with a very specialized “knowledge niche” you can trust and then grabbing recommendations from them for any other pieces of the puzzle. As an example, my strengths are site auditing, organic link development and linking patterns (which also involves a heavy dose of being strong with content development and earning trust), site monetization and developing POD’s. (I also may have a slight personal addiction to Facebook haha.) I’m good enough with video marketing and social media marketing to do great things for my *own* sites with those methods, but am sure as hell not an “expert” where I would be charging for that type of work or consulting in regards to that type of work or a myriad of other types. The biggest things on my list to get better at are video marketing, trend spotting and mobile search. I’ll gladly take links to any good blogs on the topic ;-)

    @rae: f.y.i you got moderated because it was your first post here. As for video, I totally agree. I work with an interactive agency that went from no video to near perfect HD video online in a single step… it just took some money and the local University contacts. I work with a small Hollywood agency that sees near-perfect digital video as the easy part as well. Their no-brainer. Mobile on-scene “studio”, quick turn around editing; very professional. Hard to compete with that. As the Internet replaces TV, the fog clears and it seems kind of obvious in hindsight where the serious competition will be for those who have been rolling their own everything thus far.

  16. Dan Perry Says:

    I think it also depends on the position. For me, in an in-house situation, my job is more relationship-building than Title tag tweaking. A web site is created by 3 departments; creative, IT and marketing. You can look at any site and within 10 minutes, tell who had too much power at the bargaining table. My job is trying to get marketing back up to 33% of that decision-making process.

    I also have the resume with multiple speaking gigs and professional association affiliations that you mentioned above. The reality is that they matter for an in-house role (IMO), at least roles with larger companies. I never graduated from college, but with the speaking credits, affiliations, and a former BOD of SEMPO on the resume, I can get an interview almost anywhere, and getting that first foot in the door is often the hardest part. Do I think it makes me a “guru”? Absolutely not. It just means I have ambition. I could be totally clueless when it comes to SEO (be kind), and personally feel I lack a lot in certain areas.

  17. m1t0s1s Says:

    Hittail has been proven to be search-engine independent, for you long-tailers.

  18. SEO Guide Says:

    SEO/SEM is a permanent changing field. I believe there are basic aspects we have to have in mind when trying to rank sites and be successful. We just have to prepare the exact formula for each Site we are working on.

  19. Linkvana Review Says:

    Enlightenment eh? Well, I guess we all have our weaknesses. But I still like to think I’m king! :)

  20. earth4energy Says:

    That’s also a business for SEOs — being the consultant brought in to check on others. I used to do some of this years ago when I had more time. Client would be confused about four different SEOs offering different advice. Bringing in a one-off consultant, say an SEO no longer doing active work but can call bullshit, they don’t have an investment in any particular of the choices doing well (hopefully).

  21. nourkrin Says:

    Nothing seems to stay still long enough to really figure it out. That’s my experience anyway. The trick is in anticipating change. Planing for the future. Not so easy though.

  22. wawanesa Says:

    The trick to making SEO work is to not follow those so-called algorithms. I’ve seen way too many companies pretending they know something, but really they don’t. Submit to 10000 search engines? Yeah right, like that does anything.