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SEO Opinions, SEO Facts, and SEO Wisdom

These days anyone can label themselves an SEO and begin publishing and building an audience. At first, a few basic posts like “make sure you have good title tags” will attract readership and comments like “wow.. this is great advice! Now I’m getting more search traffic than before, thanks!” which help convince others you are an SEOGuru. After a few of those rudimentary posts, if your writing is decent, you may even start to get comments from people who aren’t already close friends. If you choose the MakeMoneyFast route, you can build an audience of thousands without ever actually doing anything meaningful in SEO. Just re-constitute the same old basic advice found everywhere else into a new “how I got rich” scenario, publish a photo of an AdSense check, decline to admit how much you spent on the buy side of your arbitrage enterprise, and gain thousands more subscribers. Everyone wants to make money. Everyone wants something for free. Few want to work hard, and many want to just copy your success. The question to be asked is, at what point is someone calling themselves an SEO actually an SEO? At what point has someone earned authority to publish opinion on issues of SEO? And how do you know, as the reader, to trust that opinion?

In my opinion, it is a simple matter of comparison shopping. Compare unknown person A to known person B, where B has assumed authority, and you can better judge the quality of A. The only problem with this consumer approach to SEO is, we don’t often see two SEOs projecting professional opinions on the same issue. We see plenty of discussions that are in reality non-definitive in any particular market. Much of SEO differs between market niches. That basically guarantees that everyone stating an opinion might be correct in their own niche markets. It is fairly safe to state something is true “in your experience“, especially if you are not required to divulge your specific experience or if it is something that is difficult to test (and, in my experience, most SEO issues are difficult to test).

To complicate things further, the (excessive?) incestuous cross-promotion of SEO personalities in our market leaves us in a situation where when we do see agreement, we don’t really know if we can trust it as true professional agreement. It may be pre-arranged strategic alliance. Are they friends? Are they backing each other up? Are they playing nice, for other reasons?

That’s why I go to the sessions at search conferences. I can listen to “person A” whom I don’t yet trust, paying attention to every actual position they take on an SEO issue. I can then compare them to myself as known Person B, in order to form an opinion of their legitimacy as an actual, practicing SEO. It may sound surprising, but I am able to catch numerous “erroneous statements” made by SEO people at just about every conference. Are they mistakes? Are they errors? People are under pressure when speaking publicly. They make mistakes. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Person A said it, and I have a better understanding of Person A henceforth when I read their blogs or listen to them speak on other topics which I may not know very well. I also get to check on my own confidence, for each issue. If I am not sure about something, I know I have homework to do.

As SEO has specialized, I’ve become a liberal when it comes to defining SEO. An SEO is a person who works in search optimization, deploying techniques and practices that provide a competitive advantage over other web publishers in specific markets. That’s enough to qualify. But an authority is an SEO who can tell other SEOs meaningful things about search optimization that either will work or should work in various markets, based on past and current practical SEO experience. An authority has SEO Wisdom.

The most interesting situation for me is the rare case of SEO disagreeing with SEO, in public, accompanied by intended-to-be-persuading arguments. We never see that at search conferences. I rarely see it even online. But I saw some of it today between a relatively “new” SEO person (Joost deValk) and a relatively “old” SEO person (Mikkel deMib Svendsen), over what boils down to a fundamental philosophy of SEO practice: search engine business behavior.

Enjoy reading the comments for yourself, but it boils down to this: Mikkel has been riding the edge of SEO for many years, and doesn’t trust Google. Joost approaches SEO logically, and doesn’t see why certain SEO techniques that are clearly SEO techniques could be risky, since Google says they are ok. Read it for yourself, because they each try and explain their opinions and it makes for an insightful read if you care to understand the SEO approaches of your potential competitors Joost and Mikkel.

For those who care, I do indeed have an opinion on the debate. And yes, I will share it.

Joost is right, where he looks at the use of nofollow for “site sculpting”, cites Matt Cutts’ own comments on how nofollow can be deployed for such purposes, and notes that you are unlikely to unfairly benefit excessively in the rankings from the strategic use of nofollow in this fashion, and thus risk negative action from Google. But Mikkel is right when he says “from a pure risk perspective its not very smart to take risks you don’t have to when other, less risky and just as effective, strategies are available.

If you sculpt your site with nofollow, you put yourself on the radar as a competitive webmaster engaging in tactics to influence search rankings. For that reason, and that reason alone, it is ill-advised where that activity gives you a significant advantage over your visible competition. As Mikkel seems to put it, if you took the riskyou must have expected a correspondingly significant gain, and therefore, your intent is clear.

However, if you are in a very competitive market where considered tactics are a necessary but not even sufficient condition for page 1 rankings, then you must by definition deploy tactics which are likely to reveal your intent to influence search rankings. Anytime you assume risk, you must manage that risk. Plausible deniability is a powerful weapon against search engine scrutiny, but the strategic use of nofollow is devoid of plausible deniability. As many have noted, it flies in the face of Google’s own initial purpose for the nofollow attribute. I say, manage your risk, and do what it takes to win.


  1. I agree with you John that we should be disagreeing more, and doing so in public, I enjoyed the discussion with Mikkel just as much as you did, and took some good stuff away from it, even though it didn’t change my opinion on this specific subject.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 2:24 am | Permalink
  2. aaron wall wrote:

    I think until Google decides to vote against you then it is hard to appreciate the size of said risk.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 2:42 am | Permalink
  3. > rare case of SEO disagreeing with SEO

    Hmm, we must be going to different places :)
    Each Monday I have a show on WebmasterRadio called Strikepoint with my co-host David Naylor. Dave and I often disagree – which just makes more interesting discussions.
    Also, on many of the panels I’ve been on over time on conferences we (SEOs) often disagree a lot.

    In fact, I don’t see SEOs in general agreeing a lot on many things outside the very basics :)

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 3:10 am | Permalink
  4. Very true Aaron, and I’m coming from the white side of things, not the dark, so my faith is bigger ;)

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 3:34 am | Permalink
  5. Peter Davis wrote:

    Joost, are you saying that all of Aaron’s projects are too dark to survive the light of day?

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  6. john andrews wrote:

    @Peter: them’s fightin’ words!

    @Joost: there is no such thing as a “white side” of SEO. That might be part of the debate.

    If you consider web publishing to be flexible, within standards and best practices, there remains a ton of room for optional “optimizations”. One can optimize for user experience, or persuasive inclusion of the visitor perspective, or for speed, for example. But when one optimizes for search engine ranking, one is violating the Google guidelines. Is search inclusion part of search ranking? Can a landing page be optimized for search ranking, instead of user experience? As long as it can, it’s part of the process of manipulation of search rankings.

    When and if Google decides to “clean up”, it should start with the set of web pages that are stretching the truth. Historically, that has been the low-hanging fruit. How does Google identify the low-hanging fruit for cleanup? Ask Mikkel and Aaron or any other experience SEO (sans any reference to hat colors).

    I prefer not to argue white vs black and “isn’t everything influencing search rankings” because Matt Cutts has earned the privilege of handling those questions. But unless you define white hat as “everything is well hidden so nothing can be stated to be violating the guidelines“, there is no white hat seo. If you do accept that definition, then it seems you guys all actually agree, and it also seems the rel=nofollow sculpting thing doesn’t belong in the white hat toolbox.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  7. My favorite part about White Hat vs Black Hat is how easily something that is acceptable today can be considered against the Google’s Guidelines tomorrow.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  8. Catfish SEO wrote:

    How can Matt Cutts say something is ok and it is still not white hat? That doesn’t make sense. White hat means using optimization techniques that do not violate the terms and conditions of the search engines and that (I would argue), do not degrade user experience for the sake of search rankings. If Matt says it is ok then how can it be considered Grey or Black hat? And what risk is there exactly? Has anyone you know been penalized for using rel=nofollow responsibly?

    I understand Mikkels concern about Google but in this case I don’t believe that using rel=nofollow to block off things like security certificate links (that Google doesn’t want anyway) or ad links with a bunch of tracking codes makes sense for both the Page Rank of the page being optimized, as well as the quality of Google’s index.

    @catfishMatt Cutts is not Google, but Matt does understand Google. I would therefore interpret Matt’s statement to mean NOT that an allowable technique is White Hat, but that if carefully inspected, that technique is not likely to be suspected of being dishonest on its own merit. Reality however suggests that not every issue will be granted careful review every time, not every bit of evidence will be evaluated solely on its own merit, and Matt Cutts’ benevolent sense of fairness and justice will not always represent the majority opinion of Google’s quality control teams. Repeat after me: there is no white hat SEO…there is no white hat SEO..there is no white hat SEO.

    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Joost is right
    Mikkel is right
    I am usually wrong (I dont make any claims to be anything other than usually wrong)

    I do believe that beyond the basics all SEO is a matter of managing the risk – if you feel the benefit outways any risk then do that, if you feel there is a no risk way of doing it then why wouldnt you choose that.

    I am not a big conference goer – just dont like the majority of it. I like to meet the people I wanna meet face to face but I could do without the rest of the noise tbh and having the word ‘idiot’ in your name just lets you get on with what you need and want to do….

    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  10. Catfish, your logic just do not match realities :)
    Tell me how your logic apply to the NO ARCHIVE issue? Google said it was perfectly OK to us and still all sites that used it 3 month after its releae was eraed from the index. Thats a serious penalty for something that should be white hat according to your logic.

    The fact is that search engines change their mind (and they have every right to do so!) and they often react differently than what they officially say. Thats the fact of SEO risk evaluation.

    So our job as SEOs is not to just listen to what the engines say or write but to understand where things can potentially go or what they might do and not tell us. And with the NO FOLLOW there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it could very well lead to penalities sometimes soon. Do you want to take the risk? Do you have to? Is there a different option that produce just as good results with a lower risk?

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 1:08 am | Permalink
  11. glengara wrote:

    I’m with Mikkel on this, nofollow on internals may not bring any grief per se, but when spam is determined by “perceived intent” it may well shorten any “benefit of the doubt” given in other matters.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:03 am | Permalink
  12. There is so much contradictory advice on SEO that it’s really hard to tell what’s what. If you all start disagreeing publicly and more frequently then no-one will know what to believe! Mind you that would really keep SEO in the domain of the experts and the would-be-amateurs would be less likely to do it themselves.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:30 am | Permalink
  13. On another point. Just because Cutt’s says nofollow is ok to use does not imply that it works in the way of “sculpting” as many SEO’s are now stating.

    Remember the whole essence of the nofollow is to help GOOGLE not your website perform better. It created to first help curb comment spam, then morphed into a paid link condom and now to help Google figure out what pages are more important than others. Of course the latter point I am very skeptical on.

    Either way I am not going to turn this thread into a why PR Sculpting doesn’t work or exist thread.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 4:41 pm | Permalink
  14. TheMadHat wrote:

    I’m going to have to agree with both opinions really on this. Mikkel has a point about the “No Archive” issue, but it isn’t exactly the same thing.

    Most industries are not going to benefit from using nofollow in this manner, but in highly competitive markets everyone will be using and in order to gain that small competitive edge. That means you’re going to have to use it as well.

    You have to push the envelope in competitive industries or you get left behind. Is the chance of getting plowed in a cleanup higher? Of course it is but without tactics like that you’ll never rank in the first place.

    John, I agree about some of the whoring that goes around. A healthy debate is good for all. Many times both parties are correct and incorrect.

    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  15. Tin Pig wrote:

    this post reinforces two things pretty clearly –

    1) google has way too much power
    we have an entire industry fretting that google will suddenly change their mind on certain principles and this change of heart could have non-trivial impact on businesses. on a whim and unannounced google can (and has) made “adjustments” to page rank calculations that cause significant drops in natural search traffic across many sites. what if this were traditional marketing and you had spent months researching your target audience and you found once specific print magazine you could run promotions in and reach that audience effectively. month go by, business is picking up nicely each month. now think about the impact to your business if the FCC suddenly decided that magazine could no longer accept promotions. “but this scenario would never happen,” you say? then why is it okay for google?

    2) the link-based page rank system is deeply flawed.
    so often the debate about whether a given technique is white hat or not revolves around links and page rank. there are simply too many ways to influence, fair or foul, the link-counting algorithm. once the basic on-page SEO is taken care of (in relatively short order, usually), the links are all you have left to try to boost natural search. and really when you think about it, even if everybody played by the rules, does popularity = relevancy? i tend to think not.

    Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  16. David Temple wrote:

    This is exactly why the “debate” about seo standards is moot in my opinion. SEO would be very boring indeed if everybody agreed and we need more of this, so thanks for blogging about it John. I respect both Joost and Mikkel’s opinion as they each make good points. I’m still undecided and like Jaan, not even convinced it works and think there are better approaches.

    Mikkel’s argument reminds me of the what Mao used in China during a period in 1957. He came out with the slogan, “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend”. Sounded good to the intellectuals and they came out in droves critisizing the government. Most historians think it was a deliberate attempt to discover the true dissidents and crack down on them. Oops, did I just compare Google to an evil communist regime?

    Friday, March 28, 2008 at 6:43 pm | Permalink