SEO, A Love Story

by on August 24, 2010 | posted in SEO Theory



SEO is a quiet monster and a loud child, all at once. You can ask your dot-com marketing department and almost assuredly they can detail to you how SEO can be a real burgeon of money, riches and success – but then, stroll down to your local mall, poll every store clerk, and it’s likely that not a one could break down the acronym to its more ambiguous parts.

SEO – Search Engine Optimization – is in that way the quiet monster — but the loud child is still there, buried deeper. It is the loud child that everyone pays attention to but nobody ever knows how to silence, except in bursts. They can’t figure it out and they throw cash at it and rewards at it and in the end, all they get is a winey drug addict teenager on a quick path to another acronym – G.E.D.

SEO is easy to get to know but difficult to master. It is anonymous but also popular – it is a profession to desire employment in and also one to completely loathe. SEO is overly reliant and potentially temporary as a profession, but also as durable and infinite as steel and space.

I could go on – and I will.

So, What Do You Do?

Much of SEO’s anonymity can be attributed to the length of the job title. Job titles, in that way, closely mirror SEO. A short domain name can be worth quite a bit more than a few pennies, and with job titles, much like domains, a short title carries much weight as it comes to public knowledge of the particulars of the given profession.

Neurologists. Doctors. Waiters. Plastic Surgeons. Mechanics. Anestestiologists. All of these professions, despite many of their inherent complexities, share a characteristic – a popular, common knowledge of what they entail.

Although this is not always the case, some correlation between job title length and popular knowledge exists. The longer the descriptor, the more likely you rattling it off will be met with a “huh?”, “what?”, or some other remark punctuated with a question mark.

This means both good and bad things for those indented with “SEO” on their resumes. At dinner, we are faced with the harrowing act of describing our jobs. At the application bay, we are met with fewer competitors, and as such, retain the potential for lofty salaries and increased attractiveness to employers.

Hi, I’m Ross, and I’m an Search Engine Optimization Manager.

You can call me SEO.

A Sense of Simplistic Complexity

SEO isn’t very complex. As compared to doctors or lawyers, learning SEO requires many less months spent inside a library dedicated to academic rigor. We only need a fortnight or two, and a web browser and a domain to call our own. With that, the academic minutiae can quickly be adapted for those capable of retaining the information.

The difference, though, between the academically parsed doctor and the high-school SEO is the depth of job-experience required to obtain mastery. Although SEO still does not necessitate 10 years of experience to become an expert, it still requires a few years of toil to understand the backbone of its workings.

This, however, has little to do with hours of applying theory to practice. It has more to do with the required hours of waiting for practice to turn into learning.

Search engine rankings, unlike most business key performance indicators (KPIs), don’t come with immediate feedback mechanisms. Spiders sometimes require weeks to return to deeply rooted pages and deliver link juice sprinkles back to the websites they point to. The turning wheels of this repeated process mean that many new links and on-page implementations take long periods of time to come into effect and see changes.

Each of these little changes is a moment of learning for an SEO, whether they know it or not. Minor shifts in standings help the novice understand minutiae like true domain strength, keyword competitiveness, and how to properly manipulate anchor text. Similarly, it takes this application sparsed throughout many verticals and link types to truly comprehend the ebb and flows of these changes. As such, to become an SEO “expert”, it is undoubtable that one would require both agency experience and in-house experience to complete their repertoire of skills.

Agency experience would provide the breadth of vertical exposure and ranking adjustments that working with upwards of fifteen clients at a time would provide. Link valuation skills would be intimately crafted, along with an intense appropriation of how to manipulate and divide anchor text and domain link distribution to match client expectations. While In-House, SEOs would gain new skills as it applies to the on-page craft, understanding more complexities of website analytics and depth and rigor of company infrastructure and site architecture.

While in-house, it would be most recommended that they work on the biggest of sites, or risk being sheltered from the complexities and layers of challenges million page websites create. Also, a knowledge and experience creating a website from scratch would unveil the other part of search engine mystery – trust.

Gaining initial approval from the search engines can mirror the friendship courting process between two males – tough, arduous, and often times, seemingly impossible.

I Had A Dream – And It Was Not About SEO

Working in SEO is a great job. It pays well, permits creativity, and allows for many fundamental drivers of happiness and autonomy to thrive. However, it still isn’t. Not one person in SEO right now grew up imagining they would be an SEO. Not one person grew up dreaming of ranking first for HDMI cables, payday loans, web hosting, or porn.

The reason the number of people who dreamed of being an SEO, currently, is 0 is because the profession did not exist in our infancy, and as such, it was impossible to formulate a dream for a profession that didn’t exist.

However, it is my strong inference that this number will remain near 0 (although not 0), as search engines leave their intermediate stages and walk into maturity. Much of this has to do with the long job title factor – we are enwrapped in a profession that, by in large, is rather encompassed in mysticism.

Beyond the poly-syllabic nature of the title, there are other reasons for SEO’s residence on the boulevard of broken dreams. A strong one is the lack of complete respect – many still view SEOs as black hat wearing magicians of the dark arts, and as such, this perpetuates through society. Working at Google is a dream, however, working to manipulate it is not.

This is rather equitable to jobs as a stripper or a life coach or a poker player. Each position brings value to people in different ways, but because it is disparaged by some sector of the population, it is hard for it to truly be idealized as a “dream profession”. Few people refute being an actor or a doctor or a musician – at least not until after they’ve officially missed their chance to become one.

SEO is the lover you always had but never wanted to tell your friends about. Not overly good looking, but still embodying every other aspect you look for – overly giving, fun, and someone you could see yourself having a future with.

SEO’s Similarities with Sport

SEO is not much different from a game between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. On any given search engine result page, competitors wage for the Super Bowl position – 1st – the only one that really matters. The other 9 rank sporadically, gain some benefit, but at the end of the day, only the one ranking first really gets the fame and the glory.

The shoddy sports analogy runs deeper than just some rankings, though. SEO is much like sports because competitors battle within a certain stadium – a stadium that has fixed rules. Although these variables often change, at any given second, they are constant, and at any given moment each competitor is matched against one another on a set of fixed variables – the Google search algorithim.

This is unlike many other businesses, because they entail many more chaotic, disjointed variables. In other professions, the battlefields don’t have rules, and success and monetary accomplishment is a lot less defined. On the search engine result pages, the winners and losers are a lot more clear, and a lot more obvious than hidden, inflated numbers on a balance sheet.

Search is a sports battleground for those with balding hairlines and arthritic fingers. Instead of comparing wins and losses based on fancy suits and horsepower in cars, it can be compared quite evenly between SEOs by positions on the search engine results page. What happens after the clickthrough is often beyond their control, and at the whim of designers and product packages. They often inform one another, but then again, so does your coach, or the other ten people on your football team.

You might have an ability to point fingers, but with SEO, success in low to middle competition search result pages can practically be obtained by link building prowess alone. This creates a identifiable, instantly deterministic reality that makes SEO’s KPI more like athletic competition than any other business environment, especially due to the sheer size of the battlefield.

The Big Red Button

“What’s it like knowing your entire business could be shut off by a press of a button?”

This singular sentence is often referenced in the SEO world, on the belief that Google, the great mechanical turk, could at any time lower the hammer on your website and crush its entire profit funnel. In the most literal sense of the sentence, this is very true. But in every other sense, it is completely false. It is this same reason why “SEO is dead” is absolutely, completely ridiculous.

If this same sentence was presented at a different time, during search engine’s infancy, it might have been valid. But these search engines have evolved to a point of such complexity and necessity to all of our lives that the reality behind this sentence is as true as asking “Dear stoplights, what would you do if they removed the red stop signal?”

At any given time, whoever is in charge of the roads could decide to remove the stop signal from stoplights. Likely, there is some power, somewhere, with the kind of authority to remove this in many areas. If this happened, however, the uproar would be violent. The people, unsilencable. This occurs when the masses become so reliant on a thing that it stops becoming something someone else provides them – it is something they are.

This is what search engines have become. If Google ever nosedived, which it won’t, there would be a unanimous understanding that search engines aren’t something that are optional, they are something that is. We should shift quickly and immediately to another service, because search is something we need – and now always we will have.

This same effect scales down to your single business, and is the reason why, in many ways, “the big red button” fear is an illusion. Demand Media and eHow can’t be shut off with a press of a button even though it can – because the uproar would be immense. It is this same principal that forced Google to put black-hat connoisseur John Chow and paid-link harvester BMW back in the rankings – the world couldn’t do without them.

In this way, some things just aren’t – even though, similarly, they are.

The Black Eye

Beyond its lack of admonishment as a dream job, SEO is otherwise rather unheralded within the internet community. SEO is seen as a profession that uses black hat techniques and manipulation to gain rankings, propping up subpar websites to the forefront where other, more deserving websites should have succeeded.

And while manipulation is definitely part of the job description, what we do as SEOs is no more manipulative than how salesmen trying and pitch you on their products, or an advertisement on television or a magazine ad or a banner begs for your attention. These products, too, were paid to be placed at the forefront of your attention. But, like them, if their product doesn’t stand up to the cash or effort that got them there, it will fizzle. These cash placements will run dry and other companies will develop opportunities to outgain them. Admittedly, SEO is a slower process, and “buying” ones placement higher up will take much longer to unsettle. But it will happen. A poor business model will eventually exhaust its cash flow, and your business will gain opportunity where it had failed.

SEO is a slower advertisement buying model. You pay in some form, monetary or otherwise, to gain placement high in the rankings. You deliver a pitch, and it is up to the consumer whether or not they want to convert. But generally, these suppositions of money or time or effort put the best business forward – even if not always.

SEO is not meritocracy, but its close. A rich businessman could potentially carry his website on SEO spend alone, but he would burn money on the backend. Yes, this would be evil, and it would place a better website below it. But it would be no different from the commercial model – highest bidder wins.

SEO should be applauded because it, like marketing in general, most often puts the best product forward. One thing informs the other. And just like marketing, this is not always the case, but mostly, it does a sufficient job of creating a search engine that has the best results near the top – and the less sufficient near the bottom.

Every business somehow encapsulates this idea – one thing has the potential to cover up the other. The hacker (web development/design) community often hails SEO because of the idea that good SEO can cover up a terrible website. But similarly, good website design can cover up a shitty product, and it sometimes does – just as SEO often covers up a shitty product-website combination.

Should we hate web designers for similar reasons?

I should get some Keywords in this H2

I could go on. I love this thing, SEO. Not necessarily for what it is instrinsically, but because the job’s fun. It’s fun competing on such an obvious, measurable, day-to-day playing field. In few other businesses can we so clearly measure ourselves daily against our competitors. It allows autonomy and creativity, letting a savvy marketing mind rule with link building tactics that can dominate a niche.

I love it because the holes it has (as discussed above) – are by and large imaginary. I love it because it pays well and because I know that plenty of people can advance to the stage of advanced beginner – but so few can truly figure it out.

Of course, 100 percent of people believe they won’t get divorced at the alter – and 50% do. Things can change – and most likely, they will.

But I’ll always love this thing, SEO, even if it cheats on me and leaves me for Lars from Norway – a guy it met at the gym with Brad Pitt’s face and Jesus’ abs.

Okay, I lied. Maybe not then — but I’ll still be attracted to it. And if I see it at the bar, I might even buy it a link.

Or two.

Previous post:

Next post: