The SEO versus Content tension: a dialogue

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Afternoon, Adam. You’ve been writing a lot about SEO lately. You got a problem with SEO?

Goodness, no. I teach a course on SEO for Journalists for goodness’ sake. I wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t believe SEO was valuable.

Then why all the SEO blogging of late?

Two things, really. The first is I feel freer to do so now I’m self-employed. Back in my corporate years, I felt I had to be careful about blogging too much about the areas of responsibility of other parts of the company. That burden is no longer on me. I’ve been interested in SEO seriously since a combination of Sethgate and a Google presentation at BlogHer in 2007. I’ve always experimented with SEO here on the blog, for example, and made it part of any digital training I delivered. I can now express that freely, and am enjoying doing so.

You said two things.

Ah, well, the other one is more complex.

Stop dodging and spit it out, man.

Adam Tinworth Talks SEO

Well, it’s evident to me that there’s a tension between SEO and content producers that needs dealing with. It’s born of both shoddy SEO behaviour and pure bloody ignorance from content producers.

Let’s start with the shoddy behaviour.

If you insist. There are two significant issues I see at work here. The first is a subset of SEO people who understand SEO pretty well, but don’t really know anything about content, other than seeing it as a data set to be analysed from an SEO perspective. They only have a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail. Good content on the web has to two do jobs – draw people to it (and SEO has a vital job in that) and then encourage them to do something else. For example, this very blog post is designed to attract people interested in the SEO/Content conflict, but also to display my knowledge, skills and views, on the off chance you’ll hire me.

I’m not gonna hire you, mate.

You already did. You’re me and I’m self-employed.

Anyway, to get back to the point… Poor SEOs only see point one and not point two. And they can make content people’s lives miserable, by both forcing them into producing shoddy, keyword driven content, that has very little business benefit – and by making the business as a whole vulnerable to the vagaries of Google’s latest algorithmic thinking. You don’t want to build a business on a marginal SEO technique that Google might change its mind on, and wipe out most of your traffic overnight – and that’s exactly what we’ve seen Panda do, for example.

The second issue?

That’s the desire to cheat. And that’s not always the SEO’s fault. Sure, there are out-and-out cackling black hat SEOs that will take your money, exploit weaknesses in the algorithm to get you ranking well, and then charge you even more to get that ranking back when the algorithm updates to remove that loophole. They’re the drug-pushers of the SEO world, and have about as much relationship to good SEOs as the dodgy heroin dealer in the back street pub has to an expert pharmacist. But that’s not really what I’m talking about.

There’s a strain of thinking in some businesses that they can buy their way to success, but for some reason that rarely extends to “let’s buy really good content that will rank well”. It tends to manifest as “we’ll buy a higher search ranking for our mediocre content by paying for SEO to do magical technical stuff”. It’s a business frame-of-view, a transactional take on search engine ranking that SEOs can appear to offer because Google and its ilk don’t.

Is it really as simple as that?

No – I suspect there’s an element of techno-fear/worship in there, too. Most business people don’t understand how search engines operate, what an algorithm is, why Matt Cutts gets paid so much attention, that sort of thing. It’s a technical mystery to them, and they demand (or think they can buy) a technical solution to it. Someone producing good content seems less, well, technical, than getting good SEO done. It make them feel more digital, somehow.

So there’s some bitterness in this, then?

That’s probably fair. I’ve seen the skill and work of skilled, engaged and knowledgeable online content producers devalued by people who believe in the ability of SEO pixie dust to act as a sort of glamour, magically transforming shoddy content into a delicious, link attracting feast. As someone who is very rooted in the idea of excellent online content, that’s upsetting to me – and I don’t like seeing people’s livelihoods devalued through bloody ignorance.

But isn’t bloody ignorance what you accused content creators of?

Only some of them, but yes. I never need to hear the phrase “writing for the machine” again. Google (or Bing or Baidu) is not our readership – but it’s the path to our readership. We are not writing for the machine, we are writing for people who want to find our content – and we are writing in a way that helps both the search engines and the search users find us. That’s not writing for machines, it’s writing for people. We just have to bear in mind the needs of the medium, just as we had to tailor the way we built magazine pages to the limits of the printing press. Nobody claimed that was “writing for machines”.

I bet you some monks did, a few centuries back.

Heh. You’re not wrong.

So what do you want?

Well, the best experiences I’ve had with SEO/content relationships have been like a brigade working in a kitchen. You need top quality ingredients, well cooked. And you need the best condiments, sauces and garnishes to create a truly five-star experience.

You’re mangling metaphors again.

Darn tootin’. In this metaphor, the content producers are the ones selecting the finest ingredients and cooking them well, and the SEOs are the ones providing the garnishes and sauces. And together you have a yummy, yummy meal.

You haven’t eaten lunch yet, have you?

No. However did you guess?

That’s the second food metaphor in this blog post.

Busted. Anyway…

What I’ve been writing has been in that context. I don’t like finding underhand ways of getting links to your site on other people’s sites as an SEO technique. I don’t like people treating other people’s websites as if they were their own. That’s what too much low quality backlink building does. I don’t like people jumping on a once-useful trend like infographics, and slowly devaluing it over time. I’m a great believer in the power of well-produced content, written by intelligent and SEO-aware people to do great things. I’m a great believer in intelligent and content-literate SEOs working with great content providers to help good businesses get found. And I’m intolerant of behaviours which soil or distort those relationships.

What I’d like to see is a healthy, mutually-repectful relationship between content creators and SEO experts, and I can’t hide the fact I’m actually rather pleased that Panda and Penguin, broadly speaking, have pushed people more in that direction. There will always be people who try to game the system, and I will not apologise for the schadenfreude I feel when they get busted.

Fair enough. Can we go get lunch now?

Sure.  I’m ravenous.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.