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June 19, 2016 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
(Disclaimer: The post is being written to piggy back on the conversations started around a post written by Clayburn Griffin on Search Engine Land. In fact, it’s perfect timing for me to shamelessly push CopyPress’ attendance at SMX Advanced June 21-23. If you are attending SMX come holla at your boy at booth #2. I wrote this piece and no one edited it, so it is likely crammed with grammar errors. It’s super long, and I was smoking cigars and enjoying the day writing it. It is a rough draft of a thought out idea. If this bothers you go away!)
First, I want to start by explaining why I am writing this post. Beyond traffic generation, it is because I think the post Clayburn wrote leads to some real issues for young professionals looking at SEO as a career, as well as companies just getting things going that have minimal resources but SEO needs.
I do not think Clayburn is a troll.
I do not know Clayburn so I wouldn’t call him any names. 2009 Dave (a term I jokingly use with my business partners to refer to the younger, dumber me) would have , 2016 Dave knows that Clayburn is a person who wrote an article, and not deserving of my bullying or name calling.
With that said, the article he wrote is open to be criticized. It isn’t a person. It has no feelings.
This post will attack Clayburn’s article.
This post will not attack Clayburn.
Another reason I am writing this post is that I have concerns about where the thought leadership of inbound marketing, SEO, and earned media is headed. I think we need more academic conversations in our space. When I first entered the space in 2008 the first place I went was SEOBook.com. Aaron Wall gave high end knowledge freely and it shaped me as a young marketer. I wonder and worry about how young marketers get their information and education today.
There was another great rebuttal written on Clayburn’s post by Patrick Hathaway on Search Engine Land. I think its solid and worth a read. However, Clayburn largely discounted that piece based on the following:
So my analysis will begin by breaking down the article itself, my opinion of it on a macro-level, and then a step by step rebutal to the article itself.
Clayburn’s piece had chips of truth in it. His points that search marketing has to go further than on site SEO, scattered throughout the article, are points I agree with. However, a chocolate chip cookie with a shitty cookie recipe, no matter how good the chocolate chips are, is still a shitty chocolate chip cookie. We must grade a piece on the whole and not be subjected to picking out the quality and leaving everything else.
Here is my visual breakdown of Clayburn’s 1409 word post.
Shit Brown = Every word that deals with a terrible makeup analogy.
Red = Everything I disagree with strongly
Purple = The words used to explain to the reader why Clayburn is right and everyone else is wrong
Green = Words spent really belittling SEOs in a way that I don’t think Clayburn likely intended. Or at least hope.
No color = Stuff I agree with in concept
To break this down by numbers:
Makeup analogy = 556 words , 39%
Words I Disagree with = 455 words, 32%
Self-serving words = 121 words, 8.5%
Words Belittling SEOs = 78 words, 5.5%
Words I agree with = 167 words, 11.8%
The reason I broke this out in detail is I feel like Clayburn may make the point that I agreed with him largely. I agreed with him 11.8%. I disagreed with him almost 300% more than I agree with him, and the words he spent belittling SEOs and pushing a bad analogy I detested.
Let me start with the makeup analogy and why I detested it.
First, I felt like this analogy was pushed in a way that had to make female marketers cringe.
Being attractive is a nice advantage. People are more inclined to like you if you’re attractive. And makeup can make anyone look better. It can touch up blemishes and smooth out your skin. It can outline your eyes and make them stand out.
While using makeup right can make you more attractive, applying more makeup doesn’t always make you more attractive. At some point, you’re done. You’re made up. More makeup would be futile.
We do live in a superficial society, but I personally love the natural beauty of women. You can ask my wife Samantha. I hate makeup. She still wears it for her, not for me. But I don’t think she needs it to be beautiful. Please Clayburn don’t say this proves your point more because websites don’t need SEO to be beautiful. This analogy needs to go away.
Clayburn did use some of his analogy talking about inner beauty:
Do you spend time applying more mascara, or do you work on learning a new language?
But then followed that with:
Do you try a different shade of lipstick, or do you hit the gym?
So I don’t want this damn analogy to pick up steam. Clayburn, if you want to push it more, use the analogy of painting a house, or something else superficial. Let’s drop the makeup talk.
At the end of the day, and I doubt Clayburn will admit it, I think he was talking about “checklist SEO” and not what most of us would call technical SEO.
In fact, he talks about “checklist SEO” early in the piece:
With SEO being a rather standard product these days, it can be difficult for any one SEO or agency to show their value over anyone else. “SEO Best Practices” are more or less the same wherever you go. That’s why they’re called best practices.
I don’t think Checklist SEO is really as superficial as Clayburn claims either. Checklist SEO is something that needs to be looked at ongoing and auditing periodically.
What is Checklist SEO? Well stuff you would see on an audit you would download from a tool or from a website.
All of those items you tackle once, build an internal document to follow ongoing, and audit.
Then what is technical SEO?
It is a broad overarching term for how SEO practitioners interact with server side code to maximize search engine results. It can be extremely specialized, and it can be pretty basic in some ways.
Information architecture is technical SEO on a macro level. Yes, the information architecture on a 20 page website might be a set it and forget it issue, but for a major publisher or a UGC based website it is an everyday focus. I will talk about IA as I move through this post, but that is not the limit of technical SEO.
Duplicate content and URL issues.
User generated Spam.
For publishers, indexation and pay walls.
The list goes on. I am not a highly technical SEO.
However, Clayburn’s arguments I agree with would have gone so much farther if he had said, “Your SEO can’t stop at a checklist and needs to go so much farther!”
I agree with Clayburn that content is a major key to SEO.
Big secret: So does every SEO on the planet.
Google is an informational retrieval system. It needs information to retrieve. So content is the core.
But who is out there arguing against that? If I hear content is king one more time I’m going to puke. SEOs also know they need links and social media value. This topic has varying degrees of acceptance depending on the community you are in and the tactics you are talking, however there is little disagreement among SEOs about the ranking values these bring.
So I agree with Clayburn that good SEO goes beyond basic onsite issues, but no one is disagreeing with that.
What everyone is disagreeing with are the points Clayburn made on the validity of technical SEO as a “game changing” and this one sentence that I think is the basis for people’s issues his argument:
The problem is when it comes to technical SEO, there are no big wins; there’s only recovery from or prevention of big losses.
Technical SEO is makeup. You can use it to make your site more attractive to search engines, but at some point there’s nothing more to be done. You have to move on to less superficial qualities to increase your website’s attractiveness.
This statement is false in concept and in practice. Technical SEO doesn’t make your site more attractive to search engine’s it makes it something they can crawl, decipher, and help organize information into topical relevance.
Search engines function in several parts:
The crawl – Search engines send out their bots to crawl websites. Those bots send the code of your website back to their databases.
The index – Search engines then try to figure out what your content is about based on various systems. They use meta data you give them, the content on your website, and other factors to figure out what your content is about.
Ranking – Early engines would just use the first two pieces above, but Google changed everything with Pagerank adding value to how pages (not just websites) interact with each other. Over the years more and more has been added to the algorithm for how pages are ranked.
Clayburn’s argument above, and really throughout, is weakened by the phrase “attractiveness.” Perceived attractiveness is the reason people use makeup, and so attractiveness is an important term to look at when breaking down Clayburn’s points
1. providing pleasure or delight, especially in appearance or manner; pleasing; charming; alluring:an attractive personality.
2. arousing interest or engaging one’s thought, consideration, etc.
SEO, search engine optimization, exists in order to allow Google and other search engines to most efficiently crawl, index, and rank websites. It is a symbiotic marketing function that helps Google and the website Google is crawling, indexing, and ranking. SEO doesn’t just add some interest to a website. SEO is the core of how a website interacts with the search engines.
Clayburn present’s SEO as being akin to CSS. You slap it on, your done, move on.
Well, that’s not the answer. Technical SEO is not a game-changer. It’s not a unique value proposition. As Sid Naithani put it on the /r/BigSEO subreddit, “[T]echnical SEO is table stakes at best.”
Large brands see pitches all the time, and SEO pitches are nearly identical. They go something like this: “28% of your URLs have incorrect canonicals. You have 120 internal links that lead to a 404. AJAX is hiding content on your FAQ page. Your internal search is creating 50,000 duplicate pages.”
When a brand manager is hearing the same technical SEO checklist read to them in every pitch meeting, it says to them that it doesn’t matter who they pick. Hell, they could probably just forward the pitch deck to their dev team and not even hire an SEO agency at that point.
For something that is so fundamental and limited in its benefit, I can’t understand why so many agencies want to stuff their eggs in that basket.
The key issues in this section of the article are Clayburn’s insistence that Technical SEO is not a game changer, it isn’t a value proposition, and that it is fundamental and limited in benefit.
To begin battling these points, I want to point out a single company, Define Media Group.
Define Media Group defines itself as:
Define is a boutique consulting firm, focused on bringing our proven strategy to online enterprises. With clients like The New York Times Company, Hearst Corporation, Conde Nast Publications, Time Inc., and others, the strength of Define lies in leveraging our experience to design targeted audience development campaigns that can effectively scale across large organizations
The agency is headed by Marshall Simmonds, a true SEO pioneer. Simmonds had worked on About.com and the New York Times porfolio, and that work led to the birth of Define Media Group.
Define Media Group specializes in working with large scale publishers like the Times, Conde Naste publications, Vice, and others. Large scale publishers come to Define Media Group because they have a unique value proposition in terms of large scale publisher SEO and the issues the revolve around that space.
Based on Clayburn’s hypothesis Define Media Group should not exist. They work for companies that have more than enough content and links to logically rank for whatever they want. There business is content and getting readers to that content. They shouldn’t need Define Media Group by Clayburn’s standards, and at the very least they shouldn’t need them ongoing.
So why do they?
Large publishers and UGC sites have very specific issues that need ongoing Technical SEO needs.
Further, technical SEO can make the difference for publishers as they battle for supremacy in the search engine rankings. The issue these publishers and UGC websites face is that the constant flow of content creates issues around utilization of inner linking and topical supremacy of internal pages. These issues are critical, and constantly changing. For example, if your publishing website has an article for Trump’s last season of The Apprentice ranking for “Donald Trump,” then you are missing out on major traffic around the election.
We are going to now look at Information Architecture again.
Let’s take a look at this page on the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/topic/destination/france .
This is the topical page for “France” on the New York Times. Here is what it ranks for:
This page is getting a lot of external links due to the amount that the New York Times get’s syndicated and the internal linking strategy utilized by the Times. So this page is being pushed by internal links and external links from an SEO strategy put forward on the technical side. Many of the New York Times pages have this success. Big wins from Information Architecture.
The argument will likely be that once these categories are created, no more work needs to be done. That does not account for the rise of new news and UGC topics that arise on a daily basis. The need to spot those trends, and make adjustments to internal architecture and linking strategies to accommodate for those topics.
The problem is when it comes to technical SEO, there are no big wins; there’s only recovery from or prevention of big losses.
This isn’t technical SEO being done to “recover or prevent,” this is Technical SEO having a direct impact on ranking. Yes the content is a key, but without the Technical SEO that France topic page doesn’t rank. Period.
Let’s look at a UGC example with Twitter’s hashtag pages, like this one on the “Brexit” , https://twitter.com/hashtag/brexit .
Hashtag pages were introduced by Twitter in 2013.
Ahrefs.com shows us the growth of the pages linking to the hashtag pages over time:
Here is how much traffic this generates
These pages, generated and held up in search by an internal linking strategy, are generating millions of visitors. The hashtag content is important, but without the internal linking it would be useless.
This takes a lot more than a technical skill set. You have to think strategically, be creative and understand the human relationships behind the Web.
The above is a big Creative Technical SEO win. I don’t understand why you can’t be technical and creative. They aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.
If the argument to this case study is that SEO wins are a biproduct of a creative feature add, then I think we are a) not giving the SEO people in Twitter enough credit, but also b) not giving credit to growth from technical SEO tactics based on perceived reasoning for the tactics.
The next time you’re doing a pitch, keep technical SEO to one or two slides.
If I was walking into a major publisher or UGC based company my deck would be stacked with technical SEO solutions for the content and value they currently have. I would use technical SEO to get big wins, and maximize potential.
I could go on and on. I could find more and more case studies to back up my point. However, I would like to focus on some of the comments about technical SEOs in Clayburn’s article:
Sadly, it feels like these qualities are largely lacking in the SEO industry. Other disciplines take all our great strategic, creative and social minds. They leave us with imitation developers.
There is no shortage of good technical SEOs — the backlash over my LinkedIn article was proof of that. Technical SEOs all around the world were coming out of the woodwork to defend their overpriced salaries. So while technical skills are great to have, they’re hardly in short supply.
All the highly technical SEOs I know, the truly brilliant SEOs on a technical side, are insanely creative. They are not imitation developers. They are also not dime a dozen SEOs that can be easily replaced.
So for all of you new SEOs to the space, you can be creative and technical. You can win big with creative Technical SEO. You can do things us old timers haven’t even thought of yet. The door isn’t closed. SEO hasn’t stopped being something you can grow in and help grow.
For all of you customers looking for great SEOs, don’t run away from people that have technical SEO in their pitch deck. They can deliver wins.
For Clayburn, take this experience as a learning experience. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, but also don’t be afraid to admit when you are wrong, or weren’t completely clear. I am wrong everyday, ask my wife, I have gotten better at admitting it and growing from it. I think you have gotten a great conversation going here, but I think you can also learn a few places to improve going forward.
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