Don’t be afraid of the big bad SEO

Think SEO is douche-y? Or a dark art? Witchcraft? It's not. It's simple, it's logical and it's a topic everyone who works on the web should understand.

I’ve been doing a ton of SEO (search engine optimization) research / work over the past few months. Should I bring it up in conversation though, it’s not generally greeted with a positive reaction. Over and over I’ve witnessed people cringe. I get it — it has a bad reputation. But it’s actually quite interesting once you get past the image.

I think a big issue is that it’s misunderstood. So let me explain it differently: SEO is like organizing your closet.

It’s not as fun as accumulating the stuff that goes into your closet. It’s not as noticeable to visitors as much as, say, decorating your living room. It’s not going to make anyone go, “Holy shit! Look at how organized your closet is!” But when someone asks, “Hey, do you have a pair of scissors?” You can say, “Yep, it’s in the red pouch that’s in the box marked pointy things ouch on the second-from-the-bottom-shelf. Compare that with the disappointing experience of saying, “Uhh, I think I have a pair somewhere. Maybe under the couch?” And then the two of you look for them and eventually settle on a utility knife.

Actually, I’m not even sure we need an analogy here. With a little simplification, I can tell you what it actually is. It’ll help you get your mind around all of this if you remember that the optimization part is key.

You’ll also need to know what this is:

This is a Dik Dik.
This is a Dik Dik. It’s only important that you know it’s an animal

SEO – what it actually is

Imagine there are 100 dik dik websites in the world. Now, rank them all in terms of popularity. A site called Double-Ds is #1, Di-Dis and DoDos is #20, and your site, Dick’s Dik Diks, is #25.

So. Your site is the 25th most used / most popular. Therefore if someone searches for “dik dik” then you should come up 25th in the result list. That’s what a search system is trying to accomplish.

In a perfect world, where everyone is playing nice and keeping their SEO closets clean, you will come up 25th.

However. If you don’t pay attention to SEO, you might show up in 30th or 35th. Or, in rare cases, not at all. Thus losing potential visitors. On the other hand, if you do your SEO well and sites 20-24 don’t, you can be ranked 20th. Giving you even more exposure than you should have and helping you actually become the 20th most popular Dik Dik enthusiast community on the web.

You’re optimizing the benefits you get from a search engine. Search engine optimization. Great.

SEO – what it actually isn’t

Unless you are shady and trying to go around the system, SEO is not going to do your marketing for you. It is not going to make your site popular all on its own.

Instead, proper SEO gives you more of what you earned from your other successful marketing efforts.

Again, it’s called optimization for a reason.

Getting to a place where SEO actually matters comes down to doing the work: making things people like and telling them about it. It doesn’t matter if your business is an app or a restaurant or a magazine. If the shit you make stinks, getting Google to throw it at more people isn’t going to help.

That said, if you make something that people like and you don’t organize your SEO closet, you’re going to miss out on business.

So how do I organize my closet?

There’s a bunch of stuff you should do, but I’m not going to give you a comprehensive list. There are plenty of guides online for that. Instead, I will list a few things that I think are interesting.

Keyword research = how people think about the problem you’re trying to solve

You’ll read a lot about keyword research and analysis. You can dig into tools like Google Trends and see what people are searching for. But first you have to put yourself in the shoes of your ideal customer. What are they searching for and why?

If your site, let’s assume it’s Dick’s Dik Diks again, is a community of wildlife researchers, you don’t want to spend all your time ranking for keywords unrelated to that. “Dik dik hunting tips” should point somewhere else entirely.

Beyond that though, how does your audience talk? What do they call it? What are they searching: Is it “dik dik wildlife community”? or “where can i find other people who like dik diks”?

That’s maybe not the best example, but I really like the idea of getting into the heads of people searching. This curiosity carries over from my own behaviour trying to get better search results. I often search using phrases that the programmer in me thinks are insane, but that I think are more likely to have been used by the majority. Therefore, the results should be better. For example, I don’t search, sheet cleaning frequency like I think I should, I search for how often should I clean my sheets like I imagine most people would.

(BTW the answer is a lot more often than you probably do.)

Similarly, it’s easy to be lured by popular keywords that may be related to your site but will frustrate people if you rank for them.

Building a brand vs. doing what it says on the tin

Building a brand is expensive. If you name your Dik Dik site Double-Ds, for example, you will have to do a lot of work to associate the phrase “Dik Dik” with “Double-Ds”.

If you name your site exactly what it is, you’ll have a much easier time optimizing it.

For example, 12 years ago I had a website in which I called the blog “maunderings.”

Now, I was a depressed and pretentious little butthole at the time and thought the word “blog” was gross. I set my blog address to something like anguswoodman.com/maunderings. So if someone was searching for “angus woodman blog”, they would have had more difficulty finding it. That may not matter for a personal blog, but having yourcompany.com/blog is a lot better than yourcompany.com/maunderings if your blog is actually something worth searching for.

I'm still a little condescending, putting this here
I’m still a little condescending, putting this here

A good real-life example of this is a local restaurant called Montreal Poutine. Say you’re visiting Montreal — you google or yelp or foursquare “montreal poutine” and you can’t not find the place. The name is the exact search phrase that’ll be used over and over. (This works just as well as you walk down the street and see their sign. Walking down a street looking at shop signs is just another form of search.)

No, the name is not as glamorous or chic as calling it “Le Curd”. And no, I’ve never eaten there. But I bet that customers come straight to their door. Folks just want to visit Montreal and eat poutine and get a picture of it —- this place makes it easy just because of the name.

SEO deserves respect

There are a lot of technical aspects to SEO. And you can easily mess everything up trying to make it better. Worse, modifying your website for other reasons may mess up your SEO without realizing it. Maybe you uninstall a WordPress plugin because it’s causing a performance issue and forget to turn it back on.

The web is littered with the corpses of sites that’ve made mistakes like that. Everyone who touches your online operation should have respect for not only SEO but the marketing tactics behind it.

It’s also an ongoing challenge. You can’t organize your closet once and keep throwing stuff in there and expect the whole thing to stay neat. You have to file new stuff away properly. Maybe you picked up a second pair of scissors just for fabric and now “pointy things” needs to become “non-sewing pointy things”.

You can’t afford to drop the ball on this stuff. But luckily once you understand it, it becomes second nature.

Lastly, it’s not scary

My point here, really, is not to make you a better SEO’er. Lots of sites out there exist to help you learn and you can easily find ’em because the best ones show up at the top of the search rankings. They’re self-selecting.

My point is to say that SEO doesn’t need to be a mysterious world. It’s not a dark art or witchcraft. It’s a set of rules that anyone should easily be able to apply if you understand why your site exists.

When you figure that out, you owe it to all your hard work to squeeze your rightful allotment of juice from search engines.

In the meantime, go make something people can’t live without.


I should note that I’m only talking about SEO here. SEM is another popular term that is a bit broader, though the lines are often blurry. Here’s a piece of SEM that I like done through a competitor keyword ad-buy that I wouldn’t classify as SEO:

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