Create Great Websites, Without Any SEO

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September 23, 2010
thumbSearch Engine Optimization, also known as SEO is a subject which gets talked about to death all over the web. There's a fairly large group of people who believe that SEO is the be-all and end-all to anything on the web. They believe that without it, you are nothing and with it, you are everything. Today we're going to look at why that isn't true and why you can create a truly great website which performs well in search engines, without any seedy SEO tactics. We've also included a case study of WooThemes and QA with Adii Pienaar and his views on SEO.

What They Want You To Do

1 SEO companies use techniques which fall into two categories: "White Hat" and "Black Hat". Black Hat SEO is the term used to describe questionable SEO practices such where people try to cheat the system with multiple websites and code which exploits loop holes in search engine algorithms. Black Hat SEO is frowned upon but, to be honest, White Hat SEO isn't much better. People who do White Hat SEO play by the rules. They don't break any Google Terms of Service (mostly) and they stick to the techniques which are deemed to be legitimate. The problem is that they go over the top and they entirely miss the point. SEO companies have one goal and one goal only. To get websites into top positions for highly-search key phrases on major search engines. They generally pay very little attention to the content of the site, so long as it has plenty of keywords. They pay very little attention to the usability of the site, so long as search engines are able to index the pages easily. They pay very little attention to the bounce rate, or how long people actually bother to stay on the site. Ranking highly in search engines means absolutely nothing if people are just going to press the back button as soon as they've spent five seconds on your awful website. There are SEO companies out there with major investors taking money from clients and then paying untrained staff to create spam blogs with bogus content and links. These companies class themselves as fully White Hat, by-the-book operations, but they're still using incredibly questionable and ultimately dangerous tactics. I should know, I used to work for one of them and disliked every second of it. We should probably pause for a moment to add a small disclaimer. Not all SEO companies are the same, and not all of them are trying to screw you. There are a few who believe they genuinely are helping you with some misguided idea of what the web is all about (hint: it's not spam). There are fewer still who actually have a huge knowledge on SEO and use it as a very small part of a bigger picture. The difference is that the last group of people rarely refer to themselves with any sort of title containing the letters S, E, and O.

What You Should Be Doing

2 Search engines are designed to rank the best and most relevant sites highly. Again: The best, and most relevant sites. Not the "most optimized sites". A remarkable amount "Pro SEO Strategies for better rankings" actually coincide with what a good web developer would tell you to do in order to have a good website. Using proper heading tags, creating simple and well structured links to navigate through your site, ensuring that relevant content is well presented and has related content easily available, creating content on your site which other people will want to link to and talk about. If you want to have a site which performs well in search engines then you need to stop worrying about search engines and start worrying about creating a really great website. Code your site properly, make it accessible, make it usable, make sure it has fantastic content, make sure you have great marketing that has other people talking about it. All of these things contribute to the factors which search engines use to rank your site. In a nutshell, you can try and win a race with a 1992 Honda Civic that you've tuned up and fuel injected and loaded full of Nitrous Oxide... or you can spend the same amount of money on buying a Mercedes. If you spend time doing the right things when building a site and focusing on your users as you grow that site, then search engine rankings will follow. I guarantee it - something which no SEO company can ever do.

A Case Study: WooThemes

3 Adii Pienaar built WooThemes with his two co-founders from the ground up just three years ago. They've never had a big focus on SEO, instead they've focused on their products, their customers and their marketing. In two years, WooThemes built up an annual revenue of over $2million - so they've clearly done something very, very right. Here's what Adii had to say on the subject when I asked him to share his experiences: Adii, you've always focused on making WooThemes about great products and marketing without a big focus on SEO. What was it that originally lead you to this method of thinking? "To be honest, we had two restrictions and we needed to find a way to work around those. The two restrictions were: 1) a complete lack of knowledge or experience related to SEO tacticts; and 2) no advertising to "game" the system by buying links or have an extensive AdWords campaign. Plus, I've always been of the opinion that "content is king" and SEO went against that principle." "So instead we focused on this that we could control: great products and awesome content. Both of these have been great at generating traffic & linkbacks to the site, which in turn improves our search engine ranking." And how has not focusing on SEO impacted your company as a whole, particularly in terms of traffic and on-site statistics? "I wouldn't think that this has influenced us negatively at all and instead we're experiencing that our visitors are viewing 6+ pages on each visit and spending almost 6 minutes browsing the site." You still rank extremely highly for most key phrases related to premium WordPress themes, is this something you monitor closely? and do you have strategies or plans for improving on those ranks in the future? "We do monitor it, but not very closely... :) AdWords is an obvious option in terms of displaying better for particular phrases, but we've found the cost per conversion in this regard is exorbitant and thus not worthwhile (hence why we won't really be pursuing this going forward). So our strategy will stay organic and stay the same: focus on great content and products, which will definitely get our users talking about us, which in turns ranks us higher." You recently started offering third party plugin integration for a lot of your Themes, some of the more notable ones were big SEO plugins for WordPress. What made you choose to start supporting these products and has it changed your view in any way? "We decided to add proper SEO support in our themes, because this was a major request from our users and we didn't want our own opinion to cloud our judgement in this regard. We probably have a 80% content and 20% SEO-related strategy, but that composition is based on opinion, so we recognize that our users may want to invest their budget & time differently." Finally, if you were going to start all over again, would you do anything different with regards to SEO? "I wish we could reboot the web and make sure that SEO never even existed. :) Seriously though - nope, we wouldn't change a thing with regards to our SEO policy."

In Closing

4 You don't have to pay through the nose for an SEO company, you definitely don't need to pay other people to buy links and you shouldn't even really be focusing all your time on how to get to the top of the rankings. Good rankings aren't the be-all and end-all of running a website or an online business. People often use the metaphor of positioning yourself on a high-street in the center of a city when comparing SEO to a retail premises location. The most important thing to remember is that it really doesn't matter if your store is on a gorgeous marble shopping street nestled in between Gucci and Prada... If it's a shack with rusty metal racks and a rude shop assistant, nobody is going to go in, and if they do go in then they'll leave again immediately. Create a great website, first and foremost. Great websites will always rank highly because that's what search engines are designed to do. Start focusing on what really matters.
What do you think? Are you bored of all the self-proclaimed SEO professionals who do nothing but spam? Or have you had success by focusing just on SEO and not making a great site? Let us know in the comments!

John O’Nolan

Founder at Writes about Open source, startup life, non-profits & publishing platforms. Travels the world with a bag of kites.

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