Why design & development blogs need to embrace SEO

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  • December 17, 2012

Recently I wrote a reply to a blog post on Smashing Magazine and submitted it as a guest post. The post was intended to demonstrate what a specialist SEO agency actually does these days and to address the misconceptions that the design/development community seems to have about SEO.

The post I submitted is below and at the end of the email is the reply I got from Smashing Magazines editor declining to publish it. After a few emails backwards and forwards Smashing Magazine still does not believe what I am saying SEO agencies actually do. The misconceptions about SEO don’t just lie with Paul, they exist across some of the largest design blogs in the world. This is one of the most frustrating email exchanges I’ve had and I just hope they let somebody reply to this from the SEO industry on the blog Smashing Magazine blog.

My guest post:

The job of an SEO expert or SEO agency is primarily to help websites get more visitors & revenue from search engines. The tactics that SEO’s use to do this are varying all the time and there is a major disconnect between what some in the online community believe SEO is about and what the good guys in the SEO industry actually do.

In the recent post by Paul Boag he started off by saying that readers should not invest in SEO and then went on to recommend that readers should focus on doing a number of different things, all of which are the exact tactics that a good SEO agency should be focussing on every month! That’s like saying that people should not bother to do exercise each week they just need to go for a run or start cycling. The problem isn’t that people should stop investing in SEO, certain people just needs to understand more about what the new world of SEO actually is.

In the past an average SEO agency might have had a list of tactics like the ones below – this isn’t modern SEO and should not be part of your SEO strategy:

  • Optimising content purely to add loads of keywords
  • Writing blog posts with dry content
  • Directory submissions
  • Article syndication
  • Link exchanges
  • Buying links in sidebars or footers
  • Buying paid posts on blogs that only exist to sell paid posts

There are still hundreds of agencies who do exactly this for clients every month but this doesn’t mean that this is what SEO is all about. In 2012 Google unleashed so many penalties that a lot of agencies doing low quality work had penalties applied to most of their clients. Some are yet to recover.

A good quality SEO agency should be working with clients on a monthly basis to do things like:

  • Making users really love the site by focussing on great design, content & usability
  • Using the clients real life brand equity and expertise to create a scalable and natural link-building strategy for example by releasing data, running events, building relationships with real life bloggers and journalists
  • Targeting long tail keywords with user generated content such as Q&A, reviews etc
  • Cleaning up any bad links that previous agencies might have placed – bad links hold you back these days as Google no longer ignores them
  • Analysing data such as conversion rates etc to find new opportunities for improving sales
  • Creating engaging viral and social campaigns designed to be shared by passionate users around social networks
  • Creating a content marketing strategy that will attract links and social attention
  • Troubleshooting and fixing issues and penalties (more common than you think)

A lot of the above probably sounds like something that can be done by a design agency, a PR agency or even an in-house team and that’s certainly true. The primary reason companies need to hire an SEO agency is to take ownership of the SEO traffic stream and make sure that the work is prioritised and executed correctly. Without a single person or agency to take ownership of this we often see certain things being missed and items that are almost great but could be so much better.

The job of an SEO agency these days could easily fit the description of a Digital Strategy agency but we need to embrace that and realise that SEO, design, development and all the other related disciplines are so much more integrated than even 12 months ago.

The SEO industry are embracing great design and usability as ways to add value and help clients achieve their ambitions – it’s about time that the design and development community embraced SEO in the same way. If not then you will end up like the PR industry who spend all day doing SEO by building links and relationships but don’t take credit for SEO improvements, don’t report on SEO improvements and don’t get to charge for SEO improvements.

The reply from Smashing Magazine:

Many issues that you list are actually tasks that content managers and content strategists do, I am not quite sure why you call these agencies “SEO agencies”? It would be great to find out what exactly core SEO experts do (like SEOmoz) and how website owners actually benefit from their insights. A couple of strategies and ideas related to SEO would be very useful to explain what it is exactly that SEO experts do.

They just don’t believe that this is the job of an SEO agency and feel there must be something extra that SEO agencies are doing.

Update: Smashing Magazine have asked me to clarify that they didn’t reject my post, they just wanted me to alter it to better fit with their audience. I think altering it to fit undermines the point of the post to be honest and am not comfortable with editing it.

Patrick Altoft

About Patrick Altoft

Patrick is the Director of Strategy at Branded3 and has spent the last 11 years working on the SEO strategies of some of the UK's largest brands. Patrick’s SEO knowledge and experience is highly regarded by many, and he’s regularly invited to speak at the world’s biggest search conferences and events.

  • http://www.deaddinosaur.co.uk Chris Norton

    Patrick an interesting post and I can see why you are frustrated. I think most people have been fooled by a lot of poor SEO companies. The ones that used link farms and just pointed a load of links towards a client site to give them a boost. There are a lot of stories outside of the blogosphere about people spending a lot of money for minimal results. You and I both know good quality SEO takes time to do. I also think this guy basically wants a step by step guide on how to do SEO but from what I can see you have pretty much explained it. I think you might be fighting a losing battle with this one.

  • http://twitter.com/dohertyjf John Doherty

    Patrick –

    I love this post. I think you’re spot on that SEOs take ownership of the organic/inbound (if I can use that word) channels and do whatever is needed to increase those numbers (and the conversions/revenue from those channels). For some reason SEO has been siloed into “build links”, as if it’s a plug-and-play that is completely separated from other marketing channels. We know this is not true, but so many that we work with (or that need to work with an SEO) still have this understanding. Unfortunately education takes a long time.

    Also, “It would be great to find out what exactly core SEO experts do (like SEOmoz) …” Oh boy…

    • Jakesalterego

      Dream response from moz: “This. This is what we do”.

  • http://twitter.com/simmonet Grant Simmons

    I’ve had similar discussions, with similar outcomes. Yet the same folks run panicked to an SEO agency at the second sign of a traffic drop (the first sign is normally missed because they don’t have someone focused on their business Analytics)

    You have some good points, I’d only add that more and more SEO is taking a “quarterback” role, ensuring stakeholders are aligned, whether internal or external, we find ourselves at The Search Agency managing, contributing to and driving change within organizations to ensure alignment with SEO best practices, inclusion and consideration at every level of the web process (concept through day-to-day operations)

    Challenges abound, of course, overlap with PR agencies, in-house vs agency, brand stewards, old timers, foundational optimization and the speed to outcome vs effort factors, but overall… SEO is now a known need for organizations (mostly) understood at a marketers level as a necessity for most businesses with an online presence.

    Now we just have to convince the SEO industry I self to become more of what you note, less hiding behind the Google Algorithm, and taking a more quarterback, holistic approach to SEO.

  • http://www.blindfiveyearold.com AJ Kohn

    This makes steam come out of my ears.

    Oh, and by the way Smashing Magazine, SEOMoz hasn’t actually done any SEO consulting in years. So, if this is the level of due diligence you perform on the SEO industry then I fear that many of the other areas in which you don’t have a core competency may be similarly erroneous.

  • http://twitter.com/searchbrat Kieran Flanagan

    The reply from Smashing Mag is kind of interesting. First, it seems they don’t know what SEOMoz do and that they are a software company, not consultants. Secondly, I think it shows that outside of the “SEO” community, people are struggling to understand what SEO entails these days. I’ve brought this up before. For the average joe soap, SEO means getting rankings in Google. Although some of the better SEO agencies are able to convince their clients it means a lot more. I think it’s going to be a long road ahead to get wider adoption for this, especially since SEO is now laying claim to other professions that have existed for quite some time e.g. content strategy.

  • http://twitter.com/krystianszastok Krystian Szastok

    That’s a very poor reply. And you’d think that smashing magazine is up to date on all things digital…

  • http://www.nickeubanks.com/ Nick Eubanks

    Patrick – First off, thank you writing this.

    This is a perfect example of how SEO has become another box to throw things into… unfortunately most of time, things people don’t really understand. I must say I had higher expectations from Smashing Mag, being a long time reader and fan…

    This challenges some of my beliefs that their writers (and more so their editors) research the content and do at least some preliminary fact-checking prior to publishing… seems that’s not the case.

    I can’t get away from the idea that SEO still needs more visibility (oh the irony). The fact that I still meet people, on almost a weekly and certainly monthly basis that say things like ‘it’s been SEO’d’ or ‘We’re going to add the SEO after launch’ shows the lack of understanding as to what SEO really means, and just blends us further into the mix of MMO affiliate schemes.

    My biggest problem with this is not even the reputation of SEO but the opportunity cost of the websites and businesses who aren’t seeing the full picture, and more so, are falling victim to the volumes of misinformation that are still being spread by otherwise reputable publishers.

    It leaves me to ask, what can we do to stop it?

  • Butler

    The fact is, you’re going to have a really hard time explaining that CRO is part of your core competencies as an SEO agency (unless you’ve have a dedicated function for it).

    Analysing data such as conversion rates etc to find new opportunities for improving sales? Yeah… it’s called merchandising.

    Events? There’s a whole industry out there that’s been doing that for quite a while that you’re going to have a hard time competing with.

    There simply has to be a line. And trying to encompass all of these separate, distinct and well developed disciplines under the SEO moniker is never going to work.

    And the truth of the matter is, this is a big cry for help from an industry that is facing the biggest shake up since its inception and is desperately trying to diversify in order to claw back legitimacy, secure revenues and, ultimately, survive.

  • http://www.linklately.com/ w.jno-Baptiste

    I think you are spot on Patrick but I think the SEO community is sometimes its worst enemy.

    If you take even two minutes to look around, you’ll find much of the recent SEO topic is about one thing.. ‘content creation AKA the holy grail’

    No wonder some now think that is all there is to it, and its the reason the article manged to exclude a critical part of what SEO is about – i.e data analysis .

    Content creation is the end result of a carefully planned strategy based around numerical research.

    Agencies also brings a wealth of experts to the table such as excel and math wizards, link-baters, site technicians, creative thinkers and vertical experience.

    For example, I’d like to see who would trust their content writer to oversee their domain migration when there is millions per month in sales to account for.

    There is much more to what we do than content.

  • http://www.aleydasolis.com/ Aleyda Solis

    Thanks Patrick for your post! There’s sadly still a lot of misunderstanding of SEO and the confusion with webspam. The funny part is that even Google endorse the necessity of SEO with their SEO starter guide (when someone who doesn’t understand at all tells me something like: “SEO is bad” that’s the most basic argument that works). Also, not only from a Marketing perspective but also from a Web development one: SEO goes hand in hand with non-functional requirements of a Web system, such as: accessibility, usability, performance, etc. in order to improve a site capacity to obtain the desired visibility and conversions in a search driven environment. A pity that Smashing Magazine hasn’t let you answer their article full of misconceptions.

  • http://www.brysonmeunier.com/ Bryson Meunier

    Hi Patrick. I actually submitted an outline for a rebuttal to Smashing Magazine last Thursday and was accepted this morning. Working on it now but it may not be published until after the holidays. In addition to this, I’ve got a cover story coming out in March in .Net Magazine where I try to change the perception of SEO among designers like Mr. Boag. I interviewed Rand Fishkin, Eric Enge, Vanessa Fox, Gord Hotchkiss, Cindy Krum and Danny Sullivan for the piece, so if the design world doesn’t know SEOmoz and SEO yet, they soon will. :)

    Agree with Grant Simmons, though, that this isn’t entirely the fault of the design industry. A lot of spammers call themselves SEOs, and if we don’t do a better job of consistently standing up and ostracizing the bad apples it isn’t going to help the reputation of our industry as a whole.

    An editor from Smashing Magazine sent me this post, so they’re definitely aware of your feedback. For what it’s worth, part of my article will address specifically what SEOs do, and what you wrote about that is perfectly reasonable.


  • http://kercommunications.com/ Nick Ker

    Here comes another wave of “let’s call SEO something else because those of us who do it well, do so much more than what most people think it is”.

  • amitkadam

    Nice post
    i think Smashing Magazine not updated their knowledge about SEO. Maybe they have old definition about SEO Agencies Work :)

  • http://www.technocrews.com/ William RAHI

    Great post! We’ll definitely be following some of these blogs into 2013. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.frivmini.com/ friv

    Very impressive article. I have read each and every point and found it very interesting. I would like to visit again.

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