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The SEO's Guide to Beginners

A lot of people are under the erroneous impression that I am not only part of the SEO industry, but that I have an extensive understanding of SEO, in general.


This is woefully untrue. I'm pretty much clueless as to most of what Rand does. I've just never been that technologically savvy. Recently, we were given an iShuffle by a gentleman at a conference. I think I broke the thing. 


When I logged out of iTunes and tried to eject the player, the CD drive on Rand's computer popped open. Rand laughed hysterically at this. Later, I found that after 2 and a half hours of trying, I succeeded in uploading only one song to my MP3 player (“Float On” by Modest Mouse. And yes, I'm sure if I listen to it enough, it will probably come around again. But that will be after I've gone crazy, and, fittingly, crashed my car into a cop car).

So naturally, if I can't get one of the (supposedly) easiest mp3 interfaces to work, my hopes of understanding algorithms and search engines are pretty grim. But here's the real rub – even knowing as little as I do about SEO, I'm kind of the resident expert at my company. I know quite a bit more than everyone else, and when questions pop up people often come to me for answers. I'm guessing that a lot of you deal with clients whose knowledge is equal to or less than mine, so I thought I might share with you what I believe a true SEO beginner knows and doesn't know. Keep in mind, I'm simply basing this on my experiences, and consequently, all of this evidence is anecdotal. Also, I want to make it clear that I work with some very smart people, many of whom have experience working for major online retailers (the biggest online retailers there are).


Keep the Language Clean. Some people don't even know what SEO is. Often when discussing what Rand does to outsiders, I just say, “Internet marketing”. So please, for the love of Pete, don't launch into SERPs, trackbacks, 301 redirects, or any of those other terms. You might conclude that by talking that way, a potential client will think, “Ah! He clearly knows a good deal about this, even though I don't have any idea what the hell he's saying”. But really, I think they'd much rather know what you were doing. Understanding breeds trust. Try slowly explaining things as you go along. A list of glossary terms can't hurt. There's even one in The Beginners' Guide.

DeMystify the Search Engine. I have no idea why the hell Ask.com ads mention an algorithm. I can't imagine anyone outside of the SEO industry knowing what that means (also, the commercials ridicule the guy who doesn't know what the algorithm is. Why? Who wants to use a search engine that mocks them?). Most people barely grasp the idea that search engines are corporations – that they actually make money, and aren't simply an index that comes free with the Internet (like the phone book. Wait, does Yellow Pages make money? They must. Through ads, right? Hmm ... now I can't tell if that example is apt or not). And most people I work with exclusively use Google. Most are not familiar with MSN Search (and we live in Seattle), and I know only a handful that use Yahoo!. So they really, really aren't going to get that there's an algorithm behind all of it. The best approach when dealing with people who have this background is to make it clear what search engines really are and how they arrive at results.

Not All Engines are Created Equal. Now that you've (hopefully) explained how engines work, it's time to differentiate them. Make sure your client understands that different engines return different results. And, true to my beginner status, I don't really get why this is true. I sort of think they should all provide the same info. So you'll probably want to explain that, too. Ooh – and they probably get this (since, hey – they're contacting you after all) but a lot of people don't get that rankings fluctuate, and, like the song goes, that you can be riding high in April, shot down in May.

Nobody Understands Spam. My boss is a smart dude (I say this un-ironically. He's great.). He's had high-ranking positions at some major online retailers. He's also totally clueless about how spam works. A few months ago, we started receiving spam comments on our blog. “How are these guys finding us?” was his first reaction. He didn't understand that the whole process was automated (I had to explain “bots” to him), and completely indiscriminate. 


Then, as he was looking through the comments (which I think scarred him pretty badly, because they were pretty dark), he told me, “I don't get it – this stuff doesn't even make sense. Who would click on that link?” (Answer: anyone who wants to read about “crazy anal mortgage cheerleader beaver cell phone”). I had to explain the whole purpose of anchor text, and the role it plays in ranking for terms. This was shocking to him. Most people see links as something you click on, and that's it. Which leads me to my next point...

Nobody Understands Links. We see them as something to click on. That's the entirety of their purpose. Few people understand that links actually contribute to rankings, and that anchor text is important (the only reason I know is that Rand made me edit The Beginners' Guide). Given to their own devices, their links will all read “click here” because it makes sense contextually. And most people don't know about paid links or sponsor results. They just assume it's Kosher, even when it's clearly not.

Meta Tags Make the World Go 'Round. Okay, yes, I know they don't actually. But if someone knows only one thing about SEO, it's meta tags. The concept is fairly simple, so people figure it's the explanation behind everything (like String Theory, which is also likely a bunch of crap). So one thing you'll need to do is debunk the myth of meta tags. If you have solid examples of them not working, that would help. Also, and this is just me confessing stuff again, but I don't actually know what meta tags are. I mean, I think they are in brackets in the code of a page, and maybe they're somewhat like title tags. So I'm guessing that even people who think they know what they are, don't.

Meta Tags II: Rise of PageRank. Like meta tags, people latch onto the concept of PageRank, and assume that it is the answer to life's ultimate questions (but, duh, it's 42. Seriously). And I just learned that it's named after Larry Page, and not, you know the fact that it ranks your pages. Also, I don't really know what PageRank is. 


I know that it's on a scale of 10, and I think that at one point, links from pages with high PageRank were more valuable (see? Why does it have to refer to his last name? WHY DO YOU DAMN SEOs MAKE THINGS HARDER THAN THEY NEED TO BE?!!!! ... ahem. Sorry. I lost it a little. I'm fine now). Anyway, if PageRank isn't valuable, you should probably explain that. If it is, you should quantify it.

Oooh ... Keywords. Once someone learns anything about keywords, they become like a chubby kid at fat camp who's just stumbled upon a hidden stash of Oreos. They'll likely try and cram them in wherever they can, even if it's clearly not a good idea. It's probably in your best interest to explain exactly how keywords work, and why stuffing is a bad idea.

Yawn. Okay. That's all, because I'm tired and I don't know how Rand does this almost every damn day. My job requires blogging of a much easier nature ... which brings me to my shameless plug! <shameless> Check out the Cranium blog. </shameless> Thank you.


(postscript from Rand: Yes, Mystery Guest really does write this brilliantly all the time, and if it weren't for the fact that she's wearing a ring I gave her, I would certainly do my best to hire her away and make her a permanent fixture on the blog.)
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