Let’s Get Technical: A Follow-Up to “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise”
Note: I submitted this article to Entrepreneur.com as a follow-up to the first article, which this article is in response to, and they felt it wasn’t appropriate for their audience. So, I’ve published it here instead.
First, let me say that I love being a part of the SEO community. The Internet is abuzz with SEO professionals and amateurs alike, voracious to read up on the latest news and passionate enough to start discussions when the subject matter warrants it. Discussions are what drive progress, uncover new insights, and expand on topics that haven’t been thoroughly covered.
One of my most recent articles, “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise,” was the subject of one of these discussions, and a particularly heated and far-reaching one at that. After thousands of shares and views, hundreds of comments ranging from placid to aggressive, and even a Whiteboard Friday from Rand Fishkin, one of the SEO industry’s foremost authorities, I thought it was time to jump back into the conversation and set a few things straight.
I’m not here to argue—I appreciate, acknowledge, and agree with most of the criticisms and counterpoints brought up by users and fellow experts alike—nor am I here to rampantly defend myself. I’m not retracting any statements I made and to be honest, I’m thrilled and proud that my original article generated as much interest as it has. I just want to clarify a few points I think were misinterpreted, oversimplified, or flat-out ignored.
A Question of Audience
First, and most importantly, I published the article on Entrepreneur.com. My target audience was not leading SEO experts, advanced developers, or even inbound marketing professionals. My target audience was entrepreneurs with new or small businesses trying to make the most of limited resources with limited experience and limited budgets. I’m generalizing here, but most of these entrepreneurs can’t afford to hire an SEO agency, aren’t in a position to hire a dedicated expert, and don’t have the hundreds of hours necessary to get started with a technical understanding of SEO.
As many commenters pointed out, it’s impossible to reduce the complex technical elements of SEO into a single, 800-word article—and that’s not what I was trying to do, nor was I trying to suggest that learning these technical elements isn’t important. My point was, to this target audience, that it isn’t necessary to become a technical expert in order to reap the benefits of SEO. My goal was to liberate entrepreneurs from the intimidations and misconceptions that sometimes fool them into thinking “there’s no way I can do this for my business.” They can.
When they encounter a problem, grow to a point where the basics are no longer working, or simply want to scale up at a faster rate—that’s when a technical expert becomes necessary. Over the last few years, I’ve done my best to help people understand and address these technical challenges by publishing articles, guides, and walkthroughs on a variety of technical subjects (just to name a few examples: 301 Redirects, Crawl Errors, Onsite Ranking Details, Manual Actions & Penalties, and Poor Results Troubleshooting), but most of these articles are published on other platforms with separate intentions—to help SEO amateurs find answers to their specific problems, rather than to introduce an unfamiliar audience to a fundamental concept.
Stones Left Unturned
Several commenters pointed out that my points were left unelaborated or unexplored, and therefore suggested that my approach was an oversimplification. For example, in point one of my original article, I mention the importance of a “good onsite experience,” which several users criticized for its simplicity, stating that making users happy doesn’t necessarily make a site rank higher. That’s absolutely true—I made reference to “a number of different factors” that constitute a good onsite experience, but I didn’t elaborate on them. An intuitive design that keeps users onsite for longer, a mobile-friendly design that works across multiple devices, a fast site speed, an available site map… the list goes on forever, and I could write an entire book digging into the details. But again, my target audience at Entrepreneur.com isn’t ready for those details. My job in this article was to make things simpler.
Similarly, I caught some heat for my admittedly ambiguous description of “good” content in point two. In his Whiteboard Friday, Rand Fishkin pointed out that the phrase “quality content” offers no real objective description, and that content comes in far more forms than just written (including video, audio, image-based, and so on). This is absolutely right, and in retrospect I should have at least touched on this. But again, this is material for separate, more detailed articles (which I’ve also written or published, including defining what exactly constitutes “high quality” content, and a breakdown of the many different forms of content).
Point three in the article is also boldly simplified. Rather than going on an extended tangent about the benefits and process of building a brand through inbound links, brand mentions, building relationships, columnist opportunities, publication outlets, and an interactive presence on blogs and forums, I tried to make the concept as basic and as easy to understand for a newcomer as possible: becoming an authority.
Unfortunately, a concise article covering the basic concept of SEO doesn’t have room to elaborate on these points. If I had expanded this to a longer, more detailed whitepaper or eBook (which I still may), I would have taken the time to explore some of the finer points that comprise these broader elements.
Social Signals as Ranking Factors
In point four, I admit my simplification could easily be misinterpreted. I state that “if you have 1,000 highly active followers on Twitter, you’ll rank higher than if you have no Twitter account at all.” A handful of users pointed out that this could be taken to mean that more earning followers on social media will make your site rank higher, which isn’t exactly true. As I’ve pointed out in cited correlational studies and even on a guest post on Moz itself, social signals are becoming increasingly important for SEO—top-ranking results consistently show more social signals than low-ranking ones. Just a couple weeks ago, Searchmetrics released a new report on the Top Search Ranking Factors of 2015, which further backs this claim.
I acknowledge that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but I do think it’s important to recognize the many peripheral and interrelated benefits of managing an active social following. More active users means more socially shared articles, more visibility for your brand, and more interest in your blog, which can in turn lead to more mentions, more links pointing to your domain, more recurring traffic, and better-performing articles, all of which can help your organic search rankings. I don’t dig into this in my original article for the reasons I outlined above. However, last year I published “The Top 10 Benefits of Social Media Marketing” which takes a thorough look at these factors and more.
In Response to Moz’s Whiteboard Friday
Rand Fishkin and the team at Moz are some of the most amazing SEO and online marketing professionals I know. I look forward to every Whiteboard Friday, and when I saw my article referenced in the most recent edition, I was both surprised and grateful. Surprised because I didn’t imagine my article about fundamental SEO concepts for new entrepreneurs to make such a wide ripple in the SEO community, and grateful because Rand addresses some of the points I already made above while agreeing with some of my original points, such as that HTML and CSS aren’t necessary skills to begin making SEO progress.
Still, this Whiteboard Friday makes a few additional criticisms that I wanted the opportunity to address:
- “There’s no acknowledgment that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.” This is absolutely true, but my goal here wasn’t to train entrepreneurs to become SEO experts or introduce them to a new career path. The majority of my target audience has no interest in “diving deep” in the SEO world—they’re interested in a DIY approach that can help them cover their bases as they develop into something bigger. As an elaboration on this point, Rand imagines an instance where Google can’t “see” a particular piece of content—but as I referenced above, when a specific technical problem arises, of course entrepreneurs will need some technical help. I don’t believe that should stop them from trying to cover the basics.
- “I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google.” Rand proceeds to point out a number of ambiguous points, simplifications, and ambiguities in a few of my points (which I elaborated on above). I don’t have a counterargument to this; I only want to reiterate that in this specific article in this specific context, I didn’t see the need to go into deep detail. To avoid the risk of alienating my target audience, I kept things limited to the “big picture.”
- “The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to ‘the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank. … User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one.” I agree, but for this article, the broad correlation is the “big picture” point. In my introduction, I encourage readers to “Ignore all the technical terms, all the details of execution and all your preconceived notions for a moment.” I’m not trying to pretend those details don’t exist or don’t matter; I just want my readers to understand that Google’s motivation really is simple. It wants to give the best, most accurate, most relevant, most useful results to its users. To say that having happy users is the only thing required to rank high is inaccurate (and a misunderstanding of my original words).
- “I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room.” This is in reference to a brief list I used to name some key elements for increasing organic search rankings. You’ll notice Rand ran into the same problem I did: he ran out of room. It was never my intention to produce a comprehensive list, nor was it my claim that this was one. Rand mentions a handful of other, rather technical elements that can and should be considered by search marketers (though I’d argue that many of these don’t become relevant until later stages of SEO growth or until a problem occurs): content rendering and indexability, crawl structure, crawl disabling, 301 redirects, domain migrations, 404 errors, and downtime procedures. Rand even mentions how Disney recently neglected to implement proper downtime procedures and ended up having all their pages indexed as 404 errors—but remember, we’re not talking about Disney here. My article, published on Entrepreneur.com and limited to 800 words, was not preaching to multinational corporations with gigantic budgets; I was writing to startups, new entrepreneurs without SEO experience or knowledge, and small-time operations.
Rand continues to list a variety of other technical requirements for successful long-term SEO campaigns. If you’re a seasoned SEO expert, you should listen to them (or read them) and nod your head in silent agreement. If you’re an amateur SEO professional, you should learn them. But if you’re just getting started, most of these will only confuse you.
The DIY Approach
I want to close this article with one final acknowledgment. I feel like many members of the SEO community reacted defensively, as if I were trying to argue that their jobs weren’t important or didn’t matter. This wasn’t my intention in the slightest. If anything, introducing more entrepreneurs to the basics of SEO should provide you a richer and more knowledgeable customer base. But I feel it’s important to help entrepreneurs be less intimidated by SEO, and let them know that the DIY approach, at least to start things off, is a viable one.
One commenter on Moz pointed out that “a better title for his article would be: How to Start SEO if You Don’t Have Technical Knowledge.” In retrospect, I agree. My original title was a bit sensationalist and maybe a bit misleading (especially for people who got angry at the title despite not reading the actual material). But as another user pointed out, there’s “Nothing like a great article to set the SEO chicken coop on fire.” I love the discussion my article generated, and I hope this follow-up keeps it going.
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