I admit, every time I see the word SEO, I think of some witch doctor sticking pins into a doll or spitting rum on a bundle of spices. I know my aversion to SEO isn’t unique and not unfounded. The mix of voodoo and marketing probably irritates a good amount of developers who prefer solid science to fancy claims. SEO takes the focus off the user and puts it on Google. Big mistake.
First things first: no amount of SEO will help a bad product. A poorly functioning site, or one with a bad user experience or one that is unattractive will quite likely be harmed by being easily found in a search engine. My clients with an immediate interest in SEO instead of developing their product have all heard this lecture — the more people see this mess, the more people will never be back. Premature search engine optimization is evil. Product first.
That being said, I tend to see SEO as a product of two things – the implementation of the site and the process of promoting it. The implementation is the easy part, summed up with primum non nocere. A well-implemented site following current standards is all that’s required. A quick run through the W3C validator will show where the flaws are. In the dark ages of web development, the marketing wizards even went so far as to claim that certain HTML elements (tables, I’m looking in your direction) were somehow bad for SEO. Of course, this is bullshit. The top search engines all have great parsers that don’t choke on nested tables. But they do take note of invalid and outdated elements, unclosed divs, etc.
The second part to SEO, probably 90%, is not a product you pay some offshore marketing firm for, nor an AdWords account. It’s a process. Once you have a good product and are ready for people to use it, promoting it is only natural. But stuffing keywords into the meta tags, adding alt tags to images, stuffing the title attributes of links, etc is an exercise in wasted time, money and can get your users to leave your site in a hurry.
Here are my alternatives to the voodoo of SEO:
1. Sell to people you know
Before the web, when you wanted to sell a product that you knew was good, you talked to your friends and family and if they liked it, they would talk to their friends and family. Let that be your start with your web product/application. If your friends and family aren’t interested, chances are no one else is either. Go back to the drawing board. There’s something fundamentally wrong with a product that requires extensive marketing to get people interested. If it’s not obviously appealing, doesn’t solve real problems or doesn’t interest the target audience, it’s a bad product. SEO, in this case, is lipstick on a pig. Waste your money on marketing instead of reworking the product and you’ll guarantee abandoned visits.
2. Communicate with real people
Yes, it takes work and yes, the results aren’t immediate. But they are real. Connecting with people face to face (no, not on discussion forums, not on twitter, not on Facebook) and getting them interested in your product is effective. If you can’t be excited about your site/application/product in front of a potential customer, it won’t sound sincere online either. And if you’re not excited about your new app/site, no one else will be either.
3. Become an expert
With minor exceptions, you should probably be an expert in your field and be seen as such by others. Be it photography, mining, gardening, basket-weaving, event scheduling, or whatever your product addresses, you should be very good at it. If you already have the non-skeptical users in the bag (friends, family), the next group of people you’re trying to attract are the skeptics. They don’t want to spend their time and money on your site if you don’t know your field. If there are discussion forums or blogs in your field, you should know them, follow them, be actively contributing to them and possibly have one of your own.
This is not a prescription for a successful site. It’s just a common-sense process that costs absolutely nothing. No client of mine has ever wanted just clicks or visits on their site. They wanted a way to interact with their customers, current and potential.
If you’re after clicks, by all means, play the Google game. Hand your $500 to some SEO quack who will give you a vial of snake-oil that rockets you to the top of a search-result set. Then, give Google your credit card number so you stay up there week after week. You’ll get lots of unique visits, few repeat visits and very few sales. Once people figure out that you’re only invested enough in your product to part with your money and not your time they’ll take their money elsewhere. Once your money runs out, you’ll quickly descend into the ranks of açai berry peddlers on page 4 of Google’s search results and you won’t have to worry about people abandoning your site.