April 29, 2005

Reputational Assault: Web Designers and SEOs

I’d like to add a couple of in-the-trenches observations to Danny Sullivan’s blog post, Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO. Danny covered the sequence of events regarding the web designer blowup over a particular panel at a Search Engine Strategies conference covering particular ways that search engines look at web pages; the web designers attending were (at the least) taken aback that more of their concerns were not taken into consideration. Well, it was a search engine conference, you know?

Back then, it turned out that what was reported to have been said was not exactly what was said, and we saw some retractions, including Eric Meyer’s most gentlemanly statement on the matter — but still there were some points made, not the least of which is the grand divide between the SEO and web design industries.

Good enough. Thing is, while I understand that web designers as a group have their own concerns and "musts" with which they are deeply involved — a thing that can be said for any particular slice of the website-building industry — in reading what they have to say, I think there’s something vital that they overlook. I say this with all due respect and as a hybrid web designer/SEO/marketer; I do those three things that each segment of the industry generally looks down upon with respect to the others. Been doing it since late 1997. Had success with it. And so I have these observations:

First, generalizations can be the downfall of any logical statement. Fact is that there is a huge divide in the web design industry with respect to knowledge and talent. Any hopeful with a first copy of a WYSIWYG program or stumbling through his first angle bracket tags can set up shop as a web designer, but that alone cannot be a comment on his/her actual design skills. The "web design industry" includes the gammut from these folks through those whose skills are exemplary and who can hand-code websites in their sleep and design circles around anyone. Lumping all into one in order to make generalized statements is unfair, and yet those who purport to speak for the web design industry about SEO do just that. With frequency.

Fact is, anyone not reasonably familiar with various SEO techniques — the what, why and how — is likely not to understand the overall issues; therefore we have generalizations about SEOs when, like web designers, all are not alike and don’t/can’t/won’t do the same things. The telling thing is that, where SEO is understood, these kinds of statements just aren’t made. Frankly, there are plenty of SEO techniques that have nothing to do with what is currently called "black hat" — and neither do they involve some of the "get 500 of my closest friends to link to me" techniques that a popular blogger or two used to get high rankings while pooh-poohing SEOs. (Fact is, too, that search engines don’t like such abuse of linking; why do you think Google came up with the nofollow link attribute, which was aimed squarely at blogs, and Yahoo and MSN were so quick to jump on the bandwagon?)

Secondly, I talk to a lot of people, lots of clients and potential clients. Some already have websites, and their most common reasons for calling are that their existing websites don’t get many visitors and don’t perform well, and they know that something is wrong. It isn’t that some SEO has gotten in there and whispered evi lies to these web designers’ clients; frankly, most people have never heard of SEO. What they do know, almost one for one, is that no matter what has been said, implied or promised, their websites don’t perform. These web designer clients are very willing to explain what’s wrong in the best way they can: the websites don’t perform. Money spent. Little traffic. Less conversion.

If it were me, I’d have to ask myself how constant loud, public criticism of the industry that delivers what I didn’t plays in the eyes of clients and potential clients.

Well. This kind of conversation puts me in an awkward position. Do I allow as how their last web designer was lousy? — nope, it’s bad form, and may not be true, based upon what the client said he wanted; perhaps the web designer simply failed to take up the issue of visitor traffic. Or do I explain that the term web designer generally implies only the ability to design and build a website and that so much more is needed … leaving the web designer’s ex-client to view me with suspicion because I’m defending the guy or gal who failed to deliver what he expected, and what he’s come to me to get help in fixing?

For years, SEO forums have noted that most clients don’t understand that the time and money they’ve invested in getting a hopefully fabulous design will not, without knowledgeable steps taken (and we’re not talking meta tags here), bring them traffic. The question is: do web-design-only shops really tell them that the website they’re laboring over will require paid advertisement forever? My guess is that the answer is probably no, simply because the clients are usually surprised at their websites’ lack of response and because they don’t mention search engine optimization at all except as it relates to something I’ve written.

Fact is that the Web is getting more competitive every year, and even if pay-per-click is the answer for a particular company, the ever-swelling ranks of competitors only mean that PPC costs will continue to rise. One wonders at what point paid advertising becomes too expensive to be justified in terms of profit margin. That is a distinct reality, and is already true in some fields.

The one thing I’ll say is that the SEO industry has seen the writing on the wall for some years — that it takes more than building a website to get search engine traffic and to convert those visitors to customers. Or, in the case of SEOs, that it takes more than SEO to make an effective website. As a result, they’re piling on skillsets: designers, marketers, PPC experts, public relations efforts, what-have-you. What this says is that these more inclusive Internet marketing shops are willing to go the extra mile(s) in learning and/or bringing on whatever is necessary to create effective websites for their clients. (Heck, some of them even prefer to cut revenue-sharing deals with clients in lieu of charging fees — a thing they wouldn’t be willing to do unless their skill at search engine optimization and customer conversion was up to the task.) But what does all this say about the future of web designers who may be unwilling to reach for new skills?

Lastly, and admittedly, one of the problems with learning to optimize websites for search engines is that some of the available information is incorrect, some of it is highly risky (search engines do bury and/or ban websites), and much of it just plain old. And there you may find a quiet reality: that many who really are experts aren’t yelling about it. For years, I’ve thought that those SEOs who’ve gone quiet about how they optimize websites have simply become good at it and no longer care to share.

Okay. Although my husband/partner has been egging me on to write a book encompassing web design, marketing, sales, and search engine optimization, I don’t have it to hand because, at this point, I haven’t taken the time to condense eight years of knowledge and history into a volume. I may do that. Or, in the meantime, I may evaluate some of the books out there in order to make a recommendation or two.

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