SEO: Art or Science, or Are You Putting Lipstick on a Pig?

When I searched the term "search engine optimization" on Amazon recently, I saw about fifty titles. And who with a business website hasn't received a drizzle of phone calls and gaggles of emails from all over the world offering, nay guaranteeing, to get your site in the number one position on Google? 2011-04-04-pigwithlipstick.jpg

With all these books and experts you might think it is terribly difficult to get high ranking and there are exact steps to take and if you take those steps, you will be at the top. Yet when you survey the results, it appears there's many a slip between cup and lip. Were it that easy, everyone could be in first place.

How much of a role does art play in SEO? How much does the art of marketing contribute to success? Or, as some might claim, is it all science?

In many fields it is not enough to know what to do. You need to know how to do it, and why to do it. Without knowing the why, you can't make optimal choices. And, as in cooking, writing a recipe is a far cry from attempting to execute it flawlessly. How hard do you beat the eggs? How hot is medium heat? Is that vegetable or fruit really ripe or over ripe?

An artist in the kitchen might look at the whole picture a little differently than someone unfamiliar with kitchen tools and materials. A chef will know from touch if the temperature is right, if the food is fresh, and have the experience to know that he needs a thick pan for one task and a deep one for another. The chef understands the art of cooking.

In search engine optimization, there are similar subtle aspects to consider that may go right over the head of someone lacking an appreciation of classical marketing. I am defining marketing as the analysis of what customers want and the strategy of how to give it to them.

In marketing it is crucial to understand the customer's needs. In SEO, it is important to understand both the customer and the middleman that mediates what the customer will be shown. That middleman, the search engine, acts a bit like the producer at a night club, picking acts based on what his customer wants. He determines what the audience sees.

In our example, the owner of the club is Google and the producer is the Google algorithm. The person doing the search is in the audience inside the club. The producer picks the show, the audience only can choose the club, thus picking the show indirectly.

How? The audience, the searcher, knows what they want and always has the option to go to another club if they aren't satisfied. Just as when you search Google, you always have the option to go to Yahoo or Bing. Like the club owner, Google gets its revenue from people attending the show. Those are the searchers getting what they want in the easiest way and in the best form possible.

Scientific approaches to SEO often miss the point that Google, like the club owner, is motivated to provide the most valuable information possible, because if they don't they lose the audience and all the ad revenue generated from that audience clicking on those Google Adwords.

If the audience in the club were scientific about the shows, they might ask for shows of an exact length, ones where everyone wears red, where the song titles all have three words, where the lighting is intense, and the sound track has a certain number of instruments. But, we all know that isn't how a good act is put together. A good act depends on intuition, feeling, skill, experience, and knowledge. Those are not just rules and steps read from a book.

The Google algorithm is said to comprise hundreds of criteria, and we have to guess what many are because Google doesn't want us to game the system. I can tell you that it is a constantly improving attempt to evaluate web pages by formula in the hope of providing the most valuable results to the searcher. It simply wants to give you what it thinks you want: quality results.

Why might a scientific approach miss the point? Because it is nearly impossible to model the Google algorithm in a set of instructions to humans, especially when we are guessing as to the content of the algorithm. And a scientific approach has no way to quantify something as abstract (artistic, if you will) as "the most valuable information possible." It can only make assumptions based on what it reads.

Notice that I didn't say it wanted to give you sites with five word title tags, or a specific number of words or headlines. It sniffs out what it thinks is the highest quality information, even depending on rumor and innuendo from blogs and links.

But quality in this context is not the quality of content that your English teacher demanded. It is quality as might be determined by a machine that can't understand your thinking, only your presentation and words. It can detect poor writing and grades you like a grammar teacher.

Google pretty much likes what I like when it comes to packaged information and uses a similar method of selection. I pick up books to look at based on their title. I go into bookstores based on their stores reputation. I scan the table of contents in books and the headlines of articles before I decide to read them. I can determine instantly whether the book or article I am holding is of value just seeing a few words in the titles, chapter headings, and headlines.

You probably do that as well. That is what Google does and that is what you have to address in search engine optimization. You must provide quality to be judged superior. The art is in quality, where science can't go.

Thus I would argue that a successful search engine optimization strategy is the result of analyzing what the ideal target customer is seeking in the way of information and crafting the web page and site to provide it in the most desirable and concise form, even before any technical SEO tactics are considered.

If you do that your site will be seen as valuable, people will link to it and write about it and your site will gain momentum.

Only once you have carried out what I call an artistic marketing evaluation (I don't mean the design), looking at the web site through the eyes of the customer, and done all you could to improve the value to that customer, should you attempt to use SEO tools to polish the site's technical aspects.

First give the searcher what they want. Only then should you optimize so the search engine sees your quality more clearly. Otherwise you may be putting lipstick on a pig.

I would argue that a site with high value content, organized well and professionally edited without any tricky SEO will be preferred by searchers and rank higher than a site with mediocre content and organization that is all tweaked out using a formulaic approach to SEO.

In other words, give the customer what they want first, then you can play with the SEO. Art before science. If you have a commercial website that deserves to be on the first page of Google, contact me at