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Ask HN: Overcoming engineer/developer bias against SEO
51 points by randfish on June 3, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments
I was out to lunch today with a fellow startup CEO who commented that our company (SEOmoz) was likely having a much harder time finding remarkable engineers to hire due to the negative perceptions about SEO as an industry and business practice. In his experience, even very smart, talented people from this background tended to have closed minds on this topic.

Since we specifically discussed the Hacker News community, I thought it valuable and worthwhile to post here and see if the community had opinions on the topic and, perhaps, could share ways in which we could help overcome it.

My sense is that HN is generally filled with smart, open-minded people who love applying science and technology to marketing (or any other problem), yet SEO (and web marketing as a whole) seems to attract derision, often without context.

Love to hear your thoughts.


RE our specific situation: We're hiring primarily for folks to work on our web crawl, processing & machine learning platforms (as well as some front-end applications that plug into these systems). A good comparison would be Google's/Yahoo!'s/MS's teams in the early days working on 50 billion+ page indices, metric construction, crawling, serving, etc. We've heard that these are typically interesting, sexy problems, but that the "SEO" industry bias is working against us.

Here is why I would never personally work for an SEO company: (Obviously just my opinion, with all the bias that carries)

Search engines are very interesting, technologically. Optimizing a search engine would be extremely interesting. Optimizing websites to keep up with the changes of somebody else's business (the search engine) is not interesting.

You're playing catch-up. You essentially attempting to reverse engineer interesting problems, and applying methods to take advantage of the internals of those algorithms for your customers.

In 1999 you would have been wildly successful telling people they could put a ton of keywords on their website, using the same font color as their site background color to boost ranking without affecting user-visible content. That worked, for a while. Then it didn't. The technology to "optimize" content for search engines have changed, but the concepts are still the same. You're trying to game the system, and I personally don't find that interesting nor rewarding.

Fair points.

We're working to figure out what works and provide software to message that and help businesses optimize. It's not just for search engines (we try to help with, for example, how/why people retweet, link, share content, "like" on FB, etc), but the point is a reasonable one; optimizing against existing systems vs. creating something new may be part of the issue.

Thanks for sharing, Brian.

> It's not just for search engines (we try to help with, for example, how/why people retweet, link, share content, "like" on FB,

... and how to get a popular item on news.yc :) I guess it just goes to prove your point that you can can promote your brand without being spamy.

It isn't about keyword-stuffing (and hiding these keywords from users) anymore. It's about optimizing a site for organic traffic and having a true focus on who the customer is.

Use the Betty Ford Center, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center, as an example. You want to optimize for "private" and "recovery" rather than dilute your site with keywords like "clinic" which don't serve your target audience.* _This_ is what effective SEO is about.

It's only "gaming the system" in the same way that traditional advertising is--you want to do your best to get your message in front of the right eyes.

* "Clinic" is often associated with "cheap" or "free" by customers who are a better fit for the Betty Ford Center.

The biggest issue is the difference between:

SEO=link farming, spamming blogs, generated blogs/sites, etc...

SEO=building accessible standards compliant markup, making it easy for people to find content they were actually looking for, etc...

My gut reaction to hearing "SEO Company" makes me think of #1, even though I know "good" SEO is really just good page development, good content, good use of keywords, etc... As an engineer I'd prefer to hear about standards compliant markup, accessible (508/WAI), canonical URLs, clear DOM structure, and developing content to better serve users: which is really what it's all about.

You're exactly right about the difference, and I'd add that bias against SEO is dangerous in the second case because the good kind of SEO is absolutely critical to the success of most sites.

Catering to the user and offering content / services that people want should be the #1 priority, but if Google doesn't index your site properly then the people who want it will never see it.

Except, just as with SPAM, clever SEO strategy can be far more than just best practices. The right ad-buys and keywords at the right time in certain businesses can generate extremely attractive CPA numbers compared to other methods of marketing.

Yes, it's a bit of evil mixed in with good - what marketing isn't, but but it can be extremely effective, especially if your business depends heavily on search engine ranking.

Convince the client you can bring them converted, spending customers at a CPA they'll like, without tarnishing their overall reputation, and you've got a winner.

I think HN is gradually, gradually warming to SEO. I remember way back when I was lurking here someone had a comment along the lines of they would be a hired assassin prior to doing SEO consulting. These days folks discuss SEO strategy here with some regularity, and it generally doesn't cause vitriolic reactions when it is perceived as non-manipulative.

I think it is a matter of continuing to demonstrate very basic things such as "SEO works", "SEO will make your business money", and "SEO is not black magic voodoo practiced by a bunch of ebook selling charlatans who will teaching you to Make Money Online".

If I were trying to get a bunch of savvy startups on board with SEO, I'd be banging the drum on how SEO is an absurdly effective force multiplier for startups, small businesses, and other resource-constrained entities who have agility, deep technical knowledge, personality, a story to tell, and all the other unfair advantages that warm me to my blackened SEO heart. If you're doing business on the Internet, you're almost certainly critically dependent on SEO these days. (Some businesses more critically than others: I could imagine B2B with horrifically long sales cycles that get very little accomplished online not worrying about SEO too much, and Facebook/iPhone apps get a pass in today's market. But for selling B2C or B2SmallBusiness web applications? Crikey, SEO is about as important as issues get.)

Oh, and educating people about what SEOs actually do for a living helps. (I mentioned at the time, too, but I really liked the presentation to YC about it.) Except, don't mention the roasted baby parties. I don't think they're ready for roasted baby. We'll start with kitty milkshakes and work our way up gradually.

The points you make are disturbing. As far as I can tell, the reason why people shy away from SEO is not that it doesn't work. Indeed, it seems like people shy away from SEO because it works too well. At least for me, there's a perception that SEO is evil and crowds out legitimate content. I would hope that these startups are not going over to SEO just because it works; I would hope that SEO is trying to show that it works legitimately.

Good sales teams crowd out great products with crappy sales teams (no no sales at all). Great marketing destroys great products that have no marketing.

The best developers take their head out of the code and realize that it's not a true product meritocracy-- in Google search results, in the App Store, or in any marketplace you care to name. AND they realize that really freakin' awesome things happen when you combine a great product with great marketing.

I sell software to big companies (Global 2000) in a new category and SEO has been absolutely vital to our marketing success. People from big companies are actively looking for new solutions w/ Google. (Not like, the CEO, but someone at the architect/pmgmt/tech lead level who may do something.) I've gotten both great OEM leads (from large tech co's even your parents have heard of), great direct sales leads at F500 companies and the (gasp!) federal government, and a lot of activity from consultants, analysts, and journalists.

SEO matters, even in the complex business to business sale, <em>but only if your company and your offering is remarkable</em>. (In the Seth Godin sense - worthy of remark.) Look at how much SEO a company like salesforce.com does.

"they would be a hired assassin prior to doing SEO consulting. "

Fwiw I would still choose to be a hired assassin vs being an SEO consultant. ;-)

I would rather starve than work for companies like SEOMoz. If I am a typical good engineer (and I think I am a good engineer , not a great one - yet ;-)), then I guess that confirms the poster's anecdote of good engineers not choosing to work for SEO firms. Really why should they?

My focus is Machine Learning so if I wanted to work for someone else on interesting problems in ML, I'd work for NASA/Google/NSA whoever - NSA being as "slimy" as I'd like to get. I wouldn't choose to work for SEO companies/Spam Companies/Porn companies /criminal enterprises etc if they had problems ten times as interesting/sexy (and I am sure at least some of them do).

Why should a good engineer choose to work for a company in a shady industry, given she has any choice in the matter?

If you are running your own web app startup, knowing when and how (much) SEO works (and when and how it doesn't work) on the other hand, could be very useful (as patio11 correctly points out), depending on whether you think it is the best way to spend your time.

If I were running a startup (I am not, presently) and if Search Engine based marketing were an important part of my marketing strategy, sure I'd spend some time on it (again patio11 has written some incredible posts on how to do this, thanks much!). But I'd still see it as a necessary evil rather than something intrinsically good, and I'd never work on this stuff for other people.

Getting muddy on the way to some place important is one thing, making a career of jumping into slime pits for random strangers every day is another.

This is the first time in a long time I wish I could downvote multiple times. SEO is not intrinsically good or bad-- it's a tool (and a powerful one). Like sales. Like TV advertisement. Like PPC marketing. Like display ads. Like PR professionals.

Sure, asshats can use tools for evil. People get killed by kitchen knives all the time-- but that doesn't make the tool intrinsically evil.

That's what I don't get: Where do you get the "shady industry" stuff from?

SEO is just one more tool in you toolbox. Easy to learn, hard to master, but massively effective.

And yes, there are lots of (very vocal) idiots out there. But this type of people is in every industry. So I don't get it why so many people see them as "the industry".

I don't think I've warmed to SEO, necessarily. I just realize that unless the good guys start using the black magic, then the victory belongs only to the spammers.

Wait, I wonder if the spammers think of themselves as good guys too...

Hmm... I think maybe this is where a big part of the problem lies. SEO hasn't been "black magic" for a long time now, and most of the "black magic" that worked from 1997-2003 is dead and gone, replaced by creative marketing, accessibility and best practices.

But perhaps that message has been drowned out by the ongoing perception from those early years of SEO?

BTW - this might be good material to explain my point above - http://ycombinator.posterous.com/the-first-yc-conference

I didn't mean to get hung up on the term 'black magic' as it pertains to things that are purely evil and mysterious in nature, but rather things that are generally useful but (socially) in poor taste. Also, it feels a little dirty.

But this raises a valid point that we should address. If there are, as Matt Cutts points out, more than 100 attributes that can affect your search engine rankings, and you are purposefully attempting to manipulate a decent subset of them, then you have likely fallen from grace in that you are no longer just using 'creative marketing, accessibility and best practices'.

And spamming Digg, paying people for links, baiting links with bogus lists--it still happens. I know because I was hired to do it for a while and quit when I realized what it was about.

Rand, I'm pleasantly surprised to see you mention accessibility in the context of modern SEO. For quite some time I've felt that a certain group of SEO people would make great accessibility consultants (as in hands on experts rather than armchair critics) because what they advocate goes a long way to helping accessibility (as in making sites more amenable to people with disabilities) - it puts in place a great foundation for building accessible websites. I like that aspect of SEO.

The SEO industry suffers because bad and/or over-zealous/self-promoting SEO gains more public attention than a strategy that is well thought-out, considerate and user-centric. Every time someone does a search and the results returned bring up sites a visitor positively does not want to see -- SEO foots the blame more often than not.

I'd suggest the SEO practitioners be seen branching-out and offer services in areas SEO overlaps with others: accessibility, user interaction design, clean copywriting, site monitoring, site metrics analysis, web development best practices, hands-on web site quality improvements, and web user psychology. Even though a lot of this is now fairly typical SEO work, I'd still suggest making it more obvious about the wide range of skills a top-notch SEO practitioner has to offer.

I've come to understand that SEO is no longer just Search Engine Optimisation, but a practice that when done ethically and considerately connects people with the information or service that best meets their requirements. And that involves quite a lot more than convincing a search engine to rank certain key pages for a certain set of keywords.

The common web developer perception of an SEO person is grim. SEO is seen as redundant to web best practice. For a while I considered SEO's main strength - this I gleaned from Danny Sullivan - as the goto person when a web developer fails to do his job properly. I think that's an over-simplification that doesn't help SEO, and the practice of SEO.

I also feel that the top-notch SEO people are too nice. Although the recognise there are elements within the SEO industry that give them all a bad name, they are reluctant to be direct and brutally honest when dealing with bad sections of their industry. In my view, I don't think the SEO industry does enough to throw it's bad people under buses. Bad practices and bad techniques are discussed, but organisations and groupings that are harming the perception of SEO aren't directly criticised. I'd suggest there'd be a cheer breaking out on the web if the SEO industry did a visible clean-up and called out bad practitioners directly (or fisking).

I feel in this regard SEO has earned a low reputation like the Internet Marketing industry. There are some people doing useful and constructive work, but a much more dominant/visible/significant portion just peddling yesterday's snakeoil.

I've been immensely lucky over the past three years to work with some wonderfully talented SEO people in the UK. I find it very interesting to compare and contrast deep insightful approaches to SEO with modern web development techniques and accessibility best practices.

It's not the techniques that have impressed me about professional SEO, but the considered, logical and insightful reasoning behind tailoring pages in certain ways for search engines.

I think that's the sign of a top notch SEO professional. Not just knowing techniques and tricks, but having the consideration of picking the right blend of methods for genuinely improving the site they are working on, their appearance in search engine listings, and bringing the right kind of people to their websites.

I think that's what's so easily missed by people disdaining SEO: SEO is about bringing the right type of people to the right type of sites from search engines. It's finding that balance where a site is listed appropriately to it's real quality to visitors.

A fair number of times SEO is about improving the quality of content on the existing site to justify it's generous rankings -- but we don't hear much of that.

I've watched how the self-identified Black Hat SEO crowd works over the past two years, and frankly I'm surprised how inaccurately they've been portrayed. Ask the typical internet-savvy person about the darker side of SEO and they talk about the dirty tricks of old - cloaked redirects, keyword stuffing, spam. And yet, Black Hat SEO is far more refined than that. It's not the choice of techniques that identifies someone as Black Hat, it's the rationale behind their choices.

To geekily draw a parallel with Star Wars, the Sith have a marked advantage over the Jedi in that they have the choice between using the light and dark sides of the force. The Jedi almost always have no choice but the light side (cue eternal flamewar about Vaapad...)

The strength of Black hat SEO is their ability to quickly and effectively automate techniques that work on increasing their rankings and search engine visibility. So the common routine for these people is to find a technique that improves ranking, and automate the hell out of it, and repeat over and over and over. (Also note, most Black Hat SEO people also keep a squeaky clean White Hat part independently of their darker parts - that's their solid financial base).

What happens is that Black Hat SEO guys right at the fine edge are highly skilled and motivated hacker/programmers - some are exceptional developers. They love solving hard technical problems, that are rewarded in a significant jump in income because of improved rankings. They love the challenge, and it drives them. The perception that Black Hat SEO is just lazy script-kiddies is misleading. I'd suggest that the leading Black Hat SEOers could code the pants off many people, including a lot of talented developers even here. And when Google finds and figures out how to bury their sites they just start again from fresh. They are determined, motivated and self-managed. And they love the challenge of it.

I have a love-hate relationship with SEO. Some stuff makes my blood boil, but every now and again there are moments when SEO practices add loads of value beyond self-promotion. We need to optimise the latter.

(Sorry for the long comment, this is something I've had considerably thought about over the past three or so years)

Perfect reply. Thanks!

tldr; OP likes SEO...and Star Wars

Let me explain why I have learned to hate SEO over the years.

I'm writing this from a throwaway HN account. I work for a 4-year old company, where I was one of the first 3 employees. We have a very popular website that gets over 400 million page views per month. We get lots of traffic from Google. When I started, our priority was making a great, simple user interface. But we were also very aware of SEO, and paid much attention to self-links we put on the site, anchor text, URL parameters, all the usual smart SEO stuff. So far so good -- we did this opportunistically, and never at the expense of the user experience.

As we grew, we hired a person dedicated to SEO (a non-programmer). Then we hired another. These SEO people started having us add links and pages in strange places that made no sense to actual users. And adding links that sometimes made sense to users, but were unnecessary, and cluttered the user interface. The page footer grew and grew, eventually spanning 3 lines. We added funny redirect schemes that made the site slower for users. We were afraid of our links to other sites because we might leak valuable "Google juice". We added redundant tooltips that were useless to users. Many of these tactics were crap our SEO people read on some webmaster SEO forum, with no scientific basis. Sometimes our SEO people even had the gall to say "I have an idea I think will be better for the user experience", and go on to propose something that only benefited SEO, and made the user experience worse! In other words, they would focus on GETTING the user (via Google), but forgot about KEEPING the user (through good user experience). Thankfully, we never did the black-hat methods like cloaking, but some things very close were proposed and met with loud opposition from our developers.

For a long time I would fight against these changes, because they made the UI worse. I lost most of these battles because it was hard to convince the managers that it was hurting the site (but it never seemed to be necessary for the SEO people to prove it was actually helping SEO). I was eventually spending so much energy fighting these SEO proposals that I just gave up. User interface designers and developers spend a lot of effort to make a web site look good and run fast. Then the SEO people go and fuck it up. It's very frustrating for developers. I know SEO is important. All I'm saying is that SEO should never be at the expense of the user experience. I hate what it has done to our web site, and I know it's happened to other websites as well.

Did you try A-B testing to verify that the SEO tweaks actually did produce improvements? Seems to me that the absence of testing makes it difficult to verify the improvements that any specific SEO attempt might make. Unfortunately, there are too many SEO 'hand-wavers' trying to cash in on the widespread ignorance. From what I've seen genuine SEO results are a lot harder work than the SEO-oil salesmen would admit.

I'm kinda curious how A/B testing for SEO works. You can't show one version of your site to half of Google and another to...er, the other half of Google? I suppose you could measure your search referers one month, make the change, and then measure it the next month, but your data will be very noisy. You're likely to get more searchers coming later simply because of additional word-of-mouth, traction within the marketplace, maturing of the industry, etc.

Google Website Optimizer: A free website testing and optimization tool, which can be used to find out what site content and designs which best resonates with the visitors, by letting Website Optimizer to show different versions of website to visitors while tracking the performance of each version.

Right, that's describing ordinary A/B testing on visitors, where you show half of your users one version and half a different version and then measure their behavior. That's pretty well understood.

What I don't understand is how you would apply A/B testing to SEO. There's only one Google; you can't show half of Google one version and half another Google. How do you get data on which version is better for search engines without being able to compare them while holding other factors constant?

There is no real A/B testing for SEO, sorry. As you say, there is only one Google.

You can try to simulate a 'test' with two equal throwaway sites, but this will never give you the same insight as using it on a big site with real content and real visitors. But it can help you find problems in linking structures, tweak the (really small) benefits of using one or another html tag.

The success of SEO can't be isolated. But, increased crawling of the page and disproportionate visitor growth from Google are good signs.

How would you possibly A/B Test SEO improvements?

By rolling it out to different segments of your data. Like a single city or category.

How do you control for natural variations in the popularity of different segments, then?

Say that you're Yelp, and you make a change to the Boston section of your website. Unbeknownst to you, a competitor has sprung up for local Bostonian reviews, and is rapidly gaining market share. You see your Boston pages drop in rankings, but it may not be because of the change you made. It may be because a bunch of Google's other signals have picked up that this other competitor is suddenly much more popular, and are adjusting ranking accordingly.

I think you already learned your lesson, but I want to repeat for all the others: SEO and non-programmer doesn't really fit.

Think about what the job of a SEO is: Make Google like the site more. How does it work? Make a better site, that gets more links. Okay, the "get more links" part is possible without any technical knowledge. But if the site is crap, this won't help. So how could anybody make a html site better without being a web programmer? Yeah, right....

It sounds to me like the problem you suffer isn't SEO, it is the people involved, you included. It sounds like you have poor leadership (Especially if they are failing to listen to your input), an unwillingness to compromise (Both you and the SEO team), and a me against them attitude (Which most likely hurts your cause) when it comes to the parts of a website that you work on.

Great user experience and highly effective SEO can co-exist, but it is much harder than most people think and it takes high quality individuals willing to work together, compromise, and execute on a vision that will benefit the corporate vision over all.

I’ve worked in the SEO business now for a very long time and I can also tell you that you are not the only one that feels the way you do and every single time I have seen this it has always come back to the quality of the individuals involved.

I think what you describe hating are dumb asses. There are plenty of those around - be they programmers, seo's, ceo's what have you.

I'm a software engineer, and I've been browsing seattle.craigslist.org recently looking for something new. Your ads hit enough of my keywords to pop up in my search, but I move right past as soon as I see the letters "SEO". Maybe your company actually is awesome and totally working for the betterment of the world, but you've chosen a label for yourselves that was invented to describe the bad guys.

Your ad could hold my attention longer by dropping the term "SEO", but I'd still decide you were probably just a bunch of spammers as soon as I saw the words "improve their rankings in search engines". I don't want sites to come up in search engines because someone paid a lot of money to put them there; I want sites to come up in search engines because they are a good match for what I'm trying to find. If you're gaming Google, you're making the Internet less useful, and there's no way I could work for you in good conscience.

Now, maybe what you're actually doing isn't so much gaming Google as it is teaching your customers how to build good web sites. Maybe you're teaching them to write good headlines, use quality hyperlinks, add a lot of useful, interesting content, get content out from behind paywalls and flash blobs, and so on; or maybe you've come up with some fascinating statistical analysis that lets people know how searchable their content is. If so, that's great: but why drag yourselves down with the poisoned label "SEO"? It's like calling yourselves "SpamWorks", or "BotNetMasters", or advertising your skills at obfuscating Cialis ads.

Web marketing attracts derision because web marketers make the Internet suck. Maybe you're a step above the spammers of the world, but you're not helping your case by marketing yourselves under their label.

Okay, here we found an interesting bit:

> [...] but you've chosen a label for yourselves that was invented to describe the bad guys.

For me, probably randfish and lots of other people, some of them working in this industry, the word SEO just doesn't mean this.

I have no doubt that you're right, but this isn't about what you think or what randfish thinks: it's about what the people he's trying to recruit think. Speaking as a member of his potential recruitment pool, there's nothing in the job ad that distinguishes SEOmoz from any other company talking about "SEO" or "improv[ing] their rankings in search engines", and as a result I get the impression that SEOmoz is just another bunch of sleazeballs making money by ruining the Internet for everyone else.

If that is true, then great: they're marketing themselves effectively. If it's not true, they might not want to use terminology so directly associated with the asshole spammers of the world.

SEO makes it harder for people to find useful information on the web instead of what someone spent time and money to "optimize" for Google. Developers know this, and so generally dislike SEO.

Really? So, say tomorrow you build a better Wikipedia. How long before you're on page 1 of ANYTHING? If you're 1000% better than Wikipedia, maybe it's only 12 months. But if you're only 15% better than Wikipedia... It could be years or never.

SEO allows small/smart companies to compete against established behemoths in search engine results.

Your statement is true of ALL marketing and ALL sales. The truth is that marketing and sales efforts are a success multiplier to the quality of your product. Yes, that means that good companies can get beaten by crappy companies who out-execute them in the arena of sales and marketing.

You can ignore sales and marketing in the hopes that your product is SO much better than the competition that it will win anyway... But that's almost never the case (note the $ that Apple spends on marketing, bizdev, and branding).

I think people are reacting to the game theoretical aspects of this. Sure, if one firm uses SEO, it gives them a chance to get a leg up on the competition and put their product out in front of people. But if everybody uses SEO, nobody else is better off than they were before, and yet a huge amount of time has been wasted on SEO. And unfortunately everyone will be using SEO, because they'll get left behind if they don't.

Many developers are developers precisely because they didn't want to get into these zero-sum games. Think of the other professions where smart, logical, creative people can end up. Finance, law, and advertising. Most of these pay better than software engineering does. If we wanted to go into them, we would've. But it's precisely the constructive, innovative part of software development that appeals to us.

The question was "Why do developers not want to go into SEO?", not "Why do salespeople and marketers not want to get into SEO?" It's because the question is already self-selecting for the people that don't want to do that. If we liked gaming the system for personal gain, we'd work for Goldman Sachs.

I think you're absolutely right. I'd say that's the difference between a developer and a hacker-founder. Look at the YC App-- YC optimizes for people who game systems because BUSINESS rewards people who game systems.

If you leave low-hanging opportunity on the table because your software business won't lower itself to things like sales, marketing, SEO, PR, etc-- you're doing a disservice to your investors and your co-founders.

Not all areas of content attract SEO manipulators. In my current position, I see a lot of content that would benefit greatly from basic SEO since the competition for search engine ranking in this domain is relatively mild.

My biggest gripe as a developer is having to deal with the perceptions of non-technical folks. I still frequently encounter folks who hope SEO can magically redeem their lousy-to-mediocre website. I always encourage them to first build content worth finding before going nuts worrying about how many people will find it.

Bad SEO does that. Good SEO makes it easier for people to find the information they were looking for. It's a race.

But good SEO is mostly easy, common-sense techniques that don't change very often. Bad SEO (gaming the system) is the hard part, and I have to imagine it's mostly the part people are willing to pay a lot of money for.

But good SEO is mostly easy, common-sense techniques that don't change very often

This is sort of like saying "good programming is mostly easy, common-sense techniques that don't change very often", and since programming is a solved problem, anybody willing to pay a lot of money for programmers is clearly getting something hinky done.

Programming is not a solved problem. Neither is marketing. SEO exists at the intersection of programming and marketing. Every site and every business brings their own unique challenges to the mix, and they're not all addressable with "Slap some alt tags on those images and you're good to go", any more than you can solve any programming problem with "Rewrite it... with more AJAX!"

SEO for many startups will involve, among other considerations, "How do we convince our users to create? How do we convince our users to share?" Those are core product/marketing questions for many startups, but they're equally core to the SEO strategy, and they're tricky to get right. For that sort of startup, you could imagine someone looking over their widget's viral activity with the amount of intensity that Zynga spends on its viral channels, because sharing via the widget creates several types of value for the company (via direct traffic, branding, and ranking effects).

I don't want to take this analogy too far but.. In some ways it is similar to a lawyer or accountant.

A lot of the time, especially with small common issues, the answer is standard and simple and you could have just looked it up yourself. A lot of sites actually just need to pick some decent keywords to target and write titles for the page.

Sometimes, you want a professional to tell you that even though it is mostly just standard stuff because otherwise you don't know if you could be saving tax by doing something else.

Sometimes things are complicated and the difference between a creative (which usually also mean experienced) consultant helps.

BTW, that doesn't mean rely on professionals and don't learn it yourself. Learning a bit of law or accounting might also be a good idea. Certain types of creative solutions are only really going to come from you. Some solutions are best engineered in from the beginning. EG, you might want a lawyer on the founding team of a music sharing startup.

Good programming is mostly easy, common-sense techniques that don't change very often. At least, if you want to ship your product. Also, answering questions as far as getting your users to create and share is largely a UI/product issue, nothing to do with SEO.

I think the main issue is that most developers/business owners have seen SEO companies charge enormous sums for adding very little value, or using dubious ethical means such as link farming, keyword stuffing, invisible keywords and so on. It's going to take a long time for all of that to wear off.

GREAT reply, patio11. It's not just a question of good versus bad SEO. Within each 'colour', there's a vast range of techniques. Not everyone knows about them, and certainly not everyone can implement them. More importantly, the things that really sets a talented ethical SEO apart from an inept ethical one are creativity and business smarts. Just like any marketing campaign, an effective, sustainable SEO campaign requires a deep understanding of the client's business needs and market.

Working in the SEO world for a long time on a huge number and variety of projects, I'd have to say that despite my respect for the people who visit and comment here, this comment is entirely false.

Bad SEO is easy, good SEO is hard. Just like anything else in life; nothing worth having comes easy.

You are (purposely?) mis-stating what he claimed:

He wrote "good SEO" meaning ethical or non-sleazy and "bad SEO (gaming the system)" as sleazy SEO.

Not your re-defining them as "good" as "effective" and "bad" as "incompetent".

In my experience with several large-ish companies (ymmv with smaller shops), they paid outside SEO firms good money to provide "good" SEO and tell them what we (the technical folks) already knew. However, the value was that then we were given budget/time to go make the changes/cleanup the pages/etc... And it gave weight to our suggesting that maybe not all the content should only be showing in fancy JS driven modals, etc... They also had some metrics and advice regarding the most useful keywords/content we should be utilizing (helpful stuff) that the internal marketing folks had no ideas on.

Thankfully, I haven't worked at a company that hired a "bad" SEO firm, yet.

I deal with this a lot. I think there are 3 problems:

a) the underlying need for SEO is equivalent to the underlying need for taxes. Or apartment brokers. Or other hated but essential intermediaries. SEO is a necessary lubricant, but in a perfect world, it doesn't exist.

b) the context SEO operates in is derivative, not fundamental. SEO may need to deal with 50b+ indexes, but the context is not google. The context is parasitic.

c) the business model and ROI calculations of many SEO companies are self-serving, magical, non-scientific, and non-provable. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with SEO people where I suggest doing an experiment, and all I hear are crickets and fear.

At our last weekly meeting, we were discussing implementing SEO. My gut reaction was to question the decision to work with snake oil salesmen. Luckily, I thought before I spoke.

I think SEO needs a new acronym to differentiate between spammy abuse SEO and site structure/good practices. Maybe Search Engine Readability? Search Engine Compatibility?

Here's why I loathe SEO (the term and the industry):

It shouldn't exist. There's "good" and "bad" SEO. "Bad" SEO is snake oil, it's cheating, it's gaming the system for commercial purposes. It's a race to the bottom to see who can screw up their UX and the Internet in general the most to get the most clicks from Google. It's evil.

"Good" SEO, though, is nothing but common sense. Search engines emphasise good structure, semantics, accessibility and practises, and this is what "good" SEO takes advantage of. But good developers know if you're doing your job in the first place, there's no need for "good" SEO. That's why we don't like SEO; it's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. If you can somehow stealthily introduce good practises in the guise of SEO, then I guess that's good, but we cringe at the thought of having to label it like that to get acceptance.

Perhaps your first problem is that there isn't even a "Careers" or "Jobs" link on your homepage, and Googling "seomoz jobs" and "seomoz careers" leads to a job board and not your company's hiring page?

Seriously, I am interested in hearing about your machine learning openings, and I can't even find the job description anywhere.

Wow... Great point. We used to have a callout in our top menu nav, but it's pointedly missing. I'll definitely get on that with the team.

In regards to openings: http://seattle.craigslist.org/see/sof/1757631095.html is what's currently up.

I've worked in SEO for 6 years (I'm an SEO copywriter), and I know there's good and bad in the industry, as in any industry. In SEO, I think the biggest problem is a lack of respect for the audience. That's why you get sites with poor usability, as described by throwaway123 below. But it's not always the SEOs who are responsible for that. Remember, they're being paid by someone. Yes, there are times when the SEO's client DOESN'T understand the impact of the SEO they're commissioning. But there are also times when they do. It's easy to blame the practitioners here, and often that blame is justified. But we only have to look around us to remember that business -- big or small -- is generally far more interested in short term gain than long term customer satisfaction. So it should come as no surprise that many businesses are prepared to turn a blind eye to practices that hinder usability and visitor value.

The other common problem in SEO is ineptitude. Many people call themselves SEOs when really they're just opportunistic freelancers and entrepreneurs. Their SEO knowledge is poor and their business management skills lacking. This ultimately impacts EVERYONE connected with the job, even those only remotely connected (like the good SEOs out there).

Sadly, SEO is a loaded and abused term. A lot of SEO is helpful, making your site friendlier to search engine tools. But the term also tends to include less above-board efforts, such as search engine exploitation, gaming the system, all the way to web spam, link farms, content scraping, etc. At this point it's probably better to just come up with a different term than attempt to reclaim SEO from the exploiters.

I see hackernews SEO articles quite frequently, i even submitted one that did quite well: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1270748 so i think you're on the right track by asking here. That being the case, why don't you just edit your post and include a "we're hiring" link! Aside from that diving into the technical details "sexy problems" first in any type of job listing may prove helpful since it sounds more like they'll be very technically involved.

If the SEO moniker is really really hurting your prospects, consider creating a shell company such as Initech (generic and tech related) when posting and wait till they're warmed up to the technology before you tell them it will be for SEO. In all honesty though i think you would be better off finding someone not only excited about the sexy problems, but someone who is interested in SEO...maybe harder and longer but would pay off in the long run...if you figure out a good answer to your own problem, then let us know!

Perhaps blogging about the exciting (and non-sleazy) tech would help?

Hi Rand,

At Pear Analytics, we haven't experienced that at all. In fact, most developers will tell you that they no nothing about SEO anyway, so I'm not sure where the bias would come from. Engineers are attracted to solving problems they've never solved before. We've had plenty of issues dealing with external API's, Google's ridiculousness, queuing systems, data storage and more - yet they continue to find ways to get around these issues.

You guys seem to be located where there is a wealth of talent, and with your success - I am surprised finding the engineers you need is difficult.

I would say keep the focus less on the SEO, and more on the solution/problem you are trying to solve, and making it sexy to the end user. Maybe that will get some attention.

Ryan Kelly

Rand - It sure seems like you're recruiting sophisticated application engineers, you're not recruiting SEO engineers. That is, this is a recruiting problem (yours) not a perception problem (theirs).

Focus your headline on the sexy work you're recruiting the engineers for, not the market your customers are in. Why mention SEO at all in your recruiting?

Oo turn it on it's head and address the fear in your recruiting efforts. Like, "how can a gig as awesome as this possibly be found in the slimy, shady underworld of search engine optimization? mwahaha."

Maybe I'm biased because I'm an SEOmoz client, but I'd imagine that once they get past the initial hurdle that your firm doesn't fit a preconception about SEO anyway. So get em over that initial bump.

Rand I believe you should consider your company a "Search, and Analytics" company more so than an SEO company due to the context/bias that SEO has. The scope of work that SEOmoz does is quite a bit beyond traditional SEO work etc.

Yeah - certainly. And I think our branding around software for SEOs speaks to that, but the branding of "SEO" in general is something we think about a lot, too. We're not just trying to improve our image or brand, we want to make the brand of "SEO" something people like/enjoy/respect/appreciate.

Sometimes a term becomes so strongly associated with unethical behavior that it can't be used in a more positive context. I think this is true for "SEO". In theory there should be no cognitive bias against the idea of optimizing a site design to make it easily searchable; but historically this term is associated with shady practices.

One of your comments states that you want to make "SEO" a brand people respect. I don't think this is going to happen in the short term, when the experienced engineers you want to hire remember cursing the unethical behavior of other SEO practitioners.

Very interesting question. We founded Plug in SEO a year ago and at the time came up against lots of anti-SEO prejudice. The scene has definately changed, at least here in the UK. The prejudge has been replaced with robust questions about its benefit.

As for recruitment, if your SEO solution is genuinely an arms race of outmanouvering search engines, as an engineer myself I'd have passed over the opportunity. Personally I relish solving problems but not reinventing the wheel or gaming search engines.

As a coder, I would enjoy those problems. Maybe its a framing issue-if you frame the jobs as you did here, rather than "work for an SEO company", maybe that would help?

Yeah, when I think SEO i think of the sleazy guy who has a gigantic link farm that if I pay him, will link to me.

Part of it, as it seems to me, is that I simply don't understand what SEO research involves, and assume it means doing bad/lame stuff. adding transparency to the job/process would probably make it sexier, assuming that there's some real substance underneath...

Yeah, we've generally tried to position ourselves in this fashion, but with SEO in our name (SEOmoz) and with core values of transparency and authenticity, we'd prefer not to try to hide who we are or what we do. We believe whole-heartedly in our mission: To simplify the promotion of ideas on the web. SEO is the first part of that puzzle.

Also - if you're interested and are in Seattle (or could be talked into moving here) please drop me a line - rand@seomoz.org

Your transparency has probably generated more good will than you know. My wife and I are planning on relocating some time in the next year, probably to the Seattle area. As part of this I've already started to take a look at what jobs are available and just yesterday I came across your craigslist postings. While having spent the last three years working for a marketing company and dealing with some sleazy SEO people I would have normally just bypassed any ad with SEO anywhere in it, but seeing that it was seomoz I actually took the time to read it.

You are probably fighting an uphill battle. Last year I had to do a technical integration with another company and it turned out they were actively paying something like $30k per month to an SEO company to keep them in the top five results on the big three search engines. All of that money was going to black hat methods such as link farms, paid links, cloaking etc. These tactics were all working and for a very long time their sites were the number one and two links for dozens of relevant terms with the big search engines. As those tactics worked, my employer very much wanted us to start employing them, ignoring the objections of the design and engineering team. About six months later we were heavily involved in a project for another company that was supposedly run by an SEO expert. His expertise turned out to be having read a three year old E-book on the topic. While I've provided two anecdotal examples, from everyone I've talked to these types of examples seem to be the most prevalent. Or maybe people only talk about their negative SEO experiences. It's not even cut and dry for those companies that appear to be doing things right. Look at some of the backlash on reddit when people figured out that oatmeal used to work at seomoz.

I agree that the name is a huge problem. SEO is off putting in itself, but then appending "moz" makes it seem like you are trying to have some association with Mozilla too.

I know you guys are well established, and I've read some of your stuff with interest, but that name is terrible.

You should try setting up a separate entity called "Search Analytics & Research" or something that does the actual engineering, and try A/B testing job ads. I bet you'd get a hugely different response.

SEOMoz is a reputable company and love going there for all types of SEO information. The community is large and growing larger. Most people are searching for SEO related solutions for Wordpress blogs and I think the best solution so far is.. http://www.seodestination.com/wp-seo/ any other tips?

As a programmer at a fairly high traffic site, SEO is a way of life for us and we always think of SEO implications. The more difficult problem we have lately is the SEO vs user experience trade off. We dislike whenever SEO is chosen over the user experience.

The biggest misconception about SEO is that its intent is to be spammy. SEO is in fact directed towards more effective communication with search engines. Using web analytics, and intelligence we optimize content to be more direct towards users, and search engines by using keywords etc that users are searching for. We're basically improving communications just like quality CRM does only with search engines, and users. Link farms are highly transparent and easily flagged by Google. They have extremely sophisticated algorithms to determine who the spammers are.

I completely agree Trey - I'd say that over the last 5 years, I've almost never (maybe once) seen a case where SEO had to interfere with or detract from good user experience. The engines have actually done a great job making this an extreme edge case.

I've seen several instances where in order to make really nice JS/AJAX UI interactions and flows also SEO friendly we had to do a lot of extra work. However that work also makes us accessible, so it's not the end of the world....

I think that most people here prefer "any other problem" to marketing.

As an engineer for a decade and a half (turned tech manager, now), I used to have that same feeling. I believe that's because until you work with a competent marketing group, there's an awful lot of "Dilbert marketing department" evident. And truly competent marketing groups are only slightly more plentiful than unicorns, IME.

Work alongside a good marketing team however, and it's night and day. I think that they have in many cases more interesting problems, especially in the context of growing a startup.

How can you tell a good marketing department? They're smart, able and willing to do math, are willing to be data and metrics driven and can't comprehend it could work any other way. If someone says to you "math has no place in marketing", you don't want to work with that marketing department.

Indeed, the usual marketing often combines the worst aspect of sleazy sales guys and irrational artsy types. Never mind that marketing departments have a high female percentage, and girls are scary.

Scientifically-minded marketing seems pretty rare. Or to put it another way: Quite often there are some scientifically-minded marketeers in the team, but no one tends to listen to them.

Telling good marketing departments from bad marketing departments is really hard, and highly dependent on context. What might be a great marketing team for an enterprise software or SaaS company might make an awful marketing team for a consumer focused startup.

Good technology marketers generally are a) ex-engineers (this is a spay-shul breed of person), often those who went out in the field and sold when push came to shove or b) people that sincerely like technology and have lots of field experience.

A bad marketer says "Everything is a widget (or cpg.)" A good marketer says "Every buying process in every vertical is different and highly sensitive."

Generally, marketers arrive as communication-oriented (PR/Marcomm experience), technology-oriented (PMM/PM experience), or sales-oriented (former sales person, cares more about qualified leads than raw names and phone numbers.)

Read Steve Blank's book - most people point to him as one of the best marketers in Silicon Valley - or read about his adventures as head of the SuperMac marketing department - http://steveblank.com/category/supermac/ - That's what a GREAT marketer does.

But, yes, good tech marketers are rarer than hen's teeth. Most people in marketing are there because they lack the logical abilities to be an engineer and the courage to be a salesperson. (This is coming from a marketer.)

Generally, really good marketers know the hell out of their market, and know what metrics they're working towards. They should know every influencer in their field by name and viewpoint, if not personally. If anything, they really need to think of themselves as 'Market Response Engineers,' trying to find out what the market will do in response to the messages they communicate.

Additionally, avoid people who work/have worked at ad agencies. They know how to drink, not how to market things.

If SEOmoz wasn't good enough for the oatmeal then it's not good enough for me.

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