I think that's a very valuable point to make, though. None of this stuff is obvious to someone who doesn't live and breathe technology and who wants to use the web to grow a bricks-and-mortar business.
Standing separate from the article's revelations, hiring companies to "improve your ranking" is not on its own the same as "spamming Google." This isn't an attack on your statement, but an attempt at clarifying something that could be misunderstood by readers.
There are plenty of ethical, reputable freelancers and companies who advice businesses on SEO related issues like getting title tags right, producing compelling content, good file name structure, and beneficial white-hat stuff like that.
Since you do SEO, HN might benefit from a blog post about how to do legitimate SEO, or why to hire SEO people.
I consider SEO as part of the design of projects I consider, I don't consider it a service or something I might hire someone to do, but then my perception is that outsourced SEO means spamming links around. I admit I may be ignorant and maybe you can enlighten us.
In the guys defense, he's not exactly Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. He runs a freaking flower shop. SEO isn't exactly a 'core-copentency'. I don't think it was unreasonable for him to assume that the business' he hired to do SEO were operating in a legal and ethical manner.
SEO is great for developers but he was paying for SEM, those folks cold contacted sites to link back to him, that takes a lot of time to do and SEO alone won't get you to the top of the SERPs for common keywords.
I haven't done it myself because my wallet isn't deep enough but I've seen it be very successful for my competitors who's emails make it into my inbox and I then check their Google link: list that shows it does actually work.
Lame or not the proof is in the search engine result position.
How do you recommend selecting keywords? There can be an order of magnitude difference in ROI between a high-competition, low-conversion keyword and one with the opposite characteristics. And should the average developer really rediscover the best-converting way to ask for a link?
Your presentation has lots of solid on-site SEO stuff, which is great. But if you're going to do an active SEO campaign--i.e. you're trying to get the maximum amount of high-converting traffic--it's not enough to have a site that's fully indexable. That's one coefficient, so you ought to maximize it, but it's not the only one.
Why should one even engage in the practice of asking for links? If your content is good, people will link to it organically. If you try to game the system, or hire "experts" that do, you'll be severely punished for it, which this guy was.
I'm sure there are lots of great websites that have adopted that philosophy, most of which I've never heard of.
There are three groups of people who should have an interest in a given site:
A) The site owner, who wants it to get relevant traffic and generate business.
B) People who write online, and need new content to write about--especially if it's useful to their target audience.
C) Potential customers of A), many of whom are part of the target audience of B).
Now, it is in nobody's interest for A) to refuse to speak to B) on the grounds that C) will somehow find A) naturally.
I believe this guy was punished because his "experts" used paid links. Can you find a reference for the assertion that he was punished for hiring someone to help him rank well, or that Google believes in punishing such activity? Bear in mind that the head of Google's webspam team routinely speaks at SEO conferences, where presumably all of the attendees are in the results-gaming business. If your worldview is correct, that's really weird; like the CEO of Brink's making a habit of speaking at safecrackers' conventions.
Asking people for links (or asking existing links to tweak anchor text) isn't gaming the system and it isn't frowned upon by Google. BUYING them is-- that's what got this guy into trouble.
If you want to put a lilly-white hat on, the question you can ask is, "Given how valuable my content is, what lists, indexes, blogs, etc., would be interested in telling their readers about us?" Better yet, concoct a system where people are rewarded for linking to you in some (ideally pretty natural feeling) way. Yelp badges, the UrbanSpoon spoonback program, 37Signals' penchant for picking fights with the establishment, etc-- all great examples.
You can wait for linkers to stumble onto you-- but you'll never get to page 1 of any desirable phrase that way unless you are truly an order of magnitude better than your competition in terms of linkworthiness... Because you can be darn sure that they know the value of seeking links rather than waiting for them.
Of course, outreach to blogs and gaining traction on social networks is a necessary and productive endeavor. That's all about driving traffic. But that's not SEO, that's outreach. Getting a higher search ranking is a natural byproduct of outreach and marketing. And developers aren't necessarily the best people to do that.
It sounds like you're defining "SEO" as "The parts of SEO I don't like." Link-building is integral to a campaign like that. If you call it "outreach," that's fine, but there's still a big difference--you can target sites that rank well for your target keywords, which will net you more effective links than you'd otherwise get.
"If your content is good, people will link to it organically"
I think that's generally a bit of a myth - you/your service have to have not just good content but interesting too - a lot of stuff is just never going to fit that last requirement. Just because I'll never give a shout out to whoever makes my socks (I don't even know) doesn't mean they have no claim on the keyword.
Come on. Everyone who has actually tried it knows that "if your content is good, people will link to it" is not a valid SEO strategy- especially if you're doing e-commerce and actually trying to sell something.
There's this weird conflation of SEO with driving traffic. SEO is the practice of optimizing your site for search engines. If you want to drive traffic, buy ads and do outreach. Once you're linked to, SEO ensures that Google indexes your pages correctly, and ranks you as highly as you deserve.
I think they both are right, just focusing on different parts of SEO. Ranking higher produces more traffic. That can be achieved mainly through on page SEO and, he calls it outreach and marketing, others call it link building.
The confusion therefore is caused by the use of different terminology.