Thought experiment: Ok. I just wrote a page offering to give away 20 bucks to the first thousand people that read it. Let's say I am rich and can afford to give the money away. Can't get any more interesting and traffic-worthy than that, right? Heck, this is the kind of thing you'd want to send links to your friends, right?
So tell me where it is.
SEO is marketing, plain and simple. That means that there is an active component to it -- sharing links on HN, phoning some friends, making some posters for the dorm. Whatever.
The value of what you output has nothing to do with some sort of inherent quality. It has to do with how many people you can expose your content to and what ratio of those people are going to like what they see enough to give you a link.
SEO is not quality. It's popularity. People don't link to you because you wrote great stuff, they link to you because they like you, are a fan, want to look cool, etc. These are all things that you actively have to go out and cultivate.
To say it's all passive is to miss the entire point and to pander to the audience. With all the keyword optimization going on with that page, and the fact that the entire tone of the article is pitched directly to HN and hacker-types, I can't help but feel that author knows better. (I don't mean that as a slam. Perhaps I am the guy in the audience that spoils how the magician's trick is done. If so, I apologize)
Search Engines' goals are (probably) to show people the way to the "best content". Whilst they use "popularity" as a metric at the moment, we don't know how that will change. As they adjust their algorithms they will find more ingenious ways of finding "the best content" (I can't define that), making so called "optimizations" useless.
Your thought experiment works, but only in the absence of perfect (or futuristic) search engines. If Google's NLP power massively increased, and they'd indexed your site, I'm sure it would be found, even if no one had linked to it. It's the search engine's job to find it. Current methods of SEO are violating the encapsulation we usually have around the search engine (a black box function string -> URL). SEO is looking into how SEs work and trying to game the system. That's fine, but as SEs improves SEO will move more towards "Content is King".
The problem you have is that you are trying to describe a system that has no specification. That is, there is no testable definition of "best content" that is repeatable and applicable to all users. After all, this was google's entire schtick -- the reason everybody thought it was cool was because they managed to hack the problem better than anybody else had up until then. But there is no solution. It's not that kind of problem.
One of the reasons SEO drives me nuts is that the concepts we are so used to in programming, "black box", "answer", "best content", "user", etc -- don't really have firm meanings in the way we would like them to. Yes, it would be awesome if there was a little magic box that told me what to do (or gave me all the answers) but -- and this is important -- even if there was, it wouldn't be a black box. We live in a digital age. Anything that can be put into code is instantly commoditized.
There is another assumption here that is equally slippery (aside from the fuzzy nature of all the adjectives and the impossibility of making the system opaque), and that is the idea that somehow one can determine content quality mechanically. That's like saying you can pick the "best" painting at an art show by using some kind of hand-held scanner and an image-processing algorithm. Content is about people interacting with people -- it's not deterministic. We are not machines.
We keep wanting Search Engines to work like the library: go to the card catalog, pick a topic, find authoritative sources. But they keep working like the dance hall: show up with your best suit, make some friends, and work the crowd, become popular. That's frustrating. But as one SEO expert told me in a recent interview, if you don't use social signals (popularity), how else would you do it? This is the way we've been judging content since 3 guys sat around in a cave looking at mammoth drawings.
(If you have time, you might want to listen to the interview. I tried to touch on this exact subject because I know how touchy an issue SEO is: http://www.hn-books.com/Books/SEOMoz.htm#the_video )
Here's a thought experiment for you, then: imagine that someone builds a product called TheBestSearchForYou, where you step into an advanced MRI machine and think your query. Then:
1. Your brain is copied into a billion virtual emulations, each of which then sees a single page from the TBSFY's index.
2. TBSFY then measures (through whatever destructive, invasive process is necessary) which em had the most positive response according to their own utility functions (which are all the same as yours, mind.)
3. TBSFY returns to you the page that gave "you" the strongest positive response.
4. Then the ems are stopped and deleted, because—since you're going to be a slightly different you the next time you make a query—it's useless to keep them around ;)
I would say TBSFY adheres to the definition of an "optimal" search engine, however infeasable. The actual question it raises, though, is how closely TBSFY's results can be approximated by a company that knows increasing amounts of personal information about you.
But once again, there are assumptions you are making that I'm not ready to go along with. The biggest one is that I know what is good for me -- that I have a set of criteria (even if un-describable) that can be replicated. The beauty of real-world interactions is that there is a mix of happy and sad, interesting and boring. Sometimes the guy you meet at the gas station says something off-hand that you think about the rest of the day. Human social interactions require an element of randomness. As a social animal, I need to interact with a machine that also has social needs, not a machine that is trying to make me perfectly happy.
That's a big deal, because if you're looking at this as some sort of optimization function, yes, we could somehow come up with a system that would optimize your happiness, or emotional reaction, or whatever. I'd argue that places like HN and most social sites are early attempts at optimization. We will continue to get better.
But let's say I'm angry. Some guy in a clown suit cut me off in traffic. You know what would make me happy? Seeing a bunch of clowns on fire, that's what. But do you know what I _need_ to consume? Something that reminds me that all people are human and deserve respect. I would absolutely _hate_ consuming that material, but a week from now, a month from now -- anytime but right now -- I would tell you that it is the right thing to do.
In fact, this optimization process is a grave danger: we risk becoming zoned out in little echo chambers where the only thing we consume is the rock candy of me-too, feel-good content.
It's a tough, probably intractable problem, at least until we come to terms with what the nature of the optimization needs to be. It would not surprise me to discover that the optimization that is best for the species as a whole and the optimization that makes me the happiest are two completely different things. Not good.
That is absolutely so--thus the need for a complex http://singinst.org/upload/CEV.html, rather than a simple one which just averages everyone's utility functions together.
1. "If you find a genie bottle that gives you three wishes, it's probably a good idea to seal the genie bottle in a locked safety box under your bed, unless the genie pays attention to your volition, not just your decision." Nice. Grown up version of some cartoon plots.
2. The description of spread, muddle, and distance. Very relevant to political theory.
If you are able to compose a tl;dr of the entire paper, that'd be awesome.
The only thing I would add is that "quality content" means "sticky", "viral", or "emotionally powerful" -- it does not mean authoritative, comprehensive, or any of a dozen other adjectives folks would think of when you use the phrase "quality content"
Even if you took SEO and links out of the equation, the goal is to get folks talking about what you are doing. If you care about people seeing your work, accomplishing that is the only metric against which you can measure "quality", unfortunately.
The corollary to all of that, of course, is that folks simply don't get all that worked up about a lot of stuff. When's the last time you got excited about your laundry detergent and told somebody? Probably never. So the guys in the low-emotional-impact zone have to compete using rules made for that Bieber kid. It has to be a very difficult situation to be in.
"Sure, optimizing page titles and header tags within posts can help your chances of ranking highly. But the biggest boost that you’ll get comes from getting links."
This is something _everybody_ who's spent any time researching SEO knows, but way too many people ignore it - probably because it's time consuming and _hard_. All the on-page stuff is relatively straightforward. Inbound links are at least as important as anything you do on your own site.
Like Ted Dzubya says: "Non-brain-damaged web design and link building are 100% of SEO."
It's much easier to tell your boss/client that you spent 25 hours doing keyword research and tweaking page titles, headings, the body copys keyword density, adding keyword targeted landing pages, and a/b testing the signup button colours, keyword optimising navigation and menu labels - instead of spending 3 days getting overwhelminghy rejected asking other people to put links to your "content" on their site.
That's mostly why it works. "Page rank" is successful precisely because it's harder to game than any of the on-page stuff you can do (anyone remember the keyword meta tag? What a quaint idea! It's quite a nice reminder of what the internet used to be, back before spam was invented...)
"Even though this guide's title contains the words "search engine", we'd like to say that you should base your optimization decisions first and foremost on what's best for the visitors of your site. They're the main consumers of your content and are using search engines to find your work."
Does creating a link farm hidden in the sitemap create value for users? What about spamming articles on ezines with no valuable content? Ha.
It's an endless game between Matt Cutts his team and SEO spammers but I bet long term on the first one.
We SEO our site to make it easier for the engines to know what we are about...but we do not bother with much of the deeper stuff (all the onsite relational linking strategies).
The goal of every search engine is to deliver relevance. Be relevant.
Quite honestly, the best way for us to get incoming links in this industry, is to write articles that I would not consider "quality content," but rather inflammatory, misguided, or just plain offensive. In the past, articles that fell into these categories have even garnered us attention in the academic community, so take that as you will.
No details were given about the other traffic sources, so getting only 50% of your traffic from search sounds like a failure to me (that, or a meaningless statistic).
Not that those links aren't valuable - they'll add pagerank for you, and if you can use your own carefully chosen anchor text you don't need terribly many of them to make a page rank very highly for a very narrow "long tail" search query, but you don't acutally expect any inbound traffic from that sort of backlink. The sort of backlink the article is suggesting is different, it _is_ going to generate referral traffic - other websites aren't going to link to your "great content" unless they're expecting and intending their visitors follow those links to your site.
Like you say, 80% of traffic from search _is_ "typical", that's because "typical sites" don't in general have compelling linkable content (except perhaps by accident or because some SEO sold them on "linkbait").
(like you say upthread "depending on the details", I'm not sure why the parent post to this is getting downvoted...)
"Make sites primarily for users, not search engines". Anyway, it is a point that really needs to be repeated over and over again, so for that the article maybe has some merit.
Yet I fear it may inspire another rash of linkbaitish articles linked on sites like these, where the purpose behind the content isn't to inform the user (about doing whitehat SEO), but to get the user to link to it. If these fastfood social links were all that counted for determining quality and authority on the web, icanhazcheeseburger and top 10 lists would outrank us all.
Yes, there are ways to game the SEO system, and lots of companies make this their reason for being.
But for 98% of the common website-owning populace, SEO is most simply about publishing information that people want and find helpful. You can spend your time whoring for backlinks, or generating content. One is valuable to your target audience, the other isn't...
IMO, the more advanced SEO tactics are for when you have built a foundation of content and can then concentrate on making some of the farther corners of the Internet aware of your content.
Granted, I'm not someone who labels myself an SEO expert though.
File this away next to "A good product is 95% of marketing" and other patently untrue things engineers like to believe.
Quality content and linkable content, for example, are not coextensive sets. You could write the world's best guide ever to cross-stitching school uniforms (did I just make that up?) and you'd get less links than DHH gets for not cursing during a Rails keynote. If you're doing SEO and you haven't figured out that linking behavior is very different in different audiences, I'm as worried for your future as I would be for a salesman who was doing high-touch enterprise software sales for rooms full of third graders.
There are also easy ways to shoot your great content foot off, and I really wish I could pull in examples from clients here. Hypothetical example: suppose a YC-style company is founded by a noted industry expert who has a great personal brand. They produce a ten-page guide to a particular new technology their startup uses. The guide is, far and away, the best quickstart guide on the Internet with regards to that technology.
Q: Their startup benefits from this a) a lot, b) a little, c) virtually not at all?
A: I don't know. Where did you post it?
Q2: Come again?
A: Like, physically, on which page does that best-in-class guide exist?
Q3: Oh, our Posterous / Github account / etc.
If it markets itself as bug-ridden excrement piled on refuse- Well then! you're hosed next time your customer goes looking for a solution.
More succinctly: can a poor product succeed with good marketing? For the long term?
Perhaps, but I think 'patio11's point was that even if the product is great, it could be worthless without the right marketing/promotion/SEO/etc.
So you could be anywhere from 0% to 100% of the way there with just a great product.
Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.
Which parallels YC's golden rule:
Make something people want.
In general, I agree with both of the statements as solid business advice. After all, nothing kills a bad product faster than good marketing. Make a good product first, and then market it.
Although I do have to slightly disagree on one point. If you've built a better mousetrap, or made something people want, how do you let them know? The general strategy seems to be "let the product speak for itself." The same advice is prescribed in the article: write good content and let it speak for itself.
Well, good content is critical, I agree. Gunning for rankings on crap content is a sure way to fail. But it's lazy to leave it at that. You must let people know that your content is there to link to. Post it to newsboards and forums. Gather a following on Twitter and let them know. Market it. The real gem from the article is that the difficulty of the sale and the quality of the content are inversely related. Make quality content and the sale will be easier... but you still have to sell.
It is, "Build links to content that people will want to link to."
The reason for this different wording is that in my experience, you can have highly linkable material, but without a critical mass of attention, it will get limited results.
Has the author ever attempted to land competitive keywords in competitive markets? Has he tried bringing in direct sales leads through organic search-engine results?
People who are really good at SEO can show legitimate improvements in sales from their SEO tactics. It's not simply a matter of "if you build it, they will come". Yes, maybe they will, but when?
Does it make more sense to write awesome content about, let's say, vitamin supplements, for four years, get a nice following and hope that some people buy from you? Or does it make sense to try to jam your site onto the first couple of results for "vitamin suppliments" on Google by employing some of the SEO tactics the author considers a waste of time?
"The problem with SEO is that the good advice is obvious, the rest doesn’t work"
oh, googlebot does not use language headers? well an seo could have told you that........