A Pro-SEO Rant
If anybody tells you that SEO is a shell game and great content naturally gets found in search, do not listen. These people are wrong, dead wrong, and dangerously wrong if you want to be rewarded for the great content you are producing.
Basically, this school of that says that great content "naturally" rises to the top (top of what?) and therefore writers do not need to soil their hands with "manipulative" SEO techniques such as inserting keywords in text and acquiring inbound links. Great content speaks for itself, and that's all there is to it.
As a writer, I wish this was true, but it isn't. Here's why.
What Is Great?
Actually, let's start with what is right about this point of view. Any SEO knows that Google wants to deliver the best and most relevant content to users of its search engine. This is only common sense: who's going to use a search engine that gives you horrible, irrelevant links when you perform a query? Answer: nobody. Of course Google and every other search engine on the planet wants to reward great content and ignore -- or even punish -- bad content.
Problems set in when we start to think about how to define quality and relevance. How does Google know what "naturally" great content looks like? Google's complex algorithm is the criteria it uses to evaluate markers of content quality. Is it original? Is it authoritative? Is it popular? Is it useful? What is it about? Try answering these questions in a precise way. You'll quickly see that identifying great content isn't a "naturally" easy process by any stretch.
Google Can't Rank What It Can't See
A big problem with the anti-SEO viewpoint is that it oversimplifies the practice of SEO. Obviously -- but apparently not obvious to SEO critics -- Google must be able to read content before it can do anything with it. One of the most important SEO activities, and one totally overlooked by critics, is to make sure a website's architecture clearly communicates what the content is about and how pages of content relate to each other and to the most relevant search queries.
I don't care if you're Ernest Hemingway or William Shakespeare: if Google can't read it, it can't rank it. And there a lot of websites out there that are so poorly built from an SEO standpoint, my statement isn't as much of an exaggeration as you might think. Decisions about how to set up navigation, what text to use for page titles, and where to interlink pages within the domain, along with many other considerations, have a huge bearing on Google's ability to ascertain the value of the content.
If You Can't Join Them, Beat Them
Another problem with the anti-SEO viewpoint is it that it is self-defeating. By stereotyping all SEO work as manipulative, people not only do a disservice to SEO -- they do a disservice to themselves! Yes, it's true that black hat SEO practitioner bend every rule to sneak lousy content into positions where it doesn't belong. But this is not an argument to ignore SEO, it's an argument to excel at SEO! It seems to me that any great writer would want to work overtime to push his or her content up in the rankings, and push the black hat crap down.
If we cede the search ground to the black hats, the only content people will find is the worst content. Knowing the anti-SEO argument is well-intended and rooted in principle, I'll make my own moral appeal: as true believers in meaningful content, we have an obligation to work as hard and ethically as we can to motivate Google to share our work.
Speaking the Language of the People
A third problem with the anti-SEO viewpoint is its inward focus. Pardon me for saying so, but I think writers should pay attention to the words people use in their search queries. If, for instance, I'm writing a post with SEO advice, I think it's good to know that in the last month, 74,000 people searched for "seo tips", 2,900 searched for "seo advice", and 1,300 searched for "seo ideas." Now, as a writer, maybe I prefer the term "seo advice," but so what? Wouldn't I be a smarter writer to use a term that's far more popular?
Paying attention to keywords helps us write in a way that is more clear and relevant to readers, which strikes me as a very good thing. Ignoring keywords is just as bad as abusing keywords ... maybe worse.
Authors Will Rule SEO
The thing I love about the anti-SEO viewpoint is its delicious irony. Nobody places a higher value on great content than Google, and now, finally, Google's technology is catching up to its ideology, in the form of Rel=Author links. What Google is trying to do here is associate content with its author in addition to where it was published. Google wants searchers to be able to find the best authors -- exactly what purists are after.
In the long run, the author will have as much or more influence over rankings than the publishing sites. This is a big deal. It means we have to update our SEO practices rather than ignore them -- now more than ever.
(Image credits: Angry man screaming in extreme rage — © dundanim #9379976; Happy man on couch -- © Ambrophoto #28703895, Fotolia.)