The myth of SEO – What makes a best seller?

The SEO industry has bought into the same myth that strikes all content industries – that is, that there’s some repeatable formula guaranteed to produce best sellers. All we have to do is find that formula and set up an assembly line to push out best sellers. Hence, The Land Before Time XII: The Great Day of the Flyers. If the first 11 were good, the 12th must be fabulous!

But the simple truth is that there’s no formula. It’s the unique movies that are the blockbusters, not the cookie-cutter movies. And yet every time there’s a bestseller, there are dozens or hundreds of copy-cats that try to mimic that success. Witness the Young Adult Fiction section of your local bookstore. This year, it’s all vampire books. Two years ago, it was all magician books.

So why does the SEO industry get away with their high rates and ludicrous promises? Well, obviously because Computers Are Hard, and we are the Experts to Help You Succeed. And since you are ignorant, we can convince you that anything, no matter how silly, is going to help you achieve world fame and success.

Not only are folks wasting most of the time on the Apache support channels on wrong-headed mod_rewrite questions (“How do I remove ‘index.html’ from all of my URLs to improve my search engine rank?”) but thousands of companies are spending billions of dollars of work time on optimizations that won’t actually do anything useful.

What’s the secret? Well, it’s really quite simple. The secret is, and always has been, to have something that people want, and present it in an attractive way. Of the two things, the first is far and away the most important. If you have a website that has a product everyone wants, your presentation is secondary. If you have content that everyone is clamoring for, and, as importantly, tell all their friends about, it’s not terribly important that it doesn’t look perfect.

Witness Craig’s List, an incredibly ugly website which is one of the great Internet successes. Note that it has what “SEO experts” call ugly URLs. Interestingly, so does Google, by which we presume to measure all of our success.

A very alarming trend that I’ve observed in the last year or so is the number of folks saying things like “Yes, I know it doesn’t accomplish anything, but my boss says I have to.” This highlights two problems. One, management refusing to listen to the folks who know something, and throwing away millions of dollars of their company budget. Two, technology experts who can’t, or won’t, stand up for what they know to be true, to the benefit of their company and investors.

Folks need to wake up and use reality as their measuring stick, not some snake-oil SEO salesman telling them that this technique, or that one, is guaranteed to make your website a best-seller. It’s nonsense, and they know it, and view you as an easy mark. Don’t get taken in.