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SEO: Black Hat or Still Useful? An Investigation

During my lunchtime walk today, I was listening to a marketing/entrepreneur podcast that I really like. As a writer and content creator, I like to know how people are able to build careers and make businesses based on content and expertise. In the episode I listened to today, one of the hosts answered a listener’s question about the value of SEO and if it was worth paying a firm or a specialist to do it.

Of course, as I work in SEO on a daily basis, I can’t say I was particularly happy with his answer that no, SEO wasn’t that useful and that many SEO specialists tend to have, well, shady practices. His argument: good content speaks for itself, and over-the-top optimization, especially in shady link building (which Stikky Media doesn’t do, thank God), can actually hurt your efforts on the web. He said to just use a keyword in the title if it fits, but otherwise focus on creating good content.

Evaluating SEO’s true role in digital marketing

Many clients come to us asking for SEO because they hear that it’s the most effective way to rank well on Google. But few understand SEO in the larger contex of the web: this incredibly noisy, ever-expanding world of information that needs to be described, tagged and “keyworded” to help people find the information they’re looking for.

My personal experience as an SEO writer and content producer has taught me one thing: that the power of SEO tends to be overestimated. It doesn’t matter how good your SEO is: if your content is boring or badly written or wrong, people will not stay on your website. SEO just gives Google more information about your content, but it doesn’t magically make your content better. Actually, too much SEO can make your content worse. And, worst of all: with every Google algorithm update, all your SEO work needs to be re-evaluated and re-done. It’s not a very strong foundation to build success on the web.

Don’t get me wrong–SEO can be useful. A good SEO overhaul can boost up your rank in your chosen keywords. But SEO alone cannot correct uninteresting or uniniformative content, nor can it replace a complete and comprehensive digital strategy. And too much SEO is an alarm signal for Google: that maybe you’re trying to game the system. And Google doesn’t like it if your try to game its system.

The new digital strategies should be focused on content

I want to take us backwards for a minute. The internet is such an integral part of our lives now that we tend to forget what its role really is. The web is a repository of information. A big library without shelves. Sure, sellers and marketers of all ilks (good and not so good) have taken control of some parts of it–mostly the ad part. But it doesn’t meant that the nature of the web has changed: it’s still just an enormous virtual library with tons of books, articles, movies, audio clips and pictures. When I want food, I go to the grocery store. When I want information, I go on the web.

SEO isn’t information. It’s meta-information (or information about information). SEO is a way to tell Google what your content is about, but that’s the extent of its usefulness. That’s why you can’t really have effective SEO without a strong content-based digital strategy. Because in the end, people are looking for content, not keywords.

So if you’re thinking about getting SEO services to boost your ranks and get more leads, that’s great! But you shouldn’t separate SEO from content. After the early on-site optimization work, you still need to create useful, entertaining, interesting content. SEO doesn’t relieve you of the hard, constant content hard work that needs to be done in order to be successful on the web.

So what can I do?

At this point, you’re probably wondering what you can do if SEO isn’t the virtual panacea you were expecting. Take heart: the solution isn’t too complicated. The solution is in consistently excellent content. (I said simple, not easy!) SEO is part of that content work, but thinking that SEO is the be-all and end-all of digital marketing is a mistake–and a mistake that can be costly in the long run.

Do you have a holistic digital strategy that begins with content? How much do you consider SEO in your digital marketing efforts? Let’s talk!