How to explain SEO to cynical developers


Why are CVs so boring?Have you ever been involved in the hiring process for your company or team?

If you have, then perhaps you’ve been astounded at how terrible the CVs of many highly intelligent candidates you interviewed were. Senior developers who excelled at their craft, were recognised as brilliant by their peers, and yet, couldn’t seem to put together a coherent CV to save themselves. Why?

It’s a little like that with search engine optimisation. As web developers we’ve probably been involved in the development of many wonderful web sites, and yet we have no clue how to get those wonderful sites ranking in the search engines. Why?

Perhaps its because we’re cynical about the whole search engine optimisation (SEO) thing… Sure, we know the importance of ranking in Google, but we just don’t really have much respect for the process of getting there.

Well, if you are new to SEO, can I suggest the following:

SEO is the Google ranking equivalent of ensuring you have a great CV

Hopefully you’ll agree that having a well written, up-to-date CV is a good thing. And if you don’t have the skills (or motivation) to write a good CV, then perhaps you’d hired someone to help improve it for you.

So what is it about SEO that we don’t like…

Gaming the system?

Perhaps it’s because we think of search engine optimisation as gaming the system. And there’s some truth to that (especially from the bad apples). However, I’d suggest that SEO should only be thought of as gaming the ranking system in the same way as having a great CV is gaming the hiring process.

Yes, admittedly sometimes incompetence does get rewarded It’s true, we’ve all heard of complete incompetents gaming the hiring system and getting great jobs – making a mockery of the process. However, we don’t let those bad apples deter us from going after our ideal roles.

Similarly, SEO has those who spam the system and are rewarded (for a time at least) for shonky tactics. But likewise, we shouldn’t let them deter us from making our own sites as discoverable as possible in the engines.

I have to admit, if you’d asked me a year ago about search engine ranking and its related practices I’d have been pretty cynical myself (perhaps a little like this).

But the reason I’ve come to really appreciate and respect the art of proper SEO is simply because of the business results I’ve seen it provide. The return on investment is too hard to ignore. (You may know that I’ve been focusing on Search quite a bit this year as part of my career change to working with my wife on our own web businesses.)

Flogging the Jobseeker analogy

Admittedly, SEO is not just about the site itself. There’s more involved. So let’s push the analogy a tad.

If you know anything about SEO you’ll be aware that ranking well is a combination of optimising your site (we refer to that as the on-page stuff) AND having a lot of quality sites linking to you (we refer to this as the off-page stuff).

So, if we were to push the jobseeker analogy it’s actually more than just having a great CV. Rather, in total it might be something like this: 

  • making sure your CV is optimised for your preferred list of employers, with key skills highlighted, PLUS
  • ensuring you have a network of people (eg industry colleagues, friends) that help get you in front of your next boss

In SEO terms, the CV is your site, HR departments & recruiters represent the search engines, and your future employer is the web surfer. Your mission is to get those HR departments & recruiters to favour you…

HR departments & recruiters will look for key skills in your CV, plus authority signals from external sources (eg references, recommendations from respected colleagues, social profile, etc) and use this in determining where you rank in being put forward to a prospective employer.

How do you rank in the recruiter's list?

So it is with SEO. Whilst the analogy isn’t perfect, the main point is ensuring that your product/service is:

  • strategically communicated on your site (with key terms people are looking for), and
  • high in credibility/authority signals (by others linking to you in relation to those key terms).

Simple right? Obvious even. Maybe. Why then are so many wonderfully useful web sites ranking so poorly? Perhaps its because we developers haven’t put a priority on SEO. In much the same way as many of us trot out sub-standard CVs when searching for a new job. And further, whilst knowing that having a network of people to recommend us is a good idea, few know how to build that network efficiently & appropriately.

Thus, think of SEO like this:

SEO is the process of performing the strategic ranking actions for your site, efficiently and appropriately.

It’s far from a perfect analogy of course and if you know a little about SEO then you’ll probably be picking holes in it. But if you are a web developer and reasonably new to SEO, then I hope this helps highlight the relevance of SEO to your profession.

(If you are after a few more details of what SEO entails, I recommend these overviews from Wikipedia, Search Engine LandSEOBook and Google.)

A change of mindset?

As a final note: I’ve noticed a progression in the developer mindset over the last few years. Whereas less than 5 years ago we often dismissed graphic designers and usability professionals as a bunch of skivvy wearers, now we have a healthy respect for their talents. In the Microsoft ecosystem, skilled Silverlight designers (and so-called ‘devigners’) have experienced a deserved credibility increase. They are becoming the uber-cool. It seems we finally understand the importance of a great looking site… :-) Search is an important skill

I’d suggest that in a few short years, developers with (proper) search engine optimization skills will have a similar credibility boost.

Search optimisation is an important skill – one that’ll become almost mandatory in the web developer’s toolkit. Don’t ignore  the opportunities it affords.

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By Craig Bailey