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How’s that for a controversial statement? Especially for an article on a blog that is, primarily, about online marketing. Of course, I'm exaggerating for effect, but there're tons of internet marketing blogs out there for you to choose from and I wanted to grab your attention. Hope it worked.
As online marketers, one of our jobs is to help our, and our clients’ voices to be heard over the noise made by the thousands of other distractions internet users are subjected to every time they 'log on'. Absolute statements like the above can cause controversy, helping to generate attention and discussion about your content, but I think they can be misleading. For every absolute 'fact' regarding SEO, there are multiple ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
Here are a few statements from recent posts on popular, respected SEO blogs that I think, if taken at face value, could hinder understanding of all the issues involved;
STATEMENT 1: "Competitive Link Analysis Wastes Your Time"
Michael Martinez made this comment on his SEOTheory blog a few days ago, causing something of an uproar in his comments section and on Twitter.
His argument is that, instead of spending your time analysing the competition’s links, you should spend that time acquiring new ones for your client’s site – anything else is for beginners. (The “if you do this then you’re a crap SEO who clearly has no experience“ is a popular card to play with this sort of post – we’ll see more of this later).
I was all set to post a full rebuttal myself, but thankfully Wiep saved me the trouble by eloquently arguing on his blog: “Why a link analysis is anything but a waste of time”.
I don’t disagree that time spent on competitive link analysis should be limited, as it’s a pretty much endless task that can be taken to fairly insane levels, but I absolutely disagree that it is a waste of time. As well as being a great potential source of links to your client’s site (not always, but you won’t know until you’ve taken the time to look), it’s an important step in understanding your client’s niche and the competition within it, which can fundamentally change the way you approach a link building campaign. God help the man who builds links to rank for "car insurance" with the same intensity he builds links to rank for, say, "buy a pink flamingo".
STATEMENT 2: "The best way to use a robots.txt file is to not use it at all"
This is from an SEOMoz post from October last year, found linked to from their '32 SEO Tactics To Avoid in 2011' post, in which a similar point is repeated.
I don’t mean to take the point out of context; author Lindsay Wassal does go on to clarify that your website should have a robots.txt file, but it should only be used to direct users to the site’s sitemap file, citing a few high-profile examples where robots.txt commands alone failed to control indexation in Google. There are more effective ways of controlling page indexation, and using these instead of robots.txt “are the type of tactics that separate basic optimization from advanced optimization” (the old ‘my SEO is better than yours’ again).
This is all fine, until you accept the reality that in a lot of cases, using robots.txt is the only feasible way of controlling indexation, especially for the site-wide duplicate content issues that are endemic to some popular content management systems. The alternative solutions mentioned (use of the noindex tag, 301 redirects, canonical tags or password protection) are generally assigned on a page-by-page basis, making them unsuitable for dealing with duplicate content issues that could require significant development to fix, but can be made a virtual non-issue by careful use of robots.txt.
What’s more, I’ve personally found the 'remove URL' feature in Webmaster Tools to be the quickest way to remove a URL from their index. However, this feature requires that the relevant URLs are disallowed in robots.txt before removal is authorised. This fact alone makes robots.txt, in my eyes, an extremely valuable tool in any SEO's arsenal.
STATEMENT 3: "Sites should not engage in the practice of developing links with the intent of influencing link popularity or PageRank distribution"
This.... interesting statement is taken from Bruce Clay, Inc’s blog, posted just a couple of days ago. To me, this is a case of an SEO company not only slavishly repeating the old rhetoric that “paid links are bad”, but going one step further and suggesting that any link that is built or acquired instead of freely given is the same, and should be treated as such. They talk about “ethics” when it comes to link building for clients, which is something that, as far as I'm concerned, even Google has yet to indulge in.
I quite agree that the line between 'paid for' and 'built' links is a blurry one indeed, but I’m more inclined in this case to agree with another post from Michael Martinez, which asserts “Every white hat link you obtain for clients is paid for”; this actually means that all links should be counted as was originally intended: by the quality of the site that is linking, rather than the likelihood that a link was paid for in hard cash.
In reality, it seems like this is the case – all else being equal, carefully placed paid links from other quality, relevant sites can and most likely will put you ahead of competitors that are not doing the same. There have been high profile examples of sites being penalised, usually on a temporary basis, and most SEOs have a tale of that one site they saw penalised due to heavy linking (although I’d bet that in many of those cases there were other factors at play – when shortcuts have been taken with links it’s not unusual to find shortcuts have been taken with on-page optimisation too). Now, I’m not saying there’s no risk, but in niches where everyone is taking the same sort of risk (and there are an awful lot of those sorts of niches), surely it’s riskier not to, trusting that Google will make the right decision. One commenter seems to think this is the correct approach, writing “You’re not supposed to worry about where you’re ranked, let Google decide. Worry about making a search engine friendly Web site with good content that people want to link to. If you rise to the top, consider yourself fortunate.”
This ‘not worrying about rankings’ approach does not seem like a particularly proactive approach to SEO to me, and certainly is not one that I can imagine many clients can be happy to agree to. Of course we do our best to make websites search engine friendly, of course we worry about good content (which we desperately want people to link to), but this is all because we 'worry about rankings' and want them to improve. Once you’ve got your search-friendly website and you’re pumping out the good content, link building really is the next port of call in improving your rankings, and for anyone responsible for SEO to ignore this is simply negligent.
I don’t mean these criticisms as personal attacks – all of the mentioned blogs contain a wealth of excellent advice, and you’d do well to keep up to date with them, whatever your level of experience in SEO.
Remember, though, to always take conclusive statements with a pinch of salt, as there are very few 'definites' in SEO. Read comments and see what other bloggers have had to say on the subject. Do not base your decisions on dogma and rhetoric, accept nothing blindly and, most importantly of all, gain as much experience as possible for yourself , so you can come to your own conclusions.