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When people find out I work in search engine optimisation I get two reactions. The first is confusion from people who have never heard of SEO. The second is disgust - from people who have.
SEO consultants are like the used car salesmen of the internet, or so people seem to think. Even other industry professionals seem to believe that an SEO expert will as soon steal your wallet and use your credit cards to squat on 1000 different domains that will rank above your website by repeating keywords ad nauseum before they'll actually help your business.
I have gotten used to the sneers and eye rolling that accompany my telling web designers, developers, public relations people and technology journalists that I work in SEO because I know that they have no idea what I actually do all day.
The average person who has heard of SEO thinks that the role of a search engine optimiser is to get websites ranking at #1 in Google for as many terms as possible by whatever means necessary. The search engine optimiser, as most people understand it, is responsible for 100% of webspam by producing incoherent website text stuffed with keywords, building hundreds of thousands of content-free link farms and generally destroying websites by ignoring visitors in favour of search engines.
This is what SEO was about in 2001, it is not what SEO is about in 2009.
SEO in 2009 is about taking a website and improving it so that search engines can find every page and understand what that page is about, but it's also about helping users find the information they need on a website straight from the search engine and then helping them complete the task they set out to do - whether that's research, feedback or a purchase.
Today, any decent SEO consultant is an internet marketing expert whose concern is increasing the sales of his or her clients - and not with ubiquitous keyword rankings in Google. When we target a keyword to improve its rankings it's because we feel that keyword describes our client's services and that keyword is what people looking for those services will type into Google. Ranking a keyword in a search engine is only the means to the end - what we're looking to do is bring targeted traffic to the websites we promote.
The idea that SEO is a dark art practised solely by maniacs conspiring to pollute search results with gibberish related to gambling, adult sites and pharmaceuticals is as ludicrous as the idea that every blogger secretly wants to be a journalist and that those who can't do, teach.
Our goal is ultimately to improve search results by helping search engines to understand websites better. Whether you're looking to find a portable wheelchair ramp or a bed, our job is to help Google serve you a result so you can. We make sure that you can find the best solicitor to help you write a will or represent you in an employment tribunal. We want you to find job listings if you're looking to change your career path or a new apartment if you need to move. We even do our best to help communities tackle the problem of violence by making sure they know where to get help.
So the next time you meet an SEO, don't sneer, say thank you, because we're actually trying to improve the internet - one website at a time.