SEOverrated

The rundown

Search engines today look beyond keywords when ranking content. But common SEO practices emphasize keywords: performing keyword research, sprinkling keywords into text, and analyzing keyword performance.

Search engines are focused on helping people. So should we. That starts with thinking beyond last year’s SEO. To that end, I offer a few new methods to optimize content based on need:

  • Casual Browsing Optimization (CBO)
  • Answer Optimization (AO)
  • Knowledge Optimization (KO)
  • Intuition Optimization (IO)
  • Difference Optimization (DO)
  • Not Optimization (NO)

Search engines connect people to information. But the middleman matters less than the connection between them.


When does SEO matter?

Fun fact: We almost never want random people to find our sites.

There’s a misconception that SEO — search engine optimization — is about increasing page views. Somehow higher numbers (or line graphs leading up and to the right) are supposed to imply a better experience, more sales, and greater interaction with people.

We saw this with keyword stuffing, link farms, and other black-hat techniques in the early 2000s. But even using legitimate techniques, SEO became synonymous with “get more page views.”

That’s funny. Page views don’t purchase, comment, or sign up.

Metrics became king

Starting around 2002, my team at the time wondered who was browsing our websites. I learned about Urchin, the basis for Google Analytics, just before Google bought them in 2005. But until that became popular, web publishing was like commercial radio: you may as well have been talking to yourself.

Along came tracking and analytics. Improving websites didn’t mean waiting for people to email you, leave a comment, or buy a product. Improving websites post-launch meant earning higher numbers — numbers you could track day by day, month by month. Instant metrics. Measurable ROI.

Long story short, Google rose to dominate web search (in the West, at least). People came to interpret SEO as the practice of competing for attention specifically on Google. They ignored late-comers like Bing and DuckDuckGo. They forgot Yahoo, Lycos, and Alta Vista. They even ignored their own websites’ search engines, even if people prefer to search than to hunt.

Today’s best-practice SEO involves determining what keywords people are most likely to type into Google, and use those keywords in website text.

But people don’t want keywords. They use keywords to seek answers, entertainment, product reviews, live sports updates, political satire, or that hilarious cat meme they saw four years ago.

Keywords are people’s tools. Yet many content projects I’ve worked on require sprinkling keywords into text, hoping to catch Google’s attention.

Keyword sprinkling misses the point.

Page views are not the whole story

We should treat SEO as a bridge between us — website owners — and people who are most likely to interact with what we provide. Potential customers, for example. Or viewers who might subscribe to your video channel. Page views don’t sign up for newsletters.

Too much SEO best-practice advice emphasizes the “SE”. And the SE’s are moving on.

Google and friends have been getting wise to keyword sprinkles for years, and changing their algorithms to suit. Now they’re intelligently seeking content that’s worth reading, watching, or listening to, by looking at the whole page. Beyond that, they’re evaluating whole sets of interlinked pages for greater context.

While metrics are important, they’re not the whole story. Chasing numbers is a losing game over time as search engines get smarter. SEO needs to look beyond injecting phrases into H1 headings. We need to start asking bigger questions.

  • What do we have that people want?
  • How can make that clear?
  • How can we make that easy to find, easy to understand, and easy to work with?
  • If we don’t provide what people need, is there value in telling them so?

Optimizing future content

In the near future, we need to play down search engines to rank well in search engine results. Counterintuitive, I know. But sometimes you need to turn same accepted wisdom on its head.

So let’s turn SEO around. Let’s optimize for people. How? Many ways.

Casual Browsing Optimization (CBO)

“How can we better inform or entertain people to keep them around?”

The reason many content-rich sites offer related links or “next up” features. They work. Clickbait or not, casual browsers — people who aren’t in a hurry to find anything in particular — are more likely to wander among teasers that might pique their curiosity.

CBO is the practice of providing relevant links with accurate descriptions to similar content. The goal is to keep people around by offering information that fits both their likes and their mood.

Answer Optimization (AO)

“How can we help people learn?”

People seeking to discover more about an unfamiliar topic are similar to casual browsers. They’re not necessarily in a hurry. They don’t know what they’re after … but they have a vague goal.

For example, not many home owners are also electricians or environmental activists. But they may want to save a buck. So they explore. They learn. Unsure of what they need, they’re not afraid to follow tangents.

They appreciate websites that help them through new territory. Links to related content should offer supporting information. “This is part of a bigger picture. To flesh out your understanding, check these out.”

Knowledge Optimization (KO)

“How can we turn data into usable understanding?”

The Great Wall of China is more than 13,000 miles long. Less than 4,000 miles are actual “wall.” Those are facts.

Learning which sections are open so you can decide which airport to choose is knowledge — facts applied with meaning.

Knowledge optimization bridges gaps for people. In SEO terms, KO is the practical application of long-tail keywords.

Put another way, Wikipedia provides information that’s suitable for many purposes. Guides written by experienced travelers provide knowledge with an angle.

Intuition Optimization (IO)

“How can we help people get closer to the information they want?”

Last month I researched meal planning apps. Two stood out, each charging a monthly subscription. But the second app’s website didn’t make that clear. I knew “pro” accounts had additional features that interested me. But for how much?

I read the features and benefits page. I read the FAQ. I searched their community forum. I scanned their documentation. Nothing told me how much I’d have to cough up for a pro account.

I concluded that I’d have to sign up to find out, but didn’t want to give someone my credit card information without knowing how much it would cost.

Luckily, I know a trick. A site-specific search found the monthly fee, buried deep within their page structure. (It wasn’t any better; I went with their competitor.)

If I hadn’t known about site-specific searches, I would have given up on the second site altogether. Even then, the experience left me wondering what other fees they might be hiding.

Intuition Optimization is the tricky practice of leading people down a road to success. I say “tricky” because it assumes we know what people want. Signups are great examples because many people hit similar problems when evaluating a site.

Handy tip: Write a simple promise for each page on your site. “Before, you found X. Next you will find Y.” Keep them internal or make them public; either way, such declarations will help you build a road for people to follow.

Difference Optimization (DO)

“How can we explain what sets us apart?”

Difference optimization isn’t the practice of being unique. It’s the practice of being specific. This is when you deliberately stay away from being all things to all people.

  • “We specialize in premium emus for discriminating buyers.”
  • “Baby supplies for single parents on the go.”
  • “Check out our remodeled vintage neon signs.”

This one’s hard to accept for people following the analytics numbers game. When more people means more potential customers, turning people away doesn’t make sense. But DO is about improving conversion rates.

Put another way, if one percent of your website visitors convert, you can either try to increase the total number of visitors — or turn one percent into five.

Not Optimization (NO)

“How do we tell people that they’re in the wrong place?”

Popular follow-up question: “Why should we send people away?”

This practice is altruistic. For companies determined to turn a profit, that can sound pointless or counterproductive. But let’s carry it a step further.

  1. Settle on your area of expertise.
  2. Define areas that are not profitable — but still useful.
  3. Offer resources to those other areas.
  4. Offer insightful articles about how those other areas fit with your offerings.

The classic example is a greenhouse construction company. Such a company may sell glass sheets, fittings, foundation supplies, blueprints. Plants? Maybe not. But if their site helped people decide what kind of greenhouse would fit certain types of plants, then linking

  • “Now that you’ve bought a greenhouse, here’s where we recommend you find some plants.”
    • “East-facing greenhouses with (type) glass panes do well for (type) plants” — and link to articles about those types.

    People looking for greenhouses will return if they find the site a useful resource.

    This practice builds reputations as one-stop-shops for everything beyond immediate specialty … by letting other specialists handle the other specialties.

    • Declare what your site is about.
    • Include a table of contents, glossary, sitemap, or outline to give people the gist of what you offer.
    • If you know your specialty, and also know that it doesn’t suit everyone, then give people handy links. Why not? If they’re wrong for your business, then letting them go isn’t bad. And they may appreciate your sincerity in a leave-a-review sort of way.

    Going forward

    Sure, I have a content-centric agenda behind this article. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I encourage you to question your SEO assumptions, even if you reach different conclusions. Because there are only so many ways to sprinkle keywords into H1 headings and meta descriptions.

    If we’re going to serve people and keep up with increasingly-clever search engines, we need to optimize for more than search engines and metrics. Don’t sacrifice people for search engines.