How To Not Fail At SEO

Great content doesn’t automatically earn attention, links, and traffic. There are exceptional resources, images, videos, and articles hidden across the web. They are lost in obscurity, unable to gain attention based on their own merit.

If you build it… they won’t come. If you build it, they might not even care.

How do you create value, and how do you spread it across the web? And how does search engine optimization (SEO) work into that question? And how does it support the strategy as a whole?

Just how do you avoid failing at SEO?

I recently gave a presentation on how to not fail at SEO, which I’d like to share with you. In the process of putting this together, I distilled a number of thoughts and ideas that have been churning around in my head for some time.

If You Build It, No One Cares

As it turns out, great content doesn’t equal great traffic. Far from it.

But ironically (or perhaps paradoxically) content really is still king. It’s more important than it’s ever been. But it’s harder to get eyeballs than it’s ever been, too. What’s a website to do?

4 Takeaways for SEO Teams

  • Good SEO integrates with the business and is part of everyone’s vocabulary.
  • Good SEO stays hidden behind the best user experience. Its success depends on the best user experience possible.
  • Good SEO is patient. SEO is a long road, give it time and invest in the long term.
  • Good SEO accepts risk and encourages failure. Push your teams to take risks.

Value on the web is created in much the way it’s created offline: influence, authority, contribution; these are the words that incite successful web ventures. But so are funny, useful, and dumb — yes even dumb is a word that can incite success online.

We can really never know what will succeed online, be considered valuable, and pull traffic in. All we can do is listen to our users and cater our sites and services to them.

The best way to create value online is to answer people’s questions, to solve their needs, to appeal to their emotional responses in unique ways. To speak to the heartbeat in human beings. That’s the best way to begin the creation of value.

But how do you promote it and get people to notice, to care, to come?

I’ve already said that great content doesn’t equal great traffic. However, here’s the secret: great content combined with a great user experience and great SEO is a combination that guarantees traffic. It guarantees relevant, targeted traffic, and lots of it.

Guess What? The User Comes First

It turns out that great SEO — and it’s absolutely essential in the process — is dependent and hinges upon content and a positive user experience. It’s not the other way around.

SEO doesn’t come first in this equation. SEO relies on content and user experience; they come first.

One cardinal rule when evaluating the excellence of a firm or consultant’s SEO ability is to see where in the balance they place SEO. Narrow-minded practitioners make the mistake of placing SEO front and center on a site. When that happens, the user experience suffers and the balance gets shifted to search engines over content, over substance, over things that SEO relies on as fuel to a rocket.

Crap SEO thinks only of itself. Good SEO thinks of users first.

This isn’t an attempt to make a fashionable statement about what sounds good on paper. This is borne out from experience impacting company’s bottom line revenues by focusing on synergies between information architecture, user experience, great resources, and SEO. If we pare this down to a rule for SEO to live by, it’s simply this:

  1. Make the best user experience possible.
  2. Leverage for maximum SEO without disrupting that experience.

SEO should be an invisible layer beneath a smart site architecture and fantastic user experience. Good SEO is unseen. Except in server log files and bottom line revenue metrics, of course!

Dos and Don’ts for SEO Teams

Having constructed the argument that SEO’s need to rely on content and UX to do its job well, let’s run through some dos and don’ts for SEO teams.


  • Bring SEO into the picture too early, before you have a product or service. Before you have good content. Before you’ve thought about your users.
  • Put SEO front and center on a site.
  • Place restrictions on your SEO team. SEO can’t be stifled and succeed. It must have room to breathe, innovate, and create.
  • Rush SEO and expect too much too quickly. It’s a slow growing tree, and SEO takes months (and even years) to bear its fruit.
  • Listen to what anyone says about SEO, including me. Carve your own path, chart your own course, and take cues from trusted friends, colleagues, and peers. Take a little and move forward, but don’t take any of it as the final word.


  • Give SEO teams their own development resources. Implementation is the single biggest hurdle to successful SEO campaigns. If you really want results, you’ll need to give it development cycles.
  • Build SEO into the business flow. Get the C-suite talking about the channel, get UX teams thinking about it. Development, PR, brand, marketing, and creative all need to know SEO exists. This facilitates active SEO that doesn’t wait for problems to occur, or for communication issues pop up. In contrast, reactive SEO sits on its hands waiting for a problem to happen.
  • Encourage and facilitate creativity. We need to be accountable with realistic ROI projections. We need this to prioritize projects accurately. Don’t hammer ROI so hard that it stifles creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. That is where the greatest rewards lie in SEO — where nothing is guaranteed. Great rewards lie in the fringes.
  • Allow your SEO team to take risks. Management that is willing to let SEO take risks, and fail, is going to see great successes. Failure is critical to success, in everything from personal growth to SEO. Teams should adopt the mindset of failing quickly, in order to get quick feedback and adapt.

Sure, this is pretty idealistic stuff, but the best work and greatest rewards usually are. If we are to take SEO to the next level, if we are to achieve for company’s beyond their expectations, idealism is essential. We need vision.


Encourage your SEO teams to take smart and daring risks. Watch them try, and fail, and try again. Watch them adapt. And watch them succeed.

Join us for SES San Francisco August 16-20, 2010 during ClickZ’s Connected Marketing Week. The festival is packed with sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, ad networks and exchanges, e-mail marketing, the real time web, local search, mobile, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an expo floor with 100+ companies, networking events, parties and more!

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