The problems with playing the system

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about search engine optimisation lately since I started looking at url rewriting for one of our customers at work.

Before I start my rant I’d like to say I’m not talking about the type of search engine optimisation that makes the quality content of your site more meaningful for both human being and search engines. Better quality, more usable sites makes the internet a better place for everyone. I’m talking about trying to guess at the ever-changing algorithms of the big search engines and using the information to design your site in such a way to trick the search engines into giving you a good ranking.

There’re people arguing for it and against and I think the difference between the two camps is a fundemental willingness to “play the system”. The argument for playing the system is that if everyone else is doing it and you aren’t then you’re at a disadvantage, but the problem with playing the system is that eventually the system stops working. When the system stops working it becomes more difficult for everyone. Sites can’t get listed in search engines. The search engines can’t return meaningful results. Users can’t find the information they need.

I worked for a guy once who said that using search engine optimisation was like renting a place on the high street. The thing about the internet is it’s a fairly level playing field. If you put in the time, money and effort, your site can be as good (or better than) any of your competitors. Shop fronts in the high street are expensive to rent. What makes the internet so different that people should be able to get a “high street” site without actually “paying” for it by putting in the time and money required to create a good site with useful content?

I think in the long run trying to play the search engine game is going to be fairly pointless. A search engine is only as good as the results it returns. It’s in Google’s interest to get people to the sites that will best serve their needs. It’s not in Google’s interest to reward the sites that make returning meaningful search results more difficult.

I can understand the arguments for search engine optimisation. The internet is a big place and unlike TV advertising you can’t force anyone to come to your site. You could be competing against hundreds or thousands of people with similar things to sell. It’s hard to get ahead in such a competitive environment. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.

The problem is search engine optimisation *might* get people to your site but it won’t build customer loyalty. It won’t get people talking about your site. It won’t get your site bookmarked. It won’t get your site linked. There’s nothing that is as important (or time consuming) as site content and between site content and search optimisation there’s an *awful* lot of things that you can spend money on that will make people want to come to your site, stay there and tell other people about it.

Posted on 09 Oct 04 by Helen Emerson (last updated on 09 Oct 04).
Filed under Web development