What is good SEO?

I learned SEO against my will. What I wanted was to write. And then, I wanted to make a little money as a writer. Then I wanted to build a career from writing.

Writing requires zero knowledge of SEO.

And back in the early blogging days, writing was enough to ‘make it’ as a blogger. If you wrote something interesting, and you were a halfway decent writer, and you published consistently, that was enough. Actually, you didn’t even have to be a halfway decent writer. An interesting topic and consistent coverage were the keys to the kingdom.

But the Internet grew. Blogs went from novel to ubiquitous in a few seconds. Then all sorts of other things appeared and grew, and Google became the tool we all use to find things in the virulent spread.

To make a little money as a writer, and then to build a career from writing, meant learning SEO. And I hated it. Hated the idea of it. Hated the concept of writing, or even tweaking what I’d written, for a godawful search engine. Hated the methodology that erupted. Hated the crappy formulaic approaches and the even crappier published results. Hated it when ‘content’ became a word I used on a regular basis. Hated that the dumbest shit could get pushed to the top of the pile if it had the right keywords stuffed in the right places.

I learned SEO out of necessity, and then I learned it out of something like spite, or ambition. I figured: if you know the rules, you can break them. If you understand the game, you can be a better player and maybe still get what you want out of the experience.

So that’s what I did.

And Google kept rolling out algorithm updates like tidal waves. Each wave carried some sites up up up and drowned others. And each update got smarter.

I believe, and preach (I mean, um, teach), that good content means writing for humans, first, and optimizing for the algorithm, second. The smarter the algorithm gets, the more that little mantra becomes true.

The point of a search engine has always been to serve humans. (Not because Google is altruistic, but because Google’s real moneymaker is their search engine’s ability to capture human attention and human data.) So the more finely tuned the algorithm becomes, the more apparently and accurately it serves humans. That’s always been the point.

If you think of the algorithm as a middle man, a type of information butler, it makes more sense. There’s this vast collection of data. Humans want a little piece or two, of a certain flavor. They put in their order, and the algorithm serves it up on a tray. Or at least, tries to. The algorithm is hoping to match what humans want with what gets served up. Sometimes it does that really well. Sometimes, not so well.

Learning that improves the algorithm is learning that helps it make better matches. So whenever the algorithm can learn to distinguish between content that’s only ranking because SEO and content that’s good and helpful and what humans want, it’s a big win.

Of course, SEO is still important. A search engine is a search engine, not a human. Its communication originates from binary, not body language. SEO is a translation aid, like a set of labels you’d attach to images or objects to learn a foreign vocabulary.

Apple, manzana, pomme, apfel, 苹果

Good SEO is specific and accurate and unobtrusive: it’s not meant to make bad content get good results. It’s meant to help an algorithm determine, from a nearly limitless amount of data, which pieces to put on a tray and serve to an inquiring human.