How to Succeed in SEO Without Really Trying

Reading a profile of Pritzker Prize-wining Swiss architect Peter Zumthor in The New York Times Magazine, I was struck by this quote, explaining his aesthetic philosophy:

“I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly.”

He went on to explain that you should try to “do what you should do,” by which he meant design in a practical way, with use and users in mind (my emphasis).

Sounds kind of like Matt Cutts, don’t you think? You know, Google’s oracle of SEO. He’s always advising SEOs to do the right thing. To develop content with users in mind; to design websites with real-world use in min.

The promise: create good content for users to enjoy and good site structure that helps those users get to your good content, and success will follow.

And here it is succinctly in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (quality guidelines section):

“Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.”

Of course, many (and not just black hat SEOs) have taken issue with this advice, such as SEOmoz founder Rand Fishkin in this Sept. 2009 blog post Terrible SEO Advice: Focus on Users, Not Engines.

And some websites, such as the, have parleyed search-engine-specific tactics to outsized success.

Where do I stand?

Primarily with users.

Search algorithms have and will continue to change, rewarding and punishing different tactics over times.

The one constant will be content. Quality content.

And search engines will always want to reward sites with high-quality content. The kind of content that real people really want. And real people will continue to value and validate real content with their traffic and attention.

But the word “primarily” in Google’s guidelines is an important one.

In his blog dissent, Rand really takes issue with user-only statements without the “primarily” qualifier and acknowledges “users should absolutely be the focus of your efforts.”

My advice: Write and design with pure user intentions, trying your best to produce the content that people really want, content that offers real value and enjoyment.

But then you should put on your SEO hat (white, of course). And dot your i’s and cross your T’s. Which means you make sure all the technical stuff that the bots want to see is there.

I think it’s ideally a writer/editor paradigm.

The SEO is to the content producer as the editor is to the writer.

Writers should write fluidly and freely, without the sometimes-stifling pressure to get it all right immediately.

Then the editor steps in (even if it’s the same person). And he or she looks at the work critically and makes sure everything is optimized. Editors don’t typically use the term optimize, but in reality it is what good editors and SEOs both do.

And in ebb and flow of search algorithm updates that periodically reshape the best practices of SEOs, we are in a period where this advice is even more important.

Google’s Panda update was meant to penalize many popular sites that rose to prominence by focusing overly on the search bots and not the real needs of people. And, while not perfect, the update largely worked.

In addition, social media signals are becoming an increasingly important ingredient in the SERP recipes.

Those amplifying signals – Tweets and Likes and other forms of social sharing – are coming from real people responding to content that was meaningful to them in some way.

So stop trying to make the search engines like you.

Make pages, primarily, for people to like.