Many SEOs obsess over search engine algorithmic details. They spend hours looking at the minutest of details hoping to achieve the perfectly "optimized" web page. In the process they often forget that the web page can't just be optimized for search engines, but must also be optimized for human visitors.

Optimizing for spiders and visitors are both important for a web site's overall success. But I don't think they are necessarily equally important. In order for the search engines to be able to index and rank a site, a "search engine friendly" website architecture must be implemented. And while having a search engine friendly site is good, it must not be accomplished at the expense of the visitor. At best, it must complement the user friendliness of the website. At worst, it must be invisible.

Can a proper balance between optimizing for spiders and humans be struck? Can you achieve the perfectly optimized web page for search rankings, while also maintain a perfectly optimized page for your audience? Well, no. In fact I don't think there is such thing as a perfectly optimized page for either search engines or users. If there were such a thing then sites such as Amazon would not invest millions of dollars in user testing every year. But since perfection is unattainable, what you can do is find the most effective balance between being both user friendly and search engine friendly.

When looking for the perfect balance between search engines and human visitors, there are nine distinct paths available. When developing, updating or optimizing a website, every decision must have a question asked and answered to determine if what is being contemplated is the best course of action. The question is: Is this good for my visitors and the search engines. Based on the answer to that question you'll have an idea of whether or not you're facing a sound course of action.

Path 1: Bad for spiders, bad for people

SEO Path 1

One of the problems many websites face is that they were designed to meet one, or a small group of people's particular likes and dislikes, with no regard to anything beyond that. I've run across many business owners who have invested thousands of dollars into creating a "pretty" website, only later to find that it is not structurally sound in regard to meeting the needs of the search engines. Nor was it very usable or able to meet the shoppers needs. The developer, or the person fronting the money, decided what looked good and went forward without any other considerations. This is obviously one of the worse courses of actions that can be made as a web site is being developed.

Once you've gone down this route the only course of action is to stop and go back. You'll have to re-invest into your website to make it more search engine friendly and in the process learn more about the wants and needs of your target audience. Yes, you'll lose time and money. But the worse scenario is doing nothing and to continue to lose time and money every day as neither search engines nor your visitors give your site the time of day.

When faced with any decision, and it is determined that a course of action is bad for search engines and users, run away. It doesn't matter how many people think that the proposed change looks good, your business depends on being able to get exposure and persuade your visitors, not the web designer or the managers who don't know enough about web marketing to make sound decisions. Going down this path will only lead to disaster.

Path 2: Indifferent to spiders, bad for people

SEO Path 2

There are many changes you can make to a site that are not going to effect search engine accessibility issues at all. Things such as having a 100% tableless design or achieving full validation of your HTML are a couple things that come to mind that, on a small scale, don't really matter a whole lot. Both have their benefits but by themselves don't really have a significant effect on the search engines (unless you're removing some genuine search engine road blocks or excessive code bloat). Overall these types of changes don't have much sway when it comes to overall search engine performance.

So the next question to consider is if the change being considered will be good or bad for your target audience. If it can be determined that while a change won't effect your performance on the search engines, but would ultimately create a negative experience for your visitors, then this is another path that you want to avoid. The only possible outcome is still a net negative.

You won't have helped your goal in pushing rankings up, but by creating a negative visitor experience you will have hurt your ability to get conversions. Even if the net negative effect on your human visitors is small, over time it will add up. And for what? For a change that, at best, didn't improve performance on the search engines? It's just not worth it.

Path 3: Good for spiders, bad for people

SEO Path 3

Surprisingly, this is a mistake that many SEOs make. Of course, these are the SEOs that are focused exclusively on achieving top search engine rankings, no matter what the cost. To be fair, many of them are talented individuals who study the search engine algorithms excessively. The only drawback is that they often don't know how to balance the needs of the spiders with the needs of the human visitors.

The result if often a very fantastically search engine friendly website, that is, at the same time, one that has extremely poor visitor conversion rates. Many businesses and SEOs that implement these kinds of strategies often appear to be very successful at getting results. Rankings are strong and traffic increases, and even the number of conversions increase due to the the increase in traffic volumes. But what often gets lost is that those increases can actually be hurting the business.

How can more sales be a bad thing? When you're losing credibility in the process. When you have to pay more for lower conversion rates. When the costs of being successful is more than the profits being realized. While many decisions that improve ranking performance feel positive, many won't be good enough to be sustainable over the long-term, especially those that create a negative user experience. If the overall net gain is positive, then a justification can be made for this type of decision. But while it's better than the previous two, it's certainly not the best path to choose overall.

Of the nine paths business owners and SEOs face with their online marketing campaigns, these are the worst of the bunch. In the next installment we'll look at another group of paths to SEO enlightenment. While the next three are not the best options available, you certainly could do worse.

November 27, 2007

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.



Thanks for the first installment in your series on how best to approach the man/machine problems of SEO.

I referenced your post in my blog at the Innovators Network, and hope to send my readership your way so they, too, can learn a bit on what needs to happen to make a website "sing" to the tune of profit.


Right on.

I have to agree 100% with the point on conversions. I'd rather have a site that has 100 visitors, but 20 conversions than a site that has 1000 visitors but only 5.

But then you could assume that should my visitors grow organically by the time I have 1000 visitors I'll have 200 conversions.

I have to fully admit, I am one of those SEOs that will sacrifice usability for rankings but do you blame me? Our contracts are based on rankings, not conversions. And until the contracts are based on conversions as well, I'll stick to getting it ranked then come back to making it more usable.

Sadly, too many other SEOs are like me in this practice.

Silly me... But why is it so hard to accomplish both? Maybe I'm just lucky but both of my sites took the user experience and the search engines into consideration... And it didn't seem to be that difficult a process... I guess I got lucky or am I missing something, but both sites do great in the SERP's!

Boris, I'm not sure I ever suggested that you can't do both, but not every decision presented will. The point of this series is to learn to understand the potential outcome of any decision before it's made so you know whether it's a good decision or not.

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Search Engine Guide > Stoney deGeyter > 9 Paths of SEO Enlightenment, Part I