Wanted: An Unpractical Man

There is a temptation in any high-pressure situation to act immediately.  This is understandable and natural.

But it would be untrue to elevate this ability to act quickly over and against the ability to act after deep and thorough consideration.

Personally, I think the ability to act quickly is only a positive thing when one has a practice of careful reflection needed to effectively guide and empower such action.

We tend to rush through life, decisions and experiences, assuming we grasp and understand them at face value.  There is a face value to things, but there is always more.  And that is why sometimes it is important to have the discipline to be impractical.

To be a truly effective decision maker, one needs both urgent practicality and disciplined impracticality.

There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning. –Chesterton, What is Wrong with the World, Wanted: An Unpractical Man

Testing Your Way into an SEO strategy

A lot is at stake when you dive into organic SEO.

For one thing, an SEO strategy is dynamic and constantly evolving.  Google, your customer and your competition are changing daily, so to stay in the race SEO demands a perpetual uphill battle (even for those holding #1 rankings).

Perhaps just as important, SEO tactics carry long-term consequences. When it comes to positioning your site’s organic SEO strategy around a certain set of keywords and phrases, each step of progress will impact your site months down the road.  If the impact is negative, immediate remedies will still take months to take effect, and even then you may have done some difficult to repair damage.

For several weeks I have been thinking to myself – “What can be done for the SEO marketer?  Is there a way to take low-risk non-committal steps towards changing and developing your SEO positioning?”  Then it dawned on me that maybe paid searches have redeeming value for all websites.

Why not use paid search campaigns to test similar keywords and phrases against each other and against existing site keywords/phrases to determine the relative and absolute winners (or losers)?  The winners then inform the organic SEO strategy – how the website content, link structure, meta data etc. evolve to support these new keywords/phrases.

AdWords are relatively “non-binding” in terms of how closely Google associates paid search words with your site.  Also, AdWords don’t cost as much and can provide very immediate and meausurable results.  This is a perfect sandbox for organic SEO marketers!

Then I came across Aaron Wall’s post on SEObook that basically made this exact suggestion and articulated how it is done.  I just wanted to share it in the event that some frustrated SEM marketers are looking for a more significant role in the organic side of SEO.

Perhaps I am alone in downplaying the universal value of SEM for all businesses.  But personally, I have seen really solid SEM campaigns fail for companies strictly because it doesn’t fit their industry and product. Also, the temporary “bump” in traffic hasn’t shown to significantly improve site ranking.   Using AdWords as a brand awareness tool just seems a little silly to me – like saying a telemarketer is positively contributing to “brand awareness” even if the individuals receiving the calls are angry or indifferent when they receive a call.

Using AdWords campaigns to test into an organic SEO strategy and continue to evolve it is something any company can benefit from trying.

For marketers of any sort, this is a good lesson in making both cautious AND aggressive steps in maintaining and developing market position.  It takes the weakness of paid searches and uses it as a strength to serve a weakness of organic SEO.

Excellent SEO: Satisfy your visitors, not just an algorithm

SEO is often veiled behind abstract concepts, web 2.0 lingo, and apparent structural complexity.

All of these are realities, but I think at the end of any conversation on SEO it is important to remind ourselves that there is a common thread behind every SEO tactic and every variable evaluated by Google algorithms: How credible and relevant is the content on your site and how easy is it for users to get what they want on it? 

I have heard many marketers use the complexity of SEO as a way of mystifying prospective clients, wooing them with big words and ideas.  Just do a Google search for “SEO strategy” and read any blog that comes up.  You’ll see what I mean I am sure.  But honest online marketers will you that SEO is not rocket science. 

It is possible to discuss and achieve an intuitive grasp of SEO theory and practice even if you have never looked at html in your life.

The apparent complexity of SEO is simplified by a very simple concept: user experience.  Excellent SEO requires marketers, together with developers and front-end designers, to think deeply and strategically about user experience

Algorithms don’t just look at H1 tags and alt tags anymore.  They are getting better and better at identifying themes across content on sites that they look for not only in isolated pages, but even in the site structure. 

Picture yourself in the shoes of a user who comes to an e-commerce site and looks straightaway at the site map.  Now what questions would you naturally start to ask yourself, however subconsciously?

What are the different product categories this site offers?  How are they arranged and presented within the site navigation and structure?

Looking at the site navigation and structure, how do these categories seem fit together under a common theme? Is this a consumer electronics site or more of a home appliance site? 

How does my experience of this site, as I dig deeper into it, help me move naturally and seamlessly throughout the site, so I don’t have to use the “back” button in my browser, bread crumbs, top menu nav or site map?  Am I able to scan a page and have naturally placed “landing spots” to catch my attention with something relevant and interesting if I get lost or lose interest?

On one level, these questions are obviously reducible to usability principles for web design.  Questions that every designer should be asking in the first place.  But these are also extremely relevant to internal link structure, a factor increasingly important for Google algorithms.

Many speak as if Google’s algorithms were completely incomprehensible divine mandates we must blindly follow – “You just put keywords near the top of the page cause that’s the way Google likes it.”  This is to completely overlook the purpose of Search Engine Optimization.  It is not just to get visitors to your site, it is to get the right users to your site.  It is not just about getting users to navigate around your site and spend time there, it is to give them a positive, seamless experience demonstrated in increased conversion rates and revenue

To get a grasp on SEO, it is crucial to leave behind the superstitious religion of our SEO forefathers and get in step with what Google is really doing – getting better and better at helping people use the internet.  Google is not interested in your business, they are interested in your customer.   If you can’t help the customer, sooner or later Google will probably notice and dock you for it.  This doesn’t just mean the “black hat” techniques designed to trick people into visiting a site, but also the clumsy, confusing and frustrating aspects of website content and navigation.

It is true, a web usability professional can evaluate user experience better than a web crawler… at this point in time.  But people are creating the algorithms, which means they will become increasingly keen to bad user experiences.

I’m not suggesting we don’t try to understand nuances involved in algorithms.  I’m just making the point that we can lose perspective if we make our focus the algorithms instead of the customer experience. There is common sense and intelligible purpose behind SEO.  User experience is the glue that ties together the diverse variables involved in SEO, and if you get user experience right, you are bound to take huge strides towards Search Engine Optimization.

Parrots Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

Looking at data, reciting the data, is not the same thing as understanding and analyzing it… not anymore than reading a Quantum physics book aloud is any indication that I am a Quantum physicist.  I think that focused, patient, unrelenting determination to making sense of all the facts with a coherent, tested theory is one of the least cultivated skills in our day, despite the emphasis in our education system on scientific method.

I’ve come to reflect on this issue because of a common thread that appears in discussion about analytics in the business context.  Article after article has been written to address an apparently prevalent issue: we overwhelm ourselves with data, that, while possibly interesting, we fail to understand or do anything with. 

I am not sure why this is.  There are so many possible factors.  I have a few hunches, though. 

Perhaps the scientific community’s traditional emphasis on empirical data combined with Modernist atomist approaches to making sense of that data has something to do with our situation.  Empirical data is anything we can see with our eyes or otherwise validate by use of the senses – supposed proof.  Atomism is the assumption that simply breaking data, or matter, into smaller and smaller parts will render the atomic or basic, element that somehow explains things at the macro level. 

This may affect how subjects are seen as isolated and unique, why you can’t get math and literary theory in the same room… or lesson.  This shift began, more or less, with the idea that science could provide a pure method for securing knowledge about ourselves and our world.  Understanding a subject means abstracting it and pulling it out of its context within other subjects.  The scientific method has (tended to) be understood as implying that you have to have a controlled environment – a thing itself by itself – in order to extract reliable information about it.  

Perhaps abstracting a subject does render some special perspective on it.  After all, you sometimes we just have to choose something on which to focus our attention.  When it comes to practicing the skill of brain surgery, I probably should not be discussing the ethical implications of Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I might seriously harm my patient and probably won’t be saying anything meaningful about the book either.

But is this the whole picture?  Is the goal of study only to learn brute facts about material objects?  Or are we aiming for something bigger?  From my point of view, probably more in line with scholastic educational theorists, we’re hoping to learn about ourselves, our history, our present culture, our future, our values and our meaning.  Maybe we don’t always get that far.  But most would agree, probably even many materialists, that at least asking ethical, aesthetic, cultural and existential questions is an enriching activity contributing to quality of life, even if we don’t arrive at “answers” in the scientific or deductive sense.

When you emphasize simply using more powerful microscopes instead of more powerful theories, you may get interesting things to look at, but not clear understanding.  This helps make some sense of why analysis is lacking in the scientific community. 

Parrots don’t know what they are talking about.  Looking at raw data, no matter how granular you get, does not render a helpful theory for making sense of that data – its properties, relations and behavior.  Simply stating that something is x,y,z is not the same thing as explaining what, how, why, etc.  Parroting off information is not the same thing as understanding it.