SEO — Just Snake Oil?

Snake oil or valuable business tool?A recent column in PC Magazine has the search engine optimization (SEO) community up in arms. John Dvorak writes that he tried one SEO tactic on his blog and saw a negative impact. His conclusion? SEO is snake oil.  Respected online search expert Aaron Wall fired back a post with evidence that SEO does in fact work.

Several people have chimed in, defending SEO and exposing the ignorance of his claim.

Dvorak says changing URLs for SEO is worthless because he tried it on his blog and his web traffic went DOWN. So do website address or URL structures matter? Yes – especially when you start out. Rather than having a long URL with no keywords, it’s ideal to have keywords included in the URL. It’s usually best to keep URLs as short as possible.

Is it better to have URLs with words rather than question marks and numbers? According to Google’s senior webmaster Matt Cutts, yes it is.

Why then did Dvorak’s traffic go down? It was probably changing the URL that was a problem, not the URL structure itself.  It’s not a good idea to make massive changes on large established websites without careful planning.

We walk our clients through changing a site so they don’t lose all of their rankings (and therefore traffic to their site) in search engines. One of the biggest issues is when they switch to a content management system (CMS) that has long, cumbersome URLs. When your sales leads drop dramatically overnight with a new site, you care more than ever about SEO and 301 redirects.

The problem with long URLs is that they can be tough to deal with. They won’t wrap and then the URL breaks. They can’t be easily shared.

URLs aren’t the most important SEO element (I love this article that polled top SEOs to see what matters). Ranking in this survey says it’s of moderate importance.

There are debates about what’s important and what is of marginal importance when it comes to SEO. However, SEO is one of the most cost-effective ways to market online. Anyone who has a business online should at least learn the basics. You may want to hire someone on staff or an agency.

If you hire an SEO firm, look for a company that is established and growing, or who comes with a trusted recommendation. There are many who come and go. It can be tempting to hire someone to do work for almost nothing (often in another country). To be sustainable businesses can’t give away their services and stay in business – so be skeptical.

Most of all realize that SEO isn’t snake oil, but it’s not a silver bullet either. It takes time – especially if your keywords are competitive or your competitors more entrenched. I’m always worried by clients who sign up and then cancel two months later because they haven’t seen mind-blowing results.

Search engines do not produce instant results. Pay-per-click or sponsored results in a search engine can have an almost immediate effect, but these can be expensive and depending on the terms you use, very costly. With SEO, you make changes and those changes could take months to be updated in search results. Always remember that while good SEO will give you the best chances it can’t “guarantee” top rankings, but with a good strategy and diligence it will definitely make a positive difference.

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Janet Meiners thaelerAbout the Author: Janet Meiners Thaeler is an Evangelist for OrangeSoda Inc. and the principal blogger for their corporate blog and Twitter account. She regularly advises clients on blogging and social media strategies. Her own blog is (and Twitter account @newspapergrl). She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.


Janet Meiners Thaeler Janet Meiners Thaeler is an Evangelist for OrangeSoda Inc. and the principal blogger for their corporate blog and Twitter account. She regularly advises clients on blogging and social media strategies. Her own blog is Newspapergrl. She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.

29 Reactions
  1. The thought of Dvorak ranting over this failed attempt at SEO makes me chuckle. Poor guy. If he has any sense he will read your post and give that “snake oil” one more try.

  2. Great post, thanks Janet for your thoughts. I think the best thing that SEOs can do is educate, educate, educate. I’ve also added my two cents here,

  3. You make really good points Janet. Maybe Dvorak should have thought more clearly before making his statement. He had to have know he would receive quite a bit of backlash. I appreciate your opinions.

  4. heh. This is what happens when journalists write about things they know nothing about.

  5. Thank you Janet,
    here’s a question:
    I recently changed my blog’s domain from to

    How long does it take for the search engines to rank me high, again?

    {Or does the ranking pretty much stay the same?}

    The Franchise King
    Joel Libava

  6. I love how Dvorak takes half of an SEO principle and expects it to work. Aaron Wall really hit the nail on the head, he got free advice, applied it, and got exactly what he paid for.

  7. There are so many factors in SEO it is hard to keep track of each change and its impact.

  8. @ Joel Libava – Right now you have both live with the same content. This is likely to cause some problems with getting ranking highly due to duplicate content.

    What you want to do, as Janet mentions, is redirect via 301’s the former to the later. The other step is to make sure that the new site has an xml sitemap to tell the search engines where your content is.

    hope this helps.

  9. Clint, use the survey I linked to. Start with the top factor. Work down the list. Although SEO does change and there’s a lot of hype around social media (which I love), start with the basics first.

    On a basic level – get your site in shape and then build links to it.


  10. David,
    Thanks for answering Joel’s question. I enjoy when people teach each other in the comments.

    I’ll check out Sarah’s post next.

  11. Thanks, Janet for checking out my post. What’s everyone’s twitter address? I’m @sarahlamansky would love to follow you wonderful SEO people 🙂 I agree with the basics – if you don’t have those in place, it’s an uphill battle.

  12. Sarah,
    Great idea. When you comment, could you add your Twitter address at the end?


  13. Hi Janet,
    I’m only new to this stuff and from the baby boomer generation so sorry if this seems a dumb question.
    Reading the post it made me think that in the end this is all a version of key word search and ranking. Whether something is in the url or whether it is somewhere else in your blog or website, isn’t it getting your keywords discovered and searched by Google and your target market that matters?

  14. Your article reminds me of the saying – a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.

    A good SEO does help your business and what I like is that they are not afraid about sharing their knowledge with you.

    Our SEO has helped us get back to being number 1 in ranking, after we did some changes, we thought were okay (including changing the URL), didn’t consult her and paid the consequences with us disappearing to page 5.

    She explained in simple terns what we did wrong and we have never forgotten the advice.

    Thanks for your article Janet.

  15. This post is great. Calling SEO just a snake oil is rude. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He even mentioned about long URL when in fact the length of URL doesn’t really matter at all in search engine optimization.

  16. You are right Susan — a little bit of knowledge can really be dangerous if misused.

    Anyone could point to me that you could highly recommend “to read” SEO sources?

  17. You’ve hit on one really key thing that’s very important to understand and that is that it can take months to see SEO changes really take effect. That’s not always the case, however, these things tend to build some steam over time and I’ve seen that happen on my own blog. It won’t happen in two days or maybe even two months, but then comes the day that you realize, its all been worth it.

  18. Andee
    Yes, getting your keywords in discovered and searched by Google is vital. Doing just one isn’t as effective as making sure your entire web site is keyword rich. That means in the URL, text, in links, etc. This is the foundation.

    There are things you can do on your site to hurt your search engine rankings, but that’s another story.

    Thanks for your comment – feel free to ask away!


  19. Rose,
    I’m a big fan of Aaron Wall’s SEO book membership site. It’s probably too much information. The source I linked to that polled top SEOs can be printed and spiral bound for reference.

    I like this book: How to Win Sales & Influence Spiders: Boosting Your Business & Buzz on the Web (Voices That Matter) by Catherine Seda

    To keep up on the latest read quality blogs, but if you just want to learn the fundamentals these sources should help.

    Anyone else have recommendations?


  20. Chris,
    I have a Google alert on my name. Now when I publish a new blog posts, it’s indexed in search engines within the hour. Sometimes within minutes.

    Once trusted (building content consistently over time) your changes will take effect almost immediately.

    If you’ve been online for years but haven’t been consistently adding content, it can take a long time for your content to be indexed.

    This is why I’m a huge fan of blogs – it’s much easier to continue publishing new information and build trust in search engines.


  21. I see SEO as one part of the mix of a total online marketing strategy. I glad that I will work on a new business venture with a guy who has been online since 1981 and has developed 10 different steps / areas that you should cover if you want to optimize your online presence. His site is #3 if you search on the Swedish term, “marknadsföring” (marketing in English) of 7,470,000 hits on Google.

    Janet: I am a huge fan of blogs too. I have been blogging for 6+ years. What’s your opinion of Alexa ranking. Right now, I have a ranking of 425,458.

  22. I guess Dvorak can use a shot back eh? Little does he know that a cottage industry for selling SEO Snake Oil is forming. 🙂

  23. My view on SEO is that it should never be a focus. I setup my sites once to allow search engines to crawl them easily and I make sure the spiders know what each page is about, but other than that I don’t worry about SEO.

    SEO only has a significant impact if you’re doing shady stuff OR providing content people actually want. But if you’re doing the later you won’t need to be focusing on it too much anyways.

  24. SEO should not be a project but an ongoing building process that evolves over time. That is the #1 thing that most businesses don’t get is effective SEO is long term and does not happen over night…just like a building a business does not happen over night as well!

  25. Very helpful information for businesses that are considering SEO services! SEO requires ongoing, strategic efforts in order to be effective.

  26. Holy cow! Are you kidding??? I guess they have never really spent any time trying to push a website up on a competitive term. Spend a month on that task and there will be no doubt about the snake oil argument… Cheeezzeee!

  27. Hi Janet
    I had read this article when it came out and just considered Dvorak uninformed and naive. I’m confused by a few of the comments here citing that SEO isn’t important or something to pay attention to.

    SEO, to me, is simply paying attention to the details of your content (and its structure) and if you’re writing good stuff for your readers, then you are probably more than halfway there. SEO-thinking is like having a good editor by your side and on your site. The accomplished editor (and SEO) is asking — are these the best words (as in keywords/terms) to use here? Could we search out and see if this term is the best one, by way of of the search engines and their trends. Could we use a different term and potentially draw in more readers who might be searching something similar, but by changing a keyword here or there, we draw them in.

    SEO is a strategic and tactical need. If you think you can simply bang out any content and not think about the seo-perspective, than I compare that to writing in a vacuum without thinking about your readers. No good writer would write without thinking of their reader first, and perhaps, last…

  28. Another well written article Janet. I wanted to comment on the amount of disagreement amonng the ‘elite’ though. For example, looking at (which I have done several time) it amazes me how these ‘experts’ cannot agree on things. The graphs at the end are quite humerous really.