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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 [1] 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 [2], 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 [3].

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 [4] 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. [5] 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.com [6] (and Twitter account @newspapergrl). She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.