Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

SEO, SEM, Black Hats and Oprah

The difference between search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) is considerable. Just remember — you can advertise on Oprah’s show, or Oprah herself can plug you.

SEO. The very acronym represents an industry with full-time consultants, books and forums. The market has further fractured itself into categorical buzzwords — terms like “black hat techniques,” “organic SEO” and “search engine marketing” have muddied the waters, and finding a straight set of definitions from any professional can be an exercise in keyboard-pounding frustration.

In the immortal words of Austin Powers, “What does it all mean, Basil?” For the novice, speaking the same language is the first step. Let’s explore the differences between these terms.

Search Engine Optimization

This is where it all starts. Search engine optimization is the act of optimizing your site for search engines through two key avenues: building an easily indexed and search-friendly site and then building a network of quality incoming links.

Optimizing a site’s code is straightforward.

  • Use CSS for layout, not tables. Write a semantically correct document that makes proper use of header, paragraph and list tags. Headers are especially important.
  • Write descriptive titles and metadata. While Google might ignore meta keywords, it devours well-written meta descriptions.
  • Think accessibility. Google is the great blind user. If a screen reader interprets your site well (don’t forget those “alt” attributes), Google will also do well. If you use Flash or set text as images, you’ve already lost the SEO game.

Building a network of incoming links is harder, but once done, significant page ranking improvements will be seen. The key for quality links rests in two places:

Both your site’s structure and the incoming links count toward good rankings. This optimization is free. This is Oprah talking about your product on her show simply because it is so darn great.

“Organic SEO” is the natural means of building a strong search engine position. Good page architecture is a great start, but the “organic” part comes when you post quality content and people link to you based on the merit of your content. Your library of incoming links “grows.” Search Google for “usability” and you’ll find Jakob Nielson’s sitting comfortably at #1 because he’s been linked to by thousands of sites.

Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing is buying visitors. It is advertising — paid placement in order to drive traffic.

Think Oprah again. You can buy advertising time on her show — it costs a lot but has a good chance of generating interest in your product. But if you have a great product, Oprah is going to talk about it on her show without you paying a dime, simply because it is great. The latter is likely to create far more interest.

After pulling up search results, people are more likely to click one of the search engines’ non-advertising links. After all, “organic” results are personally recommended by the search engine. You can buy paid listings for certain keywords, and even get them listed first under the “Sponsored Links” if you shell out enough cash, but people understand this is an advertisement and inherently distrust it.

Search engine marketing works for driving traffic. You can buy space on all search engines and even pay Yahoo $299 to be listed in their directory, but the technique is only a complement to proper SEO because an advertisement is still an advertisement and is inferior to a proper recommendation, whether by Google or Oprah.

Black Hat SEO

The witchcraft connotation of these terms is appropriate. There’s a lot of noise on the web, and much of that stems from black hat SEO — the act of purposely deceiving search engines to attain higher rankings, sometimes for terms completely unrelated to the website the black hat wishes to promote.

Before Google, search engines ranked pages based solely on their content, and “keyword stuffing” was a popular means of fooling ranking algorithms. This meant loading the meta tags with garbage like “britney spears” and “clinton” to get pulled up for those popular searches, and creating huge pages of invisible text (like repeating “discount drugs”) to make dumb engines like AltaVista think you really knew what you were talking about.

Nowadays, Google, Yahoo and MSN are much smarter. Most completely ignore the keyword meta tag because of historical abuse, and invisible text is easy to detect. Black hat SEO has evolved into something far more complex. Creating link farms (huge repositories of links), duplicate pages under different redirects and CSS-hidden keyword garbage are all publicly banned by search engines, but the practice of black hat SEO is much like real-life crime. Too often, those practicing shady techniques stay one step ahead of the authorities.

If you’re seeking to learn more about SEO and SEM, stay away from the black hat stuff. The term “white hat” refers to the techniques discussed under “Search Engine Optimization” above, and is a better way of promoting a site without the risk of getting blacklisted by the ranking engines.

commentary + criticism

The Co-worker

wrote the following on Thursday October 6, 2005

“white hat” SEO

it makes me think of a wizard who conjures up all SEO karma for sites across the interweb…