SEO is Important. But are SEO's important?

I spent two years between WebMD and Vitals taking on a monster for the business - optimizing for organic traffic. Once I sorted through a lot of the misunderstandings in the organization, the paranoia, and the downright hopelessness - I presented the business with one option to fix their issues with organic acquisition: make Vitals a better experience for users.

Google gets too much credit

If you follow various resources online about how to optimize your SEO, some of the content is simply laughable. Some sites suggest that Google "knows" the quality of your content of the site and that having experts write your content can improve your search rankings. Others will suggest that the format of your images mean something to Google. For all the accolades Google gets - the terror its perceived intelligence has given to webmasters has resulted in some really freaky conspiracy theories. I'll even concede that I had a theory that when Vitals at one point decreased it's AdWords spend - the coincidental drop in organic traffic around the same time HAD to be related.

That's the side effect of the black box that is Google and SEO. Random correlated events become fodder for the SEO community to jump on and wonder and guess as to whether or not two uncontrolled variables are impacting their traffic. There's also the idea of the penalty box - the notion that Google doesn't "like certain aspects of your site" enough where it will deliberately penalize you. This can be a whole assortment of factors:

  • You have a lot of broken links
  • You have a lot of pages where on mobile, the text is too small
  • Your pages don't have enough content

There are an endless supply of "Google penalties" that are bantered about in the SEO community. The fact is - manual actions are the only true way Google is taking action against your site - and those are just within their guidelines. No porn. No hate speech. Etc. They certainly are using their keyword analyzers to identify sites that are blatantly violating their guidelines.

And this is because when all is said and done - Google is an advertising company that is focused on the experience of its users.

Your users tell Google if your site is good

I think the predominant organic optimization philosophy today that is the most accurate is the queries and clicks methodology. It is prefaced on the idea that Google is looking for 1) does your site contain information that could be relevant for certain keywords, 2) does your site when included in the results for a given query get significant clickthrough rate, and 3) when your result is clicked, what does your bounce rate look like?

Basically the logic is this: if someone searches for pink roses in Michigan they may get a SERP with your site if you are targeting those keywords. So maybe you get a clickthrough and the visitor has a look around. If you don't keep that visitor around long enough that they hit the back button or run the same query with Google again within a certain period of time, Google sees this (through cookies, etc.) and the assumption they make is: the site the user clicked on first didn't answer the question they had. So if your site ranks okay with pink roses in Michigan and you get a click, but the user goes back and clicks on another result shortly thereafter that is data for Google.

This actually explains a lot of SEO paranoia. When you look at a lot of SEO best practices they are focused on what Google sees but in reality, what Google sees is really what your users see. Irritating interstitials. Links that go no where. Content that renders on mobile devices like it was intended for microfiche. Google understands what your users are suffering through because they are clicking through to your site and experiencing the GDPR thing in the footer and the "subscribe to my newsletter" modal and the stupid flashing FAB in the corner of their screen and saying "this content isn't worth it!" and going back to Google for another result. Google isn't measuring any of this directly. They are simply measuring whether or not users like your content. Full stop.

SEO for the Renaissance CTO

So a lot of SEOs will say that Google must know all of these things because they provide tools that tell us exactly what is going on with our sites. Google has done an excellent job helping webmasters/CTOs/property owners look at their sites and say "How can I do better?" These tools include:

Anyone running a web property should take advantage of these tools. They provide a lot of shortcuts to understanding what your users are experiencing in the real world, things you may not be seeing in your own testing. But to be clear - it is unlikely that these tools have anything to do with what GoogleBot is "measuring" about your site. They are a reflection of what Google has learned about why people search and what they are looking for: speed, authority, relevance, and accessibility.

SEO has principally been the domain of marketing and growth teams. But for the Renaissance CTO - SEO should be a key component of how technology developed for acquisition and retention is built. Many of these tools have APIs or other programatic ways that they can be incorporated into testing and build processes. At Vitals, we implemented a rule in our continuous deployment workflow that if page speed insights tests dropped below a certain score, the build could not be deployed unless an engineer could provide a reason why the reduction happened and how it wouldn't affect user experience. That became my decision as an override to the alarm.

SEO is really a user experience (UX) design competency

While the Renaissance CTO can do a lot to ensure that technical SEO - all of the various ways that Google can consume your content, is correct (canonicals, sitemaps, robots.txt, etc.), it is the user experience designers who should have the most say when thinking about organic acquisition. Is this an experience that gives the user the information they are looking for? Is this an experience that would allow a user to navigate to the answer without significant friction? Is this an experience that the user can trust?

Some CTOs have responsibility for their design practice, but regardless - any designer worth their salt would ask the questions above out of instinct. The question is whether or not the designer has the agency to be able to make these decisions and ensure their strategy is executed. This is where things can get thorny. I once had one UX designer tell me that it would be a superior experience for our users if we removed the display advertising from our site. They were right, but then there would be no revenue to pay our salaries. It was their job to find a way to ensure the ads complimented the experience without getting in the way of what the user wanted to do. Both things are possible.

The CTO also when having agency over UXD has a responsibility to arbitrage parts of the organization that are being sold on the so-called "dark arts" of SEO. An SEO brought in to re-evaluate content strategy for keyword ordination, or an SEO being brought in to help do a technical assessment of the site are both value-added services that can compliment even fantastic engineering and UX teams. But SEOs who waste time and money pushing projects that are based on conjecture are a plague.

This is not an indictment about the SEO. Most SEOs, and several that I have worked with - are incredible professionals who understand the value of content and the value of experience as the most important drivers to successful organic traffic strategies. Were it not for some of these people, the resuscitation of Vitals.com could not have been possible.

But in my re-insertion into the SEO world, I have discovered there is a lack of understanding by technical, UX, and marketing professionals as to what makes organic acquisition tick and that ignorance leads to a lot of bad decisions that cost organizations dearly. Google is a technology company that sells ads. The Renaissance CTO as the head technologist needs to use reasoning to understand how Google works and guide their organizations to technical SEO success.

Ryan Norris

Ryan Norris

Ryan is the former Chief Product Officer at Medullan, CTO at Be the Partner and Vitals, and now is a CTO consultant at Osmosis Knowledge Diffusion and has projects in alternative education, digital therapeutics, and patient engagement.

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