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What is Relevance, Again?

January 15, 2013

Since before I started this blog with my co-author Frank Donatone, I’ve been engaging in a long and fruitful virtual debate with a group of people I lovingly refer to as the search haters. My latest blog about this can be found on Biznology: “Five Critical Roles that Need SEO Skills.” Not that the group of search haters is organized or has its own user group. But there is a long line of folks who are willing to trash the practice of SEO on the basis of two facts:

  1. SEO has sometimes been practiced by unscrupulous agencies to try to gain unfair advantage for their clients, thus this is what most SEO amounts to
  2. Search results are sometimes wildly irrelevant to search queries, thus search is not all that helpful in providing relevant content to audiences
    The repurcussions of black-hat SEO

I write this in the hope that I might influence a few search haters into a more sympathetic understanding of SEO. As the above  Biznology post indicated, I spend the majority of my time training folks on SEO. Much of this is in countering myths 1. or 2. above. If I can preempt some of this training by influencing a few people now, I just might be able to get down to business with new hires in digital marketing sooner.

A Smashing Debate

Since I wrote the above blog post, several of my colleagues have alerted me to a couple of long and detailed blog posts in Smashingmag.com. The first is called “The Inconvenient Truth about SEO.” In it, author and apparent search hater Paul Boag makes some good points about the way SEO is sometimes practiced. But he also makes some logical and factual errors. Most of the logical or factual errors were  well countered in a follow-on blog called “What The Heck Is SEO? A RebuttalThe Smashing Magazine logo

The most important is the counter to point 1. above. Authors rightly say that this is a straw man. Most SEO is in fact practiced by people who only want the search traffic commensurate with the value of their content, using legitimate means of attaining it. SEO spam is like junk mail spam or email spam: Even though it is not representative of all SEO, we remember SEO spam (aka black hat SEO) because it is so annoying, So our tendency is to over generalize from black hat SEO  to all SEO. The authors also did a good job curating the results of a poll of SEOs in describing what it is SEOs actually do.

I highly recommend that you read both posts, especially the accounts of what SEOs actually do in the rebuttal. As an SEO, I do all of those things and then some. The picture that emerges is that SEOs are really just digital strategists who will do whatever is needed to ensure that clients get ROI for their web development efforts. Since most people search for information “often or always,” being available in search results for the queries your target audience cares about is job 1. So, as I describe in Biznology and elsewhere, the role of an SEO is helping everyone else on the team understand how their work affects search results, i.e., training.

Still, the rebuttal is incomplete. I won’t take Boag’s post apart in detail. But I do want to point out a fallacy in the hopes that it will illuminate why myth number 2. above is a commonly held belief. Here is what Boag says:

Your objective should be to make it easier for people who are interested in what you have to offer to find you, and see the great content that you offer. Relevant content isn’t “great content”. Someone searches for a pizza on Google, and they don’t want prose from Hemingway or Fitzgerald on the history and origin of pizza — they most likely want lunch. An SEO adds value to what you create by making sure that it is presented within the framework of the Web in a way which makes it more likely that it will reach the people that you want it seen by, when they are looking for it.

What is Relevance, Again?

First of all, I completely agree with everything in the above quote, except the bold part. The way I read it, he is saying that content need not be great in order to be relevant. Considering that I say content quality is a proxy for relevance, the bold statement in the Boag quote is a problem for me.

Let’s revisit our definition of relevance. Content is more or less relevant to the audience to the extent that:

  1. It maximizes the audience’s ability to achieve their information goals
  2. It minimizes the effort required by the audience to achieve those goals

We unpack these two conditions in probably more detail than most of the readers of our book need. But if you are interested in the complete picture, see Audience, Relevance and Search. For most of you, it suffices to say that content is optimally relevant if it helps the audience get the information they need in the shortest possible time. (Note that it sometimes takes longer to grasp overly condensed text. So I don’t say, “in the smallest possible space”.)

There is a reading of Boag in which his quote agrees with our definition. If by placing quotes around “great content” he means to connote “literary masterpieces,” then fine. A small percentage of your audience on the web is looking for highly crafted, poetic prose. An even smaller percentage is looking for long-winded stories told from a fictional voice. Highly relevant content on the web is typically brief, to the point, and abundantly clear. (Note that this does not make it boring. It is the antithesis of boring to the audience in that it answers their most pressing questions.)

Part of my insistence on spending entirely too much space in the book explaining how web content is fundamentally unlike print content is to emphasize this point. On the web, readers are in charge of the story. It’s their story. The writer must try to understand the reader well enough to figure out what they need to complete their story, and to provide it in the easiest and quickest way. Turns of phrase and other poetic language tend to reduce relevance on the web by introducing ambiguity in a fundamentally literal medium. Worse still, internal company jargon and other brain-dead colloquial language (e.g. “leverage,” “paradigm shift,”  “next generation,” etc.) defeats relevance.

If this is what Boag means, then I agree completely with his quote. But, if this is what he means, why then does he take the side of the search hater? We published our book in 2010. I’ve spoken about it at high-end conferences a dozen times. The whole industry has rallied behind the vision outlined in the book (whether they were aware of it or not). The search engines have followed suit with algorithm changes like Panda that reward relevant content as we define it and punish black hat SEO. Most decent SEOs practice it as we preach it (again, whether they’re aware of our book or not).

Can we please dispense with the myths so we can give SEO its rightful place in digital strategy?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2013 3:55 pm

    Very interesting. I found Boag’s remarks about the necessity of user-centered content strategy to be very true. That principle — the principle of relevance — is pretty much an undisputed fact, though, and not likely the source of controversy in this particular debate.

    I’m a social media strategist with experience in content strategy (James, you know this well :) From my experience, the most effective way to encourage organic traffic is by creating everything listed in Boag’s description of “useful content.” Using the research, funds, and expertise of your business to provide a shareable service to your users that helps them find a solution to a common problem? That’s a guaranteed boost in traffic. But when you’re planning to write the blog post or film the case study or host the Tweetchat, how do you know what interests your users in the first place? By using SEO skills like keyword research.

    A person could go crazy trying to keep up with all the changes in the Google algorithm, then adjust their text to meet that. And for those of us whose job does not solely focus on SEO, it feels like fighting a losing battle. So I’m grateful for SEO experts who DO make it their job to keep up with the latest from Google and translate it for the rest of us. But I believe the first step for a team — before engaging with an SEO expert, and before broadcasting their brand to the world — is listening to users, then crafting content around those needs.

    I admit, I haven’t read the rebuttal yet, so perhaps all this has already been said!

    • jamesmathewson permalink
      January 20, 2013 10:14 pm

      Good points Chelsea! I just have a different view of SEO. SEOs are the experts at finding out what users are looking for through search. So they need to be engaged early and often if you want to build content for your users.

  2. March 10, 2013 7:26 pm

    I need to to thank you for this fantastic read!
    ! I certainly loved every bit of it. I have you bookmarked to
    look at new things you post…

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