In Defense of Snake Oil

I’ve been thinking a lot about SEO recently.

Working on several large websites and balancing new content with existing strategies from external SEO consultants, I’ve grown more and more frustrated with the lack of attention to actual user needs.

As a proponent of content strategy (and as an unapologetic English Literature and Creative Writing major), I’ve always had issues with SEO tactics that sacrifice good writing for higher rankings.

In her new book Clout and the fantastic article “Make Your Content Make a Difference,” Colleen Jones uses the term “SEO Snake Oil” to describe the dubious, exaggerated and outright deceptive practices found all too often in web writing today.

There’s only one problem with that term, from my perspective. We’ve given Snake Oil bad name.

A Little Historical Context

It turns out, oil made from the Chinese Water Snake is extremely high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a natural compound commonly used to treat joint pain and arthritis. Chinese laborers brought Snake Oil to America while working on the Transcontinental Railroad. As they shared it with their fellow workers, it became a popular commodity, but importing it from China was too expensive.

Fortunately, since most people who made their way out West during this time were enterprising businesspeople, there was no shortage of entrepreneurs willing to step up and fill the market’s needs.

Some may have had medical backgrounds and might have even believed they were creating a product that would benefit their customers. But they could have no way of knowing that North American snake oil had significantly lower levels of EPA, providing little or no medicinal properties.

Others weren’t so innocent. In fact, their products were so unsuccessful and their sales practices so amazingly bad that they actually turned their product into a derogatory term for the entire business, then for any business or offer that seemed too good to be true.

From the ever-prescient Wikipedia:

The “snake oil peddler” became a stock character in Western movies: a travelling “doctor” with dubious credentials, selling some medicine (such as snake oil) with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence, typically bogus.

At best, these products were harmless and provided no actual benefit to their users. Some did provide actual results, but through the use of dangerous or toxic ingredients (including opium, cocaine, alcohol and nerve agents!).

What began as something that allegedly worked, but couldn’t really be explained with exact science, became a haven for shady businessmen and con artists of all stripes.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Losing Faith in SEO

Many legitimate SEO practitioners face a similar challenge. They can’t explain exactly how their processes work, or give precise success rates. But this is an honest response to the ever changing proprietary algorithms and philosophies of Google, Yahoo and Bing. But it sounds shady.

When people realized there was money to be made, SEO was infiltrated by amateurs, hucksters and snake oil peddlers who promise fast results with little effort. And many of them succeed in achieving higher rankings, but often to the long-term detriment of their customers.

Like the dangerous active ingredients in many patent medicines, black hat SEO tactics work in the short term, but sites risk tumbling out of the rankings as search developers refine their algorithms. Think of the long-overdue update to Google’s algorithm that punishes link farms and content aggregators.

Anyone who works in search engine optimization, marketing or other search-related fields has to accept their association with these “SEO Snake Oil” salesmen. No matter how honest or serious your work, the industry has been branded a hoax.

But there is one practice that never gets punished by the search engines–creating genuinely valuable, informative content that users enjoy reading and sharing.

Rescuing Our Work from the Snake Oil Peddlers

Maybe it’s naive, but I always approached SEO with the faith that search engine developers were constantly working towards an ideal “human-ness.” That whenever I search, their goal is to identify the content that I would choose if I could read and memorize the entire internet at any given time.

Over the years, this philosophy has led to heated discussions with internal SEO specialists and outside consultants. When it comes time to choose between keyword density and user-friendliness, I’ve always chosen the latter. What good is content that ranks well but puts off any potential customer that finds it?

As Colleen Jones writes “we should stop defining ourselves by the discovery medium and focus on the content itself.”

The most important element of good SEO is good content. Sure, it’s important to include relevant keywords, contextual links and other SEO-friendly features–not because they’re good for SEO, but because they’re good for users. (That’s why search algorithms account for them in the first place.)

Keywords serve as a sort of “filing system” for us to tell search engines and users what our content is about. As content becomes more flexible, or “orbital,” keywords become more important to that content’s flexibility and usability.  But they also become more personal, more human.

Instead of stuffing countless related terms into a piece of content in hopes of catching a few long-tail searches, we’re moving back to categories, taxonomies and hierarchies–filing systems–that help our users find and organize the content that’s most meaningful to them. Or in the case of orbital content, social search and CMS’s, helping our content find them.

And if that approach benefits our search engine rankings, so much the better–for us and for search engines. If it helps our users find and share quality content, then it will very quickly help search engines do the same–especially as they adjust their algorithms to include more human or human-like content assessments.

Used correctly, this new-meets-old-meets-new approach will help reduce the prominence and effectiveness of “SEO Snake Oil” practices. It will help users find the content they need and avoid the content they don’t.

And that’s been everyone’s goal all along, hasn’t it?