DEV Community

Andrew Welch
Andrew Welch

Posted on • Originally published at on

Modern SEO: Snake Oil vs. Substance

Modern SEO: Snake Oil vs. Substance

SEO has got­ten a bad rap; but much of it deserved­ly so. Here’s a guide to how mod­ern SEO should be done

Andrew Welch / nystudio107


When­ev­er a client I’m work­ing with talks about an SEO firm they’re engag­ing, I take a deep breath. While there are most cer­tain­ly some very worth­while SEO firms out there, they are few and far between.

I’ve seen clients charged piles of mon­ey for what are effec­tive­ly just rec­om­men­da­tions copy & past­ed from WooRank, Google Page­Speed Insights or oth­er auto­mat­ed tools. These are great tools, and I use them all (see the A Pret­ty Web­site Isn’t Enough arti­cle), but copy & past­ing boil­er­plate is not much of a ser­vice to anyone.

I’ve seen all sorts of neb­u­lous claims and dubi­ous prac­tices ban­tered about. And it works; there are tons of com­pa­nies out there that do noth­ing but SEO.

Every­one wants to be on the first page of Google’s search results. Every­one dreams of just putting a web­site up, and hav­ing the world beat a path to their door. But it does­n’t work that way, folks. Think about it: every­one else wants to be on the first page of Google’s search results, too.

To quote one of my favorite movies:

Okay, so that’s a bit harsh. But there is a ker­nel of truth, which is that it’s utter­ly implau­si­ble for every­one to be on the first page of Google’s search results page (SERP). There are at most 10 search results per page, and there are mil­lions of web­sites out there. If every­one is spe­cial, then no one is.

Google’s entire busi­ness mod­el thrives on doing one thing: giv­ing peo­ple what they want when they search for some­thing. And your web­site may not be what peo­ple want, no mat­ter how awe­some you think it is. Short of alter­ing the nat­ur­al order of things, your web­site will even­tu­al­ly rank exact­ly how it should on the SERP.

Back in the day, unscrupu­lous SEO firms tried to alter the nat­ur­al order of things by gam­ing the sys­tem. Some still do, but with Google active­ly pun­ish­ing SEO spam, it’s a much less attrac­tive prospect. Indeed, Google has changed their core algo­rithms in such a way that will make many a busi­ness mod­el obsolete.

Today, there’s talk of inbound mar­ket­ing, out­bound mar­ket­ing, SEO, SEM, growth hack­ing, and on and on. The SEO indus­try is large­ly a B2B indus­try — but I don’t mean Busi­ness to Busi­ness — I mean Buzz­word to BS. But it can’t be all bad, can it? It’s not.

But I’m being over­ly crit­i­cal here on pur­pose: because they are not the norm.

Before we get into what mod­ern SEO is, it’s instruc­tive to talk about what it isn’t. SEO isn’t an art. There’s no crys­tal ball. No black mag­ic. No chick­ens need to be sac­ri­ficed. It’s deter­min­is­tic, and measurable.

Here’s an exam­ple of what real SEO test­ing looks like.

Mod­ern SEO

It’s not all doom and gloom; there real­ly are things we can do to make our web­sites per­form bet­ter on the SERP. But it isn’t mag­ic, it’s work.

Chaplin Modern Times

Here are the most impor­tant things you can be doing from a mod­ern SEO point of view:

  1. Cre­ate good content
  2. Imple­ment good tech­ni­cal SEO
  3. Make sure your site is performant
  4. Mon­i­tor, test, and revise your site
  5. Pro­mote your site

Gosh, that seems pret­ty obvi­ous, does­n’t it? I’ll go into the nuances of each.

Cre­ate good content

Design­ers, devel­op­ers, and mar­keters are all very used to cre­at­ing web­sites that are good for peo­ple. They look good, and they are rich in content.

By doing so, they are serendip­i­tous­ly also mak­ing web­sites that are good for search engines. Remem­ber, Google’s goal is to return results that peo­ple want when they search for some­thing. So if you cre­ate some­thing that peo­ple want, you’re halfway home.

If you cre­ate con­tent that is good, peo­ple will share it. They will link to it. You might even become the answer of author­i­ty on some par­tic­u­lar topic.

The con­tent also has to be about a prod­uct, ser­vice, or inter­est that peo­ple care about. I can write the absolute best con­tent in the world about the mat­ing habits of the Abo­rig­i­nal Shrew Rat, but the appeal just isn’t that broad.

Cre­at­ing good con­tent means that your con­tent should reflect well the key­words that you think peo­ple might search on to find it. Remem­ber, it’s not what you think the con­tent is about, it’s what words peo­ple will use when they search.

There are many tools out there that will give you the top key­words your con­tent reflects; if you’re using Craft CMS, the SEO­mat­ic plug­in’s SEO­met­rics fea­ture will do it for you.

The con­tent should also be eas­i­ly read­able; there are many auto­mat­ed read­abil­i­ty tests out there, the Flesch – Kin­caid read­abil­i­ty tests are a pop­u­lar one. Again, SEO­mat­ic will do this for you, and there are also web­sites that will do it for you as well.

Before you write the con­tent for a page, you should think about what search terms you think peo­ple may be using to find your page. Then write your con­tent with them in mind, and build into your work­flow the test­ing of that con­tent to ensure that it reflects your goal key­words and is eas­i­ly readable.

Just as you’d make an out­line of key con­cepts before writ­ing a term paper, do the same here. Don’t go all crazy key­word-stuff­ing, because that will just annoy peo­ple who actu­al­ly read your con­tent, and search engines are pret­ty smart at sniff­ing it out as well.

Final­ly, use your Google Ana­lyt­ics and the Google Search Con­sole to see the search terms that peo­ple are actu­al­ly using when they find your page, and adjust as needed.

Imple­ment good tech­ni­cal SEO

Once we have good copy writ­ten, we then need to do a good job with the tech­ni­cal SEO imple­men­ta­tion. A good tech­ni­cal SEO imple­men­ta­tion is all about the poten­tial for your con­tent being well received.

If you show­er, shave, do your hair, put on nice clothes, maybe some cologne or per­fume, and have a smile on your face, you stand a bet­ter chance at meet­ing that spe­cial some­one than if you roll out of bed with Dori­tos stains on your shirt.

On A Date

It does­n’t mean it is going to hap­pen, but it cer­tain­ly makes it more like­ly. So let’s unleash our potential:

  • Valid HTML  — Your web­site should pass the W3C Val­ida­tor to ensure that peo­ple and bots alike will be able to con­sume it
  • Meta Tags  — The title, meta descrip­tion, and oth­er tags should be of the right length, and should be unique on a per-page basis
  • https  — Your web­site should be encrypt­ed with https; cer­tifi­cates are free now with LetsEn­crypt so there’s no excuse!
  • XML Sitemap  — You should have an XML Sitemap that you sub­mit to Google so that it knows how to crawl your pages
  • Struc­tured Data  — You should be imple­ment­ing JSON-LD Struc­tured Data so that Google can add it to their Knowl­edge Graph, or dis­play it on the SERP via Rich Cards (which is just a name for a sub­set of JSON-LD Struc­tured Data). Check out the JSON-LD, Struc­tured Data and Erot­i­ca arti­cle for more on JSON-LD Struc­tured Data.
  • Mobile Friend­ly  — Your web­site should do well on the Google Mobile Friend­ly test
  • Twit­ter Cards  — Imple­ment Twit­ter Cards so that when some­one shares a link on Twit­ter, you can attach your brand­ing & mes­sage to it
  • Face­book Open Graph  — Imple­ment Face­book Open Graph for social shar­ing on Face­book, Pin­ter­est, and Slack
  • Key­word Con­sis­ten­cy  — Have key­word con­sis­ten­cy in your Head­ing tags, in your image’s ALT prop­er­ties, in your page <title> tag, in your URLs, and in your content
  • Robots.txt  — robots.txt is a text file that instructs robots (typ­i­cal­ly search engine robots) how to crawl and index pages on the website
  • URL Opti­miza­tion  — Your web­site URLs should be descrip­tive but con­cise, human read­able, and with­out redi­rects if pos­si­ble. Like this: not like this:
  • rel=publisher  — Imple­ment the <link rel="publisher"> tag (yes, Google+ is good for some­thing), because it can affect how your brand is rep­re­sent­ed on the SERP
  • Head­ing Tag Hier­ar­chy  — Head­ing tags should be used to effec­tive­ly struc­ture con­tent on the page
  • Don’t Dupli­cate Con­tent  — If you present the same page at mul­ti­ple URLs, use <link rel="canonical"> to ensure that your con­tent isn’t diluted

This may seem like a big list, and there’s only so much time in a day. That’s why you should lever­age tools like SEO­mat­ic (or what­ev­er exists for your CMS of choice) to do the heavy lift­ing for you, rather then rein­vent­ing the wheel.

You’ll notice that while many of these bul­let points are for search engines, oth­ers are for humans as well. That’s because you real­ly want your con­tent to be share­able and acces­si­ble these days, and that means mak­ing it good for humans, too.

If you’re one of the cool kids who is using a JAM­stack, make sure you are doing serv­er-side ren­der­ing of your JavaScript-gen­er­at­ed con­tent. While Google in the­o­ry ren­ders JavaScript, in prac­tice, it’s anoth­er story.

While there’s cer­tain­ly more that can be done, this is a real­ly sol­id foun­da­tion for good tech­ni­cal SEO.

Make sure your site is performant

As the A Pret­ty Web­site Isn’t Enough arti­cle makes clear, per­for­mance mat­ters. It mat­ters to peo­ple, and can great­ly affect your bounce rate, brand pres­tige, and so on. But it also mat­ters in terms of SEO.

Many peo­ple are aware that Google made page speed a rank­ing indi­ca­tor for the search engine results page. But if that’s not a com­pelling enough rea­son to make your web­sites per­for­mant (and it should be!), read on.

Usain Bolt Celebrating

Google has a bot called — amaz­ing­ly enough — Google­Bot. It crawls your web­pages and index­es them; but it has a crawl bud­get for each web­site, and even each web page on that web­site. Once Google has blown its crawl bud­get, it wan­ders off to index some­thing more interesting.

So the more per­for­mant your site is, the more pages Google­Bot can index with­in its crawl bud­get. That means bet­ter cov­er­age for your web­site as a whole, and bet­ter cov­er­age of your long-tail search con­tent that Google deems less important.

So make your web­sites fast. You might even con­sid­er mak­ing Google AMP ver­sions of your pages, if it makes sense in your par­tic­u­lar case.

Mon­i­tor, test, and revise your site

So you’ve done all of this, you’ve writ­ten great copy, your tech­ni­cal SEO is nailed, and your web­site is fast. We’re done, right?


SEO is not a sta­t­ic thing; it’s some­thing that needs to be mon­i­tored and curat­ed. If your client does­n’t have the bud­get for that, that’s fine. But it will make a dif­fer­ence if they keep you or some­one else on retain­er to do con­tin­u­ous SEO mon­i­tor­ing and curation.

That means cre­at­ing new con­tent, shar­ing it via social media chan­nels, and it also means ana­lyz­ing your Google Ana­lyt­ics and the Google Search Con­sole on a reg­u­lar basis to see what’s work­ing, and what’s not.

For larg­er orga­ni­za­tions, it means A/B test­ing to see what peo­ple are respond­ing to, and what they are not. It also means mon­i­tor­ing your call to action fun­nel to see where peo­ple are drop­ping off.

A full dis­cus­sion of all of this is beyond the scope of this arti­cle, and it very well may require hir­ing an SEO firm if it’s beyond what you nor­mal­ly do. Just be choosey about who you hire.

If they talk about ​“link build­ing” or ​“get­ting on on the front page of Google”, run. Fast.

I always run the web­sites of the SEO firms I work with through a bat­tery of SEO & per­for­mance tests before meet­ing with them. If they can’t get it right on their own web­site, it isn’t instill­ing much con­fi­dence on how they’ll do on mine.

If your tech­ni­cal SEO is good, you have good con­tent, and your product/​service is good… you prob­a­bly don’t need an SEO firm at all.

There. I said it.

Pro­mote your site

I real­ize that in an age of social media, and growth hack­ers, this will come as a shock. But yes, you do need to pro­mote your website!

Whether that’s via social media cam­paigns, tra­di­tion­al print adver­tis­ing, Google AdWords, or what have you, it still needs to be done.


In the movies, ​“If you build it, they will come” may work, but not in real life where mil­lions of com­peti­tors are just as eager to get noticed as you are.

You can build the best wid­get in the world, but if no one knows about it, you can’t sell it. Which means peo­ple can’t ben­e­fit from it, and you end up resign­ing your­self to being a goat herder in Mongolia.

I list­ed this last because it’s fair­ly obvi­ous, hope­ful­ly, but also because you real­ly want to do every­thing else first.

It does­n’t make any sense to both­er with writ­ing good con­tent, SEO opti­miza­tion & per­for­mance opti­miza­tion only after you’ve start­ed an expen­sive ad cam­paign. Use your ad cam­paign as tin­der to light the blaze of SEO glo­ry. If you’ve built it just right, it’ll go.

If you want to learn more about SEO, the Begin­ner’s Guide to SEO arti­cle is a great place to start.

Good luck everyone!

Further Reading

If you want to be notified about new articles, follow nystudio107 on Twitter.

Copyright ©2020 nystudio107. Designed by nystudio107

Top comments (1)