Web Developers and SEO: Contentiousness and Common Goals

Kristina Halvorson

A few weeks ago, there was a rather heated debate (some might call it a "smackdown") between a few industry luminaries and their supporting communities. On one side, the web development/user experience community. On the other, the SEO community.

This battle has been fought more than once before. Is it possible for well-built, awesome websites and products to be findable simply by being built "right"? Are web developers behind the curve when it comes to the latest, most effective SEO techniques? Is either practice absolutely necessary for online success? Are they both?

There were some great discussion points that arose in this most recent debate. Let's review.

"Good SEO techniques are just good web development techniques."First, there appeared an inspired rant by the inimitable Derek Powazek on the evils of the search engine optimization (SEO) consulting industry. Derek's ire was fueled largely by his recent experiences working with publishing organizations that are sinking millions of dollars into SEO initiatives while laying off writers left and right. His argument:

Good SEO techniques are just good web development techniques. They should be obvious to anyone who makes websites for a living. If they’re not obvious to you, and you make websites, you need to get informed. If you’re a client, make sure you hire an informed web developer.

Derek received a lot of feedback on his post and responded with a post called SEO FAQ, which is also an interesting read.

“SEO is a legitimate form of marketing.”

The post was pretty heated, and it spread (accordingly) like wildfire. It wasn't long before the post reached Danny Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of SearchEngineLand.com and one of the SEO community's most revered leaders. Danny posted a response to Derek's first post, and then again to Derek's “SEO FAQ” post. In Danny's second post, he said:

Web development is not SEO. Good web developers will understand the fundamentals of SEO, in terms of good site architecture, crawlability and so on. But… few of them are dialed into how to handle giving Google and others a shopping feed. Or a feed of real estate listings. Or the completely separate ranking aspects that impact YouTube (the world’s second most popular search engine). Are they putting out a full-feed that Google Blog Search prefers? Are they checking that the URL shortener you use on Twitter spits back a 301 rather than a 302 redirect, or worse, frames stuff up via a 200 code?

Who has the secret sauce?

So. Whose advice is key for businesses truly succeeding online?

Fundamentally, Derek believes that the best way to drive traffic to your website or product is this: "Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again." His position is difficult to argue with. But, it's also based on several faulty assumptions, not the least of which is that everyone who "makes something great" has the right people's attention, online and off. And, frankly, most of us who want to promote our products or services really don't.

From Danny's point of view, helping individuals and organizations raise the visibility of their websites is instrumental to online success. Important, yes. Instrumental? Not so sure. What's prioritized by SEO professionals is getting as many eyeballs as possible on the page. And yet, if what you've made isn't great, you're going to lose attention and possible conversions, fast.

Ultimately, Danny and Derek talked. Common ground (of sorts) was reached. Derek posted a very classy, very informed apology to "the people out there doing good work for real clients under the auspices of SEO." Danny published Thoughts on Web Developers, SEO, and Reputation Problems. The storm quieted. And we all went back to our work.

Alignment: A girl can dare to dream

I'm a content strategist, which means I care deeply about the expertise and insights on both sides of the table. I want websites to be awesome. And I want the right audiences to find out about them, so those users can accomplish what they need to, and be happy.

Really, that's what I want. For people to have happy online experiences.

You know, here's how I see it. For the web development community to tell us that "if you build it and it's awesome, they will come" is simply naïve, bordering on irresponsible. However, for SEO professionals to promote SEO as one of the primary tactics for online success is equally misleading.

There's some fairly obvious common ground, here, that's getting overlooked. And that's creating and maintaining awesome content that's optimized for the right people to find it at the right time in the right places.

In my experience, both the web development and SEO communities have largely marginalized the importance of delivering relevant, quality content that's focused on meeting clear business objectives and user needs. Or, they'll pay passionate lip service to it, then go back to preaching and promoting their areas of expertise.

And so the content, as it often is, becomes someone else's problem. Which ultimately becomes the end user's problem. Which then results in a really crappy ROI for all those web design/development/SEO dollars you just spent.

One of the key components of any business's online success is to start by deeply considering the content itself.

Before you worry about building the damn thing, let alone promoting it, figure out why you're publishing content, who it's for, what it's going to say, how it's going to sound, and what happens to it once it's "out there."

In other words …  figure out your content strategy. Or, if you're a web developer/designer or SEO wonk, ask for it. Because it should be informing what you are (or aren't) doing.Postscript: Get yourself edumacatedThere were a lot of hopped-up, dueling posts and tweets that came out of both communities during the few days of battle. But there were a few added to the conversation in really valuable ways, and I encourage you to read them:

The Good, the Bad, and the (Mostly) Ugly by Scott Anderson
An Open and Hurried Response to Derek Powazek's Diatribe by Andrew Girdwood

Additionally, I highly recommend the following resources to, well, pretty much anyone that deals with web content:

Building Findable WebsitesWhere Search Meets UsabilitySearch Engine Optimization: Your Visual Blueprint for Effective Internet Marketing

Onward, content comrades. Now, let's hug it out.