Dispelling SEO Rumors: Content is King and a Fat King is the Best Kind

I’ve been in the web design game long enough that I can remember the days before the idea of “search engine optimization”, or SEO, was even around. Back then, you created a site and told people about it, hoping they’d visit. Then Google came around and changed the web browsing game from one where you went to a directory site and began browsing to one where you searched for what you wanted to know / find / discover and they brought it to you.

A lot has happened since then. Keywords rose to popularity, and quickly Google and later the rest of the search engines realized they were basically garbage on just about every page out there, and so they died out like MySpace in orbit without a helmet. Everyone knew, all along, that having great content was the key, but still people wanted to find the easy way out. Soon people began spamming the comments sections of blogs, adding their URLs to web directories and creating fake blogs that could link back to their site in order to get ahold of the much desired “link juice” that would indicate to Google “Hey, this site knows what its talking about.”

Google quickly figured that out, and even more recently got so much better at it that a bunch of companies who were previously enjoying top results, and the ad revenue and high traffic generated by those results, suddenly dropped off of the map. What did they all have in common? They were using something called blackhat SEO. What is blackhat? Well, you can read more about it here, but basically, it’s anything people do to try and trick search engines. It’s as simple as that, and for companies that make their living by providing the most relevant searches, such as Google, Yahoo, etc., when someone attempts to trick them, they tend to get a bit pissed off.

The recent changes to Google’s algorithm didn’t involve strictly determining which back links were bs though. Instead, it focused on keyword stuffing. A certain web design, development and hosting company in Pittsburgh had a web page that basically read like a robot: they used the word’s web and Pittsburgh over and over again until their content sounded like an advertisement for Three Rivers Spiders or something. Those guys are now no longer even on the first page, even though their website was literally pittsburghwebdesign.com and they’d been in business for years. The problem? They were in the business of tricking Google, not building high quality sites and writing amazing content on their own web site.

I’m a one man band. A single individual, and yes, I do some search engine optimization on this site, as I do for all of my clients. But that includes building fast, quality web sites that are coded correctly and come with the tools to allow my clients to create great content for themselves, not try and trick Google into thinking my site is somehow more than it is. Let me just repeat that. I am an individual with tons of great content on my site. I put a lot of time into creating that content, far more than I ever did trying to optimize the site beyond the basics. And I’m consistently the number one or two or three result for searches like…

a screenshot of a Google search results page for "Pittsburgh Web Designer"

I did a post a few years ago on the Sad State of Web Design in Pittsburgh. Back then, 5 of the top 7 companies building the Internet out of our city were still using tables to lay out there content, and the content itself was garbage. I was the number 6 result back then, and a young kid named Chris Cagle was #7 and the only other person using CSS and modern web standards at the time. So, myself and a guy who was in his early twenties were the only people in the city who were both doing it right and doing it well enough to beat out the bigger, more well established companies around the ‘Burgh. That’s truly sad (hence the name of the post) and what’s more, five years later, not a whole lot has changed. I became the #1 result for those types of searches within a year, and have generally held that position consistently since then. Chris’ directory site Pittsburgh Designers is now usually #2 or #3, and a company by the name of Blue Archer alternates with me for one of the top 2 positions depending on the day of the week.

While Blue Archer at least appears to be a full-sized company (ie, not just one guy running the show), it’s still amazing that Chris and my own site are in the top three at all, let alone often being the very top position, considering the amount of resources we have. Aside from both being individuals, Chris and I both have kids (he has three, I have two with another on the way). We’re not exactly sitting around 18, 20 hours a day and working relentlessly at this. What’s the secret? We did it right the first time, and continued to improve upon the sites we offer.

As a nice little throwback, I’d like to revisit the whole “State of Pittsburgh Web Design Union” thing I did back in 2007. As a quick reminder, it’s a system based around three criteria, each of which can have a total of 2 points per area. Here’s the breakdown:

Web Standards Sites that use HTML5 get 2 points. At least XHTML get 1 point. Still using tables or anything below XHTML, 0.
Design 0 points for bad design, 1 point for decent and 2 for great design, again based on my decidedly expert judgement.
Content 0 points for poor content, 1 for decent and 2 for really epic content.

Again, obviously I have the potential to be biased. Deal with it.

  1. ClickNathan.com. My own site. Uses HTML5 and some CSS3, up to date design and the only site in the list where the content doesn’t sound like it came from a Wikipedia article. 6 points.
  2. Pittsburgh Designers. Chris Cagle’s site. It should be noted that this isn’t his own web design and development services site, but a directory listing, and so the content on the site is largely not created by him. However, he uses HTML5 & CSS3, has a gorgeously up to date design and the content that is created by him is okay, though not “epic”. 5 points.
  3. Blue Archer. Self proclaimed “most prominent” web design company in the city. Uses XHTML, though incorrectly. Doesn’t take advantage of sprites for rollovers and has text as graphics. Okay design. Boilerplate copy and blurry images…even if they do claim to be the best. 3 points.
  4. Sheppco. Uses HTML5 in theory but not in practice, but has nearly completely valid code (except for sharing buttons from Facebook and Google+). Outdated design, but the content is well written if a bit to the point. 2 points.
  5. DDS Web Design. Still using tables for layout. Horrible design. Standard old content. 1 point.
  6. Blue Tomato Design. Uses HTML5, up to date design and original content. 6 points.
  7. The Web Spinner. Still using tables and doesn’t even declare a doctype, poor design, but though somewhat canned, the content is at least a bit compelling. Kind of like an infomercial leaves you wondering, “Whoa, did I just really watch that whole thing?” 1 point.
  8. Scarlet’s Web. Uses XHTML and has a decent design. Canned content. 2 points.
  9. Catalyst Web Design. Tables for layout, same horrible design from 2007. Somewhat interesting content. 1 point.
  10. Full Stop. Uses HTML5 and the design is phenomenal. Excellent content. 6 points.
  11. Okay so there you have it. I’m sorry if I sounded harsh at times up there, believe me, I was actually holding back. Some of those sites are so atrocious that in my opinion, they’re honestly just ripping off their clients and were I the President of the Internet, I’d have them banned from practicing HTML altogether. On the other hand, we’re in a much better position than we were five years ago.

    Scarlet’s Web, Blue Tomato and, particularly, Full Stop, are doing it right. Unfortunately, I know of other companies in the city that are even more talented and provide even a higher quality of service than I do. Bearded.com is one of them. I’m not afraid to say it, they put out a product that’s better than mine. They charge more, and have an entire team on their side, so that’s exactly what I’d expect. It’s a shame that whatever they’re not doing to rise to the top of the search results is keeping them from helping the city shine through in the wide world of web design, but I guess we can’t all have an unlicensed image of Spiderman hanging from our sites.

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