SEO Snake Oil

February 10, 2009 | By Paul Mackenzie Ross | Filed in: SEO, tech.

SEO Snake OilOn Twitter this morning Matt Cutts highlighted an interesting article by John C. Dvorak from PC Mag.

Dvorak writes about SEO: I really don’t know where to start.

Dvorak’s piece entitled SEO Fiascoes: The Trouble with Search Engine Optimization seems like an all-out attack on SEO and coming from such a decorated columnist in a publication as respected as PC Mag his diatribe seems a little out of sorts.

Of course you can see part of Dvorak’s point and certainly there are many bandits in the SEO game. I too have a problem with many of those people who set themselves up as self-professed “SEO experts”. In the early days people were trying to rank porn sites by using the term “Harry Potter” in the meta keywords. Then it was a case of  keyword-stuffing everything and many still do. But those hollow tricks don’t work anymore.

Now the days of rabid link-building seem to have subsided and there are many that can’t do SEO and so they just “teach” or rather leach; we’ve all seen those “guru” portals stuffed full of stolen content from article sites that they don’t even have the common courtesy of giving a link to. And what about the e-books, pyramid schemes or the companies that submit your site to “thousands” of search engines and issue a monthly “report” for the easiest $100/month they’ve ever made?

Yes, those are the BAD sides of SEO but there are plenty of very decent knowledgeable SEO guys & girls out there too. I know that for fact because I’ve always been sceptical, watching and digesting the ins & outs of the SEO business for over a decade now, putting the fundamentals into practice and seeing results from SEO best practice.

After working without professional SEO input at my company for many a year now I’ve seen a good level of success considering that we’re not full-time SEO people and that our Content Management System (CMS) is not known for its flexibility in SEO terms. We even paid a highly-respected SEO company to pick through our latest SEO strategy only to find that they wholeheartedly concurred with our approach, offering only the most minor tweaks here & there.

Those are the people to trust, the ones who genuinely vindicate years of knowledge with an insight that only experts can offer. When you operate on a higher (SEO) plane you can filter the wheat from the chaff just as anybody who takes the time to learn can spot a good bullshitter a mile off.

So what’s John C Dvorjak’s problem?

I suspect that he may have gotten out of bed on the wrong side, had a bad day or an even worse night. He starts by highlighting his problem with the “long URL”; where his meaningless dynamic URLs became Search Engine Friendly (SEF). The example he states is that he did once have efficient WordPress URLs like

If you go to that URL it redirects to

So the “efficient” if totally meaningless ?p=3100 URL now tells us the date of the post and its title. It’s not the most efficient of SEF URLs, I’ll give him that, and if he’s taken advice from an SEO pal via IM then I’m just wondering how swift he was in switching his permalink structure?  Methinks he was a little too hasty.

Poor John, he finds that with long headlines the long URLs are “just ridiculous“. Somebody needs to sit down with this technology & computing columnist and assist him with some of the basics of SEO and help him with this incredibly complicated technology called WordPress that poor slumdog (non) millionaires can operate.

I’d show him that the permalink structure can be changed. First, John, got to the permalinks setting and select a “custom structure” and enter /%postname%/

That will give him a path like;

…which is so much friendlier.

Then I’d show him that he can edit the post slug/permalink in each post. First off I’d kill the STOP word “of”. More importantly, I’d focus on just the keywords & keyphrases so we could use “hollywood unions” and “itunes”… want, cut & pie are probably pretty irrelevant, so we’d have a nice shiny new:

A quick visual scan of the page shows another potential keyword… “revenue”, so maybe John could change his slug/permalink to

That’s just a suggestion; I’d do a tad of keyword research too if it matters that much, but be aware that it’ll slow down John’s production rate if he has to do all that first before posting. What a bind, aye? It would be better to make a value judgment on each piece before committing to do lots of SEO work that may bring only a small amount of benefit for the time divested (Pareto’s law); save the hardcore SEO efforts for bigger articles I say.

Whilst I’ve been doing this for years with varying degrees of success in all the many myriad of websites that I work with (caveat: there is more to SEO than just SEF URLs) it seems that Mr Dvorak has been really stung by trying to do “the right thing” which is such a shame.

Check out the fact that 90 percent of the blogs and major Web sites all use this supposed trick to get attention.

It does nothing.

So, upon such pearls of wisdom do I switch my SEF URLs on a Joomla CMS site back to the native paths then? Change all my WordPress paths to gobbledygook when they have never been anything but clear and concise? Fat chance of that. But John continues;

[the bold text in all the following quotes are my accentuations, not John’s BTW]

This is apparent when you compare the numbers on my blog. In fact, my total page views actually declined when I implemented this stupid practice.

I’m going to make an assumption here, but I suspect that the “stupid practice” was simply switching one path structure to another.

  • How long had the blog been functioning with the simple default URLs?
  • How many pages switched overnight?
  • Did someone fail to tell JCD that there might be issues with the old pages already being indexed and that the SEs would appreciate some pointers to the new ones?

Maybe he should have setup a 301 redirect and his “SEO maven” friend should have given John a hand with this, either by doing the leg work or showing him the redirect plugin for WordPress. Maybe he’s already using it and it’s not been optimised.

John seems to have lost a lot of traffic over a 9-month period from this poor move – the switch could (should) have been better managed, both by himself and his SEO “advisors”.

It’s taken my site months to recover.

I think it’s because these long URLs are just crap and stupid. They are impossible to post anywhere or send in an e-mail because they get concatenated.

Hence I advise you to modify your post-slug/permalink structure and edit them on a per-post basis, John. Open a Word doc to get a word count and paste in the structure you complain about (78 characters) and then my suggestion (51 characters) which is a great saving but not quite as good as the default 34 characters.  Better still, get shot of the pointless www. at the beginning of your URL, point your dubdubdubdot at the root using an .htaccess file please and rip another 4 characters off your URLs please (making 74, 47 and 30 chars respectively). Still, it’s not the end of the world; when you realise that 90% of the results in a Google search are “impossible to post anywhere” you just have to wonder what sort of magic those Geniuses (Genii?) at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway are conjuring up to list these paths?!

As for JCD’s continued use of SEF URLs;

I am going to turn them off and mock anyone using them and anyone who tells me to use them. And if you look around today, that means just about everyone!

Mock me, John, mock me. And mock the 90% of people who have bothered to make their sites more accessible/usable for both Search Engines and users alike. I will never tell you to use SEF URLs, merely advise & suggest with all the implications and instructions that I mentioned previously. Otherwise it would be like me telling him he’s welcome to drive my car at 140MPH but failing to inform him that the speed limit is 70MPH here.

John does veer off into a further rant about the futility of tags in the rest of his post but I’m not going to waste any more time on that subject; I’ve already spent enough leaving him some kind advice in order to better serve his current dilemma without adding to the issue. Besides, tags aren’t my speciality and I don’t know enough to comment, so that’s another boon to SEO people; knowing when to say you don’t know.

I’m not sure if tagging was ever meant to be an SEO advantage but I’ll bet there are folks out there achieving success from the implementation of tags. Personally, I believe tags are to improve the user experience, so that’s where my hat lies.

John finishes with:

…using stupid human tricks such as the long URL and tags to get more attention is folly—and bad advice, from what I can tell. Beware

Wrong, John, wrong! I’m sorry you feel so bitter about this whole situation but there’s more to it than just blindly implementing a change to a site’s URL structure without understanding the implications and taking precautions to ensure a smooth transition from one path type to another.

The true folly here is jumping off a cliff without a parachute or at least starting with the simple question Why?

Send John some love & peaceful vibes today, people, and maybe some of those funny cakes that make you more relaxed 😉

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3 comments on “SEO Snake Oil

  1. ShahidNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Paul,

    Agreed with your comments, a very comprehensive summary, good work….It seems John is only looking at a single SEO recommendation and not really understanding how it fit’s into the big SEO jigsaw.

    Shahid 🙂

  2. Hi Shahid,

    Yeah, I really think John’s having an “off day”… I don’t mind people having a rant if there’s a sound reason for doing so, in fact I’d actively encourage it if it makes them feel better and serves a genuinely constructive purpose, but mocking people for using SEF URLs looks like a moment of sheer madness… I wonder what Mr. Dvorak will be thinking/feeling about this whole rant tomorrow?

    *stifled mirth* 🙂

  3. VicNo Gravatar says:

    I have always founded amazing how people think you can in one night or one month they can know all there is to know about SEO or the internt in general.

    As everything in life it is about ime learning and experience.


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