2009 Top SEO Smackdowns: Rand v. Whalen

… Top 2009 SEO Smackdowns … the countdown continues …

#3. Rand v. Whalen: Is ‘Focus on Users, Not Engines’ Terrible Advice?

Rand Fishkin
Rand Fishkin

The provocation:

“the old adage Do what’s right for users and engines will reward you with higher rankings … [is] utterly false and tragically misleading.” — Rand Fishkin, Terrible SEO Advice: Focus on Users, Not Engines

The counterattack:

[Rand’s article] “could potentially set SEO back at least a decade” — Jill Whalen, Is Choosing Search Engines Over Users a Fatal Flaw in SEO?

The above claims are exaggerated, but there’s a significant conflict brimming beneath it.

Getting past the linkbait and hyperbole, here’s the argument:

Rand: “SEO is a task that requires paying close attention to the needs of both users and engines.”

Jill: “… SEO tactics that Rand claims are for search engines are actually for users as well. And until people start thinking that way [that is, of “SEO tactics” solely from a user POV] they’ll continue to make bad SEO decisions for their websites.”

Jill gives examples such as how and why to do keyword research:

Jill Whalen
Jill Whalen

“make sure your website fits the searcher’s original search query (those pesky keyword phrases you researched) to a tee. After all, you’re not doing keyword research for search engines as Rand suggests, but because you need to get into the mind of your target audience.”

As for the things Rand says he wouldn’t do at all if he were solely focused on users, Jill simply says don’t do them:

“On the other hand, XML sitemaps and the use of Webmaster tools or nofollowing internal links for PR sculpting are indeed things that one would do just for a search engine, and offer no value to a human visitor. But guess what? They aren’t, in my opinion, any value to SEO either (other than as diagnostic tools).”

As usual, Danny Sullivan’s comments to Rand bring things together pretty nicely:

“I think you forgot about the more typical webmaster out there …  the very last thing you want to do with that group of people is introduce them to SEO by talking about XML sitemaps. Or worse, quadrangular link buidling. Or zebra pages.

Telling them to do things that they think will please humans is EXCELLENT advice for the confused novice. …

Where the user advocates go wrong is overstressing this as a good, fundamental piece of advice and being all hardline that you never act as if there are search engines. Of course there are, and of course you do things specifically for them as well.”

I’ll go with that. Jill makes strong points. ‘Focus on the user’ is an excellent starting point. But I think Rand’s right that it’s often naive to stop there. Speaking personally, whenever we consider a change to the site that might affect SEO I double check with another SEO Expert. And sometimes we figure out a better way to make the change that won’t hurt (or that will even help) our SEO.

Ultimately BTW I’m guessing this is part of  a larger worldview issue. If you believe in KISS, and that doing what seems like the right thing will lead to success, you’ll probably side with Jill. Those of us who believe that chaos and complexity rule the world are probably closer to Rand.

For more on this issue, including a case study from Answers.com, see Rand v Whalen: Focus on Engines or Users?

The Top 2009 SEO Smackdowns:

#5: Barone v Godin

#4: Arrington v Demand Media

#3: Rand v Whalen

#2: Barone v Scoble

#1: Sullivan v Powazek