Rogers Cadenhead posted a thoughtful reply to Derek Powazek’s anti-SEO rant that’s worth reading:
Have you ever tried to help a small business launch a new site and be discovered by potential customers on search engines? It’s a difficult task that’s vital to their livelihood. The black-hat junk that he slams makes it even harder for them.
Good SEO is essential to these businesses, which aren’t in a position to simply “Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again,” since they are not web auteurs with a 14-year track record of launching great sites. Try explaining to a company that provides environmental cleanup services across two states that it doesn’t need SEO because it just has to create something cool and tell people about it. Or a local chiropractor. Companies pay yellow-page publishers hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single ad because the need to be found by customers is so important. A lot of customers never look at those phonebooks anymore. They use Google.
Having read both pieces, I think in large part what we’re talking about is a difference in terminology. Derek classifies all of the things Rogers is defending as part of a Web designer’s job responsibilities.
To take a stand in this argument, I’d say that I see building sites that Google views favorably as an economic necessity. If there are things you can do to your Web site that don’t make it harder to use and make it more likely that humans will find it, you’re a fool not to do those things. There is a very strong incentive to figure out how Google works and take advantage of that knowledge to gain a larger audience.
That said, I find “SEO consultants” universally disreputable. The problem is this — SEO consultants have a very strong incentive to use their knowledge of how Google works to cheat, because cheating is often the fastest path to demonstrable results (and by that I mean a higher position in the list for targeted search terms). The businesses that Rogers uses as examples won’t know whether their SEO consultant is using techniques that lead to better usability across the board and have Google’s blessing, or techniques that are essentially spam and will get you blackballed from Google’s index. So my advice to a small business owner would be to avoid SEO consultants.
I think you’re safer dealing with people who can improve your site holistically. Raising your search engine ranking is important, but so is building a site that delivers your message effectively once people click on it in the search results. Anyone who’s paying a Web design firm to build a site for them should work together with the designer to develop metrics that can be used to measure how successful the new design is in terms of meeting the client’s goals and then to use those metrics over the long term to further improve the site.