A few years ago, my parents told me about an episode of ABC’s The View which featured a man who had published a book on how to make money on the internet. They couldn’t remember his name or the name of his book, but thirty seconds on the internet was all it took for me to find the relevant article on ABC’s website.

As it turns out, the mans name is Marc Ostrofsky, who apparently made a lot of money when he registered the domain name “business.com” for $150,000 and then sold it for $7.5 million. I don’t doubt that he did, because for a while there, a lot of people were doing this and made a lot of money. But that’s old news. The good names are already taken and in use. Or else, why would my host, DreamHost, have posted this blog entry not long after that show aired?

So if you look at The View‘s page about Marc Ostrofsky’s visit to the show [Update: they have since deleted it], he offers ideas which will allow you to make some money on the internet, but none of which are guaranteed to make you rich. (If that were the case, I would be writing this from the south of México.) Sure, you can sell off granny’s collection of salt-and-pepper shakers on eBay and make a bit of brass, but you aren’t going to get rich doing that. And yes, YouTube will pay you a portion of the ad revenue they earn if your video gets lots of hits (usually in the six- to seven-figure range), but how do you get your video to stand out among the millions of other videos on YouTube? Sure, you can buy some online ads to try to get people to visit your video, but before you invest one dime in buying online ads, you should read the first paragraph of this post by Bob Cringely.

The problem I have with SEO is that the people who promote it often infer that you can make a lot of money if you use their plugin, widget, technique, services, etc. But here’s the rub: nobody really knows how search engines rank their search results, except for the search engines themselves, and they’re not telling.

Here’s why they’re not telling. If I go on Google because I want to learn how to cure my hamster of psoriasis, I want real information, from people who actually know what they’re talking about. I specifically want information from people who actually know how to cure psoriasis in hamsters.

If you can figure out how to “game the system,” then theoretically, you can make your website show up at the top of the listings of just about any web search. The problem for Google and other search engines is that if I search for “cure hamster psoriasis” and their search results come up with sites that don’t actually relate to my search, or that only try to sell me products instead of providing me with information, I’m not likely to use them again. I’ll find some other search engine that does provide relevant results.

While Google and other search engines don’t tell you exactly how their search engines work, Google does provide some advice about how to optimize your website for search engines. Having read it, I noticed a few interesting things:

  • There is no mention of using the “keyword” META tag, which so many SEO “experts” and their products tout.
  • “Improving your site structure” is something that WordPress pretty much does already. Change your permalinks structure to something “pretty” and you’ve pretty much covered all of this.
  • “Create unique, accurate page titles” is something you do, not a plugin.
  • Ignoring the information about mobile phones, roughly one-fourth of their advice is about your content.
  • Right at the top of “Optimizing Content” is “Offer quality content and services”. This may be the best advice in the entire document.

Why is that? Look, if I really do Google “cure psoriasis in hamsters” (a completely fictitious condition, or so I thought), I want information. I don’t want to visit a website with just a bunch of links or short articles written by contract writers that tell me little more than I already know. Even though I assumed that hamsters don’t get psoriasis, if you click on the above links, you’ll see that the first one is to a page on dermatological conditions in hamsters on the British Hamster Association’s website. (Who would have thought?)

The word “psoriasis” doesn’t appear on that page at all. Maybe hamsters don’t really get that disease, but if I am a newbie to hamsters, I might think that they do. In this case, Google has done me a favor by giving me the next best thing: a very informative page about skin diseases in hamsters. As you scroll down through the search results, you’ll find that they become less and less relevant to my interests. That’s okay, because the first result provided me with more information than I really needed.

Since I will be likely to return to the BHA website in future for all my hamster-related information needs, I am going to consider this a good search result, which means that I am more likely to use Google in the future for my searching needs, which is exactly what they want.

 The Keys for SEO:

  • Good, solid content that is updated regularly.
  • Strong writing free of grammatical, mechanical, and spelling errors. (You really need someone else to proofread for you—you’ll never catch all your own errors.)
  • Online community building through comments, forums, etc. (Moderated—always moderated. Die, spammers, die!)
  • Good structure that search engines can figure out. (In other words, H1 followed by H2, followed by H3, etc.)
  • Valid code.

It’s up to a search engine to decide which sites to include and the order they include them in. The primary goal of search engines such as Google is relevancy. If you try to game the system, they inevitably change the system.

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