I build websites for a living.  As a result, a lot of people I know constantly ask for advice about their websites.  Where do I go to get images? What's this HTML thing? Who can build an animation for my homepage?  How to I rewrite my sales pitch to maximize SEO?

When they get to that last question I usually end the conversation.  Why?  Because focusing on SEO is a waste of time.

SEO is all about rejiggering your content so computers can read it more effectively and, as a result, will place your site higher in search results than the next guy.  The goal here is to drive more traffic from searches for specific keywords - but it's actually a practice detrimental to your site overall.

Rather than gaming the search engines, you should be focusing on optimizing your site for real people.

Gaming the system

Marketplace SimulationI once took a marketing class that involved a realistic take-a-product-to-market simulation.  Our cohort was divided into teams and each team represented a computer manufacturing company.  The goal was to perform market research and deliver a product the customer wanted.

The team with the highest "sales" at the end of the term won, and received an A.  Everyone else was graded down from there.  The only rule - don't try to game the system.

Ten weeks later, we had a clear winner.  In addition to an A, they won the right to explain their sales strategy to the class.

They gamed the system.

Over the period of the term, they tracked not only their market research, but the market research of every other team - information gained during coffee breaks, study sessions, and sitting in the bar after class.  All of this data went in to an Excel spreadsheet, where the "numbers guy" on the team would begin crunching data.

After 3 weeks, they discovered the actual formula used by the simulation to calculate payoff, and adjusted their strategies to leverage the best outcome.  They won not through superior sales strategy, but by attacking the weakest point of the infrastructure.

The team still got their A, but learned nothing about how to actually take products to market.  Consequently, the company responsible for the simulation rewrote their algorithms and rebuilt the system.

Write for your audience

The point of a search engine is to help real people find real content about a specific topic.  Google, Bing, Yahoo, and the like use complicated algorithms to map content to keywords in a database.  They return results based on how relevant a particular page or site is to a keyword or topic.

And their algorithms are always changing.

Every algorithm change is intended to deliver better search engine results to customers - real people.  If anything, these changes should make you feel better - if your site houses quality content, it will be easier for your customers to find.  But if these algorithm updates keep you up at night, then it means you're doing something wrong.

Your audience is not Google.  It is not Bing.  It's not Facebook.  Stop wasting your time trying to beat their system by writing copy that appeals to some hidden algorithm to get your site placed higher in search results.  Instead, identify your real audience and optimize your content for them.

Quality content will eventually rise to the top of the search engines.  For now, those gaming the system might outperform you - this is temporary.  Google will release updates, and those writing to the machine rather than the human will suffer as a result.  Your time will be much better spent focusing instead on real content for real people.