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September 19, 2007

You Can’t Automate Search Engine Optimization

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Susan likes to try and pretend that the world doesn’t actually revolve around me, but I know better. How else can you explain Loren Baker’s post about Commerce360’s attempt to automate search engine optimization? Clearly, all this talk about automating SEO campaigns was designed to get me all riled up, right? I mean, it had to be.

In his post, Loren talks about Commerce360’s plan to develop automated SEO software, software of the future. You see, these days search is "just too complex for humans to effectively grasp" and an "automated search optimizer" is the way to go. Making the situation even crazier is that according to Commerce360, they’ve actually raised venture capital to support this idea. That means there are people out there even crazier than the folks working at Commerce360 – the people who have decided to fund it.

I’m kidding. Sort of.

Now, I know that I’m still somewhat new to this space and that back in the day automated SEO was as popular as Bruce’s mustache (hi, Bruce!), but is Commerce360 really serious about this? Don’t we already have an automated version of search engine optimization? It’s called spam, right?

I’m sure there are parts of the SEO process that can be automated, but the bread and butter of your search engine optimization campaign has to be human engineered. Automated systems may help you to get the bleeding to stop, but if you want to be at all competitive, you need more than fancy computers and tools. You need brains and creativity and relationships and people capable thinking outside the (computer) box.

Anyone who’s been in this industry for awhile will tell you that SEO has never been about simply creating a page that’s technically sound, there are tons of human factors that go into it as well. This is especially true today when the engines are starting to focus on things like user intent and personalization. To be successful you can’t just create a page that’s better in the eyes of the engines, it also has to please your users. Your users who are human. An automated process isn’t going to be able to help you do that. I don’t care how smart you think it is.

One of my favorite parts about Commerce360’s spiel on why automated SEO is the way to go is when they state that "the typical paid search campaign is run by an English major with a spreadsheet". Surely, they say, there has to be a better way.

First of all, hiss!

Second, I’d be much more inclined to trust an English major to write my ad copy than I would a machine. An English major has a brain; they have a strong understanding of the language and will be able to pick up on subtle language nuances that a machine will miss. I have never been a fan of computer generated content.

Over on Sphinn, Michael Dorausch makes a good point, suggesting that perhaps the automation process could be beneficial for a small mom and pop shop who can’t afford a traditional search engine optimization campaign. I hear what Michael is saying, but I still wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it. It doesn’t matter how big or small your site is, if you’re going to do SEO, you should put your energy into doing it right. SEO isn’t about the formulas. It’s about crafting your site to reflect the intent of your users. You just can’t train an automated system to do that.

Don’t get me wrong, we have an entire ToolSet filled with automated SEO tools that help us perform our day-to-day activities. The thing is, we complement those tools with trained SEO analysts. Analysts who are able to look at the data they’ve received and decide whether the changes the tools recommend are accurate or not. No tool is going to give you 100 percent accurate information all of the time. They’re only as smart as you programmed them to be when you programmed them to be it. Hell, if Google has to hire human engineers to monitor its own system, why in the world would you think you wouldn’t have to?

And, really, why would you want to? The overhead of having to create an automation system and then continually updating it to reflect the changes in the search engines algorithm will surely end up costing you more than a traditional SEO campaign ever would. And I’m assuming you’re going to create a different automation system for each engine right? You’re not?

The fact of the matter is, as search engine optimization evolves and becomes more complicated, we need SEO to become more human-oriented not less. We need campaigns to be designed to meet actual user needs, not scientific formulas. If you want to automate your optimization efforts, go for it. Who cares about those users and their needs anyway?

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17 responses to “You Can’t Automate Search Engine Optimization”

  1. David Wallace writes:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, Lisa. Excellent post! Besides, haven’t others already attempted to do this? It is not like Commerce360 is inventing the wheel or anything.

  2. Michael Dorausch writes:

    I’ve been really excited about this topic, and more so by the emotional response (hiss) from the SEO community. The reason why is the EXACT SAME ARGUMENT has been made in my industry (chiropractic) for years. Some say “machines can do it better.” But whether it’s nerve networks or social networks the experts will ask “can they really?” I think not.

  3. Li Evans writes:

    bravo Lisa… bravo!

    very well stated and very much to the point!

  4. seomama writes:

    Totally agree that SEO cannot be fully Automate. If not the internet world will be full of spam(rubbish) which soon will cause the dirty internet world. Finally will come out another new job called SEC(search engine cleaner) who clean up all the spam for relevancy as Save The Earth project now.

  5. Jill writes:

    Your post is very confusing to me, Lisa. Your company is based on automated tools and how to do SEO by the numbers, no?

    So you have analysts to help read the tool info and explain how to use the automated info they spit out. Like write to X keyword density percentage. Put X number of words in your keyword meta tag.

    Sounds pretty automated to me.

  6. Lisa writes:

    Jill, not exactly.
    We have automated tools to help us be more efficient in our day-to-day activities. They’re able to show us areas that may need improvement and then it is up to our skilled analysts to look at the problem and decide how to address it. Companies are successful as a result of their combined brain power and creativity, not because of the automated process. That’s true in any industry.
    Surely, you would agree with me that knowing how many keywords to put in the Meta tag does not an SEO campaign make. There’s far more to it than that.
    The fact is, the entire space is becoming more personalized. The search engines are rewarding Web sites that are able to understand and compliment the intent of users. It takes a person to know what that is, not an automated tool.
    Are tools helpful in the SEO process? Of course, but they’re only going to get you a small part of the way there. It’s up to the individual SEO to take it the rest of the way. There’s a reason it’s so difficult to find a good search engine company. Automation alone isn’t going to cut it.

  7. Jill writes:

    Lisa wrote:

    “Surely, you would agree with me that knowing how many keywords to put in the Meta tag does not an SEO campaign make. There’s far more to it than that.”

    Since there actually is no particular number of keywords to put in your meta keyword tag, I agree, it doesn’t make an SEO campaign.

    Although I would take it a step further and say that it has no part in an SEO campaign whatsoever.

    Nor do most of the responses that automated tools spit out. They’re just not right/accurate/correct, and therefore not useful.

  8. Jehochman writes:

    The danger in automation is that it tends to produce boring, formulaic sites that the search engines can easily spot and downrank. It seems to me that some of the big firms have trouble attracting and retaining enough talented SEOs, so they fall back on tools.
    We know that two very talented SEOs just left Commerce360. Maybe management is trying to replace these folks with tools, or maybe the talent left because they want nothing to do with cookie-cutter SEO. We’ll never know for sure, but the correlation between these two circumstances intrigues me.

  9. Bob Weber writes:

    Lisa,

    While I completely understand your position, I have to make a comment about your arguement.

    Every crafstman since the Industrial Revolution started has thought his or her job was too ‘complicated’ to be replaced by something automatic. Is SEO more complicated than building cars, doing taxes or sending email?

    CAN SEO be automated? Sure.

    Is it economically viable? Well, with some 20 billion plus web pages in existence a quality SEO automation prodcut would be wildly successful.

    I have worked in the tech industry long enough that I would never say anything is too complicated or too difficult. I think you have a valid point and it is unlikely that Commerce360 is going to have an SEO automation tool that will replace a human being any time in the next 10 years. I think that right now a human can do a better job than software, but don’t kid yourself. SEO will change, tools will become more and more comprehensive, and someday there may be no such thing as human SEO.

  10. Susan Esparza writes:

    Wow, Lisa, I go away for a couple days and look at all the discussion you stir up. That’s my girl.
    Jill, we’re all about using tools to assist with our job, yeah, but that’s different than what’s being proposed, I think. I think our analysts would definitely agree that our toolset is just that, a set of tools that help measure, align and slice a Web site. You can’t just push a button and turn off your brain. Our tools help us optimize our client’s sites (and they help our subscribers work on their own sites) but if you’ve ever tried them out, you’ll know that they’re far from doing it for you. They’re just doing some of the stuff SEOs used to do by hand.
    Bob, I think because it affects humans and is influenced by humans, SEO is always going to need humans. Google started off completely automated too and these days, Matt’s at conferences talking about the need for a human layer. I think that’s more indicative of the direction of the industry than the idea that tools are going to every out grow the need for a human brain to make judgment calls.

  11. Anthony Kuhn writes:

    Lisa:

    Hear, hear for English majors! I think balancing automated SEO processes with a human touch allows a small business to maximize their Internet marketing dollars for better effect. Using both at the the same time is a great synthesis of technologies used in a new way: the very definition of innovation. I cross-posted on your piece to http://blog.innovators-network.org. The Innovators Network is a nonprofit dedicated to bringing technology to startups, small businesses, nonprofits, venture capitalists and intellectual property experts. Please visit us and help grown our community!
    Best wishes for continued success,

    Anthony Kuhn,
    Innovators Network

  12. BenPotter writes:

    I compleletly disagree with the point made above that ‘someday there may be no such thing as human SEO’. There will always be a role for humans in SEO as in every walk of life. If you truly believe that the future is all about automation, you are sorely mistaken (and I presume you are planning your pension because you’ll be out of a job!!).

  13. Bob Weber writes:

    Susan, Matt may be at conferences calling for more human editing at Google, but I bet there are brilliant engineers at Google feverishly working to make sure that doesn’t happen. From a business standpoint a human layer is incredibly expensive and inefficient, and we all know Google is about the business.

    Ben, my point is I think those who will be out of a job are the individuals that don’t think they can ever be replaced. I hope to stay employed by never having that attitude and finding new ways to take advantage of the automation rather than having it taken away from me.

    Again, I’m not advocating that anyone move to automation yet, or that technology is significantly advanced to make that even feasible. I’m just saying that dismissing the concept out of hand as being something that cannot be done may be a bit shortsighted.

  14. Alan Bleiweiss writes:

    Hot topic!
    In the late 90s I invented a solution that allowed joe blo to automatically create a full featured web site with over 50 components using software. Within six months Microsoft and a dozen other mega-companies came out with their own version. It was all hyped the same way Commerce360 is hyping their offering. It’s the same reality.
    There’s a great advantage to automating some aspects of the web development arena, including SEO. Without human intervention and participation, no matter how sophisticated it is, no matter how good it does the things it starts out to do, it’s destined to grab only a portion of the market, because the web changes too often and in too many complex ways.
    Heck – the shear need such a solution will face in having to continually be changed to meet the changing algorithms will be a major downside (and thus the argument that this is like building cars is way off. And trying to say that tax software is so evolved that it’s replaced human participation is completely untrue.
    Sure, it may have replaced some (mostly those who go after the very low end of the client market) – but in any industry that requires complex thinking, continually shifting methodology, and true “analysis”, there will always be a need to very high quality human participation.
    Hey – did any of us even mention how ridiculous the notion is that software can properly evaluate a client’s competition?

  15. Sept 6 2007 - Can SEO be automated writes:

    Thought you’d be interested in my post on the topic, written a little earlier and not in the ecommerce360 context, but in a more general SEO context. Goes into why networking is key to SEO, and how you can’t network automatically.
    http://seoroi.com/seo-faq/can-seo-be-automated/

  16. Colm @ Search Engine Optimisation writes:

    Search Engine results are automated the likes of Google might have 1000’s of experts putting all there skills in designing the perfect system but at hte end of the day everything is automated. So to know it 100% I dont agree with

  17. I Khan writes:

    Lisa – SEO Analyst – I am happy deciding on seotoolset with you at the back of it.



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