Explaining Search Engine Optimization to Muggles

As Lisa mentioned, I was gone most of last week attending Comic Con International. [Actually, I believe I called it the Nerd Convention or Geek Fest, but whatever – Lisa] Although I was surrounded by 175,000 of arguably the geekiest people on the planet (most awesome costume there? Steampunk Ghostbuster), when some friends and I sat down for dinner, I found that I was entirely alone in my understanding of how the search engines index and rank Web sites. [Wow. You’re just the life of the party, aren’t you? – Lisa] The worst part is that I’m not making any of this up.

“I hate you people. You mess up the results,” said one friend to me when I explained briefly what Bruce Clay, Inc. does for our clients. She felt, quite honestly, that SEO puts irrelevant results at the top of the SERPS. I spent a couple moments explaining to her the difference between being a good SEO and being an evil spammer and we cleared that up.

Mindful of Matt’s comment at SMX that, for most people, Wikipedia is the right result, I asked the table what they thought of Wikipedia ranking for everything A to Z. [Did people start to get up and leave when you wouldn’t shut up? – Lisa] No, my friends are nicer than yours. Surprisingly, this group of fantasy artists, writers and nerds weren’t at all happy about it. They felt that Wikipedia was too shallow and unreliable for their purposes. That it got in the way of finding a site that would give them a good answer. They didn’t understand at all why Google would consider Wikipedia to be so important that it should top every query.

In order to explain how search engines rank sites, I picked on my friend Ruth Thompson-Soden’s site, Tarnished Images. Ruth is a fantasy artist best known for her dragons and angels (she collaborated with L.A. Williams on The Book of Angels for Barnes & Noble). Her Web site looks pretty much like a lot of artists’ sites do. Heavy on pictures, low on content; it’s sort of pretty but not particularly usable and certainly not helpful to a search engine. The entire store (which is the bulk of the site) is hosted on a different domain and, horror of horrors, there’s even a splash page. [Wow. The ’90s called; they want their Web design back. – Lisa]

If you’re reading this, you already know what I told her, so say it with me: Search engines are blind, deaf and dumb. They need help to figure out what your Web site is about. The fact that every single segment of the banner has the same alt attribute is only the very tip of the problems. There are no Headings, hardly any text content; the navigation is an image… “How is Google supposed to know what your site is about, Rue?” I asked.

We chatted a little more about it and in the end, I think I made an impact. (Or at least convinced them that spam and search engine optimization are different.) How about you guys? What do you do when you’re sitting with your non-SEO friends and you have to explain to them why, exactly, Google thinks their site sucks? Is there a way to lead them gently into the waters of making it not suck via search engine optimization? Do you bite your tongue and let them flounder about until they turn to you and ask ever so casually if you’ll have pity? And most importantly, what is your number one suggestion for Ruth? Please keep in mind she’s a friend and I’d like her to keep speaking to me.

(As a side note, I have also discovered a deep sympathy for people who live in Ohio. If the sub-par sushi that we were eating that night is considered “excellent”, then I really fear what sort of sushi is available there.)

Susan Esparza is former managing editor at Bruce Clay Inc., and has written extensively for clients and internal publications. Along with Bruce Clay, she is co-author of the first edition of Search Engine Optimization All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies.

See Susan's author page for links to connect on social media.

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3 Replies to “Explaining Search Engine Optimization to Muggles”

Shor – I’m a Bat!DC fan which means at the moment I’m boycotting the insanity that is Didio’s editorial direction.

I think I managed to convince them of the value of SEO, I just don’t know that they’ll do anything about it.

Simon – …I hadn’t even heard about that.

So Susan, have you regaled the office with tales of “the kiss”?

Susan is a comic geek. Cool. Fav comics?

I like to tell my friends fun and crazy stories that are all analogies or even parables for how search engines work.

The blind man is a staple, as is comparing a hidden tribe of Amazons (your site) with a mega-city (Wikipedia). The ‘Cold War’ arms race is a good way to describe the escalating battle between spammers and search engines (on-page vs. KW spam, links vs link farms, trust vs redirects etc.)

If their eyes glaze over or I hear the keyword ‘whatever’ more than once, I know I’ve lost them and it’s time to change stories ;)


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