Is SEO Science or Art?

Dec 31st

Recently SEOmoz posted about running a test that proved their thesis that nofollow PageRank sculpting still works (while actually only proving issues with sample size & methodology). But the issue of "proving" things with SEO publicly is typically a misguided one.

It is so hard to control variables in tests, and even if you could set up a control set many test types would be isolated to fictional words. But the issue with that is that the relevancy algorithms can change based on your location, the location where a particular keyword is commonly searched from, how many other competing results there are for that query (and what those other sites are changing while you test), and whatever algorithm shifts happen in Google while your test is going on (like promotion of certain vertical databases, baking in new pieces to the relevancy algorithms, improvements in related vocabularies, introduction of new penalties and filters), etc etc etc

But lets ignore all the above and pretend there is a way you can isolate variables or you notice something new and different and important. What happens when you mention it? Typically people tell you that you are full of crap, even when you are right.

Even if the test they did was legitimately scientifically valid they still likely would have got mocked for their efforts, just like I did in the above image (when I was right).

And the more data you share to "prove" your case all you are doing is lessening your competitive advantage over other market competitors. Lets say I wrote a blog post about "5 surprisingly strong links you can use to spam Google with great results" ... well after I publish that the same day Google engineers will torch those link sources. The net effect of such efforts would be:

  • wasting my time and money and competitive advantage
  • harming a business model, business, and/or website that was helping me
  • making Google look stupid (and having them dislike me)
  • wasting your time (and a link source you could have used)

It is one of those rare lose/lose instance where literally nobody gains (unless it creates a self-serving controversy).

In what other "science" could reporting your results instantly alter/destroy them?

One conference I went to a while ago I only went for 1 day instead of 2. And then I saw on Twitter someone complained about me not showing up. Then I looked and saw that one of their sites competed with one of our sites. Was I really going to benefit by speaking on a panel where I give a direct competitor (with VC backing, decades of cumulative experience, more algorithmic leeway, etc.) any SEO tips? As an SEO that also does publishing you are only sacrificing your future revenues and your future net worth if/when you review competing sites and tell them how to compete better against you.

In the SEO industry it is hard to land 5 figure clients. But it is easy to build websites that make that recurring. You just have to put the time and effort in. But the only reason to share new and useful tips publicly is self-promotion. But even that is often a misguided effort because earning money servicing the SEO market is a bit like squeezing water out of a rock. People have free in their mindset and are irrationally stuck on free rather than the benefits of spending to save time and grow and earn more. Sorta self-defeating and certainly misguided if you take it too seriously, which is why I have been looking to build out other sites in other fields too. ;)

I used to dislike misinformation in the SEO industry, but I have since come to realize that the more misinformed the public is the more opportunity there is for me. If it wasn't abstract and full of misinformation then someone overseas would be doing it for $5 a day and I would lose most of my income. So I say lets see some more bogus scientific studies. Let there be published book authors telling you that the best backlinks to get are the ones which are shown in the Google link: search.

If the end value is $10's of Billions but the market sets a price of free, then misinformation is a big piece of the price...that is basic economics. ;)

The money doesn't care how it got into your bank account (as long as it was legal). And you don't have to spend a lot of time backsolving everyone else's success ... a lot of that time would be better spent building your own success. Truthfully most people who are successful can't even tell you why they themselves are successful. Worse yet, the "scientific" case study earns nothing while the non-scientific site with tons of traffic (built through small incremental daily improvements by an amateur) can earn a lot of money.

Years ago I gave away so many valuable tips that simply just created competition for myself. (And eventually I woke up to that when some of the people who would contact me begging me for discount SEO services while claiming they were broke also sent buy requests into other sites I ran that they didn't know I owned). There are lots of other issues like non-disclosure agreements that mean nothing when someone has access to your stats + owns competing sites, fake investors who try to scam you for your information, etc etc etc.

I still love this site as though it is a child...it was the first site that really helped build me into a position where I had more options and opportunity than time. And due to our current pricing point filtering out most of the SEO market the forums are still a great place for me to learn more :D

But, truth be told, in the SEO industry (as a service provider) almost everyone who comes to you likes to pretend that they are poor. They want to discount the price to nothing to help discount risk, but rarely (if ever) do they want to remove all risk and give you a piece of the upside for the millions of Dollars worth of extra profits you create for them.

But the cool thing with search is you can start off small and grow to compete. Sure it is always getting more competitive, but publishing tools are improving rapidly. If a person could read the archives of this blog for years and not be able to make money from search it simply means they lacked effort. Search offers so much opportunity that even without talent eventually anyone can stumble into something that works for them.

And that is the thing about SEO. Search offers so much opportunity that even without talent eventually anyone can stumble into something that works for them.

But they have to have the right mindset to succeed.

Dear sirs explain me all link buildings method are crucial to make me riches. Is very important Aaron Walls personally answers me this free and promptys ... well that is not the right mindset, is it?

Investing time and money and effort and blood and tears...that is the right mindset. If you got nothing then you got nothing to lose. Give it your all.

Lots of the most interesting bits that you learn are from accidents that happen with experience. Accidentally blocking a part of your site in robots.txt, doing something weird with a redirect, having your host go down and getting your site crawled in a weird state, etc etc etc. Screwing up is where you learn a lot because that is where a lot of the surprises are. And it is far easier to learn when you are working on a number of sites at various stages of development...it gives you lenses through which to view search.

What works for one site might not work for the next. What works for one person might not work for the next. But there are many models that work and paths to success. Some people succeed because they are simply the best, or they love what they do, or they show up every day for years and years and years. Others succeed due to their irrational bias and ignorance. And some people were just early to the market and sorta fell into success.

One company spreads hyped up misinformation to an audience of ignorant drones who spread the misinformation, the next buys old domains that are heavily linked to and then pours garbage content into them using an assembly line sort of production model, the next has a person who does black public relations and tries to take down other industries (while learning their business models and working to clone them).

And yet other people are popular just because they are popular. Or because they were born rich and launched a sex tape on the web (complete with bogus fake legal stuff just to suck in more press coverage and "build the brand").

Is SEO scientific? Yes, in the same way that sociology, psychology, and economics are scientific. But economics is referred to as the dismal science. ;)

Anything that involves understanding human behavior and trying to influence it is not just science. It is also an art.

Here is to hoping you have a healthy, happy, profitable, and ARTISTIC 2010 :D

Published: December 31, 2009

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Comments

December 31, 2009 - 9:44pm

but I have since come to realize that the more misinformed the public is the more opportunity there is for me

Yessir :) .. I have to admit it..I used to want to help people but nowadays.. forget that! I have spreaded misinformation on purpose in forums etc...under multiple profiles.. sorry guys ;) ha ha

What works for one site might not work for the next. What works for one person might not work for the next. But there are many models that work and paths to success.

very true!

Lots of the most interesting bits that you learn are from accidents that happen with experience.

People would be surprised what years of experience under your belt will do for you...

Years ago I gave away so many valuable tips that simply just created competition for myself.

I think people with good hearts do that... but it only hurts you in the end.. I fucked myself over many times trying to help others...

Investing time and money and effort and blood and tears...that is the right mindset.

totally true.. however most people don't know what its like to work on a site for months and 10-15 hours a day before they start seeing a ROI.. most will fail at the thought of having to do that.. the more experience you gain, tools and money you can throw at it the easier it gets..

December 31, 2009 - 10:31pm

Great post Aaron! You typically write such long ones, but they are definitely worth the read.

Every time they bring up PageRank sculpting I lose a little more confidence in them. There were plenty of other people who spoke up so I just thought I'd be better off keeping my mouth shut on this one. All I kept thinking was why oh why do they want to bring that one back up again. Especially after Matt Cutt's last announcement. Being that SEOmoz was one of the biggest proponents of PageRank Sculpting with NoFollow.

Even if any anything substantial came of this experiment, their test & results simply weren't cut and dry enough.

It would have been a lot better for them and their followers if they would have just kept it to themselves on this one.

December 31, 2009 - 11:52pm

While I do have quite a few industry SEO's that I consider friends and colleagues, I learned a long time ago that the most valuable performance indicator for my SEO skills was not what others thought about my techniques and/or general philosophy. It was what worked in the real world (i.e. Google, Yahoo, etc).

I also figured out that while it's important to write about SEO and discuss SEO with other thought leaders, there many other activities that prove to have a much higher ROI (like you know...actual work).

In any case, have a happy new year, Aaron, and may everything continue to go well for you both in your professional and personal life.

And make reading "The China Study" one of your new year's resolutions! (if you haven't read it already)

January 1, 2010 - 3:22am

I'm not sure what to think of the China study. Came across it about a year ago or so, and thought "wow - interesting", but dug a bit deeper and it seemed to me that it is criticized just as much as Aaron's advice in the post above ;-).

Seriously though, it didn't really convince me a ton. Not sure if Id ever trust any study I havent conducted myself more than I would trust what a politician says (knowing how easily you can manipulate the outcome to make it fit your argument), though.

Of course, I might be wrong and it's actually a valid study, though - just thought Id chip in b/c I read quite a bit about that a year or so ago.

Happy New Year to everyone!

January 1, 2010 - 7:33pm

You make great points about certain sciences as art and the SEO "industry" as a whole.

While reading and researching and striving to become an SEO the right way (whatever the hell that is), I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that the best SEOs have no clients.

As you've said Aaron, sharing your expertise publicly ONLY serves to bite you repeatedly in the ass...NOT build a trusted brand, NOT demonstrate thought leadership, NOT teach those who want to learn, and NOT NOT NOT make any sort of client service business easier on yourself or your clients.

The SEO community is often a rambunctious collection of opportunists at best and more often a poison pit of negativity, insecurity, willful ignorance, intellectual dishonesty, and laziness at worst.

Most clients are completely clueless about the effort, skill, knowledge, and constant education involved with being a good SEO. A bunch of greedy assholes who want ALL the benefits of ROI without ANY risk FOR FREE.

So...like you said (sort of), if you're halfway decent at SEO, why would you ever want to participate in the tremendous downside of a rapacious community of "peers" who constantly question and even disparage you OR the cesspool of business who would screw you over and over and over for their gain at the expense of your opportunity cost?

Build your own sites, work with people who appreciate being included in your vision and passion, and be happy, healthy, and semi-wealthy.

Don't kill yourself for anyone who wouldn't mind killing you!

-Zach

January 1, 2010 - 11:22pm

So...like you said (sort of), if you're halfway decent at SEO, why would you ever want to participate in the tremendous downside of a rapacious community of "peers" who constantly question and even disparage you OR the cesspool of business who would screw you over and over and over for their gain at the expense of your opportunity cost?

I know at least a few reasons...

  • a lack of self confidence
  • limited knowledge or experience (and/or perhaps not being able to tie it all together)
  • loneliness requiring a false sense of connection (many people will pretend to like you if you basically give them free money)
  • connecting with people you do like and can both teach AND learn from (like in our member forums)
  • income diversity
  • lack of resources to scale on your own
  • lack of drive if you are not immediately beholden to somebody
  • enjoyment of helping others and teaching
January 2, 2010 - 5:11am

I am glad you added that one on at the end Aaron. It's one of the aspects of my work that I enjoy most. Have a great '010 and thanks as always for sharing.

January 2, 2010 - 6:41pm

Thanks, Zach

"Build your own sites, work with people who appreciate being included in your vision and passion, and be happy, healthy, and semi-wealthy.

Don't kill yourself for anyone who wouldn't mind killing you!"

I've been looking for a New Years Resolution.

January 4, 2010 - 8:20pm

"in the same way that sociology, psychology, and economics are scientific" - sorry, but I can't really agree with this part of your otherwise excellent (as usual) piece.
Yes, you can justifiably argue against these disciplines' "scientificity" till hell freezes over, but there's one fundamental difference we shouldn't ever overlook.
Whereas the areas researched by sociology, psychology and economics may be beset with riddles and enigmatic, hard-to-detect causalities galore due to their intrinsic complexity, there's nothing "artificial" about them in that someone's actively trying to prevent them from being sussed out.
By contrast, SEO is dealing with an opponent (namely the search engines) set on obfuscating and keeping secret whatever we want to determine (reverse engineer, if you will) - someone, moreover, who's changing the rules of the game all the time and quite intentionally so.
This would be like some sociologist trying to investigate a society whose members insist on remaing hidden, restricting any free access and limiting all available data to what their sewers and chimneys may accidentally (and unavoidably)reveal. Some nightmare scenario, no?
Not much scope for "scientificity", I'd say, when you're essentially forced to grope about in the dark.
This said, you're absolutely right about the essential impossibility to isolate causal factors in any reliable manner.
Let's face it: if nothing else, SEO's always been a blatantly fuzzy craft. And barring our hijacking the major search engines to gain full insight, I don't really see this changing anytime soon.

A Happy New Year to you, Aaron (and everyone else here) - and as much success in all aspects of life as you're capable of handling!

January 5, 2010 - 2:49am

Great post Fantomaster. And a happy new year to you! :D

January 4, 2010 - 9:27pm

A few times.. I've brought some of my "science" background to my SEO work. Usually, though, it has been used to quickly remove any doubt that someone else's claims were valid. In other words, my science has helped me judge likelihood. It helped a good deal with Google a few years ago, as Google hired good Engineers (not recent Ph.D.'s, but actual trained Engineers). They logically took the "proper" Engineering approach to the search challenges... and Google was more predictable for a short time. Now, sadly, those engineering teams have learned and adapted, and Google listened to them when they said "we need more data". Google is quite a challenge to follow now.

As for that SEOMOZ post, I was floored when I saw it. I don't like to comment there, but couldn't stop myself. Your suggestion that Rand threw Danny under a bus is awesome. I didn't want to impart intent, but I wanted to note how sad it was that an employee was given such a task sans resources, and then isolated with a "I let Danny do this himself" response. I deleted that part so my comment wouldbe more palatable to Rand (I know he edits comments). Is it any wonder they don't keep a lot of quality people over there? or so it seems to me...

The only thing I would add to your observations about SEO consultants working for clients, is that SEO is a valid service now. There is a lot to SEO service providing, and there is sincere market demand for many of the specific services these consultants provide. So it won't go away, no matter how many "good" seos stop working for clients. Clients will always need the service, so there will always be a market. Again, that's a good thing from a competitive perspective. We just need the industry to become more of a meritocracy and less of a circus.

January 5, 2010 - 2:47am

Clients will always need the service, so there will always be a market.

But filtering through that mess of a market is the tricky part though, right? You are the one who wrote that great post about SEO and the market for lemons.

We just need the industry to become more of a meritocracy and less of a circus.

And I wonder what forces it into that direction?

  • Google makes it sound sketchy because it helps them justify their own business practices
  • the publishing industry claims SEO is spam and search is a scam because their own fat business models are not supported by it
  • the leading publishing sites in the SEO space often go the circus route for publicity
  • the leading non-profit sells information products, has workers that write a 3 part article on how you can't learn SEO from a book, and generally pushes paid search while making SEO look like the red headed stepchild
  • almost anyone who owes a lot of their success to SEO has little benefit (but significant risk) in sharing that information publicly
  • and, of course, the algorithms will only continue to get more complex

Will it only be seen as acceptable when the profit margins are no longer outlandishly high?

January 7, 2010 - 10:42am

"And that is the thing about SEO. Search offers so much opportunity that even without talent eventually anyone can stumble into something that works for them."

Thats funny on so many levels an %100 true. Great blog post Aaron and Happy new years to you and your family:).

January 8, 2010 - 6:40pm

I am continually amazed by the number of SEO guys who write SEO secrets type blogs - Just so other SEO guys can cruise in and scoop free info!

The same with conferences - why would anyone share all of their secrets in public?

January 9, 2010 - 4:07am

If you are not a publisher leveraging the tips then there is not huge risk in sharing. The cost is only apparent when you see it diminishing your current (and future) revenue potential. Certain business models require lots of publicity to grow.

January 16, 2010 - 10:43am

awesome posting regarding to seo

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