Learning SEO by Doing it Hardcore

Are you ready to take your SEO skills to the next level? The “learn by doing” approach works best, but what do you do after you’ve done something so many times that it’s automatic? You get out of your comfort zone by doing something a little different and scary that you might not have considered doing before.

Most importantly, you learn from the experience. That’s the focus of this article. As with an earlier article on hardcore SEO, I’m taking my inspiration from Michael Martinez’s "SEO Theory and Analysis" blog. He departed from his “theoretical musings” long enough to give 20 tips. While he didn’t explicitly divide them into which tips would be most helpful for which purposes, I could see certain patterns in some of them. Doing any one of his tips will give an education to any SEO, but the ones I’ve culled for this article stood out for me.

The first one I’d like to cover is actually the fourteenth tip on the list: “Learn how to write Who, What, Where, When, and Why in 4 paragraphs or less.” Maybe education is declining these days, but I can remember learning that in grade school – though I’ll readily admit I might not adhere to it as closely as I should. Still, it’s important to learn the rules well before you break them; when you understand them deeply enough, you’ll know when and how you can get away with breaking them.

It’s the sad routine of what we’re used to seeing that Martinez gives as the reason for learning this hardcore tip. He insists that “you should never write a press release that starts out with, ‘John Schlock Smith the Shmuck proudly announces…’” The two jobs I’ve held longest put me to work reading press releases and extracting the meat for various purposes. I’ve boiled two- and three-page press releases down to a paragraph, and almost all of them began with some variation of Martinez’s tongue-in-cheek quote.

You need to know what’s important in your press release, and you need to be able to write about it both succinctly and creatively. Web surfers have short attention spans, and can be easily distracted. You think they’ll read past your first four paragraphs? They might not even get past the first two! If you want to get through to them, make sure you hit everything quickly. If you want them to keep reading, give them a reason – but don’t try to force them to keep reading by withholding information. There’s a good chance it won’t work.

The next couple of tips from Martinez that I’d like to discuss involve taking a new look at some old ground you’ve covered before. I’ll start with tip number three: “Change the titles on your least successful pages twice a year.” If you have some kind of logging and monitoring software set up on your web site, you should not have any trouble figuring out which pages are least successful. You could also use Google Analytics.

Why should you do this? “Because obviously those titles weren’t helping your least successful pages,” argues Martinez. It really is that simple, though making the change might not be. You may need to find some appropriate synonyms and do a little research, or you may have to do a deeper rethink of the page. You’ll know in six months whether the exercise did any good – because you get to repeat it, and with any luck you’ll be changing the titles on different pages this time.

The ninth tip on Martinez’s list also requires you to take a look at familiar territory, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. He advises you to “Optimize your best performing page for the exact mirror of your targeted keyword expression (turn an ABCD page into a DCBA page).” I’m not an SEO myself, but I’m not sure that’s even practical in some cases for certain phrases. Does anybody want to try to optimize a page for “optimization engine search”?

So why does Martinez suggest that you try this? “You can’t do better than to nail the number 1 position for a query, so why not aim for a second query?” he asks. “If you can optimize a page forwards and backwards, you should be able to handle just about anything.” While Martinez’s tip might not actually be practical in its original form, the sentiment is certainly valid. If you can find a way to reverse the phrasing of your key word that makes sense, it might even be worth trying.

Many people use Dreamweaver for creating web pages. Some use FrontPage. There are new “user-friendly” programs and interfaces being created all the time to assist users in building web pages. Most of these are designed to protect users from the code – or perhaps to protect the code from users. The idea behind these programs and interfaces is that you should be able to create a web page without knowing how to program. Even a simple tagging language such as HTML can seem threatening to some people.

You really can’t be an SEO without knowing some HTML, so Martinez’s thirteenth tip shouldn’t scare too many of you off. “Get a text editor like Wordpad (the fewer frills the better) and use it to code one of your Web pages from scratch.” If you’ve never tried to code a web page from scratch, you may find this to be an eye-opening, frustrating, or even humbling experience. I know there’s no way I could do something like this without a couple of reference books open in front of me, but then again I don’t write HTML for a living.

If you’re thinking “Neither do I, really, so why should I do this?” consider what Martinez has to say about it. He insists that “when you’ve seen just how stupid your templated CSS code really is, you’ll begin to understand why ugly works better than pretty.” Ugly works better than pretty? Is Martinez serious?

He is, and he’s not the only one saying it. In an entry going back to March 2006, Robert Scoble talks about “the anti-marketing marketing” in his blog, with plentyoffish.com as the exemplar. He’s talking about the actual site looking ugly rather than the code, but one line from the blog post seems particularly relevant here: “It’s amazing how few corporate types get that the quality and engineering thought behind your HTML matters more than whether your site is pretty or not.” The bones matter more than the flesh, even if is the flesh that most users see, because the bones (code) of a site affect a user’s site experience at least as much as the appearance.

Scoble chose plentyoffish.com as his example because the dating site was specifically designed to be easy to use, fast to load, and uncluttered. Those features still matter, even in this day and age of heavy broadband Internet use. You get a page that can do all that by writing tight code – and the code created by web site design programs is rather on the loose side. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes it’s the things a visitor can’t see that make a site lovely.

If you thought Martinez’s tips up to this point have been pretty challenging, his last two tips may make you wonder if he’s gone a little crazy. That’s especially true of his nineteenth tip. “Find a friend or relative who has no clue about Web sites and persuade him or her to create a Web site. You must restrain yourself and ONLY give advice on how to build and promote the site.” Just what kind of torture is he trying to put his readers through? And why is he even suggesting it? Again, I don’t do this sort of thing for a living, and the thought of talking a certain friend of mine into doing this gives me the willies. To give you some clue of what I’m talking about, he’s not on the Internet, and hasn’t upgraded his computer in more than 10 years because he would lose the ability to play some of his favorite computer games.

When you first glance at his reason, you figure Martinez is simply a sadist. “I’ve had to suffer through the frustration of not being able to take the computer away from someone who wants to do it their own way,” he explains. “Misery loves company.” To get at the real reason, though, you have to look at it like the man who beat his head against the wall because it felt so good when he stopped. “Besides,” Martinez says, “it teaches us to be humble and appreciate the people who at least listen half the time.” Think about that the next time you take on a challenging client, and you’ll realize that this exercise prepares you perfectly.

As I mentioned, the twentieth tip makes one wonder about Martinez’s sanity as well – but only until you get to his explanation. “Define a metric that uses from three to five factors OTHER THAN Google PageRank, Alexa Rankings, Compete Rankings, Quantcast Rankings, and backlink counts. Use this metric to track five to ten sites you don’t control for six months.” When I first read this tip, I understood why he said you should use it to track five to ten sites you don’t own for six months; it will give you an idea of the validity of the metric you created. But why should you create the new metric in the first place?

Martinez’s answer is eye-opening. He explains that creating your own metric that you check gives you a competitive advantage that you can’t get from using somebody else’s backlink checking tool. Indeed, there is more to the web than links – and you will never understand that if you’re relying on links as the only metric to track web sites. SEO is a race, greater knowledge and understanding is power, and if you want to stay one step ahead of the other guy, “who may very well have his own metrics in place before you even get started,” according to Martinez, you should consider taking your SEO self-education to a hardcore level. Good luck!

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