By:Dave Wilkie, Published:2004-8-16

A developer friend of mine, before he knew I worked for an SEO firm, told me he thought of SEO as “snake oil,” not an uncommon view among many Web professionals.

I have my own website aside from work. A hobby of sorts, it’s simply a showcase and storage place of some writing, design and other ideas I’ve been interested in developing. My wife, who is a complete geek in the best sense of the word, created a way for me to access our logs and see what’s going on behind the scenes of our website. This log is a constant source of amusement. My hobby has become an experiment in human behavior and Web trends. Strange behavior and disturbing trends.

I’ve never done any SEO on my website, and I can tell my developer friend now that it shows in my logs and in the lack of “qualified” visitors to my website. Every day I see firsthand the value of SEO as our clients steadily climb the search results pages with respect to their industries. And every day when I look at my logs, I see firsthand the results of failing to do SEO.

I know what it means to throw something up on the Web and hope for hits, caring nothing for placement. On my website, I just let the spiders and bots log my content, crawling here and there at all hours of the day and night. They seem to be there all the time. Creepy little things, they do their roaming and disappear. Presently I have over 400 pages of dreams, aspirations, goals, nonsense and silliness on my website. With that many pages, there are a thousand different ways visitors reach me, each one weirder than the next. They got there accidentally, which is fine, since I am not trying to earn their business. Do I want them on my website? Not if I were trying to sell something. They aren’t qualified.

I have visitors get to me doing image searches for George Bush guitar. Why anyone wants a George Bush guitar is beyond me. (I didn’t know George Bush played guitar.) I have many visitors reach my website looking for Iraqi sex and Baghdad sex. I don’t offer Iraqi sex on my website and I don’t feature photos of the Abu Ghraib prison. But perhaps I should. Clearly, many more people would visit and stay if I did.

I have one page titled “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” and the content within mentions a book I’m writing. The word “children” appears in the text. Disturbingly, I have had several visitors reach that page searching for sex with children. So, it is true after all. The Web is filled with creeps and psychos. And they went to my website. That’s gross.

I have a story about cigarette smoking on my website. A link well below this story mentions San Diego. As a result, my website is now linked to a landing page, leading people to believe that my website offers the best prices on cigarettes in San Diego. Landing pages created by who knows who from who knows where, giving SEO a bad name. No thought or research went into that landing page, and anyone looking for cheap cigarettes in San Diego who lands on my website will be disappointed.

I now know firsthand what bounce rate is all about. I see them come and go all the time. They get there inadvertently, and they leave quite quickly, those looking for Iraqi sex, George Bush guitars or affordable tobacco in Southern California. Sometimes I land someone who “gets it,” peruses other pages within the website and maybe even drops me a note. I’ve linked my page to a couple of other websites and I can see when they drop in. They don’t stay long. They’re just surfing around.

They come to me looking for Ginger and Maryanne, Karl Pruter, Red Foreman, and often searching for Microsoft’s peaceful image entitled “Bliss.” They find me looking for Navy dolphins, Mick Jagger, Tony Blair and George W Bush. They get to me though Google, AltaVista, MSN, Yahoo, Canada, China, Australia and Germany. Every once in a while, I find my website at the very top of Google for some obscure search phrase. I enjoy that. I didn’t even try to get it there; it just showed up accidentally. And so I get random, accidental visitors for that phrase.

I notice when people make a page a favorite and come back to it or share it with friends as suddenly, lots of people are coming to one particular page. They’re probably laughing at some crude Photoshop creation of mine, or chuckling at a fake story I posted. They see it, they laugh, they move on. They bought nothing. They stayed for mere minutes. They won’t be back.

My website is the opposite of what I do for a living. I do not have a strategy, no long-term marketing goals, no plans to evaluate what is working and what is not, nor do I have intentions of adjusting to the market’s tastes, likes, dislikes or patterns. This website is for me, and whoever happens upon it. I change the website design once in a while or play with logos and images. I adjust content here and there and add stuff all the time, but to me, this is a break from marketing. I am simply an observer of surfers. I’m accidentally doing research into Web trends and search behaviors.

I have my own crude version of Web Analytics. I like to send out links periodically through email to assorted movers, shakers, editors, big shots, has-beens and never-weres. They sometimes come to see, and those are the ones I’m most interested in tracking. Where did they go, how long did the page take to load? Why did they leave? How long did they stay? When I watch them “bounce,” I simply decide that they didn’t get it. They weren’t the “prospects” I’m looking for. Once in a while I get a gem of a visitor who stays for 45 minutes and even goes back to pages they already read. I usually know who they are by their IP, but often they hide behind proxies.

Web Analytics for me is a simple matter. They came, they saw, they left. Goodbye. No contact? Must not have impressed you…maybe next time. If I had that attitude in business, I wouldn’t be in business very long. And yet the snake-oil myth persists, and reasonably intelligent businesspeople think they can just slap it up there and hope for hits. It doesn’t work that way. Sure, the spiders and bots will log your content and yeah, you might be on the results pages. But you’ll be back in the teens or twenties, where very few searchers have the patience to sift down to. The competition is way ahead of you. They’re optimized.

I refuse to optimize my website. It is what it is and I won’t play to the market. I don’t care what the most popular search phrases were last month. And if this were a real business trying to sell something, I’d be bankrupt by now. What some call snake oil may actually be the lube that greases the wheels of commerce.

Let my failure to attract “qualified” visitors serve as a lesson to every business owner with a Web presence. If you aren’t doing SEO, you’re going down. If you aren’t adjusting to the market, you’ll be out of the marketplace soon. If you aren’t aware of what the searchers want yesterday, today and tomorrow, your competition is going to mop the floor with you.

My website is a hit-and-miss Lose Weight Exercise in fun. If yours is too, maybe you’d better find a more strategic way to market it.

Dave Wilkie is a vice-president and co-founder of Zunch Communications, Inc., a Dallas web site design and search engine optimization services company.
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