How I became a postmodern SEO
Written by Joe Hall and published
Our story begins in every SEO‘s favorite city, Las Vegas. It’s 8 a.m., I’m slightly hungover and it’s the first day of the infamous PubCon.
I got to the conference center early, so I decided to waste some time with the other attendees waiting for the first keynote speaker. I found a table with a few people at it and decided to introduce myself and join them. I wasn’t there but maybe a minute before the guy sitting closest to me started to pitch me on his agency’s SEO services. Even though I wasn’t interested, I politely listened to his spiel. Part of this guy’s strategy was to drop names of influential SEOs and then mention that his agency could do better than them. Even after I told him I was friends with a few of the people he mentioned, he continued his trash talk. All in all, I stayed pretty polite until he started preaching the gospel of PageRank.
At this point I couldn’t stop myself and I just blurted out, “PageRank is bullshit.” He looked at me like I just slapped his mother and then continued to explain why I was wrong and how he was able to rank in any niche. At this point my hangover was not getting any better listening to this nauseating crap-hat. So I politely excused myself and went into the main hall where the keynote was scheduled to take place in about 10 minutes.
There were already a lot of people finding their seats and waiting for the keynote to begin. I quickly scanned the crowd and spotted none other than Raven’s own Jon Henshaw, sitting in the back row, hunched over his laptop. I rolled up to Jon and sat beside him. Jon looked up from his keyboard and asked me how I was enjoying the conference so far. Because my previous conversation was still on my mind, I responded with, “Pretty good, but I just got a lecture from some idiot claiming PageRank is the secret formula to rankings.”
Jon’s response was surprising and, for me, extremely thought-provoking. He said, “You know, one reason that I like PubCon so much is because of all of the diverse people that have different ideas of what works and what doesn’t, because when you think about it, nobody is wrong.”
The keynote soon started and to be honest with you, I wasn’t really interested in hearing about the importance of cultivating happiness from a billion dollar shoe salesman. So, naturally, I wandered off into my own thoughts. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Jon just said to me. In fact, I have been thinking about it for the last several years.
You see, to be completely honest with you, I have never understood my place in SEO. Some SEOs are committed to high quality content, while others are committed to high quality link farms. Some believe in PageRank, while others seek enlightenment elsewhere. Some even define themselves by what color hat they wear. Over the past several years I have come to realize that none of this is wrong and at the same time, none of it is right.
That’s when I knew I was a postmodern SEO.
Why I call it postmodern SEO
Postmodernism is an academic paradigm mostly referenced in the humanities that argues against ideologies, cultural narratives and conventional wisdom. One of my favorite definitions is, “A relativistic system of observation and thought that denies absolutes and objectivity.” In postmodern thought, there is no such thing as a “universal truth;” therefore, nothing is right or wrong without context.
Over the last several years I have worked with some of the biggest and smallest SEOs in the industry, helping to build the right tools to get their job done. One thing that has always remained true is that most SEOs’ concept of SEO (and thus their methodologies) is directly influenced by their subjective reality.
Take, for example, Topher Kohan. Topher is the SEO coordinator at CNN.com. Topher recently told me that CNN.com does not actively build links. “Why’s that?” you ask. Because they are CNN, that’s why. As long as CNN is known as an international leader in breaking news, and as long as they continue to break news, the links will naturally flow. Which is why for Topher, SEO is probably more about content, on page optimization, product development and training.
Compare CNN to a small business web site or a boring e-commerce site and you would have a completely different perspective on SEO, because you are forced to aggressively build traffic and the links that would come naturally to CNN. Then there are even sites that get around the same (or more) traffic than CNN, but get very little links.
My point here is that every situation is completely different. Some sites will succeed with top quality content and some will not. Some will get away with shady link schemes and some will not. In the end, for the postmodern SEO, there are no standards, no best practices, and no right or wrong way of doing things. Instead we operate in a wide array of potential and possibility.
Postmodern SEOs develop strategies and tactics based on individual context, not on preconceived “Best Practices,” or some blogger’s interpretation of “standards.” Instead we consider things like business goals, risk, longevity, audience and others to build individual strategies.
For the postmodern SEO, concepts such as “certification” and “regulation” are ludicrous. How does one get a certification in something that doesn’t have any rules? Or constant variables? Even if SEO standards are a good idea, you could never have a legitimate certification in them because SEO doesn’t exist in a constant state. The engines, the marketing and the public are always in a constant flux.
My favorite part of being a postmodern SEO is the ability to take interest in the information that fits the right context. While completely disregarding the information that doesn’t. And embracing it all as part of the ever changing, multifaceted, complex and beautiful hot mess that we call search engine optimization.