Spider-centric SEO or user-centric pages?

Section: Articles


If you are an artist, do you focus on painting a picture that people enjoy or one that can be found easily?
If you are a sculptor, do you make a wonderful statue that people admire or one that pleases robots?
If you are a musician, do you compose a piece that people really appreciate, or one that will get spidered a lot?
Why, then, do webmasters insist on focusing on the robots/spiders instead of the human visitors?

The whole concept of SEO bothers me. An entire industry has built itself around selling one of two activities:

  1. White-hat SEO: focusing on how to please search-engine bots that visit your site
  2. Black-hat SEO: focusing on how to lie to search-engine bots to trick people into visiting your site

Number two (Black-hat SEO) is obviously bad - if you're having to trick people into visiting your site then you're obviously not doing something right.

Number one (White-hat SEO) is deemed to be a legitimate business on the web. Businesses selling services, blog posts telling you how to do it and get great results are common on the web.

Between Black-hat and White-hat is what I call SEM - Search Engine Manipulation. It often isn't too far from Black-hat SEO in that it tricks people into viewing content they probably didn't want so that a site can quote good visitor numbers and show them adverts, but it uses fewer outright dirty tricks. For an example of this grey area, see SEO/SEM: Visitor Abuse.

The Premise

My argument is that emphasising SEO is misguided. Yes, people need to find your site, but you shouldn't be focusing on optimising for the search engine. Instead, you should be focusing on optimising for your visitors. If you do that then you inherrently bring all of the benefits touted by SEO along with it, and your visitors benefit once they've arrived at your site.

After all, what use is getting to the top of the Google search results if your visitors won't stay or don't find your content as appealing as Google's latest search algorithm did?

The example

At the beginning of February 2012, the Search Engine Land Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors crossed my Twitter feed. As I read it, I noticed how similar almost every point was to something that would be beneficial to real visitors.

Why is the focus on the search engine and its spiders/bots that crawl your page? If everything that applies to them applies to real visitors with real interests and real eyeballs to read your content, why not focus on the human and let the content for the bot fall naturally out of it?

To prove the point, I've made the following table relates the spider-centric statements to human-centric statements and concerns. Read them, compare them, and see what you think.

Sorry for the bad grammar in some of these descriptions - the text is taken word-for-word.

SEO Positives

'Element'NameDescriptionUser-focused comments
CqQualityAre pages well written and have substantial quality content?People like well-written quality content. Search engines judge quality based on an algorithm defined by humans.
CrResearchHave you researched the keywords people may use to find your content?If you use the words that people are familiar with then they will be more engaged with the content and understand it better.
CwWordsDo pages use words and phrases you hope they'll be found for?If you're not using the words and phrases that people expect then how can they value the content? Calling the "Command" key on Apple Macs a "Windows button" will get you nowhere and lead to confusion. Calling the Windows key "the flag key" won't help your audience.
CeEngageDo visitors spend time reading or "bounce" away quickly?Does your content actually engage the visitor, or is it click-bait that people don't really want to see? Remember, in some cases a "bounce" is reasonable - if they find everything they want (e.g. an informational page) then visitors probably won't want to stay longer.
CfFreshAre pages fresh and about "hot" topics?People don't like old content that they've read all about before. Human nature also means people like new topics that are in vogue.
CtTitlesDo HTML title tags contain keywords relevant to page topics?If your titles sensibly describe the page topic then people can readily see what they're reading about (e.g. on browser tabs or in default saved file names).
HdDescriptionDo meta description tags describe what pages are about?Even if search engines didn't put any ranking weight on meta descriptions then reading short accurate descriptions still helps people make decisions in search results.
HhHeadersDo headlines and subheads use header tags with relevant keywords?Is your document structured sensibly with headers and subheaders that allow the reader to understand the layout of the document? This helps viewers skim the document to find the most relevant section.
AcCrawlCan search engines easily "crawl" pages on site?Can users easily navigate your site? Users have less patience than spiders!
AsSpeedDoes site load quickly?People don't like waiting for page loads either! Optimise for real users with real browsers (who have to wait for images and other external files as well).
AuURLsAre URLs short and contain meaningful keywords to page topics?Meaningful URLs are useful (in conjunction with Titles) when browsing and searching history in modern browsers.
LqQualityAre links from trusted, quality or respected websites?If people find your links on trusted, quality, respected websites then they'll infer that they can trust your content as well. Search engines don't really understand trust.
LtTextDo links pointing at pages use words you hope they'll be found for?This applies to all navigation - link with the text "SEO/SEM: Visitor Abuse" tells you far more about the linked article's content than the text "an article by IBBoard".
LnNumberDo many links point at your web pages?This is the Internet equivalent of "word of mouth". The more places you can be seen from, the more people are likely to visit without having to go near a search engine. Similarly, the more trusted sites link to you then the more that implies you really are trustworthy and it wasn't just a one-off link.
SrReputationDo those respected on social networks share your content?I read a lot of content because it has come from someone I trust on my Twitter feed. No search engine or spider is involved. Quality content gets shared by word of mouth (or links, in the case of the Internet).
SsSharesDo many share your content on social networks?As above, this is word of mouth. It involves no search engines for you to optimise, and the trust element of hearing from a friend or associate has far more value.
TaAuthorityDo links, shares and other factors make site a trusted authority?A combination of Reputation and Shares. Trust is a human concept, not something spiders really understand.
ThHistoryHas site or its domain been around a long time, operating in same way?A long history improves trust and increases the likelihood of the site having built a good Reputation or having a large following who spread content by word of mouth.
PcCountryWhat country is someone located in?If the site content is specific to a nationality then being hosted in that country generally improves page speed. Generally, users don't care what the location is, as long as the page loads quickly.
PlLocalityWhat city or area is someone located in?If locality is important then use of the name of the location helps users know the pages they are reading are relevant (See Words).
PhHistoryDoes someone regularly visit the site? Or "liked" it?See Reputation and Shares. Users will only return regularly if you write content that works for them, not just for a search engine spider.
PsSocialWhat do your friends think of the site?No change - see Reputation and Shares.

SEO Negatives

'Element'NameDescriptionUser-focused comments
VtThinIs content "thin" or "shallow" & lacking substance?Thin or shallow content will drive users (your target audience) away. They may visit once, but they'll probably never come back or explore further. Would you come back to somewhere that didn't offer good value for the time you spent on it?
VsStuffingDo you excessively use words you want pages to be found for?Keyword stuffing makes pages hard to read because it looks forced. If content is hard to read then people will leave or will be less likely to feel the content was worth Sharing.
VhHiddenDo colours or design "hide" words you want pages to be found for?If a user's expectations are broken when they reach the page (either by a deceptive link or a falsified search result) then they will leave.
VcCloakingDo you show search engines different pages than humans?The user doesn't see this directly, but see Hidden.
VpPaid LinksHave you purchased links in hopes of better rankings?If you're popular purely through purchased links then your Link Quality is low. Also, see the comments on Hidden.
VlLink SpamHave you created many links by spamming blogs, forums or other places?See Paid Links. Also, if users see your spammy links then Reputation and Link Quality suffer.
BtBlockingHave many people blocked your site from search results?Not relevant - this is generally a consequence of doing something wrong. If you focus on users and don't cheat then you won't get blocked!
BpBlockingHas someone blocked your site from their search results?Not relevant - as above.


Almost every statement has a near perfect mapping to a human interest or priority. The difference is that the human will appreciate the content, a human may contribute to or comment on the content, and a human may increase your site's value amongst other humans be spreading the content to their social circle.

Given that mapping, why would you focus on the dumb spiders and search algorithms that follow simple rules when you could focus on the human gain even more benefits (through word of mouth, 'brand' awareness, repeat business, etc)?

Remember, you're writing your site for humans, not for spiders. Say no to SEO* and focus on the human at the other end of the browser.

* As a primary focus - everything that SEO covers will, as described, naturally fall from this approach anyway!