SEO is a tiebreaker, nothing more

I’ve always been a skeptic of SEO “best practices.” A website that reminds me of this is titled “The Japan FAQ: know before you go.” Several years ago, I was marginally interested in what it would take to teach English in Japan. So I found this extensive website and read up. It’s one of those sites that someone started writing and just kept going at, with minimal navigation and loooooong pages. You get lost in the content, but you keep reading because it’s is full of anecdotes.

For some reason, I wanted to look up this page again, so I Googled “japan faq”. Lo and behold, it was the top hit. A peek at the source reveals this site follows almost none of the oft-quoted SEO practices necessary to get to the top. Some of the pages have two <h1> tags, some have none. The HTML doesn’t validate. There are multiple unclosed <body> tags. Some of the tags are capitalized, some pages don’t have any <meta> tags. There are <font> tags all over the place. It’s 1997-era tag soup at its finest.

This made me wonder about the quality of top-ranked pages for other search terms. So I began typing in terms at random:

  • japan
  • breast cancer
  • garlic
  • beethoven’s 5th
  • war of 1812
  • supernova
  • heroes
  • michael jordan
  • kung pao chicken
  • gardening

For each of these terms, I ran the top hit that wasn’t a Wikipedia page* through the W3C validator. Each and every page failed HTML validation. A few had clean CSS/tableless layouts, but most didn’t. Several pages had mysterious whitespace at the top. Many had inline styles and JavaScript. The top hit for Japan is a Flash animation with precious little content surrounding it. Several were missing DOCTYPE tags. When <h1>’s were present, they were cluttered with tags inside of them. Amongst these sites, practically every SEO “rule” was broken.

Yet they all rank very well in Google. This leads me to believe that SEO is nothing more than a tie-breaker in edge cases. It could be that your site is simply swimming amongst other edge case websites. However, sometimes it seems that for all of the effort people put into SEO, they would yield comparable results by getting people to talk about their website. Both interesting content and good old-fashioned interpersonal networking can help with that.

Valid markup can’t hurt though.

(* I’m excluding Wikipedia from the top pages as it’s the exception that proves my point: wikipedia.org’s overall pagerank is absurdly high because Wikipedia is ridiculously popular. The markup Wikipedia uses is largely irrelevant.)

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