Where SEO writing fails

I write a news item for this site almost every morning, but only rarely does a story make me cheer out loud.

Today’s certainly did. I was trying to get to grips with what Google PageRank sculpting was all about, and why so many people were up in arms about the search engine’s revised treatment of the ‘nofollow’ attribute.

In a nutshell, lots of people use the ‘nofollow’ attribute on their internal and external website links. Some do it to keep irrelevant content out of search results. Others are more cunning, and use nofollow to stop pages bleeding ‘link juice’, thereby bumping up their position in the search engines.

Well, that’s the gist. Or at least I thought it was. So, to find out more, I went straight to the source of the controversy: Matt Cutts’ blog.

I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’ve got my bickers in a twist (here is not the place for detail), but Matt’s revelation that Google search robots had secretly spent the last year or more dealing differently with nofollow links was – in my opinion – brilliant news. More than one commentator got hot under the collar, gloomily predicting that SEO optimised sites would rarely – if ever – link to sites elsewhere on the web, hoping by these methods to hoard their link juice and shore up their PageRank.

Which, surely, is a classic example of mistaking procedure for quality, packaging over content. Especially when taken in conjunction with Matt Cutts’ remark:

The notion of “PageRank sculpting” has always been a second- or third-order recommendation for us. I would recommend the first-order things to pay attention to are 1) making great content that will attract links in the first place, and 2) choosing a site architecture that makes your site usable/crawlable for humans and search engines alike.

And that’s when I cheered. Unless I’m reading it wrong, what Matt Cutts is saying is that the web should be more about human beings, and less about technical manipulations and coding strategies. He’s talking about search that increasingly wants to reward pages that people want to read, products that people want to buy, and sites that contain interesting and appealing links to similarly attractive places.

Slightly Utopian, perhaps, but surely the point of search is to match people with the sites they want to see – and never knew they wanted to see? And given the nofollow changes took place over a year ago, it would seem to me that the sites that currently have excellent rankings are also likely to have great content – and in some cases despite their nofollow strategy, not because of it.

And the sites with clever nofollow and poor content? Seems to me like yet one more way of telling Google you’re just out for rankings. Maybe, at last, we’re going to switch our gaze from search’s engine to the person sitting in the driving seat.

If so, I’m all for it.