Posted by randfish
I’ve long opined to friends and co-workers that two of my personal passions, cooking & SEO, are deeply related in some mystical, cosmic way. Cooking is familiar to everyone. There’s a process for each recipe, a uniqueness to each dish and both an art and a science to coaxing perfection out of raw ingredients to make them better than the sum of their parts. So too it is with SEO.
SEO, however, is incredibly difficult to understand and to explain. It’s a thorn in the side of nearly everyone I talk to in our industry that they can’t easily explain the concept and process of their work outside the web marketing and development communities. That’s why I’m creating this post. If someone in your personal or professional life simply doesn’t understand SEO, send them here. Hopefully, the silly pictures of me cooking up some pasta on a sunny Sunday can help to inspire that missing connection.
Sunday night’s dinner tasted even better than it looked…
And for the SEOs reading this post who already know this process intimately, perhaps you can find some nuggets of information, or at least work up an appetite.
The Planning Process: Structuring and Improvising on a Recipe (or SEO Strategy)
Phenomenal dishes require two things – the right ingredients (which we’ll discuss below) and the right strategy to prepare them together. Too much heat for too long and your food will burn. Too little salt and it won’t carry any flavor.
SEO is remarkably similar; the wrong architecture can make it impossible for search engines to find your pages (see Site Architecture Issues to Avoid – as true today as in 2006 when it was written!). A bad implementation of duplicate content (whereby the same works appear on many pages – see the Illustrated Guide) can make the engines go crazy trying to figure out which page to rank in the results.
Careful planning, combined with precise implementation is the only way to ensure good results – in both cooking and SEO.
For my recipe, I knew that our guest for the evening, SEOmoz’s COO & Blawger-in-chief, Sarah, loved braised lamb. And, perhaps not surprisingly since I’m married to an Italian, I love pasta. These, I thought, were two great tastes that go great together. I looked up some recipes and found a few terrific ones… But my plans changed when I got to the market.
Choosing the Right Ingredients
Great chefs don’t plan a menu around a fixed menu, they visit and talk with their suppliers to understand what’s fresh, what’s good and what’s great.
Likewise, no SEO worth their salt simply produces a website and a set of content without first discovering what their customers want. Google helps to make this easy with tools like Google Insights for Search, which allows us to see how many people are actually searching for, say…
When a good SEO sees that some searches are more popular than others, he targets those keywords instead. When a good chef sees great food, he leaps at the same opportunity.
Goat shoulder straight from the farmer who raised them! How could I resist?
That’s the great thing about bringing an open mind to the kitchen (or to the SEO process) – sometimes the tastiest things are the ones you never considered.
This process certainly doesn’t stop at Goat meat (or at keyword demand). SEOs need to choose the right content management system, the right nvaigation structure and even the right marketing channel(s). I needed to choose the right wine:
Chianti, Nebbiolo, Barolo, Montepluciano, how can I choose?!
After a midday shopping extravaganza, I had my basic components and was ready to proceed:
Left to right: Goat shoulder, eggs, Sangiovese, semolina flour, carrots, celery, pancetta, onion, garlic, thyme, rosemary, sage, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, flat-leaf parsley
Like the SEO who researches a market and discovers that opportunity lies in keywords and content he’d not previously considered, I was now faced with the prospect of cooking a meat I’d never prepared before.
Applying a Sound Technical Process
Talented chefs don’t necessarily need the best ingredients or even the best equipment. They can make do in any environment. SEOs need to be equally flexible. We’d all love to be in professional kitchens with the freshest ingredients sourced from sublime locales, but we’re often making do with someone else’s 5-year-old implementation of second-rate SEO advice and a website design that was barely clinging to relevance in 1999.
Great processes in cooking, in SEO and in business across the board can help transform even the mediocre into something palatable.
In SEO, technique is of paramount importance. If you can’t properly analyze a site’s accessibility and identify the errors and opportunities, you’ll always be working with one hand tied behind your back. Successful keyword targeting & on-page optimization are well documented practices and yet many SEOs fail to overcome this relatively moderate, achievable burden. Employing tactics like XML sitemaps, canonical URL tags, proper pagination systems, smart 301 redirects & rewrite rules are akin to adding ingredients to the pot in the right order, with the right heat in the correct proportions. You can mess up a few of these a little bit, but a big breakdown in any area makes for an inedible experience.
I don’t claim to be a great chef by any means. In fact, much as with SEO, I’ve learned through trial and failure, through watching others do it right, by eating great meals prepared by great foodie friends and asking them their secrets and, most of all, through practice. My wife can attest to the hundreds of failures I’ve had over the years, just as my experience at SEOmoz has shown plenty of failures (e.g. up until today, we forgot to put any content on the new Keyword Difficulty Tool page for logged-out users, aka Googlebot – doh!).
But there are tactics and strategies that are tried and true as well as a sixth sense that both chefs and SEOs come to with time and practice. For example, in the top-right photo above, you can see how the onion has been pre-sliced such that horizontal slices now create a mirepoix-ready dice (I hated cutting onions until I learned that technique). In the center-right photo, you’ll see a well made of flour with eggs neatly nestled inside, ready to be spun into a great pasta dough (try doing it on a mound of flour, but prepare for an eggy floor).
In SEO, the same principles hold true.
I no longer use ridiculously outdated metrics like keyword density in an attempt to add relevancy to a page. The days of building links through low quality directories are long since past. Even smart strategies like linkbaiting need updating to stay relevant and valuable (just as Julia Childs’ recipes are still good, but can feel a bit dated). Applying smart tactics around microsites and domain authority, keyword cannibalization and multiple keyword targeting can mean the difference between a dish fit to be king of Google’s rankings and one that suffers on the pauper’s page 10 of results.
The Difference Between Good & Great
Sometimes, getting the basics right is good enough. For a dinner with friends, applying the tactics I know in the kitchen with some unique ingredients and a bit of elbow grease worked out just fine. But there’s a huge gap between the meal I made and what great chefs are turning out in the world’s great kitchens. This video is one of my absolute favorites to help illustrate the issue:
The NFL hires some of the fastest runners in the world to compete at the professional level. The difference between the player in the video (Jacoby Ford) and an average guy (Rich Eisen) is stunning to watch. The same holds true in cooking. My goat ragu with homemade orecchiette might impress my wife and Sarah (hopefully), but it won’t hold a candle to what New York’s Mario Batali or Seattle’s Tom Douglas could put together.
Likewise, the SEO world’s best and brightest can achieve results so astounding and impressive that they can scale businesses overnight. We may be a web-addicted, geeky, quirky bunch, but the range of talent varies just as far as in any other pursuit. A phenomenal SEO can build a true competitive advantage with their skills & knowledge by leveraging the best tools and data out there along with an unrelenting dedication to excellence.
An Analogy Taken Too Far
There’s no doubt I’ve stretched this metaphor to the point of breaking, but hopefully it’s been fun and valuable. I’ll say just this one last thing on the subject:
To be truly great at any endeavor, individuals need to strive for perfection. Even the world’s fastest athletes need to work on that sloppy toe scrape at the start of a race. The mindset and the discipline to learn all that we can about a subject and apply it in the smartest, best ways is what separates good from great in cooking, athletics, academics, programming and yes, SEO. Our field has "optimization" right in the acronym – it describes a profession built around to achieve perfection in spite of massive barriers – a set of unknowable algorithms, a constant moving target, financial & economic incentives for our competitors to outgun us not just the day of the race but every hour of each day.
If you’re just learning about SEO, welcome to our tiny corner. We can be a scrappy, insular bunch at times, but we’ve got tons of heart and an incredible passion for this oft-neglected marketing discipline that’s we can’t wait to share.
If you’ve been doing this for years, I hope you’ll stick around and share your tips on how to better dice an onion and achieve maximum carmelization on the goat. After all, a great meal is best shared with friends and family – and that’s exactly what we’re trying to build here at SEOmoz.
Goat meat falling off the bone, fresh pasta that’s still al dente – what more can a man ask in life?
For those who are interested, you can see the full documentation (183 pictures from market to table) below:
p.s. A special and huge thanks to my lovely wife, Geraldine (who asks that in return, could we maybe link to her blog and help her SEO?) for the photography, and to SEOmoz’s Sarah Bird (who joined us for dinner and helped make the pasta) for indulging me in such a geeky weekend activity.