Skeptics with a K: Episode #045


Jumping stones, massive dogs, lousy heads and meta keywords. Plus, unicorns, replicating studies, first-person shooters and the Alternative Vote.

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  1. #1 by Russ on May 5, 2011 - 14:08

    omg yes – SEO skepticism! i wish there was a good write up I could send to a client explaining why the “game the system” approaches are complete snake oil. Some good stuff here: http://webmasters.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/seo?sort=votes&pagesize=15

    as for an experiment, off the top of my head… knock up a ‘base line’ fake ecommerce sign selling ‘chairs’. and create bunch of variations each selling something different ‘cakes, towels, tables’ apply permutaions of SEO snake oil (meta tags, content farm text, etc) and see if you get an increase in hits from search engines? (as you say google will change their algorithm over time)

  2. #2 by Philip Norton on May 5, 2011 - 20:25

    Fantastic episode guys!
    I was once in SEO and it is definitely one of those industries built upon almost no concrete information, just guesswork and speculation. We had this big list of things that seemed to work and we would go though a site an tick off each item in turn.
    The most annoying this about SEO has to be clients second guessing you. Despite paying for the service from us they would still read random forum posts on the internet and ring up and complain that we were doing it wrong. When in reality, no one really knew for certain either way.

  3. #3 by John on May 6, 2011 - 15:50

    On the SEO skepticism, you gave some good reasons why optimisation may be impossible, or maybe just a difficult and moving target, but you then seemed to go on to imply that the results are unmeasureable, which really isn’t the case.

    Yes, for a specific site, it can be hard to tell if the optimisation delivered improvements, or if the improvements would have happened anyway, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the claims cannot be checked.

    After all, we have exactly the same situation in medical interventions. We try procedure X, and the patient gets bettter. We can’t tell from this one case if X caused the improvement, or if it was coincidental, but we CAN tell if we carefully get two groups of people, give somme X, some Not X, and look at the aggregate results.

    The same can surely be done with SEO. Get a set of sites, give half to an SEO team, leave half alone, and look at the outcome.

    Basically, you came up with a good argument that it may all be tech-woo, but it would have beeen nice to see whether it really is. You seem to have argued, well, that it’s difficult, and that we can’t be sure that it works, but it feels like half of an argument at the moment, without some data to back it up.

  4. #4 by Mike on May 6, 2011 - 17:39

    I don’t disagree with anything you have said, John. (And I believe I mentioned as much on the show – that no-one was doing controlled tests).

    However, there are two things I’d say in reply. First, even if a technique could be shown to work through such a test, there is no guarantee that such a technique will still work tomorrow. Second, the burden of proof rests with SEO “experts” to prove their techniques, not with me to disprove them. Unfortunately, the only “data” they present is anecdotal.

  5. #5 by Bear on May 6, 2011 - 18:36

    Hello from California,

    Yes, very good episode. I liked the logical analysis of SEO.

    -Bear

  6. #6 by Rebecca on May 6, 2011 - 19:43

    On the lack of Richard Wiseman appearances in Liverpool, just wanted to rub some salt in the wound and say he just gave a talk to the Dublin Skeptics last night to a packed house.

    My job here is done *dusts off hand* ;-)

    P.S. Loved the SEO analysis, nice to know no one is safe from the critical eye of skepticism!

  7. #7 by brainfisch on May 7, 2011 - 07:06

    I really liked your smack-down on SEO.
    Especially when you know that google by now personalizes all the search results whenever possible (see my comment at http://brainfisch.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/be-scared-of-online-filter-bubbles/). I have no idea how you would and could optimize someones website – unless they give you information what customers they want to address and with which search terms.

  8. #8 by Greg on May 9, 2011 - 13:51

    Greetings from sunny Philadelphia.

    I always enjoy your podcasts, but I ended up listening to this one twice yesterday while working in the garden. Particularly the SEO bit.

    A necessary reminder that woo thinking can be anywhere. Bravo.

  9. #9 by Greg on May 9, 2011 - 13:52

    Also, your discussion prompted a little Googling of my own. I turned up this site, which will make for some good workplace reading today, I think: http://seobullshit.com/

  10. #10 by Sav on May 9, 2011 - 21:46

    I’m a skeptic and an occasional listener to your podcast, last year I’ve even took part in the 10:23 protest in Leeds. I also work for an prominent digital agency that provides a number of services, including SEO.

    Your part of SEO was a bit of a strawman, there is a lot of simple rules you should obey to make the spiders job easier, as you mentioned Google provides a good guide on their sites. And ‘everyone’ knows that meta keywords have no value.

    I’d also recommend this guide, I’m sure you’ll find it interesting. No, I don’t work for the company that released it.

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6316624/SEOmoz-The-Beginners-Guide-To-SEO.pdf

    Nevertheless, there is a lot of SEO companies that make outrageous claims, such as the famous ‘first page on Google’ guarantees, knowing someone at Google, and so on.

    There is a difference between white hat SEO, and black hat SEO, which I think is most of the woo. Having said that I have a limited understanding of the topic, but I’m happy to talk about.

    I’ve left my email address if you have any questions, keep on doing the good work.

  11. #11 by Gish on May 10, 2011 - 19:17

    You say that it can’t be proven that an attempt at SEO has been successful because it is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy? Surely Occam’s razor would suggest that the SEO attempt was successful?

  12. #12 by An SEO on May 11, 2011 - 22:52

    What’s funny is Search Engine Optimization by professionals (those with experience, case studies, and evidence) is a much more cost effective way of reaching target audiences than search engine marketing.

    What is ironic is, your site actually has elements of SEO.

  13. #13 by Anonymous on May 12, 2011 - 00:28

    I found this podcast highly entertaining. Yes, there are many, many, MANY companies that do exactly what you described here.

    That being said, there are companies who practice good SEO, or individuals who do SEO for themselves and have seen huge increases in rankings and therefore revenue.

    The active SEO I’ve done on my company (I am an owner) for the last three years has earned us on average 50,000 – 100,000 a year in additional revenue that we would have absolutely and completely missed out on if we had not be actively engaged in our SEO practices.

    One of the big things here is tracking, it is easy to track changes / results…especially if you manage many sites and can try different things on different sites. The people and companies who are doing this, will not share the results with anyone, because we’d prefer that everyone kept the attitude you have towards SEO. It helps us, and our clients whom we’ve proven ourselves to, and have a relationship of trust.

    SEO is never a first sale for my company, because of the bad rep it has, but we frequently sell it after the fact, and we back our work up with a 100% money back guarantee too.

    We’ve personally profited greatly from SEO, and helped our clients do the same….but keep on set in your current belief, it’s how we’d like it to stay :)

  14. #14 by Dave Cane on May 13, 2011 - 10:34

    SEO part; stawman + your ignorance and little knowledge about the topic.

  15. #15 by Tom Williamson on May 14, 2011 - 10:21

    I should add that SEO departments (at least the one where I work) don’t just do SEO, they do things like pay per click advertising (PPC) which can be directly tracked. Most SEO is fairly straightforward sensible advice, however people will till pay for it!

  16. #16 by John on May 18, 2011 - 13:55

    Thanks for the response Mike. You’re right, the burden of proof definitely should be on the SEO vendors, not on the skeptics, as it is they who are making positive, expensive, and hard to test claims.

    In fact we didn’t have to wait long to see exactly one such claim by Anonymous up there, about the huge increases in profitability. Do you realise, Mr A, that you are doing what the podcast alleged, of using the “it improved after SEO, therefore SEO improved it” fallacy. One, or even a handful of sites improving after SEO is not proof that it works.

  17. #17 by Simon on May 24, 2011 - 23:46

    Agree with the other professional voices here. It might be ‘straightforward, sensible advice’ to someone who both understands it and has the knowledge and opportunity to act on it, but in corporate environments people often have different priorities or restrictions. Sometimes it’s worth paying to get an authoritative voice for political reasons.In any case the online space moves quickly so it makes sense to pay specialists to analyse your site from an organic search perspective as well as paid – especially if for some reason Google change something, your ranking plummets and you start losing serious amounts of money.

  18. #18 by Mark on May 30, 2011 - 11:40

    I am a first-timer to this podcast, and, like your other corrsepondents, enjoyed immensely the piece on SEO (I have long suspected much of what you pointed out), as well as the problems of media attention/single experiments in your analysis of the pre-cognition tests.
    I shall be taking the podcast regularly.

    However (this is the “but…” bit), I just found myself fast-forwarding through a lot of it. The first fifteen minutes, in which there was much wittering, was exasperating! The “Is This True?” section may have amused you, but was only worth a minute or two – I think serious sceptics are looking for something more than that.
    I guess the ‘proof’ of this is that virtually all your correspondents have honed in on the SEO debate; and virtually ignored the rest.

    I know you don’t want to be dry and dull, but a little editing, and less tilting at windmills, might not go amiss. In my opinion, it would have made a truly excellent 30-min podcast, but became a tiring one-hour one.

    Anyway – I’m glad you’re doing it!

  19. #19 by John on June 11, 2011 - 08:43

    I’d like to chip in in response to Mark’s comment and say that I’d actually like a longer program. It’s great, it’s just always over too quickly.

  20. #20 by P.J.hall on January 1, 2013 - 23:20

    Hi Listened to your podcast about head lice and my daughter has worn hers for 6 years and it works FACT my daughter has been in the school that has had over 20+ outbreaks and she was the only one in her class who did not have nits.
    I doubted that this would work but not once was she affected by the outbreaks.

  21. #21 by P.J.hall on January 1, 2013 - 23:26

    The Badge it self is not coulered by felt tips but is in fact a proper badge

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