SEO for Non-Scumbags: How to Earn Site Visitors without Selling Your Soul
Editorial note: hi folks! Thanks for your patience as I’ve been getting my life settled enough to start creating content again. We’ve done some hiring for a few roles, backfilling me, so I’m actually seeing a light at the end of the tunnel for creating DaedTech content.
Today I’m going to start a blog post series that fits into the broader “business of freelancing” category. But I’m going to give it a secondary tag, called “SEO for Non-Scumbags,” and spend some time in this post explaining why that title isn’t just me being flippant.
People have been asking me to talk more about marketing for freelancers. And I’ve been demurring, saying that you need a niche before you can meaningfully market yourself. But you don’t need a niche yet to learn about SEO and search traffic, so that you’re prepared to capitalize when you do identify your niche.
So let me teach you about that. In this post, I’ll talk about the scumbag way and the non-scumbag way to do SEO, so that you understand there’s a way to do it benignly. In the broader series, I’ll walk you through how to execute the non-scumbag playbook.
My Motivations, Backstory, and Bonafides
A while ago, in the Hit Subscribe community (now open to all, if you’d like to join!), I ran a poll. I wanted to see how many of the folks in there (mostly engineers) would be interested if I taught them to do SEO and keyword research. The result blew me away in that an even 96% of respondents expressed interest, even without the specific promise of pay to do it for customers.
So the interest is, apparently, there.
If we view successful keyword research as a core differentiator for Hit Subscribe, you might wonder why I’d want to teach it to folks in the community, let alone the broader internet. (And, after planning thousands of pieces of content and presiding over now dozens of hockey stick traffic graphs, I’d consider our methodology a success.)
Well, I’ll talk more about knowledge hoarding as a business “strategy” some other time (especially if you remind me). But for now, suffice it to say that I both want to backfill myself on strategy and also to create an internet where engineers have a much more significant role in marketing to other engineers.
If we, as techies, learned a bit about marketing, as I suggest in Developer Hegemony, the internet could become a less facepalm-y place. Imagine a world where marketers didn’t talk at you about DevOps culture. Instead, engineers told you how they’d personally used a tool to get better sleep following major rollouts.
Moneyball SEO, And the “Why Should You Care” Story
Now having hopefully established that I have plausible motivation and credentials, the focus shifts to you. Why should you care about SEO or this series?
Let’s assume that you want to build lead flow for your business. Or you will at some point, anyway. Or heck, maybe you just want more site visitors.
You could do this the labor-intensive way that I did, with DaedTech. Just write an average of 2 blog posts per week for a decade, and viola! Overnight success in just 10 years.
Oh, and by the way, with the followers approach, the visitors go away if you ever stop producing content. So you have to keep going forever.
What I did was to create effectively an editorial column. And an editorial column has such a labor intensive content-to-traffic ratio that a term has emerged to express it. It’s the “spike of hope and flatline of nope” described in section 2 of this post.
Publish a post, earn a few hundred visits each of the first few days. Then the visits trail off to zero after maybe a week. If you want to maintain hundreds of visitors (and potential leads) to your site, you then have to publish every few days.
Having the founder of a business blog every few days as a primary lead driver isn’t sustainable for the overwhelming majority of founders. Heck, I’m a written blabbermouth, and it hasn’t been sustainable for me with a content business.
So from a business perspective, understand that column blogging isn’t viable. But creating content discoverable by search engines is. That’s because, when you do it right, the search engines bring you tens or hundreds of visitors per month, per article, without you having to do anything after hitting publish.
Avoiding the Lure of the Dark Side: SEO Reconsidered
As I typed that last sentence, I could feel the cringe through the monitor.
“Get thousands of visitors without doing anything!”
“That sounds suspiciously like SEO for scumbags, Erik, not non-scumbags.”
And, that’s fair. Generally promising outsized results for something that seems meager is squarely the province of the scumbag. So let’s look at this through another lens.
Is Jon Skeet a scumbag?
If you’re even passingly familiar with him, you already know that the answer is, “absolutely, categorically not.”
He hangs around on Stack Overflow, answering people’s questions, and his evergreen efforts have earned him a mind-blowing 330 million views of his content. That means that, on average, every software engineer in the world has read his stuff 16.5 times, and presumably some of those folks have wandered down his marketing funnel and purchased his books.
Yet, I don’t think you’d find anyone in the world that would describe him as a scumbag. That’s clearly just a good dude that likes to help people.
And that’s the model that we’re going for with non-scumbag SEO. We’re basically answering people’s questions, treating the internet and the search results as a giant Stack Exchange site. Let Jon Skeet be the model for doing SEO as a non-scumbag.
Redefining what SEO Stands For
In fact, while we’re at it, let’s redefine the acronym altogether. I’ll get more into the history of SEO below, but for now, understand that the term stands for “search engine optimization.”
When you think about it, that’s a fundamentally dispiriting term for something you’re about to do to your content. Like Jon Skeet, you create content to help people. But then, unlike Jon Skeet, you do a bunch of alchemy and bullshit to it to “optimize” it for an algorithm, selling off its soul one keyword mention at a time.
Is it any wonder that non-marketers routinely talk about “good content” and “SEO content” as two disjoint sets?
Luckily, the kind of shenanigans that have worked over the last two decades to fleece you into reading trash content are becoming progressively less effective. As the companies that own search engines learn a genuinely worrisome amount about you, individually and demographically, one silver lining is that they’re much better at understanding what you think of content. So accordingly, “say the word you want to rank for a bunch of times in the article” has ceased to work as a tactic to rank first for a keyword.
Search engines’ goals are, of course, to make advertising revenue. And they do that like a television station. They receive money for ads, and, apart from that, try to serve up the content that you makes you happy enough to tolerate the ads.
They want you to find the content helpful, not stuffed with keywords and assorted scams. And they’re getting really, really good at figuring out whether you find things helpful. So good, in fact, that the easiest way to “game” the system these days is to write things that are actually helpful.
So I propose that we re-acronym SEO to “searcher experience optimization.”
But What about Scumbags and Current State of the Art?
That last section might sound nice, but does it work? Aren’t you going up against and probably losing to all of the scumbags if you play it honest? Wouldn’t this make you the equivalent of the one or two baseball players around the year 2000 not taking steroids?
Indeed, if you go looking for guides or courses on SEO, they’ll generally take a form like this:
You obviously need to create the best content. Alright, with that out of the way, here’s where to stuff keywords, how to write clickbait titles, six AI tools you can use to generate content briefs, how to spam people and beg for backlinks, blah, blah, blah.
The SEO landscape is a mostly sea of tactics, absent any real strategy. And it’s been that way for a long, long time. And content and SEO is perhaps the best example I can think of for what Paul Graham describes as hacking bad tests.
So against 20 years of incumbency and a sea of micro optimization tactics, how do you win? Can you win?
To make my case for how you can (and how we have), I need to explain the history of SEO and why scumbag tactics have so much incumbency. This will also give you context for why veterans have so much trouble letting go of those tactics, and of looking at earning search traffic through a more strategic lens.
You might also find this section interesting, since it’ll explain why you have a subconscious reaction to things that you see on the internet that feel scummy, even though you can’t really articulate why. “I don’t know what the scheme is here, but it smells like some SEO bullshit.”
What’s the Scheme Hustlers and Value-Add Hustlers
Indulge me a brief aside to coin a couple of terms. I promise that I will make this relevant.
I’ve recently come to think of entrepreneurs fitting loosely into two buckets: “what’s the scheme” hustlers and “value-add” hustlers.
- Value-add hustlers are entrepreneurs that look to establish an enterprise that helps people. They’re not necessarily missionary entrepreneurs nor are they necessarily altruists, but they do consider value creation as table stakes for business success.
- What’s the scheme hustlers are entrepreneurs that view their customers as incidental, or as marks. This person is essentially an insider trading tip come to life and employed as a cryptocurrency speculator. Imagine them endlessly rubbing their hands together, looking around avariciously, and asking “so, what’s the scheme?”
“What’s the scheme” hustlers have long dominated the SEO world.
Early on they figured out that getting to the top of a google search for “best running shoes” would provide financial advantage. So by God they would get to the top of that search, whether that meant creating a landing page that said “best running shoes” 15,000 times in a row or whether it meant taking a Google executive’s child hostage.
They’d do anything. As long as “anything” didn’t involve creating legitimately valuable content, like polling the population and creating a detailed, even-handed evaluation of the best running shoes. There’s no scheme in that — it’s a sucker’s play…. sucker.
The History of SEO is A Scumbag-Heavy One
And that attitude — readers as suckers — has dominated the SEO world since there has been an SEO world. To understand just how thoroughly and what we’re up against, let me walk you through a brief history of content over the last 20 years.
Early Days SEO: Keyword Stuffing
If I told you to build a search engine and rank relevant content, what would you do? Don’t think — just answer. I bet you’d think to count the number of times the search term appeared in a piece of content to determine relevance.
And that’s a good answer!
It’s perfectly rational, and it’s something that the search engines did and relied heavily on in the early days. The more you talk about a particular term, the more likely a reader will find it relevant, right? Pretty straightforward.
But now imagine you’re a “what’s the scheme” hustler. What’s your play here?
Yep, you guessed it. Repeat the keyword over and over and over again. Stuff it into the HTML meta a bunch of times while you’re at it.
The result of this for the hapless victims just googling “sunglasses?” A bunch of articles that say “sunglasses” so many times you wonder if you’re having a stroke as you read them.
Even though this tactic has long since stopped working, you can occasionally find it even to this day. I’m sure you’ve experienced this.
The Rise of Comment Spam
As you might imagine, search engine companies caught onto this scheme fairly quickly and sought to defeat it. As part of this evolution in thinking, they began to place strong emphasis on what would become the main currency in the SEO world: the hyperlink.
To this day, links are the absolute backbone of what’s called “domain authority” in SEO circles. The more people link to a piece of content, the more authoritative the search engine believes that content to be. The more links to a root domain, the more credible the search engine finds a given article on that domain.
Now imagine yourself rubbing your hands together, asking “what’s the scheme” in the wake of the search engines shifting from focusing on keyword appearances to inbound links. Do you create content so compelling that a lot of people rush to link to it.
No, of course not. That’s what a sucker would do.
What you do instead is find every possible venue for user-generated content and absolutely carpet bomb those venues with links to your content. I present you the rise of comment spam.
Anyone who has been blogging for any length of time has experienced this phenomenon. You’ve probably found yourself confused, too, if you didn’t understand scumbag SEO.
“I have like 7 readers — why would anyone do this?”
My friend, they aren’t after your readers. They’re after you “link juice.”
The Transition to Link Panhandling
As you might expect, the search engines (largely just Google at this point) developed a way to defeat this nonsense and start to curb the behavior. They introduced the idea of “nofollow” links, which tell the search engine basically, “place no SEO value whatsoever on this link — I cannot vouch for it.” CMS then started to automatically disavow links in user-generated content, like comments sections, social media platforms, and discussion forums.
But rubbing his hands together gleefully, our SEO scumbag was undaunted.
What do you think the odds are that “Stephen” actually read my post? What do you think the odds are that Stephen is even named Stephen (or has a name at all)?
Here’s what’s happening, suckers. There are entire SaaS-based “link building” businesses. They will scrape the internet for mentions of a keyword (like, say, “interview questions”), collate the sites found, rank them by domain authority, scrape the sites for a “webmaster-y” email address, and deploy an email like this to that address. Some of them are even sophisticated enough to munge in personal data from cross-referenced sources.
I get probably 20 emails like this a week across all of the properties that I own. Because, like you and everyone else, I’m just another sucker to the SEO scumbags of the world.
Recipe Sites and Endless-Click Lists
It isn’t just links, either. Everything that sucks on the internet, you can usually trace back to some kind of SEO play.
Want to understand a couple of the worst things on the internet?
Look no further than “what’s the scheme” SEO scumbags, rubbing their hands together and doing a couple of subtle things. Specifically, they’re going after a couple of lesser known so-called “ranking factors” than a site’s “link profile.”
- Time on page
- Page views and bounce rate
The search engines, as I’ve mentioned, are eternally trying to figure out how to determine whether a reader likes a piece of content. And given that most sites use Google Analytics, many people use Chrome, and the Google et. al are capable of capturing a creepy amount of data about you, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that they can ascertain how long you spend on a page, whether you slam the back button immediately, how many pages on a site you click through to, etc.
(I think they might actually “officially” claim not to track this and that it doesn’t affect rankings, but, I mean, come on.)
Now, as a scumbag with this information, what would you do?
Would you create content so compelling that people wanted to read it for 10 minutes, and then click all over the site to learn more about? I mean, maybe if you’re a sucker.
The real play is to have something like a recipe, but to bury it after 1,500 word walls of text, forcing people to scroll down and increase time on page. The real play is to have a listicle, but where each item is listed on a separate page, so reading a single article makes the search engine think you’ve visited 30 pages on the site.
The Ultimate, Best-Ever, Pillar, Value-Bomb SEO Guide!
Believe it or not, there’s plenty more I could walk you through. But the post is getting long, and hopefully that’s more than enough to paint the picture. If you encounter it in internet content and it sucks, you probably have some “what’s the scheme” SEO scumbag to thank for it.
So, what’s the alternative? What does the “value-add,” non-scumbag SEO do? How do you compete in this world, rank, and earn traffic?
Well, you’re in luck, because today, for a limited time only, I’m going to give away something with a total value of
$799 $1,499, for absolutely free. That’s right, it’s my patented, value-bomb, ultimate guide, wash-your-car for you SEO model that you would normally find at the bottom of a testimonial-laden squeeze page. But I’m just GIVING it away today.
Here it is, the two-step, scientifically proven, so effective that Congress doesn’t want you to have it, process to earn search engine traffic:
- Figure out what questions people are asking the search engine and answer those questions.
- Do it on a site that doesn’t suck to visit.
If you do that, you will earn traffic to your site without selling your soul. And you will beat out the scumbags, to boot. Like Jon Skeet on Stack Exchange, you will win by just being a good person and helping people.
Where We Go From Here: Taking the Internet Back
Now, I want you to understand that this is simple, but not easy. There is, of course, nuance to both of my points above, in particular the idea of “figure out what questions people are asking” and “answer those questions.”
In fact, there’s enough nuance that I’m creating an entire series of posts to follow in this series about it, which I’m outlining below. But I wanted to write all of this as introduction to frame the nature of what I’m going to teach you here, and how it’s not going to look like any other source purporting to teach SEO, at least that I’m aware of.
I’m doing this to dump my bucket a little from the last 4 years of learning all about earning organic traffic and because I’m hoping that you find it helpful. But this is also going to serve as a first draft of the training material that I’m going to use for the author-account strategists that will soon backfill me on content campaigning.
So what you’re getting here isn’t random “tips and tricks” filler articles, but something that we’ve been using, refining, and winning with in the trenches for 4 years. I hope you’ll come along for the ride, and here is the outline for the remainder of the content, which I’ll fill in with links as I publish.
- Chapter 2: Game Theory in SEO: Building A Ship of Strategy in a Sea of Tactics
- Chapter 3: Introduction to Keywords via Understanding Searcher Psychology
- Chapter 4: Keywords 101, Competition, Volume, and Segmentation
- Chapter 5: Keywords 201, Tails, Association, Authority, and Cannibalization
- Chapter 6: Keywords 301, Campaigns, Roadmaps, and Funnels
- Chapter 7: The Phases of an Organic Campaign
- Chapter 8: Reasoning about and Projecting Content ROI
- Chapter 9: A Case Study (This I may keep private to our community or even our staff, TBD)
- Chapter 10: Advanced Concepts Addendum