I once thought SEO (Search Engine Optimization) was only scientific.
“A formula determines page rank, so SEO is all about the math”, I reasoned.
a + b = c. Right? Um, not so much.
The more SEO work I did throughout my career, the more I realized I needed a paradigm shift to keep up with the latest trends.
Yes, SEO can feel scientific when you still hear terms like “keyword density”, “URL canonicalization” and of course “metadata”. This verbiage feels pulled straight out of your elementary science book. However, today’s SEO also demands creativity.
To possess a website that is loved by robots and by people, you need to approach, plan and execute your SEO as if it were a science and as well as an art.
Seeing SEO as just a Science is a myopic view and is mired in the early 2000’s.
From my observation in working with employers and clients alike, this is the common (and misguided) opinion of SEO — it’s simply science.
I get that. And there are plenty of company’s that will help you just with the math.
As I mentioned, I too had the same opinion. So, let’s check out the science part first.
The Science of SEO
Why SEO is a Science
When I read the definition of science, I immediately think left brain. Hypotheses are written out from hours of research with Moz or Sprout or your tool du jour. Formulas are calculated. There’s logic and facts, and observation is required as experimentation matures and unfolds.
Admittedly, SEO, no, great SEO, requires a scientific approach. SEO is mostly systematic, involves observation, and though Google is not completely transparent, demands a proficiency of the facts.
Here are 4 ways why SEO is a science:
1. Research is a requirement
SEO without research is like walking without legs— it’s required! SEO needs research within:
Google’s algorithm (to understand the facts of how it works)
Your website’s audience (to understand what kind of content they want)
Keywords (to understand what those people are searching for)
2. Numbers drive critical functions
SEO doesn’t need The Pythagorean Theorem, but numbers provide guidelines in some critical parts to SEO like:
50 to 60 (optimal character length of Meta Title)
150 to 160 (optimal character length of Meta Description)
100 (having keyword in the first hundred words of a page’s content is relevancy factor)
115 or under (optimal URL length)
4 or under (the number of seconds your website should load)
Backlinking URLs, Social Shares
seo-science-SERP-screenshotNumbers drive how we optimize content for the SERP (Search Engine Results Page)
3. Formulas are the brain of Google/Bing/and copy cats.
Shockingly, Google’s algorithm changes 500-600 times a year and Google is on record for saying there are 200 different ranking factors (some more important than others).
4. Observation is an ongoing task
I snicker inside when I hear someone say “Can you SEO my website?” – it’s like when people say…”my Internet is not working” Ha!
SEO isn’t “build it and they will come”. It needs constant observation, experimentation, and adjustment.
Though an initial on-page optimization (the science) can last for years, SEO, in general is a maintenance play. You need to watch how your strategy matures, find new keywords, create new content, fix crawl errors and always account for algorithm changes like Google’s Mobile-friendly release in April (aka “Mobilegeddon”). These are all ongoing marketing activities.
I’ve never heard a employer look at their Google Analytics and say, “Our rankings are fine. We don’t need anything. If it ain’t broke”.
Why SEO is an Art
Now let’s look at the other side of the brain. to the lesser known (and appreciated) side of SEO. The creative side. The right brain. The Art of search engine optimization.
The Art of SEO
Rather than simply defining Art to help defend my theory, I thought I’d highlight a example of Art that many don’t discuss.
In every Art medium, an artist faces constraints:
A painter is restricted to their canvas size (office wall decor or the brick backdrop of a downtown coffee shop?)
A carpenter by the piece they’re building (small sitting chair or large cabinet with glass?)
Austin Kleon’s newspaper blackout poems are obviously constrained by, newspapers.
SEO is no different. It faces digital constraints in areas such as:
Bots (how search engines crawl a website)
This is the fundamental reason creativity is needed. Now, let’s get into some specific examples. Here are 4 ways why SEO is an Art:
1. Compelling, Concise and Clickable Copywriting
As I mentioned, the metadata that shows in the results page has a restriction on the number of characters.
So, do you jam in as many keywords as possible? Or, do you write convincing copy that’ll get clicks? If you approach your SEO artfully, you’ll do the latter.
seo-art-SERP-screenshotWhere’s the creativity in this copy? Where’s the call to action? Would you click this result?
2. Clear, Smart Keyword Hierarchy & Structure
Pop quiz! What option will drive better SEO results?
A: Throw every keyword applicable to your business on every page of your site?
B: Design an architecture that places keywords on individual pages?
Correct answer = B!
Mapping out how you place keywords throughout a website is not a one-size-fits-all formula nor do you just “plug ‘em” into your content. It takes careful planning and ingenuity.
A keyword map (like this one) is the next step after keyword research. Finding a logical home for keywords that make sense to robots and people demands a high-level of creativity
3. Not falling victim to generically naming links “Click Here”
Naming your links “click here” negatively impacts SEO (and is also bad for UX). It lacks the artful approach that search engine bots are seeking to understand how content and pages connect.
Here’s a common, but poorly designed link:
I wrote a blog about common SEO mistakes. Click here to read.
Now, here’s one with some intentionality (remember, this is better for people and robots):
I wrote a blog about common SEO mistakes.
In a single sentence on a single page, no, this isn’t a huge deal. But, compounded over many pages on a website — it becomes a huge deal. Ensuring a website’s internal linking structure is consistently simple and concise is a sign of crafty design.
Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.
4. UX now impacts SEO (and great User Experience demands an artful approach for both humans and bots alike)
Passing Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test requires much more than just looking at your website through a scientific or technical view port.
If you took just a scientific approach to designing your website, I’ll bet it lacks a quality user experience. And that’s not good news for your SEO.
Your website’s UX is now a mobile ranking factor (and may impact desktop rankings in the future, possibly). In other words, bad mobile design = bad mobile rankings. Plus, if you are not thinking mobile first, then you have been sleeping under a rock for the last 5 years. Wake up!
How do you fix?
A mobile-friendly website takes careful planning, creativity, and skillful design. An artful approach to design details is now very relevant to every marketer and responds to a world that has smart phones in the hands of 6 year olds! Guilty as charged.
UX design is one of the best examples of where science and art intersect to impact rankings and traffic.
Search Engine Optimization is a WHOLE brain approach
It’s easy to put complex topics into “left brain vs. right brain” buckets in order to understand them better. But, SEO can’t be approached as just one or the other.