Why Doesn’t The Guardian Like SEO?

It’s always sad when someone you look up to and admire rebuffs your affection. Like when the prettiest girl at school wouldn’t talk to you because you were a nerd (oh, sorry – was that just me? OK).

So I’m slightly disappointed that over the past couple of days The Guardian’s Technology section (which I have as my homepage) has published two pieces which cast aspersions on the merits of SEO.

First, in a piece on how Google now commands close to 90% of the UK search engine market, Jack Schofield said:

If your business depends on getting 30% to 60% of its traffic from Google searches, you certainly know which side your bread is buttered…. though that’s not going to stop some people trying to game the system with linkfarms, splogs and other SEO (search engine optimization) scams.

As I and another commenter observed, not all SEO is about scams but that certainly seemed to be the impression that Jack was trying to give. Then, in this week’s Technology section, Victor Keegan wrote a piece on why he felt Google was now becoming less useful when trying to find content. The reason? It’s all down to those pesky SEOs.

Search engines are becoming dominated by advertisers. This is especially true of Google, which is generally accepted as being “clean” in terms of separating paid advertisements from sponsored ones. The contextual ads on the right of the screen and immediately above the results are paid for. That’s fine. But so, in an indirect way, are the “clean” results because they are often the consequence of “search engine optimisation”, a multi-billion-pound industry paid to get corporate sites to the top of search results. If you type in something like “quiet family hotel in Venice” you will mainly be led to hotel groups or travel search firms rather than a bespoke hotel.

Well that’s it then; the work I do on a daily basis is making it hard for Victor to find that perfect bijou lodging house in Italy. Time to turn off the PC and go & do something less boring instead. Because obviously only huge corporates can afford SEO. Oh, hang on.

Except of course that this is utter codswallop. Indeed I’d suggest that someone at The Guardian obviously doesn’t think that SEO is such a bad thing as The Guardian site appears to have benefitted from at least a quick once over from someone who understands what makes sites more search friendly.

Whilst the site is far from perfect, their URLs are at least static, when they link from news articles it tends to be internally, and the headlines (whilst not written particularly well from an SEO perspective, despite the fact that their very own Peter Preston has identified how important this is) appear as the title tags – always a good move when looking to gain search traffic.

What’s even more riduclous about this seeming dislike for the dark arts (sic) of SEO is that they’re more than happy to do puff pieces on every new Web 2.0 start-up, with not a shred of a business plan: at least SEOs make money for their clients. Take today’s interview with digg founder Kevin Rose.

But if, like Facebook, Digg will offer targeted advertising, based on users’ interests, and since content will soon be suggested based on the previous stories and links that Digg users made favourites of or dug, and combined with the plan to create social connections between users based on shared Diggs – surely this will provide a way to make money.

Because Facebook is raking it in – that $15bn valuation is looking really tight right now.

Or how about this?

Why is so popular? “People want to have a voice and a say in what is news,” Rose anwers. “We’ve levelled the playing field by accepting all other forms of content, whether it’s sources from CNN, the Guardian … it’s about seeing what the masses want to surface, which articles they are finding the most interesting, and oftentimes they unearth and promote stories to the front page that you wouldn’t find anywhere else; that would be buried on a traditional news site.”

Yeah, what the people really want are stories about Ron Paul, Apple & kittens falling off TVs. And buckling to your community when they break the law is a really clever way to build a business.

So, if Victor Keegan thinks that Google is broken, what does he think the answer is? Oh, of course – Jimmy Wales’ Wikia: the people powered search engine.

If – and it is a big if – Wikia gets a critical mass of people, it could develop into something really useful.

Didn’t we just show, with the digg example, that the wisdom of crowds isn’t actually infallible? And no-one ever edits Wikipedia to promote nasty corporates, do they? Oh.

Still, at least their is one voice of reason at The Guardian (and to be fair, I hope that in the coming weeks Keegan & Schofield show some understandings of the complexities of SEO, and the different methods it encompasses – maybe they should read Danny’s brilliant piece defining what SEO is & isn’t): earlier in the week Jemima Kiss wrote a very simple piece outlining what SEO really is.

The irony? As one friend commented on Twitter about the article:

the Guardian article seems well optimised for “search engine optimisation”, will be interesting to see how well it ranks in Google!

It all makes me wonder too…

‘No lie..’ image by Keith Bacongco on flickr


  1. Hey Ciaran

    For me it’s a case of not liking SEO as a whole – rather it’s not liking people who use SEO to promote stuff which doesn’t deserve it (either because it’s crap or not relevant). These, I think, are the ‘SEO scams’ that Jack refers to… the people gaming the engine to the detriment of those who are trying to promote genuinely useful or relevant stuff.

    There *are* plenty of people who believe – and reading Vic’s piece, I think he’s one – that the best/most relevant stuff should rise to the top organically. These are people who don’t like advertising in general, or (and lots of journalists fall into this category) people who believe that content is far more important than delivery. Content is hugely important, but there’s no point writing the best stuff in the world if nobody reads it.

    Now, the idea of organic success is very optimistic – but you and I know that by and large it’s impossible, and that you have to promote yourself to try and outpace the people who would drive their less relevant.

    There’s still too much public confusion about SEO, largely because I think people see it as an industry built on manipulation. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    The Guardian

  2. Hi Bobbie,

    Thanks for the comment – it’s great to have your POV here.

    I agree that it would be great if the best stuff rose organically, but we live in a market driven society so it is often the case that those with the most money will win. I don’t necessarily like that, but it’s hardly as if search is the only sector where this is the case. That said, as I point out, there are plenty of reputable SEOs who only work with small businesses, helping them to punch above their weight.

    I also agree with the sentiment that content is more important than delivery and in the case of SEO (especially where journalism is concerned) it’s simply a case of thinking about the delivery as well – just as Peter Preston said a while back (I’ve now added the link to the post): this doesn’t have to mean diluting the quality of the content, simply considering the way that people now find & consume this content (something I think The Guardian [which I really do love btw] could still do better at).

    What I think we definitely agree on is that there a lot of misconceptions about SEO, many of which, I admit, are the fault of the industry – I guess that’s why I’d hoped that respected journos such as Victor & Jack might do a better job of helping to puncture those very misconceptions.



  3. we do seo for the guardian. there are – of course – differences in the intentions & believe systems of Jack Schofield and the person responsible for the guardian’s online presence & optimisation.

  4. ps: regarding the Jemima Kiss article > GoCompare got penalized because a little bird told google that they where buying too many links.

  5. I don’t think that anyone in the industry was in any way unsure of what happened to GoCompare – what’s amazing is that you only need to look at most of the other sites that are ranking for those phrases to find exactly the same tactics at work.

    I’d be interested to know who you work for Gawpus, and how you think you might go about educating/converting those who don’t see the benefit in what you/we do (in my last role my biggest task was organising training for hundreds of journalists so that they; 1 – understood that SEO is not a dirty word and; 2 implemented it in their online work).

    I do appreciate however that you may not feel able to disclose that.

  6. “Why Doesn’t The Guardian Like SEO?”

    The short answer: because I terrified them with my tricky payday loans. My payday loan anchor texts are out to eat your children and steal your women. Run for your liiiiives!

  7. Lots of interesting points, but it’s wrong to assume that because a writer or columnist expresses a view, that is the view of the newspaper.

    We should encourage newspapers to allow a variety of opinions among their writers. The alternative is far worse: writers who are told what to write by their editors or proprietors.

  8. @TravelSEO – I realise that the headline would give the impression, but if you read the article you’ll realise that isn’t actually my complete view – however there were several articles in a short space of time which could have been more positive.

    As I point out, Jemima actually wrote a very balanced piece, and Bobbie’s comments also show that it’s not a paper-wide thing.

  9. Thanks for those interesting comments. Personally, I am not against SEO. I wish I had more skills in that direction myself: my blog might get into double figures. . .

    The subtext of my article was that the influence of SEO on Google could create a gap for stuff that gets crowded out in the results by SEO which a different kind of search engine might capitalise on.



    The Guardian

    PS: Nothing unusual about about different approaches by management and editorial on the Guardian (or between journalists) We are owned by a trust that protects editorial freedom, including the right to disagree with colleagues

  10. Hi Victor,

    I totally understand about the Trust and it’s one of the things I like most about The Guardian. Seeing my comment in the letters today I worry that I sounded too harsh. I guess it’s because I’m such a fan of the paper, and particularly the Tech section. In fact I seem to have spent all of my time since posting this commenting on other blogs in The Guardian’s defence.

    Anyway – thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts.



    PS – if you want a hand with your blog… (although I could probably do with SEOing this site more – the cobbler’s shoes and all that)

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