SEO Redemption: PC Magazine's Dvorak Took Bad Advice, Paid in Traffic

By Catherine Potts | Feb 18, 2009
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Over at Interleado Peter Cullen takes issue with John Dvorak (PC Magazine) article ‘SEO Fiascoes: The Trouble with Search Engine Optimization regarding “long, human-readable URLs.” (As a side note, Dvorak has a bit of link bait, doesn’t he? Hmmm and oh my, as SEOs, didn’t we fall for it!) Back to the topic at hand: Dvorak says SEO is basically snake oil.

The unproven nonsense spewed by so-called “SEO experts” simply doesn’t work. And worse, it’s screwing up the elegance of the Web.

He also says that he was given bad advice to make his URLs to his own blog, long and he has determined it was this bad advice that made his numbers drop off. It’s not that he didn’t fully research anything. It’s that all SEOs are hacks. Right? And we’re screwing up the “elegance of the web?” OK, let’s be clear, it’s the spammers who are doing that. It’s the spammers that make it so we can’t all just have nice links into our sites and get awesome visibility. SEO is the practice of finding the best way around what the spammers have ruined for the rest of us.

Here is what Dvorak did:

Turned this: http://www.dvorak.org/blog/?p=3100

Into this: http://www.dvorak.org/blog/2005/10/20/hollywood-unions-want-cut-of-itunes-pie/

Now this isn’t something I normally deal with so I found it interesting to look into further. Obviously, it’s quite alarming when a your site loses a ton of traffic. Cullen addresses what the problem really was more likely to be. Dvorak didn’t manage his 301 redirect. Kaitlyn Smeland covered this just last month in her article for Search Mojo: ‘The Power of 301 Redirects in SEO (and Politics)’:

Often in a redesign, when page content/design changes, so does the file name which appears in the URL. This is a problem for SEO, because search engines use the URL as an identifier for your page. If a bot crawls your site after a URL has changed, it won’t find the page that it expected to find and it won’t recognize your new page as a replacement. The solution is to leave a kind of change-of-address card for the search engines- the permanent 301 redirect.

Here is the problem as Dvorak lines it out in a rant:

With the new long URL you get the date and the headline of the post. In some instances with a long headline it’s ridiculous. Besides, the second URL is cumbersome, long-winded, and impossible to type by hand. It is supposed to be search-engine friendly and more likely to get the attention of Google… At first I thought it was a seasonal anomaly until I had a chat with a developer who was pitching me some new product she was doing. The developer mentioned that she was just recently at Google and involved in the search-engine strategy team in some way. She said she knew about SEO. I mentioned this trick, the long URL, and I swear she almost laughed in my face. She told me the idea was bogus, period.

As Cullen described, had Dvorak had a proper SEO professional managing his site, the SEO would’ve known that the loss in traffic was from this lack of a 301 redirect due to the URL change.

I’ve no doubt that Mr. Dvorak’s traffic fell, but I don’t think it was because he was employing snake oil tactics – more like he didn’t realise the impact his changes would have – and that’s where you need your SEO Professional.

Now to address the question of “Are keywords in a URL useful for driving traffic?” I ended up on the site where many of the most highly regarded SEOs offer great advice and feedback. SEOMoz. In the compliation article Search Engine Ranking Factors, a range of feedback is given on different types of tools/methods. Also over at Search Engine Guide, yet another great site the experts frequent, Jill Whalen addresses changing servers and urls.

JIll says that changing the url to have keywords isn’t really as beneficial as one might think. If you’re going to use this type of url, it’s best to do it from the beginning. This means, keep the pages not currently using this type of url the same, then for later urls, you can use the keywords. The general concensus seems to be that the main benefit of such a url is in when they’re listed in the Search Engine rankings then searchers can associate the link with their needs:

Rae Hoffman Again, depends on the search engine. I think algo wise it carries some importance, but isn’t “needed”. That said, I think having a page named something that clearly says to users “this is about the topic your looking for!” may help increase CTR for the ranks you *do* have.

Jill Whalen Much less weight than many people believe, it’s more of an indirect weighting due to the URL sometimes being used as the anchor text. Definitely not the key to high rankings as some seem to think.

Marcus Tandler Matt (Cutts) himself recently said in a blogpost, that the keyword in a page’s URL might help a little – quote: ‘Most bloggy sites tend to have words from the title of a post in the url; having keywords from the post title in the url also can help search engines judge the quality of a page.’

So it appears the lesson for Dvorak is don’t trust one source and, don’t mess with a good thing. Had Dvorak searched around, he might’ve found out that the bad advice he got that didn’t include information on the the 301 redirect for exisiting urls, nor did this person advise him to not do it at all for existing urls and only begin with future ones. Of course I guess the lesson also is that this type of url doesn’t have a huge effect on results. Every little bit helps but don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
As I’ve often said, SEO is a moving target and it’s not perfect. You must do the research to see what is going on with a given tactic before employing it. It’s best to seek the advice of several sources before messing with any tactic that could mess up a page’s (or more) rank.
This post doesn’t address Dvorak’s problem with Social Media or Tags. I’ll let someone else take that on.

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