Colin Cochrane

Colin Cochrane is a Software Developer based in Victoria, BC specializing in C#, PowerShell, Web Development and DevOps.

Please Don't Urinate In The Pool: The Social Media Backlash

pool-party The increasing interest of the search engine marketing community in social media has resulted in more and more discussion about how to get in on the "traffic goldrush".  As an SEO, I appreciate the enthusiasm in exploring new methods for maximizing exposure for a client's site, but as a social media user I am finding myself becoming increasingly annoyed with the number of people that are set on finding ways to game the system.

The Social Media Backlash

My focus for the purposes of this post will be StumbleUpon, which is my favourite social media community by far.  That said, most of what I say will applicable to just about any social media community, so don't stop reading just because you're not a stumbler.  Within the StumbleUpon community there has been a surprisingly strong, and negative, reaction to those who write articles/blog posts that explore methods for leveraging StumbleUpon to drive the fabled "server crashing" levels of traffic, or dissect the inner-workings of the stumbling algorithm in order to figure out how to get that traffic with the least amount of effort and contribution necessary. 

"What Did I Do?"

When one of these people would end up on the receiving end of the StumbleUpon's community's ire they would be surprised. Instinctively, with perfectly crafted link-bait in hand, they would chronicle how they fell victim to hordes of angry stumblers, and express their disappointment while condemning the community for being so harsh.  Then, with anticipation of the inevitable rush of traffic their tale would attract to their site, they would hit the "post" button and quickly submit their post to their preferred social media channels.  What they didn't realize was that they were proving the reason for the community's backlash the instant they pressed "post".

Please Don't Urinate In The Pool

To explain that reason, we need to look at the reason people actually use StumbleUpon.  The biggest reason is the uncanny ability that it has for providing its users with a virtually endless supply of content that is almost perfectly targeted to them.  When this supply gets tainted, the user experience is worsened, and the better that the untainted experience is, the less tolerant the users will be of any tainting.

To illustrate, allow me to capitalize on the admittedly crude analogy found in the heading of this section.  Let's think of the StumbleUpon community as a group of friends at a pool party.  They are having a lot of fun, enjoying eachother's company, when they discover someone has been urinating in the pool.  The cleaner the water was before, the more everyone is going to notice the unwelcome "addition" to the water.  When they find out who urinated in the pool, they are going to be expectedly angry with them.  To stretch this analogy a little further, you can be damned sure that they wouldn't be happy when they found out that someone was telling everyone methods for strategically urinating in certain areas of the pool in order to maximize the number of people who would be exposed to the urine.

For anyone who was in the group of friends, and actually used and enjoyed the pool, the idea of urinating in it wouldn't even be an option.  Or, in the case of StumbleUpon, someone who actually participated in the community and enjoyed the service, wouldn't want to pollute it.

How Being An SEO Analyst Made Me A Better Web Developer

Being a successful web developer requires constant effort to refine your existing abilities while expanding your skill-set to include the new technologies that are continually released, so when I first started my job as a search engine optimization analyst I was fully expecting my web development skills to dull.  I could not have been more wrong.

Before I get to the list of reasons why being an SEO analyst made me a better web developer I'm going to give a quick overview of how I got into search engine optimization in the first place. Search engine optimization first captured my interest when I wanted to start driving more search traffic for a website I developed for the BCDA (and continue to volunteer my services as webmaster). Due to some dissatisfaction with our hosting provider I decided that we would switch hosting providers as soon as our existing contract expired and go with one of my preferred hosts. However, as a not-for-profit organization the budget for the website was limited and the new hosting was going cost a little more, so I decided to set up an AdSense account to bring in some added income. 

The expectations weren't high; I was hoping to bring in enough revenue through the website to cover hosting costs.  At that point I did not have much experience with SEO so I started researching and looking for strategies I could use on the site.  As I read more and more articles, blogs and whitepapers I became increasingly fascinated with the industry while I would apply all of the newfound knowledge to the site.  Soon after I responded to a job posting at an SEO firm, applied, and was shortly thereafter starting my new career as an SEO analyst. 

My first few weeks at the job were spent learning procedures, familiarizing myself with the various tools that we use, and, most importantly, honing my SEO skills.  I spent the majority of my time auditing and reporting on client sites, which exposed me to a lot of different websites, programming and scripting languages, and tens of thousands of lines of code.  During this process I realized that my web development skills weren't getting worse, they were actually getting better.   The following list examines the reasons for this improvement.

1) Coding Diversity

To properly analyze a site, identify problems, and be able to offer the right solutions I often have to go deeper than just HTML on a website.  This meant that I had to be proficient at coding in a variety of different languages, because I don't believe in pointing out problems with a site unless I can recommend how to best fix them.  Learning the different languages came quickly from the sheer volume of code I was faced with every day, and got easier with each language I learned.

2) Web Standards and Semantic Markup

In a recent post, Reducing Code Bloat Part Two: Semantic HTML, I discussed the importance of semantic HTML to lean, tidy markup for your web documents.  While I have always been a proponent of web standards and semantic markup my experience in SEO has served to solidify my beliefs.  After you have pored through 12,000 lines of markup that should have been 1000, or spent two hours implementing style modifications that should have taken five minutes, the appreciation for semantic markup and web standards is quickly realized.

3) Usability and Accessibility

Once I've optimized a site to draw more search traffic I need to help make sure that that traffic actually sticks around.  A big part of this is the usability and accessibility of a site.  There are a lot of other websites out there for people to visit and they are not going to waste time trying to figure out how to navigate through a meandering quagmire of a design.  This aspect of my job forces me to step into the shoes of the average user, which is something that a lot of developers need to do more often.  It has also made me more considerate when utilizing features and technologies, such as AJAX, in respect to accessibility, such that I ensure that the site is still accessible when that feature is disabled or is not supported.

4) The Value of Content

Before getting into SEO, I was among the many web developers guilty of thinking that a website's success can be ensured by implementing enough features, and that enough cool features could make up for a lack of simple, quality content.  Search engine optimization taught me the value of content, and that the right balance of innovative features and content will greatly enhance the effectiveness of both.

That covers some of the bigger reasons that working as an SEO analyst made me a better web developer.  Chances are that I will follow up on this post in the future with more reasons that I am sure to realize as I continue my career in SEO.  In fact one of the biggest reasons I love working in search engine optimization and marketing is that it is an industry that is constantly changing and evolving, and there is always sometime new to learn.