Sam Brown

Why I think SEO is bullshit

An email arrived in my inbox this week asking me how I managed to generate so many inbound links from high page ranking sites, why I didn’t optimise my anchor text with keywords, how to get to the top of Google for the keyword ‘web designer’ and did I even care about search engine optimisation? In short my answer was a resounding no, here’s why.

I can imagine the reactions from some of you already but I implore you to read on.

Personal Brand

For me, it’s all about my personal brand, Sam Brown is who I am and who I want to be known as. I do not want to be known as that “web designer from Scotland”. But herein lies the problem, SEO is a flooded market, everyone is trying to game the system, get a higher rank and profit from it, too many people spend too much time trying to get Number #1 rank on Google instead of focusing on improving themselves, their sites and their products. Doing this will not go unnoticed and links will grow organically.

My perfect type of client is one that has been referred to me from past clients happy with my work, colleagues and friends or just general word of mouth. Google is the last place I want potential clients to find me from, their may be that gem in the rough but I would say that at least 90% of Google referrals never get back in touch.

Quality over Quantity

This age old saying applies here also, I want good quality leads not lots of poor quality enquiries from people testing the water and trying to find the best price possible. My price is my price and you get what you pay for. If you are looking for the cheapest web designer around, I’m not that guy but what I do offer is a fucking great service for the price I charge.

Perhaps for others the more enquiries for work they can get the better, perhaps knowing that your site gets thousands of visitors from Google every month is enough for you but I’m pretty happy with who visits, who interacts and who gets involved with me, because these people are loyal, honest and are interested in working with Sam Brown not Joe ‘web designer’.

The Twitter community agrees

This post was inspired by a twitter message I posted and the community seems to agree:

@imgiseverything have to agree – if you’re near the summit for those big phrases you get lots of dead-end leads.

@goodonpaper I can’t think of a client thats ever found me through Google. It’s only ever been word of mouth / reputation.

@philnorton The vast majority of work we’ve got in the past few years has come via referrals, not search engines. Most people who come via Google et al are “tyre kickers” only interested in the lowest possible price.

SEO does of course have its place

I will not deny I have dabbled with it in the past, and I fully realise that it is part and parcel of the internet today with people earning vast salaries doing SEO as their day job and of course it does work. But it isn’t without its flaws with so many people using underhand and blackhat techniques to generate new business. If you have to lower yourself to techniques like this to generate links and in turn business, my advice: YOU’RE. DOING. IT. WRONG.

What I am saying is that in my instance, for my brand, I think SEO is bullshit. What are your thoughts?

Post a link to this on Twitter ↩


Ryan Roberts 23 April 2009, 04:40 #1

I agree, though my website probably wont reflect that at the moment. What you’ve said is certainly food for thought and will likely make me reconsider how I’m pushing stuff on my site. Practically all the work and clients I get come through word of mouth and I doubt I’d really trust someone who simply found me on Google (not that that would happen ;) )

Andi 23 April 2009, 04:42 #2

Completely agree. If done properly, SEO is part of the normal workflow of a good designer – a well built site will be as optimised as it ever needs to be. Anything more is just skirting around the real issue: building a good-looking, functional site and filling it with interesting content. It’s that simple.

Take care,


Darren McPherson 23 April 2009, 04:48 #3

It depends on the business Sam.

A personal blog then it doesn’t matter so much. But for a relatively big business it’s everything. Working in a big business that make millions from their sites, 70% of users come from organic google search results. That is a big percentage.

Don’t get me wrong branding is super important and is as important if not more than SEO. But SEO is definitely up there with the best of them.

What I tend to see is people get clouded by SEO. They look too far into and end up having a negative impact. “Oh we’ve got to have loads of links to loads of pages”. Something that just isn’t pleasant to the user when they get there.

The best one I’ve heard is “We need to create a directory of links to all our content”. This sounds good, for the user and obviously SEO. “Oh it’s not for users to see it’s just for Google to pick it up”… Sorry? Isn’t the fundamental existence of Google to get the user to the content they want? You want loads of links for Google to pick but not for the user to go to? This doesn’t make sense.

When you get into this frame of mind and work flow then SEO is bullshit. But we need to come back down to earth and get passed the Black and Blue Hat SEO tricks to what SEO is really about. It’s for the user to get what they are looking. Quality, which is where brand quality comes in when they get there.

BTW: This is my opinion based on experience. I have an open mind on it and I’m not trying to impose my feelings on the matter as the right answer.

Andy 23 April 2009, 04:48 #4

Great post. If everyone adopted a sensible approach to SEO and let the search engines pick sites on merit, wouldn’t the world be a nicer place? :)

Sarah Parmenter 23 April 2009, 04:54 #5

Excellent post Sam, I couldn’t agree more. The leads that I get from Google from being near the top for a local web design term are utter crap – you’re doing it a much better way.

Cole 23 April 2009, 04:58 #6

Possibly drifting into semantics here but as I perceive it I would say that SEO isn’t necessarily bullshit but SEM certainly is. Perhaps the termiology or phrasing is wrong but let’s stick with it for the moment.

SEO is fine. SEO is the creation and marking up of a site in such a way that optimises the ability for a page or site to achieve high search engine rankings. If you’re building to web standards, using semantic markup and paying more than lip service to accessibility then you are achieving SEO. You may never be building a site for the search engines but if you are doing the above then you are optimising your site for search engines.

SEM is the attempt to improve search engine rankings through the content that populates this framework. Above all else SEM is about strategy. About planning how you use keywords, adwords, headings and page titles, interlinking strategies, etc.

The distinction between SEO and SEM is improtant because when a client comes to me and asks for SEO I have to say I can build your site to maximise its potential performance/ranking within search engines but I cannot advise on enhancing those rankings because – like you – I’m not especially interested in achieving this. Or, at least that is not my primary goal when I set about building a website.

Of course I want sites I build to be prevalent in search engines and in many cases that ends up being the case but more often than not this is because I have tried to build a site that is accessible and fortunately this tends to make it accessible to the search engine spiders/robots, not because I have pursued any thought into how to move the site up the rankings.

So. In essence SEO != bad (though could as well just be called web standards) but SEM = bullshit (although this can largely be assumed on the basis that marketing is a means for opportunists to capitalise on ignorance, stupidity or both).

gav @ holeycoww 23 April 2009, 05:00 #7

This is such a fantastic read and I agree 100%. Excellent write up Sam

Rory Fitzpatrick 23 April 2009, 05:02 #8

Nice post Sam that shows a great deal of integrity in what you do!

I have to agree with what Darren said as well though, the importance of search engine referrals very much depends on the business. An e-commerce site, for instance, would probably benefit greatly from good search engine ranking and might require some well-crafted link text in order to get that. But for purely content sites, and businesses offering a quality service like yourself, it’s mostly a waste of time – if you write it [good content], they will come!

Kean 23 April 2009, 05:08 #9

I work as a web designer for a company whose primary revenue stream is SEO and I have to agree that SEO is not always the answer.

Firstly you have to be able to be confident you can deal with the enquires accumulated by SEO, have a good business reputation and a good site to convert visitors. If these aren’t right or if random leads ain’t your thing then SEO isn’t for you.

Too many people think SEO is all about getting to #1 but if a company can’t cope with that amount of traffic then getting to #3 or #4 may be the best course of action. It’s all about whats right for the client and users, just the same as in web design.

Marty 23 April 2009, 05:08 #10

I Agree with Darren on this one..

A personal blog then it doesn’t matter so much. But for a relatively big business it’s everything. Working in a big business that make millions from their sites, 70% of users come from organic google search results. That is a big percentage

other than that, good read cheers.

Phil Thompson 23 April 2009, 06:53 #11

I spent a long time wanting to get to the top for phrases like ‘Web designer manchester’ or ‘frontend developer’ but it recently dawned on me that it’s not important and in terms of SEO the main goal for my business is that when people search for me by name they find me easily.

Obviously it’s different for different industries and if I were a B2C ecommerce company selling washing machines I’d want to be number 1 for washing machines.

yvonh 23 April 2009, 09:19 #12

When you design a website, you pay attention to the web standard, want good css code, xhtml strict., rationalise image weight, optimise CSS background without slicing image. SEO is the same except it applies to search engine. We then format title correctly, and so on. There’s not much difference with good web design in its principle. It’s quality over quantity as well. If you have business via referer it’s okay, I do have SEO contract via referer too, and I don’t think I need a website to have a stream of business.

Ryan Roberts 23 April 2009, 11:01 #13


That’s not how I see SEM, based on the SEM performed by my previous employer or other SEO/M companies I’ve come in contact with.

SEM in my experience has been off site marketing without touching the site (which would be SEO). SEM could be Adword, link swapping, syndicating articles etc. I think this is fine… but probably only because it doesn’t screw with my markup :)

Joe Brightwell 23 April 2009, 11:09 #14

Horses for courses. You’ve already built up a solid brand or profile for yourself and obviously you’ve become successful without the use of SEO. For people like myself who have just begun their gig as a freelancer and have a small portfolio, SEO is important to generate new leads to become recognised.

Also like many others have already stated, SEO is important for some clients but not all. A client of mine has become successful with the assistance of good SEO where he’s gone from averaging 10 visits in a day to over 100 visits in a one year period.

PS. I love your website but maybe the foul language can be kept to a minimum? Keep up the good work.

Spencer Fry 23 April 2009, 14:06 #15

You’re right to suggest that SEO is bullshit for web designers, but it certainly has its place in most other things. Word of mouth is the best, but Google will bring you exorbitant amounts of traffic that you can’t pass up in most businesses.

Rory Fitzpatrick 23 April 2009, 22:52 #16

“What I am saying is that in my instance, for my brand, I think SEO is bullshit”

I missed that important bit on my first read, in which case I completely agree with you. I think myself and others read the article as an opinion about SEO in general, which clearly its not.

Pete 23 April 2009, 23:18 #17

I agree with the over-riding sentiment here Sam. I work in an Industry that has deep foundations built in SEO and I agree that an thought re-alignment is important before making it de rigueur on every website and business model.

For me, SEO is more about optimising content for the site’s users so I guess it should be called ‘User Experience Optimisation (UEO)’ really in this case. Things like guessable link structure ( for example I feel is good for usability (and it just so happens that search engines like it too).

For me it doesn’t matter how well you rank in the search engines if your content is terrible, I think that’s summed up by googling ‘web designer’. I’m pretty confident in saying the best ones around won’t hit PR1, they’re to busy making awesome work to worry about their sites SEO.

Cyprian Gwóźdź 24 April 2009, 03:05 #18

SEO without web design is bullshit as well as web design without SEO. Can you imagine very well designed site without any links? Nobody would know about it.

I am also working in company, where SEO is as important as design. Clients require websites optimization. This is usual thing in todays world.

As web designer and I am taking care about SEO of my website, I want to have as much traffic as possible, because it is nice and cool to see visitors spending time on my site and enjoying what they found there.

I agree with you Sam, that thinking only about SEO and focusing on being number #1 in google rather than designing is not good way to choose. Especially when we are talking about personal branding and finding clients depends on recommendation.

Thanks for you post.

David Leggett 24 April 2009, 06:31 #19

SEO isn’t real. It’s a collection of techniques for tricking always-changing search engine algorithms into getting listed as the best result.

And that’s just the thing, the SE algorithm is “always changing”. If you believe in SEO, you believe in a system that can never be the same from one day to the next. The systems goal is to find the best answer, and will continue to evolve so it does that. If you want to be listed as the best answer and sustain that listing, you need to provide it.

Simple as that.

Michael P. 24 April 2009, 08:15 #20

Ok, didn’t want to say anything, but I think the is just a “Flame war”. David, I hate to call you out, but it seems most designers HATE SEO and is that because that make you rework your code? Kinda like front-of-the-house at a restaurant (wait staff, bartenders, etc), doesn’t like the back-of-the-house (kitchen, bussers, etc) because they make each other work, work harder and, in some cases, screw up what the other is trying to do.

In your last comment you said “If you believe in SEO, you believe in a system that can never be the same from one day to the next.” Well isn’t this true for design? Aren’t you always learning new and different ways to do something. It might also be you don’t exactly know what you are talking about. How would like it if an SEO person said that Web design is crap?

Google is obviously important to the net. It is based on bibliometrics, see here . SEO is a huge industry and for you to throw the baby out with the bathwater is myopic.

But if you want “Flame on” my shiny diamond.

Simple as that.

David Leggett 24 April 2009, 08:29 #21

Not sure what makes you think that Michael. I feel like my views on SEO are shared by Sam here.

I don’t know about most designers hating SEO. On the contrary, most people I know who work with the web are very adamant about it. I myself used to do “SEO Consulting” and also did SEO work as a freelance service (I’ve since changed my views obviously), so this really has nothing to do with being a designer in my opinion.

There’s no merit in saying I don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s just provocative. I didn’t come here to make anyone upset. I rank very well in search engines for topics I provide the best answers for (some seeing over 100,000 searches a day), and will probably sustain those rankings so long as that holds true. There’s no denying that Search Engines are constantly optimizing their code to continue finding the best answers. That is their job. Their job is not to see who jumps through the most hoops to satisfy an algorithm.

I won’t argue with you on a public forum/blog, but if you’d like to discuss it with me personally, you’re welcome to email me (david [at]

Martin 24 April 2009, 09:27 #22

No comment about SEO but would love to meet Sarah…

Dave Ellis 27 April 2009, 04:54 #23

Nice post – some good points made – I’m almost embarrassed to say that I have used some SEO techniques on my site for a couple of reasons – firstly to learn how it all worked and secondly, I wanted to be up there. It’s a shame that SEO is the way it is, here’s hoping that Google makes drastic changes to the way it ranks sites in its index – eventually I think the changes will come.

Libby Unwin 27 April 2009, 05:35 #24

I must say, I have been very frustrated with the notion that on top of becoming a better and better web/print designer, I must master the SEO marketing business. It seems like a game: who can put the most words in the most ‘right’ places to trick Google into thinking THEY are THE choice for whatever the Googler is looking for. The best ones aren’t necessarily at the top. Besides, do you want a graphic designer who spends all their time SEO-ing? Or do you want a graphic designer who spends their time creating killer designs? Seems like the focus is shifting from becoming better at what you do to getting to the top, even if your skillset doesn’t follow you there. I agree: be you, be awesome, word will get out. I have so many other parts of my business I want to rock, I don’t have time to/don’t want to make time for playing the word game.

Spencer Lavery 27 April 2009, 23:41 #25

Dave, did you really mean to say that you’re almost embarrassed to have used SEO techniques? If so; that’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. That’s like being embarrassed to use web standards.

SEO as an aspect of a site build is always worth consideration, in many cases it’s vital.

SEO as an ‘industry’, however, is ugly. Too many black hat cowboys have sullied the good name of SEO, an acronym that really just boils down to: “Build your web site properly, use descriptive and meaningful titles, descriptions and link text, semantic heading tags where appropriate, and don’t use extraneous code/tables.” This should be something that all web designers/developers adhere to regardless of whether or not they care about Google.

(Evil) practices such as link-building, directories, splogging, aren’t SEO at all, they’re SEM.

Five Minute Argument 28 April 2009, 02:38 #26

There’s definitely a confusion surrounding what we mean when we talk about SEO. Either Spencer’s definition of standards-compliance is correct, and SEO is a good thing, and the acronym is superfluous, or SEO is really what he and Cole have defined as SEM which is all about manipulation of search engines.

I thought Sam’s point was more about the latter – the most concrete example is “optimise my anchor text with keywords” which implies purposefully choosing link text based on how it might affect search results rather than how it describes the link destination.

Although Google has created a situation where ‘gaming the system’ has massive rewards and, therefore, is encouraged, I think they’ve done a reasonable job of encouraging standards to be adopted for the same motivation. More please!

Alex Blundell 1 May 2009, 04:57 #27

Hey Sam, I definitely think you’re on the right track when it comes down to freelancers, their brand and the quality of the referrals you get from word of mouth and self promotion vs. google is far more relevant and rewarding.

However I’m currently working with a company who has recently closed down/sold its premises and has decided to go online. At the moment 30% of business is made from old customers of the business and word of mouth but with the lack of an actual shop in the high street this figure is falling. They sell lawn mower spares and garden machinery and I predict that over the next year they will rely on Google for almost all of their sales. This is where SEO comes in. I’ve managed to increase sales by nearly double over the last month just through Google alone and I expect it to get better. This is not through the use of underhand tactics but through the use of relevant content, accurate keyword selection and good semantics. By the time the customer reaches the site its usually because it has what they are looking for.

My point is that there is a time and a place for Google and SEO and as before I think as freelancers, it’s far from essential for our own sites, I think it’s essential for a lot of my clients.

Keep up the awesome work

Matthew James Taylor 7 May 2009, 13:46 #28

I think if you focus on making your website accessible by using valid, semantic code you are half-way there with SEO anyway. You are right, Brand is very important.

Union Room 8 May 2009, 05:45 #29

I think optimising a site for SEO is important, however once you let it take over other things like good content writing and the actual running of your business it can get it in the way and become more of a bad thing for your site / company.

More visits doesn’t particularly mean more business but that’s when your actual website design and content come into play. SEO gets them through the door but it’s how the inside of your house looks that will ultimately decide how the user acts…

Commenting has closed for this article. Feel free to me.

Sam Brown co-founded Iterate, and was previously VP of Design at Foursquare. Based in NYC.