Are You the Tortoise or the Hare of SEO?

Aesop’s classic fable about the Tortoise and the Hare has been told for generations as a cautionary tale encouraging readers to take the time to do things right from the start.  In the story, the quick Hare encounters a slow moving Tortoise on the road and challenges him to a race.  As the Tortoise begins plodding towards the finish line, the Hare – convinced of his superiority – lies down for a quick nap.  Surprise, surprise – the Hare oversleeps and is overtaken by the Tortoise, the eventual winner of the race.

So suppose the Hare had challenged the Tortoise, not to a foot race, but to a race to get a website ranked in Google’s Top 10 results for a given keyword. How would each approach current SEO practices, and what can we learn from the results of their race to improve our own site promotion efforts?

In general, the SEO Tortoise recognizes that practicing good search engine optimization is a long-term strategy – one that he will be rewarded for with sustained high rankings over time.  The SEO Hare, on the other hand, looks for any and every opportunity to cut corners or to latch on to the “latest, greatest” SEO techniques, resulting in a site that might peak initially in the rankings, but won’t stand up to challenges from other, more motivated competitors in the long run.

But to really highlight the differences between the two, let’s look at their strategies in more depth…

The SEO Tortoise follows a logical, methodical approach to ensuring his sites rank well:

Image Source: SEOMoz

First, the SEO Tortoise recognizes that the often heard, but frequently followed saying, “Content is King” doesn’t just mean tossing a bunch of words onto a page and calling it a day. He keeps Google’s goal of providing visitors with high quality search results in mind by crafting content that appeals to both readers and to the search engine spiders.

The SEO Tortoise also puts a priority on site usability.  He invests time in crafting a navigation structure that’s easy for visitors to use, while optimizing his internal linking structure for the benefit of the spiders. It isn’t easy or quick to achieve these goals, but the SEO Tortoise knows his efforts will be worth it in the end.

Only after he’s built a quality site from the inside out does the SEO Tortoise begin going after targeted keywords or employing offsite promotional efforts. But once he begins these efforts, the SEO Tortoise isn’t relying on the “trick of the month” Black Hat techniques that the SEO Hare relies on.  Every step of his backlinking strategy is carefully implemented to provide the utmost benefit to both readers and the search engines.

The SEO Hare’s game plan – on the other hand – tends to veer more towards Black Hat and Low Value tasks:

Image Source: SEOMoz

When the SEO Hare builds a website, he puts it up quickly, thinking more about his future rankings (and subsequent income) than about the needs of the visitors he’ll be attracting.  As a result, his sites are thin and his content is rarely more than a mess of over-optimized, keyword-stuffed nonsense.  His readers won’t be impressed, but that’s not the SEO Hare’s goal!

The SEO Hare’s haste also bleeds over into his offsite SEO efforts.  Because he knows that Google values backlinks, he rushes out to generate as many as possible – no matter what the source.  SEO Hare’s backlink profile winds up looking less like a list of votes of confidence from authority sites in his niche and more like a jumble of free directories, profile links and foreign language spam.

The SEO Hare is also prone to jumping on the bandwagon whenever a new SEO “hack” or manipulation is found.  Tell the SEO Hare, “I read an article saying that if you put the phrase ‘Please rank this site in the Top 10’ in the footer text, it automatically ranks higher,” and don’t be surprised when he goes out and does it. This flighty nature leads to scattered efforts that prevent sustained growth from occurring.

I probably don’t need to tell you that the results of this particular race aren’t surprising. SEO Hare’s pages might peak initially in the rankings, but will be more likely to suffer in the short term “Google Dance” due to missing trust factors.  In the long run, they may be knocked out entirely if the search engines devalue an entire practice that the SEO Hare staked his business on.

If that sounds extreme, consider the fate of many website owners whose backlinking strategies relied on links from article directories and Web 2.0 sites like EzineArticles, HubPages and Buzzle – sites that were all slapped significantly in Google’s latest so-called “Panda” update.

The SEO Tortoise won’t be affected by these strategy shifts, but he’ll also have to wait longer to see high rankings or any income from his sites. Building quality content and implementing legitimate, benefit-driven promotional efforts simply takes longer than setting up thin content sites with a few hundred spam backlinks. But a few months down the road, it’ll be the SEO Tortoise’s sites still holding high rankings while the SEO Hare’s sites slowly slide down into obscurity.

Of course, this is a pretty “black and white” analysis of current SEO practices and practitioners.  It’s rare to find a true SEO Tortoise who focuses entirely on quality before employing any optimization practices, just as it’s uncommon to find an SEO Hare who gives no thought or attention to the quality of his sites.  Certainly, these cases exist, but the more important thing to take from this lesson is how to incorporate elements from both into a successful SEO strategy.

We learn from the efforts of the SEO Tortoise that quality matters and that, in the long run, investment in generating strong content and a strategic site structure will pay off over haste. However, we also learn from the SEO Hare that speed matters, as few site owners will be able to justify investing time or money in SEO if the results appear to be too far down the road.

By focusing on generating quality content and investing time in building a strong site structure by following the steps diagrammed below, we build trust factors early on and encourage external links to happen naturally – the way Google wants them to.

Image Source: Elliance

But by seeking to optimize as quickly as possible and implementing good SEO practice from the start, we balance the time invested in our sites with the demonstrable returns in terms of both rankings and income that we look for as website owners.

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