Ever since I supervised a student on a post graduate industrial placement who was undertaking some research into what was later to be termed search engine optimisation for a marketing agency in Exeter in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical about many of the claims made by SEO specialists.
Do not get me wrong! Well-written copy intelligently presented using standards-compliant HTML can be successfully optimised and I do believe that huge placement differences exist between poor quality pages and those of a much higher standard. What I believe is that writing search engine optimised pages is part and parcel of good web design and not a black art to be practised by specialists.
At the end of the day, a lot of SEO work comes down to writing good, crisp copy that balances the needs of the reader with those of the search engine. There really isn't much of a substitute for this. The copy must pay attention to what potential visitors might search for, so keyword analysis is important as is the keyword density of the finished article, but this is surely common sense!
The text must be crisp. It must be short, snappy and to the point. It must also be written with a good understanding of how people read material on the web. Unlike print media, people generally skim read web pages far more ruthlessly than they do their Sunday newspaper. The first sentences of each paragraph must convey the message and none more so than the first sentence of the first paragraph.
The problem with many (so called) web designers is that they have a very poor grasp of copy-writing and, alas, sometimes of the grammar and spelling of their chosen language! Indeed, given the general construction quality of some web pages that we have recently analysed, I'm not sure that many web designers even grasp the basics of page construction.
If a page is to feature highly on a search engine, that page needs to be well-constructed and written using standards-compliant mark-up as an initial pre-requisite. This means marking up titles, sub-titles, headings and body text as precisely that. If the page construction merely changes font sizes to indicate titles, then no indication is given to search engine spiders that those headings should be seen as any different to body text.
I think a major part of the problem is that many would-be web designers enter the market with a view to undercut the competition. They win business because the majority of buyers do not fully understand the subtleties of web construction and therefore do not value the premium that the good designers are charging. They want a page that looks good in their browser on their machine. They rarely consider what it might look like on their customer's machine using the customer's browser!
The problem is that to produce a single web page actually takes a considerable amount of effort. First, due attention must be given to what the page is about. Good copy needs to be written that is appropriate to the web as a medium and must contain the right keywords to ensure good search engine placement. The page needs to be marked up correctly, clearly delineating titles and headings from other elements such as lists and general body text. Care needs to be exercised in ensuring that the pages comply with the relevant standards, which also helps in making sure that the page renders well in different browsers.
Many designers pay little attention to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but many of the rules and suggestions improve page quality considerably and not only allow for a greater readership, but also potentially improve search engine placement. Many web spiders have the same problems deciphering incorrect HTML that specialist web browsers aimed at overcoming various disabilities experience.
The crux of the problem is that all the foregoing is extremely easy not to do, particularly when the designer is barely making any money because they are undercutting so many other would-be designers doing the same thing. A well-constructed, highly-polished page looks much like its poor quality counter-part, but costs considerably more. The naive buyer opts for the former and does not understand why it fails to deliver.
Ultimately, using an SEO specialist is really taking remedial action on something that should have been done at the outset.