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When SEO gets out of hand

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) lately, particularly since our site is new and I, like everyone else, would love to rank highly on Google and other search engines for anything and everything. But the way to get there strikes me as a game and some people are playing dirtier than others — even when they’re following the rules.

Fiercely competitive site owners

I ran across a website designed by another local Indy developer for an attorney who does civil and criminal defense. Attorneys are a group of fiercely competitive people, particularly in their regional market as here’s only so many court cases in a day to go around. So it makes sense that the same group of people who advertise on benches, coasters, billboards, and anything else with a flat surface would jump at the opportunity to leap across the search rankings. They hired the right person for it because they rank at or near the top for a variety of key phrases.

But the end result on the website doesn’t leave much to be desired. Barring the design of the site and its overall aesthetic, which could have had any number of undo burdens on it from the start, the pages are a little out of hand.

Where good reading goes to die

If you were going to hire an attorney, you’d probably have a few questions, like:

  • Does this person have experience with cases like mine?
  • Does this person care about me? Can they make time for me?
  • What are my chances of winning or losing?
  • What’s their record on similar cases? What’s their legal opinion?
  • Do they have any outstanding legal complaints with the Indiana Bar or Indiana Supreme Court, or Bars or Courts in other states?
  • How much Pro Bono work do they do? How can I afford them? Do I qualify for some kind of assistance?
  • What sort of payment options do I have?
  • What about settlement? Or alternative dispute mediation?

Their website says a lot. A whole lot. With just 37 pages, the site has 23,493 words. If the site were laid out in a Word document, it would be about 100 pages long. If you were to listen to an audio recording of it, it would take 2 hours and 7 minutes to listen to it. If you were to read it, it’d take about 90 minutes. The homepage has a title that includes the phrase “law lawyer”.

So how many of those questions do you think are answered by this site? Absolutely none.

With enough words to rival a small novel, the site answers nothing a prospective customer would ever want to know. It’s all designed for search engines. The contact page, a page where one might go for things like an email form or address, a phone number, or maybe some hotline to call, has 1,200 words.

If you wanted to hire an electrician, would you want to sift through 23,000 words to figure out if they can fix your faulty electrical socket?

How we got here and where we should go next

We could do that for any of our clients — current and future — but we’re not going to. Unless someone begged and pleaded with us and could show us a good reason why we’d need to, we’re not going to stuff every page of every site we build with what amounts to garbage. The work done for this attorney and countless others is all done within the rules. They don’t appear to have to gone around stuffing links everywhere on other sites or trying to game the system. They’re just bordering on the edge of what’s legitimate and they’re certainly over the line of practicality.

We all got here because everyone’s competing for 10 little spots on a Google search result page. While some folks will find services through alternative means — Yelp, Maps, referrals, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. — most folks go to Google first. But if you get somewhere from Google, how long do you take before you bail out? The bounce rate, or the rate at which someone enters a website and leaves within about 7 seconds, is probably very high for this site and certainly for sites with this sort of word-laden search vomit.

What good does it do a person to rank highly for a search phrase if you’re just sending people to a website that can’t convert them into buyers or users of the service you’re trying to sell? It’s the online equivalent of people holding signs and dancing on the street corner to get you into a Fireworks shop only to find out the fireworks store is closed right now.

There are better ways, like ensuring you write authoritatively and regularly, or just doing some really good work that gets noticed. Search optimization isn’t to be ignored, otherwise we’d just be sloppy. But we’re not going to encourage anyone to go to this level of work to ultimately annoy customers.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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