Knowing Why Is As Important As What

A thought occurred to me yesterday, that I just had to tweet,

“One of the biggest causes of SEO mistakes is because people know what to do but not why they need to do it”.

I had a load of great responses to this, but still felt like I needed to elaborate on it a little, so here goes.

There are so many things that I see people recommending for SEO that are not relevant for the site they have been recommended for. Robots.txt files are the example that always springs to mind, it’s not uncommon to see someone state something along the lines of “your site has not robots.txt file and one should be added”. Why? If the site doesn’t want to exclude any specific bots, or prevent any content from being indexed, why would it need the file? The only thing that is accomplished by having a site that doesn’t need one, upload a robots.txt file is wasting a developers time somewhere, probably meaning that something far more important doesn’t get implemented.

This also effects prioritisation of tasks, lets face it, most clients have a limited resource for implementation, and sometimes you have to sacrifice something that is a nice to have in favour of the must haves, but unless you understand why optimisations are required, and what they contribute to the whole, how can those decisions be made effectively? How do you know what to fight for, and what to concede?

This issue is never more keenly felt for me than when I am trying to recruit, a recent candidate told me they had set up a blog for SEO on a site, but on questioning couldn’t tell me why that would help, or what else would need doing to make that an effective strategy, they knew the what, but not the why,  so the strategy was doomed to fail, and next time someone suggests a blog to that business, they will respond that it has been tried and failed.

Understanding the whys comes back to questioning, testing and never accepting other people’s assertions blindly, for me that’s what makes the difference every time.

Thanks to


for joining in the conversation yesterday

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17 Responses to “Knowing Why Is As Important As What”

  1. John Hutson says:

    Thanks for elaborating Sarah – 140 characters on Twitter just wasn’t enough in the end :o )

    Now it makes more sense and I see the angle you’re coming from. The why’s are important due to prioritising like you say.

    I have just realised that I break it down for clients to say “These aren’t make or break requirements but it should be strived towards when possible” and also “You really MUST do this because of XYZ”.

    The blog example you gave is a good one. If they didn’t know WHY it is good for SEO then yes, there is danger there would be no focus for that tactic and in turn the client may not see results – and when/if the next SEO dude/dudette comes along and suggests having a blog – they’ll think twice about getting onto it.

    As I say – was worth following up – so thanks for the time doing that.


  2. Barry Adams says:

    I run in to this all the time with clients that have had previous experience with ‘SEOs’ – usually amateurs or web design companies that think they know some SEO as well. It’s not helping our industry at all, this pollution by uninformed and inexperienced hacks.

    Re: the robots.txt, I always insist on having it with a reference to the XML sitemap file.

  3. Great post Sarah,

    Good point on the wanna-be SEO setting up the failing blog because they don’t know what to do, so won’t know why they failed.

    Their experience then becomes something they “learned” about SEO and is passed on as knowledge to [potentially many] others, possibly taking them down the same path.

    The Internet gives everyone a platform to express their opinions, but a lot of the time the opinions and knowledge they share is based on a lack of understanding. Dangerous, no?

    So be careful who you listen to.

  4. Alana Burton says:

    Thumbs up Sarah :-)

    In the earlier (and no-so-long-ago) days of learning SEO the robots.txt was one of those things I had down as “know it’s important but can’t remember to relay to anyone else on why…” as well as canonical tags and probably quite a few other things. I *try* not to implement any changes I don’t feel I fully understand but I have found that to a large extent, hashing things out & testing new theories and techniques is the best way to grasp new SEO concepts & learn from your own mistakes but at the same time I agree that there shouldn’t be robots.txt files “just because…”

    I think the key is to know your own limitations. Everyone has to start learning somewhere & the damaging aspect to the SEO industry are the ones who over-blag it :-)

  5. Hobo says:

    I hate sharing seo stuff with clients who implement it in the worst possible way. When I started out, I shared a lot of seo stuff with clients. But two clients in particular who I got to the very top of Google took this ‘advice’ and implemented so badly as to nuke their sites from Google.

    Thinking they can make their home page rank by a myriad of internal linking, or putting their keyword in EVERY ELEMENT, in every mention of the element…. sheesh…. now I keep my thoughts to myself on paid jobs and seek and agreement its only us that seo ‘on site’.

    Why do clients not understand “keep it simple on site” ??? :)

  6. safcblogger says:

    Hi Sarah, following on from your tweet yesterday and my response;

    “If they do not know the “why” then the “what” becomes a process instead of a passion or will to succeed.”

    I still stand by that response. It becomes a process, a checklist of factors to tick off against for every client.

    We all know every client is different. Some wil give you the run of the mill and others would love to but you have to face off with developers or other vendors who don`t want you to touch their “shiney toy”.

    The challenge is not the one that gives us free reign.

  7. @safcblogger – couldn’t agree more, SEO will never be a process, and the attempts some people make to turn it into one usually end up in disaster (or just a complete lack of results)

    @Alana – Exactly, I have nothing about robots.txt files, but it’s that “just because” attitude that is the problem, there are always people and places where you can learn more about why something is needed, not looking is just laziness.

    @darren – “be careful who you listen to” should be tattooed on the inside of every SEO’s eyelids I think

  8. Goosh says:

    Sarah, great article!

    I’ve experienced this a few times with clients and they have essentialy had to be re-sold an idea because of poor implementation.

    I must, however, disagree with you and Dean on SEO not being a process. There is always a process in what you do, whether it’s formalised or not, but I think the real problem occurs with the application of the process.

    For example, we have a check list of regular problems & elements that we encounter in websites along with “nice-to-haves” or “best practise”. Like you say, robots.txt is “best practise” but only if its needed. I think this is where our process of checking a website against pre-requisites helps us out immensely as it allows us to not only solve common problems but it also allows us to train new members of staff in “best practise”. This allowallows us to show these new starters WHY they are on the list and when it’s best to apply – and more importantly – when not to apply it.

    Like you say, development time is limited, but when I ask for stuff – I’m asking ’cause I need it ( not ’cause I read it in a “top 25 SEO rankings tricks” document.

  9. Shahid says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Im not so sure I agree with your Robots.txt example.

    “upload a robots.txt file is wasting a developers time”

    Its a simple file that takes 5 mins for an seo to create and probably 30 seconds for a client dev team to upload to the root server. The .txt file deals with :

    * dupe content…
    * sitemap location…
    * Partners pages etc…. to name a few

    Ive had a number of clients where the robots.txt file has been essential, simply because their CMS does not handle content well.

    I just dont see how you could compare the above process getting priority over other changes.

    Just my observations…


  10. I agree if there is something that the robots.txt is needed for then get one uploaded, but on a lot of sites it’s just not required, for instance when there are none of the issues that you mentioned. What is the point n uploading an empty file, I’ve never been able to figure that out, but I have seen a lot of people do it because they have been taught that “a site needs a robots.txt”

  11. Christina says:

    Agree, I use to be one of them but somehow it took my interest and led me to do some research “why” I need to do it. Thanks for further elaboration on this. Greta article btw.

  12. Vee says:

    Great point about the candidate setting up a blog but the person could not give a reason for why it would help. The “why” is the most important factor, especially if it is going to detail changing someone’s site design or structure. SEO is sometimes not just about what people see at the surface, but it also includes whats under the hood of the website and in the files. While I know a little html, php, css etc, it is not my strong point and I will therefore have to communicate with the web developer of the site or programmer to have the changes made. A site owner would never authorize such as thing unless they knew the “why”.

  13. Valid points raised.Just getting the developers time can sometimes be difficult though. There are loads of seo myths out there, think it’s just a case of sticking to what’s tried and tested. I’d always stick a robots.txt file in, just habit I guess and sitemap.xml

  14. I would say ‘when’ applies mostly when it comes your internet marketing efforts are on social networks. Knowing the time that best fits for your promotion via social media is one of the best methods to market on them.

  15. So very true Sarah. Understanding the role which a blog, for example, is playing within your SEO campaign is paramount. Simply setting up a blog and not posting anything meaningful or keyword related will never increase your traffic.

  16. Knowing why is a huge challenge in the SEO world, and to me that seems half the battle. The fact that many don’t know “why” is a big reason the value of SEO isn’t known by many.

  17. Edo Cohen says:

    I think you hit the nail with this one. It’s crazy how many people set up a blog and do not install the proper SEO components and plug ins because they don’t know the why…

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