SEO: The gardener’s perspective

by Tom Albrighton 5 May 2010 SEO

What could Alan Titchmarsh or Monty Don teach students of SEO? Quite a lot, as it turns out – great SEOaks from tiny acorns grow. Read on to learn about the parallels between cultivating plants and cultivating links.

Sow good seed

Quality plants come from quality stock, or quality seed. If you want to avoid failure, choose your raw materials wisely. Otherwise you’ll be waiting another year to establish that plant you’ve always wanted in your garden.

So it is with SEO. Domains that include keywords; sites that are optimised well; keywords that are chosen wisely; articles that are valuable enough to be republished – getting all these elements in place from the earliest possible stage will generate the best results.

Time takes time

‘The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.’
Zen saying

If you’re planting a slow grower like Japanese Maple (Acer Japonicum), you have to accept that it’s probably going to be another gardener who enjoys its full maturity – after you’ve moved on (or passed on). But what can you do? If you want a tree, all you can do is plant it and wait.

It’s kind of hard to accept in the instantaneous world of Web 2.0, but when it comes to SEO, these things take time. To get to the top of the stairs, you step on the lowest one first. Domains must age to be reputable; links take time to accrue; blogs take time to build readership and reputation.

Do it once, do it right

Some gardeners attempt to ‘renew’ or ‘redesign’ a garden by ripping out gnarled old shrubs and shady trees, only to discover they’ve ripped out all the character too. Others insist on recreating a ludicrous six-inch-high array of dwarf annuals year after year, sacrificing dignity for tidiness. But the best gardeners take sure, steady steps, putting the right plants in the right place and letting them mature as they wish.

It’s the same with SEO. Choose a domain and stick with it. Establish URLs and don’t change them. Then choose an SEO strategy and stick with that, too. Don’t change your on-page content for the sake of it, or try to fix what isn’t broken. In general, be wary of changes of direction that could put you right back at square one.

Don't be like Teddy. Plant your SEO seeds and give them plenty of chance to grow

Mix it up

Trees. Shrubs. Herbaceous perennials. Annuals. Herbs. Ferns. Unless you’re a one-trick plantsman who goes nuts only for spurge (or whatever), you’re going to want a mix of plants in your garden. It’s the only way to get a nice balance of colours, views and seasonal changes.

In the world of SEO, it’s all about a blend of tactics. Because you never quite know what works (see ‘plural causality’ below), you have to advance on a number of fronts at the same time. Google likes a balanced link profile, so you need to attract links from a range of sources if you want to rank.

Plural causality

Or, to put it another way, things grow (or don’t grow) for lots of different reasons. Christopher Lloyd attributed the profuse flowering of his ceanothus to his habit of throwing his nail-clippings at the base of the plant. (Ceanothus need calcium, so there is some reason behind this.) The truth is that gardeners never really know which of their tactics has, quite literally, borne fruit. Yes, you used seaweed fertiliser on that hebe this year, but it was a sunny spring too – and you took out a nearby tree. Which factor, or combination of factors, actually did the business?

SEO is just the same. Typically, you’ll be trying a range of different tactics simultaneously: on-page optimisation, directory subs, article marketing, PR, blogging. But since results are so one-dimensional (basically a number from 1 to whatever), there’s precious little feedback on which have worked. This can be enormously frustrating and probably also contributes to a lack of faith in search marketing as a discipline. Clients never know which search tactic actually brought them their ranking, leaving them pretty much in the dark about how to optimise ROI by cutting out the less effective approaches.

Little and often

Horticultural atrocities such as decking bear witness to many gardeners’ yearnings for a ‘low maintenance garden’. Sorry, but if you want a lawn, a flowerbed or a hedge (and if you don’t, why didn’t you buy a flat?) you’re going to have to buckle down to regular mowing, weeding or trimming. And no, it isn’t possible to give the hedge one monumentally brutal cut in May and hope it will see you through. It doesn’t work that way.

SEO is similar. Google’s looking for a steadily increasing number of inbound links to your site (a constant ‘link velocity’, to use the industry term). And that means getting out there to post articles, submit PR, update your blog and comment on other blogs on a regular basis. Maybe you could do it while you’re resting after mowing the lawn?

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