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I’m not a Programmer, but I Play One on the Web

03/04/2009

In the most general sense of the word, I am a programmer. I can write HTML without stopping to look things up very often. I understand PHP and other basic languages enough that I can work with them when optimizing a web site. But when you get into the nuts and bolts of it, my eyes glass over as if you were asking me to change a head gasket.

My programming friends have taught me to appreciate their art. Making a php database driven site work the way I, as an internet marketing writer, want it to is nothing short of artistic. And when code validates, it’s like seeing a Monet for the first time, or listening to Mozart. Or maybe Paul Westerberg…

But as an internet marketing writer, I have learned that trying to get a site with messy code to win a search in a competitive market is, indeed, a Sisyphean task. In the case of a site with bad code, it’s doubtful you’ll ever get the boulder to the top of the hill in the first place.

Think like a search engine spider. You access a site and the first thing you see is no robots.txt file to help you out, no identification of what kind of code you’re about to read, no site map to help you navigate, no logical architectural hierarchy, and even the plain html is a mess. You immediately wonder if the site is worth recommending to your users. The more you try to index the page, the worse it gets. Images are named with numbers and have no alt tag: how are you supposed to know what they are? Paragraphs are long and wordy, sometimes containing long strings of keywords in sentence fragments, sometimes entire paragraphs have no verbs!

Sometimes I feel sorry for the robots. It must be like being the teacher in Ralphie’s day dream in Christmas Story, grading one crappy paper after another, until she comes across the gem of a paper about a Red Rider BB gun.

If you’re stuck with an old messy web site that would make an elementary school teacher yawn, you’re probably not going to impress the Google Bot. I’ve probably lost a lot of business by telling people that they would be better off just building a new web site — a nice, clean, polite, organized, logical, well-written site that Professor Google will enjoy recommending.

I applied for a job at fool.com a long time ago. I didn’t get the job, but I did learn a lot from the application. One thing I’ll never forget was that they had a separate room for the site’s programmers. There was a sign, hand scribbled on plain paper, scotch taped to the door of that room. It read, in block hand printed letters, “DON’T FEED THE TECHIES.”

That might be good advice. I usually only deal with them by email. But I do have one piece of advice for anyone who wants to win a competitive search on Google: pay your programmers well. Without clean validating code, no one else can help your site.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/04/2009 10:10 pm

    I just came across your blog about SEO and wanted to drop you a note telling you how impressed I was with the information you have posted here. I also have a web site & blog about SEO so I know I’m talking about when I say your site is top-notch! Keep up the great work, you are providing a great resource on the Internet here!

    • 03/05/2009 10:14 am

      Well, it’s not exactly earth shattering or new in anyway, I just hope I can put it out there in an entertaining way that’s easier to understand than most of the tech speak I read.

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