As part of this review process, I interviewed Ben Finklea. We covered his new book, "Drupal 6 Search Engine Optimization," as well as other interesting topics like how you might need to start your own church to write a book, what it's like to overcome the stigma of doing SEO, and what to expect in the future of search engines and Drupal 7. Listen to the interview here. (right-click and select 'save as' to download)
I have a lot of respect for business owners forging new niches in the Drupal space. Not only has Ben Finkea done this, but he's done it in a niche that's rife with controversy. SEO as a subject is highly polarizing, and choosing it as the topic of a book directed at an open-source audience that highly values the transparency often neglected in the SEO sector seems downright masochistic. So, before even addressing the content of the book I have to applaud Ben's gumption. To have success in a controversial arena like this, I think you have to be quite skilled at filtering out and responding positively the inevitable negative feedback - something that's not always easy to do.
To begin with, I think the name of this book is understandably misleading. While "Drupal 6 Search Engine Optimization" covers many topics related to optimizing a site for search engines, a large part of the book is dedicated to teaching the reader how to improve conversion rates, attract readers and organize content. I think this is a good thing, but going into the book knowing that a variety of non-SEO topics will be covered might allow the reader to enjoy it more.
I've had enough SEO experience to be a bit beyond the curve the book takes on, so I felt a little outside the target audience range. In spite of this, I still found a lot of value in it, and surprisingly this value was mostly in the material that wasn't directly SEO-related. Also, if I step back about 5 years to before I knew much about Drupal or SEO, the value multiplies significantly. If you're new to Drupal, sifting through the module repository to find ones that will help your site become more friendly to search engines is tricky, because they're not all labeled as such. The first part of the book introduces the reader to a variety of helpful modules and walks them through the steps required to configure them. Along the way, the reader is exposed to some basics concepts in SEO, such as the importance of targeting keywords, cleaning up URLs, dealing with redirects and the benefits of writing semantically-correct markup. If you find that you have too few tools in your SEO toolbox, then this initial coverage is important and will get you headed in the right direction. Pages 11-17 in particular lists out a number of useful SEO modules that are mentioned throughout the book, and this list alone is a great resource.
A number of more advanced topics are covered as well, including how to optimize your robots.txt file (something I don't have much experience in), and tips on speeding up your site. For a typical site maintainer who hasn't given much thought to optimizing their site for search engines, there is enough material here to keep busy for a while. And based on my knowledge of SEO, using the collection of tools Ben suggests is an excellent defensive strategy for getting your content indexed by search engines properly, without any fear of sketchy tactics getting your site penalized or banned.
At about page 150, SEO starts to take a back seat and traffic optimization takes the wheel. My favorite two sections in this second part are labeled "Don't Stop" and "Find Inspiration." Don't Stop is a short, single paragraph, but summarizes a principle that is just about the most essential aspect of building meaningful traffic, which is continuing to build content and keep things fresh - an excellent reminder. "Find Inspiration" is a list of around 20 suggestions for sources and structures you can build content from. Ben mentions that he refers to this list when he gets stuck, and I found the list useful enough that I'm going to start doing the same. Some suggestions include subscribing to Google Alerts, reviewing emails and questions from customers, and doing original research. If you've attempted to write on a regular basis, then you know that some days you're more inspired than others. There's something on this list for just about any level of inspiration.
Some interesting additional topics are covered in this second part, such as how to write compelling copy, organize large amounts of content and improve conversion rates, which are all very useful to those responsible for managing web site content.
I understand that one book can't be everything to everybody, and this book serves its purpose well. However, If you have some experience with SEO, you'll notice that there are some notable omissions in this book. With controversial subject matter, one can be be bold, in-your-face, opinionated and passionate, taking a side and sticking with it. Or, one can be cautious and careful and avoid arguable material. This book takes the latter approach. It definitely outlines a clear path of SEO defense which useful material that is difficult to argue against, but leaves out a lot of the meaty bits I find most interesting about SEO. Subjects like inbound and outbound linking, link building campaigns, conducting tests against search engines to see how PageRank is transferred (and is it even important?). Link text - generally thought to be one of the most important aspects of passing value from one page to another - is only briefly mentioned. What about changing content on pages that have been indexed, or how search engines consider the longevity of links? The book but doesn't take the SEO talk further than the basics, which may be disappointing to some.
Those things being said, I recognized a number of suggestions in the book that I don't apply regularly enough, and the argument can be made as to the amount of good the material I'd like to hear about would do me if I'm not executing the essentials properly.
The only other criticism I have is that I would have liked to see more sources referenced. Matt Cutt's blog is mentioned briefly, but I would be really interested to see where the rest of the material came from or from where it was inspired. That kind of list would also be helpful for folks ready to dive a little deeper into SEO.
I think this book can provide a lot of value to new web development shops or freelancers. If you become familiar enough with the material it covers, you will have an arsenal of answers to tough questions you're inevitably going to get from potential customers regarding SEO and managing content. It will take a while to gather this information yourself, and the time it saves you will be worth the cost of the book.
As a new site administrator or owner of a site that needs to optimize its traffic sources, a lot can be gained from utilizing this book as a reference guide for writing and organizing content. As an intermediate Drupal user, I would suggest reviewing this book to make sure you're following the different strategies it outlines. If you find yourself running out of ideas for improving your site and building content, there's some excelent material in the second half of the book for you, too.
Ben was kind enough to interview with me, and some really interesting topics came up. One notable bit that got missed in the interview was that the book probably wouldn't have been written if Ben didn't get appendicitis and had been high on drugs in the hospital with nothing to do but find the bottom of his e-mail inbox. Here's a quick list of what you'll hear about:
- How the Drupal community has responded to an SEO company in their midst
- Is organic SEO dead?
- How will SEO in Drupal 7 be different?
- How are search engines changing and what can we do?
- Reflections and tips on writing a book (everyone should do it!)
- Listen to the interview here