Changing an Industry Name

Search engine optimization has had two faces in its early life.  Early optimizers found weaknesses in the search engines to exploit.  They quickly became the black hats, trying to stay ahead of the search engine algorithms and game the system to achieve artificially high rankings.  As the reputation over black hat optimization became something to avoid, the white hat optimizers came to be, offering optimizations safe from search engine penalty.  Over night many people started businesses based on SEO white hat services.

Unfortunately there was not an attempt to rename the SEO industry during its birth.  It held on to the SEO title first established by the black hat marketers who by now had become an underground, black market industry.  The SEO industry offered a sliver of the knowledge necessary to build a successful website, with most focusing on passing on the few simple rules for content and site design that are unknown to casual site owners and businesses.  To those that make websites, SEO is just a piece of overall site design, creation and management included in any project.

I’ve never like the term SEO.  To me it implies a secret science when I believe all the information is readily available.  It is also common sense while the search engines provide a fair and appropriate way to rank site popularity.  Still, many clients want the “secret” for their newly launched site to rank number one for their industry search terms.  I think it is more of an education issue and clients need education on more than just SEO.  Derek Powazek writes about the evils of SEO and how it contributes to the wealth of spam comments and other zero-value material on the web.  In the comments of his post, many working in the SEO industry object to the classification that SEO is not legitimate.  It seems many are stuck on calling themselves SEO experts or other such titles.  If you are focusing on just SEO, you are limiting yourself.  While SEO may be a well known term that brings customers, it is also an industry with a shady, untrustworthy background that confuses and scares many looking for help.  Increasing your offerings into areas such as usability, content management, website management, etc. you can increase the areas you consult in.  I think by being more than a SEO only company you will gain more respect from clients and gain a greater reputation in the industry.  As Derek says, make great websites for you and your clients, that will bring the best advertising.

Don’t have expertise in design or usability or architecture?  See if you can partner with some other small firms to refer work their way.  By moving away from a SEO firm to a full-services firm you can help correct the problems that SEO causes on the web like comment spam and link selling and grow yourself at the same time.

IE Version Targeting

There has been debate with volleys from both sides of the web design community the past few weeks regarding a Microsoft proposal for a new meta tag to set the default rendering behaviour of future version of Internet Explorer (IE). What does this mean for the smaller web site owner? My clients tend to fall into that category so I thought I would explain the issue in less technical terms (although I’ve perhaps failed at that).

You see, Microsoft’s IE has lagged behind its competitors in standards support, largely due to the lack of development between 2001’s IE6 and 2007’s IE7. With IE7, Microsoft brought greater standards support, but broke many web pages coded to rely on Microsoft’s previous rendering in IE6 when viewed in IE7. Without getting too technical, web page composers could code their pages to based on IE6’s behaviour, and if IE was not the only possible browser (as it may be in a corporate Intranet), code also for other browsers. When IE7 was introduced, aligning its rendering closer to the standards provided by the W3 consortium, pages composed the IE6 way would break, displaying incorrectly in IE7 since it no longer followed those rendering rules.

The Microsoft proposal is meant to prevent this from happening for future releases of the IE browser. The debate is over whether the feature should be a default to opt-in by doing nothing, or an opt-in by adding a tag or header value to a page. Microsoft wants any page not containing the new meta tag to default to IE7 rendering behaviour. That means that any page without the special tag would render as if it was IE7, in IE8, IE9 or even IE100. Any future capabilities of a new browser would not be seen on screen if the page composer forgot or omitted the new meta tag.

On the other side of the debate are the web designers and developers, particularly a group that have backed standards support across all browsers to make their jobs less difficult. They don’t believe that the opt-in method helps this cause. Instead, it leaves pages without this markup rendering as IE7 does now, which is not quite up to the standards support of other browsers. They believe, simply, that if a page is missing the proposed tag, it should render to the latest engine of the browser (IE8, IE9, etc.) Those who wish to freeze the behaviour of their pages should have to insert the special code, while the rest of the composers can continue knowing they have tested and accounted for browser differences.

From Microsoft’s perspective, it is purely a business decision. The IE7 upgrade did not go well when it broke some sites of their customers, who had to adjust their code to correct the issue. This proposal is simply to prevent that from happening again. Their customers are in a “do nothing, nothing breaks” position. From a designer’s perspective, it is just another proprietary piece of markup forced upon them to correct problems with Microsoft’s faulty browser. They have seen it before. In 1999, a DOCTYPE declaration was proposed to deal with different implementations of the box model specification for layout between IE and the rest of the browsers. This declaration allowed composers to choose IE’s old “quirks” mode rendering, or standards mode with the introduction of IE6, with other browsers adopting “quirks” mode to be compatible with IE, the dominant browser at the time.

I see different perspectives on this issue. As someone who has fought with code trying to get rendering to appear correctly in IE, I just want a widely adopted IE browser that fully supports standards so sites can be coded once. I want Microsoft to continue to develop their browser, and support standards, as they still hold the largest market share. From my early experiences learning about the DOCTYPE and standards and quirks mode, I had questions how Microsoft could catch up and not break things. Their so-called standards mode in IE6 was not close to following the specifications, with many hacks needed to get around the rendering issues. When these were fixed, it was obvious that the “standards” DOCTYPE would display differently between browsers.

I remember when I first started to seriously delve in web development, I was baffled by the different ways my page would display in different browsers (and I was committed to it working everywhere). With research, I discovered quirks and standards modes and went looking for the switch in IE’s options to put it in standards modes. Only now this seems silly, but after I realized that the DOCTYPE controlled the rendering mode, I was on my way to supporting standards and struggling with IE’s frustrating bugs. Many alternative proposals have been declared for this issue, from Microsoft changing it’s web server to blocking IE visitors to new DOCTYPE switches, none very practical. Sometimes I wish it would be as simple as an option in IE, but Microsoft will not leave the option in the hands of the browser; it must be in the control of the composer.

This proposal will be implemented by Microsoft I am sure. Therefore, watch for the introduction of IE8 and test your site. The best forward-looking stance for public web sites is to code to standards, target CSS to IE version when necessary, test in all modern browsers and see how this plays out. If implemented, you may need your administrator to make a change to avoid locking in your clients to a dead browser that still happens to have the largest market share.

Update: Not so sure any more. See comment below.