SEO and the Underpants Gnomes Theory of Web Site Presentation

A 1998 episode of South Park featured a group of creatures that became known as the “Underpants Gnomes.” These guys sneak into people’s homes and steal their underwear. Why? To Make Big Bucks, of course. Here’s their business plan:

  1. Collect Underpants[]???[]Profit!!!

I keep seeing thread after thread and post after post in this forum that has almost the same aesthetic:

  1. Make Web site[]Apply every SEO technique known to man[]???[*]Profit!!!

This “business plan” that will make Big Bucks No Whammies out of a thrown-together, purposeless Web site festooned with every half-baked, ill-conceived SEO technique found on every no-name blog on the Interwebz makes no sense whatsoever. Why? Because nowhere in this Underpants Gnomes “business plan” does the site owner think about what purpose his site is serving besides to Make Him Some Moonay!

There are a blue million of those sites out there, and I bet the site owner who thinks he can engineer success with his SEO Underpants Gnomes plan doesn’t like them any more than I do. So why does he make such a site? Well, it’s different if he’s the one presenting the site… No, it’s not.

I wrote this as a comment in another thread, but I’ll put it here, too:

The point of a Web site is not to get a high Google ranking. The purpose of a Web site is not to make Big Bucks Fast. The purpose of a Web site is to serve its users.

If the site does a good job of presenting its content, and it has good content to present, it will achieve a good ranking sooner or later. If a site has a good product to sell, it is marketed effectively, and it makes the task of buying the product simple, efficient, and inviting, it will achieve a high Google ranking sooner or later. Period.

Seriously. Until you have an efficient, well-constructed, user-friendly Web site with good strong content and/or a useful product that is well presented and easy to buy, forget about SERPs and PR and link juice and keyword density and all of that voodoo hoodoo.

The best SEO practice is to take a completed or nearly-completed site and then tweak it. (Let’s assume that it’s built well, with an efficient, modern code structure and such – if it isn’t, all the SEO techniques in the world won’t help it for long. You might as well sacrifice chickens and chant to Gorgo the Moon God for success. Most of your SEO success comes in the form of a well-constructed site.) Make sure your keywords are well represented in the content you’ve ALREADY WRITTEN. (If you’re writing boilerplate content that’s designed to serve as a frame for your keywords, then you’re being an Underpants Gnome. Stop.) Make sure the internal and external links you’ve ALREADY CONSTRUCTED are well formed and have good keywords. (If you’re adding links merely for SEO purposes, stop. They aren’t doing your users any good and therefore won’t do your magical mystery SEO any good.) Make sure that the ads you have on your page are not intrusive and don’t dominate the content – if I wanted to read a bunch of ads, I’d go pick up the AdPak outside my grocery store, I wouldn’t go to your site.

And so on.

In other words, everything you do on your site should be first and foremost for the convenience, edification, etc of your users. SEO techniques should supplement and augment what you’ve already done.

Let’s end this with an analogy. It’s like some people are building “automobiles” out of rusty baling wire, sheet metal, and old junk tires. They ram a rubber-band “engine” in there. Then they get some shiny, sparkly chrome, stick it on their useless crate hither and yon, and yell, “Looky! It’s a brand new CAR!!! Don’t you want to buy it? Dontcha dontcha dontcha huh? Pleeeeease?”

Or, using some folks’ favorite keyword technique, it should be more accurately, "“Looky! car It’s car a brand car new CAR!!! Don’t you car want to car buy it? car Dontcha dontcha car dontcha huh? car Pleeeeease? car

Are you offering your users a junkheap jalopy Web site with some shiny but useless SEO junk hanging off of it? Or are you offering your users a well-constructed site that they can get a lot of use out of even without a single SEO technique? If it’s the first case, then welcome to the Underpants Gnomes, just stay the hell out of my house. If it’s the second, then thank you. You can improve your site with some modestly applied, well-chosen SEO techniques designed to make your users’ experience that much better, and that much easier for them to find your site.

Brilliantly put, Max. The world doesn’t have enough references to South Park in general, or the Underpants Gnomes in particular.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make money by (a) building a website, or (b) collecting underpants. But you have to have a business plan. You have to be doing something that adds value for someone, somewhere, who will be prepared to give you money.

Advertising revenue might be enough, or it might not. I have a website that gets about 2000 visits a day, and is making about £150 (US$250) a month in ad revenue. The purpose of that site is not to make money, but to provide a service, and to bring in a few readies as a bonus on the side. Scale it up, if you can get bigger traffic figures than that and the site doesn’t take a massive amount of work to create and run, maybe you’ll earn some decent money out of it. Or maybe you won’t. The problem with relying on ad revenue is that it’s notoriously flaky. It can go up, it can go down, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. If you’re using one of the big players like Google Adsense, you’re entirely at the mercy of their algorithms, even more so than you are at the mercy of their search algorithms, and that can be quite a risk.

The best way to make money is to sell products, services or subscriptions, or to use your website as an extra arm of your existing offline business and simply draw in customers to your actual premises. But that all requires a sound business plan, which is just the same offline as online.

However you try to monetise your site – whether it’s through ad revenue, online sales/services, drawing in potential customers to your offline business, or a combination of all three – you have to remember that the content and presentation are what matters most. If your site has killer content and gives people good reasons to visit your site rather than the competition, you’ve got a much better chance of getting your business plan to work. If your site has mediocre content that can be found in a more user-friendly form on a dozen sites elsewhere, you’re going to struggle to get enough visitors to have a picnic in the park, let alone turn a meaningful profit.