Zen and the Art of SEO

Source Title:
SEO and the Zen Factor
Story Text:

Jill Whalen, SEO Roshi, talks about the Zen of SEO. That it's not always about algorithms and technicalities, sometimes, it just has to feel right...

There will always be SEOs who need to do their work based on some
logical, formulaic reasoning. These people may never be able to
simply trust their own instincts. To them, it can't just "feel right,"
because search algorithms and how to beat them have got to have a
logical explanation. However, as time marches on, search engines are
becoming ever more sophisticated. The logical among us have all kinds
of theories and acronyms (e.g. LSI) that supposedly explain how the
engines will be determining relevancy in the future. Personally, I
prefer to believe that they're simply adding a "Zen factor" to the

For what it's worth, i totally agree. I look at many things that way actually, though i've never read a Zen book, and couldn't even explain the basic concepts to you.

Sometimes things are obvious with no need of explanation or reason.


Why The Exclusion?

No need for logic to be discarded and certainly no reason to avoid Zen. Why not combine logic, reason and Zen? Toss in some feng shui if you like.

Light a candle, shake a chicken bone at your competitor's sites, dance naked at midnight under the light of a full moon while cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle. I've called SEO algorithm voodoo for years, no sense in excluding Zen, Scientology or cartomancy.

But since there is so much data available, why not use that newly acquired fondness for Zen and apply it to that data? Might be an enlightening experience.

A Zen master named Gisan asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath.

The student brought the water and, after cooling the bath, threw on to the ground the little that was left over.

"You dunce!" the master scolded him. "Why didn't you give the rest of the water to the plants? What right have you to waste even a drop of water in this temple?"

The young student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.

I'm off to allow my teetering bulb of dread and dream to meditate on strange loops while I continue to ponder the MU puzzle.

Don't knock dancing naked

.. in lieu of SEO income I have to earn my pennies somehow ;O)

Far From It

I'd never knock dancing naked. ;) As for Zen, that's simply one method and what Zen are we talking about anyway? Buddha sat before a wall. Tekisui spilled some water and listened. Some may attain Zen while watching strings of numbers scroll down a monitor while another may attain Zen while watching a lotus petal fall.

Zen can be attained in an instant or remain elusive after years, or a lifetime.

When practiced at the level of those of us who've been in the game for
5-10 years, SEO is in fact very Zen-like. We can look at a website
and know exactly what needs to be done to make it the best it can be
for the site visitors and the search engines.

That sounds more like reason, instinct and conditioning than Zen. Not to knock the method, after all, it is results we're concerned with right? Simply assuming that we can "know" what is "best" for all the site visitors seems counter to Zen principles. ;)

Hmmm. In a sense aren't we just talking about...

Creating a site with the human visitor in mind using the basic rules of HTML/ on site optimization...

the zen part comes into play while we wait for the search engine algorithms to play catch-up until they can digest the simplicity of a site designed in this manner - and return it appropriately ahead of spam in SERPs.


Okay, this is a stretch.

I don't want to knock this too hard, but I fail to see the need to bring the new age, self-help analogies into the arena.

First and foremost, I really find it puzzling why people feel the compelling urge to compare Zen to everything and anything.

Second, where does pure, unadulterated "innate" intuition come into SEO anyway? You learn how SEO works, make decisions based on education and experience, research, get creative sometimes, and track and adjust progress. If that's Zen, it is certainly a very basic and trivial brand.

On the other hand, I suppose there is a lack of prose about the aesthetics of SEO, so in that respect I can understand the idea behind the post. I just would have preferred it was dealt with differently, and covered differently here at TW.

As the old koan goes ...

"Without #1 ranking on Google, thirty strokes.
With #1 ranking on Google, thirty strokes."

You got me DG

I have to admit I took a little poetic license in using the word "Zen"...

Er, ehm ...

that's what I thought, too, I confess, when reading your statement: "Even though SEO isn't as complicated as Zen Buddhism" :-)


of the fundmental SEO principles I work to are very Zen in nature.




I you call those traits by another name - say - laziness and complacency, are they still "Zen"?

In that case I'm WAY up there :-]

That's It

My Poetic license has been revoked. SEO has made me a bit analytical, (notice the word "anal" at the beginning of analytical) ;) I have to relearn how to relax. Time to sweep the skull off my desk, or at least plant flowers in it. Do you think Jerome would appreciate the irony of flowers blooming from a skull... ?

I think it is true.

At least in Usability. I can look at a page and without even thinking point out the places where people will get lost, confused or just things people will miss. I'm not even sure *how* I do it anymore, but for some reason, usability, even more so than SEO is just *there.

It's actually kind of frustrating, becasue when I have to report on these things for a client, I can't type fast enough to get all the things I immediately see, and sometimes I can't put into words what is blatenly obvious to my eye.

I am going to register ZenSEO.com

After reading this I think it will make me at one with the search market and help me to find inner peace between my white and black hats. They are always in conflict and this just might be the way to make them achieve perfect harmony.

Then again maybe SEOYingYang.com might be a better option.

Er, ehm ... again

better make that SEOYinYang.com or you might as well register SEOJojo.com which wouldn't bode too well for what you have in mind. :-)

Yep grnidone!

That's exactly what I'm talking about! I called it the "Zen factor" but sure, it could be simply called intinct, or knowledge, or even just plain old "expertise."

But whatever you want to call it, it's more the process of going from knowing nothing about a subject, to living, sleeping and breathing it, so you could *almost* do it in your sleep! You just "know."


*laughing* Best post you've made yet, agotoguy! Hope you ran right out and registered that domain....

Jill, grnidone, it's otherwise known as "woman's intuition". And I'm not taking potshots saying that. It's a truism that women "feel" the balances. No reason that it can't be applied to SEO as well as to anything else.... It's not "new age" anything. It's been observed for many centuries....


Women's intuition is another label. But I'd like to think that plenty of men do the same thing. Which is why I said "instinct" although intuition may be even more appropriate, as I think instinct is something you're born with.


I hate that word. What we most commonly call "instinct" is nothing more than our reliance on experience. Intuition is often misused in the same way. I think that a rational process is involved in the majority of all instances in which we use words like "instinct" or "intuition", or phrases like "gut feeling". What escapes us is the ability to accurately describe the process by which we come to understanding.

I don't think any SEO or usability decisions are made tabula rasa.

gut feeling is right

instinct is stuff you know without ever having been taught it, intuition is stuff you know is right even if it's against common expectation. Gut feeling is what you get when you've done something for years and you're bloody good at what you do.

I don't personally think the first two can apply to SEO because it's an artificial art. I wish I had the SEO third.



I once read or watched something about this and they thought that "womens intuition" was simply the more thoughtful nature of the female mind, in interpreting many, many small things about something and coming to a conclusion.

Same with men also of course, but they were talking about the woman thing.

Intuition and "gut feel" are catchall's for processes we cant explain easily, as DG said.

Instinct, intuition, how 'bout...


That is what the process becomes.

I Dunno

Innate is used to mean "possessed at birth". "Inherent" seems incorrect. Then there's "Of or produced by the mind rather than learned through experience: an innate knowledge of right and wrong." Don't think that one fits either.

Seems odd to say that someone develops an innate talent. ;) Predisposition? Lots of slippery slope there.

Okay then that brings us back to...

...the Zen Factor! :D

I'm always on a slippery slope...

...when I don't refer to a dictionary and DG's involved in the thread ;)

Implicit and Explicit

Words are symbols. We attribute meaning, yet words, or symbols possess their own meaning. Once, again, back to two states. Subjectivity. We can argue over Zen for all eternity, but unless we got together and agreed on a definition of "Zen" for this instance, we may all be right or wrong. Even then, our definition of Zen may or may not stand outside the context of this discussion.

Jill's definition of Zen may be entirely different than my definition, or Jimbeetle's, yet all definitions may be correct or incorrect at the same time. Collapsing the wave simply won't work unless we have infinite observers, and with that, comes infinite definitions. That sounds pretty Zen. ;)

Definition by consensus, while simplifying the means of providing definitions, seems inherently wrong, in fact, impossible, given infinite observations and conclusions with no basis in context. So we're left with what a particular word means to each us, or consensus. Given the nature of acquiring consensus of what any given symbol means to an individual, it is much easier to place our trust in what Webster, or Ph.Ds at Oxford arrive at as a reasonable expectation of what a given word/symbol should mean.

I should probably get quiet now, before I get into why the alphabet doesn't really exist... ;)

Getting too deep...

Maybe we better just stick with arguing the definition of search engine optimization! ;)

Unzenning Zen

is that what you're heading for next? Mooh, er Mu! :-)


I don't want to unzen Zen. It was raining yesterday.;) As for the existence of the alphabet, I'll just say that the closer you look, the more it isn't there.

Which alphabet?

If you say "symbols", you are also - like it or not - saying "rumor" ...

Rumor Fits

Not nicely, or perfectly, but it does fit. The archetypal ideal of a one to one match of letter to sound (or several prescribed sounds) simply doesn't happen. It is a rumor in the sense that verifying that a given letter represents a given sound is next to impossible. The documented origin of the "alphabet" is a bit shaky as well.

Toss in the dynamic nature of language and we're left with words as markers of meaning. They can and do point to several definitions at once. "Decimate" is a good example. Today, decimate is used to mean the destruction of a large part of a group. As a symbol it conjures images of total destruction, chaos, etc. A rumor of its old meaning, which was to kill every tenth soldier. Deci is a huge clue.

Additionally, the sounds letters stand for change over time. It is the flexibility of the alphabet that allows it to represent the various ideas, sounds and concepts that we come up with. A rigidly defined system would mean stasis and decay typically follows stasis.

Yep, rumor works for me. ;)

a little poetic license in using the word "Zen"...

Jill took more than a little poetic license. Zen isn't about some subjective "it just feels right". Those famous Zen koans (e.g., "Everyone knows the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand?") have correct and incorrect answers just like any other test.

"Without #1 ranking on Google, thirty strokes.
With #1 ranking on Google, thirty strokes."

Now that's the Zen of SEO!

How about

"You should not strive to become #1 on Google.
You should not not strive to become #1 on Google."

And yes, if anything Zen is about not falling into the traps of the subjective (without, however, subscribing to the trappings of Western rationalism alone).

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