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What Atari 2600 games can teach an SEO like me.

Adventure by Atari
Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

If you’re a 70’s kid like me, chances are you played an Atari 2600 video game or two in your heyday. It’s not far-fetched for me to wager here that a lot of today’s web designers may still even own the Atari 2600 system they had as a child – unlike modern computers, they never break (knock on wood paneling!) Mine is still going strong, and when I need to escape the pressures of daily life, I find a good round of Adventure or River Raid takes me back to the simple happiness of childhood.

SEO (search engine optimization) is all about making web pages basic and simple for search engines to use. How do we approach this? By making things as easy as possible for human visitors to use. Though there are some nitty gritty aspects of optimizing a website that may or may not improve the visitor experience, I’d say the beauty of SEO is that most of what makes sense to your website’s viewers also makes sense to the Googlebot.

So, what does this have to do with me sitting around playing Space Invaders, eating cookies and listening to Rush?

It’s about the simplicity of the user experience. If you haven’t ever played an Atari game, the illustration I’ve provided sums up what they were about pretty nicely. You’re a square dot, navigating a maze, hitting key points such as castles, gaining valuable objects you need such as keys, a sword, a magnet. Meanwhile, you’re being chased by dragons (yes, that thing that looks like a friendly seahorse) in your attempt to capture the glowing chalice and win the game. It may sound a bit silly, but the fact that the Google index currently contains 8,210,000 pages for the keywords Atari 2600 shows that I am clearly not the only one who developed such a loyalty to these early, very basic games. If people are still so devoted to a product 20 years later, it must really have something good going for it.

I would assert that though the technology and complexity of modern video games far surpasses the funny, square graphics of a game like Adventure, the pleasure of navigating a maze and achieving a goal have not really been improved on since this classic was created.

By the same token, when it comes to developing a website, bells and whistles are unlikely to improve the visitor’s experience, and they can have an extremely negative effect on how much the search engine spiders ‘enjoy’ their attempt to navigate the maze you’ve built. Flash graphics and the like may make good linkbait if used correctly, but they don’t make sales happen quickly and they are blank to the Googlebot. Unlike video game programmers, of course, SEOs are trying to make the game as EASY, not as challenging, as possible. The title of Steve Krug’s lauded web design book Don’t Make Me Think! accurately sums up the thought behind creating a maze for visitors that takes them from point A to point B with the least possible effort.

Remember what the goal of your website is

Presumably, it’s to make money. Whether that comes in the form of products purchased, phone calls to your service-oriented firm, or donations for your non-profit business, you’ve embarked on this whole web adventure to achieve what you want. By scaling the design and function of your website down to the very basics, you greatly diminish the risk of turning visitors away who got confused by what the point of your site was. Was it to show them a cartoon, or to sell them a cotton sweater? Did you start your web business to look cool or to earn money?

While I grant that there may be a few fields in which looking high-tech in order to impress people might possibly be warranted, I don’t believe SEO should be about being cool. I believe it should be about creating websites that fill public needs in a no-nonsense, gimmick-free manner. The web is littered with nightmares of Flash graphics, popups, dropdowns, and rollouts where unsuspecting customers wander in trying to find something, and possibly never find their way out again! These venues are like traps, and I am so glad that Google is leading the fight to push junk like this down, down, down the SERPs. I’ve watched the bewilderment and frustration of people who walk into sites like these, and I’d like to think that the ultimate goal of SEO work is to eradicate fancy, overproduced sites from the web.

I think as new technologies evolve, we should always be asking ourselves whether they actually have value. Do they have a purpose beyond just being nifty? Do they make our on-line experience easier, swifter, more fulfilling?

But I’m not really saying websites should look like Atari 2600 games, am I?

Well, if they are selling Atari games, that would be fine, but obviously, a website needs to look up-to-date and professional. My point is not that good websites need to look behind-the-times. My point is that clean, search engine friendly, visitor-friendly function will beat the heck out of flashiness every time. Amazon.com and craigslist.org are 2 of the plainest and most popular sites on the web. Take a look at how they are put together, and how they function. That’s Atari 2600 web design if I’ve ever seen it!

In conclusion, my esteemed readers and fellow SEOs:
Do you think love of new technologies can distract us from our focus on usability?
Do you think the web is getting easier to use or harder?
Do you spend more time on fancy sites or meaty ones?

-And most importantly –
Have you played Atari today?