Back in the dim and distant past, when I was on summer leave from college, I had a temporary job with the postal service. It wasn’t much of a job, but it paid well (so well that I was able to buy a decent camera and all of Neil Young’s albums from just a couple of weeks’ wages).

Essentially, the job was sorting ‘ex-mails’ – the packages that are returned to mail-order companies because customers have decided that, actually, they don’t want the items in question. It was hard work – lugging and sorting parcels. But it was also unpredictable – you could be flat out for a few hours and then sat twiddling your thumbs for the rest of the day. Of course, you couldn’t be caught twiddling your thumbs, because then you’d be given something to do – usually a meaningless, pointless task, created just to keep you busy. (As an example, during one quiet spell we had to move a pile of sacks that was literally the size of a house 50 feet to the left; later, we had to move them all back again.)

So, to avoid the work, we used to – well, invent work. We keep ourselves looking busy so that we wouldn’t get dragged into something pointless. Ah, the irony, doing pointless work to avoid pointless work.

Now, my grandmother used to say that we all learn at least one new thing each day. Of all the things she ever said, that’s the truest. What I learned at the postal service was that invented work is much harder than the real thing. Ever since then, I’ve not been work-shy (in fact, those who know me consider me something of a workaholic).

And so it is with search engine optimisation. There’s an entire industry built up around search engine optimisation, working hard for clients, struggling to get websites to the top of Google – and other search engines – for fees that range from a few Pounds/Dollars/Euros a month to several hundred. And a great deal of the work undertaken is utterly pointless.

Much of the work is performing ‘hidden’ remedial work to compensate for a poorly constructed, ill-thought-out website that has no publicity strategy. With badly coded pages, and lacklustre content, the sites don’t stand much chance of getting high in the search engines legitimately. Therefore, ‘retrospective search engine optimisation’ (stuff bolted on afterwards) seems to be the only viable option.

Without going into the tactics used by search engine optimisation companies, it’s fair to say that they can be something of a mixed bag. Some methods are sound, some are downright dodgy. Some get results, some do not. Some of the results stick, some do not. But it’s a lot of work, and a lot of money out of the door each month. And, as a rule of thumb, even when the tactics work, they seldom work for long – because they are generally not based on ethical or sound principles.

When Google changes its algorithms (something it does regularly) a company can find that its once high position in the search engines is totally lost. Typically, this will be because the optimisation company has done something of which Google doesn’t approve, and the new algorithms have trapped it out. There’s a continual game of cat and mouse going on here, with Google creating ‘the system’ and search engine optimisation companies spending all of their time trying to beat the system. When search engine results are destroyed, the optimisation companies blame Google, increase their fees and double their efforts. And so it all goes around again.

Actually, the alternative is far less work. Google (and most other search engines) actually publish guidelines to help website owners achieve good results. They also have freely available tools to provide you with more information about your site, such as who’s reaching it via different kinds of search queries. So, the trick is not to try to beat Google’s system, but to play by the rules.

Simplistically, this means deploying a well-coded website, with unique content (preferably which grows in volume over time) that other websites will link to because it is relevant and interesting. It also means having a publicity strategy that promotes what you are doing on line, via a wide range of means (everything from news story distribution, to blog syndication and social networking tools). It’s not rocket science, nor is it a secret.

Here’s the amazing thing. When companies tell me how much they are spending on search engine optimisation, to compensate for a website that is frankly wanting, I’m often staggered. Not by the amount itself (although that’s often eye-watering) but by the fact that the regular amount, over a (let’s say) two-year period, is often far greater than just doing the job right in the first place.

Search engine optimisation is not something you add in later, like sugar to tea. It’s something that should be built into a website at every stage. It’s not just technical, it’s not just about content, and it’s not just about getting more inbound links – it’s about all of these things, but implemented using strategy that’s unique to your organisation.

And it’s not just about getting people to your site – which is all that search engine optimisation companies are bothered about. It’s about converting people into customers once they are there. A strategy that uses website hits as its only measure of success is like judging the success of a football match by the number of people through the turnstiles, rather than the goals actually scored.

It may not be easy to build a winning site that is highly ranked in the search engines, but it’s easier than having a rubbish site and then paying through the nose for ongoing optimisation services.