Jason CalacanisJason Calacanis is no stranger to courting controversy. Not so long ago the serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur had the SEO community in uproar with his public comments at various search marketing conferences.

SMX Social 2008, Long Beach, CA: “SEO is a wasted industry. You’re wasting your time fighting off ranking problems instead of creating great content. You’re just spinning your wheels hoping the Google gods won’t kick you out. It’s a bad way to live your life. Using a human service is a better way to go about it.”

SES 2006, Chicago: “SEO is bulls**t…90% of the SEO market is made up of snake oil salesmen.”

The firestorm that followed reverberated across the social web….

At the risk of attracting a little vitriol, I have to say that there’s truth in both of those statements.

Content isn’t king… the customers is

I agree, for instance, that spending time trying to “game” the engines for short term results is a futile exercise, at least for legitimate businesses looking for long term prosperity. For sustainable rankings you should focus your efforts on producing great content, and making sure the search engines can index it and recognise it as such… which of course is where SEO comes in.

I’m not convinced yet that purely human search — like Calacanis’s offering at Mahalo — is the answer to the search conundrum. Perhaps some sort of hybrid search will emerge… a synergy between algorithmic and human-edited search that delivers better results all ’round.

Ultimately great content is what users are looking for… and therefore what search engines, regardless of their flavour, want to deliver. And as search engines get better at determining what users really want when they fill in that little box, it’s outstanding content that’s going to win the day. Not because content is king — because the customer is.

Plenty of good SEOs

While there are certainly a lot of cowboys out there in the SEO world who prey on the gullible and exploit the naive, there are also plenty of SEOs who are passionate and genuine and do a great job of getting their clients’ websites in front of their users. They help people to find great content that would otherwise slip under the search radar.

Search engines are amazing, but they’re not good enough yet to find and analyse all the content on the web correctly. They need a bit of help. Good SEOs have the knowledge to be able to align their clients’ content with both what users are looking for, and what Search Engines can index… again, a synergy that, in a perfect world, ends up with a win-win-win for user’s, search engines and site owners.

The snake oil salesmen? They routinely crop up in every new industry all over the world: the vampirical underbelly of humanity emerging to suck sustenance from the unwary and anknowing. It’s not an SEO thing — it’s a human nature thing.

Fire the good people

Which brings me to Jason Calacanis’s latest outpouring of controversial entrepreneurial wisdom. In an interview on the Sydney Morning Herald’s small business blog this week, he advocates firing the good people to make room for the great.

Again, a lot of what he says in the interview makes plenty of sense… you do want to attract and retain great people… and sometimes good just isn’t good enough. If you want to cultivate a culture of excellence, you have to build a team of excellent people. So far, so good.

Where he loses me is with the following statement under the heading of rewarding obsessive behaviour:

“You don’t want people with balance in their life. You want people who are responding to email at two in the morning… People with balance in their life can work at the post office.”

Er… how do I put this tactfully… WRONG!

Excellence demands balance

Balance is a good thing… and if you want to encourage excellence in your staff you damn well better make sure they have some balance. Balance doesn’t mean punching in, working 9-5, five days a week and then taking the weekends off. But it absolutely does mean having more to your life than work. I like to call it working for life… as opposed to living for work, which is what so many people seem to do these days.

Without balance, all you have is… well, imbalance, and where does that get you? A company full of wired, burnt out former geniuses tethered to their internet connection is no company at all.

To get the best out of people, I believe, you have to encourage them to be people, rather than automatons. In my admittedly limited experience, people who obsess about work all the time — the ones who are answering their e-mail at 2am — may spend more time working, but are often less productive than people who have found a healthy balance.

But hey, Jason Calacanis is a multi-milionnaire serial entrepreneur… and I’m not….

What do you think?