(Part 2 of a 3 Part Series – Read Part 1 here)
It wasn’t always a scam, it just stopped working on April 24th, 2012. That was the day Google released an algorithm update dubbed “Penguin” that unquestionably and permanently sealed their fate as victors in a 14 year war between them and those who tried to rank higher by gaming the system. While many lament its death, SEO really was cheating, and it was bad for consumers. The Internet is better off without it.
At its height – probably some time in 2010 – legions of SEO practitioners filled web pages with unreadable keyword-stuffed text that served no purpose but to boost one’s ranking on the search engine results pages (SERPs). Small, medium and large businesses spent billions on consultants who tweaked the technical minutia of their pages just to trick algorithms into concluding they were important. Every site had to have a blog, videos, pages of unique text, and scores of under-the-hood “optimizations” just to show up on the SERPs. Most of it was never meant to be read or viewed by consumers… you know… those people for whom the site was ostensibly built. Back then, you really didn’t design your site for humans to use at all. As long as the algorithms liked it, you ranked higher and made more money. User experience be damned. But that era is over, the whole industry killed overnight by Penguin.
Yet it continues…
I once heard a meteorologist admit that forecasts that predict the weather beyond three days are essentially just guesses. “Then why do you still offer them?” the interviewer asked. “Because the audience demands them,” he answered. Left unsaid was “Because the audience doesn’t know any better.” That’s where SEO is now. The public is still largely ignorant of the truth about Internet marketing, and the stakes are so high that there are more than enough dupes willing to pay for SEO that doesn’t work.
It takes many forms. Fast talking consultants pitch SEO campaigns that cost $50,000-$75,000 to medium-sized businesses, and even though the business owners are skeptical, they often pay because they don’t know what else to do. Web development firms charge small businesses $500 a month for ongoing SEO maintenance, which means precisely collecting $500 for doing absolutely nothing. Marketing companies charge you to enlist popular bloggers to link to your site despite the fact that their blogs have nothing to do with what you’re selling. SEO “experts” charge you to submit your site to hundreds of fly-by-night Eastern European web directories in the name of link building. Most of these experts won’t explain to you what they’re actually doing, and almost none of what they do works. In fact, they’re more likely to get you penalized than to actually help you.
Technical SEO – all those under-the-hood tweaks and keyword stuffing tactics – has ceased to be a ranking factor, except that which Google explicitly encourages, such as authorship markup and structured data. The keyword stuffing of old, internal linking schemes designed to sculpt your page rank, content cloaking, and other tricks that formerly worked are likely to get you penalized. Some claim that the keywords on your site will always matter, but even that theory doesn’t hold. There’s evidence that Google now uses the content on the pages that link to you to determine what searches you rank for as much or more than they use the keywords that are actually on your page. There are still best practices that Google tells you to follow, but they’re more about avoiding mistakes than gaining an advantage. Technical SEO now means doing exactly what Google wants you to do to put you on the same level playing field as everyone else.
What you can do to rank higher
Obviously something still causes one page to rank higher than another, and it’s a combination of inbound links, social signals (likes, shares, tweets, +1s), and good quality content. Actually, since the geniuses at Google can distinguish legitimately earned inbound links and social signals from bogus ones, and since legitimate inbound links and social signals are earned by having good content, ranking basically all comes down to content. Good content is content that causes real humans to visit the site, and yes the algorithms can actually detect that. This is called content marketing, but unfortunately, many content marketers do themselves a grave disservice by still referring to it as SEO. Actually, you should be wary of any firm trying to sell you content marketing services if they still call it SEO, because there’s a good chance said firm is still going to spend some of that time they’re billing you for doing the old tricks that no longer work. Some of these companies are outright dishonest, but others must just operate on old information having not realized that the game is up and Google has won.
Come to think of it, you probably should be wary of paying for content marketing in the first place. The reason is that good content is content that is very specific to and informative about the goods and services you’re selling, and no marketing firm knows the specifics of your goods and services as well as you do. There are cases when paying a firm to do content marketing can be a good investment, such as making videos and creating buying guides. Just make sure that these efforts are infused with the deep product knowledge that you as a business owner know and your marketing firm doesn’t. Paying a firm for social media marketing is the same: be skeptical, and make sure that deep domain-specific knowledge about your goods and services permeates the effort throughout.
In the end, even content marketing is a risky proposal because humans are finicky creatures, and it’s very hard to predict what will and will not cause them to visit your site. Since virtually every firm is now in the content game and only one site can show up #1 for a given search, even sites with great content are made irrelevant by sites with slightly better content, or more publicity or just more inbound links from having been around longer. Add to that the fact that the best content is often created by sites that aren’t in business at all (not having a strong profit motive frees one to tell the truth, and the Internet loves the truth), and it becomes apparent that the Internet leads to natural monopolies that are very hard to compete with. The alternative is to focus your efforts on pay-per-click advertising, but that’s the subject of my next post.