I’ve heard SEO being described as many things. A dark art, spam, marketing…but whatever the description, it probably means something slightly different to everyone else. Therein lies the problem – depending upon your definition of what constitutes SEO, your expectations of what it will involve (and achieve) be significantly altered. The quick answer to the question of whether SEO is still a worthwhile activity is “Yes”…but only if your version of it is the right one!
SEO become mainstream in the early noughties, after PageRank was introduced in 1998: Certainly long after the first search engines appeared. There has always been tactics to gain search traffic of course, (ever heard of keyword stuffing) but it really wasn’t a recognised standalone “profession”.
I share this video a lot when trying to explain to newcomers the fundamentals search marketing and it explains a small part of the journey towards modern day Search Engines. It’s from this point that the SEO industry exploded and it clear why back links became the central success factor for high rankings.
SEO Becomes Marketing
Fast forward a few years and web 2.0 is here and the dot com bubble is bust. SEO has become an almost essential element for a successful websites and it’s affecting billions of searches daily. Understanding the basics of how search engines worked allowed “SEOs” to get web pages high in the search engines for pretty much any given phrase.
I remember personally building a site in just one morning for a friend of mine who worked in floor engineering. After, some link building that afternoon the site was ranking on page one for several target search terms within a week. That’s not good for anyone other than the person who owned the site – why did we deserve to be above hundreds of other local businesses simply because we knew SEO?
The problem was that it became simply too easy to manipulate rankings. Combine with the ease of content publishing in the world of web 2.0 and a serious problem was emerging. The web was growing exponentially and it was full of content made only for the purpose of SEO. Basically, the web was filling up with crap and the quality of results weren’t improving.
What SEO’s relied on at this time was largely on page relevancy and building links. The methods to do this varied from small sensible changes to morally questionable “black hat” tactics. Results were frighteningly good – it was easy to hire an SEO firm for very little money and have instant success. Get an SEO on your team and you’ve a big one up on your competitors.
Two things resulted from this – SEO firms sprang up all over the place – All that was needed was a PC and an internet connection. At the same time Google (in particular) started to get serious about SERP manipulation. Major fault lines had formed…
It’s SEO Jim, But Not As We Know It
Two approaches have emerged and as a result, there is significant confusion about what constitutes SEO. But it boils down to either…
- Making changes, and creating content made specifically for search engines whilst manually building backlinks in order to help rankings.
- Making changes, adding content and creating a site experiences specifically for users in the hope that it is shared and linked to.
A lot of the time there is a big overlap between the approaches and these are universally agreed best practices. Unfortunately though, the other 50% of the time there are big arguments about what is the best approach. The first option often tends to get results quicker and it also tends to be much cheaper and easier to implement. Business owners get enchanted by it…
With very basic understanding of how search engines work, they can comprehend (however wrong) the benefit of spending £x to get thousands of links. It’s harder to understand why spending £x on producing content which may or may not earn links would be a viable alternative. Or how spending £x on a social media team to talk to customers is going to produce a quick ROI – not to mention spending that money on making your site easier to use and navigate. In the long term though, it’s these areas that will achieve success. It’s just that it’s harder to do, takes longer and requires time and effort which is naturally not the sort of thing business owners want to hear.
But the crux of the problem is that although it is cheap, you are spending money on doing things that ultimately, will be discounted by Google. Here is an explanation of all the major algorithm updates made by Google, which include changes made to specifically to combat SEO tricks…
- Reciprocal Linking
- Paid Links
- Poor Content
- Content Made For Search Engines
- “Optimised” Footers
- Exact Match URL’s
- Unnatural Link Profiles
- Keyword Stuffing
- Hidden Content
In 2013, we have seen no only a discounting of these techniques, but actual punishments for those doing it. Interflora were perhaps the biggest of the brands to fall publicly foul of the rules and got in hot water as a result.
What SEO Means To Eventure
Our version of SEO means ensuring that websites communicate effectively with search engines, to allow them to show exactly what content and products it is they contain…and that’s it. It’s basically the bottom half of the Organic Marketing Mix – the other activities we undertake may well be result in improved search traffic, but they are just as closely aligned with building brand recognition and talking to customers and people within the industry – higher rankings are a correlation to that, rather than caused by it. It’s a subtle but important difference.
What it means is working with business owners to improve their sites, improve their digital assets and tell the world in interesting ways about their products and their brand. We may do things behind the scenes to help with relevancy, indexation and crawling but what worked very well in that past is often not part of any up to date SEO strategy. Most business owners need not ever get involved with SEO – they should be concentrating on improving the business and creating a narrative that appeals to their customers and their business sector.
So What To Do
In the words of Matt Cutts, “what you should be doing is pretty constant and uniform…make a great site that users love, tell their friends about, bookmark and come back too” One thing that has never been penalised is having a great user experience and content that people want to share. It’s where SEO and marketing meet.
It’s also why every aspect of your business affects your rankings – including customer service. Give someone amazing care and attention and they might just feel compelled to share you with their peers. That’s link building right there! Make every aspect of your business great and guess what, you’ll get rewarded with great rankings.
There are still technical elements to SEO that will never go away entirely – they are the building blocks of a healthy site and are actually very important and connect websites to search engines. But SEO alone is not enough – it is not a replacement for marketing and certainly no replacement for a great product and brand.
The quick takeaway is perhaps best summed up by saying what not to do…Before making a change to your site, ask yourself if search engines didn’t exist, would I still do this? If the answer is no, it’s likely your wasting your time and you should put that time into making things better for your users.