A few days ago I was busy answering work e-mails while listening to a keynote speech by Seth Godin from Inbound 2015. I was more focused on the emails than on the speech, when suddenly something Godin said caught my attention:
“[…] SEO game is sort of rigged and we’re not going to win it for long anyway.”
That made me stop and jump back to listen more closely – you can watch the speech from INBOUND 2015 here.
It certainly wasn’t the first time I had heard someone say that, neither was I shocked at Seth Godin’s critique on SEO. I’m a big admirer of his work and I know that he had a point, but being an SEO (and so a bit evangelistic about it) the only right course of action left for me was to answer these two questions:
Is SEO rigged?
Why can’t we seem to win at it for long?
Your expectations and SEO
The most exciting thing about being an SEO is that you have a wide range of responsibilities. You have the more technical aspects of the job; ranking factors, algorithm changes, link building, information architecture, avoiding penalties, on-page factors and deeper technical implementations. Then you also have to be able to focus on the big picture and gauge the purpose of all the technical aspects; you have to show ROI on the investments made in organic search, social marketing and content marketing.
In this post I’m not going to focus on ROI. I know that sidelining ROI isn’t what the boss wants to hear, but here’s the good news: this post isn’t for your boss. It’s for you, the SEO. Because you, as the SEO, need to know what your expectations should be in order to consistently deliver valuable results as the algorithms, tools and trends change.
We keep coming back to the question of SEO being rigged or being an unpredictable marketing tactic, because in most cases there’s a gap between the what SEO really does for your business and what you expect it to do. Without the right approach to SEO you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed. Having answers to the two questions I’m contemplating today is going to give you the confidence to set the right marketing expectations and set the right financial goals to go with it from the start.
SEO is more favourable today for marketers
SEO has its roots in the mid-90s and as such is a new phenomenon. SEO today is certainly more marketer friendly than back when I started almost 7 years ago. Today there are more people doing it, more people talking about it and it has in many ways become more user friendly.
There isn’t any formal education to become an SEO for marketers; it’s a labour of love fuelled by a curiosity to learn. Like most other marketers-turned-SEOs, I follow the search engine masters like Rand Fishkin, Aaron Wall, Danny Sullivan, Neil Patel, Barry Schwartz to learn from them.
It was curiosity that got me interested in SEO originally. It was a heavily technical affair back then, where keywords had a lot more weight and social signal, the place where you really wanted to spend your time and nurture your community, had little to no weight on your rankings.
Fast forward to today and SEO is young professional graduating from college with more self confidence and equipped with the tools necessary to get the job done. Having technical skills as an SEO is still just as important, but the grown-up SEO has a lot more room for creative marketing and engaging community management than previously. Modern SEO is all about understanding the meaning behind the search and is all jazzed up on providing value through content.
So since SEO is more mature and more marketer friendly today, why do we think that it’s ‘rigged’ and why do our expectations of ‘winning’ at SEO not meet with the reality of it?
Is SEO really rigged?
There are a few real challenges with SEO that will certainly make you feel like all your effort is for naught. A lot of times you will hear people mention these reasons as proof that search engine optimisation is rigged:
‘Big brands constantly dominate almost all of the (top of the curve) keywords.’
‘Big brands can spend their way to higher search rankings using their social and PR assets.’
‘Google keeps changing its algorithm.’
Some might even go as far as claiming that SEO holds no real value for the small guy. Organic search is supposed to be a level playing field for everyone, but the big guys still seem to be having all the fun and that isn’t cool.
We can go on beating the drum of unfairness or take a deep breath and actually test the merit of that statement. Search engine algorithms are amazingly ingenious equations trying to sort between valuable and useless information – but they aren’t perfect. The guy who creates the most information on a specific topic has a higher likely hood of having a higher degree of useful information.
I’m intentionally not talking about brand or the social signals. We all know that going up against Coke with your own startup-cola brand is going to be as big an uphill battle offline as it is online. It’s going to be tough period.
Online it means deciding to not compete for the same keywords that show results consistently dominated by brands that have more social clout and a more sophisticated information delivery system. Does that mean you should forget about even trying to sell the amazing new brew you developed? No way!
SEO isn’t a cake-walk, but if you put in the effort to first find the people who are looking for something different, understand their needs and then create information to fill that gap, you’ll find SEO to be a lot less ‘rigged’. More valuable, user (not keyword) centric content and less waste on your site.
Why can’t we seem to win at SEO for very long?
I’ll borrow Seth Godin’s analogy of infinite and continuous games here: a finite game is when you get your reward only when one or more of the members involved in the game loose to you. The opposite of it is a continuous game, where there are no losers because the game doesn’t have a definitive end.
When you’re job involves measuring KPI’s such as user engagement, content relevance and link building, you’re no longer playing a finite game. In other words, you cannot win this game. You can only get better at it and then some.
Starting right now (for your own sake) drop the notion of defining success at SEO by being visible on the first page beaming among the big brands – being No.1 in search results doesn’t mean what you think it does. While you’re at it also forget about trying to beat the search algorithm.
Decide right now that you’re going to take advantage of creating and sharing valuable content through organic and paid search. Make a decision to use search to create an audience for your business by evaluating the content you produce with the same standards as you would evaluate any other customer facing service.
Why I don’t think that SEO is rigged.
You can’t win at SEO because there’s nothing to win. You know that organic search is a service offered by Google and Bing to sell more paid ads. Using Bing can make you feel like it forgot to take its smart pills, but on Google delivering relevant results for each and every query is what it all boils down to. As a service provider they can’t compromise that.
Search engines always have and always will change and strive to improve their service for their customers; the only thing you can rely on here is you – the SEO knowing his or her business. New restrictions, new regulations, new discoveries are going to alter the search algorithms to the point where you’ll end up scrapping a lot of the work you put in before the new update, but in the end users want relevant, reliable information. Even if we bench everything else, just doing that – providing relevant, reliable information – will keep you in the game.
I’m being overly simplistic about how search works on purpose. There are a lot of factors with a direct impact on your search ranking, but I have time and time again seen content designed for a specific audience (without any massive technical errors, like hidden behind robot.txt) consistently reach them and be appreciated by the them, because it provides real value.
SEO is more strategy than tactics
Talking about technical and on-page implementations; how many times have you heard people say this;
‘We’ve done all the right things but our links still don’t show up in search results.’
More than once right? How do I know? I’ve been there myself and have spent sleepless nights repeating that very statement.
What does it mean for you to follow all tactical or technical SEO best practices? To me it means that all I have managed to do is bring my links, pages and domain up to speed with the necessary requirements. Only now can I start giving my competition a run for their money.
SEO is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It isn’t a one off thing, but a strategic process that has to be maintained – every day, every week, every turn of events (like a Tuesday). So what can we do to improve our search strategy marathon?
How to find low performing content and clean up your site
This part of the article is based on a Whiteboard Friday published by Moz on cleaning your site’s cruft. I definitely recommend checking it out and if you haven’t already, go ahead and bookmark Moz.com and check out the weekly Whiteboard Friday video’s by Rand Fishkin.
After watching the video myself, learning from the tips and doing some research on my own, I created a quick walkthrough to find low value pages, evaluate their content and take the steps necessary to improve your SEO strategy.
Step 1: Evaluating the business value of a page
Before you pick up the hatchet and start trimming the content on your site take a look at the content and ask why that page was created in the first place. If you don’t have the answer, find someone who does before you move on.
For example: you’re a website that offers online education and produces content with the goal to expand your reach. Instead of creating one-off posts or pages, you can instead create content designed for complete beginners and take it all the way to advanced topics on the same subject. Each page or set of pages is then designed to serve a specific purpose.
Find out how your content is assisting the visitor in their journey towards conversion. Evaluate the quality of your pages based on how effective they are at accomplishing your business goals. Conversion rates matter because how else are you going to know if your content is useful? If your content isn’t useful, it might as well not be there at all.
Step 2: Finding high and low value pages using social engagement metrics
After you’ve done your keyword research and created content to answer a specific customer need (opinion, information or entertainment) decide how you’re going to evaluate that page in the days and weeks to come before you publish it.
A good place to start is bounce rate, time on page, social shares and comments. What is a good value for these metrics? If you’ve never used this method before then a good place to start is to benchmark one of your competitors, but an even better metric is to benchmark yourself.
Use a web analytics tool like Google Analytics to find pages that have performed well on your site based on using one or more of those metrics I mentioned. After that use Google Search Console to find how your pages’ links are performing in search results. You’re looking for pages that:
have high visibility in search results and
pages that have high social engagement.
These pages might not be one and the same. Put your analysis spectacles on and create a benchmark to help you evaluate the over-all health of your site.
Step 3: Improve your over-all SEO strategy
This is what we have accomplished so far:
You know how the content is designed to assist the reader towards conversion.
You have a list of pages that perform well in search results.
You also have a list of pages that attract high social engagement.
Now you’re going to turn high ranking, high engagement and relevant content rich pages into a search engine optimisation strategy. But what about the rest of the content?
All content isn’t created equal.
All content does not have to convert people into customers.
All content does not have to have sky-rocketing social engagement figures.
SEO is about creating an engine that delivers relevant information to those who are looking for it. You’re also going to have content that only a very small amount of searchers are looking for, such as pages designed specifically for a niche audience.
What can you do with those pages?
In this last bit the one thing you need to pay attention to is using your search bandwidth wisely. Here’s the general idea behind search bandwidth: as you can imagine crawling the whole world wide web, that’s over 900 million active websites, doesn’t come cheap. Google’s search bot has to pick and choose between domains that are worth exploring in greater depth versus those which are at most worth a quick visit.
If a domain has a large number of high quality pages, then the crawler will take its time in exploring those pages and indexing them. If a site doesn’t seem to have many high value pages then the crawler isn’t going to crawl it in depth and bother indexing those pages. That can be a problem for us.
The good news is that you can decide where you want the search crawler to go when visiting your site by limiting its access to low quality pages. Here’s a quick list of tools you can use to accomplish that goal and refine your search strategy:
For duplicate content use a rel=canonical tag
For low value pages on your site that you don’t want to be indexed you can use one of the following HTTP standard response codes.
301 – Permanently moved redirection status code.
404 – Not found status code. Here are some examples of how 404 errors can be used to improve user experience.
Use the content=”noindex” tag – instruct the search crawler to skip indexing the page
Use robot.txt to decide where you want your site to be indexed by allowing or disallowing various search crawlers using this method
There you have it folks. I know that SEO is a slow and steady process, but without it it’s challenging to gain long-term benefits from content marketing. Knowing how to set the right expectations might just be the ace up your sleeve that’s going to help you get the results your boss is looking for. After all in this system that is ‘rigged’ you, the SEO, is the one who knows how to ‘beat the system’.