Sometimes the SEO industry feels like one huge Groundhog Day. No matter how many times you have discussions with people on the same old topics, these issues seem to pop back into blogs/social media streams with almost regular periodicity. And every time it does, just the authors are new, the arguments and the contra arguments are all the same.
Due to this sad situation, I have decided to make a short list of such issues/discussions and hopefully if one of you is feeling particularly inspired by it and it prevents you from starting/engaging in such a debate, then it was worth writing.
So here are SEO's most annoying discussion topics, in no particular order:
Blackhat vs. Whitehat
This topic has been chewed over and over again so many times, yet people still jump into it with both their feet, having righteous feeling that their, and no one else's argument is going to change someone's mind. This discussion is becomes particularly tiresome when people start claiming moral high ground because they are using one over the other. Let's face it once and for all times: there are no generally moral (white) and generally immoral (black) SEO tactics.
This is where people usually pull out the argument about harming clients' sites, argument which is usually moot. Firstly, there is a heated debate about what is even considered whitehat and what blackhat. Definition of these two concepts is highly fluid and changes over time. One of the main reasons for this fluidity is Google moving the goal posts all the time. What was once considered purely whitehat technique, highly recommended by all the SEOs (PR submissions, directories, guest posts, etc.) may as of tomorrow become “blackhat”, “immoral” and what not. Also some people consider “blackhat” anything that dares to not adhere to Google Webmaster Guidelines as if it was carved in on stone tablets by some angry deity.
Just to illustrate how absurd this concept is, imagine some other company, Ebay say, creates a list of rules, one of which is that anyone who wants to sell an item on their site, is prohibited from trying to sell it also on Gumtree or Craigslist. How many of you would practically reduce the number of people your product is effectively reaching because some other commercial entity is trying to prevent competition? If you are not making money off search, Google is and vice versa.
It is not about the morals, it is not about criminal negligence of your clients. It is about taking risks and as long as you are being truthful with your clients and yourself and aware of all the risks involved in undertaking this or some other activity, no one has the right to pontificate about “morality” of a competing marketing strategy. If it is not for you, don't do it, but you can't both decide that the risk is too high for you while pseudo-criminalizing those who are willing to take that risk.
The same goes for “blackhatters” pointing and laughing at “whitehatters”. Some people do not enjoy rebuilding their business every 2 million comment spam links. That is OK. Maybe they will not climb the ranks as fast as your sites do, but maybe when they get there, they will stay there longer? These are two different and completely legitimate strategies. Actually, every ecosystem has representatives of those two strategies, one is called “r strategy” which prefers quantity over quality, while the K strategy puts more investment in a smaller number of offsprings.
You don't see elephants calling mice immoral, do you?
Rank Checking is Useless/Wrong/Misleading
This one has been going around for years and keeps raising its ugly head every once in a while, particularly after Google forces another SaaS provider to give up part of its services because of either checking rankings themselves or buying ranking data from a third party provider. Then we get all the holier-than-thou folks, mounting their soap boxes and preaching fire and brimstone on SEOs who report rankings as the main or even only KPI. So firstly, again, just like with black vs. white hat, horses for courses. If you think your way of reporting to clients is the best, stick with it, preach it positively, as in “this is what I do and the clients like it” but stop telling other people what to do!
More importantly, vast majority of these arguments are based on a totally imaginary situation in which SEOs use rankings as their only or main KPI. In all of my 12 years in SEO, I have never seen any marketer worth their salt report “increase in rankings for 1000s of keywords”. As far back as 2002, I remember people were writing reports to clients which had a separate chapter for keywords which were defined as optimization targets, client's site reached top rankings but no significant increase in traffic/conversions was achieved. Those keywords were then dropped from the marketing plan altogether.
It really isn't a big leap to understand that ranking isn't important if it doesn't result in increased conversions in the end. I am not going to argue here why I do think reporting and monitoring rankings is important. The point is that if you need to make your argument against a straw man, you should probably rethink whether you have a good argument at all.
PageRank is Dead/it Doesn't Matter
Another strawman argument. Show me a linkbuilder who today thinks that getting links based solely on toolbar PageRank is going to get them to rank and I will show you a guy who has probably not engaged in active SEO since 2002. And not a small amount of irony can be found in the fact that the same people who decry use of Pagerank, a closest thing to an actual Google ranking factor they can see, are freely using proprietary metrics created by other marketing companies and treating them as a perfectly reliable proxy for esoteric concepts which even Google finds hard to define, such as relevance and authority. Furthermore, all other things equal, show me the SEO who will take a pass on a PR6 link for the sake of a PR3 one.
Blogging on “How Does XXX Google Update Change Your SEO” - 5 Seconds After it is Announced
Matt hasn't turned off his video camera to switch his t-shirt for the next Webmaster Central video and there are already dozens of blog posts discussing to the most intricate of details on how the new algorithm update/penalty/infrastructure change/random- monochromatic-animal will impact everyone's daily routine and how we should all run for the hills.
Best-case scenario, these prolific writers only know the name of the update and they are already suggesting strategies on how to avoid being slapped or, even better, get out of the doghouse. This was painfully obvious in the early days of Panda, when people were writing their “experiences” on how to recover from the algorithm update even before the second update was rolled out, making any testimony of recovery, in the worst case, a lie or (given a massive benefit of the doubt) a misinterpretation of ranking changes (rank checking anyone).
Put down your feather and your ink bottle skippy, wait for the dust to settle and unless you have a human source who was involved in development or implementation of the algorithm, just sit tight and observe for the first week or two. After that you can write those observations and it will be considered a legitimate, even interesting reporting on the new algorithm but anything earlier than that will paint you as a clueless, pageview chaser, looking to ride the wave of interest with blog post that are often closed with “we will probably not even know what the XXX update is all about until we give it some time to get implemented”. Captain Obvious to the rescue.
Adwords Can Help Your Organic Rankings
This one is like a mythological Hydra – you cut one head off, two new one spring out. This question was answered so many times by so many people, both from within search engines and from the SEO community, that if you are addressing this question today, I am suspecting that you are actually trying to refrain from talking about something else and are using this topic as a smoke screen. Yes, I am looking at you Google Webmaster Central videos. Is that *really* the most interesting question you found on your pile? What, no one asked about <not provided> or about social signals or about role authorship plays on non-personalized rankings or on whether it flows through links or million other questions that are much more relevant, interesting and, more importantly, still unanswered?
Infographics/Directories/Commenting/Forum Profile Links Don't Work
This is very similar to the blackhat/whitehat argument and it is usually supported by a statement that looks something like “what do you think that Google with hundreds of PhDs haven't already discounted that in their algorithm?”. This is a typical “argument from incredulity” by a person who glorifies post graduate degrees as a litmus of intelligence and ingenuity. My claim is that these people have neither looked at backlink profiles of many sites in many competitive niches nor do they know a lot of people doing or having a PhD. They highly underrate former and overrate the latter.
A link is a link is a link and the only difference is between link profiles and percentages that each type of link occupies in a specific link profile. Funnily enough, the same people who claim that X type of links don't work are the same people who will ask for link removal from totally legitimate, authoritative sources who gave them a totally organic, earned link. Go figure.
“But Matt/John/Moultano/anyone-with a brother in law who has once visited Mountain View” said…
People keep thinking that people at Google sit around all day long, thinking how they can help SEOs do their job. How can you build your business based on advice given out by an entity who is actively trying to keep visitors from coming to your site? Can you imagine that happening in any other business environment? Can you imagine Nike marketing department going for a one day training session in Adidas HQ, to help them sell their sneakers better?
Repeat after me THEY ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Use your own head. Even better, use your own experience. Test. Believe your own eyes.
We Didn't Need Keyword Data Anyway
This is my absolute favourite. People who were as of yesterday basing their reporting, link building, landing page optimization, ranking reports, conversion rate optimization and about every other aspect of their online campaign on referring keywords, all of a sudden fell the need to tell the world how they never thought keywords were an important metric. That's right buster, we are so much better off flying blind, doing iteration upon iteration of a derivation of data based on past trends, future trends, landing pages, third party data, etc.
It is ok every once in a while to say “crap, Google has really shafted us with this one, this is seriously going to affect the way I track progress”. Nothing bad will happen if you do. You will not lose face over it. Yes there were other metrics that were ALSO useful for different aspects of SEO but it is not as if when driving a car and your brakes die on you, you say “pfffftt stopping is for losers anyway, who wants to stop the car when you can enjoy the ride, I never really used those brakes in the past anyway. What really matters in the car is that your headlights are working”.
Does this mean we can't do SEO anymore? Of course not. Adaptability is one of the top required traits of an SEO and we will adapt to this situation as we did to all the others in the past. But don't bullshit yourself and everyone else that 100% <not provided> didn't hurt you.
Responses to SEO is Dead Stories
It is crystal clear why the “SEO is dead” stories themselves deserve to die a slow and painful death. I am talking here about hordes of SEOs who rise to the occasion every freeking time some 5th rate journalist decides to poke the SEO industry through the cage bars and convince them, nay, prove to them how SEO is not only not dying but is alive and kicking and bigger than ever. And I am not innocent of this myself, I have also dignified this idiotic topic with a response (albeit a short one) but how many times can we rise to the same occasion and repeat the same points? What original angle can you give to this story after 16 years of responding to the same old claims? And if you can't give an original angle, how in the world are you increasing our collective knowledge by re-warming and serving the same old dish that wasn't very good first time it was served? Don't you have rankings to check instead?
There is No #10.
But that's what everyone does, writes a “Top 10 ways…” article, where they will force the examples until they get to a linkbaity number. No one wants to read a “Top 13…” or a “Top 23…” article. This needs to die too. Write what you have to say. Not what you think will get most traction. Marketing is makeup, but the face needs to be pretty before you apply it. Unless you like putting lipstick on pigs.
Branko Rihtman has been optimizing sites for search engines since 2001 for clients and own web properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, Branko realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at SEO Scientist, with some additional updates at @neyne. He currently consults a number of international clients, helping them improve their organic traffic and conversions while questioning old approaches to SEO and trying some new ones.
We all read the advice online: don’t build crappy links. Don’t use short term benefit tactics in SEO. But do we always heed that advice? Can we always afford to?
The latest reality check came in the shape of a small online business in the UK, Children’s Furniture Store (CFS). Jane Copland tweeted about an online letter in which they announce that, due to Penguin update, they are forced to close their business down.
This really got me. Firstly, I hate to see a small business go under. These people put their hearts and souls into the business and it breaks my heart to see them being closed especially due to changes in Google algo. Furthermore, it seems from their closing letter that they were a victim of bad SEO advice and that reflects poorly on all of us. We have enough attention seekers out there calling us out for asshattery as it is so I would rather be pictured as someone who helps small businesses rather than the one that puts them under.
A lot of people started reaching out to Children Furniture Store’s twitter account, offering help and advice. Unfortunately, it was too late for them; they have already started folding up their business and have ceased trading.
I am sure this is not the only case that has or will have happened. As a matter of fact as a result of my activity on twitter around this, I was contacted by another small business asking for help on similar issues. Other people I know encounter these situations on weekly basis.
So why is this happening? Who is to blame for this? A business is closing down, people are losing their jobs, we can’t just dismiss it as “that’s life” and “business is hard”. We cannot learn anything from this case and other similar cases if we do not take a hard look at all the possible culprits responsible for these situations and try to understand what could have been done to prevent this from happening:
This is the list of guilty parties, according to my opinion, ranked by a decreasing amount of responsibility:
The business owner
The business owner is the most responsible party here. They probably didn’t mind when the money was rolling in and never thought about the “what if” scenario. These are the things that they did wrong:
Never ever put all the eggs in one basket – I think this is the most common and widespread piece of advice given to website and general business owners, yet people manage to ignore it again and again. Had CFS had various sources of traffic (which they could have developed with the profits from the organic traffic) or even had they started developing offline business, Google Penalty would have hurt much less. This is true even if you are not using blatantly spammy SEO techniques, you never know where Google’s business goals may be tomorrow and when the line between what is kosher and what isn’t is constantly moving, you never know when you will find yourself on the other side of the line. Having additional sources of traffic/business immunizes (relatively) you against this scenario. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and PAY for the traffic – for example Paid Search. Building a social presence would help too. Luckily they HAD kept their mailing list and were able to sell any leftover inventory using it – but mail is a good channel to optimize sales too.
Get educated – there is a lot of SEO information out there. No one can follow all of it. But it is your prerogative as an online business to keep abreast of the most important best practices and pitfalls within the marketing channel that is providing you with the majority of your income. Had this business done their due diligence, they would know not to rely on only one stream of traffic, they would know that the practices used by their SEO provider are shady at best, they would know that they are paying too little for the SEO services for them to safely provide them with edge over their competition in their niche. They would also know what to do when shit hits the fan and not wait for a full year for the second hit which will ultimately decimate their business.
In this case, the business owner did say that they spent a lot of time trying to read on the internet about similar issues – apparently they didn’t find any “real” advice. Should Business Owners learn to navigate online information a bit better? Or should we, as an industry, make sure that the information found on these issues is top notch? But more about that further down. In this particular case, the owner of the business did several things – tried reading about the possible problem, turned to an independent SEO (who told her to let the site die and start anew) and fired the agency that was probably the cause of all this. Still there was much more to be done and I hope other businesses will act differently in similar situations.
Reach out – as their “we are closing the business” letter started circulating, more and more people started saying that they are willing to help. In a matter of minutes, both in public and private channels, a picture of what needs to be done to help this website started emerging. Getting this kind of analysis from industry experts can cost a lot of money, but if a business owner harnesses the benefits of the SEO community, either through Twitter, SEOBook Forum, Google Webmaster Central forums, SEOMoz Q&A forum, G+, Facebook groups, etc., they can get a pretty clear picture about what hit them and what needs to be done. They would be more aware of the risk levels involved with the SEO strategies they were using and would be able to move away from them much earlier, making the cleanup a more viable option. With all the misgivings of this industry, it has some of the most generous and helping people in it and this can be a tremendous asset for small businesses that are struggling to come with terms with the challenges involved in promoting your website in organic results.
Spammy strategies – one look at the CFS’ backlink profile shows patterns of a backlink network.
Further conversations with people that are connected to the company showed that this is indeed the case. Bunch of footer links, clearly paid-for blog posts, sidebar sitewide links from non-related sites in non-English languages… You took a small business that doesn’t know what they are doing, promised them wonders at three-digit monthly recurring price and it worked for a while. Did you warn them about the risks? Did you tell them that if Google decides to target these link-building practices, their whole business can go down the drain? Or did you encourage them to enjoy the party while it lasts? Did you instruct them to take the profits of these short-sighted tactics and invest them in diversifying their traffic sources? No you didn’t. You are no better than a drug dealer, reaping profits from the lack of knowledge of unsuspecting client, allowing them to risk their whole business and you should be ashamed of yourself for that. You sir, are an ass hat.
No responsibility – as the graph attached above shows, the CFS site was hit at two occasions, one in May 2011 and the other in May 2012. According to them, they have stopped working with you by the time WMT warning notices have arrived. Do you think that releases you from the responsibility for your work? What did you do in between those two dates? Did you take responsibility for CFS situation? Did you instruct them on how to fix their situation? How did you allow a business that found itself in a shitty situation, partially due to your actions, to get to the point where they have to close their doors? Do you honestly not care that people are going to be jobless because of the bad advice you have provided?
By allowing crappy linking strategies to work for so long, they have created a situation where the only viable option to stay competitive in certain niches was to join the bandwagon and use spammy links. You can stand on your soapbox only for only that long and preach “whitehat” techniques while your competitors are laughing all the way to the bank and cashing in. So yes, at some point they will probably be penalized, but until then they will have developed enough capital to be able to safely switch to some other domain/SEO strategy and have developed their brand to the point where they are practically immune from algorithmic changes. You have created a situation in which following your Best Practices was a financially unviable option for a lot of small businesses and for this you carry a part of the blame
Furthermore, you should realize that the information you give out about these penalties is not read only by sinister SEOs spending their days and nights trying to reverse engineer your precious algorithm. Why is it so hard to tell the business owner what is it they are getting penalized for? Tell them “your site has a large amount of paid links/unnatural anchors. You can find these links marked with a huge red exclamation mark in your WMT link report. Get rid of them”. Doesn’t Google have a responsibility of providing decent, informed content around these sort of penalties so that a business owner can refer back to the source? When they penalize a business – shouldn’t it be their responsibility to say EXACTLY why? Is a bland, notification in GWMT sufficient?
When you Google “Penguin” or “Panda” etc – shouldn’t Google’s own written guidelines on recovery be ranked at top positions, so no one else gets scammed? Yes, it is not all Google’s fault that these businesses were told that it is OK to do whatever it takes to rank. Yes, Google does not owe anyone anything but it would be a sign of goodwill towards those that provide the content of the web for Google to crawl and serve ads on.
The SEO Community
How is the SEO community responsible? By greatly diluting the information space in our industry. The number of inane posts, all written in the same “10 ways unrelated-X affects your SEO-Related-Y” format, all based on conjectures and rehashed hearsay, make it almost impossible for a non-industry person to get to the meaningful information. I have seen articles with link building strategies that were covered in 2006 being peddled as “current” and “cutting edge” in 2012.
Without knowing the authors, companies they work for, their level of experience and history of their posting, there is no way that a person who doesn’t spend significant amounts of time wading through the noise created in the SEO space can know what is reliable and what not. Furthermore, the lack of propensity to call out crap information when we see one, complete avoidance of confrontation within the industry, limiting critical discussion on quality of content behind gated walls of private Skype chats and limited Facebook groups, makes the pruning of this jungle of nonsense an impossible task and for that all of us bear some part of responsibility.
I am really sad for CFS. It depresses me that a business can go under so easily from causes that could have been prevented. There are real people behind these websites, making their living, in spite of Google doing a lot to make their success harder (by promoting big brands and at a switch of an algorithm button making previously acceptable and successful practices - damaging). I hope that this post will help other businesses make sure that they are doing everything possible not to find themselves in a similar situation.
Many thanks to Rishi for helping with editing and some background info.
Branko Rihtman has been optimizing sites for search engines since 2001 for clients and own web properties in a variety of competitive niches. Over that time, Branko realized the importance of properly done research and experimentation and started publishing findings and experiments at SEO Scientist. Branko is currently responsible for SEO R&D at RankAbove, provider of a leading SEO SaaS platform – Drive.