A stopped clock is right two times a day.
There’s some amusing historical revisionism going on in SEO punditry world right now, which got me thinking about the history of SEO. I’d like to talk about some common themes of this historical revision, which goes along the lines of “what I predicted all those years ago came true - what a visionary I am! ." No naming names, as I don't meant this to be anything personal - as the same theme has popped up in a number of places - just making some observations :)
See if you agree….
Divided We Fall
The SEO world has never been united. There are no industry standards and qualifications like you’d find in the professions, such as being a doctor, or lawyer or a builder. If you say you’re an SEO, then you’re an SEO.
Part of the reason for the lack of industry standard is that the search engines never came to the party. Sure, they talked at conferences, and still do. They offered webmasters helpful guidelines. They participated in search engine discussion forums. But this was mainly to do with risk management. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
In all these years, you won’t find one example of a representative from a major search engine saying “Hey, let’s all get together and form an SEO standard. It will help promote and legitimize the industry!”.
No, it has always been decrees from on high. “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and here are some things we’d like you to do”. Webmasters don’t get a say in it. They either do what the search engines say, or they go against them, but make no mistake, there was never any partnership, and the search engines didn’t seek one.
This didn’t stop some SEOs seeing it as a form of quasi-partnership, however.
Some SEOs chose to align themselves with search engines and do their bidding. If the search engine reps said “do this”, they did it. If the search engines said “don’t do this”, they’d wrap themselves up in convoluted rhetorical knots pretending not to do it. This still goes on, of course.
In the early 2000’s, it turned, curiously, into a question of morality. There was “Ethical SEO”, although quite what it had to do with ethics remains unclear. Really, it was another way of saying “someone who follows the SEO guidelines”, presuming that whatever the search engines decree must be ethical, objectively good and have nothing to do self-interest. It’s strange how people kid themselves, sometimes.
What was even funnier was the search engine guidelines were kept deliberately vague and open to interpretation, which, of course, led to a lot of heated debate. Some people were “good” and some people were “bad”, even though the distinction was never clear. Sometimes it came down to where on the page someone puts a link. Or how many times someone repeats a keyword. And in what color.
It got funnier still when the search engines moved the goal posts, as they are prone to do. What was previously good - using ten keywords per page - suddenly became the height of evil, but using three was “good” and so all the arguments about who was good and who wasn’t could start afresh. It was the pot calling the kettle black, and I’m sure the search engines delighted in having the enemy warring amongst themselves over such trivial concerns. As far as the search engines were concerned, none of them were desirable, unless they became paying customers, or led paying customers to their door. Then there was all that curious Google+ business.
It's hard to keep up, sometimes.
Playing By The Rules
There’s nothing wrong with playing by the rules. It would have been nice to think there was a partnership, and so long as you followed the guidelines, high rankings would naturally follow, the bad actors would be relegated, and everyone would be happy.
But this has always been a fiction. A distortion of the environment SEOs were actually operating in.
Jason Calacanis, never one to miss an opportunity for controversy, fired some heat seekers at Google during his WebmasterWorld keynote address recently…..
Calacanis proceeded to describe Cutts and Google in terms like, “liar,” “evil,” and “a bad partner.” He cautioned the PubCon audience to not trust Google, and said they cooperate with partners until they learn the business and find a way to pick off the profits for themselves. The rant lasted a good five minutes….
He accused Google of doing many of the things SEOs are familiar with, like making abrupt algorithm changes without warning. They don’t consult, they just do it, and if people’s businesses get trashed as a result, then that’s just too bad. Now, if that’s a sting for someone who is already reasonably wealthy and successful like Calacanis, just imagine what it feels like for the much smaller web players who are just trying to make a living.
The search business is not a pleasant environment where all players have an input, and then standards, terms and play are generally agreed upon. It’s war. It’s characterized by a massive imbalance of power and wealth, and one party will use it to crush those who it determines stands in its way.
Of course, the ever pleasant Matt Cutts informs us it’s all about the users, and that’s a fair enough spin of the matter, too. There was, and is, a lot of junk in the SERPs, and Mahalo was not a partner of Google, so any expectation they’d have a say in what Google does is unfounded.
The take-away is that Google will set rules that work for Google, and if they happen to work for the webmaster community too, well that’s good, but only a fool would rely on it. Google care about their bottom line and their projects, not ours. If someone goes out of business due to Google’s behaviour, then so be it. Personally, I think the big technology companies do have a responsibility beyond themselves to society, because the amount of power they are now centralising means they’re not just any old company anymore, but great vortexes that can distort entire markets. For more on this idea, and where it’s all going, check out my review of “Who Owns The Future” by Jaron Lanier.
So, if you see SEO as a matter of playing by their rules, then fine, but keep in mind "those who can give you everything can also take everything away". Those rules weren't designed for your benefit.
There was a massive opportunity cost by following so called ethical SEO during the 2000s.
For a long time, it was relatively easily to get high rankings by being grey. And if you got torched, you probably had many other sites with different link patterns good to go. This was against the webmaster guidelines, but given marketing could be characterized as war, one does not let the enemy define ones tactics. Some SEOs made millions doing it. Meanwhile, a lot of content-driven sites disappeared. That was, perhaps, my own "a stopped clock is right two times a day" moment. It's not like I'm going to point you to all the stuff I've been wrong about, now is it :)
These days, a lot of SEO is about content and how that content is marketed, but more specifically it’s about the stature of the site on which that content appears. That’s the bit some pundits tend to gloss over. You can have great content, but that’s no guarantee of anything. You will likely remain invisible. However, put that exact same content on a Fortune 500 site, and that content will likely prosper. Ah, the rich get richer.
So, we can say SEO is about content, but that’s only half the picture. If you’re a small player, the content needs to appear in the right place, be very tightly targeted to your audiences needs so they don’t click back, and it should be pushed through various media channels.
Content, even from many of these "ethical SEOs", used to be created for search engines in the hope of netting as many visitors as possible. These days, it’s probably a better strategy to get inside the audience's heads and target it to their specific needs, as opposed to a keyword, then get that content out to wherever your audience happens to be. Unless, of course, you’re Fortune 500 or otherwise well connected, in which case you can just publish whatever you like and it will probably do well.
Fair? Not really, but no one ever said this game was fair.
Do I know what’s going to happen next? In ten years time? Nope. I could make a few guesses, and like many other pundits, some guesses will prove right, and some will be wrong, but that’s the nature of the future. It will soon make fools of us all.
Having said that, will you take a punt and tell us what you think will be the future of SEO? Does it have one? What will look like? If you’re right, then you can point back here in a few years time and say “Look, I told you so!”.
If you’re wrong, well, there’s always historical revisionism :)
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