Reinforcing the Obvious

Jul 26th
posted in

Search is more complex than it's ever been. There are many factors which contribute to this increased complexity and where more complexity exists, specific advice is harder to find (and rightfully so BTW).

By specific advice I mean stuff that actually works a majority of the time rather than pie in the sky theories which largely consist of Google talking points.

You can find this kind of stuff from people who are not actively engaged in day to day SEO, or haven't been for quite some time. When you hear someone backing up their theories solely on the basis of "I talked to so and so" or "I see X, Y, Z" then you should take caution in clinging to that advice.

Surely there are conversations between SEO practitioners where information is shared and trends are spotted but usually it is a result of (at least) a two sided conversation between 2 people who are engaged in the actual practice.

I mean, would you want a dentist trying to fill a cavity who actually hasn't done it for years (or ever) but had someone tell them how to do it :) ? In almost any profession there is no substitute for experience.

Barriers to Entry

There is a huge barrier to entry to SEO but there is no barrier to entry for folks who want to dispense advice publicly and it makes cutting through the rubbish quite difficult.

The other issue for information seekers is that as any revenue generating model, like SEO, becomes more complex people tend to not share the specific advice which happens to be working for them because if they did it would take away the one remaining, unique tool one has in their arsenal (actual data).

In terms of complexity, the issues facing SEO now tend to be:

  • Faster, Far-Reaching, Less Forgiving (you might need to start over) algorithims
  • Google's continued domination of search marketshare
  • Double speak from search engines, lack of clarity or purpose in their "transparent" communications
  • The increased cost, indirect and direct, of bad advice
  • Google forcing its way into commercial markets
  • A swath of tools which are marketed to be THE TOOLS YOU NEED TO SUCCEED, when in reality most of them are simply also-ran's or essentially half-baked solutions to markets that have already been solved. Time-sucks are dangerous

I've seen quotes like "well years ago I told you social signals would blah blah links" or other beauties like the whole railing against exact match domains over the years.

You do SEO to generate revenue for a particular business in some way, shape, or form.. Having different types of sites that generate revenue in different ways (tools, AdSense, PPC, ad sales, affiliate marketing, and so on) is a great business model.

If you had followed the kind of advice I mocked above, then you left and continue to leave a lot of revenue, data, and experience on the table. This is what I mean by dangerous advice. Mocked in the sense that forgoing years of revenue for what might happen in the future (maybe it is happening a tad now). But again, no need to pick one or the other. Do both!

The truth is many of the age-old underlying tips and techniques are still the cornerstones of successful SEO campaigns, despite all the talk of brands, links, social signals, domain names, content, and all the rest.

By cornerstones I mean things like:

  • Market/Keyword Selection
  • Technical Expertise
  • Link Building and PR

The Matt Cutts Decoder Ring

There is nothing else that shows the desire of bloggers and/or industry people to find some magical way to differentiate themselves than an an update from Matt Cutts. When Matt Cutts says something you can rest assured blog posts and tweets will be flying about, trying to "read between the lines" to find that "ah-ha!" statement which is then bantered about as some type of holy grail.

People please, Matt Cutts is an extremely smart guy who is unbelievably good at PR. Matt generally offers some good talking points which are safe, practical, but are just not a reality with respect to ranking in quite a few competitive markets or outranking sites doing more "creative" things than you would be.

For example, this video in 2010 talks about the relationship between great content and great links. You can skip to around the 1:24 mark where he mentions "bugging people by sending out spam emails asking for links" :

Then he proceeds to talk about how great content naturally attracts links. No, it doesn't. There is an element of marketing involved, you have to "bug" people to showcase your "great" content otherwise you'll be rocking pages 7-10 in the SERPs forever.

This was the mantra for awhile; "Create great content and links will come naturally". This is a pipe dream *unless* you have a built in readership. Getting to that point is a solid goal indeed, but for many new sites or projects it is simply not the case. For people trying to get to that level of built-in branding this kind of advice is poor at best.

More recently, in what I thought was a really solid interview overall, Matt was interviewed by Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting (a sharp guy) and the fallout from this interview was infographics possibly being devalued at some point. Platitudes aside, it's likely true but as with most things it comes down to variables.

In the me-first nature of the web, really thin posts starting popping up (presumably as...GASP..linkbait) about infographics being devalued at some point and what this means for the future of SEO. When, if you just read the interview, you'd understand exactly what he was saying.

The obviously shifty stuff will probably get dinged (infographics about kittens pointing to a pet site, later to have its embed code changed to point to a Payday Loans site) but a reasonable person would understand that infographics do have value when done correctly for lead generation, brand buzz, branded links, social signals, and so on.

What it boils down to is the argument between content and links, and there really is no argument. Arguments tend to get created.

Since 2008...

This site, specifically Aaron in this post, has been talking about mixing up your business model as an SEO and viewing SEO as part of a holistic approach since 2008. It's always been a good idea to get your business outside of just rankings in a search engine as part of your business model.

One cannot ignore what has been obvious for the past 4 years...which is this:

  • You can rank not great content with links
  • You cannot rank great content without links (putting aside sites with built in readership)

If you ignored that for 4 years then you left a lot, a lot, a lot of revenue & data on the table and if you continue to ignore the power of links for ranking inside of the largest search engine, which provides super-targeted traffic, then you continue to leave revenue on the table.

Maybe that is a business model folks would rather not pursue, that's cool, but giving people the idea that you have to spend lots of money/time on design, interactivity, promotion, content creation, and so on to rank in search engines, in lieu of links is flat out wrong and dishonest when it applies to SEO.

Link juice matters, anchor text matters, and content matters (to a lesser extent because content is subjective) to search engine rankings; fact not opinion. On the flip side, you can absolutely create great content furthers your business or your client's business even more. Do both, if you have the budget, and you'll be in a great spot.

What is the Answer?

The answer is both. As online marketers, and as marketers in general as online/offline continue to merge, it's important to maximize what works now and what you believe will work in the future when it comes to generating revenue for yourself and/or your clients. It's important up to the point where you want to fork off your business model into one or the other or a mix of both.

Let me give you a recent example:

Over the years I've learned and continue to learn some really cool, effective stuff from Wil Reynolds (CEO of SEER Interactive). I encourage you to follow him on Twitter if you do not already. I wasn't at MozCon but I was browsing through some of his slides and this is where I think some context needs to be added.

One of the first slides I viewed:

Links are a conduit to conversions and many of these other metrics mentioned in his slides when we view it in the context of SEO. Links help ranking, ranking brings traffic, traffic can be worked with to achieve success via the same metrics he is stating there.

Maybe he made those points, I don't know, but I do know that the person going through these slides looking for information from a respected source would get the same idea I did most likely and the idea is somewhat off.

The next couple of slides go through owning a conversion and he uses two of our favorite sites :D

Here the search is for SeoMoz vs SeoBook with a couple pieces of content from the SeoMoz.Org:

Fair points but let's look at some things that both links and product/content helped with:

Now let's circle back, since we are talking about SEO here, search volume for these comparative searches:

So what you can see here is that you have keywords that are way down the tail, likely towards the end of a buying process, and while they are valuable they are dwarfed by the volume of big money keywords. If you win those big ones, very few searchers will bother searching that far down (evidenced by the volume disparity).

This is my point, some link practices are crappy and harmful but links matter, link juice matters. How you acquire said links and PR is a separate discussion and certainly great products and great marketing will help, but so do links.

In the grand scheme of things, no, ranking for a term here and a term there is not evidence of anything other than success with that approach for that goal. Who knows, maybe rankings will change but for now and for a long time this ranking and associated rankings have been quite beneficial to the growth of this site.

The obviousness that I'm trying to reinforce is that it's not one or the other, for many sites and for many clients both practices are needed for long term success and for maximizing success. However, to throw out the benefits of links and link juice (and the algorithmic trust/authority they create) in the face of other metrics that links will help you get to is just wrong IMHO. Well, it's not even IMHO, the evidence is in the SERPs.

As mentioned above, it's been said for a long time here that thinking outside just rankings is a good idea (for years) and that SEO as part of a more holistic marketing approach is a solid move. Part of SEO, the ranking side of it anyway, involves links and their juice. You can utilize both methods together, to provide a powerful approach to SEO, rather than excluding one over the other (especially when the excluded approach still works very well).

Published: July 26, 2012

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Comments

July 26, 2012 - 10:44pm

This was the mantra for awhile; "Create great content and links will come naturally". This is a pipe dream *unless* you have a built in readership.

Correct, and we've all known it for years of course. In fact, it's even obvious to anyone who ISN'T a marketer. Who would think that if you made this fantastically well-written printed newspaper, it would sell itself without any kind of marketing? Just put them in a pile in the middle of nowhere and people will find them. People don't magically find great content out of the blue - they're presented with it via marketing. And link building happens to be the most effective marketing there is online via improved SERP positions (for SMEs and other humble proletariats). And link building happens to be "outlawed" by Google. In Google's eyes, "remarkable" content has the ability to find its audience automagically - it doesn't need marketing. And it doesn't matter if the real value you provide can't be measured in words (unfortunately, Google only see content as words on a web page - boo!!!! They don't see content as a service or a product you provide - double boo!!!!). No, no, no. Do not worry. Google will automatically work it all out to list the very best services and products in order of merit - somehow, some way.....no way.

Google is still relying on a signal that once worked in 1998 (I refer to: links) that has since been gamed to death for well over a decade. Some people love to talk about the sophistication of Google's algorithm; in truth, it remains to be the brutally primitive yardstick it has always been. And how do Google react to the obvious gaming of its blunt instrument? More and more punitive measures. It's like I leave my house unlocked all the time, and instead of making the house more secure, I keep it still wide open to burglarly, but I punish the burglars more and more as a way of "improving" the situation. Utter insanity.

Perhaps I should just state the obvious now. If Google want people to stop building links, don't reward links. If Google want to reward great content, then how about reward great content. If it's all too difficult for you to work out how to do that, then perhaps we need a better search engine that CAN do that.

July 27, 2012 - 3:24am

...is that for as manipulated as the link graph is, it is nowhere near as manipulated as most other signals

  • on-page content: the link graph was the competitive advantage that moved Google ahead of other search engines that primarily trusted on-page content.
  • social media: super easy to manipulate & most signals of "relevancy" are also ad units
  • user engagement: if used too aggressively, broad sites like Facebook, Yahoo, Youtube & Myspace rank for basically everything...and that doesn't even account for how pron sites would rank

Certainly plenty of money goes into manipulating the link graph (billions of Dollars a year I am sure) though that huge spend is still not as manipulative as spend elsewhere in the media ecosystem.

But Google is increasingly "hosting the web" (or their representation of it). And that in turn will keep happening more and more to the point where much more of the "relevancy" aspect will be done as part of a business negotiation.

July 27, 2012 - 8:21am

I can sum up this whole post with a simple, well said Eric! Links and relevance are like Laurel and Hardy, they should always be together but put in the wrong place they could be deadly.

July 28, 2012 - 8:03am

Hi Eric, great post, loved this part; "I've seen quotes like "well years ago I told you social signals would blah blah links" or other beauties like the whole railing against exact match domains over the years.".

People are so focussed on social nowadays that they forget where the real money machine is. The only enemies of SEO are Google's other products: SEM, Places, Shopping etc. pushing the natural results furhter and further away, nonetheless a #1 position in Google for your money keywords will (still, for now) outweight all the rest!

August 3, 2012 - 3:04am

thanks for the positive feedback :D i don't mind the focus on social at all, it's a worthy consideration for quite a lot of sites...the bigger problem i have is the this/that idea when it comes to links, content, design, social, etc. maybe some sites are better off with social than others and maybe some require more investment in links than others but the promotion of one or the other as the "future" is just silliness to me. you and i know why that is done the way it is but a new person might now and if they blindly follow that advice their career will be over before it starts :(

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