We have a problem. Everyone knows about the value of search and everyone wants to be ‘top’ for popular search terms. SEO companies and individuals will offer you services claiming to help you so i’ll tell you what SEO is in 2013 because i feel someone needs to talk some sense on it. SEO is two things: (1) good development (2) great content. Nothing else matters…
A few hard truths about SEO:
1. It’s a black hole. Nobody knows how it works and nobody can guarantee results.
2. Anyone that says they can get you to the top of Google for certain terms is lying. They can’t. All they can do is try. Read no.1 again.
3. Unless an SEO company creates content, all they’re doing is putting go faster stripes on your website. Any improvement will be in your head.
4. If, as a customer, you can’t *see* the work being done by an SEO company or individual, then the changes don’t exist.
5. Don’t ask for help with SEO, ask for development / content creation / digital marketing help.
1. The Black Hole
The word SEO, to me, is almost dead. When i hear the term ‘SEO’ i think of 2007. Today, my honest opinion on SEO is that it’s now a legacy term replaced by these 3 things:
- Digital Marketing
We all want our website to be built to modern standards and well structured. This is a web developer’s job. It involves code. It involves best practices. As a business, you have products or services you want to offer clients and a website just acts a portal for them to see / learn about your stuff and buy it or get in touch with you. The developer doesn’t create images and write descriptions of products, it’s your job as a business to provide them. The developer just needs to provide the platform which enables you to monitor and manage that content.
Most open source content management systems come with SEO features baked in to them. At a really basic level you’ll have nice url/permalink structure, dynamic titles & descriptions for products or pages… so straight out of the box, it requires very little effort to ‘SEO’ your standard website. Once that’s all set up, the developer’s role should end for the time being. They’ll probably just become a tech support hotline until you need more new features.
At this stage, you need to add content yourself and update products and pricing or whatever it may be… maybe you’ve got a news section or a blog. You’ll begin to realise that having a website isn’t enough. You need traffic. Traffic won’t come to you magically, just like customers won’t just walk through a door when you open it. How do you get traffic? Pay for it. That’s the quickest way. The alternative ‘slow but potentially more rewarding way’ way of getting traffic is to create great content and run social media campaigns, highlighting your great content. Whether you pay someone to do that or you do it yourself, that can all be lumped in to the ‘marketing’ category.
So that’s what SEO is to me in a nutshell in 2013… development is largely a once off thing, marketing is of course a regular, ongoing thing. Anything else can go in the ‘black hole’ category.
2. Getting to the top of Google
Google makes changes on a daily basis to their search engine. None of us know how Google works. If you think about it, if i knew how Google worked, it would be really easy for me to manipulate search results and get a new website to rank highly for the term ‘cars’. Once upon a time (going back a decade or so), it *was* this easy to manipulate search results. Pretty much everything was known about how Google worked and there were a few things necessary: Backlinks, anchor text (offsite) & basic descriptions (onsite). The rationale behind this (from Google’s perspective) was that if 1000 different websites sites of varying ages, of varying sizes and in varying locations were linking to my website with the term ‘cars’, then surely my site would be credible and would deserve to be top of Google…
This was used and abused time and time again by certain individuals and eventually led to Google blacklisting sites that manipulated search results using this method. Google also changed their algorithm dramatically and from that period on, it’s become more and more complex to the stage where it’s not even worthwhile trying to figure out how Google works today because you’ll just be wasting time… if you happen to crack the code, it’ll most likely be changed again before you can exploit it to any great degree. All you need to know as a website owner is that if you produce great content that is linked to (naturally and not by paid means) then Google will reward your site.
So today, if you come to a reputable SEO company with a website selling used cars, they’ll probably take a look at your site, see what kind of standard it’s at and if it’s well structured with lots of content and modern markup (see schema.org), then there’s feck all they can do for you on the site itself. If any work has to be done here, it will only be once-off work. Most of the work they’ll do will be ‘marketing’. So that means you should be able to see results and see what content they’re creating for you. If you can’t see it and they can’t show it to you, your money is in the black hole.
3. Go Faster Stripes
If you’re tasked with making a car faster, you need to know things like its current top speed, its current weight and whether anything is broken or not working properly in the car. If you remove weight from the car and fix the broken stuff, that will increase top speed.
But what happens if your car has a current top speed of 80mph and you want a top speed of 200mph? Simply fixing stuff and reducing weight isn’t going to result in that dramatic boost in performance. In that case, you’d have to effectively rebuild the car from scratch… new engine, new design etc… a radical overhaul is necessary because the end goal isn’t achievable with the product you currently have.
It’s the same with SEO. You generally want as much traffic as possible and you’re not going to get that by changing the wiper blades and sticking a fake ‘turbo’ badge on the rear of the car. That’s what an SEO’s role is… to fine tune things that already exist… to ‘optimise’…. not to ‘create’, not to completely re-engineer something from scratch.
What will deliver that dramatic speed boost is a new marketing strategy with strategic content creation on a regular basis. That means radical transformation, not optimisation. If your website isn’t getting the traffic you’d like, you need to question whether the ‘problem’ is technical inefficiency / lack of SEO on your site or whether it’s just customer apathy towards your site. Fixing the former will have little to no impact on the latter, the same way adding go faster stripes to a car won’t make a car go faster.
4. If can’t see it or measure it, it doesn’t exist
There’s a lot of known unknowns in the world. We know climate change exists but we’re not 100% sure why it exists. We know cancer exists but we’re not sure why or how it comes about. Then there are the unknown unknowns. The sort of mind blowing stuff that we’re incapable of ever understanding. Like how did we get here? Who put us here?
Trying to find an appropriate analogy for SEO, i’d liken it to religion. The reason it exists is because it has value on paper. There’s no doubt about that. The problem is you have so many different interpretations of what’s right and wrong, by so many different groups of people, that if you were to listen to them all, they would end up cancelling each other out.
Who do you trust? Why should you trust them? It boils down to results and social proof. If i tell you my God has saved me from evil or brought me great wealth and reversed ill health, then naturally that’s a pretty good sales pitch. SEO is a bit like this. You’ll hear about how much it’s needed and all the miracles that have taken place, but you won’t hear about the masses of businesses that end up paying for something that yields no results.
If you can’t see it and don’t understand it and it can’t be explained to you, the chances are it doesn’t exist. So don’t pay for it. Remember the Y2K bug? Businesses paid people to fix a problem that didn’t exist. People fixed a problem that was completely manufactured. Technical people were duped. Business owners were duped. Valid concern or not, the bottom line is that lots of people heard about a potential problem and threw money at it without fully understanding what the problem was. Don’t be one of those people.
5. Don’t ask for help with SEO
As a business, you probably only care about SEO because you’ve been told it’s important. You know what’s more important? Customers / leads / traffic…. what gets customers & traffic? Where do you get customers & traffic? Google. Why should Google care about you and rank you highly? Because you produce better content than your competitors…
SEO is a term that means nothing to most people and just confuses everyone because certain companies are happy to sell you SEO services without really explaining what they offer and what results you can expect for paying them. The reality is they can’t possibly tell you what results to expect because they don’t know themselves. So i’d prefer to call a spade a spade and pay for either development, content creation or marketing. That’s easier to measure and understand, no? SEO in a lot of cases is a mysterious black hole that you put your money in to in the belief that good things will come to you because you’re paying for some tech thingamajig that helps you rank highly in Google.
My advice – don’t pay for SEO. Pay for development of a website, adhering to current best practices & standards. Pay for someone to come up with interesting articles, to do some research & document their findings, to make a video, to create an infographic, to engage your audience on social media… pay for someone to help you analyse statistics & reports and come up with conclusions and recommendations… pay for stuff that can be explained and that delivers visible results.
I’m not talking about you, i’m talking about you…
Large companies with huge amounts of content need people with SEO knowledge and experience, mainly to make sure all content is as optimised as it can be and to make sure developers are adding new features with search engines in mind. For example, rich snippets and Google authorship are two relatively recent phenomenons Google have introduced that can have a dramatic impact on search results. Google+ & youtube also can’t be ignored… so if you’re a large company with a large online presence, you need to be proactive in updating existing features and content to maximise search traffic whilst making sue you’re not violating any policies.
Keyword research, trend research, general audits & reports on a site are also useful things to pay for. To me, a lot of that stuff would come under ‘marketing’ however. It all contributes towards spotting opportunities, figuring out who your target market is, where they are, what they’re searching for etc… your digital marketing person should be equipped with those skills.
There are lots of good SEO people & companies out there that won’t lead you astray. There are also lots that want to get you on to their books and convince not only you, but convince themselves that what they’re offering is of great value. Challenge them. Be skeptical. A quick acid test is to ask them if they can get you to the top of Google for a certain phrase. If the answer is ‘yes’, burn the bridge and don’t look back. If the answer is a long winded ‘it depends’ answer, then you’re probably dealing with the right people or at least honest people.