Articles

The Ever-Shifting Goalposts of SEO Rules

June 24, 2016 • By

 

There is a massive Cold War being fought on the Internet at the moment between website owners and search engine service providers such as Google.  While not all website owners are actively participating in this war, there is an increasing multitude of companies trying to recruit them over to the dark side.

This war was created because the two sides have completely different agendas and policies:

  • Search engine service providers, such as Google, strive to list sites in order of quality and popularity. They believe (slightly incorrectly) that there is a direct relationship between quality and popularity.
  • There are some good website owners, but they are widely dispersed and appear to live a hermit-like existence.  The vast majority are engaged in constantly striving to make their low quality sites artificially more popular so that they will rank higher.

Caught in the middle of this conflict are the web users.  Many of them contribute unintentionally to the problem, due to their own search behavior.  Because most users only visit the first few sites listed on the first page of search results (unless they are really determined to seek out quality information), these are the sites they link to on social media, forums, and their personal blogs.

In turn, this has sometimes caused search engine service providers to be fooled into thinking that the popularity of those sites is due to their quality.  Upon discovering that you’ve been made a fool of, how do you feel?  Well, search engine service providers feel the same way, and that’s why they work hard to stop you doing that to them too many times.

The SEO Industry: Corrupting the Internet one site at a time

It’s debatable as to whether the SEO industry is a positive for website owners, but for users and search engines, the SEO industry has absolutely no positive points whatsoever.  It is literally the worst thing ever to happen to the web, even taking into account things like forced memes and endlessly looping GIFs.

On top of all that, the SEO industry rakes in hundreds of billions of dollars (mostly by overcharging) and is typically as crooked as a three dollar bill.  Every SEO salesman is promising to get clients on the first page or even to the top of the first page in search results, but how can they all do that for all their clients?  It’s impossible, unless you optimize for search terms so obscure that it would be impossible to fail.

Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em

Having said all that, the SEO industry has become so aggressive in targeting business owners to convince them of their necessity, that SEO has actually become necessary.  The attractive bait offered to business owners is basically that they don’t need to invest in quality, just in a magic bag of SEO tricks that will propel them up the popularity charts without having earned their place.  That this is more costly than producing quality in the first place has largely gone over their heads.

Search engine service providers have grudgingly come to accept the necessity for website owners to apply some SEO techniques in order to avoid being left behind.  Overwhelmingly, however, they do not look favorably upon the majority of SEO methods or the businesses that make use of them, and will react negatively to any discovery (or sometimes even suspicion) of what they term “SEO abuses”.

SEO abuse is rampant, and in the short term it usually works

Due to the extremely widespread proliferation of SEO abuse, the industry unofficially divided itself into black hat and white hat camps, with large variation over what practices put you in which camp.  To simplify the issue down to its most basic level, however, it should be noted that any SEO strategy that does not have improving the website quality at its core is a black hat strategy.

Black hat SEO accounts for the vast majority of commercial SEO solutions for a simple reason.  These businesses can only prosper when their clients get results, so they will usually do whatever it takes to get results, including blatant SEO abuse.  The focus is strictly short term with a view to getting a noticeable spike in traffic so the site owner will be induced to pay for another month of service.  In the long term, the abuses are likely to be detected and sanctioned, but by that time the company will have adopted many new clients which will more than cover for the loss of you as a customer.

Evolution is essential to life

In order for the search engines to remain alive, they need to constantly evolve.  This is why the “rules” for SEO keep changing so much, with many formerly effective strategies being reduced to ineffectiveness or even counter-productiveness.  The better SEO companies evolve in line with the evolution of search engines, but you’ll still find an incredible number of companies using methods that haven’t really been viable since the late 1990s.

The scourge of false positives

It is an unfortunate consequence that many innocent website owners—those who have never strayed into SEO abuse, and who have patiently built the success of their site over a long time—are victims of search engine evolution.  The changing rules are difficult to keep up with, but also extremely difficult to rectify retroactively, and getting any negative decision reversed is a major uphill battle.

The worst of this situation was when Google decided to start punishing sites for having what their robots consider to be too many low quality inbound links.  Not only is this concept poorly defined and difficult to understand, but it is something that is exceptionally difficult to fix, and often not the fault of the site owner.

Staying on the right side of the line

The frontline of the Cold War between search engine service providers and site owners is volatile, and staying in “safe territory” is challenging enough, let alone trying to actually win.  You can put the odds more in your favor by avoiding these practices that invoke the anger of the search engine overlords:

  • Link farming
  • Like farming
  • Link trading
  • Blatant keyword seeding
  • Producing huge amounts of worthless content

The last two may be a bit complicated to figure out.  Minor keyword seeding is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is done reasonably and the content is still clearly aimed at users rather than search engines.  Many companies pay content farms to produce nonsense articles with no real value to users, where specific search-engine-friendly terms are laced throughout.  Thus you read lines like:

“One of the best dental clinics Baltimore is XYZ Dental Clinic, voted a great clinic by people in Baltimore looking for dental treatments Baltimore.”

A user seeing the above line will not stick around long and is highly unlikely to click through to XYZ Dental Clinic, but for the SEO company this is not bad because getting the click wasn’t the point of creating the content.  The content was created only to fool a search engine robot.  This is why Google started using bounce rate as a metric, because humans rarely waste their time reading anything that is painful to read.  Bounce rates help Google to flag pages that are likely to have been produced solely for SEO purposes, where it is obvious that such is the case.

The flip side is there are practices you can follow that can improve your SEO position without negative consequences.  These include:

  • Paying for the production of large amounts of high quality content that you host on your site
  • Ensuring your outbound links are high quality and on topic
  • Encouraging quality inbound links by hosting quality information
  • Peering with sites offering related and relevant content which is also of high quality
  • Getting genuine likes and shares due to quality, relevance, and/or high entertainment value

As you can see, the recurring theme there is quality, relevance, value.  Give audiences what they want, and they will reward you handsomely.  Thus the single best thing you can do for your site is to create your content for people, giving them a quality experience by making them the focus of everything your produce.

It comes down to excellent web design, quality content, and proper attention to how traffic flows to your site, from your site, and around your site.  Do all these things, and your site will rise to the top through a natural process that the search engine service providers have always intended should be the case, and that’s a win for everyone except your competitors.

header image courtesy of Jemis Mali