“Partisans have been announcing the demise of SEO ever since the web was in nappies. Till now, reports have been premature. But thanks to Pandas and Penguins and other changes Chez Google, top internet marketers are less willing than ever to rely on natural search.
The reason is, SEO’s perennial limits have been exacerbated. The old problems of narrow scope and exposure to changing search trends have been joined by two new problems: personal search listings, and ever shifting goalposts.
It all adds up to crisis time for any site with all its eggs in the SEO basket.
Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at each of those limitations:
Limit #1: Narrow Scope
As any good SEO knows, you can only optimise a given page for a handful of keywords. At best, you’ll rank for umpteen variations on the same phrase, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get one page to rank for every suitable variation.
Example: a courier agency has multiple segments, like ‘parcel courier’, ‘mail courier’, ‘international courier’, ‘same day courier’, ‘motorbike courier’ and so on. And each of those segments will attract dozens (maybe hundreds) of different searches, from regional variations to random phrasing. So e.g. ‘parcel courier’ opens up a whole niche, including ‘parcel courier + region’, ’24 hour parcel courier’, ‘cheap parcel courier’, ‘courier packages’ etc.
It’ll take a lot of work to get your ‘parcel courier’ page to show up for all those searches, plus the dozens of others that will emerge through detailed research. And that gives you three choices:
(a) use paid search to boost visitor numbers
(b) create sub-pages within every niche to target stray variations
(c) focus on the best opportunity and forget about the other searches
Limit #2: Changing Search Trends
SEO depends on the ‘fingers crossed’ belief that if 1000 people search for ‘xyz’ this month, then another 1000 will search for the same thing next month. Spookily, that theory does kind of work, albeit with a 20-30% shift up or down from one month to the next. But there are still two weaknesses:
What if demand ebbs and flows with the seasons…or worse still, the keyword just drops off the radar altogether?
Seasonal demand mainly hits the obvious victims, like ‘seaside holidays’, ‘sun cream’, ‘Christmas presents’, ‘Valentine cards’ etc. (But hopefully, if your business is seasonal, you have other irons in the fire for the rest of the year!)
But the outright drop-off factor can strike just about anywhere.
The biggest driver is innovation. When a new product hits the shelves, the old product name immediately loses popularity (except on eBay, Gumtree and co).
Plus there are economic, social and political forces at work, each with the power to wipe out search trends and make SEO efforts redundant. Prime example, we haven’t seen many searches for ‘100% mortgage’ in the last few years!
Of course, Limits #1 and #2 have always been there, and SEO bods have put up with them because of the untold advantages of getting free traffic from Google. But now we’ve got the two newbies…
Limit #3: Personal Listings
Google’s mission is to tailor its listings to individuals, based on available data like previous search habits and peer endorsements. That adds a whole new layer to SEO.
In its plainest form, it means that if Mrs Jones searches Google for your type of business, she’ll be more likely to see your listing if she’s been to your site before, or her social media contacts have given your page the thumbs up.
I spoke to some members of the Google crew about this recently, and the party line was they’ll only factor in ‘Plus 1’ endorsements through Google Plus – i.e. not Facebook ‘Likes’ or other votes through social platforms. How long that position will last, we don’t know, but I’d be loathe to take Facebook Liking out of the mix, especially if you want traffic from sources beyond Google.
Anyway, the upshot of all this is additional work and a lower addressable market. You have to jump through extra hoops (building a network of endorsers with your likely prospects in their circles) and still, you’ll get fewer listings, because inevitably competitors will touch the circles that you can’t.
Limit #4: Shifting Goalposts
The move towards personal listings has rewritten a slice of the rule book. Traditional link building is no longer the be all and end all. And that’s typical of how the goals are shifting month after month.
The latest example is anchor text. Till recently, it was deemed good practice to present links to your website through keyword-rich anchor text. So taking an example where you want to rank for “Children’s shoes”:
ABC Shoe Shop sells all kinds of children’s shoes
…would be more effective than a ‘naked link’, as in:
For children’s shoes, go to www.abcshoeshop.co.uk
But that’s (kind of) changed now. Google has recognised that too many webmasters have been exploiting anchor text, with the same anchor links repeated time and again across the web. So the key now is, make sure (1) all anchor links are uniquely worded, and (2) you’ve got more naked links than anchor links pointing to your site.
In fairness to Google, this was always best practice – they’re just doing more now to clamp down on offenders, and in some cases the penalties are likely to get heavy. But it’s all in the interests of improving the user experience, so we can’t cuss and moan about it. We just have to roll with the punches.
Still, it can hurt, especially if you’ve been badly advised in the past and acted in good faith using tactics that Google is starting to frown on or outlaw.
And the pain goes deeper, because this process will never come to an end. Google will always be tweaking the algorithm, to keep its users on cloud nine and stop the nasty black hat types who are hell bent on working the system for their own evil and spammy ends.
So where does it leave the ethical, quality business who just wants to do the right thing?
The best way to show up on Google is to follow their one guiding principle, that good quality content is the only thing that really matters. In other words, put the user first, instead of stuffing the page full of keywords – and don’t try to trick the search engines by plastering the web with badly placed or badly worded links. They’ll catch you out!
That said, there are still a few tactics. Using keywords in title tags, headings and sub-headings is as effective as ever, as is letting them fall naturally into the body text. And prompting endorsements through social pages can’t be a bad thing either. Just as long as everything happens naturally.
If they sense you’re overdoing it, pain will surely follow.
So back to the big question: are we seeing the demise of SEO?
No. But it’s not the straight forward process it used to be. It’s not about ticking boxes then reaping the rewards, it’s about doing right by the reader in a way that’s a bit less tangible now.
And that has two consequences:
One – SEO is only worthwhile if you can take it on warts and all. That means putting in the investment of time and money to make it work, and accepting the delays and obstacles as an occupational hazard.
And two – it’s a brave decision to rely solely on SEO traffic. Play nicely and it will come, but it will take time and in the early days it will be harder than ever to forecast. So a mix of paid search and other traffic sources (especially social media) will be a sound security measure.
That’s my tuppence. What do you think?”