SEO may no longer be the answer to your traffic-related prayers, as Google's algorithms move away from rewarding SEO principles and toward featuring sites with the best content.
What are you hoping for when you search for something on Google?
Are you looking for a site that deployed every SEO tip and trick to game their way to the top of the list? Or a site that has relevant, reliable, authoritative content?
Most likely it is the latter, and it seems Google may want that, too. If it happens to represent the antithesis of the results of good SEO, that's just fine with Google. They don't make a nickel on your optimized site and they are worried that users may become underwhelmed with their search results if the only links appearing above the fold are those not with the best content but with those deploying the most effective examples of chicanery we know as "SEO."
When Google in 2013 stopped providing data about keyword popularity, this must have served as a shot across the bow of SEO. It signaled that Google wanted to put a damper on SEO because they had determined it was skewing the results in a way unhelpful to its users.
In the "old" days, SEO was a matter of stuffing your metatags with top keywords; then it became more complicated as Google continued to refine its search algorithm. The current state of SEO, in rather sober fashion, calls for "quality content," no keyword stuffing, longevity of the domain, lack of duplicate content, a well-ordered site-map and other items more esoteric. Really, it's become more about just building a great site with great (and focused) content. Phony inbound links are not supposed to cut it anymore, although sometimes this can slip by undetected.
SEO is a big industry. According to a site called State of Digital, 863 million websites mention SEO globally and every second 105 people search for SEO links on Google. Most of them seem to be looking for "services" or "companies," which explains how there came to be so many SEO companies.
SEO is also an industry full of promises. Despite evidence to the contrary, many SEO mavens continue to insist they can fool the Google algorithm into getting your site - no matter what it is - higher in the rankings. That it is easy to see whether it works when you search for your own company makes it an appealing payoff. But the waters of SEO remain murky and it's difficult to measure success of SEO in any meaningful way (in other words, even if you got to the top, did it improve your business or did you just accumulate a very high bounce rate?).
Now SEO may be going the way of Megalodon, a 100-foot shark rumored to exist but mostly accepted to have gone extinct a million years ago. If it isn't functionally dead, it's certainly in the sick-house. Google does not especially want the SEO industry playing games with its rankings, and what Google wants, especially in a case like this, Google gets.
Customers still ask for "top keyword" reports as if they have not read the news about the unavailability of it - perhaps because they believe that if you wish hard enough for a pony on Christmas, one will eventually find its way under the tree.
It isn't going to happen.
Certain SEO principles should not be ignored, simply as a matter of site-hygiene. A well-organized, content-rich site is a good thing to have. But most other SEO tricks and tips have just a little bit (if not a lot) of snake-oil in the recipe. It sounds like a great proposition to a site owner: drink a bottle of SEO and your site will zoom vigorously to the top of the heap. But too often, and partly because Google does not seem to want it to, it doesn't work as advertised.
There is no good reason for Google to stop trying to stamp out SEO, because in effect, SEO damps the quality of search results for the user. Google is interested in the user - and, as you might have guessed already, it reduces the value of a paid AdWord link. Because Google AdWords is a form of SEO, which really is SEM (search engine marketing); in other words, you optimize your site's Google performance by bidding on Google keywords whereby Google makes pretty much all of its money.
SEO is not going to get easier. It's going to get harder and eventually will most likely be next to impossible - because Google's algorithms are always a step ahead of the marketers trying to game them. And with no keyword reporting, a major support system for SEO has been, quite simply, taken away.
If you want to rank high on Google, build a good site and market it the best you know how. Just don't expect SEO to be the answer to your traffic-related prayers because, increasingly, it won't be.
Andrew V. Edwards is a digital marketing executive with 20 years of experience serving large organizations, and has been an operating executive and digital marketing consultant since the 1980s. Currently he is a partner at Efectyv Digital, a digital analytics consulting firm. Andrew combines extensive technical knowledge with a broad strategic understanding of digital marketing and especially digital measurement, plus hands-on creative in the form of writing and design.
In 2004 Edwards co-founded the Digital Analytics Association and is currently a director emeritus. He has designed analytics training curricula for business teams and has led seminars on digital marketing subjects.
Besides writing a regular column about analytics for ClickZ, Andrew wrote the groundbreaking "Dawn of Convergence Analytics" report, which was featured at the SES show in New York (2013).
His book Digital Is Destroying Everything, published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be released on June 15, 2015.
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