It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon here as I write this; I’ve just got off the phone with a few of my close friends who, not coincidentally, are in the SEO and online marketing community themselves. These are guys who know what they’re doing and make a lot of money online. And as I sit here going over our conversations in my mind, I find myself wanting to relate a few of the unspoken truths that seem to exist between us as a group.
I think there are probably many groups like ours in the SEO community; but not very many that have access to the resources that we do, so I figure that maybe it’s my responsibility to articulate some of these ideas for the greater good.
The one topic that our conversation kept falling back towards were the recent events and ‘carnage’ that occurred with Google’s Panda 3.3 algorithm update. And although it was a whole slew of changes that were rolled out from mid January to early March, the individual effects have been felt by a surprisingly large percentage of the online world in many different and far-reaching ways. (And it seems that it’s become simpler in online communities to label the whole time-frame as ‘Panda 3.3’.)
Obviously there were those that were penalised or lost ranking, and of course these are the ones that the most noise is coming from. But there were also those that benefitted (albeit a much smaller percentage,) for a variety of reasons. The simplest and most obvious of these reasons was because so many of their competitors were knocked back, they automatically gained ground!
As SEO’s we get to hear about this from all sides. We have the clients (and clients of colleagues) that have been affected, and we’ve got our own sites and networks to offer a personal perspective, and then of course we’re got all the obtuse Google statements and responses. But possibly the single most frustrating element of all this ensuing pandemonium is not that individual sites and rankings have been hit (and we’re not making light of that, believe me), but that most businesses or online marketers are so ‘fragile’ that a single algorithm blow like this can virtually wipe them out.
SEO has come into its own over the last few years, largely due to the increasing cost of PPC (Pay Per Click) style marketing. This is the traditional business model of paying for marketing exposure in some form of ‘advert’ in return for leads or a bite at enticing a client one step closer. It’s print advertising or leaflet distribution with a technological twist. And of course, it was sold as a pioneering concept, because you only paid for those that were interested in your offer. Gone were the days of spending fortunes on adverts when only one in a hundred might even be interested. Now you could offer up a highly focused advert based specifically on certain keywords that people were actually searching for! It sounded like the golden egg opportunity. And indeed, for a while, PPC became a lucrative market for those with some technical (or marketing) savvy.
But then came the herds of marketers that drove up the cost of clicks to ridiculous heights using non-commercial scatter-gun approaches to bidding. Over time, the PPC market has got to the point where only those with spectacular budgets can afford to test, measure and fine-tune an offer to the point where it offers a decent ROI. And this of course has left SEO as the main refuge to the smaller business or single online marketer. (And frequently now, PPC is only used to ‘test the waters’ with certain keywords before resources are put into SEO for that term.)
Now, I’d be the first person to say that if your every marketing success depends on SEO, then you’re in a highly untenable position already; it’s the ‘all-your-eggs-in-one-basket’ syndrome. No sensible business model should be so highly reliant upon one source of lead-generation; especially when the dominant market-share of that source is one private company – Google. If there were three or four competing search-engines on a somewhat even-footing, then this position wouldn’t be so precarious; as market-forces would help keep them ‘in check’ via their competition with each other. But with the UK, USA and much of the English speaking world so heavily ‘brain-washed’ into using Google, this position is incredibly shaky at the very least.
With Google’s utter dominance over much of the world, should come a rather nervous ‘wake-up call’ for everyone marketing on the internet (and isn’t that everyone now?) This is a private company that with a single algorithm change could decimate your entire business model; if you were to rely upon a single and over-simplistic SEO paradigm.
So what can be done if your business model simply won’t support the cost-base of PPC? Well, I’m glad to say, it’s not a new theory, and most larger companies do this as a matter of course as part of their attempt to take more market-share.
Put simply; you have to diversify and scale your operations to insulate yourself from individual issues.
What do I mean? Well, let’s say you have a successful site in a great little niche that you’ve slaved over for many months or years. Income is starting to flow, and then suddenly Google ‘tweaks’ their algorithm. You wake up the next morning to a penalty notice or maybe just zero traffic to your website. Your business has virtually disappeared over-night and your only recourse is to file a request for reconsideration or beg for help from the Google team; a situation that most will compare to getting blood from the proverbial stone. And talking as an experienced SEO who’s seen many clients go down this route; you’re in for a trial-by-fire at best, and will most probably be given a damned good run-around – with at least some sleep-less nights thrown in for good measure, as you fume and rant about “…But, how can they do this !?!”
But what if you had 2 different sites that operated independently of each other, or maybe 3 or more. Or what if your ‘main’ business site didn’t attract the traffic, or rankings at all, but many smaller satellite sites that fed leads and sales into your main site? What if your presence and sales generation on the web was actually diversified across hundreds of platforms? What do you think would have been the reaction the next day in that scenario? Sure; it would be an annoyance. But how would you react to losing 5-10% of your business, as compared to 100%? It’s a completely different situation, isn’t it.
No successful business ever allows themselves to get into a position where they’re so utterly reliant upon one avenue of sales or lead generation; at least, not those that last long-term.
And that brings us back to the unfortunate flip-side of the SEO argument: Understanding that all SEO carries risk, and therefore responsibility.
Google is quite vocal on the subject that they consider any link-building for the purposes of rank improvement to be ‘manipulation’ and against their TOS (Terms of Service.) And honestly; what link-building do any of us do that isn’t for rank improvement? Any link you seek to create that wasn’t achieved merely as a by-product of dissemination of original information about your business, is an ‘illegal’ link in Google’s eyes; because you created it to affect your rankings.
But what business can operate commercial marketing in that way? To most companies or marketers, if they want to send out ten thousand mail-shots, rather than one thousand, that’s their prerogative. And they apply the same thinking to Google. If I want to build a thousand links to increase my position in the search rankings, and my competitor only wants to build one hundred, then I’m just being more aggressive about my marketing, surely?
But this completely avoids the underlying premise that Google is a private company that has no ‘controls’ in place to stop them from changing their mind about the way they rank websites. And what works now to increase rankings, might not tomorrow; and might even back-fire at some point. Moreover, who says it’s necessarily in Google’s commercial interests to allow natural rankings to ever be truly effective; it’s quite simply less advertising revenue for them.
I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I find it highly unlikely that Google truly separates natural search from paid search. Do you honestly think that a private multi-billion dollar company is going to have any problems with manipulating their own system to increase advertising revenue? A system which actually has no social-responsibility or checks-and-balances in place? Google have already been prosecuted by the US government for allowing certain advertising practices to go unchecked. But, without getting into the politics or ethics of the situation, the reality of the moment is: Google sets the rules… and then changes them regularly mid-game, to keep everyone seeking to ‘manipulate’ them in a perpetual state of panic.
Therefore, if we use SEO, we have to acknowledge that we do so without their ‘permission’. And a better acronym today would be SERM (Search Engine Ranking Manipulation,) because the SEO term was coined when ‘on-page’ factors were prevalent. i.e. it was ‘Search Engine Optimization’ because you were optimizing your site for Search Engine rankings. Nowadays, it’s virtually all about external link-building and off-site manipulation techniques. So if we know the rules don’t allow us to attempt to ‘manipulate’ the system, do we stop and give up? Of course not; this is business. Billions of retail dollars are up for grabs and the internet is the business ‘wild-west’ at the moment.
But with the understanding of this reality should come the ‘wake-up call’ we mentioned earlier. Google sets the rules at the moment; we can’t avoid that in the foreseeable future. We know that SEO provides a hugely cheaper route (comparative to PPC) for online marketing. We also know that the only way to improve our online rankings is through commercial SEO; despite the fact that Google ‘frowns’ upon it. So what do you do?
You operate your SEO wisely of course. You build multiple points of sales-entry. You protect your irreplaceable ‘brand’ assets with very careful SEO activity; or none at all. You diversify your sales or lead ‘funnel’ completely, so you have so many different sales routes that losing one or even several of them hardly has an impact; and more importantly, it leaves you with the time to redevelop or rebuild those that were lost, with some income-stream intact.
But this obviously implies taking full responsibility for your online business; a situation which my SEO colleagues and I rarely ever see. Virtually every business or online marketer we speak to has their head in the sand, thinking either that Google will suddenly go back to the way they did things 4-5 years ago, or not even stopping to ask what actually works and what doesn’t. Let alone increasing their online assets once some results are achieved:
“We’re making money at last! Let’s just sit very still and hope that no-one notices or that anything changes!”
…And they blindly stumble around, purchasing completely the wrong type or volume of links, and then cry foul when they lose major assets to another penalty. Or they put up ill-thought-out, low quality and repetitive sites with no understanding of the effects they’re creating.
Now obviously, you only expand upon proven areas. We’re not suggesting you go out and add 30 assets to a keyword, niche or market that you’re still testing.
But once it becomes ‘an earner’ then you need to protect that business intelligence by expanding upon it.
The bottom line is: There are 3 simple rules, in case you hadn’t already gleaned them from above. And these haven’t really changed in years; they’ve just become essential, rather than ‘quite important’.
First; your content and sites need to be good. Don’t think that you can get away with mass-produced garbage lacking individuality any more. SEO will increasingly fail over the coming months and years when used on low quality ‘thin’ sites. You might get away with it for a while; but you’re likely to be flagged if you get a manual review.
Second; your SEO and link-building needs to be massively diverse in all aspects: Written content (all parts of it), platform/CMS, I.P. address, submission timing & footprint, domain variety, anchor text variety etc. etc. And to fully understand what I mean here, just talk to any decent analytical and professional ‘technical’ SEO (not some bloke on fiverr selling spam-links,) or read some reputable SEO blog or forum.
Third; you need to build multiple assets and sales-funnel entry points. Constantly. And then SCALE it like mad.
This is the true Zen of SEO and online marketing:
Massive diversification to protect and insulate yourself from the vagaries of Google’s whim.