As much as I hate to rehash this tired theme, I think it’s worth discussing in light of a recent change I’ve undergone in my personal and professional opinions.
Initially I was just going to blog about the death of link buying. Although this is no longer the focus of this post, it most certainly is still a very important element of it.
The risks you take when buying links
A storm of recent Google updates targeting link farms and blog networks has smashed the SEO community at large over the last month. It has officially become much too dangerous for site owners to do link buying. I don’t see any justifiable way to buy links without radically jeopardising either the reputation of the SEO agency offering the link building or the overall rankings and quality of the website for which links are being built.
Yes, building exact-match anchor text links work. The majority of people in the SEO industry will be able to tell you this, with a few voices of dissent ever-present of course. I’ve tracked their impact over various time periods with many variables and in all instances I see this working as a proven way of improving rankings.
However, with updates such as the Penguin Update, which targets spammy link signals (paid text links using exact-match anchor text, comment spam, guest posts on questionable sites, article marketing sites, and links from dangerous sites), building links in such a way as to create a varied and natural-looking backlink profile for a site has become much trickier. Now SEOs have to play a delicate balancing game between offering link buying whilst still ensuring that their clients are fully aware of the dangers.
I have found that this level of transparency is rarely possible or encouraged at an agency level. Without being able to guarantee the safety of the client’s money, link building should not be offered. There is no way an SEO can in good conscious offer hard KPIs to a client through the method of premium link buying. All of the SEOs in the world are not as smart or capable as the many Google engineers who are working full-time with an overwhelming budget to eradicate link buying. Even if all SEOs studied and researched every inch of Google’s algorithm so that we were fluent in all of its nuances, which is bordering on impossible, disregarding that fact that during this period of research this non-static search engine would have probably undergone several more changes, with just a few small tweaks to existing updates all link building conducted based on existing algorithm standards could be obliterated.
It’s hard to phrase the following in a non-Vietnam-flashback kind of way, but I have seen rankings of expensive, popular websites tank overnight because of a reliance on link building. Whether building with exact-match anchor text or not, paying money for link building, be it link buying or organic link building, is no longer a realistic way forwards.
What Google Recommends
Google has repeatedly stressed that webmasters should not try to game the search engine but should rather conform to a standard of creating a healthy, user-friendly site and producing quality, value-rich content. It has also made no secret of the fact that it is working to eradicate link builders and other improper SEO techniques.
I have heard several people table the argument that link building is necessary and that it is just link buying that poses a threat. I think this point needs some refinement. I don’t think webmasters should cease any site promotion whatsoever. Creating relationships with other website owners is important for networking and links between sites send strong trust signals to Google, as does syndicating unique, quality content, which can have a positive impact. However, there is still no way to guarantee ranking improvements based on this either in isolation or as a tactic within a larger strategy.
During the upheaval that accompanied the recent Google updates, SEER Interactive, a leading SEO company, lost rankings for their brand. This is inexplicable, as they did not employ black hat techniques to get ranking and have a very strong, natural social media presence across several powerful platforms. This goes to show that those pie charts SEOs are constantly slapping together and sharing online which claim to show a breakdown of Google’s algorithm are a farce. Even if by some fluke they managed to guess the correct percentage of attention Google puts on, say, the health of a website, that percentage would constantly fluctuate, not to mention that this element would still contain multiple deeper elements, such as duplicate content and crawl errors, with each receiving its own variable weight of attention from the different aspects of Google.
Don’t Play a Game you Cannot Win
I’m concerned about the arrogance and ignorance of SEO as an industry. SEO is sitting in the shadow of this monstrously intricate search engine and trying to make suggestions to site owners about improving their rankings when realistically I don’t see how SEOs can claim to have any control over it.
I’ve seen so many strange things happen to websites with little explanation as to why. For example, two websites, same CMS, same site owner, same SEO strategy. The rankings of one improved faster than another in an equally competitive market. For an eCommerce site I saw link building go from a couple thousand GBP a month to nothing, yet rankings for generic terms were entirely unaffected for months afterwards. For yet another, the health issues were so severe it made navigating the site a virtual nightmare. The site had over 100,000 404 errors being reported and severe duplicate content issues as a result of indexed filters and paginations, but to this day it never lost rankings for brand and never incurred a duplicate content filter, whereas another site incurred this filter for what would appear to be just a few misplaced redirects.
I hear SEOs saying things to site owners along the lines of, “Fix your page titles and it’ll help rankings” or “Target this keyword phrase on your home page and it’ll help rankings.” I find this tragically misguided. They’re looking in the wrong places. You shouldn’t pay so much attention to the onsite elements (not that these are completely unimportant and should be ignored), you should look at the search engines and how they operate. Google is so detailed that changing an H1 tag is barely going to touch sides.
In April alone there were 53 updates Google has publicised. These have an effect on personalised search, localisation, language specific searches (the Raquel update), country specific searches (the Sudoku update), date specific searches, diversification in SERPs (the Horde update), and a variety of other elements many SEOs aren’t even aware of, yet alone have any realistic control over. The list I’ve linked to is expansive (more detailed discussion on them here) and shatters any preconceived notions I’ve had that SEOs offer any real value in the traditional sense.
Look at the other elements that SEOs have had to dodge in the last year.
- Not Provided means that if a user is signed into their Google account at the time of entering their search query, the keywords they use won’t be trackable in analytics software, making it tough to optimise the site for high traffic-driving phrases.
- The Panda Update places a lot of emphasis on onsite content in an attempt to stop privileging low quality sites which simply have a lot of backlinks.
- The Penguin Update seeks to eliminate link farms and penalises sites with unnatural link signals.
- Personalisation is a never-ending issue, with search engine results varying according to whether or not you’re signed in, your browser history, your IP address, Search Plus Your World, social signals from friends, and any other number of things.
- There’s also something called an over-optimisation penalty, which makes it possible for Google to sniff out if your site has been over optimised through high keyword densities in the onsite copy, for example.
- Link buying in and of itself is against Google’s guidelines, so if you’re caught buying links your site takes the hit.
- Ranking report software varies wildly in accuracy. Firefox’s Rank Checker addon is a great way to quickly check rankings, but WebCEO seems more reliable. However, they rarely match up. Couple this with the fact that the majority of less stable rankings change by the hour and you’ve got a slippery KPI.
- Features such as Google Instant and Google Suggest improves usability, but makes it far more complicated for websites to choose which phrases are worth ranking for.
- Many people use apps integrated with the various platforms they prefer on a wide variety of devices to read the news and engage with friends. For example, I read the news on the Pulse app on an Android smartphone. It doesn’t require me to click through to the site unless I want to read more than the adequate information I’m often provided with in an article. Facebook has similar apps which allow people to stay up to date with their updates without having to visit the site. The Guardian is one example of this.
- The existence of Negative SEO companies, which is on the up. Maybe you decide you want to rank for the phrase “online shopping,” but instead of hiring an SEO company to improve your rankings, or perhaps you do this anyways and are struggling to get to the prime position, you hire a negative SEO company to bring down the rankings of your competitors.
There’s another issue worth consider: that of herd immunity. If you chase rankings for a term that is not relevant to your website, or which your website does not “deserve” to rank for, whatever that word might mean within the bizarre moral landscape of the online world, then you are compromising the search results for every person who might Google that phrase. Google goes out of their way to serve up the most relevant, best quality websites to users. By gaming the search engines you are jeopardising the search results for millions of users.
This is an industry I’m still learning a lot about, and I don’t expect this learning process ever to be complete based on the spitfire rate of change. However, I’m liking what I’m seeing less and less. Guarantees aren’t guarantees, and it’s so easy to send someone’s money down a black hole. If you’re involved in a campaign from the inception of a website you have the ability to contribute some notable change, such as SEO friendly URLs, a user-friendly site structure, correct robots meta tags to reduce duplicate content, ensuring Google can crawl the website, and other such elements which developers often overlook.
SEO is a shady industry, so even if you are one of the few “white hats” you are still swimming in a pool of bad apples that sour your industry. It makes it difficult to be proud of the service you are offering clients, it makes it difficult for a client to trust you completely, and endless updates means you’re forever forced to move the goal posts rather than merely adapt.
I know many may disagree with me, and I welcome dissenting opinions. One of the things about this industry that I have always enjoyed are the back and forth debates that ensue any strongly expressed opinion. However, in many cases it can be a bit extreme and highlights the telling lack of concurrence amongst professionals in this competitive industry.
In the long run I suspect SEO will be subsumed into webdev and web analysts will take over the role of monitoring traffic and liaising with technicians and marketers accordingly. SEO will never die, but it will change shape to become nearly indiscernible with what it is now. At least, I hope so.