The latest trend in SEO seems to be change. Changes in the way Google evaluates signals, changes in the way brands are treated, changes in the way we all have to approach what optimization actually means in a new landscape.
The uncertainty of it all can turn any of us into some SEO version of Dr. Doofenshmirtz trying to take on a Google-shaped Platypus. Now, it’s not because we’re a bunch of inept fake-Germans with questionable accents. We’re smart, if maybe a little inevitably clueless about how to attain the ultimate victory over our foes. To arm ourselves we only have indicators, guides, and best practices but we don’t have silver bullets or a giant optimiz-inator to help us take over the world.
A Shifting Market
Search engines have always been a business. Their function is to help us navigate the vastness of the internet to find precisely what we are after. The fact that being at the top of the list could make someone a whole lot of money just presented an impetus to game the system. We focused on the quick wins and easy scores, because if you knew the right moves it was quick and relatively easy to play in the big 10. And then Google would make it rain.
It used to be amazing how frequently you’d see a whole first page of search results for a really popular product like sneakers, or jewelry that wouldn’t even include names you’d see at the mall. A lot of the established brands took their time embracing online marketing while small businesses sprung up and flourished on little more than SEO. But that time is over, and looking for anything now that is “quick” or “easy” is an exercise in both futility and frustration.
More Parts to the Equation
To quote my boss, links used to be the “800 pound gorilla in the room” when it came to rankings. Now, links may still be a sizable primate, but they’re not all that matters. There was, and in some cases still is a sort of perception that links are a magical elixir that the right one, in the right place, with the right anchor text means total rankings domination. But in any equation, both an augend and an addend are needed to make a sum. That means it has to be links plus other efforts to get a result. And honestly, it’s not even as simple as an addition problem.
This past year (and arguably for several years leading up to this) we’re dealing with problems that look a lot more like the kinds of complex algebraic equations that convinced me math was just evil by nature. Links matter. Technical SEO still matters (yes even though certain short cuts may be shut down, SEO is still alive and kicking), authorship is coming into play; in-depth articles have gotten their own schema. Then there are Social signals that can't be counted out, user data like CTR, return visitors aka customer loyalty, pogo sticking, and of course, his highness, king content that all factor in.
There may have been a time when links could push you forward in spite of these other factors. But the new math isn't; old links plus more links equals winning. There are more constants, more variables, the occasional exponent, some parentheses, and no scientific calculators to make it all easier. We have to do it the hard way.
Old School Marketing is the New Online Marketing
Sometimes moving forward means going all the way back to the beginning. For a time there was a real distinction between SEO and online marketing. SEO focused heavily on technical proficiency, but it also became an umbrella term for every trick, tactic and strategy for getting higher rankings. Even if the tricks are dying out the, technical aspects like speed, structure and optimized hierarchy still matter. That doesn't mean the definition of SEO is shrinking, just the opposite actually, its expanding, and quickly.
With the changes we've seen, I'd posit that brand power and recognition are very much a part of SEO, but they are also the foundation of marketing online and off. Even before the internet, if you wanted to sell your stuff, people had to know who you were.
So there came marketing, advertising, Madison Avenue, Don Drapers, and culture-changing sayings like “Where's the beef?” or “I'm not going to pay a lot for this Muffler.” They had to be creative and innovative. Then came Google and suddenly there was this whole other way of getting customers that didn't require creative ingenuity. All it took was taking advantage of the latest loophole before it got shut down. So the quest for that beautiful bounty of inbound buyers turned into a really ugly dog fight. But the need for more traditional marketing didn’t die.
Remember word of mouth? Well, that's social media now. Billboards still exist on the information superhighway, but they are 2-inch jpegs instead of 50-foot signs. Fliers come into your inbox instead of a mailbox. Coupons get Tweeted instead of clipped. Tried and true, real marketing practices are still applicable online and sure, they take longer and don’t always affect your rankings, but they can grow your business and really, isn’t that the point anyway?
Bring on the Mad Men!
A part of the new world of SEO is as basic as going to our marketing roots. There’s no way that building relationships through networks is going to bring you more search engine traffic as quickly as 200 directory links did three years ago. Expecting the same results from the old techniques or new ones is only going to lead to a lot of giving up on things that “seem” like they aren’t working. We need to change our expectations. We have to stop thinking about search engines as something we can still manipulate to avoid more traditional forms of marketing. The only difference is the way we leverage those techniques from a technical standpoint to bring the maximum benefit.
Today’s SEO isn’t about finding a way around the arduous task of brand building; it’s about mastering it.