Do You Need SEO? Or, Surviving The Google Zoo

Do You Need SEO? Or, Surviving The Google Zoo

When you’re done reading this, be sure to pop over to my follow-up post for 10 basic SEO tips you can use to stay in Google’s good graces!

And now, a rant.

I’ve been doing SEO for clients since SEO meant that changing a single word in your title tag could propel your site to ranking success.

Alas, though search results may have improved in relevance, the act of getting your website – especially your small business website – found in any relatively useful place has become a combination of intense purpose, a bit of luck and a whole lot of miracle.

I know some SEO companies out there are grumbling right now, saying how SEO is art and science and link-building is a massive feat of specialized skill.

But I read a lot of SEO blogs and if there’s one thing that’s been conspicuously absent lately it’s any talk of SEO.

There’s a lot about social marketing. A ton about content marketing. A vast amount about Google Glass (I guess anything with the word “Google” in it counts as SEO). And the occasional, “How to set up a Google Plus profile for your business.”

But it seems like SEOs are forgetting the whole “optimization” part of the acronym, sort of hoping to sweep the whole thing under the rug (Social signals! Google Earth! Look at the monkey!) and move along to plain old everyday unimpressive-sounding marketing.

The problem is SEO has changed fundamentally and forever. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the only reason anyone still uses that outdated acronym is because we’ve invested so much time beating it into customers’ heads (you need SEO!) that now they all tell us they need SEO. And they’re still willing to pay $199 a month for vague promises of number one rankings, so who are we to say otherwise?

But… do you need SEO? And now that the internet has become the Googlenet, what can we do about it anyway?

I don’t have a lot of answers, but I do have a lot of questions. Maybe you have some of the same ones, too. So take a little tour with me through the wilds of my thoughts on SEO, where it is, where it’s going and what’s both possible and practical for companies without the name or budget of Kmart or Target or Zappos.

When we’re done, I’d love to hear what you think.

Google To Businesses: “We Hate SEO”

Ok, Google didn’t actually say that. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of Matt Cutts videos to get a strong sense that Google would prefer if we just went about our business building awesome websites and just being awesome in general and let them manage the internet.

The video below is perhaps one of my favorite (and by favorite I mean it makes me roll my eyes and want to punch a video in the mouth) answers that Matt Cutts gives about how to compete with big sites.

Take special note at about 1:55 where he gives very helpful and specific advice to “make sure your website doesn’t suck.”

And again at about 3:35 where he comforts with this gem: “don’t get so focused on just search rankings… there are a lot of other opportunities available to you.”

Translation: you can’t compete. We run the internet. Just go be awesome and do other stuff to market your business.

If Google via their talking mouthpiece tells me one more time to “build a great website”… well, I can’t state publicly what that might drive me to do.

You know, because we all set out to build crappy websites.

Seriously, I know there are some pretty bad websites out there. But there are some pretty good ones, too, and they have some pretty crummy rankings. Some of the best marketing blogs I’ve come across has been by pure accident or luck, usually from a tweet or because I followed a link to a link to a link – and never because I searched for “marketing blogs” or anything related to them.

But the usual suspects (the big ones, with the names we all recite in our sleep) come up every. darn. time.

Snore.

Sometimes I purposely skip the first two or three pages of results just to get to the stuff that doesn’t warrant an actual ranking because that’s where you can find some pretty interesting things. Good blogs, unique products, and valuable information lurk on websites that don’t have enough inbound links or plus-ones or whatever pixie dust the “top sites” have according to Google and its omniscient algorithm.

Do I sound bitter?

Nah, just tired. Tired of competing with math and robots that decide what’s popular enough to be worth my time. Tired of the same big-hitting sites showing up everywhere, every time and limiting the information, products and people that I could be discovering if the playing field were a bit more level.

Google To Businesses: “OK, You Can Do SEO. But We’re Going To Punish You If You Do.”

All right, they didn’t say that either.

But I dare you to lie to me and tell me it doesn’t seem like that!

Google said: use keywords!

So we plugged them into tags and images and headings and copy and then Google said, “Whoa! What’s up with all these keywords everywhere? Just use them, you know, sometimes.”

Translation: Want to know where and how often to use keywords? Guess.

Google said: be popular!

So we built links and got popular and then Google said, “Nuh-uh. That’s totally trying to game the system. Just get links naturally.”

Translation: “magically”.

Google said lots of things and then Google got mad and told us we were doing them too much.

Again, I understand that there are a lot of spammers out there who throw out links and stuff keywords indiscriminately. Evict those guys from the rankings, I say.

But don’t step on the small biz guy who’s trying to get ahead in the small ways available to him, who maybe uses keywords in too many tags at once but who still has a pretty darn good website.

I’ve seen a lot of good small businesses get hammered in the wake of recent Google updates with little recourse but to keep being awesome.

Google To Businesses: “It’s All About Links. But Not Really. Except It Is.”

I’m paraphrasing.

In this recent video Matt Cutts told us that linking between multiple sites that you own is ok, sort of, as long as you don’t do it too much. Mostly. And as long as the sites are really related. If you can count the number of interlinked sites on one hand, that’s ok. But 222 sites are too many. Usually.

One can only wonder about the poor souls who have four or six fingers and try to count interlinked sites. Hey, it could happen.

I understand the point he’s making, that putting up a boatload of low-quality and unnecessary sites for the sake of building your own link ecosystem is bad. Nobody needs that. But the question reflects a Google-induced paranoia surrounding links that’s almost ridiculous.

People are afraid to link to other people and they’re afraid of who links to them. They’re afraid of links that link to pages in their own sites. They’re afraid of dofollow blog comments. They’re worried about being hijacked by some spammy site that steals their content faster than you can say “duplicate content penalty” and adds a bunch of links that look like spammy link-building tactics on the part of the good guys.

The funny thing is that the spammers aren’t worried. Because as long as there is a system, they will find a way to game it.

People who spent time building link profiles, not thinking they were doing anything wrong, are finding themselves in the unfortunate position of having to spend hours in Webmaster Tools disavowing links that they spent years collecting.

The idea of links = popularity = quality sounded good in theory, just like the keyword tag sounded good in theory, but it might be time to retire that paradigm somewhere to the North Pole.

Until then, search results will be nothing more than the outcome of a second-rate math contest.

Businesses To Google: We Have Social

If you’re feeling frustrated by all this, the good news is that social media has opened the door of opportunity where Google has slammed it shut.

We can promote our sites and content and businesses on any number of networks. We can find eager audiences and connect with them in a way you can’t do via search results.

You can be where people are looking more and more for information, recommendations and communication. If you can look past Facebook’s Google-wannabe EdgeRank, it’s a pretty wide-open field.

Seems like we’d be better served taking the welfare of our businesses into our own hands instead of leaving it to the whims of an algorithm and learning how to use social media instead of where to shove keywords.

I obsess about my analytics and I can tell you without a doubt that social traffic trumps search every day of the week.

And when I do get search traffic? You wouldn’t believe the absurdity. One particular phrase that keeps popping up is about drinking tea – because there’s a photo in a blog post somewhere with an alt tag describing the actual photo as a cup of tea. Why Google thinks that post or this site have anything to do with tea is surely one for the Mensa grads. Yet that’s the “relevance” I’ve been assigned. Not once or twice or a few times – but repeatedly, bafflingly.

I bet you’ve seen a lot of junk keywords in your analytics, too. And yet somehow that’s what the algorithm that’s supposed to be so good at discerning quality, relevance and awesomeness thinks.

At least when I post a link to a blog post titled “How to use Pinterest for business” to Twitter, I can be reasonably assured that none of the people who click will be looking for a cup of tea.

Businesses To Google: Stop Spamming Us

I’ll admit something to you right now:  I couldn’t care less where my company site shows up in search because I don’t really want anyone to find us.

We use our website more as a conversion tool than a lead-generating tool because truthfully the quality of the cold leads we get through our site when someone has stumbled across us on the web is 100% terrible.

We get spammed constantly. And I’m not talking about the “buy Viagra” type of spam. I’m talking about the “can you build me a website for $20” type of spam and the “can you send me a proposal so I can compare it to the other six proposals I got and choose the lowest price” spam.

The problem is that search results don’t provide any context for our business. We’re just another link in a long list of links to an arbitrary business in an arbitrary town.

Getting a lead through search is about as effective as cold-calling someone during dinner and hoping they’ll want a subscription to your ceramic-collectors magazine club.

Do you know where we get better leads? Right through this blog. Because our blog creates context and creates relationships and builds trust in a way that a link in a search result never can.

Think about that if you feel the need to continue obsessing about keywords instead of working on your content marketing.

The Million Dollar Question: Do You Need SEO?

Search, in spite of my rant, is not dead.

People use it every day to find the products, services and information they need. I do. You do. We can’t pretend otherwise.

Search is more relevant to some types of businesses than others. For example, retailers want a search presence because so many shoppers use search to find what they buy. You can still use social but without a search presence, there’s a real opportunity lost.

If that’s you, better get acquainted with the zoo. It’s going to take a lot of work and very little of it is going to do with optimization. A whole lot of it going to have to do with marketing – getting your content out there, building a strong brand and… ahem… being awesome.

If you rely more on referrals or word of mouth for business, you may be able to ignore search completely. For some types of service professionals and bloggers, you’ve got a much bigger ocean of opportunity in social and community-based marketing. It’s still a lot of work! But at least it won’t involve worrying about whether you have the wrong number of fingers to count how many links you’ve created.

And you still get to be awesome.

What’s your take on SEO? Are you killing it in the rankings and using that advantage to build your business, or has one too many P-animals made your life miserable? What are you doing about SEO?