Do You Need SEO? Or, Surviving The Google Zoo

By May 13, 2013June 28th, 2015Search Marketing
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 And I have a sneaking suspicion that the only reason anyone still uses that outdated acronym is because we’ve invested so much time beating it into customers’ heads (you need SEO!)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?

Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Thanks for writing this one, Carol Lynn. It’s one of the best, most rational explanations I’ve read of late. Will be sharing this with the Word Chef peeps for sure!

    • Don’t tell anyone but this is the one I wrote on the couch with a bottle of beer 😉 Seriously, SEO is becoming more of a game rather than less and sometimes it gets to be too much. We don’t realize how fortunate we are to not have to rely on search as much as in the past.

  • Jane says:

    I found you though a retweet…it was a great article. So I started following you and found they were always great article. Thanks!

  • John Kenyon says:

    Very well written. Google’s priority to rank best the sites that are most popular VS the most relevant is not only stupid, but sad. I strongly feel that the changes are part of a bigger picture to force anyone who wants to show up on the organic search to pay to play. Say good bye to the small business!

    • I figured you might find this one interesting. I also suspect a lot has to do with generating ad revenue. There’s a certain point where search results are relevant and spam is fairly minimized. I think we’re there, and to think that we’re going to get rid of spam by tightening algorithms is wishful thinking. Spam is always going to exist!

      I understand the idea behind links = popularity = quality but I think it’s restrictive and short-sighted. There are plenty of good sites that won’t get a link in their lives because that’s just the nature of their businesses. And at the end of the day, spammers will find a way to do it better. It’s tough for a small biz, no doubt. That’s what makes other efforts like social, and yes, advertising, so important.

  • Carol Lynn,

    I’m fairly certain that you already know how much I love you. But, honestly? This article? Well, it puts that crazy love affair right over the top!

    I’ve had clients who pay hundreds of dollars a month for SEO out of absolute fear that they won’t be number one on a Google search. There’s a level of SEO that is just smart business. But there is also a whole mystique and fear factor that results in very small businesses paying very big money for absolutely no results.

    This piece explains the crazy world of SEO in simple English and gets right down to brass tacks on what you really need to do.

    Thank you, thank you!

    Erica

    • Whew, still in love! I was worried for a minute there that I’d ranted too much!

      SEO is crazy, and Google knows it. Why else would Matt Cutts tell us to “be awesome”? That’s the worst cliche advice I’ve ever heard and oh, by the way, it doesn’t work! I’m pretty awesome but I don’t see me popping up everywhere on Google 🙂

      I think SEO companies should go out of business and call themselves marketing companies. You can do only so much to optimize your website and then its about the marketing.

      Glad you liked my rant!

  • Louise Myers says:

    This is awesome! Thanks for spilling the beans on your feelings about Google search. I’d never have been able to put mine into words, so now I can just say “ditto that!”

  • Lisa Buben says:

    Carol, it’s been killing me on my retail sites! Trying to focus more on social and blogs. SEO has changed so much in the past year alone and I’ve been in the business for 3 years- it’s more work keeping up with SEO than anything else and there are no guarantees either. I’m beginning to think they want us all to invest in AdWords heavily.

    • You might be right, Lisa. Sadly, its mostly the small businesses that are getting knocked out. Google will always keep listing the big, obvious names (which we could find anyway, couldn’t we?) But small sites, with less power and less money are going to have a harder time. I think we’ll all need to focus on social more and more.

  • Hi Carol,

    A friend of mine who is a writer commented a while back about how Google had changed the search ratings in regards to SEO. Thank you for giving me a better understanding of how it all fits together!

    • I don’t think ANY of us will ever really understand it, George! There have been so many changes and many not in the favor of the small site. We’ll see if it causes a backlash I suppose.

  • I think Google’s issue here is actually fairly simple. Google wants to live in a world where the only SEO you need is to build a great site and put it on the interwebs. Basically, if Google had its way, SEO would be a two step process. 1) Make a great site. 2) Let Google find it.

    Of course, reality is different from that. Google hasn’t found a sure-fire way to determine what is or is not a great site. The fact that legitimate SEO exists, beyond “find us” steps, is an indication that Google has a problem with this and Google doesn’t want to admit that.

    Google would really rather you not notice the man behind the curtain. It wants the Internet to just ignore it and make the content it wants while it tries to figure everything out. That isn’t going to happen though so Google now has this weird relationship with webmasters where the advice Google gives is only good advice until Google decides its no longer helping them.

    I’m not one of these anti-Google types but Google has conflated its self interest with the interest of the Web. As far as Google believes, it’s their Internet and we just live in it…

    • Jonathan, you said that perfectly and in far fewer words than I did! That’s my feeling exactly, that Google wants us to go away and let it run the internet. But we all have business and financial interests, too, so sitting around and leaving the fate of our businesses in the hands of another company… that is also trying to run a business in its own self interest??? Hm. I don’t think so.

  • Digett says:

    Our company president JUST wrote an article about this topic a couple weeks ago (http://www.digett.com/blog/04/17/2013/seo-needs-new-name). SEO is, frankly, a disaster, and you’re not the only one who feels the need to rant about it. 🙂

    That’s why I think awesome content is the next frontier. People are using the web more and more when researching purchases and other decisions, and if you’re not getting in front of your prospects with some compelling, valuable stuff, all the SEO in the world isn’t going to help you. Long live content!

  • Andi-Roo says:

    First, Carol Lynn, I have to say that this is HANDS DOWN my most favorite post you’ve written thus far! So funny, and yet at once, so relevant. Kudos to you, ma’am! (and oddly enough, I read it in my voice. We really *DO* have similar writing styles, don’t we?)

    Now to a point I’d like to make somewhat in defense of de Googles. I fear that they are very, very good-hearted people who are, sadly, under the assumption that the majority of bloggers / businesses / what-have-you are EQUALLY good-hearted. It seems less to me like they are trying to shove small-timers out, and more to me as though they are saying, somewhat naively, “You’re awesome-ness will win out, because GOOD always triumphs over BAD.” In essence, they have donned rose-tinted glasses and see only the very best in all blogs ever.

    Does this change anything? Hell to the no. It still sucks major donkey balls that even the most awesome blogs will still have to worry about keywords and search results, even knowing full well (as you so succinctly pointed out) that it won’t pan out. You can’t disregard SEO entirely. But, I guess take it with a grain of salt, and do the social because that’s where it’s REALLY at.

    OMG, I just thought of this awesome analogy. Don’t know if you’ve read the book ATLAS SHRUGGED, but here’s the gist: The movers + shakers of the world are all HEROES. And as such, they assume that heroic (hard working, intellectual, self-motivated, etc) people will always come out on top. In this ideal, fictional world, that’s what happens. Unfortunately, this ain’t an Ayn Rand novel… nor a Disney movie. Hard work doesn’t always get noticed, cream doesn’t always rise to the top, and sometimes good people get cancer and die. Likewise, great blogs can and will be swallowed by bigger, suckier blogs.

    The problem, I think, is that de Googles hires visionaries, which are, by their very definition, somewhat prone to altruistic and heroic thinking. They can see the logic of what they say, therefore, all things being equal, what they say must be true. Good will triumph over evil. Sadly, all things AREN’T equal. I don’t think de Googles is “bad” for not realizing this. I think they are merely deluded. We don’t get angry and throw rocks at those with childlike mentalities, though. Instead we smile, pat them on the head, and leave them to their dreams. And honestly? Their dreams have given us a whole helluva lot more than, say, Microsoft!

    PS. If it sounds like I’m in love with de Googles, it’s only cuz I am! 🙂

    • Wow. Your favorite. post. omg.

      There is surely a place in a frame above my desk for that award. Even if you’re a Google-groupie, argh!! haha… ok, I’ll forgive you for now because you liked my post but I kiiiiiind of think Google is a little more evil than they say they are. Oh also, in a stroke of coincidence, I read an article from one of the Google execs saying that he thinks the Google “don’t be evil” mantra is stupid. So we know there’s at least one evil person there.

      Here’s what I think: (besides the rant of course)

      I think that Google is a child. The internet is their sandbox and they want everyone to play by their rules. You can bring your toys, but Google gets to decide where and how anyone can play with them. So if you want to put the shovel in the bucket but Google thinks the shovel goes in the pot, then screw you, Google is going home and throwing your toys into the ocean so nobody gets to play with them.

      And while that may not be “evil” it is stupid and it has a damaging impact on the bottom line of businesses everywhere. I can’t honestly believe that the people who work for and run Google are so stupid as to think that the billions of people with websites and business interests will just go away and “be awesome” and let Google run the internet the way Google wants to run the internet.

      I don’t hate or even dislike Google, I think they are being stupid and to throw another cliche into the mix, they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They’re so fixated on making sure that nobody gets over on them (because it’s personal after all) that they are willing to squeeze whatever life they have to out of the search results to prevent that one crummy guy from gaming their perfect system.

      Much like Atlas Shrugged – which I did actually read, and all 50 pages of the end lecture – it’s fiction and fantasy. it’s the awesome and powerful people who can;t understand why everyone isn’t awesome and powerful like them. And they are so baffled by this that they are fine with shutting everyone else out of their sandbox.

      And that is the end of rant #2. I am so glad we could have this little chat!!

      PS: I will be awaiting my framed “best post ever” award.

      • Andi-Roo says:

        bahaha — I didn’t know de Googles had a “Don’t be evil” mantra. That is kinda cool, actually, although not QUITE as cool as Wil Wheaton’s order to “Don’t be a dick”. So yeah, if someone is against that, there’s definitely a nasty booger on the loose.

        Totally agree with your analysis of Atlas Shrugged, and am uber impressed you read it cuz most people I know haven’t since it’s the Tea Party’s wet dream novel. (side note: my hubz + I were both unknowingly reading it at the same time, upon realization of which our fate was sealed and we fell madly in love with each other’s brains.) Any work of writing that claims good work will ALWAYS be noticed, and that the downtrodden are lazy bums who like being homeless pieces of crap, is OF COURSE fiction and fantasy! And also? Utter nonsense! My hubz works his ass off and I don’t see anyone promoting him to CEO… whereas the CEO of the company for which he works is a lazy ass jerk-faced emmer-effer.

        Also agree that the so-called “heroes'” bafflement, leading to the shutting out of the rest of the losers, was ridiculous and silly. I didn’t mean the comparison of de Googles’ attitude to Atlas Shrugged was the way things OUGHT to be. I meant that their attitude is similar to Ayn Rand’s in that it’s an overstated simplification of (a) the human state, and (b) the internet.

        I don’t know what the answer is. Like you, I have questions. I know the system we currently have isn’t working (both in life and online), but the current algorithm is what we’ve got to work with. And I don’t honestly see how de Googles could return such accurate search results without SOME mathematical equation in place to figure out what’s what. I mean, I guess I sound naive myself, since I would give them an “E” for effort and shrug because “at least they’re trying!” I sure as heck prefer de Googles to the other search engines like Yahoo or Bing.

        OMG, I sound like a jerk, cuz it comes down to me saying this: Life isn’t always fair and neither is the internet. Neither will ever be a level playing field, cuz if that was the case, my hubz would be a CEO and WSS would be NUMBER ONE in all things bloggish. And also I wouldn’t be fat and my kid would be at a real college instead of a two-year state school. And my parents wouldn’t be Republican nut jobs. We make the best with what we have: bad math, bad genetics, and shitty luck. Ain’t it grand? lolz…

        PS – your award is being framed! 🙂

        • lol, you are too much.

          And also if things were fair I would be able to eat 409 cookies every damn day and never have to work them off on the treadmill. pffft.

          Google **better** be trying! They’re making a boatload of money. I don’t believe they are purposefully being stupid but I do think they’re going over the edge trying to perfect something that will always be inherently imperfect. And in the process they’re hurting a lot of businesses.

          Well. I actually liked Atlas Shrugged even if I’m not on that political side. There, I admitted it. And I got your comparison 🙂 But what good is it if I can’t be ornery?

          …. still awaiting award.

  • I love a good rant! I think we have swung too far in the anti-spam direction with search. Some years ago we could possibly complain that spammy results were annoying but search results have been pretty darn good for a long time. So this obsession with some weird search perfection is pushing things too far in the opposite direction. Now average businesses can’t make any headway with search and they’re getting smacked harder for things that were never really “wrong” in the first place.

    I’m totally with you on content. Sadly, many people still rely on search to get it found. The greatest content in the world is no use if nobody finds it. Fortunately we have social and other opportunities. And even Matt Cutts said…. go find other opportunities. That, to me, is the most telling.