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There’s a difference between anecdotal evidence and hard statistics that “prove” a particular point. I’m not a huge fan of the former and skeptical of the latter, which makes me a tough person to convince of anything.
So to be honest, I’m writing this with a bit of dissonance because I’m about to throw a whole lot of anecdote at you and nothing at all by way of statistics to “prove” how impossible SEO has become for small businesses and how it might be time for us to jump ship altogether and leave Google to the payers and players.
Or just to Bing it, perhaps…
Either way, I’ve come to the anecdotal conclusion that in Google’s efforts to eradicate spam, it has gone ahead and tossed out the baby with the bathwater and possibly even the tub and plumbing, too.
The paradox is that beyond eliminating crummy article factories, I don’t see how search results have improved at all in the last several months, or perhaps even several years.
Google search results have always been pretty darn good. It hasn’t become the top search engine because it’s thrown junk at us.
Sure, some crummy site always managed to get to the top of our results and spam snuck in. But apparently Google doesn’t think we’re smart enough to filter things for ourselves (see: why do we need Gmail tabs?) and so it has taken on the responsibility of perfecting the web and sanitizing it for us into little blocks of information that it deems fit to display.
I understand that Google wants to improve its product.
I don’t understand the recent changes that have turned SEO into more of a game than it’s ever been, with big brand names and content powerhouses competing for popularity while most of the web sits around and ponders the ever-present and still-unhelpful advice to “create great content“.
Rather than turn this into the rant it wants to be, I’m going to share why I think SEO – at least in a Google-dominated world – has become obsolete and what we might be able to do instead.
And, sadly, I think this is just how Google wants it – for all of us to go away and leave the sanitizing and compartmentalizing to them. In that case… win-win?
And Then There Was Page Rank
The real demise of SEO began when Google introduced Page Rank. It was the original popularity game and SEOs and businesses everywhere ran around building links to get some.
As to be expected, some of it was legitimate. Some of it wasn’t.
You may remember those days of “you link to me and I’ll link to you”. We built link pages and wrote nice letters to compatible site owners who might share a little link juice with us.
There were tutorials about just how to compose such a letter, where to put the links on our sites, how to write the anchor text to give the best juice to our linkees.
Sites with friends did best. Spammers did well, too.
Google got smarter. It started devaluing link farms and those laundry-list link pages but it kept the premise in place: more links = more popularity = better search ranking.
The premise still holds today but the rules have changed again and now we’re admonished to build links “naturally” and warned that any link that hints of being acquired otherwise will be ignored or worse, result in a penalty.
Google should have put it in plain language for us: be paranoid. Be very paranoid.
The only legitimate links for Google equate to “accidental”. If you had anything to do with that link – by way of sponsored content or a guest post – beware.
And when you do stumble across links to your site (generally by obsessing over your Google Webmaster tools), they’d better not have keywords in the anchor text. When in doubt, be damn sure they are nofollow links (presumably by following other webmasters around and nagging them to nofollow any links they have added to your site).
And if there’s any chance they’re from sites of questionable quality or may appear over-optimized or in any way deliberate, you’d better rush your butt back to Webmaster Tools and disavow those links faster than you can say “disavow”.
Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land explains the current anchor text issue quite well so you can read the no-nos here.
The result is not less spam – it’s fewer businesses in search results (although that provides the perfect opportunity to spend money on AdWords… just pointing out an interesting coincidence).
For me, the biggest problem comes in the form of ambiguity. There are a lot of relative warnings (don’t link “too much”) and a lot of general-speak (publish “high quality” content).
I recently quoted Matt Cutts from a Webmaster video where he said something to the effect that linking between two or three sites that you own is ok but linking between 200 is too many.
Are you also wondering about that gray territory somewhere between two and two hundred?
But Wait, There’s More!
Want more evidence that Google is shoving businesses out of search and into its pocket? I’ll make this easy.
- Google Shopping becomes a paid ad service. Goodbye to the great democracy of the internet, hello highest bidder. Because if there’s one thing we don’t get enough of when we’re trying to make a purchase decision, it’s ads.
- Google takes away our keywords in analytics. Under the thin guise of “privacy” Google stopped showing us what people were searching for to reach our sites. But they only block keywords for users who are logged into Google. Because the privacy of non-Google users is less important.
- Google kills its free keyword tool. That’s right, the last bastion of usefulness is now morphing into an Adwords tool that is only available to Adwords advertisers. Want to do a quick search to see what keywords might be good to write about for your next blog post? Cough up the cash.
And Now, A Story
This is not me spouting nonsense off the top of my head. It’s me dealing with businesses every day that have been knocked out of the game by the latest Google update.
And that includes my own.
We’ve watched our search traffic be literally cut in half over the past couple of months. And we’re pretty obsessive about analytics. We track, we watch, we eliminate alternatives, we check sources and referrals.
And here I was worrying that we’d been so busy writing great content and ignoring SEO altogether that we’d get left behind.
Wish I’d just known it was going to be about great content… wait… what?
It’s not just me.
I’ve watched one client go from being a top competitor in search with thousands of visitors per day to literally nowhere in Google results, down to barely a few hundred visitors per day.
You may ask what changed with his website. Well, we added better photos. Punched up the product descriptions. Made the ordering process easier.
It was so bad that we submitted a reconsideration request to Google figuring there must be something seriously wrong. Google’s response? All good. No problems.
But his site is showing up at the top of Bing – consistently.
Another client that’s one of about half a dozen manufacturers in their entire industry went from being a top competitor to disappearing everywhere except AdWords where they pour money each month just to stay noticed.
Perhaps the worst is our local clients who not only disappear from search but from local search. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed [my town business] and been utterly unable to find the specific business I wanted.
I could go on all day with stories of businesses beaten by whatever Google is doing with search results. Maybe you have one, too.
The truth is, every update sees some winners and some losers. But not like this. This feels more like a massacre.
So Now What?
It does no one any good to complain and speculate unless we can start to come up with some solutions.
So now that search seems to be hammering so many people and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change anytime soon, what do we do about it?
I actually posed this question to my mastermind group and lovely smart ladies that they are, they came up with some suggestions that are both worthwhile and dare I say going to be a necessary part of your marketing efforts going forward.
The first is be everywhere.
There is no longer an excuse for back-burnering social media. In fact, it’s becoming quite dangerous to do so. You may not need or want to avail yourself of every social channel but if you aren’t sending social signals and building your presence in the communities where your customers hang out then you’re going to be way behind in this game.
In fact, it’s social that saved our site traffic from tanking altogether because as we watched our search traffic drop precipitously we also saw our social traffic grow. It didn’t happen by accident.
Figure out where your customers are and get there. Now.
The next bit of advice is promote yourself.
As long as you’re going to be everywhere, make the most of the opportunity by promoting yourself, your products and your services. In a non-annoying way, of course.
Think of it as the new link juice. Where you once guest posted for the backlinks, now you’re going to do it for the recognition. So prep your best offers and giveaways and pull people into your world where you can start working on those relationships.
Finally, go deeper.
You may not be getting the volume of traffic that you once were but you can certainly make the volume you do get count.
That means no more shortcuts and hoping that people will discover you and all your wonderfulness.
It means getting to know your email list better and really understanding what they need so you can give it to them. It means cultivating those relationships and cementing trust and authority in your space because email is still your playground and you can own it – Gmail tabs notwithstanding.
It means focusing like a laser on your target audience and forgetting about casting a wide net in hopes of landing a big fish. If you’re seeking out and learning to understand your target audience then it truly is quality over quantity.
Here’s one last wakeup call straight from me: if you’re not blogging, you’re dead in the water.
My poor local clients and small business clients who have websites that sit there like mini-brochures are just. dead.
Google has seen to that with its push for “creating great content”. Maybe it’s not entirely clear what “great” content is but I can guarantee this much: you’ll never create it if you’re not creating any at all.
No content, no links, no Google love. Ever. It’s that simple.
Unfortunately, even great content is no cure for the SEO blues so be sure to think beyond search and focus on other marketing opportunities. Maybe we’ve all had eggs-on-one-basket syndrome for too long when it comes to Google and it’s time to take our business – and its health – elsewhere. Even Google has said as much.
What are YOUR thoughts on SEO? How have recent Google changes affected your business? Are you trying other tactics or completely stuck? I would love to hear your stories, opinions and challenges! And get in touch if you need help planning, strategizing or executing your content or social marketing.