Google, The Baby And The Bathwater: And Now What Do We Do About SEO?

By August 19, 2013June 29th, 2015Search Marketing
Google, The Baby And The Bathwater: And Now What Do We Do About SEO?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

If you’re still making excuses, it’s time to change your mindset and learn to love blogging. Or hire someone who does. Like me. I’ve got plenty of words to go around, as you may have noticed…

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.

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • Yet again, you’ve given us a well-reasoned look at the recent Google changes. And yes, it did kinda look like a Game of Thrones wedding episode…off to share this one far and wide (on SOCIAL!). You rock.

  • CarlosVelez says:

    We’re about to (literally) to fire our third SEO/AdWords consultant this year.

    Why?

    It’s not because they’re doing a bad job. It’s because these experts from well-known firms can’t make heads or tales of all the changes from Google. So if they can’t figure it out, what chance does a small business owner have?

    I say forget spending any money or time with Google (except for Google Plus) and focus on the suggestions here: email marketing, building relationships with customers, advertise elsewhere except Google, etc., etc.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Personally I don’t think ANYONE knows what to do with SEO these days. There have been too many changes and ultimately SEO doesn’t even exist anymore. If you want to get into search you have to churn out content like a factory (a very, very good factory, per Google) …. and pay.

      Or to your point, email, relationships, ads and “other”.

  • There is so much misinformation from so called “seo experts”, refreshing to read an article that explains fresh content is probably the best way to stay relevant. (Emphasis on probably) Constant updates to google make advice get stale pretty quick.

    Even with content it is tough to say where a page will land 3 months from now or a year from now. Quality is not the only factor to a small biz being visible and without a good push your audience will be limited.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Right, that’s the conundrum! Plenty of people are creating content – good content. And plenty of those people aren’t seeing a bit of result from Google. So even if you could say that content is the key to search rank, it’s demonstrably false considering how many good sites and blogs never get a place in Google at all. And you’re right, the advice comes and the advice goes. I’ve decided to throw the towel in on this one and get my traffic elsewhere.

  • SandyMcD says:

    Thank you Carol Lynn. Not only for a well balanced look at why we should pay less attention to the term SEO but for pointing out as a result the importance of blogging and building community.

    I’d still hold that Google is useful for understanding the search terms people are using to solve their problems. Not because if you write great content optimised for those search terms you will rank, but because it gives you a good foundation for writing the content and if you do everything else right, you’ll have a better opportunity to rank at some point. What are your thoughts?

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      You brought up a great point that I may just have to amend to my post! After years of me telling people to use Google’s keyword tool to find what people are searching for, guess what Google is doing? They are shutting down the keyword tool. So let’s see if I can sum this one up… not only has Google knocked businesses out of free search results (in favor of “content” in some ill-defined way) AND removed keywords from our analytics (in favor of the ubiquitous “unknown”) but they are also removing our single (free) avenue to find out what people are searching for and how often. So… no idea how to get a site to rank, no way of knowing what keywords people are using to reach your site and no way to know what anyone is searching for at all. Does that sound like a company that wants to control the web or what?

      • SandyMcD says:

        Yes, it has been confusing at best to find, with or course no explanation, a whole new interface in the keyword tool. I was so nonplussed and concerned that the advice I had been giving out was extraneous or even plain wrong, I googled “why has Google changed their keyword tool and is it any good?”

        Just as I tell people how wonderful it is for folk with a problem to find an answer from them to their searcher’s question, I found this. It has placated me to some extent. Although, I agree with you Carol Lynn and Geoff, Google is behaving like a behemoth and if I could issue a warning it would be. Beware Google. Remember Quark! Actually I might write a post on that!

        http://www.ppchero.com/googles-keyword-planner-whats-changed-and-is-it-any-good/

  • geofflivingston says:

    I have to say that Google has become a bit of a tyrant. Everyone has to jump when they act. I’ve stopped paying attention unless there is a symphony of voices crying for some sort of action. Last time was AuthorRank. But yeah, their changes now favor those who blog three or more times a day, and that’s just not realistic.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Sadly they are way too huge at this point to ignore the way I’d like. Wasn’t it just within the past few days that they had a five minute service outage that pretty much took down the entire internet?

      Also, this thing with “content” is really going in the wrong direction. The net result will be (is?) a web flooded with content, much of which is worthless. Why on earth would we need to be creating that much damn content? It flies in the face of all good marketing practices about quality and customer needs. Personally I think that’s code for “non-business sites” – those have to pay to be seen.

  • Sylviane Nuccio says:

    Hi Carol,

    I sure glad I read this today.

    I happened to have read a couple of posts that were complaining about Google recently and you kind of confirm what they were saying.

    The question that pops in my mind is…. Has Google lost it’s mind entirely?
    Very, very weird that they would do that to businesses, even locally. My guess is that if they keep messing up that bad they will end up losing a lot of business.

    As for me, I’m in the process of learning the ropes to reach out to the media to expend my business. I’m following the tips of someone who has done just that. This requires some writing and since that’s what I do, I thought I could do that.

    There are definitely other ways than Google to get noticed.

    Thank you for those updates, so we won’t waste too much of our precious time with Google right now.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I totally agree that it’s time to stop “wasting time with Google”. We spent a lot of time over the years trying to rank well and now we have nothing to show for it. You’re doing the best thing – reaching out to other channels, other media. yes, it will take some work but just think, you can cross SEO off your list.

  • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

    Yes, now it’s modified to work only with Adwords – but it’s also not available publicly anymore. You must be an Adwaord customer to use it. Previously you could just use it whenever you wanted to. So nobody can tell me Google isn’t moving to get businesses to pay more!

  • Hi Carol,
    Great post! I think this explains why a lot of of us are doing everything right, but still not feeling the Google “love.” I wish Bing would rise up and take over as the search engine of choice, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Thanks for sharing.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I think a lot of people feel that way but most of us still default to Google. I’m making an effort to use Bing!

  • Nina Anthony says:

    Thanks for putting the frustrations of many independent SEOs and small business website publishers into words. I don’t think basic and technical SEO will every truly die. It’s now just part of the integrated marketing mix required to effectively promote a site — a difficult burden for small businesses and independent consultants to manage on their own. The days of specializing in one or two areas such as local or technical SEO, PPC, emai marketing, video production, social media and content creation are gone. It’s next to impossible for a soloprenuer SEO or small business owner to master all of those areas on their own and, for many of us, hiring out for those services just isn’t financially feasible.

    The SERPs are already getting flooded with copycat content that is being churned out by website publishers in attempt to feed the content king. And while content may still reign as king, social appears to be the heir apparent over SEO when it comes to distribution.

    While a recent report from Forrester Research showed that 54% of American internet users still relied on traditional search results to find the information they were looking for in 2012, that number dropped from 61% in 2010. Experts predict that social will soon drive more traffic to your website than SEO. Google’s recent efforts to fatten their profits–guised under the message that they simply want to “improve the SERPs”–could make those predictions happen sooner rather than later as more people begin to focus less on Google rankings and more on conversion from all the referral traffic they’re receiving from their social channels.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      On another note, I have a feeling (one without a shred of evidence of course) that part of the reason Google closed down its RSS Reader is because it wants you to get your content from Google Plus. Moreover, it wants to decide what content you see. I feel like Google is closing us in rather than opening up the web for us but I imagine it will swing in the other direction eventually.

      That was an interesting stat about how many people get info from search (and declining). I think you’re right, search is going to start to die. It will be slow and certainly not total but social is taking a huge chunk of the pie and given the fact that we can actually connect with people rather than rely on math to figure out whether we’re worthy of being seen or not (except for maybe Facebook’s always-aggravating Google-wannabe EdgeRank), I think that’s the best avenue for small businesses.

      Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts on this one!

  • Catherine Kolkoski says:

    Talk about keeping you on your toes. I sometimes wonder what side of the fence does Google sits on? (and it owns the fence!)

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      I’m pretty sure Google is on the “make money” side of the fence. And search results are becoming pretty dressing around ads. Indeed, it owns the fence and most of the grass on either side!

  • Adam Connell says:

    Carol,

    I read a post not too long ago (on SEJ I think) where Dan Cristo talked about particular search results now showing only paid ads above the fold.

    And it’s even worse for anyone on a laptop.

    This echoes the points that you’ve made and ultimately I have the same frustrations as I handle the marketing for local clients.

    I’ve seen the search landscape change so much to the point where Google’s focus on brands has caused irrelevant pages from big brands rank where small local businesses used to rank. I wouldn’t mind but these brands just don’t have any place ranking for these particular terms.

    A friend of mine runs another agency, he’s had big clients that he’s grown organic traffic for and in turn cut advertising spend through Adwords … then suddenly their traffic is halved and the next day his client gets a call from Google’s Adwords sales team – that type of thing sorta seems a little fishy.

    The problem is that SEO is becoming so expensive that it’s forcing small businesses out.

    I’m surprised Google has been able to continue this way, algo updates seem to have the power to affect economies in particular areas of the world.

    I think we will see governments step in to take a handle on things sometime in the future.

    I really wish Bing gave better results and as irrelevant as Google’s results are, they’re still better than Bing’s (well, for what I tend to look for anyway – could be different across other verticals though).

    Thanks for a great post, Carol.

    • I read that same post, or a similar one anyway, where it showed how much real estate is now devoted to anything BUT organic results. I hate to be cynical without evidence but I’m going to do it anyway…. I do believe it’s all about getting more ad money. What does a business do when their organic traffic tanks, taking sales with it? Plenty of people depend on search, especially retailers. I’ve had clients seriously hurt by it.

      I’ve also noticed a shift away from business listings altogether, in favor of Google’s new obsession with “great content”. Sometimes you get nothing but blogs and commentary when all you really want is a product or service. And yes, when you do get a business, it’s the big brand.

      To your point, Bing is nowhere near Google in terms of relevance. Sadly, I have tried switching to using Bing as my default search engine and it’s really frustrating how bad the results can be. Sometimes it’s nothing but ezine and ask. com. The irony is that in the wake of the last updates I have also seen a decline in the relevance of Google results. They have less junk (they’ve gotten rid of all the generic article spinning sites) but they are also propping up specific big brands and content to the detriment of the results.

      Alas, that’s progress. (?) Time to look elsewhere for our marketing punch.