Is Google Killing SEO? (And How We Can Deal With A Post-Search World)

By September 19, 2012Search Marketing
Is Google Killing SEO? (And How We Can Deal With A Post-Search World)

Cute, fuzzy names like “panda” and “penguin” aside, is it just me or does Google seem to be waging a personal vendetta against all things SEO? Now, I’m not going to say anything eye-rolling like “SEO is dead” but it does seem as if the search engine-turned-verb has been perpetrating some evil on the idea of optimization.

Nobody, from Matt Cutts down to the tiniest mote of dust in the Google-plex, will come out against SEO but there are some pretty compelling clues that lead me to conclude that Google has been specifically undermining SEO in the name of improved search results for quite some time.

I’ll tell you why in a minute (along with how on earth we’re supposed to cope with this in our businesses) but first I want to ask you a question:

When was the last time you did a Google search and got back really crummy results? Nothing but spam? Junk galore?

I know, those nonsense aggregator sites come up all the time and once in a while **some** site or another seems to pop up whether you search for Santa Claus or how to hang curtains. But come on, think about it. The reason Google became a verb in the first place is because it worked.

Despite recent marketing efforts, I doubt anyone will be “Binging It” anytime soon. Ya think?

Junk sneaks through but in a pinch you can always subtract it out – you know, “santa claus -curtains”. Overall, Google search works. Which is why this seemingly concerted effort to outsmart the outsmarters is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Those persistent and successful spammers seem to get Google’s jellybeans all up in a bunch. And the average business suffers.

Enough on the rant for now, here’s why I think we’re witnessing the assassination of SEO and what we can do to deal with it as it happens.

Google Loses The Keyword Tag, Follows Up By Saying It Will Maybe Sometimes (But Not) Use The Description Tag Then Agrees To Use The Title Tag Unless It Doesn’t

Now, the keyword tag is no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It was quite possibly the most abused tag ever invented. Throw Santa Claus into a keyword tag on your curtain site and voila – instant rankings.

Spammers enjoyed it. Google killed it. The rest of us lost it.

A little more irritating was the loss of the description tag. Now Google picks the description from snippets of text on your page that contain the relevant keyword. Useless! Ok, mostly useless. Have you ever seen some of the snippets Google picks? Especially if there’s more than one instance of the keyword on the page? You can end up with multiple strings of sentence fragments that aren’t much more than a keyword, some indecipherable filler and a lot of “…” in between.

Then there’s the title tag, what used to be the holy grail of SEO. Use your keywords! They told us. Put them first! They told us. Make sure it reads well for users! They told us. And then they went and decided they knew better than us, and they changed our titles in search results.

Why this is really annoying, evil and reeks of “I hate SEO-itis”: for starters, Google is constantly reminding us to make sure that everything we do is for the users. Make sure users get it, like it, understand it, want it.

Ok, super. So we write titles and descriptions for users and Google says… uh-uh, this is a better way to do it. Trust us. We know.

So isn’t Google kind of going against its own paradigm? Search is just a digital version of survival of the fittest. If we’re smart enough to write titles and descriptions that effectively market our sites to users and get them to click, isn’t that the point? And if not, then our search results and clickthrough rates suffer. Seems logical to me.

Before the screaming dissent starts, I want to point out that I’m not advocating for the importance of these tags. I don’t care if they have zero impact on ranking. What I do care about is the effect they have on clicking.

It’s Google’s job to figure out the ranking part, which it claims to do based on hundreds of factors. But when it comes to whether or not people click to visit our sites, that has nothing to do with the quality of our site, our keyword usage or the brilliance of our content. It is 100% dependent on what people see right there in those 3 fragmented lines of text on the search page.

When it comes to those 3 lines of text, I’m on the side of SEO. As a marketer, I want to obsessively craft the perfect description. I want to make sure every last character is visible on screen with no “…” in sight. I want my message out there. And if my site suffers because I’m a crummy marketer, well, that’s not Google’s fault for failing to rank my site. It’s mine for failing to sell it. I just don’t want Google deciding how to do that.

Oh, and do you know what crummy marketers do when they can’t sell their sites in search? They hire SEO companies. Or, not anymore.

Enter Encrypted Search

Since the dawn of search, it’s been about the keywords. Whether we were stuffing them into tags, hiding them against a same-colored background or repeating them ad nauseum in our headings, image tags, anchor text, footers…

Keywords have always been at the heart of SEO. Or, they were until Google took them away from us.

Once upon a time a website owner could visit her Google analytics and see what keywords people were using to find her site. A smart website owner could see which words were working, which weren’t and which needed more attention.

Then Google decided that telling us what keywords people were searching for was… oh, so rich!… a privacy violation. This, from a company who advertises to us based on the contents of our emails and tracks our every click across the web.

Irony aside, this is the most “in your face, SEO!” move to date. For starters, keywords are only hidden if a searcher is logged into his Google account. One surmises that the privacy of the un-logged-in user is of no concern to Google.

But worse, the keywords that are hidden from you, the average analytics user, are not hidden from Adwords users. You can see every last keyword used to find your site – assuming you’re coughing up the bucks.

Face it, Google is concerned with revenue, not privacy. They should’ve been honest enough to say “Hey, this analytics stuff is free. Take what you get. If you want the real perks, try Adwords.”

Either way, the net result is that when I look at the keywords that draw people to my site now, well over half of them are the mysterious “not provided”. For whatever reason, Google now refuses us the most basic of optimization resources – the keyword.

Die, SEO, die!

And Shopping Results Turn Into Ads

Used to be, you could filter your search by the type of results you wanted. There’s image search, news, and shopping among others. If you wanted to buy a wide screen TV (as opposed to getting product reviews or reading news about gangs looting them) you could check out the Shopping search.

Sure, you can still do that now, but you’ll no longer get search results. You’ll get results that go to the highest bidder.

For retailers without deep pockets I see this as a huge blow.

The best you can hope for now is that you can somehow use your non-existent keywords to optimize for a spot in the regular search results where Google will change your title and description to something more “useful”, per Google. Too cynical?

“Search Plus Your World” Gives You Search Minus Everything Else

Ever since Google decided it needed to compete with Facebook, we’ve had Google+ all but surgically implanted in our brains. It may be an awesome service and the best way – ever – to connect and share with people you simply couldn’t find anywhere else.

But that doesn’t make it your search friend.

The idea of social search is theoretically a good one – show results based on what people you know and trust are liking/sharing/reading. And Google has been “personalizing” search for a long time (read: tracking your every move across the web and serving up results that it thinks you want to see based on your past behavior and preferences.)

But in practice, it excludes anything but what’s already inside our bubbles.

If you’re in one of my G+ circles, I love you, I swear. But if I see one more ^@#^[email protected] search listing with your photo next to it, I’m going to start throwing darts at it.

Why this is evil for optimization and businesses and blogs everywhere: because you can’t optimize yourself into someone’s G+ world. No amount of careful keyword density calculation will put your site in front of someone who hasn’t been behaviorally tracked to want to see your site.

It’s all quite Big Brotherish if you ask me, but beyond that it makes it an uphill battle – in the snow – both ways – to “optimize” your site.

And Then There Was Panda And Penguin

Google issues an algorithmic update and the SEO world weeps.

It’s been like this since the dawn of humanity… or probably sometime after. In its quest for world… er, search… dominance, Google has issued many updates over the years and each time it does, it causes anything from ripples of discontent to complete and utter panic in the web world.

These last two updates are, if not a nail, then a pretty strong thumbtack in the SEO coffin.

These last two updates took just about everything we knew about SEO and everything we spent years honing, practicing and teaching and turned it on its head, mashed its face into the dirt and smirked while we cried.

Now our sites were not just “over-optimized” but plain old optimized. If your site hinted of optimization – you know, keywords in title tags and headings, keywords in anchor text and images – then it got hit. I know of at least one personal story where a website owner had spent years implementing the “good” practices only to see his site take a nosedive out of search results when Google decided that optimization was evil.

But ok, Google had warned us about over-optimizing before, and maybe a few of us got a little too happy with the keyword placement.

Enter link penalties. This one hurts the most because for years Google has been touting “link popularity” as the relevancy engine. The more inbound links, the better. Yeah, they have to be from legit sites, not from some spam factory where you bought a bunch along with eight billion zillion other people.

But how many of us spent boatloads of time building inbound links, exchanging them, offering them, seeking them? I bet you’ve commented on at least a few blogs to get some link juice. I bet you have a few links on a content aggregator site somewhere. I bet you’ve obsessed at least once about your Page Rank (And how do you get that? Links.)

After years of link building Google changed the game. “Too many” links are bad. Getting links “too fast” is bad. Spammy links have always been bad but who’s to say what, exactly, spammy links are? There are shades of gray out there, and I don’t mean that in the good S&M way.

I totally understand Google wanting to clean up after a mess of links that make bad sites look good in the popularity wars. All I can say is: baby. Bathwater.

Google thinks it’s smart enough to know the difference between good links and bad. If Google wasn’t smart enough to figure out when a keyword and description tag was being stuffed, what makes it think it can distinguish between motives and discern nuances like “too many”?

And the directive from Google is typically vague. People who “exchange way too many links” or “go beyond what a normal person would expect” are going to have problems. I’m a normal person. You’re a normal person. What would you expect? What’s going “beyond” your threshold? Let me know when you figure it out.

Matt Cutts, Google’s  public face and politician says, “There’s no such thing as building too many links… as long as you’re doing it in a great, organic way.”

Thanks for clearing that up.

But if there’s no such thing as too many, there’s certainly such a thing as not enough. And Google’s blind insistence that we create great, awesome, great, amazing, great  funny/entertaining/whatever sites so people around the globe will just die trying to link to them is so absurdly Pollyanna-ish for a good chunk of the world that it ranks right up there on my scream-o-meter with “engage your audience” or “just make a viral video. Duh.”

Some of us are just accountants. Or landscapers. Or IT guys. Some of us run hair salons and car washes. Not every small business on the planet can create an amazing experience on their website.  Their website can be good. It can even be exceptional. It can be informative, lovely, detailed, well-organized and brilliantly written.

And generate exactly zero (legitimate) backlinks… unless you count that one you swapped with that other local biz that was wondering how the heck to get a backlink, too.

And That’s The Way It Is. Now What Are We Supposed To Do About It?

Well, we’re not supposed to get mad about it. (I had my rant, I feel better now.) It is what it is, and we do what we always do – adapt or die. Except I think it’s time to start circumventing Google as we do.

It’s time to get past the “I have to be on the first page of Google!” mentality and start thinking beyond search.

To be fair (again) I’ve been making the distinction with my clients and prospects for years between SEO and SEM.

There’s the O – the optimization side – which consists of getting your technical and on-page ducks in a row.

There are a couple of things we still know for (relative) sure that Google counts. One of those things is site speed, so if yours is slow as a snail, it’s going to count against you.

Keywords in your body copy are a necessary evil that Google can’t purge because it has to connect the dots between a keyword search and your page somehow. So do your best to include them – casually, as in, “Nothing to see here Google, move along” and whistle while you do.

Don’t use keywords in every conceivable place. That will make your site look SEO’d and get it KO’d from Google. If you dropped a keyword into an H1 tag, don’t cram it into the H2s and 3s, alt tags, url, anchor text and bold font.

Too many ads – especially too many at the top of the page – are a no-no.

And Google has alluded more than once that “social signals” (read: Google+ connections) matter. You can also take that to mean Facebook and Twitter shares, Stumbles, Diggs and other stamps of social approval. There’s more evidence every day that these types of interactions matter.

Which leads to the M – the marketing – which is everything you do for the rest of your website’s life.

It’s been a really long time since tweaking a title tag made any difference to your ranking in search results. Once your site is optimized – and by that I mean not optimized in any way Google thinks it’s optimized – you’re done with the O and on to the M.

Obsessing about rankings has always been a dubious expenditure of our limited energies. The closest you can come to knowing where your site ranks is knowing where your site ranks for a specific keyword on a specific day when it was searched by a specific person from a specific geographic location. Change any one of those factors and your rank can be completely different.

Thinking in terms of ranking is so 2009.

So here’s what I propose. Forget SEO. Do the basics – make sure your site speed, structure, code integrity, internal links and general keyword usage are in place. Then move on to marketing. If your site is awesome + great3, you’ll generate backlinks naturally and Google will be pleased. If you’re an accountant in Boise then forget backlinks because most of what you’ll attempt will not please Google.

Get creative with your marketing instead. Social sharing and engagement is a must. It’s how you begin to build relationships so that people will visit your website and it fits into Google’s new paradigm. Find a way to blog, even if you’re an accountant in Boise – especially if you’re an accountant in Boise – and make sure you have a Google+ profile that is tied to your authorship.

Fresh content plus social signals plus a nod to G+ will serve you well. At least until some future update when someone figures out how to game social.

Try joining a tribe or group. LinkedIn groups come to mind for the professional. Facebook groups come to mind for the creative. Triberr comes to mind for the bloggers. Turn search marketing into relationship marketing and even if Google isn’t on your side, an array of supporters will be. That’s how you build awareness, reach, and yes, even links.

It sounds like work. It sounds a whole lot easier to stick a keyword into an H1 tag and call it a day. Welcome to a new reality. Maybe we’ll get better search results but maybe… imagine!… maybe we won’t care. Maybe we’ll find what we need through the vast, real and – to borrow Google’s term – “organic” networks we create on our own.

What do you think? Is SEO an old-school way of thinking about marketing? Or is it as strong as ever, just changed? Are you doing things differently since the recent updates? How are you getting your site – and business – noticed?