SEO is often described as the “greatest swindle since the emperor’s clothes or the discovery of snake oil.”
Whilst that may be true at a moral level, it’s sadly not the case at a business level. For years, a cat and mouse game has been played out between Google (the police) and SEO companies (the criminals); the SEO companies have expended huge resources “getting around” Google’s rules and algorithms with varying degrees of success. I’ve seen some companies benefit hugely from this black/grey/off-white practice and pocket millions in extra revenue. I’ve also seen big losers; particularly those who built their business plan on getting site visits for free using hooky methods – the quick buck folks. They don’t last long.
The moral question only comes about as Google decided they were the self-appointed judge, jury and executioner on the Internet, so you could argue the case of “who gave them the right to do that”. The reality, however, is that without he strong arm of Google we’d have a very spammy and dangerous Internet – so thanks Google for trying to kill the spammers. Shame it took you so long!
The spamming industry is huge, over £500m per annum in the UK alone, so it’s just not going to go away with. The get-rich-quick mentality of SEO has spawned so much content it’s difficult to believe. There are 175,000 videos on YouTube, 15m blog posts, 3,00 books on Amazon and 250,000 tweets per month on the subject of SEO alone.
So, is the SEO market a lively place populated by fools and experts?
Yes, and no. Clients, the ones that need to benefit from good listings and rankings, could be the fools unless they understand the risks they were taking with their business – sadly many didn’t. The bright ones are the SEO companies that can sell and re-sell the same learning over and over again without ever showing “their workings“. It was a world of fiercely guarded secrets, exactly opposite of what the web was created to do.
The world changed this year as Google (probably) banged the last nail in the coffin for SEO black-hatters. Those that have always played by the rules have benefited and those that broke them have been heavily penalised.
Google might have killed off old-fashioned SEO and published a set of guidelines, but they’re still keeping “their workings” very secret. The safest route is then to adhere to the rules, understand how that translates into the needs of your company and build a simple policy that is easy to deliver. Thankfully, no more spending 20% of your marketing budget on a line item that defied explanation or reason.
Content is now king
It always was, but too much focus was spent creating spammy content. Original, high quality writing is what we need but it requires more depth and detail. This gives it a relevance that’s easier for Google to rate. The old-world suggested that a handful of 300 word articles per month was enough to give you content authority, not any more.
If you are serious about content authority you’re going to have to start writing books and papers on the subject matter. Articles of one or two thousand words are becoming commonplace and, in reality, unless the subject is very small you really can’t cover the subject well enough in two hundred words.
Before we dive into the individual elements it’s worth covering the basics, this should be in the plan already. You can skip this section if you spent more than 30 minutes in the SEO space before:
- Create unique, accurate page titles
- Accurately describe the page’s content
- Use brief, but descriptive titles
- Make use of (but not abuse) the “description” meta tag
- Improve the structure of your URLs
- Use words in URLs
- Provide one version of a URL to reach a document
- Make your site easier to navigate
- Prepare two sitemaps: one for users, one for search engines
- Use mostly text for navigation
- Have a useful 404 page
- Create content primarily for your users, not search engines
- Write better anchor text
- Image-related information can be provided for by using the “alt” attribute
- Store files in specialized directories and manage them using common file formats
- Use heading tags appropriately
- Make effective use of robots.txt
- Combat comment spam with “nofollow”
- Guide mobile users accurately (if not responsive)
- Use Google’s set of tools to help and understand
- Don’t encourage or pay for back-links
The rules don’t change very much, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for big sweeping changes and updates from Google. Don’t obsess with others, specifically your competition. And never employ black-hat tricks.
Google’s Authorship Programme is a back-door into rating the relative merits of the author and to validate them as real. What this means is that the quality of whole of the author’s catalog will help define the authority of a single piece of work and not just as an overall score but broken down into specialist subjects.
It marks the start of personalising content and most everyone should be registering themselves onto the Google Authorship programme. It should also see the rise of credibility in ghost authors. Many organisations pay agencies or writers to produce content on their behalf, the value offered by an author is directly proportional to his credibility in the eyes of Google.
It will also give rise to credibility brokers, individuals or companies that have the sole aim of increasing the quality of your digital footprint – if this feels a little like black-hat gaming of the system, I’d agree. The difference, however, is that Google are re-defining trust and no-one in their right mind would take risks with their external trust rating. The web is becoming a very transparent place, so underhand tactics will be easy to see and quickly punished.
More than words
I was recently asked “What place does Video fit in and where is it going?”. the straight answer is that the current star of video is Vine and that means 7 second videos of people doing silly things. Or it’s streamed HD content, ala Netflix and Amazon’s Love Film. None of these actually answer the real question or address the opportunity.
Google (et al) have got really good at indexing all matter of content so when you’re building your content strategy you should include all forms of content and that includes video, text, infographics, PDF documents, guest comments, white papers and images.
Keep in mind the purpose is to stand-out from the spam and white-noise that makes up the vast majority of content on the web so think original, consider humour, be different. The wider the range of media you produce the greater the number of places you can share and publish content – you’d be daft to ignore the reach and power of, say, YouTube and Pinterest.
Did I mention mobile yet?
You should, by now, have a responsive site where content can be rendered on any type of device, regardless of location, connection speed and object orientation. Google has, and will continue to, favour digital destinations that support the widest range of devices. This is a well documented road, so no need for further comment on here.
SEO used to be a huge collections of tactics, workarounds and tasks, it’s not anymore. With the killing of off-site SEO it’s now, largely, down to a well defined content strategy. A strategy with a documented delivery plan that touches most of your digital output. The strategy matches the business needs and engages a large part of the business as you rope in staffers to contribute content and internally crowdsource material.
As organisations become transparent, it’s vital that the true colours of the organisation shine through – it’s a critical part of the trust network. To do this you need to engage the organisation across all levels and share the content strategy.
If your organisation has more than a grain of understanding, operational delivery should be done in-house. By all means use an external agency to help with the strategy but there are few scenarios where using an external agency for delivery is going to achieve anything more than a huge headache down the line.
If you really can’t do this yourself then get every step agreed and a clearly defined process for the creation and distribution of content. The reputation, after all, is yours so you’d step cautiously when considering a third-party. You must trust them implicitly and completely.
The role of social
Social media is going through that “terrible twos” phase where it cute and lovely one moment and the next it’s a complete waste of time. Simply broadcasting content links out to the 10,000 followers you bought last week is worse than spamming and less than useful. For social media to work you need to engage at a personal level and as this article is about SEO it doesn’t form a large part of the strategy that hasn’t been covered above.
The exception to this is the role that, specifically, Google + plays on this stage. Google’s (not so) social platform also acts as a feeder and a cornerstone equally to the Google Authorship and Local/Places programmes. The intertwining of these three platforms is for another time, and another article.
Looking to change?
Connected have always delivered SEO with a straight-bat and were fierce supporters of best practices and antagonistic towards the whole SEO industry. It cost us revenue, business-relationships and contracts over the last 15 years, it was worth it and we get to score 12/10 on the smugness scale. Speak to any (ex)SEO agency today and they’ll be talking about content strategy and best practices – 5 years ago they would have been building link-bait, fake link campaigns and re-writing beautiful copy into unreadable gobbledy-gook; all in the name of SEO. Would you trust them now? Contact us, we’d love to talk.
By Martin Dower