SEO has weathered a host of major (and minor) updates and algorithm changes over the years. Best practices have come and gone. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….
By now, Google has (and I can’t say I’m upset about this) forced most of the shady, black hat SEO practices into dark corners of the web. Why? Because users hate spam, and Google loves users, of course.
More realistically, Google loves ad space revenue.
Google always says its algorithm updates and entire business model are meant to help users first, but there have been some serious doubts that that’s the case.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal provided the public with a copy of half of the 2012 FTC antitrust investigation into Google Inc. Google defended its business model, saying, in part:
Ultimately [the FTC] concluded that no [legal action against Google] was needed on search, display, and ranking. Speculation about consumer or competitor harm turned out to be entirely wrong. On the other issues raised, [Google] quickly made changes as agreed with the FTC.
Still, the motives and strategies behind the business model were largely revealed, and are generally inconsistent with their professed love of the user.
Google is a business with a bottom line, after all, but the investigation raises questions about Google’s specialized search and the tendency to favor its own services. Is it good for the user, or good for Google? When are human raters vs algorithms used, to what end, and how is it really affecting search?
As far as the SEO community is concerned, it means one thing: creating content that delights users is the only strategy we have left.
Breaking Up With The User
PR statements and Google’s own “What we believe” page are quick to praise the user, placing him at the center of all of Google’s efforts.
The FTC’s 2011-2012 investigation of Google, however, dug up plenty of documents that suggest otherwise. One internal document revealed that, despite priority placed on the user experience in word, user experience sometimes takes a back seat to private interests indeed.
Rather than accept raters’ assessment that competitors had high-quality offerings that should remain in search results, Google changed raters’ criteria twice, finally imposing a set of criteria in which competitors’ services were no longer ranked favorably.
Google is a for-profit business, and the bottom line will always be the bottom line.
Breaking Up With SEOs
Developers at Google don’t seem to really lose sleep at night over the concerns of the SEO community, either.
Google may even view SEOs as a hostile force to some extent. We know that algorithm update announcements have always been a ploy to control SEO behavior — simply because there’s no other reason for Google to make them. The giants of search don’t care to help the SEO community, only to bend us to their will.
And for the most part, Google has won. They have been preaching to “create great content” for years and updating algorithms to force the resistors into doing so. As we move deeper into 2015, there is next to nothing left for spammer SEOs to cheat with. Google has won the war.
The Best SEO Is A Great User Experience
The SEO community is largely at the mercy of Google and its algorithms, but Google, in turn, relies on users’ favor. Users are looking for content, which means Google still needs publishers.
If you never want to worry about Google updates again, strive to use your powers of optimization for good. SEO that creates a great user experience (UX) is the only SEO that is not at odds with Google. It’s the only SEO strategy that Google will never create an algorithm to counter.
UX is the only long-term SEO strategy.
The Best SEO Is Part Of The (Marketing) Whole
But Google isn’t really interested in creating a digital utopia where everybody does their part and everybody gets their share. The cyclical relationship between Google, its users, and publishers, will not stop Google from invading verticals.
Pushing into content creation themselves — in insurance, travel, shopping, medical, etc. — allows Google to keep as much ad revenue as possible.
[W]hat is the real threat if we don’t execute on verticals? (a) loss of traffic from Google.com because folks search elsewhere for some queries; (b) related revenue loss for high spend verticals like travel; (c) missing opty if someone else creates the platform to build verticals; (d) if one of our big competitors builds a constellation of high quality verticals, we are hurt badly.
Recent invasions should be the final nails in the coffin for the idea that SEO is somehow separate from a brand’s other marketing strategies and teams. Search is still a valuable driving force — most B2B buyers start researching purchases with a general web search — but it has to be part of an overall strategy to build a specialized audience and influence brand preference.
SEO campaigns should be designed with several other marketing functions in mind:
- Remarketing. Earning one visit from organic search is great, but users are quick to forget. Remarketing brings them back for the second and third time, resulting in increased brand preference.
- Gated content. This is critical not only for lead generation, but for audience growth. Email is the still the best channel for content marketing. 77% of consumers prefer to receive promotional messages through email, which means you need those addresses to provide great content the way they want to receive it.
- Social media. Social is, in many ways, the glue that pulls channels together. After deciding they like your brand, many users search for and follow your Twitter account by default. In fact, the top three reasons given for following brands on Twitter are that they like the brand (55%), to be notified of special offers (51%), and to stay up-to-date with brand news (51%).
It’s time to move beyond static keywords, traffic graphs, and rankings as the end goal. Building a proprietary brand audience, and collecting a little data about them along the way, will allow your brand to create the specialized, targeted content and engaging social campaigns that users have come to expect.
For now, that great user experience will create the signals that search engines need to boost your site’s ranking, and when Google finally does invade your vertical, your integrated campaign will have already built a strong audience for your brand. Best to get to work now.
UX And The Bottom Line
The user experience is to Google what athletics is to Nike, or happiness is to Coca-Cola — it’s what they want you to think they’re providing while they actually sell you sugary beverages, overpriced shoes, or ad space. And that’s fine.
If anything, it should be an even greater incentive to create content that falls in line, because we know the favor it earns from Google is based on something more solid than altruistic fervor. If it were about the UX for the sake of the user, Google might one day call, “Good enough,” and move on. But as so many bottom lines are involved, we always know where it’s headed.
Delighting users always wins. It works with Google’s long-game for better results now, and it will build a brand audience that will stick with you for the long haul — no matter what Google does.