The battle over SEO practices is over. It’s been a long fight, but Google has won, and shady SEO agencies have been left to drag their wounded link farms and keyword-stuffed pages from the proverbial battlefield.
Google’s victory has been so sound, in fact, that they’ve remade an entire industry and turned their former enemies into allies. Rather than working tirelessly to trick search engines, modern SEO practices more or less work for Google — fighting spam (instead of producing it) and creating great content for Google to dish up to their users.
This doesn’t mean that SEO is dead (despite all the click-bait and misinformation to the contrary). It has simply, finally, matured. Understanding how Google has shaped the current SEO landscape is the first step to taking full advantage of search in promoting a brand.
A Brief History Of The Battle For SEO
Just over a decade ago, SEO was a cloudy concept — a hazy mashup of overseas chop shops and questionable link-building practices, with a few genuine optimizers scattered among them. Most SEOs did whatever it took to move websites up the rankings on Google search results, which led to gray- and black-hat tactics essentially spamming Google’s search bots.
Google fought back, developing smarter algorithms to counter the cheap tricks that SEOs were pulling to make their sites look good. It was “us vs. them,” and it was cutthroat.
The melee created a dangerous environment for brands and businesses. It was difficult to determine which strategy to invest in, which SEO agencies had a proven track record (or were even telling the truth about their practices), and how to realize actual SEO wins or losses.
Fast-forward to 2015, and none of those tricks work anymore. Worse still, many can get a website slammed with penalties that actually damage rankings. Any agency worth its salt will agree that SEO needs to be part of a holistic effort to build a brand online via great content (which helps Google) and a good user experience (which also helps Google).
Google’s Goal: Total Domination
I think Larry and Sergey realized early on that they would never be able to destroy the SEO industry. They saw that as long as search engines send organic (unpaid) visitors to websites, brands and businesses will do whatever they can to get their sites noticed. So instead of trying to take out the SEOs, Google’s goal from the start has been to either convince or coerce SEOs into creating a modern internet Google’s way.
And they did it. Google has essentially shaped the entire SEO community to their own benefit through three key strategies.
1. Shock & Awe: Unrelenting Updates
Google’s campaign of algorithm updates has been unrelenting, sometimes dropping dozens at one time. And they advertised them, effectively leafleting the area: “SEOs, in one week the following strategies will be nuked. Please leave the area now.”
Why make such a big deal about algorithm updates if not to inspire change? Google did have an obligation to warn webmasters if they were about to lose a significant amount of traffic, but algorithm updates also gave Google a powerful opportunity to shape the behaviors and attitudes of the digital marketing community. They wanted to change how SEO was done, and they succeeded.
Today, the majority of the SEO community no longer talks about the spammy “tricks and tips to rank #1.” Most have come to realize that SEO is really a discussion about content and user experience first and legitimate technical concerns second.
Consider Rank Fiskhin, SEO rockstar and “Wizard of Moz.” He admits to having once purchased “loads of links” from shady link farms, and that it worked for a lot of his clients until about 2005. Ten years later, as one of the top SEO thought leaders, he is coining phrases like “10x content” in his presentation of content as SEO.
Google saw how SEO best practices — in fact, the entire definition of SEO — needed to change, and it used algorithm updates to repeatedly nudge the behavior of SEOs into line.
2. The Olive Branch: Matt Cutts
Matt Cutts was officially the head of Google’s Webspam Team during most of the war, but he unofficially became the figurehead of a movement.
For years, Cutts played “Good Cop,” the helpful/friendly tech support guy for the SEO community. He detailed algorithm updates, answered the community’s questions and at least seemed to be a voice for webmasters inside Google.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but at about the same time that Google updates suddenly slowed down, Cutts announced a vacation. He’s actually still on vacation, after extending his leave twice. Is he coming back? Is his role fulfilled? His work complete? Vacation, or retirement?
3. The Keyword Cold War: Secrets Stay Secret
Through all of it, Google has played their hand very close to the chest. A recently revealed FTC investigation against Google demonstrated that the company’s claims have not always been accurately represented in their PR statements.
And even while trying to come across as a helpful resource for website owners, Google remains shockingly unhelpful. Even Google’s own guidelines for creating “high-quality content” (a phrase that Matt Cutts nearly wore out before his indefinite vacation) are remarkably vague (Bing, on the other hand, gets much more specific).
Google has never really provided brands with much to latch onto, just some general ideas about what to try to avoid (which hasn’t always been accurate, either).
Further, for a company that probably has more data than the NSA, they share less and less every year. Some of our clients now see 95+ percent of organic search traffic keywords as “(not provided),” and it is clear that traffic data in Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools) is still rounded. Google doesn’t even give advertisers all the data.
Google Victory: Good Or Bad For Brands?
Smarter algorithms and a lack of SEO data, combined with personalized search results for each individual user, have forced SEOs to become — or partner with — content marketers. But is Google’s victory over the SEO community good or bad for brands?
Some are quick to proclaim the death of SEO. Others predict that Google will test or eventually become 100 percent sponsored content.
But the demand for search continues to increase (and evolve). Google’s business model is built on providing a good user experience, and a page of ads is no one’s idea of a good user experience. Google can’t give users everything they need yet (although they are getting close with some B2C verticals), which means that smart SEOs can still work with algorithms to take advantage of the search engine platform.
For better or worse, the battle over SEO is over. Google has succeeded in shifting the focus of the SEO industry away from short-sighted SEO tactics and toward creating the best user experience with “high-quality content,” which, of course, benefits Google.
The Knowledge Graph is driving organizations to structure and mark up their content — making it even easier for Google to crawl and parse — in order to earn more traffic and show up properly in a Knowledge Graph panel.
The dust has settled (for now), and Google is calling the SEO shots. You still have to beat your competitors to earn high rankings and quality traffic, but breaking the rules doesn’t help any more.
Today, investing in the right tactics (typically those that don’t have an immediate return) is the only way to experience significant returns from SEO in terms of valuable traffic, qualified prospects and new sales.