Back in the Day...
If you are new to SEO it is hard to appreciate how easy SEO was say 6 to 8 years ago.
Almost everything worked quickly, cheaply, and predictably.
Go back a few years earlier and you could rank a site without even looking at it. 😀
Links, links, links.
Meritocracy to Something Different
Back then sharing SEO information acted like a meritocracy. If you had something fantastic to share & it worked great you were rewarded. Sure you gave away some of your competitive advantage by sharing it publicly, but you would get links and mentions and recommendations.
These days most of the best minds in SEO don't blog often. And some of the authors who frequently publish literally everywhere are a series of ghostwriters.
Further, most of the sharing has shifted to channels like Twitter, where the half-life of the share is maybe a couple hours.
Yet if you share something which causes search engineers to change their relevancy algorithms in response the half-life of that algorithm shift can last years or maybe even decades.
These days breaking in can be much harder. I see some sites with over 1,000 high quality links that are 3 or 4 months old which have clearly invested deep into 6 figures which appear to be getting about 80 organic search visitors a month.
From a short enough timeframe it appears nothing works, even if you are using a system which has worked, should work, and is currently working on other existing & trusted projects.
Time delays have an amazing impact on our perceptions and how our reward circuitry is wired.
Most the types of people who have the confidence and knowledge to invest deep into 6 figures on a brand new project aren't creating "how to" SEO information and giving it away free. Doing so would only harm their earnings and lower their competitive advantage.
Derivatives, Amplifications & Omissions
Most of the info created about SEO today is derivative (people who write about SEO but don't practice it) or people overstating the risks and claiming x and y and z don't work, can't work, and will never work.
And then from there you get the derivative amplifications of don't, can't, won't.
And then there are people who read and old blog post about how things were x years ago and write as though everything is still the same.
Measuring the Risks
If you are using lagging knowledge from derivative "experts" to drive strategy you are most likely going to lose money.
- First, if you are investing in conventional wisdom then there is little competitive advantage to that investment.
- Secondly, as techniques become more widespread and widely advocated Google is more likely to step in and punish those who use those strategies.
- It is when the strategy is most widely used and seems safest that both the risk is at its peak while the rewards are de minimus.
With all the misinformation, how do you find out what works?
You can pay for good advice. But most people don't want to do that, they'd rather lose. 😉
The other option is to do your own testing. Then when you find out somewhere where conventional wisdom is wrong, invest aggressively.
"To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right." - Jeff Bezos
That doesn't mean you should try to go against consensus view everywhere, but wherever you are investing the most it makes sense to invest in something that is either hard for others to do or something others wouldn't consider doing. That is how you stand out & differentiate.
But to do your own testing you need to have a number of sites. If you have one site that means everything to you and you get wildly experimental then the first time one of those tests goes astray you're hosed.
And, even if you do nothing wrong, if you don't build up a stash of savings you can still get screwed by a false positive. Even having a connection in Google may not be enough to overcome a false positive.
Cutts said, “Oh yeah, I think you’re ensnared in this update. I see a couple weird things. But sit tight, and in a month or two we’ll re-index you and everything will be fine.” Then like an idiot, I made some changes but just waited and waited. I didn’t want to bother him because he’s kind of a famous person to me and I didn’t want to waste his time. At the time Google paid someone to answer his email. Crazy, right? He just got thousands and thousands of messages a day.
I kept waiting. For a year and a half, I waited. The revenues kept trickling down. It was this long terrible process, losing half overnight but then also roughly 3% a month for a year and a half after. It got to the point where we couldn’t pay our bills. That’s when I reached out again to Matt Cutts, “Things never got better.” He was like, “What, really? I’m sorry.” He looked into it and was like, “Oh yeah, it never reversed. It should have. You were accidentally put in the bad pile.”
“How did you go bankrupt?"
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
A lot of SEMrush charts look like the following
What happened there?
Well, obviously that site stopped ranking.
You can't be certain why without doing some investigation. And even then you can never be 100% certain, because you are dealing with a black box.
That said, there are constant shifts in the algorithms across regions and across time.
Paraphrasing quite a bit here, but in this video Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google Andrey Lipattsev suggested...
He also explained the hole Google has in their Arabic index, with spam being much more effective there due to there being little useful content to index and rank & Google modeling their ranking algorithms largely based on publishing strategies in the western world. Fixing many of these holes is also less of a priority because they view evolving with mobile friendly, AMP, etc. as being a higher priority. They algorithmically ignore many localized issues & try to clean up some aspects of that manually. But even whoever is winning by the spam stuff at the moment might not only lose due to an algorithm update or manual clean up, but once Google has something great to rank there it will eventually win, displacing some of the older spam on a near permanent basis. The new entrant raises the barrier to entry for the lower-quality stuff that was winning via sketchy means.
Over time the relevancy algorithms shift. As new ingredients get added to the algorithms & old ingredients get used in new ways it doesn't mean that a site which once ranked
- deserved to rank
- will keep on ranking
In fact, sites which don't get a constant stream of effort & investment are more likely to slide than have their rankings sustained.
The above SEMrush chart is for a site which uses the following as their header graphic
When there is literally no competition and the algorithms are weak, something like that can rank.
But if Google looks at how well people respond to what is in the result set, a site as ugly as that is going nowhere fast.
Further, a site like that would struggle to get any quality inbound links or shares.
If nobody reads it then nobody will share it.
The content on the page could be Pulitzer prize level writing and few would take it seriously.
With that design, death is certain in many markets.
Many Ways to Become Outmoded
The above ugly header design with no taste and a really dumb condescending image is one way to lose. But there are also many other ways.
Excessive keyword repetition like the footer with the phrase repeated 100 times.
Excessive focus on monetization to where most visitors quickly bounce back to the search results to click on a different listing.
Ignoring the growing impact of mobile.
Blowing out the content footprint with pagination and tons of lower quality backfill content.
Stale content full of outdated information and broken links.
A lack of investment in new content creation AND promotion.
Aggressive link anchor text combined with low quality links.
Investing in Other Channels
The harder & more expensive Google makes it to enter the search channel the greater incentive there is to spend elsewhere.
Why is Facebook doing so well? In part because Google did the search equivalent to what Yahoo! did with their web portal. The rich diversity in the tail was sacrificed to send users down well worn paths. If Google doesn't want to rank smaller sites, their associated algorithmic biases mean Facebook and Amazon.com rank better, thus perhaps it makes more sense to play on those platforms & get Google traffic as a free throw-in.
Of course aggregate stats are useless and what really matters is what works for your business. Some may find Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest or even long forgotten StumbleUpon as solid traffic drivers. Other sites might do well with an email newsletter and exposure on Twitter.
Each bit of exposure (anywhere) leads to further awareness. Which can in turn bleed into aggregate search performance.
People can't explicitly look for you in a differentiated way unless they are already aware you exist.
Some amount of remarketing can make sense because it helps elevate the perceived status of the site, so long as it is not overdone. However if you are selling a product the customer already bought or you are marketing to marketers there is a good chance such investments will be money wasted while you alienate pas
Years ago people complained about an SEO site being far too aggressive with ad retargeting. And while surfing today I saw that same site running retargeting ads to where you can't scroll down the page enough to have their ad disappear before seeing their ad once again.
If you don't have awareness in channels other than search it is easy to get hit by an algorithm update if you rank in competitive markets, particularly if you managed to do so via some means which is the equivalent of, erm, stuffing the ballot box.
And if you get hit and then immediately run off to do disavows and link removals, and then only market your business in ways that are passively driven & tied to SEO you'll likely stay penalized in a long, long time.
While waiting for an update, you may find you are Waiting for Godot.