Google, Magic Pixy Dust, and the Truth.
Over the last two years the world of search engine optimization has changed significantly. Most notably, Google has dramatically altered their algorithms in order to thwart many of the tactics that had the singular purpose of fooling Google’s algorithms into thinking that a particular website was the best, or at least a better, answer to a given search.
The best way to understand why the changes have taken place, and where you as a company should focus marketing budget and effort, is to consider what makes Google viable and successful. In other words, put yourself in their shoes. The goal of Google is to give searchers the best and most relevant answers to questions. For instance, when a searcher types “cloud accounting software” into Google, they expect answers that point them in the direction of all their options for SAS account software. They do not want to see results representing client server based solutions or other non-hosted solutions.
When Google delivers on their promise and offers useful information, searchers will continue to trust and rely on Google as a source for good information and, consequently, they remain a viable company. The goal of all the algorithms they build is to continue to deliver the most viable answer to the searcher’s question using all the available data they have access to in the most intelligent way.
However, with this understanding we must also acknowledge the limits of technology. Google’s limitations are measured through their ability to translate a logical conclusion that you or I would have about what is or is not important – or real – based on the digital data presented to them. Without going into too much detail and simultaneously simplifying for understanding, the initial way Google chose to understand the significance of an answer to a searcher’s question was based on links or “votes” for a particular answer. Links and anchor text (the text that the link is embedded in) from other sites that possessed a perceived high value would lead them to the answers of the question. These votes, along with other factors, would allow Google to deliver results.
Unfortunately, this is where the magic pixy dust -“man behind the curtain” SEO tactics originated. With an understanding of the limitations of the Google algorithms in distinguishing real votes from contrived ones, search engine optimization individuals would create articles of low or no value and build links into and out of these articles to make them look real. They would then create links from these articles back into the company’s site to act as a “vote.” Other tactics would be deployed along the same lines all in an effort to “trick” Google into thinking that they were the answer to the search engine question. Today, this is widely referred to as “black hat” SEO.
The reality is that technology has progressed with the advent and proliferation of social networks, but most specifically through the advancement of the Google algorithms. Unfortunately for the perpetrators of these tactics it is not hard to look at the back-link profile and, as a human, see the fake work being done. Google has a sizable workforce and a vested interest in serving its business objective. The point is, while you may be able to fool the technology, the humans of Google are wiser. Because of the culmination of the last two years’ changes, we have seen two major updates to the Google search algorithms, the first being Panda and the second being Penguin. They are named because of the significance of the changes. Short of going into detail about what these changes were, the most important facet for a company to understand is that both of these updates had a significant impact on eliminating the effects of the fake “votes” and, consequently, much of the magic pixy dust lost its magic.
The changes impacted a number of companies’ search engine ranking, especially if they were ranking because of these types of tactics. In short, if their back link profile and anchor text was too contrived, they felt the effects. A correlation could be made to the inflated valuations of tech companies in the late 1990’s. In this case monetary valuation can be replaced with search rankings. These are search rankings that could in essence be delivering leads that drive profits for a company. Another analogy could be to companies getting caught up in creative accounting, only to pay the price later down the road.
Regrettably, some of the companies that actually should be the answer to the question fell under the spell of the magic pixy dust and deployed this same strategy too. One such highly publicized case was that of JCPenney. In 2011, changes to the Google algorithm and a manual adjustment by Google caused the mega-retailer’s online results to come crashing down. Subsequent investigation found that their SEO consultant, had placed more than 2,000 faulty pages throughout the web, all of which had been used in an attempt to trick Google so that JCPenney would be the top search result when someone was searching with words such as “casual dress” or “little black dress.”
In the case of SEO, many times the company is really not to blame. Many companies today still struggle to understand how search engines work and what they need to do to show up as the answer to the questions they have products or services for. The lack of understanding, combined with the difficulty of gaining a point of reference outside of the success of an SEO firm’s ranking results for other companies, has allowed some SEO people to say “trust me” and gain results using tactics that would eventually prove fruitless. This perpetuated an environment of misunderstanding that still exists today and that leaves companies vulnerable to such potentially revenue impacting pitfalls.
“Today, past success does not prove future results.”
A similar statement can be made of the digital marketing industry, a Search Engine Optimizer’s past success does not necessarily prove future performance. Further investigation into what tactics and strategy are being used is critical. The most valuable advice that a company can follow is to make sure the search engine optimization approach is integrated into the marketing strategy and aligns with the company goals. If you hire outside expertise, you should consider them as part of your internal marketing team. The SEO strategy should be integrated into your overall marketing strategy. If you are using outside SEO services, they should also share your goals for the company. If this is the case, any decision to cut corners should be a business decision made by the company, rather than one that is based on the behind the curtain “trust me” approach.
SEO- The Future is Bright: Becoming the expert you already are.
So much for the past, and now on to the future; now that we put into perspective Google’s motives and what drives their success, we can better understand what marketing tactics to use that support, rather than trick, Google’s approval of a company being the answer to a question. The first important element for a company to realize is that they need to be the experts they already are. We need to be the experts we already are. But what does this mean?
If you have expertise, a competitive business advantage, or a unique value proposition in the marketplace, then you need to increase the awareness of your unique expertise. If this sounds like fundamental marketing principals, it’s because it is. This is where the worlds of SEO and marketing align. The only way to get real votes from real sites and real engagement with real people is to create real value. Please note the emphasis on real. In the digital world, we create value with content and, more specifically, getting that content out in the digital world in front of people. The internet is the medium but people are the targets. If we are creating content only on our own site and blog, then we are limiting the reach and value of the content to you as a business and to the community that cares.
The digital marketing goal then relies on an effort to proliferate that content to relevant audiences on the web to increase both reach and visibility of you as the expert that you are. Real thought leadership content should be placed through relationships on sites with a relevant audience. The audience then interacts with the content in meaningful ways, including engaging with the content via social media and building links into the content because of the value that is created. This profile of links, likes, tweets, and +1’s is a signal to a smarter Google algorithm of the importance of a “vote” and/or links to your site around a given topic. Because it is on a real site that is a credible source of information on a given topic and because you are adding real insight through your expertise, the Google-authorized value of this activity should not diminish. Now you can see how and why the SEO strategy needs to integrate into your overall marketing plan. The value is not exclusive to SEO but rather inclusive to your reach and expertise on a particular topic. That being said, an understanding for the power of the link vote is still important.
While there are other factors to consider in order for your site to rank well, like a process called on page SEO, the fundamental link ‘vote’ building strategy should be integrated and coordinated into a larger content strategy designed to increase the visibility of your expertise around a specific topic. We need to become the expert we already are. We need to document our expertise through content creation and then get that expertise in relevant places on the web.
The good news for many, and the bad news for some, is that the shortcuts are disappearing. SEO today is less about magic pixy dust and man behind the curtain stunts, and more about genuinely hard work. As they say in the industry, we have to earn the links. This is bad news for SEO firms that were built on black hat tactics that added no marketing value because skills are continuously being displaced. That being said, the fundamental principles of ranking still apply and although understanding these principals is not simple, when applied properly to your existing marketing initiative and combined with the digitization of your platform of expertise, you can be the answer to the question the searcher is looking for in a real way. When you achieve this and maintain your expertise in your space, you will continue to maintain high rankings in Google and consequently drive valuable leads and sales in the digital channel.[googleplusauthor]