How Google Fails to Help You Find Good SEO Advice in 2013

Searching for AdviceSearch Google for a query like “seo myths” or “how to do seo” and you’ll see the top results are often dominated by old articles that either gave bad advice in the first place, mixed advice, or advice that is now outdated.

Some old SEO advice is still good but some of it was nonsense. For example, in many articles I find that SEO pundits were telling readers that “PageRank no longer matters”. PageRank has always mattered — it just never mattered as much as most people in the SEO community thought it should.

It’s still easy to find a lot of articles that tell you that links are the most important factor in search optimization. Again, that was never true — it was just what most SEOs wanted to believe and so they kept repeating it.

PageRank still matters because it plays the same role in the search algorithms that it did five to ten years ago. Links still matter because they play the same role in the search algorithms that they did five to ten years ago. We know that because these queries are showing us link-rich old articles that should not be dominating the SERPs today.

New Myths About SEO That Google Propagates

If Google is serving such bad results for people who are trying to learn more about search engine optimization (or more about the people who provide search engine optimization), how else is Google hurting the business community that needs to connect with current online marketing advice? Let’s take a look at some of the “myths” that are making the rounds today.

Social Signals Are Important Search for something like “do social signals help your SEO” and you’ll find Cyrus Shepard’s controversial correlation study about Google +1 statistics, or an article by Warren Lee, or any of dozens of other “current” articles that tell you how important social signals are to the search results. But where is all the debunkery of this nonsense from reputable sources like Search Engine Land, all the SEO conference live blog reports, and all the other articles that point out that “social signals are still in the future” and “Google cannot crawl most social signals”.

If a search engine cannot get to the social signals then how important can the social signals be to the search engines? So unfortunately links again trump truth (but links are no longer important according to many of these same “social signals” advocates, so there are multiple levels of irony in this truth).

Google Penguin Killed Web Spam In recent weeks I have noticed that a growing number of SEO pundits are questioning the new-found wisdom of Penguin = Spam Killer. Penguin killed a lot of spammy sites, no doubt about that. But people continue to struggle with the fact that Penguin wasn’t just looking at links. Also, a new spam tactic has emerged: the art of building temporary links.

Temporary link spam assumes that Penguin will find a spammy link resource and downgrade it, so the artful link spammer must now find new resources to exploit that haven’t been exploited before. Rather than push down demand for spammy links Penguin has in effect only altered it. But if you search on “how Google Penguin works” all you’ll find are articles about how toxic link building has become (or, worse, fluffy content that tells you nothing at all).

There are no articles on Search Engine Watch that actually explain how Penguin works — Google is just being influenced by PageRank and links. Oh…my.

What Should Be in an SEO Report? Search for advice on what a good SEO report should include and you’ll find all the popular sites there, sharing mechanical punditry filled with glib references to “rankings”, “analytics”, “links”, la-de-la-de-la. I can’t find any articles that talk about “your business priorities”, “the targets you set”, “your business goals”, etc.

Search engine optimization is supposed to support the business decision. Furthermore, it needs to address the risks that any given practice entails. I have often had people come to me and say, “I want an SEO report that tells me X, Y, and Z” but they never understood why they needed to know X, Y, and Z (and often they did not).

People have strange ideas about search engine optimization. They read blogs and forum posts and conclude that search engine optimization is all about links (except that links don’t work) and social signals (except that Google cannot see anyone’s social signals other than its own, which it doesn’t use) and guest blogging (except that’s bad).

Why do all these articles about SEO reports NOT include deep, serious discussion about how to document risks and outline ways to mitigate them (or avoid them)? Business decision-makers need to understand risk and the potential consequences of taking such risks. They are otherwise making uninformed (or poorly informed) decisions about what to do with their SEO.

If you don’t know what should be in an SEO report good luck finding out because this is 2013, baby, not 2009 or 2011. Not only has the search environment changed, the SEO busy work has changed too.

If Google Is Doing Such a Bad Job, Who Has to Do Better?

A couple of weeks ago when I wrote how much Google Hummingbird sucks as a search technology, I said that we SEOs — we online marketers — are responsible for fixing this mess. Why? Because clearly Google is not up to the task.

In its quest for “knowledge about entities” Google didn’t stop to figure out which knowledge was better to share. In a world where many SEO pundits are complaining that old content cannot rank any more their opinions are being crowded out of Google’s SERPs by old content.

It would help business decision-makers tremendously if Google would label these results as “old — opinions may have changed” and give users options (that they don’t have to dig for) to see more recent, possibly different opinions. Is that asking too much? Hey, I didn’t ask for the Knowledge Graph. At least make it useful if you’re going to shove it in my face.

Search marketers have to go back to their old tricks: they have to exploit the vulnerabilities in Google’s search algorithms just so that they can get rid of the crap Google won’t get rid of. That means building more links to more recent articles so that they are not overshadowed by older articles.

If this is happening for SEO queries, where we are supposedly “on our game”, imagine what must be happening out there in the non-marketing SERPs.

It’s NOT All About Links, But …

You still have to have links. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that:

  • Google isn’t willing to just blindly trust every Website’s links any more
  • Google is more likely to stop trusting sites that allow manipulative linking
  • The best links are coming from newer, low-traffic Websites

Randy and I have been working with several clients and SEO providers on link strategies all year long. We increasingly hear grave concerns about how dangerous it is to get links. Well, if you’re out there spamming blogs and forums for links, that’s dangerous. If you’re out there swapping guest posts for links, that’s dangerous.

But there are still legitimate places to get links. And you’re still allowed to give yourself links.

If someone comes to us with a network of Websites we might work with them to improve the quality and usefulness of the sites; that may include getting rid of some links (most people go way too far with site interlinkage).

If someone comes to us with an obscure site that may need some links we might work with them to get a few dozen links (not hundreds, not thousands). We don’t do keyword targeted anchor text. We’re more into tell the user what to expect anchor text. It takes a while for people to learn that this is acceptable linking in Web marketing.

Ironically, 12 years ago that was about the only way you would have gotten any links. And then some blogger discovered the power of link bombing.

We can help you build social media presence but we’re not going to teach you how to spam your way to 100,000 followers.

Is Content Marketing Working or Not?

Everyone who follows me on the Web knows what I think about SEO “content marketing”. But did you know that Forbes reported in September 2013 that “most content marketing doesn’t work”?

The old 80/20 rule crops up in the study: about 20% of your content is driving most of your Website’s traffic.

Most of the time, any random article that you publish is going to experience a brief spike of new, interested traffic and then it will fall into the “residual traffic zone”. I have discussed this phenomenon on the SEO Theory Premium Newsletter and with clients all year long (actually, I was teaching this to SEOs many years ago).

If you publish about 100 articles on a Website — assuming they are decent, useful articles (not great — just average) — then you should expect about 100 random visitors a month. Your mileage may vary, but a Website with 100 useful articles — none of them fresh or recent — should still be receiving SOME monthly traffic.

Here is an example: a few years ago Randy came to me and offered to partner on one of my Websites for which I had really no content. He set up a writing team that published several hundred articles on the site. I built thousands of links to the site. It did pretty well. And then the site was downgraded by Panda in late 2011. We moved the site a couple of times, eventually decoupling it from the links in early 2012 (before Google’s March 2012 Blogacalypse and the Penguin algorithm).

We haven’t added any new content to the site in more than 18 months. As projects go it’s pretty much dead. But it has several hundred articles and gets on average about 1 hit per month per article. The content is good, informative, and in many cases “evergreen” advice. But the site is just coasting. Hardly anyone links to it but there are SOME links pointing to the site.

It’s not enough that you get links, and it’s not enough that you publish content. You have to be constantly producing more content and earning more links because it’s all “a zero sum game”, as that study mentioned above points out.

Content marketing the way the SEO community is promoting it is really just another link scheme. You’re not going to build a lot of traffic with mediocre content. You’re not going to build a lot of sustainable traffic with “content marketing”.

There are Perennial Articles, Though

On a site like SEO Theory, which has a large following most of the new articles draw a lot of people back to the blog. But the articles that perform best over time tend to be a few really heavy hitters that touch on almost timeless questions in search marketing, such as are subdomains bad for SEO?, does changing domain name affect SEO?, and SEO glossary. I realize that by pointing out these articles I make it easier for other people to target those queries — but I’ll produce more perennial articles.

These articles outperform the 1-hit-per-month average. Why? There is no science that explains it. It just happens. It’s a power law thing, that old 80/20 rule coming back into play.

You cannot manufacture this kind of content on any kind of scale. What you CAN do is build out a team of great writers who will each hit occasional home runs out of the ball park. In other words, the only way to scale high quality content production is to scale out your human capital.

Get enough top writers together and they will produce a consistently good quality Website that attracts a lot of traffic. Bring together enough average writers and get them to produce a lot of content and they’ll also bring in a lot of traffic — but you’ll have fewer perennials-per-writer.

Perennial content is not a good SEO strategy, but it’s an effective strategy for anyone who has the budget to put together a dream team of writers. It’s also a long-term play because the Website still has to attract enough links to be able to compete against older, link-rich sites.

All your “social signals” will do is provide you with some guidance about how large your audience is — which is an important predictor of success assuming you build social engagement naturally and don’t try to inflate it. Insisting that everyone LIKE and TWEET your content before they can get to it will skew the measurement for your return-on-investment. SKewed ROI is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s your business decision to focus on building social media visibility, but that business decision can interfere with the quality of your SEO campaign.

If you want to play in the Perennial Article SEO game space, you cannot drive social media signals.

Social Media Is Still Important, But Is It Enough?

With Google driving such bad results these days aggressive marketers have to develop new channels for traffic — what we call “reflective marketing”. You need more YouTube videos, more PINs, more posts on your Facebook page, more Tweets, etc. Why? Because being found outside of Google is more important than being found inside Google — at least until your site reaches a point where it can compete with all the link-rich sites that continue to dominate Google’s marketing results.

In a normal, natural SERP links don’t make that big a difference — they never have because there just weren’t that many links for the search algorithms to evaluate. All the other factors — when allowed to work normally — outweigh the links by orders of magnitude. Google tends to serve better quality results when there are few to no links playing in the SERP.

So for highly competitive verticals you’ll probably need to crank up the volume on your social media marketing, at least until that becomes a zero sum game (and it will), as well as your mobile app marketing (and that will also become a zero sum game). You have to build a reflective marketing strategy to support the SEO strategy, not because “social signals matter” but because the search engine is still being overwhelmed by links.

Going forward we need to build new marketing strategies that are more pragmatic, more predictable. But whereas we don’t want to fall into the trap of predicting “when a site reaches number 1″ we need to develop new metrics, new key performance indicators, that take the nonsense out of search marketing and help business decision-makers set realistic expectations.

If you publish 200 articles on a Website over the next year and you don’t see a growth in residual traffic toward 200 random visitors a month, that should tell you something about either:

  • the quality of your content
  • the quality of your Website design

Given enough assistance in creating visibility, any Website with good content should exceed the residual traffic expectation. This blog, for example, while nowhere near as popular as SEO Theory, sees far more residual traffic than 1-hit-per-article. Maybe Randy and I are good writers but we know there are many, many other good writers out there — some in the SEO community, some outside of it — and what we’re doing is achievable by any business in any vertical.

I know this to be true because that is what we have been helping clients do.

Perhaps fortunately for us Google continues to serve bad SEO advice across thousands of queries. Looking for that kind of help from a search engine is a pathway fraught with peril. It’s a shame that Google doesn’t advise its users about the risks entailed in following the advice it recommends through its SERPs (on any given topic).

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About the Author

Michael Martinez

Michael MartinezMichael Martinez is co-Founder, President, and Chief Technical Officer of Reflective Dynamics. Michael has managed Websites and SEO campaigns for himself and for successful businesses since 1996. As principal author of the SEO Theory blog Michael has published ground-breaking theoretical ideas in search engine optimization and Web marketing. Before migrating to Internet marketing Michael worked as a computer programmer and systems analyst. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Kennesaw State University.