It seems nowadays that everyone sells SEO. Your website designer – does a bit of SEO on the side right? The guy that used to print your business stationery – has an SEO sideline. The more I look around the more it seems that anyone in the web or digital world is selling SEO which leads me to ask – can they really do what they claim? Or, is this just an attempt to monetise the relationship they have with you and to sell you a monthly retainer based on some jargon and a couple of poorly written articles each month? After your electrician wires up your house would you get him to plumb your sink? Can the guy who services your car landscape your garden?
I want to take a look at how SEO is sold and what exactly is being sold and by whom and hopefully, empower website owners to make better decisions about who they trust with their rankings and more importantly, reputation, when looking to market (or rank) their businesses in search.
Can your website designer do SEO?
In practical terms, your website designer can likely install an SEO plugin or cram some keywords in your homepage title. Yoast WordPress SEO is a good example. But this is a Swiss army knife of a tool and I would counter only a tiny number of WordPress website developers truly understand how to wield it and most simply install the plugin and call it good.
In fact – most of our work here revolves around technical SEO audits. This is an analysis of websites that have been poorly thought out and implemented and have technical problems that are impacting their visibility in search. If all website designers really understand how people use search engines and how to build sites for those people then we would be out of business.
In practice, though the opposite is true – the more website development becomes simplified with content management systems and tools such as WordPress which simplify the technical barriers to creating websites the more good looking but horribly thought out websites we see.
In fact, the somewhat low barrier to entry with WordPress and the many premium theme designers now means that many companies can create nice looking websites – unfortunately, though, most have no concept of how they should be structured and thought out for search engines (or users half the time).
Certainly, with all the absolute train wrecks of websites, we see I am not worried about job security any time soon.
In fact, what the hell is SEO?
The best way to understand SEO (as there are so many endless aspects to it) is by looking at a range of different SEO packages, and finding out what elements will work for your business.
The problem often starts with the customer. As there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding with regards to what SEO actually entails and then it leads to a situation ripe for abuse. This is often by well-meaning but inexperienced SEO companies or website design firms looking for a monthly paycheck after your site goes live.
So, to buy SEO we should at least understand what we need – SEO means search engine optimisation, right? But what does that really mean? Is it some voodoo process where the consultant never really tells you what is happening yet you will rank better for your chosen keywords? Is it adding some meta keyword tags? Tweaking your page titles? Building some links? Is it designing a navigation that prioritises your important pages? Is it designing a structure for your site so you have pages relevant to all the ways your potential audience could search?
The devil here is in the details. Good SEO is all of these things yet link building, in particular, can be done in good, bad and downright irresponsible ways. Most SEO sold falls into two categories with the first being utterly ineffective and the second is effective but highly risky (with scaled risk the longer it is practised). Maybe a third category exists which is where it is just badly done by folks who really don’t know their organic SEO apples from their local SEO oranges.
I would suggest, as a very simple definition that SEO is understanding how your customers and prospects use search engines and what you need to do to effectively get in front and often help these search engine users achieve their goals.
The Rules of the SEO Game
Google has a set of
rules guidelines that they would like you to follow: Google Webmaster Guidelines. First up there is a set of design and technical guidelines that exist to help you build a site that is friendly for search engines and users. Then there is also a set of quality guidelines which explain the rules of engagement – things that Google don’t want you to do as they may hurt your site.
The following text is from the guidelines and gives you a good general feel for the quality guidelines:
Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
Google is always working to ensure that dodgy tactics don’t work but the reality is, and particularly in the smaller business ecosystem, that it is fairly easy to manipulate search engine rankings – at least in the short term.
Penguin, Panda and Punitive PR
Of course, Google knows all of this and they can’t let these companies manipulate their precious algorithm, so in the last couple of years they have rolled out punitive components to stem the inevitable flood of abuse. Panda and in particular Penguin struck back with great vengeance and furious anger against those who attempted to manipulate and profit from dodgy SEO. Many website owners now know that Google is the Lord of fair rankings – or overly aggressive punishment.
Ultimately, these elements must be labour intensive and difficult to implement at scale. Even now, four years after Panda and three years after Penguin debuted these components of the ranking algorithm have to be manually refreshed by Google.
So it is a complex business. Go back a few years and we have companies selling strategies that would improve their customer’s rankings but were against Guidelines. As Google started to police these guidelines it was the companies buying into this manipulative SEO, likely from slick SEO salesmen that felt the pinch and I am aware of sites that even now have not recovered from Penguin three years down the road.
When all is done and said I have seen businesses destroyed by bad SEO. Closed. Jobs lost. Houses repossessed. This is not a game. Any business that places all its eggs in one marketing basket is not entirely sensible and lots of money has been made so let’s not feel too sorry for every spammer but, in the midst of this were lots of folks who were sold ‘SEO’ by some greasy used SEO salesman and this honest attempt to market their business resulted in a loss of all web visibility. I mean come on. If it works, they must know what they are doing – right?
I personally believe Google screwed up with some of its efforts to combat SEO spam. If they could have simply made it not work then folks would stop buying and the vendors would move onto something else (social media marketing?). Penguin was really punitive for lots of sites and many (relatively) innocent business owners bought into SEO when what they were really being sold was search manipulation that was against Google’s webmaster guidelines.
The veil of secrecy
Just why is there such a veil of secrecy in this industry? Why will some SEO companies simply not tell you what they are doing? Are all SEO’s conmen? Are there some good guys and some bad guys? Is it easier to rank by doing dodgy SEO? Is it more expensive to do it right? Will dodgy SEO work in all cases?
The problem is that all of this is true. Google is still a fairly simplistic machine learning system that relies on links to determine the popularity of a given site. And as such, despite the punitive measures and PR, it is still all too easily to manipulate search results. The popular approach at the moment is to buy expired websites and place links to your main site. Build a little mini-network that supports your main business site. And, to be frank, this can work great. In a world where clicks from AdWords can easily be anything of £5.00 upwards for commercial leaning terms who would not want free (or cheaper) traffic?
This gets more concerning when some ambitious SEO company tries to scale this model. These industrial sorts build a network of 100 or so sites, drop clients links on them, rank them super quick – awesome. Well, that is until Google picks up the fingerprint and all the customers get a penalty. Your SEO closes up shop and starts again with a new brand. You close up shop.
This current approach is built around owning the network so that if there is a problem spam links can be severed and the penalty is removed but there is a problem with this logic – if you are simply renting links that inflate search engine ranking and these links are removed you are back at stage 1. Now, these networks are cheap but if you scale up your business using this model and suddenly Google catches on then you are in trouble. In fact, as we see more and more link networks taken down, the word around the SEO campfire is that even sites that remove the links well before the penalty will still be hit so Google is still keen to punish (rightly so?).
Often this is sold as such and users know what they are getting themselves into. More often it is sold as a “no risk link network” and possibly even more prevalent are the small SEO companies in every town and city that are selling network links to a client base that simply does not understand the pros, cons or risks of such an approach.
A small handful of companies build small, private networks for each client and this approach is much less likely to cause issues but in most cases, you are still renting a rank and I can see multiple ways in which this could also become problematic given time. Ultimately, it is so easy to scale this approach that I believe greed on the link network owner often takes precedence over the safety of their clients.
Now, I like a bit of risk, I would not be an entrepreneur or business owner if that was not the case. So, if you go into dodgy link building with your eyes open then go at it. And certainly, there is a lot of money to be made from ranking well in search engines – I don’t think anyone can dispute that.
I guess when it comes down to it, I have a real problem with the way much of this is sold as being safe when in most cases it is anything but. These enterprising SEO companies are playing with people’s livelihoods. As a business, the worst clients we have had are those that have fallen prey to such strategies for how can we take money from small businesses in such bad shape? Yet, we have tried and in many cases helped some small companies, But it was never profitable for us and often became a bit of a charity gig and as such, we try to avoid such work and rather focus on trying to educate so more people don’t fall prey to similar problems.
In the early days of Penguin, it seemed every blog post was about ‘Penguin Recovery Strategies’ and there are some great posts with regards to cleaning up the spam links but, and it’s a big but, if your entire SEO strategy was built on this house of cards, what are you left with?
Who is to blame?
Again there is no easy answer. Google? The SEO companies? Probably a bit of both. Every month we see a new SEO company set up promising the world to their clients. They manage to rank for “SEO” + their city name and suddenly they think they are the mutts nuts. Unfortunately, this naive bravado can hurt many a small business who justify using these companies on the very fact that they rank for “SEO” in their given city.
Ultimately, there is no clear right or wrong. There are only shades of grey. Google does not own the Internet (yet). The point here is to understand what you are buying and make an educated decision that best suits your long-term goals. Want to make a quick buck? Go for your life with network links. Want to build a brand and have a five-year plan – you may want to play by Google’s rules a little more and be prepared to invest in doing things the right way.
SEO’s don’t even sell SEO Any Longer
In fact, real SEO’s are not even too keen to be associated with SEO in many cases. SEOMoz – it’s just Moz now folks and in fact, they are ‘inbound marketing’ and analytics people now. Likewise Distilled and many others are now ‘online marketing’ or ‘digital marketing’ rather than just SEO which is where most often have their roots.
In the case of Moz, why is this? Why the desire to move away from a decade of being the SEO people and rebrand their expertise? In the Moz.com case is it to add scale to the brand or is SEO a dirty word? Have the actions of many of those who aim to manipulate search results for profit forever tainted the term?
Or, could it be that SEO is just one part of a much bigger picture and that the smart heads in the game realise this. Sure, it is important to be visible around some key terms but often it is the informational search that really puts you in front of the big numbers of potential customers. Those searching around real problems that they face in their business and learning about real solutions from real smart digital marketing folks.
So can anyone do SEO?
If you have read this far you deserve an answer. Or at least an opinion. Can anyone do SEO? Can you? Can the folks that rank first for “SEO Company” in your town or city? Can your website developer?
My advice would be to try to educate yourself and understand exactly what you need. SEO can mean many things to many different people so understand what kind of SEO that you need and understand the options – good and bad. Be clear on the pros and cons. Cheap and fast? Slower, expensive but sustainable?
If you are a local business you probably need local SEO, which can be a largely mechanical process. Not to say this is not a nuanced job and an experienced head could not do it better and faster but there are maybe elements you can likely tackle and some decent tools to help you on your way.
If you are a national business there is a high likelihood you need more authority and popularity so content marketing on your site and authoritative third party sites can help to raise your visibility. Again, there are likely areas where a skilled consultant can help deliver results far more quickly than if you worked alone but it can be done.
SEO is often used interchangeably as an umbrella term for digital or website marketing. SEO may not even be what you actually need or stand to benefit the most from. Maybe social or online advertising is better for you. Any skilled SEO consultant will help you understand what is right for you before simply diving in with strategy X, Y or Z.
Questions to ask
There is no one answer here. The right answer is the answer that is right for your entirely unique circumstances and goals. What I can do, however, is give you some questions to ask. These are fairly typical but by thinking about these yourself and then ensuring any SEO or online marketing company you look to engage with is asked these questions you will at least get an idea of how they play the game (and more importantly how they will play it on your behalf).
1. Can I have a list of clients?
Can you explain to me how these clients are relevant to my project? Can you detail how these experiences will aid you in the marketing of my site?
2. What strategies will you use to improve my rankings?
You are looking for complete transparency. What will they do each month? How will they report? Do the strategies include elements that have a direct marketing benefit without the SEO implications? Most importantly here, you want to know how they will decide what needs to be done and how they will gather the intelligence to formulate a plan. (An SEO audit is always, always a good place to start).
If there is any mention of secret strategies, working directly with Google or any secrecy at all then run a mile.
3. Do you adhere to search engine guidelines?
It’s rare that any company will say no to this. You only have to look at all of the spam SEO emails coming out of India and the like that claim to be 100% white hat, ethical, guidelines compliant yada yada and contrast that with the unsolicited email it arrived by to know you have to dig in here. I would read those quality guidelines, ensure you understand the 12 main points and really know what a doorway page is, what a link scheme is etc. You will want to push them on each point if you are not sure.
4. Can you guarantee a #1 ranking for a given term?
This is a trick question and could be coupled with how fast can you get results? No one can guarantee a number one result, there are just too many factors and you don’t know what the competition is doing. Often, a better answer would be that we will do the research, analyse your site, fix problems, optimise the site, build content for all the keywords we need to target and then finally help you generate links and exposure from third party sites that will help move the dial. Really, you are looking for some insight into their strategy here.
5. How will you measure results and report?
Ranking alone is not always a great way to report. Ideally, you will want a report that details everything that has been done that month, what is planned for next month, changes in rank, traffic and impressions. In many cases, you will want customised data & reports from Google Analytics looking at the impact on conversions, desirable events and much more. You likely want advice on exactly what the company will do to help you understand what to measure – they, after all, are the experts and will hopefully lead you on this.
6. What other services can you provide?
SEO is quite the umbrella term and at the very least you will want someone with SEO, Local SEO, PPC, Social Media, Content Marketing and Analytics Experience. I would throw conversion rate optimisation into that pot as well. To really understand the search landscape and know how to best advise you and measure results, requires a thorough understanding of all the above components as a starting point.
Your needs are unique
Most importantly of all remember that your needs are unique. If you are a local business you need local SEO, if you are a national business you need more traditional SEO and authority building (probably) if you are a national business with a local presence you need a bit of both. If you don’t know, you likely need to start with some SEO Consulting to determine your needs. Maybe some areas are already strong. Some are weak. You want a company that understands the need to understand your business and can help you in a holistic and safe way.
Hopefully, this somewhat rambling train of thought has given you some food for thought on how to tackle this problem and choose who to work with to help your business stay visible and afloat in these often choppy, digital waters.
If you have any questions or I can help then drop a comment below or get in touch. Oh, and if you care, share. 🙂