By Joe Dysart
Is SEO Dead?
For Bad Actors, Pretty Much
While search-engine optimization (SEO)—the art of optimizing a web property for the highest possible search-engine returns—is not dead, the antics of those looking to game the system pretty much are. The reason: During the past few years, Google has gone out of its way to aggressively thwart practitioners of “black hat” SEO techniques, to the point where their tricks and ruses have been mostly neutralized.
Specifically, Google’s updates to its search-engine algorithm, with code names such as Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird, have made it very tough for the wily to artificially boost rankings of websites with thousands of bogus links, hundreds of pages of duplicate content or other false positives. Indeed, with so few technical tweaks still available for SEO, even some longtime “white hat” SEO practitioners are throwing in the towel.
“Google put its money where its mouth was with its Panda and Penguin updates,” said Jill Whalen, a prominent search-engine optimization veteran who retired from the industry late last year. “At last, the only real way to do SEO was what I had been espousing all along. When you create amazing websites and content for your users, the search engines will follow. Imagine that.”
Ryne Landers agreed. He is a senior SEO specialist with advertising agency WrightIMC.
“I think SEO is pretty much dead as we know it,” he said. “Google’s been tightening the noose around the neck of SEO practitioners since early 2012.”
In practice, Google’s new web order now has savvy businesses being extremely careful in the way they flirt with the search engine. Old reliables such as a guest posting on another website’s blog simply as a crass grab for exposure are considered taboo. And keyword stuffing (artificially stuffing text with the same keyword over and over) is alone enough to get a website banished to the bottom of Google’s search results.
“More and more channels are being restricted and removed from our grasp,” Landers said, including boosts in rankings resulting from article marketing, commenting on other website’s blogs and mass distribution of the same press release, to name just a few examples. And Google is getting very picky about the kind of links it recognizes as authentic.
Essentially, “authentic” in Google’s eyes means an honest-to-goodness link that is placed to your website from another website without your knowledge. Put another way: It’s a link that you’ve earned because you’re providing truly useful information on your site.
Such links differ markedly from black-hat links, which are often created by for-hire link-building farms that specialize in creating hundreds or thousands of bogus links to a website.
“Basically, if a link was created by a human being with your knowledge, that is not a good link in Google’s eyes,” Landers said. “This makes it very, very dangerous to build manual links for clients. In fact, we’ve seen many new clients come on board from other agencies that have been ruined by low-quality links.”
Landers elaborated: “As Google has outright stated that any links intended to increase a site’s PageRank or ranking in the search-engine results page (SERP) is considered a spam link, search marketers have to be more cautious than ever about what links are pointing to their sites.”
The new SEO best practices
“Generally, any type of link-building package from an SEO forum or freelancer site now has a great deal of risk,” he said. “There may be some diamonds in the rough and services that focus on ultra-high-quality link building from the most relevant sites, but these days, any link-building service should be evaluated with the utmost caution. Some may provide you with rankings for short periods, but there is so much risk with any type of volume-based link building that it doesn’t make sense anymore.”
In contrast, the new SEO best practices focus on stocking a website with truly useful information from a verifiable authority. Day to day, that translates into longer articles (at least 1,000 words) and at least one author on your website who has a page on Google+ and an “authorship page” with Google. Also highly recommended is attracting links from other websites, as long as you attract those links with extremely informative and engaging content on your website and not the dollars in your marketing budget.
“Links are still very significant in SEO,” said Colin Guidi, senior SEO account manager at online marketing agency 3Q Digital. “There’s a focus on link quality that has evolved over the years and penalties resulting from black-hat linking practices, but good links still help to produce good traffic.”
Admen such as WrightMC’s Landers also recommend that you throw some web advertising into the mix, including pay-per-click advertising, banner ads and affiliate marketing programs. He’s also recommending that clients create their own high-quality video productions, post them free on YouTube and then attempt to siphon off traffic from the YouTube videos onto their home websites or other web properties.
Landers said that businesses with still more time and money for marketing should also look into podcasts, Q&A forums on their websites and social media, white papers and e-mail marketing.
Added Kansas City’s Singleton: “What is working for SEO? High-quality content marketing, real social-media signals, Google+ authorship and, yes—despite claims that guest blogging is dead—guest blogging will always be one of the very best types of SEO, when it is done with quality, selectively and for highly strategic reasons. In summary, today’s SEO looks a lot less like link building and a lot more like traditional business development, such as relationship building, social-media participation, branding and content marketing.”
All told, it’s a new regime that Whalen had pushed for decades as an SEO practitioner.
“I knew from experience that the real secret to SEO was not tricks but making your site the best it could be for your users while keeping the search engines in mind,” she said. “Sadly, the tricks that other SEO people were doing and writing about also worked—albeit temporarily.”
Added Kansas City’s Singleton: “Content is King, and they [Google]mean it this time.”