By Jon Burgess – 8/27/15
I have been involved in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), in some form or other, for 15+ years. I know there are some real experts out there, but I have never personally met one. I have met or run into dozens upon dozens of people who say they know SEO, but clearly they don’t. And after years of seeing multiple SEO created website crashes, while being told that everyone can be #1 SEO, it is time that I warn you all.
What does crashing your SEO mean? Means you screw up your code, lose your search engine rankings and generally tell Google that you don’t want to be found. Crashing requires that you were doing some OK SEO work to start with, thus management decisions are usually to blame.
The Warning: when considering SEO tactics, crashing your website is easier than becoming #1.
Today, I believe SEO, as we have known it since Y2K, has clearly been dead for a few years. People with beating hearts and mobile phones killed the old SEO practices. However, many old SEO practices are still being preached.
Current SEO is un-needed for most small or un-competitive markets. For moderately competitive markets, SEO is something that can crash your site, thus you should know the warning signs of good and bad SEO. Finally, SEO among the elite websites in competitive markets is very alive and well. The best of the best are in active SEO fights at every turn.
In my very humble experience, SEO fails more than it wins. I define SEO as the final tweaks to already great content. The simple reason we see regular failures is that Google wants live, authoritative, authentic winners. So, if you pretend that you are winner, or think that SEO is your solution to being the winner, you probably have already lost.
When You Fail at SEO, Your Business Loses Money.
The worst part of failure online is that when you fail in SEO, your business fails with it. Going from a top position to a mid or trailing position steals very real dollars from your business’ pocket. Owners will notice when sales leads stop coming in, or that their own website isn’t where it used to be on page one.
When You Win at SEO, Others Take Credit.
In contrast, when you win in SEO, your business may not even know or feel that you won. This is because SEO is such a slight or nuanced tactic, that others in the business teams or functions claim the win, like sales or marketing, or that “we have a great brand.” Naturally, people like to claim the win, not the emotionless 0’s and 1’s that run on a server somewhere on “that InterWebs invented by Al Gore.”
Why Do I Need to Point Out The Negative?
SEO is search engine OPTIMIZATION. When you are optimized you almost don’t know or see it. You have to have a strong base, with a content growth plan before optimizing is needed.
When you are not optimized, it is blatantly obvious to the most of the world. When I get sales calls, I can blink at the prospect’s website and too often I say, “whoa, who did your website? No wonder you are calling me.”
Examples of Bad SEO:
- The “Flash home page” that used to be all the rage in the mid-2000’s and no search engine could read that fancy content.
- Early CMS systems that didn’t allow Google to actually read the website content because of the way data was buried in the database.
- Bad people, who practiced black-hat link building techniques, buying their way to the top.
- Or, simply not having a website in 2015 (yes there are businesses that don’t).
When Should Businesses Optimize for Web?
When you know you have problems. I have had a number of clients come to us with broken, failed websites. Examples are when your traffic falls in half in a few days and the date correlates to a major Google update. I wouldn’t say that fixing broken sites is even optimization; it is more about creating a foundation that can be built on.
Without a foundation there is no winning, let alone optimization. Some personal examples I have worked with:
- Mirrored websites (duplicated pages published over multiple domains). Google knows that businesses don’t have multiple names, why would they allow multiple websites for one business?
- Foreign links pointing to domestic websites.
- Poor coding, languages that cannot be read by spiders.
- Stolen content.
- Poor content, repeating words, tricky coding, incoherent navigation.
- Google can tell who is lying.
- Scrapped content or shared content from industry affiliations.
When you are very close to winning, as when you are in the top handful on your keyword groups and want to get to number one.
Imagine you are racing a car on a super speedway. You drive 495 laps, and the end comes down to how fast the teams change four tires. At the end of the race, it could come down to a tenth of a second. Certainly you want to optimize how your team operates and works together. Competitive websites are fighting over the slightest changes across hundreds or thousands of keywords. SEO is the difference maker in marketing intensive keyword groups.
When you are an Internet only business. Seems a bit obvious, but when you don’t have a bricks and mortar business, you should pay rent online in the form of optimized content creation.
You already won. Read “Marketing Warfare” about what a market leader needs to do to protect their lead. The idea is that the leader is always a target, and as the leader, you are too big to move fast. Your challengers will move fast, thus you need to invest in defending your territory from quicker foes.
When Does SEO Fail to Even Start?
Many clients who think SEO is going to win for them, place too much value on it. For instance, you are not in the top three of your market, and instead you are #8 in the market, are you ready to optimize? No, not yet (unless you currently build more content than the leaders).
If you are in the middle of the pack, you need to worry about fuel, not optimizing.
Set a Content Goal Before you Optimize.
You cannot catch the leaders without building up your content. Making sure your foundation is secure allows you to build on top of it. No amount of SEO can take you from #8 to #1 by itself. No lofty sales goals can be achieved from the middle by instituting optimization, before putting fuel in your tanks. Ron Burgess always says, “you can’t get a 747 off the ground with a gallon of gas,” and it is also true for SEO tactics.
Google wants real life winners to win online. Google does not want people to “fake it till they make it,” because people are not easily fooled, and Google only wins when people like their service. There is precedence for the idea that #8 should never attack #3 or even #1, see PIMS study.
Let’s go back to racing. Say you are just starting out. You are in a bike race. When you race, you find that you are jockeying for position in a huge pack of 100’s of bikes. Saving energy or bursting ahead doesn’t really help much. Movement of low powered keywords is the same as racing in a bicycle peloton or pack. You could appear on page 100 one day, then page 15 the next day, and back to page 60 on the third day. You may think page 15 would be a win if you rode all the way from page 100, but the fact is not one person will get to page 15 to find your business.
To win a race on a bike means you need to train and build up your power to win. Buying the fanciest, most expensive bike will not make you a winner. If you trade bikes with Olympic racers, I guarantee they would beat you riding a beach cruiser.
After you build a strong foundation, say your business starts to win some races, you move up to page 5 (still very worthless in terms of traffic). Even if you win a bike race, you don’t win much business. When you show up on page five with your bike, you find out there are motorcycles. You can’t bring your bike to a motorcycle race, you need fuel and an engine.
If you continue to work hard, get a motorcycle, buy gas, start to win, your hard work might get you to page 2. I equate this hard work to what you do in the real world. Did you make sales, build value, have good customer service, hire and manage the right people? A healthy business is a business that can win online.
Now that your business is on page 2, you find out you need to race an Indy car. You work and work to fight to get an Indy car. You get to #10 on page one. You now need a team and fuel. This is when you can think about optimizing: cleaning your windshield, tweaking your spoiler, adding air to tires and to get ready to run a 500 mile race.
So, you see, you can’t optimize your way from last to first. It will NOT ever happen.
You need a foundation of a real business, growing in the real world. Then you need to start communicating online the way you communicate in person. Then, and only then, will you start to win online with SEO.
A secondary thought to optimization, since it is Friday at 3:00 and beer-thirty starts at 4:30: Some businesses win even without a website. Every Friday, about 8 of my marketing colleagues (and a whole lot of other people) show up at the Royal Falconer Pub to have a beer. We all have cell phones. We are all being tracked there. We are physically sitting on a map that Google gives credit to. No website is needed to show that the bar exists and shows up in Google results.
Crashing During the Race
So, whether you are riding a bike or on the last lap of an Indy car race, you don’t want to crash.
What is crashing? Well, I believe crashing isn’t about optimizing; it is about overlooking the basics while building your foundation, or showing a blatant disregard for your website. I pull some SEO techniques out of optimizing, because they are foundational, but here are some important things to think about:
- Content before SEO.
- Keywords are very secondary to expert content. Write great content. Your keywords will show up (this blog was written for real people, it will be found and categorized by computers).
- Don’t be tricky, don’t lie, tell the truth and live by it.
- Show real things: people, places, products, and results.
- Don’t sweat the details of meta tags. They should simply put a period on the page’s content.
- Use common code that any person can read.
- Write clearly: have headings, paragraphs, bullets and images to tell your story.
- Do not harvest, buy or trade for links. Your real world market and community leadership will provide links over time.
- Do not outsource anything from Asia, India, or Eastern Europe.
- Follow the data. Google Analytics is free.
- Do not hire an SEO agency if you can’t hire someone to build fresh content.
- Do not hire a design agency and expect then to understand coding or content creation. They are artistic communicators, not writers.
Conclude Your Race? Never, the Race Never Stops.
Your organization must look at the long run, the extra-long marathon or a 24/7 race. Optimizing is not about the long run, optimizing is much more about the short run.
Building the infrastructure for the short run means you will fail just as soon as the Internet terrain changes. The next time Google tweaks something, or places more value on something else, you will lose your optimization. It is naive to even think you can guess what Google is doing. They have 200+ pieces that go into their algorithm.
So, build your foundation.
Your foundation is your business. Build a strong business, so that you can communicate your value online, thus your online business will parallel your real world business. Don’t trick Google, but show Google that you are the leader in your market.
Don’t follow the tweaks.
Make others follow you.
Build expert, authoritative content, that makes your competition think, “how can we beat them?”
And when your competitors are trailing you, running through your dust, know that they may go out and get someone to do some old school SEO on their site. You know better: you’ll just keep building for your 24/7 race.
How Do I Start?
To unpack these ideas, our next two posts will be part of this series – How to Build SEO Value without SEO, and I Need to be a Leader!
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