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October 9, 2011

Why SEO in All the Right Places Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

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When I teach my SEO classes, I begin by telling the students all the things that SEO isn’t. I’ve always felt that it was important because they’re often expecting to hear some secret formula for SEO success. And why wouldn’t they, with all the myths and outright wrong/bad information that constantly swirls through the SEOsphere? When I finish telling them that everything they thought was SEO really isn’t, they stare at me with their mouths hanging open. So I tell them what SEO actually is:

Making your website the best it can be for the search engines and your site visitors.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t do much to alter their blank stares. After all, it’s an incredibly open-ended definition of SEO. Still, it’s the only one that truly encompasses what good SEO is all about, as well as why you need to do it. While my method of SEO has always been based on that principle, more people are coming around to it in the wake of Google’s Panda Algorithm.

Pre-Panda, many people built thriving businesses using the following basic SEO process:

* Buy a keyword-rich domain name that encompasses the products you want to sell.
* Build a templated website around it.
* Link internally to the product pages with descriptive anchor text.
* Use those same keyword phrases in the Title and H tags.
* Submit the website URL to lots of directories.
* Drop links to the website in other people’s blogs and forums.

Voila! Instant Google Success!

They’d repeat the process hundreds of times with different types of products, and then run on autopilot. While it might not have worked on every site they created, the sheer volume of websites they ran would be enough to make them a decent living.

So maybe there was a secret formula after all?

Perhaps, but after Google’s Panda Algorithm was implemented, many (but not all) who followed and succeeded with that formula for years suddenly lost a good chunk of their revenue.

What Changed?

My own speculation, based on numerous websites that I’ve reviewed where this happened, is that Google finally decided that there needed to be more to a website than having “SEO in all the right places.” And it makes sense. Why should one site do better than another just because they read up on SEO and knew the best places to stick their keywords? It shouldn’t. And by allowing exactly that to happen, Google was enabling sites with old-fashioned, by-the-book SEO to beat out potentially higher quality websites.

The result was Google not always giving their own users (the searchers) the best, most relevant sites for the search query at hand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally blaming Google here. It has to be a daunting task for a machine to know the difference between an okay (but great with SEO) site and a great (but perhaps not so great with SEO) one. Especially when so much of how Google tried to determine relevancy and quality was based on links – and even more on anchor text. It simply became too easy to game that system.

Giving Google What They Wanted

I certainly understand and even empathize with those site owners who’ve lost a significant portion of their income. They were just giving Google what it wanted. And because it worked so well, they had no reason to go above and beyond their basic formula. Why build a brand for your company when a keyword-rich domain would provide a better return on investment? Why spend time becoming an expert in your industry and educating your target market on the intricacies of your products when you could hire someone to write low-quality “SEO articles” and submit them to article directory sites instead?

Interestingly enough, many of the business owners I’ve talked to who have been getting by with formula SEO all these years have told me that they have tons of happy customers. Yet there are no obvious signs of this online, such as glowing reviews on Google Places or other online review sites (there aren’t bad ones either). How are customers even supposed to remember the name of a company called something like WoodAndMetalDiningRoomChairs.com? (I just made that one up.)

Mainly, customers found these websites through Google, made their purchase and received their merchandise. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there was also no personal connection made. This is further illustrated by the fact that if you look at social media sites, you won’t see much chatter about these companies. In fact, many of them don’t even use social media, or simply have cursory accounts. Again, they didn’t need to.

No Marketing Budget

A marketing person, plan, or budget was never necessary nor even a consideration. Sadly, for those companies, they don’t have much choice anymore if they want to stay in business. But ironically, now that they really need a marketing budget, there’s no money in the till to go toward it.

If I’ve just described your business and websites – even if you haven’t lost a portion of your revenue (yet), you may have thought you could hire a new SEO company to mix in a little extra SEO mojo and fix up your Google problems. But while they might find some on-page or off-page things you could be doing better, I wouldn’t count on that to bring back your lost traffic and sales.

So What Should You Do?

You need to seriously rethink your online strategy. You need to stop saying, “Well, it always worked for me in the past.” You need to build a brand and you need to market the heck out of it. You may even need to consolidate all your related keyword-rich domain websites into one big brand website. (Don’t do that last one without consulting a professional.) You need to learn everything you can about social media marketing and start doing it. You need to get in contact with your happy customers and ask them to write reviews online as well as to evangelize about you to everyone they come in contact with. You need to also keep in contact with them in a variety of ways.

All of those things are going to make a much bigger difference over the long haul than rewriting your title tags or adjusting your keyword density. The big takeaway here is that while your website may already be the best it can be technically for search engines, it’s time to make it the best it can be for your users. Both parts of that equation are equally important. It’s not going to be quick or easy, but if you want to stay in business, it’s probably going to be necessary.


Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area
since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen. If you learned from this article, be sure to invite your colleagues to sign up for the High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter so they can receive similar articles in the future!

10 Responses to “Why SEO in All the Right Places Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

    avatar Tony Gallimore says:

    What a great article! I used the “secret formula” for years but have now moved towards building an authority site with lots of good, interesting and compelling content, guest authors – but not neglecting the SEO side. I shall certainly follow Jill in the future.

    There is no doubt that the internet has forever changed the world in which we live. Have been writing blogs and not knowing SEO is so important to get traffic in. Learn a lot from your article and will start to pay a lot more attention on on page and off page SEO!

    avatar Scott Ludtke says:

    SEO in all the right places?
    Quite frankly, it’s all about having backlinks in all the right places. Cut and dry.

    Whilst I agree with Jill to a degree, I also agree with Scott. Small business owners I talk to always ask the same thing. Especially if their small business is in an industry that is shall we say, unexciting. Advice is always to ‘become an authority’ or ‘build a brand’, sometimes even connect with customers. What they always want to know is how? Industry news? Their industry perhaps only has such technical news that they can’t find a way to re-frame it to make it intersting to their customers. It’s a dog eat dog world out there and so much SEO advice is the same that people tend to switch off.

    avatar amenda canez says:

    XML Sitemap Generator tool will generate .xml sitemap files for submitted website domain names.Run this Sitemap XML Generator tool to create sitemap.xml files for a website. You just need to submit the website domain name into the standalone XML Sitemap Generator and the number of pages you want extracted for creating sitemap files in .xml format.

    avatar Brian says:

    Its a nice idea, all companies can engage all their customers through social media sites. No doubt engaging with them, having them become friends. Perhaps they should start sending their kids birthday cards!!

    Its never going to happen, people don’t want to become friends of companies that supply spare parts for their fridge, rat traps, or anything else, that is mundane in nature, however necessary.

    There will be some sections of commerce where the strategy will work and where people may be happy to provide a review, but it certainly isn’t going to be the case for all industry or online businesses.

    Plain fact of the matter is, that for some businesses, all their customers want to do is find them, get a great price for a good product or service and make the purchase. Then it is au revoir until the next time or there is a problem with the service.

    avatar Shawn says:

    Jill,
    I’m sorry, I usually like your posts, but Not this one.

    Can you get your nose up Google’s butt any farther?

    “Why should one site do better than another just because they read up on SEO and knew the best places to stick their keywords?”

    For the same reason that someone who went to business school and built there store on the highway should do better.

    Google results, although still the best, have been decreasing in relevance since the mid-90’s. Their serp’s are filled with more irrelevant crap now than they have in a decade. And the reason? They could not avoid catering to the big boys to the detriment of the little guy. (see “brand” listings).

    And adding social networking to the mix is the ultimate mistake. Not only are results poorer, it’s the easiest gamed segment since keyword stuffing.

    Oh, and just FYI. My clients and I were not effected by Panda. Just because I recognize the “evil” that Google is doing, doesn’t mean I don’t comply 😉

    avatar Android App Design says:

    I feel that SEO is more about placing the right keywords on webpages and then building up Links at the relevant website (with Dofollow if possible). Along with this social media networking is also very crucial.

    avatar Local SEO says:

    In theory, I’d have to agree with Scott Ludtke. Having backlinks in all the right places is critical.

    avatar Jill Whalen says:

    Hey guys, thanks for all the comments!

    If doing only old-fashioned SEO is still working for you, then that’s great. I would just caution you to be aware that at any time the party could be over. (Like say in the next Panda Update.)

    When that happens, you may want to revisit this article and even more so, start reading up on branding and marketing beyond search engines.

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