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SEO future gazingAn interesting recent blog from Joost de Valk set out an ‘ethical’ stance for SEOs, arguing that ‘outing’ bad practice is healthy and an important way of preserving the reputation of the industry.

The basic thread is that SEO should be built on foundations of quality and integrity, not just an obsessive drive for short-term results.

It’s clear that the SEO industry is still drawn on the whole black hat vs. white hat issue. What is ethical to one person can be unethical to the next.

Despite this internal dilemma, with still more than 80% global market share, it is what Google thinks that dictates a lot of SEO strategy.

This blog is a reasoned view based on my own opinion and learning from various reports, blogs and Twitter conversations...

At BrightonSEO (the annual south coast SEO love-in organised by Kelvin Newman, which I would highly recommend attending, not just for content and learning but also for new connections and some prime comedy moments), Pierre Far of Google repeatedly emphasised the fact that Google doesn’t like spam.

But what is spam? And how will Google define spam in 12 months time given how quickly the industry changes? Is bad (rehashed or poorly written) content spam? In the absence of rock solid guidelines from the search engines, SEOs need to assume responsibility.

An interesting presentation by Stefan Hull from Propellernet, curiously titled “Search marketing – from Panda to Black Swan” provided insight into the potential to avoid major SEO headaches by using intelligent planning to pre-empt search engine algorithm changes (slides on Propellernet's blog).

One quote stood out for me:

Don’t chase after Google’s algorithm, chase after your best interpretation of what users want because that’s what Google’s chasing after.

This struck a chord. And my brain cogs started to turn.

I thought hard (well as hard as a consultant can before they feel the urge to speak/type) about what steps marketers can and should take to ensure that the techniques they use to improve search visibility are as likely as possible to shield them from future rankgeddon and the wrath of the mighty Google. 

Don’t jump on the bandwagon, unless you have a plan

“We’ve got to get on Google+”…..

Ah step back, breathe deeply and relax. Rarely do good things come from knee-jerk reactions to the latest thing.

Google+ is the latest chew toy in the social kit box. The Search Plus Your World announcement accelerated the adoption of Google+ brand pages. Major players like H&M now have an established Google+ presence.

Google+ is the new link building

So should you be on Google+? Yes, maybe, no. Take your pick. The real question is who would want to connect with you on Google+ and what will you need to provide them to get longevity?

If your customers don’t use Google+, then you are likely to get better gains by focussing on your existing social networks.

Also, if you launch a Google+ page and then do nothing with it, the early impetus you might get from the new toy will soon wither and people will stop giving you +1 love.

As Google+ is a key component of the Google toolkit, it’s also likely that a stagnant page with no activity and limited connections will flag to the search engine that your relevance is low.

If you’re going to be Billy-no-mates, better to do it away from the beady eyes of the mighty Google.

Will that impede search visibility for target keywords?

I have no data proof but what I’m suggesting is that you build from a base of quality and relevance to ensure that any evolution of search algorithms to mute irrelevant/unloved/obsolete profiles does not catch you cold.

If you have a barren social presence and your competitors are far more active, with more followers/fans and greater activity around their content and URLs, it is possible your pages will be downgraded and you’ll have to work harder in other areas to get search visibility.

As Bing and Google both admit, social signals are becoming more important.

Quantity means nothing if it’s irrelevant

“We’ll get you thousands of +1s”

I’ve heard this a few times now. People offering to get large volumes of +1s for webpages to boost SEO and help improve rankings for target keywords.

The theory is sound – Google will now factor +1s from your network in its algorithm when personalising search results. The more people +1 your webpages, the more importance Google will place on them for its social signal.

However, the logic needs to be fine-tuned. Currently +1s will only show to people in your circles, not to everyone. So getting thousands of +1s doesn’t guarantee anything, certainly not a sure fire recipe for more clicks.

What you need to do is find people who want you in their circles because they value what you can provide them.

Perhaps they want to have some fun with your brand, perhaps they just like your products or perhaps they are holding out for a discount/promotion. Whatever the reason, build an audience that is interested in what you have to say (about your company + other things you think are relevant to them).

Then when you say it, they’re more likely to listen. And they are more likely to like it, +1 it and give you a stronger social footprint. And they’re more likely to comment on your posts and give you future love, something that Google will definitely be monitoring.

Money can’t buy you love

Perhaps in Soho it can, but I’m talking about a different kind of love. Gaming of search results pages is not new. With the increasing influence of social signals on ranking, gaming is evolving into social circles.

But what does paying for social love really deliver?

I could give you a +1 or a Facebook “Like” right now. But would anyone care? And if the pages you are getting paid endorsements for aren’t liked by visitors, the only footprint you’re creating is one that says “hey, we’ve got shed loads of links and clicks but nobody likes what we’re giving them”.

Now if that’s not a red flag to a search engine, what is?

I don’t think paying for links/likes is the root of all evil. It’s certainly not my recommended approach and I have never done so myself, but I can see that if it is done transparently then you can argue it’s simply a case of rewarded advocacy.

For example, what if you built relationships with key influencers in your social networks. What if you then paid them (not money but with discounts, special promotions etc) to +1 your webpages to raise their profile to their networks?

You could argue this is loyalty incentivisation rather than paid spam links.

However, as Google repeatedly says it doesn’t like paid for links (it even punished its own Chrome team), then I’d suggest that in the future the algorithm might well be tweaked to ignore, maybe even punish, webpages that are shown to have paid for social signals. Focus on earned social love, rather than paying people to give it to you. 

Genuine conversation can provide revelations

What do I mean by this? Having millions of followers doesn’t necessarily help you, does it? What are you getting from them and vice-versa? How can you manage such a large number? Value comes from interaction.

What is important is learning from your connections. And that means some sort of interaction (I’m shying away from the word “engagement” after digesting “Engagement: Fashionable yet Bankrupt” by Martin Weigel).

Interaction means that people are actively responding to you and your content because they perceive a reason to do so, whatever need might drive the action.

If people are actively doing things on your website and social profiles, that’s likely to have a ripple effect on other people in their networks. Plus the more advocates you get who can be encouraged to come and contribute content to your webpages, the greater your social proof.

Plus you’ll get golden nuggets of information from these people. They can and will tell you what they think – good, bad and ugly.

You can pick up wonderful insight (especially when you do closed surveys to small groups of active customers) that can help you shape your content strategy to produce more relevant stuff that gets more clicks and interactions. More of this = search engines more likely to think you’re worth ranking.

I know this is all rather top level conceptual but this blog is about discussing sensible approaches to SEO, not case study analysis and proof through data.

Content has to be revisited, again and again

Google’s Inside Search blog recently announced an update to the algorithm which factors in video recency to its video search results.

The inference is that if your video is in tumbleweed stasis – it’s up there but nobody gives a damn – then it will be considered less relevant for search results than a video that people are rubbing their social prints all over.

Now that indicates that activity is likely to be an increasingly important search signal. It’s not good just to have content; it has to be pushing people’s buttons now. Perhaps Google will evolve further to look at the date line for signals like +1 – a webpage that has had no social action for weeks could well be considered less relevant than one that is currently trending.

Take this to its logical conclusion and we’re looking at living in the here and now and making sure communication and content is relevant and interesting. Your content isn’t finished when it’s live. You need to come back to it.

Re-evaluate it based on current usage, re-asses it against changes in online searches and give people a reason to continue to love it.

This should be taken seriously by content marketers. A content marketing plan is not a static beast – when something is published, it’s not job done. You need to manage your content through its lifetime until it is obsolete and needs to be retired.

Stale content will affect the way search engines perceive your website’s relevance.

How will your SEO garden grow?

There is much food for thought. The “quality not quantity” proposition strikes a chord with me more than the “pile ‘em high’ proponents who are hell bent on selling gadzillions of links, follows and bookmarks. Results are important but so is building something with lasting potential.

However, I have read enough blogs to know that some SEOs have got real results by indulging in the allegedly dark arts of SEO, including buying links and paying for social endorsement. So where do you sit on this?

I’d be interested to hear from other people and understand what you think about pre-empting future algorithm changes and the steps you are taking to ensure your SEO is in good health.

Econsultancy's Digital Certificate in SEO offers a challenging academically accredited course, emphasising practical skill development. Giving you a solid advanced knowledge of search engine optimisation techniques to impact customer acquisition.

James Gurd

Published 23 April, 2012 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

49 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

Stefan Hull

Stefan Hull, Insight Director at Propellernet

Interesting post James - thanks for referring to my presentation.

But I'm surprised you didn't mention Pinterest! (joke)

I've spoken to a fair few SEOs since I presented and the consensus seems to be that SEOs don't use dodgy tactics any more...

I think they're naive.

There are still major players in significant markets using paid links pretty much exclusively to power positions and revenue.

And there are businesses fairly openly recruiting for link builders who, reading between the lines, will spend a fair chunk of time buying links.

I think a few businesses are due a wake-up call and this could be the year they'll get it.

It's different if you're running your own site(s) - it's your own risk your managing - but that's not really my concern. I can't imagine many CEOs would approve of some of the risks that are been taking on their behalfs.

Other elements we haven't really touched on are the moves by the OFT and ASA in the digital space and, again, those will increasingly impact on even vaguely unethical strategies.

So, what's the solution?

Well, as I've said before, we simply need to ask ourselves whether any particular tactic is going to help Google and the other engines the best possible results to any given query.

Great content never gets penalised (unless something's gone very wrong), gets referred to, shared etc.

Sure, there are easier ways to do things, but better ways? I'm not so sure.

over 4 years ago

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Nathan King, Credit Card Journey Manager at RBSEnterprise

Really useul article, thanks.

@Stefan, sure there will be some CEOs that would be appalled at some of the risks that are being taken, but probably less than those who are constantly agitating to be ranked as high as possible for vanity terms.

I still cannot see how Google et al can successfully invigilate against some of the tactics which are slightly shaded in grey. Especially as it is possible for a paid link to be highly relevant.

I'd take any "white hat only" claim with a pinch of salt and that is not meant to cast any aspersions. Even Mother Teresa had her critics. Maybe I should be less cynical and for personal sites I will aim everything at the user and see where I get.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Afternoon all,

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

@Nathan you are right that there is a fine shade of grey where tactics can be seen by some as "white hat" and others as "black hat". In the offline world celebrities are paid shed loads to endorse products - that is not considered unethical but acceptable brand endorsement.

You could argue that paying influential people online to provide endorsements via links (traditional + social) is no different. That is what PR does.

However, the key issue is transparency. If it is obvious that website X is commercially affiliated with your brand, then perhaps you can argue paid links are acceptable. However, how many paid link programs actually go out of their way to provide this level of transparency? And social influence is an important dynamic - if the person you trust turns out to be selling their influence to the highest bidder, their opinions start to lose value and the benefit of paying for this endorsement diminishes.

I'm with @Stefan on this - a focus on earned links and social love is more likely to be built on trust and confidence than a paid for program. And the reality is that the search engines, especially Google, aren't making any sounds about working out how to validate ethical paid links. Not that I've heard anyway. The message seems quite clear: "paid for is spam". Not saying I agree 100% with such a black/white picture but those are the limitations marketers need to work within.

Thanks
james

ps Stefan - I'm advising all my Clients to focus 100% of budget on Google+ and Pinterest and nothing else, not even email marketing:)

over 4 years ago

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