As Google pushes further and further ahead with personalising search results for users, it is getting less and less relevant for search engine optimisers to think about keyword ranking. Coupling that with the growing prevalence of “not provided” keyword data in Analytics, where is the value in SEO?
I have worked in the SEO industry for a long time. When I started SEO professionally, instead of as part of a web design hobby, the focus from my bosses at the company that soon became Bigmouthmedia was to encourage potential clients that they needed high rankings. Consequently, it was then to create the circumstances that they achieved these high rankings. Frankly, the job was relatively easy, looking back. While there might have been a high quantity of competing websites, there were few well optimised ones.
Back in those days (cue wistful music and history montage), ranking was pretty easy to do, and rankings were generally the same whereever you were in the World, so long as you were looking at the same index. A number 1 in AltaVista was a number 1 in AltaVista everywhere. So if you were a small business selling those famous red widgets, if you could get to number one for red widgets in all the main search engines, you could clean up! Back in those days, a lot of people did.
But then a few things happened that changed all this.
Firstly, Google grew from being an “emerging” search engine to being dominant. It did this by focusing on the user’s search experience, not on monetising the search. This put pressure on other search engines, and ultimately cleared the field of all its main rivals in the UK and USA except MSN and Yahoo. Importantly, Google ranked sites based in part on its PageRank technology which, while still relatively new, mapped recommendations (links, essentially) into the ranking algorithm as well as content relevance.
Secondly, as the user-base for the Internet matured, and as stories of online fraud, identity theft and suchlike became more commonplace, users began to trust unknown websites less and less, especially if the user experience wasn’t great. The analogy would be, why would you buy something you can’t see from a scabby shop miles from home, if you can buy the same product from a chain store you’ve bought from before. Online shoppers began to wise up, and seek out more trustworthy shopping experiences.
Thirdly, and most recently, Google in particular began to vary its searches depending on the environment of the searcher. Not quite in a minority report kind of way, although that’s on its way I imagine, but in the sense that it began to promote sites based on things like time of day, time of year, and proximity. For example, you might get different search results searching for “hotel” in Edinburgh than you would get in London.
For a lot of SEO’s, this fact was kind of brushed under the carpet a little. Heads were buried in sand. The objective remained to achieve a top ranking for a keyword even if it might not always be top in all circumstances.
Worse, though, is that SEO clients fall into two groups – those that want to capitalise on your expertise (lovely clients, lots of sense, often not a lot of budget yet!) and those that tell you what their objective is and how to achieve it and to Hell with you contradictory best practice (far too many, usually far too much money to burn, far too keen to hang you for not achieving what you said wouldn’t happen in the first place!).
This second group of clients, while my parentheses might be a little harsh on many of them, typically demand deliverable outcomes in terms of ranking. Often they are at the opposite end of the country to where I do business. Dealing with such clients is hard work. My objective with such clients historically is to keep trying to nudge their thinking to “increase sales/conversion” and build strategies that fit that, but clearly some are less flexible than others.
These days, I have a simple strategy to deal with such inflexible demanding requests.
Put yourself in this demanding client’s shoes for a moment, and I’ll give my strategy away for free (if you like, send PayPal donations to me, or something, you’ll feel better for it!).
The strategy is: tell the client to +1 all their own Google listings across the board. Get people to whom they are connected to do so as well. Pretty soon, the client sees top listings for ALL their main keywords. Job done. Send me a cheque now, please. Here’s my number when you realise your conversions haven’t gone up at all…
Okay, I haven’t actually used that strategy on a client yet, but I’ve been sorely tempted a few times!
If you’d prefer to fall into the category of a client that listens to best practice advice, then here’s my alternative advice:
- Stop focusing on rankings – largely they’re vanity. With rankings, you win some, you lose some. Sometimes it won’t look to you like you are winning, but you are, and sometimes vice versa. Adjust your content aiming to make it more relevant for keywords, but don’t waste time worrying about any given search result.
- Focus instead on providing value. Give users a reason to want to visit your site. Make them want to share it with their friends or social connections. Create great useful content. Focus your value around what users want. Use what users search for to help determine what they want.
- Promote your content. Use social media. Use other marketing channels. Spread the word. Encourage others to link to you. Get the word out.
- Measure. Benchmark. Experiment. Learn. Adjust. Repeat. Learn to understand how your website users behave, what marketing brings traffic and sales. Learn what brings value to you. Grow those things.
- Have bricks and mortar locations? Use Google Places listings online, and use QR-codes, and LBS services offline. Make you stores and website are one seamless entity, not competing deadly enemies (seriously, I’ve seen some ecommerce sites struggle partly because instore staff refuse to advise customers to check them if the store is out-of-stock). Have a common goal across the business!
- Build community. It is cheaper to retain customers than attract new ones. Ensure customers come back. Furthermore, building a community helps build brand evangelisers who will help bring more traffic by word-of-mouth.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like SEO, but that is the beast it is today. Google ranks sites based on utility, proximity, social recommendation, relevance, and trust. Optimise these things. Build it, and they will come.
And SEOs – stop whining about “not provided.” As Google personalises more and more, I heard they’re going to change that phrase to “who gives a rat’s ass!” Well, they are brash Americans, after all.