Navigating the Crazy World of Search Engine Optimization.

A simple enterprise that can put you on top… or annihilate your web presence.

I want to start out this discussion with a quote from Peter Kent, a top expert in the often misunderstood field of search engine optimization. When not filling the role as Amazon’s go-to consultant, he’s writing publications such as his celebrated SEO for Dummies.

80% of all SEO Services are a scam. 
I’ve been telling people this estimate for several years now, and what amazes me is that never has anyone disagreed.

Many businesses with prior experience hiring SEO firms have no trouble accepting this figure, but those who haven’t understandably express some degree of doubt. How can an industry plagued by such low quality service continue to thrive? Unfortunately, if you take a deeper look at the inner workings of the search ranking world, the answer isn’t hard to find.

There are plenty of skilled web designers to choose from, often identified by their transparency and ability to effectively manage client expectations. Yet the industry is also populated by those who would rather cloak their knowledge behind vague terminology and unnecessary jargon, attempting to purposely overwhelm clients with perceived expertise. If they can sell the idea that good SEO requires a Ph.D to execute, their inflated rates and lack of guarantees seem somehow justified. Unfortunately for the client, this practice often leads to minimal results coupled with bleeding operations accounts. In these circumstances, we see the cycle of exploiting technical ignorance for personal gain at it’s worst.

Compounding the issue is a growing practice of taking a simple and concrete metric, such as user sessions or bounce rate, and spinning it into something unmeasurable for the sake of positive results. In one such instance, a client of mine grappled with a 50% loss in organic traffic after a previous developer failed to follow basic redesign protocols when building their new site. Instead of admitting to throwing best practices out the window, the designer wrote off the failure as “substituting for new growth of quality sessions”. The merit of this flimsy response relies on the notion that previous user sessions were somehow meaningless, regardless of the fact that they’d been responsible for growing revenue year after year. Conveniently for them, the page had no ecommerce metrics in place at the time to help prove what a ludicrous concept this was.

In SEO for Dummies, Kent outlines his own examples of the damage caused by unscrupulous consultants. One of the more outrageous (but not uncommon) practices involves firms charging $1000-2000/mo for specialty rank building services, only for business owners to find out later that this large chunk of money is only buying them a list of sites that may be beneficial to connect with. These firms have provided no actual optimization services and zero net increase in page traffic, yet rack up outrageous amounts of money for their time. Is Kent’s 80% figure becoming a little more believable?

The obvious follow up question becomes, as a business owner, what can you do to understand basic search principles and increase rankings without wasting time and money? As it turns out, the answer is quite a lot. I’m going to outline a few of these core concepts below, but before we go any further, make sure to understand a few seemingly small mistakes that can lead to catastrophe, such as how one line of simple “noindex” code can kill your site (which, surprisingly, I’ve seen more than once). Second, take a moment to consider how Google functions and their primary objectives as a major search engine provider.

When it comes to business models, Google operates within the same parameters as any other enterprise, aiming to provide quality products to their customers. In the case of search engines, this product can be thought of as a quality user experience. When you run an inquiry on google.com, your personal objective is to see relevant and useful search results. Google’s dominance was built from perfecting this function, and they employ teams of engineers to constantly tweak their algorithms in pursuit of the ideal search platform. If you execute a search and the returned pages are of little use to you, they they have failed entirely in their mission.

What does this all mean in terms of practical optimization? More recently, the trend has been to award digital simplicity and punish deceit. In the last five years, Google has stepped up their game in tracking down underhanded tricks that diminish the effectiveness of their products. As I said earlier, it doesn’t take a Ph.D to implement tactics that will help your rankings with search engines, but rest assured they have their own doctorates perfecting algorithms designed to uncover misleading SEO practices. Punishment is typically swift and severe if caught, ranging from significant demotion in the rankings to total blacklisting and removal from the index, rendering the site invisible for eternity in the searches.

Fortunately, Google’s quest to streamline the search process has given rise to an era of what can be categorized as “intuitive design”. The concept behind this idea is beautifully simple: build your site for your customer’s ease of use first and search engines second, not the other way around. Theoretically, simplistic and useful pages will lead to gains in both outside referrals and traffic, boosting search visibility significantly. Remember, many sites that top the rankings do so first and foremost because they are useful to searchers, not because they happen to be well optimized. That said, it’s still imperative to pursue tried and true SEO practices in tandem with quality construction to discover your site’s full potential.

So what does it mean to blend technical SEO with common sense design? Consider this scenario: Google has all but publicly said that meta descriptions are no longer part of its actual ranking systems. In fact, some major pages have given up using them entirely. Does that really mean they serve no function? Imagine a user performing a typical search: they read through the page descriptions, use the viewable information to decide to click on your page and create a net traffic increase for your site. The algorithms may not have read and indexed your meta description, but having it available still created a positive result in their eyes. This concept can be labeled as indirect optimization.

General categories influencing SEO rankings, courtesy of Moz.

Other forms of optimization, however, are much more direct. Over the last few years, the dreaded Panda and Penguin updates turned the SEO world upside down as the search engine giant perfected new ways of routing out and punishing unfriendly pages. Internet retailers scrambled to understand why once standard practices, like keyword stuffing and link farming, were now suddenly destroying their visibility. To throw fuel on the fire, Google announced just last year the “mobile friendly” certificate, given to sites that employed responsive design and were easily viewable across most viewports. Pages lacking this tag would be punished in mobile searches, a huge blow given that typical computers now make up less than half of all internet traffic. While this practice cemented Google’s commitment to their users (possibly at the expense of webmasters), they brought up a valid point: with the available resources and the prevalence of smartphones in our society, there is absolutely no excuse to not have a mobile optimized platform for your page. Zooming and side scrolling is a poor experience for the visitor, and the introduction of the mobile friendly certificate was a stern proclamation that this particular form of laziness would be punished.

However, while this post has repeatedly stressed the importance of “user first” design, there are still numerous opportunities to use direct optimization to enhance rankings behind the scenes. One frequent mistake I see when performing SEO audits is the misnaming of page URL’s and anchor text. For instance, pretend you’re a plumber with a business operating out of San Francisco. Creating the page http://www.mybusiness.com/services/ doesn’t tell the search crawlers much about your relevance, but http://www.mybusiness.com/san-francisco-plumbing-services/ is much more descriptive. Page content and image descriptions also fall under this umbrella, and while it is very poor form to inject unnecessary keywords, there’s no benefit to making it unnecessarily difficult for search engines to understand the theme of your website. In this regard, I never cease to be amazed at the ranking power I see clients leave on the table as a result of poor word choice. After all, what is Google supposed to make of your most important images bearing the name “img427-10-11.jpg” when you would both be much happier seeing a title that’s actually useful and descriptive?

It’s true that many businesses owners have little or no understanding of the true ranking potential of their digital platforms, while many others would attempt to gain from this by providing shaky advice at exorbitant prices. However, anyone willing to work and comprehend these basic principles will find themselves on a much stronger foundation from which to build and implement quality SEO. However, if you have any doubts regarding your technical expertise, it is always best to hire a competent auditor to identify not only areas of improvement, but hidden issues that might be negatively impacting your page. How should you go about this, given the problems mentioned in the post? The answer is simple: do your research and ask around. Other business owners can often recommend trustworthy consultants with a proven track record of success. After all, the metrics don’t lie!