Watch Out, Those SEO Chickens are Coming Home to Roost!
I never started out in the working world with the intention of working in marketing, and certainly not in SEO. In fact, I went to college for a very nonspecific degree that would help me a lot in my personal and professional life but wouldn’t necessarily be a ticket to a job like say…an MBA would be. Communications, if you’re wondering, and go ahead and laugh it up- I was in study groups and spent a lot of time with people who were (and still are) pretty famous athletes, while learning how to speak in front of a crowd and clearly formulate and communicate ideas. I didn’t know it then, but a Communications degree mixed with some business classes is I think, an ideal mix for someone looking to get started in digital marketing, but I digress.
After a 5 year stint as a middle school teacher, I decided that I definitely wasn’t altruistic enough to put myself through that torture for another year, I landed back in the private sector, first as a trainer, then as a computer lab and summer camp coordinator for a kids’ science museum, then operations manager for a small website (where I got my start in SEO) and now the last 5 years I’ve been doing SEO specifically trying hard to learn more about digital marketing in general. When the concept of SEO was first brought to my attention by my then boss, I reacted with a lot of cynicism- it seemed like a scam. In fact, I still know several SEOs today that feel that even white hat SEO is somehow amoral. However, if one steps off of one’s high horse for a moment, one realizes that Google needs SEOs. Google is in the business of selling ads, right? What do they wrap all those ads around? Search results, not exclusively, but mostly. Where do those search results lead? Hopefully for everyone, to a high quality site where the User is able to find what they are looking for with a minimum of time and friction. Google needs people to keep creating great content, and they need it to be formatted in a way that their algorithm can better learn what quality content is and what it isn’t.
My definition of SEO? Give Google what it wants.
There was a huge uproar in the SEO community during the end of last week and the beginning of this week over something Matt Cutts (the head of Google’s spam team- why is he someone SEO’s listen to? Are they in the business of spamming the engines? ANYway…….) said at a panel during SXSW; here’s the transcript:
“What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.”
There are a lot of people really freaking out about that announcement, but this is something I have seen coming for a long time and it ties back into my theory of “give Google what it wants”. Another part of that theory is that Google doesn’t want sites in its index that make their owners money solely because Google exists. The most famous example I can think of is a site that had twenty different URLs with spun content built around 20 variations of the same keyword phrase: “how to drink a glass of water”. None of those pages provides any value to the User and certainly not 20 of them- everyone already knows how to drink a glass of water, and those pages were clearly created in bulk, to help build a large contextual footprint, and sit there, marinating, earning passive income when less savvy Users click on parts of the site after landing on it accidentally, not realizing they are AdSense ads or affiliate links. How much money could a site like that make, you ask? Well….
According to Google there are ~15,000 searches globally, a month, for the phrase “how to drink a glass of water”. There are 823,000 searches for “how to drink water”. Let’s assume that that site focuses on broader phrases that average a very conservative 5k searches a month. That’s still a potential 100k searches that will land on that page, and even if you get .001 of Users that make a mistake and click an ad that’s still 100 people * however much an Adsense click is (let’s assume a VERY stingy $.05 per); you’re talking about $5 a month. So what, right?
Well, many sites exist that have automated the process I describe above for hundreds and even thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of subjects. Those sites produce very little value for the User and are just cluttering the index, crowding out what Google wants to focus on, which is getting information in front of people who request it (with targeted ads wrapped around, embedded in, hovering over and maybe even phasing in and out of said information, I’m not naive)- they DON’T want to help Joe Shortcut keep milking the gold mine of serendipity, human error and chance to make a buck.
As I always say, if SEO is your sole marketing channel and you put all of your eggs in that basket, it is going to eventually bite you. I think those chickens are coming home to roost for quite a few people- but if you’re not solely in the business of SEO, I think you’re okay. You know if you need to be worried about this or not.