Search engine optimization (SEO) strongly focuses on the Google search algorithm. The SEO industry scrutinizes every Google update. Some of these are well known, the Penguin and Panda updates (P&P) updates. Up until the first quarter of 2011 it was relatively easy to manipulate the Google keyword rankings. Before 2011, updates to the Google algorithm only had a limited effect on keyword rankings. It was easy for SEO companies to come up with new ways to get their customers good results. With the P&P updates this has all completely changed which begs the question:
Is SEO dead?
To answer that question we first need to understand some standard practices from SEO companies over the past years. At the start of each project some keyword analysis is done which results in a list of keywords relevant to the client’s website. A number of factors are taken into account:
- Average search volume per keyword per month
- Cost per click (CPC) in case of an Adwords campaign
The list of keywords is based on the best combination of high search volumes (potential visitors) and low competition (a measure of how active competitors are targeting the same keywords). A selection is made of both short tail and long tail keywords. Short tail keywords are broad search terms (e.g. contact lenses, men’s shoes, jackets etc) whereas longtail keywords are very specific (e.g. contact lenses for astigmatism, brown leather men’s shoes, cheap women’s jackets etc).
When you rank high in Google for broad terms you can expect a large number of visitors. Hopefully a reasonable percentage of said visitors will make a purchase. If you rank high for very specific terms the number of visitors will be much lower but the conversion rate is higher. Someone looking specifically for a certain product most probably has an intention to buy. On the basis of the keyword research a list of around 20 to 30 search terms is compiled, a combination of short tail and long tail. Subsequently the SEO company will for a period of at least several months, in a focused effort, try to improve keyword rankings for the selected search terms. This is where things go wrong.
All keywords are linked to specific pages on the client’s website, the so called target urls. For a fashion website the brand name and some broad terms will be linked to the home page. Take for instance http://www.superdry.com/
As a page title we see:
Superdry – Jackets, T Shirts, Hoodies, Shorts, Mens & Womens Clothing – Superdry
More specific terms such as men’s shoes, women’s bag, women’s boots etc are linked to sub-pages of the website. In principle almost all pages are SEO optimized by changing page titles, meta description, headers and text. This is also known as on-site optimization.
Once this is done the next stage is off-site optimization, often referred to as link building. Back links are placed on external websites linking to the client’s site with anchor text links. Some examples: Superdry and Shorts. A so called deep link could refer to women’s Summer dresses. It is often the case that only a limited number of target urls is chosen for link building, around 10 is quite common. The list with 20 to 30 keywords are divided over those target urls, normally 2 to 3 keywords per page. And then you see something like this:
Figure 1 – over optimization of backlinks (click to increase)
This figure shows a visual representation (created with CognitiveSEO) of all backlinks to a website. The largest cluster on the lefthand side represents all links to the homepage. The second largest cluster also represents the homepage. When backlinks are placed on an external website pointing towards your site the URL can be written in more than one way, e.g. http://www.imdb.com or http://imdb.com Google can see clearly that thousands of links point towards the homepage whereas only several hundred are pointing towards sub-pages. The distribution of backlinks is completely disproportionate.
SEO companies have a tendency to place as many DoFollow links as possible on web sites with a high page rank as these links have a great impact on the keyword rankings. This is also a form of over-optimization with which in the short term you can get good results but which is damaging to your website in the long run.
The website shown in this example received a Google penalty for over-optimization, the backlink profile was clearly artificial, created for the sole purpose of manipulating the keyword rankings. This was a consequence of several years of SEO and it took nearly 4 months before the penalty was lifted, which was relatively quick. This raises some questions.
Why focus on the homepage?
Having visitors land on the homepage is an outdated practice. When you are looking for something in particular you don’t want to end up on a generic page. People do a search in Google and expect a relevant result, instead they end up on a website from where they need to do another search. You could have led them through to the right page right away.
Quite often it’s the client that wants to rank high for both brand and generic terms. As the client is king many SEO companies comply, it would however be in the best interest of the client if they didn’t. Normally generic terms are linked to the homepage and some specific terms (e.g. Ray Ban Aviator 3025) will be linked to sub-pages. But what about all other pages on the website?
A web shop, depending on the size of its inventory, can easily have 500 pages. Aren’t those relevant to the site? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build links to all pages? It would definitely make sense as search engines can see that a website as a whole is relevant for a certain subject. Yet, SEO companies don’t work like that.
Why this single-minded approach to link building?
An SEO company is expected to bring about an increase in keyword rankings. Each month a report is generated, showing the most recent keyword positions and how these have changed in comparison to last month’s rankings. Typically a list with all backlinks that were built during the previous month is supplied together with the report. So, why not build links for all 500 pages? That would lead to a proportionally distributed backlink profile. This unfortunately is not feasible, for SEO companies. In order to see an increase in keyword rankings each month, per keyword minimally 3 to 4 good quality backlinks should be built monthly. Hence an SEO company should create somewhere between 1500 and 2000 backlinks each month to insure that the keyword rankings increase for the website as a whole. This is not feasible for several reasons.
Why can’t an SEO company afford to build 1500 good quality backlinks per month?
There is no problem whatsoever to place 1500 backlinks in one month. Take a look at sites like: SEOClerks, Fiverr or WLmarketing. Five thousand comment back links placed for $5 within one day? Not a problem, however you’ll end with links like this blog comment link
Scroll down to the comments and you will notice that all name fields instead of a proper name have a keyword instead, to this keyword a landing page is linked. The comments themselves are also a bit odd:
“I really adore your commitment to offer your readers such valuable information.Looking forward to read such informative content over and over again… ”
“Thank you for sharing excellent information. Your web-site is very cool. I’m impressed by the details that you¡¦ve on this web site. It reveals how nicely you understand this subject.”
“All Data in your Article is complete and Informative. It includes so many interesting facts. I am realy impressed with your Grt job Keep it up, I am waiting for your next Updation “
These are automatic link submissions generated with a program where the “SEO expert” only has to enter three pieces of information:
2. Landing Page URL
3. Some text
Subsequently a list with thousands of blog sites (which allow for comments) is processed and there you go: within a day your keyword is placed on thousands of blog sites, with identical anchor text and irrelevant description, written in non-native English. This is also an excellent way to get your website associated with viagra, escort services and online casinos, if that’s what you want.
It is possible to collect large amounts of backlinks to your site on the cheap through SEO services like these. All self respecting SEO companies will never use such services, in fact, they will pride themselves for building all backlinks manually and with great care. But can they deliver?
How many a links a month do you get from an SEO company?
Typically 20 to 30 backlinks each month. Placing backlinks at random, without context, can work against you, it may even lead to a Google penalty. Backlinks should be placed in a relevant context, i.e. the text in which the backlink is placed has to be relevant to the keyword. For this quality content has to be generated which takes time. Backlinks are then placed on article sites, as forum contributions, guest blog posts and perhaps some social bookmarking and webdirectory submissions (if you can still find any, most of these have lost their pagerank). Since at least three backlinks per keyword each month are needed in order to see an increase in the rankings an SEO company is limited in their choice of keywords and landing pages for off-site optimization.
It is important for a website to have its backlinks evenly distributed across its pages so Google can see that the whole site is relevant and not just the home page and a small selection of sub-pages. There should also be a large variation in the anchor texts, i.e. not only focus on those terms with the highest search volumes (e.g. sun glasses) but also target long tail terms which only have small search volumes (e.g. Ray Ban Aviator 3025 black). If you can only place a small number of links each month it will obviously take a very long time for the whole site to increase in rankings in Google. This is only a problem if you have to show monthly results.
SEO is part and parcel of online marketing and it is still important to build good quality backlinks as it is important to create web pages that are easily indexable to Google. The technical approach, focusing solely on the workings of the Google algorithms, is something from the past. It is no longer possible to game the system.
Prior to the Panda and Penguin updates in 2011 it was still relatively easy to find all sorts of tricks to get your rankings up. As a result many low quality sites made it to page 1 of Google. That no longer works, in fact, those same tricks can now harm your rankings. The old business model used by SEO companies is no longer tenable. Placing 20 to 30 backlinks each month, focusing on a limited amount of webpages only, this combined with little to no variation in achor texts is regarded by Google as over-optimization. Done for the sole purpose of manipulating the organic keyword rankings.
Less algorithm, more human
What can you do as a company to make sure that your backlink profile does not resemble the one shown in figure 1? When I create an online marketing campaign for a website social media are an integral part, see figure 2.
Figure 2 – social media channels linked to a website
Websites I created the online marketing campaigns for have the following social media channels as a standard:
- Google Plus business page
- Youtube channel
- Facebook page
- Twitter account
- Linkedin business page
Apart from that, if relevant and resources are available, I also like to use channels such as Pinterest, Slideshare, Vimeo and other various social media.
The website gets a blog which features interesting updates every week. The Google plus page receives updates multiple times a week (including a mention of the latest blog post). The Google Plus business page is linked to the website, when a Google Plus post receives a +1 the website automatically receives one too. The Youtube channel is linked to the Google Plus page and there are regular Google hangout sessions where customers / fans / followers can ask questions to employees, this is streamed live and subsequently available on Youtube. Twitter is used to report when there is a new blog post and announce when the next hangout session will take place. Facebook is used mostly for fun updates whereas Linkedin is reserved for business / serious updates.
Using all these updates it is possible to build natural backlinks in a way that your backlink profile is distributed evenly across your web pages. In your blog you can pay attention to specific products (services) and link to the relevant landing pages. It’s my policy to avoid backlinking to the home page
There is still a focus on the Google algorithms but it’s a step in the right direction. Interesting content is being shared, and at the same time backlinks are built, if they are relevant within the context of the shared content.
Who is creating the content and who has to deal with the social media channels?
Setting up your social media channels takes a couple of hours, the real work is yet to come. One mistake made often by companies is sharing of information that nobody cares about. A facebook page filled with product descriptions is not interesting. As a company you need to invest time and effort when writing good content. You could try and outsource this but who knows your company values best? Who has most knowledge of your services or products? These are your employees, they know best and they care.
Social media is more than just communicating your own messages. It’s also reacting to customers and therefore you should monitor the reactions you receive on facebook, Google Plus, twitter and the blog. Taking it a step further, it’s important to regularly Google your brand name (or set up Google alert) to check whether someone is talking about you outside of your own social media channels. If someone says something nice you can share it, if someone is critical you can respond to it.
Is this something you can have an SEO company do for you? First of all, a company like that won’t have the knowledge needed to deliver the right kind of content which is relevant to your company. Also, you can’t expect them to react to all feedback your company receives on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, Youtube, Linkedin and forums. And what if your company has websites in several countries?
As a company you need to do this in-house without being dependent on an external party which isn’t as concerned with your customers like your employees are. It doesn’t mean that your employees are on twitter the whole week ignoring the ‘real work’. There are several tools available with which you can apply social media effectively.
Social media management
Many updates on Facebook, the blog, twitter and other channels can be scheduled. With an application like Hootsuite one employee could, for instance on a Monday, schedule social media updates for the whole week, including the weekend. You can choose the precise date and time at which you want to send out your tweets and place your updates on Facebook, Google plus and linkedin during that week. If any newsworthy updates present themselves during the week you can always decide to manually share these, next to the ones that had already been scheduled. In this way you are sure that your social media channels are kept active.
It’s not necessary for employees to continuously monitor whether your social media updates evoke any reactions. For most companies checking twice a day for reactions that require a response is more than enough.
Putting social media to effective use for business is an integral component of online marketing. Google like backlinks that are placed within a relevant context. What could be more relevant than an interaction between your company and your customers over your services and products? Social media offer a natural looking environment where you can safely place backlinks to your website’s sub-pages which will make your backlink profile look natural. Also, Google will perceive your whole website as relevant.
People are sick of web pages developed specifically for search engines, filled with keywords and artificial sentences. Google has had enough of irrelevant backlinks that serve but one purpose: to manipulate the keyword rankings. Backlinks have to be placed in the right context. This can be a well written article or an online interaction within a social media channel. In both cases we’re talking about work done by real people.
Ok, but who’s going to do it?
Several people in the company are involved. Content has to be written and translated in case the company operates international. You need to send out social signals each week (ideally every day) and this requires a lot of content, not just text, but also video (Youtube), infographics and images. People like to share visual information. Imagine being dependent on an external party. It doesn’t look very good if your facebook page hasn’t seen any updates for the past 3 weeks.
Some employees actively have to monitor the social media channels in order to be able to respond. Managers should give their employees a certain degree of freedom to use their own best judgement when acting on behalf of the company. This is still a difficult concept for some alpha males.
Someone needs to coordinate the social media campaign(s), think of managing tools such as Hootsuite as well as directing people. There should also be someone in charge of the technical aspects of online marketing who makes sure that the company does not inadvertently violate the Google guidelines. But who is going to make sure that there is clear communication between those who focus on the Google algorithm and those in the company that are active on social media? Potentially this role can be taken on by a social media community manager.
As a company you have a choice, use that cheap service which “guarantees you a top position on the first page of Google”? Or will you reshape your organization so you can directly engage with your customers via social media and do SEO in a responsible way. This will require a cultural change where the employee is not seen as a tool which needs to be guided all the time. The employee becomes a stakeholder and acts as an ambassador for the company when interacting with the public. Imagine, an employee that feels engaged and enjoys going into work?
If you choose for social it has to be done with conviction. Google no longer falls for it when you place a back link in the wrong context. People catch on right away when you only use social media to push your message. There is a difference between being social and acting social.
For years it was quite easy to manipulate the keyword rankings in Google. Since 2011 this has completely changed. The technical SEO approach with a strong focus on a small selection of keywords and limited amount of landing pages is damaging to your website. Backlinks have to be placed in relevant, well written content. Social media are an ideal medium through which you can engage with your customers. At the same time you can do SEO in a responsible way.
It should be clear that I approach online marketing from a technical perspective. Am I not outside of my league by interfering with the organization of the company? The answer is simple. As head of online marketing I can’t afford not to.
Dr Alexander van Aken writes about internetmarketing
Connect with Dr Alexander van Aken on Linkedin
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