Most of what gets peddled as “SEO” is useless.
So many SEO outfits are like vending machines: they provide a selection of pre-configured options, you whack your cash in, press a couple of buttons and the product falls out.
With vending machine SEO, you get no more input into the campaign than you would into the making of a Mars bar. You get the same as anyone else - nothing about it has been crafted specifically with you in mind.
Business owners tend to be busy. The idea of paying money and just getting it all handled with no further fuss.. that has obvious appeal. Why get involved in the campaign yourself? You've got so much else to do.
For SEO providers the deal was even sweeter. Vending machine SEO is easy, cheap, scalable, and simple to automate. They could devise one-size-fits-all campaigns, systematise everything to within an inch of its life, outsource as many tasks as possible to low wage countries, then kick back and count the cash.
But the best thing about vending machine SEO was it worked. If the people running the campaign really knew their stuff, it could work extremely well.
In the web's High Middle Ages (2008-10), search engines were far less fussy about where you'd get your links from, how much credit they'd give you for them, and whether or not real people liked your site. Many outfits maintained their own spam networks and blog farms and all it took was a few keyword rich links from these to send a client's site climbing. Anyone else could buy the same kind of links from places like Build My Rank.
You can probably see there's not a lot of in-built quality control in these methods. These vending machine SEO tactics put shitty websites and brilliant websites on an level playing field - everyone has a reliable way to outrank each other, regardless of how good the site is. Google doesn't want shitty websites to outrank great ones. Their entire business is built on showing the best result for the search.
Google have dominated search for long enough now that it's easy to think of them as just a fact of life. But the big reason they command 70% global market share is they're still the best place to go to find stuff. They work furiously at being the best. Why? If someone else did it better, consistenly, then we'd start moving over. With every fraction of every percent of search engine market share worth seven metric fucktons in ad revenue, Google doesn't want anyone going anywhere.
So as soon as any SEO technique is used often enough to send good clicks to horrible websites, Google neuters it. Could you expect otherwise? They need to protect their market share. Google doesn't hate all SEO. They hate SEO that soils the search results. The more those methods work, the more they might cost them big.
In 2011, Google brought in the Panda update, followed by the Penguin update in 2012. This is no place to cover these in detail. That's been done well by others. The quick story is that Panda penalised sites with thin, duplicate or spam content. Penguin meant that links from blog farms, article directories, web 2.0 sites, and other web properties happy to link out to just about anyone were no longer useful. These are exactly the kind of links most easily built with vending machine SEO.
These changes shut down the major SEO methods that awful websitse could benefit from.
A big part of how Google has gotten better at ranking good content is by watching human response. They can do this directly by looking at “user experience” metrics, such as whether anyone reads your stuff. They also do this by rewarding websites for getting links from topically relevant websites they can see weren't built just to game the search engines - sites that serve a genuine human readership. Sites that get real readers take a lot more editorial care in deciding what content they'll link their readers to.
Let's say you sell specialty kitchenwares online and an article on Yahoo7 Lifestyle links to one of your blog posts - that's a reasonable indication that you're a legit business and that your blog post might be well written and contain worthwile information. It's a good clue that you're probably not a Russian spammer. There's no such assurance with a link from Ezine Articles, which anyone can sign up for and post to.
The Penguin update left a few gaps for vending machine SEO. For some time after Penguin hit, links from press releases were good. People caught on to this, and more and more started using press release services to promote drivellous press releases just to get the backlinks. Enough people piled into this fad, had some success, then lost it all when Google kill this method.
And so it will go that internet marketers will always look for SEO methods that can be systematised and processed into a vending machine product, and Google will always shut these methods down once enough bad websites have used them that they move to protect their search results. There's always some new frontier for the Google cat and mouse game - and money in selling it. But Google has some of the smartest people in the world working on a quick catchup, backed by staggering resources and obvious commercial incentive. How much of your business would you gamble on being able to outsmart them forever?
Your SEO should include things that other people can't do. You must decide that any method the losers, deadbeats, scammers, spammers and dull bastards of the world can use is not good enough for you. Do the things that they can't do and you'll avoid the punishments meant principally for them. So set yourself apart.
Doing things that other people can't do means following a strategy built especially for you. It means participating in content creation and promotion activities to do the things that big agencies can't outsource in their entirety to India. I once suffered a desk job at a big web marketing agency for a time and I've seen how they put their packages together: every bit of it is systematised and nailed down into a set of tightly written Standard Operating Procedures that can be applied to every single client they handle. Gross. You don't want this. You want to take advantage of opportunities that others won't or can't.
Sourcebottle is one of my favourite places to promote a good business online. This publicity service is for journalists and bloggers to post “call outs” for sources for stories they're writing. Much of the time, these stories are published on the web, and much of the time they link back to their source's website. This can be a great place to get good links from topically relevant authority sites with a real readership. These are the links you want for SEO.
Sites like Sourcebottle are hardly the be all and end all of linkbuilding. But there's a lot that I like about it: everyone posting here actually wants to be contacted, and they won't be iffy about linking to an Australian website in the way that guys on HARO often are. One of my favourite things about it though is that you can never be certain that anybody you contact on Sourcebottle will link to you. That might sound a little strange on first reading - why would I like that?
I like it because there's some quality control in who gets these links. This, combined with the fact that you can never predict from week to week what callouts will be here, means the big digital agencies and other bottom feeders can't package it into an arms-length monthly SEO service that any loser can buy. It's safe from vending machine SEO guys and that's great. We want that. Some of the guys posting on Sourcebottle are much fussier than others about what content they'll run, and some of their websites are frankly less exciting than others. For the most part, to get the best links you need to be a real business and be able to demonstrate some amount of industry experience or subject matter expertise.
Looking at Sourcebottle callouts you might have thought to yourself “if it's that easy, why don't I just do it myself? What do I need an expert for?”
And why not? If using Sourcebottle is part of the right strategy for your site, it takes no specialist expertise to sign up for the emails and click through to anything that's interesting. If you have any kind of admin assistant or junior staff member working for you, this can easily be added to regular duties. Just have them read through the emails, respond to appropriate callouts, and alert you when something needs your attention. This is a lot cheaper than getting me to do the exact same work. Once they've gotten comfortable with answering these callouts then they'll end up doing a better job than I would too: being at the coalface of your business week in, week out gives them a familiarity with certain details of your business and products that I'll never match.
This is not to say you'd want a total SEO newbie running a whole campaign. Not every task is best performed by non-experts; it's a bit much to expect someone with no specialist experience to write disavow files or fix duplicate content problems. But to perform tasks that don't require huge technical knowledge? Sure.
You and your staff should definitely have a role in creating content for your website. If you want to bring some writing in-house, great! There is more of a learning curve to this than there is to answering publicity callouts. Writing well takes a fair bit of practice. Writing that sells, more still. But developing this skill in your business - whether it's you or a staff member - will immensely benefit your search performance, and marketing in general.
Not every business is in a good place to bring writing tasks in-house. Writing on behalf of a business is absolutely not for everyone. For many businesses it makes more sense to hire a copywriter. You should still be very involved in what they produce. Your unique understanding of your products, industry and customers won through your time in the trenches should definitely make its way into the copy. The best copywriters are at least as concerned with working out what needs saying as they are with finding good words for it; they know this is a collaborative effort that requires huge input from the client.
Collaborative SEO improves more than search traffic, it improves your business. It brings marketing skills and sophistication into your business. Honest and capable SEO providers aren't afraid of a more powerful client - in fact, we welcome it. It means more scope to achieve better results together, and more trust that what you're getting's worth it.
Vending machine SEO guys seek to maximise your sense of inability and bewilderment. They don't want you getting your head around any of the component tasks or starting to get your head around how all of this stuff works. They won't it to remain an impenetrable mystery. They want to seem like wizards casting grand spells. They like you totally reliant on them. They want it to stay that way. When the next big Google algorithm update hits and the black hat SEO tactics they've used put a huge penalty on your site, they want you to be reliant on them for their penalty removal service. They know that a more educated client will become unhappy with their antics and walk as soon as the contract is up.
Planning and writing great content, working out the best places that your business should be looking for links from, really getting into the heads of your customers and .. all these things need your involvement if they're to work well.
If you pay good money for SEO services and then everything happens without you, don't be relieved at how smoothly everything's going. Be furious about what you're getting for good money. Vending machine SEO blows.
Google's Webmaster Guidelines tell us that building links for no reason except to influence search engine rankings is naughty. To avoid suffering by this, every link you go and grab has to have a genuinely believable non-SEO reason, even if it's mere pretext.
Better still if it's more than pretext.
Guest posts, interviews, and other publicity activities that see you featured on quality websites with a real, engaged regular readership are great. The links that real people click are where it's at for SEO now. But because people click on these links, the traffic they bring can be valuable in its own right. This traffic can be worth the promotion effort on its own.
To hit those user experience metrics you'll need text content that engages the customer and anticipates what's going on through his or her mind. This is the content that keeps them reading, rather than running straight back to the search engine to look for something else. Engaging copy is not just good for bringing in search visitors - even more importantly, it will convert visitors to customers.
The best way to get links that real people click on and write copy people actually read is to leverage your own unique insights and industry experience. This is more than just great SEO. It's great marketing.
The best SEO is not run separately from your other marketing efforts. There are common insights, data, messages and understandings that have value in all of your online and offline marketing efforts.
Already we're seeing very clear winners and losers in the new world of web marketing.
The losers are the ones who keep doing what they're doing because they won't make time for anything else. The ones who flit from agency to agency every time their. The ones who can't resist the appeal of easy options. The ones who assume that because they don't know all there is to know about SEO that no part of it can happen in their own office.
The winners are the ones who don't want SEO run entirely at arm's length from the rest of their business. They understand that the core goal of marketing - finding and keeping customers - is so crucial that it just can't be abdicated. They see outside expertise not as a chance to offload everything onto someone else, but as an opportunity to build their marketing muscles with every bit of insight the consultant has to offer.
If you're ready to get on board with the winning team by working with a brilliant and charming SEO guy to create a plan custom tailored to you, to do the things your competitors can't, please drop me a line.