If you’re new to the world of search engine optimization, then you’ve probably never heard of Matt Cutts. Matt is the head of Google’s webspam team, and he’s in a constant dance / battle with SEO firms who are trying to outwit Google’s algorithm.
Some SEOs would disagree with my choice of the word “outwit.” However, this is exactly how Google sees it. The algorithm is theoretically designed to find the best of the best. It’s supposed to present to you, the person searching for something on Google, the most relevant results.
Google determines relevance based on its algorithm, and the algorithm is always changing. Some websites that are not actually the most relevant will appear close to the top of the search results because they’ve managed to outwit the algorithm.
Of course Google’s definition of relevance is a topic of debate and doesn’t come without ethical and philosophical implications. Some algorithm updates have shoved small businesses off the first few pages of search while pushing big brands to the top.
Google has tried to mitigate this by placing local search results above universal organic search results and by having anyone who’s logged into Google receive personalized search results. They’re implementing a rotating carousel for local search, enabling users to see a variety of local businesses that they wouldn’t have seen before.
Over the years SEOs have tried every cheap trick they can to outwit the algorithm, and to me this is like playing a really bad game of musical chairs. Musical chairs was fun and innocent, and when the music stopped if you were the one left without a chair then you’d wait until the next round began.
However, with this version of musical chairs, now when the music stops the floor collapses underneath you. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on an SEO strategy that not only doesn’t work any more, but that also actually penalizes you. You may have outwitted the algorithm for a while, but now Matt Cutts is on to you. And you’re going to be punished.
Here are some of the chairs that Google has pulled out of the game over the past few years:
Footer links: A favorite of web designers, developers, and SEOs, Google no longer gives any weight to links placed in the footer of a website, or other site-wide links. Many WordPress themes and plug-ins have their creators’ links attached to them, and while this isn’t inherently spammy, Google no longer uses this as a signal.
Guest blogging: Guest blogging was once thought of as an ethical SEO tactic to generate relevant content, drive people to your site, network, and build links. A bunch of really bad SEOs started doing an excessive amount of guest blogging, paying people to include their irrelevant and poorly-written blogs on their sites, and now Google no longer sees guest blogging as a true signal of a site’s authority or relevance.
Link exchanges: One of the oldest and cheapest tricks in the book, Google hasn’t been interested in link exchanges for a while. The gist is this: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. I’ll link to you, website that I don’t know anything about, if you’ll link to me. Google says nope.
Keyword (over)optimization: Google has claimed that it penalizes sites that are over-optimized for keywords. And we really want that to be true. However, sites like this one are still ranking number one for competitive keyphrases by over-optimizing the crap out of their site. That page is a nightmare of keyword variation. Sure, they rank number one, but it seems to me that they’re all about the tricks and not about the content.
If your site has performed consistently over the past few years, then congratulations. There will always be fluctuations in how you perform in search, and focusing too much on organic rankings will make you crazy. Plus, it won’t actually bring you the business you need if your site isn’t built to convert those visitors, and if your product or business model doesn’t have inherent value in its own right.
If you’re still playing SEO musical chairs, then it’s only a matter of time until you lose. Create a marketing strategy that will work no matter what Google’s algorithm does.