SEO Was Always a Devils’ Bargain

In the old movie Westerns, you could always tell who the bad guys and good guys were by the color of their clothes. But search optimization hasn’t made it that easy. There’s been a false dichotomy between black hat and white hat, and of course that nihilistic term “grey hat” for questionable but difficult to judge practices of SEO.

Are SEOs Bad People?

Now we’re not going to say that SEO people are bad guys – we’re not going to explore personal character at all, because it’s not what’s most relevant to your business. But we are going to make a fairly blanket statement that search engine optimization was ALWAYS about tricks, always about gaming the system, always about manipulating results inauthentically, at least partly so. This is why Google is currently in an all out war against search optimization, banning the most hallowed techniques and long standing principles that made it work. Search engine optimization was, by definition, gaming or manipulating the search engines, and the game is over.

When it Wasn’t Gaming, It Was Passive

There was, of course, and still is, the whitest of the white hat approaches, which is just about making your web site more indexable to search engines. Your title lengths should stop at 70 characters.  Your first 160 characters of text should be grabby and interesting, because that’s how much shows up in search results. Use your desired key word in the title, etc. All good advice, still. But it’s limited, isn’t it? It doesn’t guarantee you any ‘traffic’ at all. It just means that, if you’re actively creating good content for the web, it’ll be easier to find. So where SEO isn’t an attempt to trick the search engines, it’s effectively passive and not a traffic generator.

The Old Tricks Are No Longer Relevant

Google has been using social signals (interactions with your content shared in or posted to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Pinterest, etc) to rate web sites, as well as a whole host of signals of reliability of the business presence on the web, indicators of friendly growth strategies, and most of all quality of content. And while it has been banning and punishing sites that flaut these principles very aggressively since December 2013, and in somewhat aggressive waves since 2009 and 2011, respectively, it has been warning that this is coming since the early 2000s, as have we.

Page Rank and Back Links are Obsolete

Except as a way for SEO Companies to sell you their services, page rank and backlinks are outdated measurements and techniques, like using leeches to deal with the flu. Except that, since SEO sounds very technical, it still sells like hotcakes. I get e-mail blasts offering SEO-optimized web sites for every industry, and SEO spam from India, and when you look at the bullet points, it’s the same crap that doesn’t work anymore. Mostly, it *never did* work, because those SEO ‘experts’ never pointed out that it’s all dependent on content. Since about 2003, if your site wasn’t generating fresh, frequent new content (i.e. blogging), SEO had ever diminishing returns of value. Most people got almost nothing from it. How much more knowledge than *you* does someone have to have to be perceived as an expert, anyway? We’re like savages looking at people as SEO gods because they speak a foreign language and do it very persuasively.

The Devils’ Bargain of SEO

Google is punishing or else giving zero credence/bump to most backlink programs, link circles, anchor text techniques, fake social signals, and a host of the stuff businesses have pulled because some SEO guy perched on the company’s shoulder and whispered, “You don’t really have to engage your audience or be authentic or generate anything of value. All that’s too hard. Let’s just trick Google and be done with it.” And now a lot of those businesses are in a Hell of deteriorating rankings and page positions because of it. There are SEO people who have consistently said, “Look, we’ll do this if you want, but really you should be creating valuable, engaging content on a consistent basis.” And in that sense, there is a white hat SEO – it’s content marketing. And in that way, businesses have often been the devil perched on the SEO expert’s shoulder whispering, “Look, I’ll spend money. What can you give me that requires no effort, no energy, no thought? How can I treat my clients like cattle, “drive” them to my site, and fool the search engines into giving me human traffic?” Indeed, we ‘trade in human souls’.

Getting a Real Digital Strategy

Optimization is being tamed, now, to basic constructions in your content marketing that anyone can learn, and most businesses probably should learn, internally. For that purpose, digital strategy centered around content marketing and social engagement is the optimal digital marketing focus for small businesses. You can’t depend on technical wizardry. What’s required now, and really was the standard all along, is an ethos of authenticity, transparency, and engagement. What’s required is to treat your prospective clients as full human beings, not merely “searchers”, “traffic”, “visitors”, or some other form of herd. Your audience is more savvy, and search engines darned sure are, so anty up and kick in.

We’re glad to help you as a professional, or help your small business, transform your digital marketing strategy into something that’s effective. honorable, and friendly to search engines. Search engines can be seen as your marketing business partner, not something that needs a racket of double dealing and dirty pool. If you’re interested, we’d like to help.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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