November 14, 2012
There's a lot of talk lately of Google having finally killed SEO through their Panda and Penguin algorithms, which continue to ensnare more and more websites with every new update.
So is SEO really (finally) dead?
When you look at some of the Google organic traffic losses that companies have faced since the very first Panda algo (aka Google Farmer) hit in February 2011, you might certainly think so.
Analytics data showing losses of over 50% of Google organic traffic is not uncommon for afflicted websites:
And traffic that used to increase over time, suddenly took a huge dip:
These patterns certainly make it look as if SEO could be dead.
But is it really?
In order to answer that question I went back through the multitude of lost traffic site audit reports I've been doing since early 2011. I looked for website problems that were consistent through many of the sites I reviewed.
It didn't take long for me to conclude that, while SEO was certainly not dead, SEO tricks and shortcuts were definitely on life support – if not already completely dead.
So if you relied on tricks and shortcuts, then yes, for you SEO is dead.
In fact, it's likely that the very things that helped you before are the ones that are hurting you now. But even for those of us who have always used best SEO practices, some things have changed.
Today, and for the foreseeable future, SEO is much less about optimizing for specific keywords, and much more about technical issues, social signals, and the overall trustworthiness of a company and its website.
When I went through my lost traffic website audits, I found no less than 18 specific problems that had likely contributed to the huge losses of organic Google traffic and the subsequent loss in conversions and sales that so many companies have been facing.
Here they are, in no particular order:
While some of the above were deliberately done to or for the websites in order to increase organic website traffic (back in the day), others were more inadvertent – with some issues overlapping others.
For instance, duplicate content can be caused by technical issues, but it can also be done deliberately as an easy way to add more content to a website. And keyword stuffing is often done in conjunction with having content below the fold, but not always.
For the most part, the issues can be broken down into a few overall categories:
Fix technical issues first and foremost
Technical issues affecting SEO have always existed and smart SEO consultants have always made fixing them a high priority. But after Panda and Penguin, fixing them is more important than ever. Technical issues that are a problem for SEO run the gamut from bad content management system (CMS) setups that create duplicate content to having a sitewide navigation that's basically invisible to search engines. Whatever your specific technical issues may be, now is the time to fix them. If they're not already hurting your site's SEO performance, they likely will be after a new Panda or Penguin update.
Think less about optimizing for specific keywords
I know this seems counterintuitive to everything I've been preaching to you for years, but it's a very important point. When you do SEO with the goal of optimizing for specific keywords that you want to rank for (as we've always done), it can end up hurting you now. What happens is that you focus too much on those specific words and end up putting them in too many places on your pages and within the website as a whole. But now this is not as helpful to search engines as it used to be. In most cases this will actually lower your rankings and traffic for those specific keyword phrases. Instead, reread what Karon Thackston recently recommended (and which Matt Cutts from Google confirmed) and use much more of a variety of words within your content. Be sure to keep my new SEO mantra in your head: "Less is more."
Have a real content / social media marketing strategy
Forget about old-fashioned link building. Google now really does consider it to be web spam. (Yay!) If you can add a link to your own site just by submitting it somewhere, you can assume that it won't count for much (or anything) by Google. In other words, forget about useless directory submissions, article directories, link wheels, forum signatures and comment spam. That's all done, kaput, a useless waste of time.
Instead, hire real writers and put them to work writing blog posts and other informational content on a regular basis. Be sure that what they're writing is truly of interest to the people who might buy your products or services (aka your target market).
Learn where your target market is hanging out online, be it Twitter, Facebook, Google+, industry forums and blogs, and hang out with them. Make friends with them and be sure you make them aware of all the helpful, informational content on your website, as appropriate. Be especially sure to let them know when any new content comes out that they might be interested in. Remember to share their content as well, and don't be afraid to ask them to share yours.
Most of all, earn Google's trust
If your site is poorly written or keyword stuffed, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google. If all the links pointing to your site are using one specific keyword phrase rather than just being the name of your company, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google. If people can't easily find what they came to your site to find, or if they keep going around in circles on your site, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google. If you have a number of sites all selling the same products when one would suffice, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google.
If you truly want to earn Google's trust, you (and your site) must be trustworthy. Stop trying to trick them into thinking your site is something it's not, and start making it be that something. Having a business and a website was never supposed to be easy. While Google had let most of the above slide for a long time, they really are putting their money where their mouth is now. So forget about trying to find the latest shortcuts and get to work!
Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen
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