October 5, 2011
When I teach my "how to" SEO classes, I begin by telling the students all the things that SEO isn't. I've always felt that it was important because they're often expecting to hear some secret formula for SEO success. And why wouldn't they, with all the myths and outright wrong/bad information that constantly swirls through the SEOsphere? When I finish telling them that everything they thought was SEO really isn't, they stare at me with their mouths hanging open. So I tell them what SEO actually is:
Making your website the best it can be for the search engines and your site visitors.
Unfortunately, that doesn't do much to alter their blank stares. After all, it's an incredibly open-ended definition of SEO. Still, it's the only one that truly encompasses what good SEO is all about, as well as why you need to do it. While my method of how to SEO has always been based on that principle, more people are coming around to it in the wake of Google's Panda Algorithm.
Pre-Panda, many people built thriving businesses using the following basic how to SEO process:
They'd repeat the process hundreds of times with different types of products, and then run on autopilot. While it might not have worked on every site they created, the sheer volume of websites they ran would be enough to make them a decent living.
So maybe there was a secret formula after all?
Perhaps, but after Google's Panda Algorithm was implemented, many (but not all) who followed and succeeded with that formula for years suddenly lost a good chunk of their revenue.
My own speculation, based on numerous websites that I've reviewed where this happened, is that Google finally decided that there needed to be more to a website than having "SEO in all the right places." And it makes sense. Why should one site do better than another just because they read up on how to SEO and knew the best places to stick their keywords? It shouldn't. And by allowing exactly that to happen, Google was enabling sites with old-fashioned, by-the-book SEO to beat out potentially higher quality websites.
The result was that Google not always giving their own users (the searchers) the best, most relevant sites for the search query at hand. Don't get me wrong, I'm not totally blaming Google here. It has to be a daunting task for a machine to know the difference between an okay (but great with SEO) site and a great (but perhaps not so great with SEO) one. Especially when so much of how Google tried to determine relevancy and quality was based on links – and even more on anchor text. It simply became too easy to game that system.
Giving Google What They Wanted
I certainly understand and even empathize with those site owners who've lost a significant portion of their income. They were just giving Google what it wanted. And because it worked so well, they had no reason to go above and beyond their basic formula. Why build a brand for your company when a keyword-rich domain would provide a better return on investment? Why spend time becoming an expert in your industry and educating your target market on the intricacies of your products when you could hire someone to write low-quality "SEO articles" and submit them to article directory sites instead?
Interestingly enough, many of the business owners I've talked to who have been getting by with formula SEO all these years have told me that they have tons of happy customers. Yet there are no obvious signs of this online, such as glowing reviews on Google Places or other online review sites (there aren't bad ones either). How are customers even supposed to remember the name of a company called something like WoodAndMetalDiningRoomChairs.com? (I just made that one up.)
Mainly, customers found these websites through Google, made their purchase and received their merchandise. There's nothing wrong with that, but there was also no personal connection made. This is further illustrated by the fact that if you look at social media sites, you won't see much chatter about these companies. In fact, many of them don't even use social media, or simply have cursory accounts. Again, they didn't need to.
No Marketing Budget
A marketing person, plan, or budget was never necessary nor even a consideration. Sadly, for those companies, they don't have much choice anymore if they want to stay in business. But ironically, now that they really need a marketing budget, there's no money in the till to go toward it.
If I've just described your business and websites – even if you haven't lost a portion of your revenue (yet), you may have thought you could hire a new SEO company to mix in a little extra SEO mojo and fix up your Google problems. But while they might find some on-page or off-page things you could be doing better, I wouldn't count on that to bring back your lost traffic and sales.
So what should you do?
You need to seriously rethink your online strategy. You need to stop saying, "Well, it always worked for me in the past." You need to build a brand and you need to market the heck out of it. You may even need to consolidate all your related keyword-rich domain websites into one big brand website. (Don't do that last one without consulting a professional.) You need to learn everything you can about social media marketing and start doing it. You need to get in contact with your happy customers and ask them to write reviews online as well as to evangelize about you to everyone they come in contact with. You need to also keep in contact with them in a variety of ways.
All of those things are going to make a much bigger difference over the long haul than rewriting your title tags or adjusting your keyword density. The big takeaway here is that while your website may already be the best it can be technically for search engines, it's time to make it the best it can be for your users. Both parts of that equation are equally important. It's not going to be quick or easy, but if you want to stay in business, it's probably going to be necessary.
Update March 16, 2012: It looks like Google is moving further towards punishing sites that they deem to be "over SEO'd" according to Google's Matt Cutts. All the more reason to go above and beyond old-fashioned SEO.