Wait, what? No, seriously with all the recent changes with Google’s algorithm, I’ve been trying to help customers and prospects understand how this may, or may not affect them. I seem to have stumbled on an analogy that works with many of the businesses I talk to, so; let’s boil things down to basics. (Professional SEOs may want to tune out now).
Search engine optimization is, at its core, about helping the search engines do their jobs of indexing and categorizing Web pages. The search engines act as the governing body and want an equal playing field so only the best results win – much like NASCAR.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with NASCAR, the rules standardize car body design, safety systems, engine size and specifications to theoretically make the race about driver and team skill. Those with the best drivers and pit crews should win – all things being equal. The cars should have the same aerodynamic drag, weight, and the engines should have the same spec parts and dimensions and produce the same horsepower. So how is it that certain teams always seem to be on top? Is it the drivers alone? Are the pit crews that much better? Hold that thought…
So, back to SEO, professional SEOs have a very good understanding of the fundamental ranking factors that Google and Bing/Yahoo! use to index and rank your website. Professional optimizers know the technical aspects of site construction, URL canonicalization, xml sitemaps, and so on. SEOs know that creating quality content, i.e. keyword targeted copy that people want to read, is crucial to proper indexing. SEOs know that quality, authoritative backlinks and citations are a key component to the site gaining authority and, thus, improving rankings. So if all things are equal, why is your site still nowhere to be found?
Now comes the fun part. In the early years of NASCAR, cheating came easy. Officials didn’t really enforce the rules if the racing seemed fair. With the advent of the “Car of Tomorrow (COT)”, everything became much more standardized and attempts to experiment “within the rules” have often led to stiff penalties and rules changes. The COT was supposed to level the playing field, keeping team costs down and improving natural competition making it harder and less enticing to cheat.
To put it bluntly, in auto racing, people cheat and cheat a lot. NASCAR started paying attention. Teams flared fenders to make the cars infinitesimally more aerodynamic, put weights on the inside the wheels to get the car up to legal weight (then swapped out the weighted wheels at the first pit stop), and pulled all kinds of other dirty little tricks to keep their cars on the bleeding edge of the rules. That is, until the rules changed or, more commonly, the governing bodies stopped feigning ignorance of the cheating and started penalizing those who strayed too far out of the black and white.
This is exactly what has happened with Google’s Panda and Penguin updates. All things being equal, a Web site with good quality content, that is regularly updated, is well coded, has naturally acquired high quality backlinks should, typically, rank well in search. The problem was, too many SEOs strayed into the great abyss of “gray”. Knowing full well that sooner or later, Google (et al) would ultimately decide the legality of their tactics, SEOs risked client site rankings on shortcuts, tricks, and gaming the system.
With Panda and Penguin, Google has essentially given SEOs a “Car of Tomorrow.” Throwing thousands of poor quality links at a site through blog and directory spamming not only doesn’t help a site improve rankings and more, but sites may now punished for these tactics. Google has always said that it rewards quality content and its terms of service (TOS) have always tried to keep SEOs on the straight and narrow. Entire segments of the SEO world have devoted themselves to figuring out how to cheat the system and tactics, techniques, and developed software platforms aid them in their shenanigans. Assuming these companies actually care about their clients, they are desperately trying to figure out how to salvage years of ill-gotten gains. At least for now, the playing field is leveled.
Takeaways? SEO is not cheap, quick, nor easy. SEO takes real hard work, discipline, and playing by the rules. While not necessarily the quickest path to the winners circle, building your site’s rankings legitimately is a whole lot easier than justifying to your boss why your site is no longer getting any traffic and sales are suffering.