A Framework for Sustainable SEO in 2013 and Beyond

seo-into-the-future

 

2012 was a devastating year for many businesses that relied on Google to send visitors to their websites.

Major changes in the way that Google ranked websites saw businesses lose their high rankings in the search engines; and their high levels of free traffic disappear as well.

Google is now so adept at identifying behaviors that are designed to manipulate rankings now that the old way of doing search engine optimisation is not a sustainable strategy.

Below I provide some context and a framework to allow businesses to develop a sustainable seo strategy for 2013 and beyond

 

The SEO Arms Race

Prior to 2012 SEO, or search engine optimisation was akin to an arms race.

I remember reading Time magazine as a kid and poring over the info graphics that showed how many missiles Russia had and how many the Americans had and how many times over they could destroy each other.

What I learned from Time magazine was that the more money you invested in things, missiles, tanks, ships, (SEO?), the more likely it was that you would beat your opponent.

SEO used to be like that.

Anyone who had been in SEO for any period of time knew that to get high rankings all you had to do was get a ton of links from different websites.  In addition you tried to get the keyword that you wanted to rank for in the link pointing to your website.

So instead of “click here” you chased a link that said “Car Insurance”…which in reality is not how people link to each other.

So if I was selling “Car Insurance” for example, I wanted as many links with “Car Insurance” in the link pointing to my site.

The keyword in the link told Google what the page was about.

The number and strength of links told Google that the site was popular and so rankings would increase.

Because this was the way that Google worked, seo became a race to see who could get as many links using the right keywords as possible.

In SEO, typically it was a game of who had the most budget and got the most links won.

 

The $36,000 Keyword

Oh and how they did win.

A coveted #1 ranking typically sees anywhere from 15 to 40% of the available traffic for a specific keyword search.  A #10 ranking would be lucky to see 2% of the search activity.

So if your website did not rank on page 1 your saw very little of the free or organic traffic from Google.  You had to pay to get traffic to your website.

You can place a value on a #1 ranking position in organic traffic by looking at how much that traffic would cost you if you had to pay for it.

Google already has a mechanism for valuing traffic in its Google Adwords system which allows you to pay to get visitors to your website.

These are the advertisements that you see on the top and right hand side of Google where you search for something.

Every time someone clicks on an ad, the advertiser gets charged for that click based on how much they bid for that click based on the keyword that the searcher used.

So, depending on how valuable the sales those keywords bring to a business, the more they would be willing to pay per click.

As long as the cost of acquiring a customer stays below the net profit, the logical thing is to keep increasing the price you would be willing to pay per click until the profit stops.

To give you an idea what some keywords are worth check out this blog post that lists the most expensive keywords in 2012.  http://www.fetch123.com/SEM/the-most-expensive-keywords-in-google.

“Mesothelioma Settlement” cost $142 per click to buy.  Google shows that keyword as having approximately 1300 monthly searches.  Lets say that you owned a website in position #1 and you received 20% of that search volume as clicks which is 260 clicks.
Then the value of that #1 ranking is 260 x $142 = $36,920 a month.

 The Beast Google Created

With this kind of value on the line it was never a moral or ethical decision to play hard in SEO.  It was a monetary one.

By placing a value on high organic rankings, Google effectively created an industry of participants skilled in manipulating the system to their own benefit.

The ability of seo’s to manipulate the rankings by scaling activities that pulling the levers of things that Google used in its ranking algorithm lead to the industrial scale creation of a cottage industry of tools, outsourcers and low quality content all designed to improve organic rankings.

 Why was it so?

You might be asking yourself why did Google let this go on so long.

Well they were certainly trying to clean things up as can be evidenced by the steady rollout of algorithmic updates that were designed to close loopholes.

http://www.seomoz.org/google-algorithm-change

Some seo practitioners saw the light early, knowing full well that Google was getting better and better at countering these manipulative activities and advocated quality content creation and social promotion of content, with the goal of attracting links.

But while the cost and effectiveness of doing things the easy, cheap and scalable way was low, these white hat advocates were always going to lose in the race to the top of the organic search results.

 The Beginning of the End

The beginning of the end came in June of 2010 with the rollout of the Google Caffeine Update.  This was primarily an update in Googles infrastructure, which allowed its computers to crawl websites much faster and update the organic results faster.

It demonstrated Google’s increased ability to analyse and process large volumes of data and gave them the ability to run and implement the algorithmic updates that were rolled out in 2011/2012 with such devastating effect.

The most high profile of these updates acquired the names Panda, and Penguin.

However they were neither fluffy or cute.

Hostorically, spammy activities typically did not penalise the site unless a manual review was done.  Spam either helped your site or was ignored by Google and had no impact.

However with Panda, Penguin and any of the 500 updates Google rolls out annually, we now have negative ranking factors where your site stands to get penalised automatically by the algorithm if it feels you have crossed some threshold.

And for the first time these updates looked not only at the way you link to your website but what also what you do on your site.

Penguin, for example looks at the way that you write your content, the way that you link internally to other pages, and the keywords you use in those links.

If you do anything on your website that is designed to manipulate organic search rankings, Google now has the mechanism to take you down.

 A New Beginning

Google tried for years to get people and businesses to do what they felt was the right thing.

In 2013 they finally have the ability to effect a change in people’s behaviour because they have given them an economic incentive to do so.

That incentive is “Do the right thing because doing the wrong thing will get you penalised and cost you money”

  • Doing things that are not done for humans will get you penalised
  • Doing spammy things that are cheap and easy and that used to work will get you nowhere.
  • Doing the things that do not attract real human interaction and social sharing of your content will not help you one bit.
  • In fact doing anything designed to manipulate the rankings is a risk.

 

Google has finally made the cost of doing the wrong things (according to Google) now more expensive than doing the right things.

A Sustainable SEO Strategy for 2013 and Beyond

You are probably thinking, “Thanks for the history lesson Edmund, now give us something actionable that we can use”

So here it is.

As a member of a digital agency to many large brands my mandate is to internalise these changes to the landscape and come up with an approach that will provide a long-term sustainable organic traffic strategy.

The challenge has always been to balance the risks of an aggressive strategy with the monetary gain that the strategy delivered.

With the state of Google in 2013 it is much easier to “preach from the bible” because trying to game the system may lead to short term gains but you will eventually get caught out when Google catches up with you.  And they will.

Large Brands already have an advantage.  Not simply because they are brands but because if optimised correctly the net result of their normal day to day operational and marketing activities can generate the things Google wants to see.

Real human sharing, visiting, linking to your website and its content.

 

The Framework

I’ve developed the following  framework to help you plan the activities that need to be done in order to ensure long-term sustainable organic search performance.

These include:

#1 Protect your website from Negative Ranking factors

#2 Focus on Improving the Technical Health of your website

#3 Get Competent with Social Media and Start building an audience

#4 Start thinking like a publisher

#5 Develop link attraction strategies unique to your business

In detail.

 

#1 Protect your website from Negative Ranking factors

The goal here is to asses the risk of past, current and future activities,  that might cause your website to get penalised.

And yes, like “smoking pot at college”, your past seo activities can comeback and bite you.

You need to make a risk assessment and if required implement some remedial action that might include:

  • Removing spammy back links
  • Stop buying links (very easy to spot)
  • Stop chasing keywords in your links
  • Rewriting content that could be considered keyword stuffed
  • Remove all of those footer links to internal pages with multiple keyword variations
  • Stop allowing your website content to be syndicated and published on hundreds of crappy blogs
  • Implement Google Authorship tags on your unique content to make sure Google knows that you are the original source and owner of your content, not the scraper blog that is using your content to build its site.

 

#2 Focus on Improving the Technical Health of your website

All of the money spent on getting people to your site is wasted if the site is down or runs slowly.

Invest time in improving your hosting, your security and your software with the goal being to improve the visitor’s experience.

Google has the ability to find external signals that allow them to measure user experience.

They have stated that site speed is one of the over 200 factors that are used to generate organic rankings.
Think about how you can ensure that the sites infrastructure can help influence these factors.

 

#3 Get Competent with Social Media and Start building an audience

Within five years people will look at a business that is not engaging with an audience via social media in the same way they would at a company that doesn’t use email.

Even me writing this section will be like me saying “Get a telephone installed so customers can call you”. Well duh!

Besides all of the customer service benefits and market insight a social media following gives you, having a large audience and especially an audience has its own benefits.

An active and passionate audience gives you the ability to directly promote your business and content in a way that generates a whole range of social sharing and linking that feed directly into Googles ranking mechanism.

So by “doing social” you are “doing seo”.  How Cool!

This whole social thing also means you should start participating in “Google Social”, which means Google Plus.

Yes I know Google + isn’t as huge as Facebook, but Google Plus isn’t about seeing what your friends did on the weekend.

Google Plus gives Google the ability to validate the linking activity around your website and content by overlaying it with the social sharing activity around it.

This means that not only do you have lots of links to your great blog, you have people talking about it in social media, clicking your “+1” buttons and sharing links in Google Plus.

#4 Start thinking like a publisher

Think about what a traditional publisher does.  They create content that appeals to a specific market that has similar problems, likes, needs and wants and then promote that content to the audience with the sole purpose of monetising the content.

We can all learn a lot from this model.

Business today needs to think about creating content (blogs, tweets, resources, whitepapers, videos, podcasts’) that appeal to a specific market (their prospective customers) that has similar problems, likes, needs and wants,  and promote the content to the audience (via social media, paid media, PR, Email etc) with the sole purpose of monetising it (by getting shares, links, improved organic rankings, visits and sales)

And if you are going to do this in the age of Google then make sure your content creators are on Google Plus and have their Google authorship in place.

 My opinion is that Google authorship is a dark horse that everyone is underestimating.

Google Authorship allows Google to attribute a measure of trust and authority to content creators.

The market is calling this Author Rank.

Here is how Google refers to the concept in one of their patents.

“The name of the writer can be used to influence the ranking of web search results by indicating the writer responsible for a particular content piece … Assuming that a given writer has a high reputational score, representing an established reputation for authoring valuable content, then additional content authored and signed by that writer will be promoted relative to unsigned content or content from less reputable writers in search results.”

This changes the content strategy for many businesses that are used to authoring the content on their websites.

Imagine leveraging the Author Rank of highly trusted, influential and authoritative authors who are invited to guest blog on your website.

The content, whilst authored by the guest author will get visibility in the organic search results, because of their trust and authority and traffic will flow to your website.  Most people don’t yet seem to get this concept.

Just imagine.

 

#5 Develop link attraction strategies unique to your business

Each of our businesses is unique, has different needs, restrictions and assets.  Not to mention the specific attributes of the markets within which they operate.

For your business you need to develop link attraction strategies that are repeatable, scalable (as much as is possible) and not against Google’s terms of service so as to ensure the longevity of the links.

Link attraction in 2013 is going to be inexorably entwined with content creation, traditional PR and social media activity as they all work together to get visibility, attract social sharing and ultimately links.

Maybe the term SEO is too restrictive in 2013 as the core competencies I’ve described above are quite broad.

There will always be a core part of the SEO skillset that requires a strong technical competency.

However the skill of link attraction is now more encompassing and includes PR and traditional marketing activities done with the endgame of attracting links in mind.

 

If you agree or don’t agree or just have another opinion please feel free to post them below.

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