If you read Internet marketing blogs or follow SEO news, you’ll notice story after story about how crazy the SEO world is getting.
One week, Google says your site needs an SSL certificate to rank higher. Not long after, it says that your ranking will drop if you’re not mobile friendly.
But beneath all of this, there is a strange story, one that almost seems like it’s from the pages of a George Orwell novel, involving a large monolithic organization, a group of rebel SEOs trying to outsmart the organization, and a group of citizens none the wiser to what’s going on. It’s the dark secrets of the SEO world.
Setting the Stage: Black, White, and Grey, Oh My!
In the SEO world, the types of tactics used are categorized as wearing different hats. There’s White Hat, Black Hat, and then the in-between, Grey Hat.
White Hat techniques are those which follow all rules set out by search engines. Many people look upon them as the do-gooders, following what is passed down to them as the “law of the search engines.”
Black Hat, on the other hand, are tactics that intentionally violate rules set out by search engines with the intent of gaming the system and artificially increasing a website’s ranking.
Then there are the Grey Hat techniques—a mixture of White Hat and Black Hat practices. While many of these tactics don’t explicitly break Google’s rules, Google isn’t too happy when they catch you. You’ll find the majority of SEOs stay somewhere in the Grey Hat area.
You can learn more about hat distinctions here.
Now that you know the different types of SEO, what exactly are these rules that Google wants you to follow?
How to Rank Higher… According to Google
Google has set out a list of best practices in their webmaster guidelines. It covers design, technical, and quality guidelines.
The quality guidelines are where you’ll find Google’s rules for ranking well in their search engine.
You can view the entire list here, but to summarize the main points:
- Build your site for your users, not for search engines
- Don’t do anything to try and trick search engines
- Make your websites stand out from your competition
- And finally, and this is the big one, don’t participate in any link schemes
The link schemes are important, because the primary ranking factor in Google is how many high quality links you have to your website.
So what Exactly is a Link Scheme?
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
Google goes on to say that this includes buying links, exchanging links, or large-scale article marketing or guest posting with keyword rich links back to your site.
As you can see, this definition is very broad, and is why many SEOs practice Grey Hat techniques. For instance, if you start a campaign to reach out to influencers and tell them about your website and ask for a link back to your site, is this considered “behavior that manipulates links to your site”?
You may say, “Well, hey, Google is telling us exactly what it is looking for. Why don’t we just follow these rules?”
That’s where things get messy in this Orwellian tale.
What Happens When You Follow Google’s Rules… and What Happens When You Break Them
In an ideal world, if you played by Google’s rules, you’ll begin to see your website rank higher and higher.
Sadly, as real world examples show, this isn’t always the case. There are constantly SEOs and companies out there trying to game Google’s ranking system. Many times, it works. Which means that websites that are breaking the rules are outranking sites that follow the rules.
This creates a nasty Catch-22: If you follow the rules, you’re likely to get outranked by someone who doesn’t follow the rules. But if you break the rules, you are likely to get caught by Google and have your ranking lowered.
Let’s dive in to this more.
“I Followed the Rules, but Google Penalized Me”
I came across a story on WebmasterWorld.com written by a poster named MrHealthy.
Now, MrHealthy wasn’t very happy. He stated that he was abiding by all of Google’s rules: create great content that people will like and thus link to. Thereby, boosting his rankings.
The only rule he didn’t follow was trading links with other websites. But MrHealthy says that he traded links with “QUALITY, RELEVANT link partners.” In other words, they were were not spam sites, had high quality content relevant to MrHealthy’s own site, and were useful links to his readers.
But then, MrHealthy was hit with a penalty. He suddenly found that he couldn’t even rank well for his own trademarked name…he was all the way down on page 6.
And to make matters worse, MrHealthy was being outranked by sites that WERE spam sites. For his own website name!
Now, I’m not sure if this story is 100% accurate, but I do know that I have come across many people who have variations of this exact story. They follow the rules, only to find they are outranked by sites that are breaking Google’s rules.
It even happens to big time companies.
Websites That Broke the Rules and Rank High
Glen Allsopp from Viperchill.com wrote a series of posts where he analyzed different sites in different niches, primarily big brand sites. He found a number of cases in which websites that were breaking Google’s rules were outranking websites which followed Google’s rules.
One such article is Glen’s “SquareSpace vs Wix” article. In this article, Glenn analyzed the “website builder” niche and what sites were ranking high. This includes both SquareSpace and Wix.
At the time of his writing, Glen found that Wix, which was outranking SquareSpace, had a large number of links which had been purchased. As Google states, Paid Links are in direct violation of their rules. Yet Wix was holding the number one spot.
SquareSpace, on the other hand, did not have any paid links. Yet they were much lower in the search rankings.
Google tells us what we should do if we want to rank higher, but the Black Hat SEOs seem to win out.
I took a look through a number of Black Hat forums, and saw post after post of people asking, “Are black hat techniques working now, even after Google’s such and such update?”
And every time, everyone would jump in and say Black Hat will always work. No matter what Google tries, they said, Black Hat techniques will always evolve and help them rank higher.
That is the Catch-22 of SEO. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
But there is something most people don’t realize about Google…
The Truth about Google
Talk to a few SEOs and they will make Google seem like an evil empire (heck, I even do it from time to time out of frustration).
But the truth is, Google is a corporation, not a public service. And like any corporation, their goal is to make a profit, not to serve the public good.
That being said, there are cases when Google did go too far.
When Google Did Wrong
Google has had many cases brought against them for unfair practices. For instance, in 2012, the European Commission was looking in to allegations that Google “may allegedly be promoting its own services in search results ahead of others.”
“Google Inc. has agreed to change some of its business practices to resolve Federal Trade Commission concerns that those practices could stifle competition in the markets for popular devices such as smart phones, tablets and gaming consoles, as well as the market for online search advertising.”
In simpler terms: if you had done a Google search for movie times a few years ago, you might get a list of websites that show movie times in your area. You click on one of the sites, which likely had ads, and the site made money.
But then Google decided instead to show movie times right in their search results, right at the top of the results, thus keeping you on Google’s page and increasing the likelihood of Google collecting ad money. And those websites losing a ton of traffic.
In fact, Google’s Product Manager Bill Brougher said the following about pushing into these verticals:
“[W]hat is the real threat if we don’t execute on verticals? (a) loss of traffic from Google.com because folks search elsewhere for some queries; (b) related revenue loss for high spend verticals like travel; (c) missing opportunity if someone else creates the platform to build verticals; (d) if one of our big competitors builds a constellation of high quality verticals, we are hurt badly.”
And Benjamin Edelman, in Beyond the FTC Memorandum, said: “Rather than accept raters’ assessment that competitors had high-quality offerings that should remain in search results, Google changed raters’ criteria twice, finally imposing a set of criteria in which competitors’ services were no longer ranked favorably.”
Now, again, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Wow, Google really isn’t this amazing entity I thought it was.”
But let’s look at this from another point of view for a moment.
When Google Does Good
Let me start by saying this: I’m more or less a capitalist. I believe that when a company seeks profits, the majority of time it does good for the world (this isn’t always the case, but that is a whole other discussion).
In its quest to seek profit, Google is also making the web a better place.
Nate Dame recently wrote an amazing article in which he states that Google’s end goal is ad space revenue, but in doing so, they are creating a better user experience.
Let’s take the last example of Google displaying movie times. Many website owners, especially those who own websites that display movie times, may say Google is an evil corporation just out to make more money.
But from the user’s standpoint, when all they have to do is enter what movie they want to see and Google shows the times right away, that’s a much better user experience.
In fact, when Google introduced this feature, I found it much easier to find movie times.
Let’s also consider Google’s recent Mobile Friendliness algorithm update. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Google basically said if your site is not mobile friendly, it will drop in rankings.
Many website owners were up in arms against Google, stating this wasn’t fair.
But think about it from the end user point of view. A majority of users are accessing the web from mobile devices. And if websites aren’t mobile-friendly, the web becomes harder to use.
In fact, every algorithm update Google has made has helped end users with one goal: to find the information they are looking for that is high quality, relevant, and easy to access. This includes weeding out sites with bad links, insisting sites be faster and mobile friendly, and dropping rankings for sites with low quality content.
Yes, not every update goes without a hitch and some high quality websites do get hurt in the process, but in the end, the end-user comes out with a better experience.
So this brings up the question everyone always asks:
Is this the End of SEO?
I don’t think there ever will be an end to SEO.
I believe though that SEO has been changing and will continue to change and evolve.
If you choose to participate in either Grey or Black Hat techniques, you need to understand the risks involved and stay on top of what works and what doesn’t.
Glen Allsopp from Viperchill gives the best advice for SEO.
“Continue to focus on what you find is working, rather than what any organisation (e.g. Google) or SEO claims to be the strategy to follow. Never jeopardize a client for the sake of a quick win. The people who thrive in this business are equal parts testers and equal parts action takers. You can’t use one part of that equation properly without the other. Don’t think about what I would do; do what you think is right.”
My opinion differs slightly. While many of these tactics work now, they won’t work forever. And while staying purely White Hat may not lead to the results you want, that is ok. Because as Nate Dame said in his Search Engine Land article, SEO should not be a standalone activity. Just like any other marketing task, it should be combined with others: advertising, public relations, social media, email marketing etc.
When you do combine your marketing, you’ll find synergy. For instance, starting a public relations campaign will lead to links to your site, which leads to more traffic, which leads to higher rankings, which leads to even more traffic.
In the end, Google will do what it wants to do, no matter how much we whine. So you can’t rely solely upon search engines.
I’m going to conclude this article with a passage from Nate’s article, as it is so spot on and I wish so many website owners will take this to heart:
“Delighting users always wins. It works with Google’s long-game for better results now, and it will build a brand audience that will stick with you for the long haul—no matter what Google does.”