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3 Hard Truths about SEO

At Pubcon last week, I noticed my teeth were starting to hurt. Turned out it was because I was grinding my teeth.

I’ve been a lot mellower of late, so it took me a little while to remember the sensation. It took me even longer to realize the cause:

The entire SEO industry, including me, is living in happy dreaming la-la land.

3 seo truths

Here are three hard truths we all have to come to accept if we’re going to continue to be a viable piece of the internet marketing picture:

1: It’s Still About the Keywords

I’m the first to protest that this isn’t about keywords. I insist to clients that we’re targeting topic areas. I train my team to focus on lots of long-tail terms.

But clients continue to ask about their rankings. And, with Google’s not provided going from “Oh, don’t worry, it won’t affect more than 10% of queries“ to “Where the hell did all my data go?!!”, our search data’s going to get more and more obscure.

50 percent?!!! Holy crap.

And, we all still thump our chests about that One Great Ranking We Got. Admit it. It’s OK.

So yeah, it’s still about the keywords.

Solution: Don’t make it all about the keywords. Talk about overall organic search. Compare branded to non-branded search via Google Webmaster Tools. Show overall revenue from search, and show improvement over time beyond rankings. Provide a more complete picture, so that clients get used to a more holistic view of search and marketing. And for God’s sake, learn to write.

2: Google Doesn’t Need Us

Understand that we and Google are on the same side of the see-saw. That means we have no leverage over them. So give up on the idea that we’re going to force Google to behave differently. Stealing a bit from Scott Adams: If you’re a soup cracker, you don’t stand up to a sand blaster.

I’m not saying Google hates us. They don’t. As long as we don’t muck up the rankings, I doubt they care about us at all. But we can all save ourselves some oxygen if we stop complaining about Google’s organic search changes, and stop pretending we can somehow influence Google to reverse algorithm changes.

Note: I do think the commercial world can influence Google. They’re the ones buying the advertising. The tipping point will come if advertisers get sufficiently ticked off that they buy fewer Adwords clicks. But we can’t make them do that.

Solution: Carry on. As long as the 900-foot-tall lizard doesn’t step on your house, you’re good.

Solution, 2: Don’t violate Google’s terms of service unless you’re willing to suck it up when your sites get obliterated.

Solution, 3: Google may get a hard smackdown from the US government. But that’ll take a while. And it may hurt us as much as it hurts Google. So don’t pray too hard for this one.

3: We’ll Continue to Fool Ourselves

Someone will always pop up and say,“I never have this problem with my clients, or I can attribute 100% of organic search revenue, man, what the hell’s your problem?!” And we’ll listen and take notes.

Now, I’m not, er, the most diplomatic of consultants. So I’m sure I’m less successful than many when it comes to convincing clients to pay less attention to keywords, or follow a different set of success metrics. At some point I inevitably get my Dr. House on and, without realizing it, burn, explode or otherwise disintegrate bridges.

But, as long as people type words into a little box, and then see pages listed according to the words they typed into that little box, this is going to be about the words, and the listings. And, as long as Google has a net worth of well over $200 billion (that’s enough money to buy 2,500,000,000,000 pencils, by the way), it’ll take more than angry SEOs to change their business model, their algorithms or anything else we care about.

Solution: Deal with it. Understand our role in the ecosystem: To improve our client’s bottom line. And enjoy the ride, because (on the bright side) things don’t look like they’ll change any time soon.



  1. Rob Woods October 24, 2012

    “Don’t violate Google’s terms of service unless you’re willing to suck it up when your sites get obliterated”

    Amen brother!

    You know you’re ranking because of a loophole Google would like to close. I know when I’m ranking because of a loophole Google would like to close. Make hay while the sun shines if that’s your strategy and suck it up when the Google finally closes the loophole.

    Stop whining when that easy tactic stops working. If you didn’t know it was going to stop one day, you should have.

  2. Doc October 24, 2012

    Suck it up, indeed, Ian – the whining does get a little tiresome, especially when coming from someone that had to know full well that they were walking on the wild side.

    I think you’re absolutely right with this, too: “…it may hurt us as much as it hurts Google.”
    In fact, it may be worse for us…

  3. Ian October 24, 2012

    That was something I brought up at Pubcon – my concern isn’t Google deliberately hurting the search industry. It’s them doing an old-style AT&T flame-out, getting broken up, and taking us down with them.

  4. Doc October 24, 2012

    Yep! And the heat they’re taking in Europe is substantial… probably more so, in the big picture.

  5. Rob Woods October 24, 2012

    Honestly I think that eventually a break up of Google is quite likely. They have tried to keep the divisions separate but if they pass a critical mass, and as politicians actually get familiar and comfortable with the web, I think it may be inevitable. I don’t think it will be on politicians’ radar though at least until a new “generation” of them is in power.

  6. Kumar October 25, 2012

    Being a SEO, its always fun & exiting. Google should love SEO’s more than their product developers, as we are the real testers of algorithm 🙂

    Our strategy explores their mistakes, all in all we are the one who were making Google perfect!

  7. best seo in ireland October 26, 2012

    brutal truth about SEO…perfectly right!!!!!

  8. Fernando Veloso October 28, 2012

    Hard to predict how we’ll fit into the “ecosystem” in 2-4 years. Take a minute to think ahead of the sheep and you’ll realize our future as “internet marketing strategists” can be a pain IF we (all) don’t create a solid industry with the ability to force Google to do some stuff we need – so we and Google can beat a new generation of millions of spammers. :sigh:

  9. @timothyalcock November 8, 2012

    Unless your in house and have full access to the funnel and in house lead handling its difficult to take responsibility for the clients bottom line.

    In an agency sense its better to let the client know that your role is to get relevant traffic promising bottom line increases can be risky.

    They need to work for you as much as you work for them.

  10. Will Adams November 9, 2012

    I agree with the opinion that keywords still matter. If this were true why pay some much attention to their use, and placement. My website title contains three carefully researched, and tested keywords that I know get 3 million + searches a month. When we search, we enter a “keyword or phrase”. We put keywords in our titles, descriptions, tags, and in the first paragraph of the body text. It’s still about the keyword!

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