12 Uncomfortable Contradictions of SEO
Search Engine Optimization — SEO — has been around as long as search engines. Appearing first (or at least in the first page of results) for a search term funnels free traffic — lots of traffic in the case of commonly searched keywords and phrases — which translates more or less directly into business profits. Ranking, and hence SEO, is big business. This makes it a serious topic for trying to understand, and for trying to scrutinize those who want you to pay them because they say they understand.
SEO has grown up from a set of tricks into a skillset, knowledge area, and eventually a specialism for people involved in marketing. Larger companies have the kind of money and institutional laziness that gives rise to an agency ecosystem: their SEO needs (budgets) are increasingly met (consumed) by service offerings of specialised SEO firms.
This SEO industry is getting ever more “professional”: creating its own dictionaries of jargon; spawning multiple sub-specialist roles within the SEO specialism; and presenting a polished, slick, simplified image of smartness and efficiency to the world.
However, SEO on the inside is anything but slick and polished, and I am going to address some of the fundamental contradictions inherent in SEO today, that I believe everyone in the industry is uncomfortably, silently aware of. I feel these “uncomfortable truths” create a constant cognitive dissonance just under the surface of SEO’s polished “we’ve got it solved” marketing image. Ironically, the way people have repeatedly proclaimed the death of SEO can perhaps be seen as evidence of wishful thinking from within the SEO world about how they would like to escape the hypocritical, dissonant hell of this so-called discipline.
This article is addressed both to the insiders of the SEO industry (performing or marketing their SEO services) and to the clients of those services considering their options. I assume familiarity with the basics of what is involved in SEO practice.
- Anything actionable anyone will teach you about SEO is already ineffective.
If any one tactic or combination of activities work to rank your pages and site, you won’t tell anyone about it. The information is too valuable. Therefore anything you are ever being told about SEO, barring very expensive private seminars, will at best be something that is out of date, or not working very well because of being “out of the bag”. Of course, this doesn’t stop there being a gigantic hot-air industry of people claiming to teach you stuff about SEO which they’ve heard third or fourth hand from other people recycling hot air from stuff they’ve never seen to be effective (recently) let alone actually proven by their own application (because if it worked they would be busy making money, not telling you about it.)
- But SEOs almost never talk specifics anyway. We pay for tactics and results: from SEOs we get strategic hot air and moralizing.
Clients of SEO agencies, and managers of SEO teams, want specific, measurable results that can be rated with an ROI. SEO folk respond by offering high-level strategy and pushing back for a broader responsibility scope under a more holistic marketing philosophy. What does this tell us?
- The more SEOs make themselves out to be masters of a complex art, the more it is evident how bogus it all is.
SEO folk are at pains to educate everyone that SEO has changed and isn’t a straight input/output game (see ROI, point 2). In their (voluminous) explanations, this is about making SEO more ethical, holistic, sustainable, integrated, insert idealistic buzzword here. In actual fact, the more SEO folk talk like this, the more they are broadcasting that SEO is not something they can do in an effective, finite, controllable way, and therefore (as we hear it) not something we want to invest resources in. (Unfortunately for SEOers there are plenty of other things in marketing you can spend money on, which are much more established in terms of professional offerings and dependable results.)
The same comments go for the wave of indignation and self-righteousness that inevitably accompanies every apocalyptic Google search algorithm update (cutely named after animals like Penguin and Hummingbird): the SEO industry chatters a lot in a (generally industry-internal) publicity exercise but the impression on the non-SEO world is negative… it just highlights how difficult it is to stay effective in intentional SEO practices, if indeed (we wonder) any of them were that effective before the change…
- SEO is only about one search engine.
The term “SEO” is itself a disingenuous piece of jargon because virtually all SEO knowledge and practice pertains to Google… which is commercially sensible so far because of its utter dominance in traffic funnelling terms. You can sit through entire day-length SEO conferences without anyone mentioning Google: the state of denial is quite funny as everyone is posturing that they are scientists of “search” instead of just altar-boys of Google (with everything that image implies). Just try to have a conversation with an SEO guy about any other search engine… let alone the technologies and difficulties underlying search engines generally… blank stares. In fact, the euphemism “SEO” has had the extended effect that young people coming directly into readymade SEO-industry specialist jobs are genuinely unaware that whatever small part of the puzzle they are working on is JUST about gaming Google. It would be no exaggeration to say most programmers and most paid-search bidders understand more about (respectively) how search works, and how keywords work, than a full-time SEO.
However, the monopoly supremacy of Google is an early-stage-of-internet aberration and is ripe for disruption. No other industry, historically, can keep up this lack of competition, and Google is not going to be exempt from the market. (Quite a lot of Google improvements can be understood in the completely rational light of putting up barriers to search competition even before any real competition exists.) There will be a Cambrian Explosion of search alternatives very soon. Consider the potential of a free (both beer and speech), open source, distributed search solution: the switching cost away from Google is pathetically low. Whatever Google alternatives are coming up, it is impossible for any self-professed SEO expert to be ready for them. At any speed of catch-up, the diversification of consumer search options and growing complexity of the AI behind search indexing and search results (in the face of untechnical and narrow-skilled personnel) will mean that it is going to be impossible to maintain a practical skillset for deliberately improving search rankings in all the different places and engines or even just enough of them.
- SEO is not really a discipline or a knowledge area: it is all just based on vague guesswork and whispers. It is much closer to a faith than a science.
This is something that is not even under cover much: clearly, almost all commentary about how google search works, and therefore what to do to influence your search position, is just guesswork. Google’s workings are secret, and probably are way beyond the point even within that company where any single person can fully explain the algorithm in a way that maps predictably onto its real-world performance. Besides, Google is a for-profit ‘evil corporation’ and so the black box of its search result service can be safely assumed to serve the interests of paid search (and growth / sustainability of revenues from it) first, and everything else second. In any case, as I’ve said, nobody knows how it works exactly and nobody is going to know. So the entirety of SEO knowledge is based on anecdotal evidence and pure speculation about how inputs/outputs for the (ever changing) Google black box work, and (see point 1) any powerful tactics that are discovered are hardly going to be shared round for everyone to test for themselves. Furthermore, the SEO industry is not a place of controlled experimentation, I suppose because of the high cost (and reputation risk if not done very carefully) of undertaking systematic experiments… and so (again) the point that anyone with the budget to undertake such experiments probably will do this only for his own advantage, and if/when he finds out useful things, it is in his interests to keep secret. SEO is probably the biggest industry after the Catholic Church for big talk, big following, and big business without actually having any genuine access to the God — I mean Google — that is both the source of their life and object of their intended manipulation.
- If SEO is not dead yet, Google is on the case. It is in Google’s interests to fight and destroy SEO, and indeed it is doing so.
Whatever SEOs say about ethical, white hat, organic etc practices, the contradiction remains that all intentional SEO activity is a form of gaming the system: a system that Google neither wishes to reveal the workings of, nor intends to allow anyone to exploit. Obviously, SEO is and has always been an arms race, and Google (as SEOs will happily inform you, see point 2) is winning. The fact that Google’s manpower and PR effort in connecting with the SEO industry (Matt Cutts is the face of this) is called the “Spam Team” tells you everything. Therefore, as an expensive and allegedly developing professional industry, SEO is actually nothing more than attempting (quite rationally from a business point of view) to fight our way up inorganically against the ever-increasing anti-manipulation “immune system” of Google (which as well as AI involves a large amount of Mechanical-Turk-like human-AI intervention behind the scenes in Google)… a battle which can never be won and is not even considered legitimate by Google in the first place. Even the whitest hat SEOs live in fear of being “slapped”… isn’t the word perfect?
(Of course Google’s position, exemplified in its Webmaster Guidelines, is all pure hypocrisy… as if ranking is and will be just a matter of good content without sinful optimization. Yeah right…)
- Even without Google’s improving abilities in preventing SEO, SEO just destroys itself.
Even if Google was not as active in battling SEO, the practices of SEO and the tooth-and-nail competition of companies employing SEO would just kill the whole thing. With only one No.1 position for a search term, and an ever increasing value of ranking there (from expanding online population and improved monetization over time), SEO activities start out being inflationary as more and more people compete with ever bigger guns, and eventually become self-defeating as only the best-resourced and best-monetizing companies can continue to rank (of course regardless of ‘pure’ standards of human relevance compared to other content that could be served up). I would argue this has already happened to ‘organic’ SERPs in most general keyword spaces despite Google’s activity in fighting back at the SEO it can classify algorithmically. Most certainly such a competitive self-destruction of the market has already happened in Google Adwords (paid search results), which only a more explicit version of the ‘organic’ results in the sense of budget easily trumping quality and relevance. Advertising will always do this (when allowed and before the consumers move on to less spammed locations), and SEO is actually just another arm of advertising.
Regarding the competitive destruction and increasingly commercial nature of ‘organic’ search, once again the SEOs’ own propaganda backs me up: everything about long-term content marketing, plus the “social SEO” ideas of community building for traffic stickiness and approval signals… all just go to make SEO much more expensive in a way that only the big investors can play. SEO used to be the “free” marketing domain of the one-man business and the multifunctional startup marketer… now it would not be reasonable for small companies to prioritize SEO compared to other marketing areas.
The question will increasingly be asked by the bigger businesses too though, as the inflation and market destruction continues: “do we really want to pay our way into this game, and then pay more and more to stay in the game?”… when (a) the whole point of SEO was supposed to be cost-effectiveness, and (b) paid promotions (aka the whole well-established world of advertising) deliver exactly what businesses are asking for (see point 2) i.e. fast and easily quantifiable results.
- Despite Google being opposed to the inorganic principle of SEO, they are also hypocritically in bed with it.
Two examples: firstly, Google recently used a Chairman-Mao-like ploy (look up “Hundred Flowers Campaign”) to crowd-source spam link pages/domains from the best possible source: the SEOs who were using these link sources … they successfully scared SEOs into “coming clean” and turning in these sources… aka “disavow links”.
Secondly, a current  “best” (and “white hat”) practice in SEO is to publish content in ever more complex human-invisible XML-like markup (see schema.org). This is a patently “technical” and “inorganic” SEO practice. This benefits human users only indirectly because of it helping Google classify, interrelate, and spew back up content in search. You are simply making your text easier to categorize and vectorize for a computer. There is really very little reason to mark up with schema (and similar) except for intentional SEO purposes, and indeed only the SEO community are really on the case so far purely because of the supposed effectiveness of doing so for search ranking.
What both of these cases have in common is that Google is working in full knowledge of the existence of an inorganic SEO industry, and sourcing benefits to itself both from these people’s knowledge and from their (inorganic, non-human-focused) technical publishing optimization activity. In the la-la land of search engine idealism (propounded by Google) no inorganic or technical optimization of content or formatting should ever need to take place: only optimization that is directly relevant to the human consumer in front of the browser (in a number of situations of device and accessibility needs, the latter point famously ignored by Google in most of its UI). In fact, Google has engaged in a secret, indirect, and plausibly deniable interaction and feedback cycle with dedicated SEOs from the start, because doing so has enabled it to shortcut the process of serving up much more relevant search results while the AI in the background catches up to more human ways of consuming and relatively ranking content.
Probably a lot of parallels could be drawn between Google vs SEOs and the relationship of software firms with all-spectrum-hat-colours of hackers and crackers. After all, many of the most effective SEO tricks have not been reverse-engineering of known intended algorithm principles, but actually zero-day algorithm bugs that are gleefully exploited for as long as possible until patched.
- Google is dissolving what search is.
Search as a simple-to-define usage path based on desktop browser, typed-text-input form, in a dedicated search website, as a default first-action for internet entry, with a neat set of 10 results, is dissolving. Most interesting recently has been Google’s rapid adaptation to voice search …actually consumer-pioneered by the effective voice recognition and AI of Apple iOS Siri. Google’s voice-search thinking has influenced all of the search system, in which it is clear how the original concept of a single meaning keyword search is no longer good enough. For instance, Google responds to voice search with chains of interpretation based on the previous search, so you cannot know the “meaning” of the search unless you have the prior search context and some AI guesswork what the person means. Voice search is also destined to change keywords (which include phrases) completely, as people naturally express themselves differently this way than in typing.
Prior to voice search, we already had substantial “flavouring” of Google search results with local (national and current location) weighting, social signals, and (increasingly) personalized results based on whatever Google thinks it knows about you… all these “dissolve” search in the sense that nobody is getting the same results, and SEOs understand even less about which keywords are ranking (let alone why). In fact, this dissolution means there is no longer much sense in talking about a “rank” or “position” for any keyword.
SEO “deliverables” are supposed to be measured by the “position” of your content for a searched “keyword” among “results”. It is not just “position” which is losing meaning. The improving AI of the things-not-strings approach to synonyms / disambiguation / context mean that it is hard to say what “keyword” really is any more.
And as for the “results” that Google serves you, consider universal search and the clear indications Google is suffering conflict of interest by actually moving into content provision within the search results (the famous “swiss army knife” quotation anyone?): knowledge graph, information snippets, and Wolfram Alpha style info blocks, if not actual content such as insurance comparison and medical advice.
On the meaning of “keywords”, SEOs, in a wonderful example of Sour Grapes, are justifying Google’s “not provided” apocalypse (in which the search terms which bring you traffic from Google are no longer revealed in Google Analytics, under the pretext of security/privacy) by saying “well these keywords don’t mean anything any more anyway because we don’t have the context”… back to point 3, SEOs will always be the first to explain to you how utterly lost they are!
- Search itself is losing relevance, relatively.
In point 9 I said Google is dissolving the simple search, and in point 4 I speculate that Google’s utter monopoly of search is unsustainable. In fact, both Google’s changing approaches to search and the disruption of Google’s dominance are both just inevitable outcomes of fast-evolving user behaviour, where we see early internet user behaviour patterns changing more rapidly than any one company or solution can keep up. (We are definitely seeing a Ray Kurzweil style acceleration of the pace of paradigm shifts in technologies within internet software, devices, and online behaviours… no coincidence of course that Google just hired him.)
We already have a situation that a lot of our search-type actions online are not performed through search engines per se but through narrower verticals: familiar examples are product searching in Amazon and eBay, brand and interest searches in Facebook, people and business searches in Linkedin, movie searches in IMDB and Rottentomatoes, Wikipedia searches to find out about anything, video searches in Youtube (and our favourite torrent client!), location and point-of-interest searches in our favourite map (likely an app), and stock searches in our favourite financial information site or app. These are all things we could do using Google as an entry point, but there is no reason to do so if we already know something that is closer to our needs without the added clicks and distractions of all the other search results and the ads.
Another example: Google’s Chrome browser combining URL-entry in the “magic” address bar with search was, when it came out, a nice usability idea that almost certainly grew out of the head-scratching of internet folk watching the vast hordes of the tech-incompetent continuously enter URLs into search forms (i.e. your not so elderly relative would get to Yahoo by firing up a homepage of Google, and googling for www.Yahoo.com, and then clicking on the search result). This decision will prove useful to Google in future, because the reverse is now the trend, i.e. instead of going to search to find their way to a URL, people are familiar off the top of their head with a large range of direct-input domain names for different usage intentions, and the search is only there as a fallback not as a primary point of entry to an online task.
A generic search engine, in my view, will come to seem merely like a safety net when you have no idea where to start. Google, like Yahoo and AOL before it, tries to gather everything and everyone into its hub as a launching point for everything online (and return often for every task!), but actual user habits move strongly away from this over time. Reinforcing this effect, increased knowledge and experience levels in internet users will mean these users are aware of the definitely inorganic and commercial basis of search engine results, so you have a new impediment of trust / caution in using search, in a way that didn’t exist in the more innocent beginnings of using search. Letting Google paternalistically tell us what the best results are, via a completely opaque and increasingly untrustworthy system, will seem less attractive compared to a wide variety of better, more open solutions springing up.
So, on the one hand, we have a more savvy internet population flying off into other big verticals for specific search needs and in the long tail into lots of more specific applications. On the other hand, and this is my more major point here, search as a behaviour is diminishing in importance. As a proportion of time using online things, pure information-seeking is only the most minor and short-lived bit of web usage, compared to the time we rack up watching video, playing games, chatting, sharing lolcats, consuming news and chatter, and generally multitasking ourselves to a blissful state somehow combining ADHD and vegetative paralysis. (I do love it.)
The importance of all the entertainment, quasi-entertainment, and outright addictive connections to internet resources is only growing in importance and variety… Ultimately, the significance of search, and thus the commercial value of competitive ranking in search, is being squeezed ever smaller over time, and (as above) when we do have something that qualifies as a “search” action, it won’t be in the central encyclopedic AOL/Yahoo/Google/Dial-0-for-operator start page, but will be in specialized sources of AI and locations of trust.
- SEO cannot possibly optimize for the wider future of search.
In points 2 and 3 we saw how SEOs are themselves the biggest publicists of the ineffectiveness of SEO. In point 4 we saw that SEO is actually just about Google not “search engines” and (in point 5) even then it is all just guesswork without serious experimental backing. In point 6 we saw that Google is actively trying to destroy SEO and is winning, and in point 9 it is now a moot point “what is search?” Now contrast the sum of all those trends with the fact that your paid SEO expert still begins her process by calling up a keyword search tool, assembling a list of “achievable” keyword “targets”, and then undertaking cycles of “campaigns” to pump up the ranks of existing or new pages for those keywords. How much evidence is the SEO industry really showing of evolving fast enough to demonstrate tactics (let alone proven RESULTS) in optimizing for the vastly more complex world of search we are already diving into? If the answer is “awesome content”, just how much quality and quantity of content is it going to take? Clearly that kind of tactical amplification approach won’t work. (It will take a lot of time and burn a lot of budget… so all still on-message for the SEO agencies then.)
In point 4 I said there will be too many search engines for SEO to optimize in each, and in this point the problem is even more grave: it will not be feasible to optimize for many types of search at all.
(Incidentally we could point to the separate SEO hypocrisy that “old school” methods of keyword targeting are alive and well when it comes to the diminishing pool of less competitive search terms: this is not something the hip SEOs like to admit because, firstly, such “old school” SEO being effective also means it is accessible to companies using -gasp- cheap SEO services from India and the Philippines, and, secondly, because saying that an SEO tactic is ineffective because of SEO competition — not because of the algorithm — hints at the numbers-game, inflationary, arms-race reality of SEO that means, as the guy paying for it, you can never win.)
- SPAMMING STILL WORKS!!
Finally, we come full circle to a cognate point to my first assertion. Black hat SEO techniques are alive and well. They are not ethical, not sustainable, and are risky… but they work and the money you can make from good rankings on good keywords mean it’s a big — and invisible — industry. I have seen startling things from black hat SEO that, according to the (see point 5) faith-based guesswork of mainstream (hot-air-hat) SEO, should not be possible. The Google algorithm can still totally be gamed, in places. How effective and widespread are black hat SEO practices? Probably more effective, in more places, than anyone can possibly know… these are all isolated guys with an interest in secrecy! But at least we can see for ourselves if we dig a bit in the forums and more short-termist world of affiliates and even self-described spammers.
This is not to mention simply going out with your chequebook and having private conversations with the guys offering services, who will usually show off quite a lot of what they are doing — and ironically are better at showing systematic experimental / causal proof of their methods than any white hat SEO salesman I have ever seen.
My point is that black hat SEO (still) exists, is (still) widespread, and is (still) effective. It is uncomfortable for SEOs generally because taking umbrage at the breaking of the “rules” begs all the questions of the ethics and logic of their industry… which, as I have said, is not really founded on more than using vague guesswork (and snake oil) to work against Google while Google resists but actually learns from you, and the whole thing works less and less over time.
Thus, the second discomfort about black hat, for white hat SEOs, is that they secretly wish they had the power of a few of those black hat tricks. In SEO circles you will always have interesting controversies around the fringes, where some trick has previously been rationalized to be “acceptable” and now, shock horror, is not considered kosher, usually coming into public discussion quite a long time after it ceased working (because of being publicly known).
The frisson of SEO therefore lies in the hope of overhearing some trick that ACTUALLY WORKS… when they discover it, the desperate scramble to implement for all the benefit they can get (while it lasts) just shows how ineffective all the normal “organic” techniques were by comparison, and you can be sure none of them will be talking about something that useful and specific until after everyone knows and it’s stopped working…
SEO cynicism — realism — via @georgebaily