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The Kind Of SEO I Want To Be

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I’ve had my share of SEO predictions fall flat on their face. But I remember distinctly sitting in the office of a VP in my former ‘big agency’ life (guessing around 2009), talking about how Google will have to move into identifying, comprehending, and processing intent, while finding new ways to judge popularity. PageRank was a great start, but it can’t scale. Our culture is completely online now – the Google algorithms, relativity speaking, can’t keep up.  It’s easy to forget Google isn’t magical.  They’re still a powerful but limited machine.

I would postulate on Google eventually looking at more abstract factors where good old fashioned online marketing campaigns could get recognized.  Where pieces and results of campaigns become crumbs that make up influence in aggregate.  Truth was, I was seeking internal support for expanding the SEO group’s output, instead of mild data crunching and producing thin, quick-and-dirty recommendations. In 2009 it seemed obvious that Google would eventually shut down “gaming the system” schemes – of which they recently did a reasonably good job (with some causalities).  It seemed to me that if anyone could understand programs to scale and distort, it’s Google.  It also felt like the routine tactics of SEO couldn’t last forever.  It felt like time to start getting creative.

I wanted to believe in the power of marketing effecting SEO.  Not just because that was my college background and interest, but because it seemed logical.  Marketing has shaped our culture.  Our culture is online.  Thus, Google needs to continue understanding the culture’s role and response in marketing.  In there lies understanding of the queries.

SEO Bus?I didn’t (and still don’t) think all SEOs need to be marketers.  Digital PR?  Not all SEOs use the same side of their brain but still remain pertinent.  It’s sensational to say, “the SEO industry must adapt to *THIS* or die!”  Like anything in any marketing channel, that’s awfully limiting. Defining rules and standards?  Not for me, I shake that kind of stuff off.  No person (or concept) is going to be able to drive the SEO bus alone.  The Magical Mystery Bus drives itself.

Where’s The Bus Going?

Let’s think about the clues we have at hand, which to me suggest a path towards SEO marketing.

Here’s the definition of marketing from the AMA.  “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

I really wish PPC didn’t get the label of search engine marketing (SEM).  It doesn’t seem to fit today.  It’s like when alternative music became mainstream – it became the alternative to what?  I would like to use the term search engine marketing for the concept of big ideas that Google notices, appreciates, rewards, and shares.  I want to impress Google by impressing their users first.  I’m not going to try to make up a new term (I have shame), but we refer to it at Greenlane as SEO marketing; a non-creative name for creative campaigns. It’s what I couldn’t convince a big agency of doing.

Here’s a couple very recent things we know:

They took away all our keyword-level data 

This is a raw nerve.  [not provided] is a jerk, but not that significant a change in my book. Lazy SEOs can now fully hide behind this when they tell their clients, “sorry – I can’t prove how awesome we are without keyword level data.”  Or, they can promote themselves to the client when total organic data is on the rise (even if it’s branded terms from some other online marketing channel in the other side of the house, where the SEO had no influence). There’s lots of posts floating around basically admonishing you from caring about this total loss since the “representational sample” we’ve been playing with was already soiled since October 2011. On that I totally agree.  When Annie Cushing called these keyword data remnants “junk data,” it’s not just because she’s proven, but because it’s common sense.  I do however disagree with the posts that scold you for ever caring about keyword data in the first place. That’s got to be tweetbait!

For me, I did like the remaining organic keyword data in at least one of the ways I liked all the organic keyword data.  I liked it as a unique source of inspiration and guidance. Those weird keywords you found that you wanted to immediately discount.  I got into the habit of analyzing them hoping to find a wormhole to another universe.  I loved the, “why the hell did Google think I was relevant to that, and why did people come to my site for it,” moments. This keyword data led to topic creations that flourished for not only my own site, but my clients as well.  However, this was quite limited – it was only important for the handful of possible topics you were already somehow relevant for in Google’s eyes, not the myriad of topics you could be relevant for in the demands of searchers.  You need to think the other possible topic universes are even richer in opportunity.

The keyword data was great to have, but it was a small sample of your actual opportunity. We have to adapt.


Google wants to be better an answering questions.  We assume it’s more than turning Google into what was supposed to be.  Every query is a question, so Hummingbird presumably is a good old fashioned Google engine update.  If Hummingbird’s value is to understand the meaning of the words, ” communicating, delivering….” for the value of “customers, clients, partners, and society at large” seems to be more important in my book. This suggests to me SEO is more about communication than ever before.  Content, as a general artifact, isn’t the king it used to be.  The topic that answers presumed query intent may be more valuable, and that takes some iteration to get right.  That’s certainly a content marketing principal.

Direct signals

Why does Google care about site speed?  Why do they care where ads are located?  DOM, bounce, hierarchy – whether Google infers or uses GA data is debatable (either Google is lying, or they’re not).  The bottom line is these are things I believe they should be looking at, but won’t make too prominent because they’re all game-able direct signals.  Until they can weed out bots artificially crawling a site and leaving footprints to emulate a visitor’s “happy, successful site session,” we might as well (at the minimum) look at these items as a usability feature to improve the visitors experience aside from Google.  As an SEO, we did a good job getting the traffic, but why should we stop there?  Why not make sure the material the searcher receives is indeed inline with their query.

Not all direct signals are cut and dry.  So maybe Google plusses don’t help you rank.  They sure help you figure out what your community likes; that could help you rank.

We’ve seen Google overcome a lot of garbage the last few years.  Sure, they blew up a few innocent communities bombing the bad guys, but they’re not afraid to make changes.  They’re wise to pull back on things that can backfire.  So with some technical site characteristics being a factor, it’s safe to think there will be more, no?  Help the conversation continue by helping the site improve.  In the meantime, take advantage of everything else and produce good communication that will maybe have its day in the sun when the algorithm catches up.

The Kind Of SEO I Have Become

The (re)launch of our agency came with many changes from my original launch as a sole proprietor in 2005.  From a partner, to employees, to 15 clients – it all brings different responsibilities.  Some Keith and I still need to learn.  Case in point – this week we lost our first client.  It was mutual.  We weren’t on the same page, and as part of our postmortem, I see why.  Where we are promoting the big picture ideas above, they were looking for the type of work I was doing in 2009 at the big agency.  Strictly keyword focused stuff.  I don’t want to say we evolved, because I don’t want it to downplay the significance of other SEO approaches, but we have organically morphed into something shaped by our personal 13 year SEO experience.  We are looking for clients that have morphed the same way we have.

We do creative things.  We consult with companies – hand in hand – to create and drag the right campaigns to the ground.  It’s all very much based in SEO, but in thinking of all the strategies and projects we have going on across our portfolio, I’m pretty excited to see where SEO goes.  I feel like we’re seated well.  I’m banking on it, so to speak.  I think this is one prediction that shows no sign of falling on its face, and something I hope all SEOs are taking a good hard look at from time to time.

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    The comments are do-follow. However, any comments that use keyword anchor text as the name will be removed.

    1. Steve
      October 4, 2013

      Fantastic post, Bill, which I can relate to heavily…

      “Case in point – this week we lost our first client. It was mutual. We weren’t on the same page, and as part of our postmortem, I see why. Where we are promoting the big picture ideas above, they were looking for the type of work I was doing in 2009 at the big agency.”

      I faced a very similar situation very recently. One of my first freelance clients had possibly given his own site both Panda and Penguin penalties, and when I talked about trying to repair the damage, he completely disagreed – his viewpoint was “no, we should keep [the dodgy stuff] going, otherwise we’ll lose rankings!” I tried extremely hard to help him to change his mind and to think of the long term, but he was adamant. In the end, it was a 3-month trial run anyway, which he didn’t want to renew and – quite frankly – neither did I. He too was of that 2009 mindset. I think he would’ve been happier with someone who dabbled in a little grey/black-hat rather than someone like me. But at the end of the day, it comes down to preference… There’s no shame in turning down a client or stopping continuing work with a client because you have different views on the work that should be done. It’s lose/lose if it continues, but win/win if the client finds someone else that they prefer working with, and you don’t have to work with them anymore. After all, you can’t win ‘em all…


    2. Gaz Copeland
      October 4, 2013

      Oh man #Sebald I totally hear you.

      I’m having some similar conversations where the topic is just title tags, keywords and rankings. I don’t mind telling you, that just doesn’t keep me interested for long any more.

      Whilst it’s still really important to have the the SEO boxes ticked I’m becoming more and more interested in social, CRO, content marketing and even paid ads (I know, sorry Bill.) Creating something engaging, interesting and useful (and successful) is much more rewarding than just getting higher rankings. To me at least.


    3. Annie Cushing
      October 5, 2013

      Thanks for the mention, Bill. I couldn’t agree more with you about how castigating marketers for caring about keyword data is bush league. I miss it dearly, but not provided was almost a coup de grace. It’s the only way marketers would stop using it, and that’s the only reason I was, on some level, relieved.


    4. BrettASnyder
      October 16, 2013

      One thing I’ve always respected about you Bill is your no-BS approach to the work. You’ve never done “the next big thing” just for the sake of it, you look forward because logic dictates that you have to. SEOs tend to get caught up in this reactive mentality, which is bizarre in a lot of ways because everything you seem to read these days is telling you to “look to the future” and “prepare for what’s coming, not what’s here” but we lack concrete examples a lot of the time to actually accomplish that. Communicating principles and their application is what keeps me coming back, so cheers to you for that.

      Only other thing I’d add is to respond to the comment “not all direct signals are cut and dry.” I’d actually challenge the concept of a “direct signal” at this point, especially with the removal of KW data. You think about it, Hummingbird is all about changing our hyper-focus on keywords as well. Closest thing we have is certainly title tags, content, etc. but are those really direct signals anymore? With Google trying to infer what we mean by our queries, can we directly influence anything? We talk about the 200+ ranking factors but when rankings are determined by perceived authority and assumed intent it gets a lot harder to focus on “direct signals”. Just my .02 obviously, but this post makes me reconsider how we define “ranking signals” in the era of (not provided) and Hummingbird.



      • Bill Sebald
        October 16, 2013

        Hey Brett! Missed you in Seattle this year. Thanks for the kind words, and the good points!


    5. Doc Sheldon
      February 6, 2014

      Bill, this post has given me a terrible pain in my neck… from nodding enthusiastically through the entire read!
      I suppose I’m risking sounding like a broken record, but SEO has to evolve, taking on more of a marketing stance than it used to, while still looking at the technical aspects.
      Keywords have given way to concept… what is your query about? What is the page about? What are the closest matches between the two? I’ve been able to rank pages for terms that appeared nowhere on the page, and not with simple synonyms… by simply focusing on a topic and (dare I say it?) sentiment.
      By the way, I LOVED this:
      “…handful of possible topics you were already somehow relevant for in Google’s eyes, not the myriad of topics you could be relevant for in the demands of searchers.”
      That points out the importance (that so many seem to miss) of worrying about the user, more than the search engine… do that, and the search engine will realize it and fall into line.
      Absolutely fantastic post! Keep ‘em comin’!


      • Bill Sebald
        February 6, 2014

        Wow, great compliment from the great Doc Sheldon! Thanks Doc. That means a lot!