Stupid? Evil? Obsolete? Where SEO is today

By Dave Collins on August 9th, 2012

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. When it comes to search engine optimisation, a little (tiny, really) bit of knowledge was enough to found an entire industry on. It’s an industry that has had an irrevocable and largely negative impact on the internet as we know it.

Search engines began as a simple solution to a growing problem. There was a lot of good content out there, but finding it was proving more and more difficult. Early search engines such as Lycos and AltaVista stepped in to help. At the same time, many online businesses realised that they had been provided with a golden opportunity.

You see, the search engine robots were fairly basic, and often required a guiding hand to help them identify what they were looking at. Inevitably, website owners started abusing the system to bring in more traffic. A never-ending game of cat and mouse had begun.

The following scenario has been running on repeat for the last 15 years. Cunning Person One – let’s call him Tom – discovers a clever technique that increases his rankings on Google. Not So Cunning But Lazy Persons all over the world – lets call them Dicks – copy the tactic, hoping to achieve the same results.

Google then realises what’s happening, stamps on it, and the boosted rankings return to their previous levels. Until Cunning Person Two – Harry, obviously – discovers a new trick. Link schemes, invisible cloaking, reverse-proxy magic, dynamically generated rubbish – over the years, I’ve seen it all. Everyone thinks their way is different, more advanced, more impossible to detect.

It doesn’t matter if they’re right. What these people are doing is adding to a mountain of pollution on the web, drowning out the voices of the people who are trying to work with, rather than against, the search engines.

When I started working in the software industry, most people didn’t know what SEO was. The concept caught on quickly though. For the enterprising hopeful, it offered an instant source of income. To the outside world, SEO appeared to be complex, time-consuming, painful and essential.

As it was also brand new, it provided a business model that was too good to be true. No qualifications or experience was required, there were no overheads, and the icing on the cake: there were no guarantees! Because no matter what an SEO does to a website, much of the measurable success of their work lies beyond anyone’s control.

Money really did seem to be growing on trees.

And that’s when it all went wrong. Using cheap and ineffectual software to create countless variations of pages became standard practice for many consultants, as did submitting them all to thousands of meaningless websites for link benefits. These redundant techniques looked good to clients, but generally did nothing to bring in more targeted visits to the website.

The industry continued to grow, however, attracting small-minded people with big chips on their shoulders – people who imagined, hilariously, that they could outsmart Google. So-called “black hat” SEOs liked to create an aura of mystery around their techniques, and would apparently stop at nothing to elevate their clients’ ranking, often recklessly endangering those same client websites in the process.

I have met a fair number of Black Hatters, and as a general rule they are… irresponsible, to say the least. They also like to dismiss the safer SEOs – the co-called white hats – as naive, or worse. But there’s no panacean dark arts in SEO. Just a constant, degrading race to the bottom.

The SEO landscape has received a serious shaking up in the last twelve months. Google’s ongoing efforts to stamp on bad SEO have been more dramatic than ever before, and have affected a huge number of sites. The reason is simple: people don’t like crappy search results. If they search for a camera review, they would like to read an actual review.

What they don’t want is for every link they click on to take them to camera stores or affiliates pointing to camera stores. Sound familiar? It’s a problem that has been getting progressively worse. If people keep getting bad search results, it won’t take them long to start looking at Bing. Bye-bye ad revenue.

In other words, what’s bad for you is becoming bad for Google too. Hence the extreme measures.

The result has been pain for a surprisingly large number of websites. The sad thing is that although they were all using dodgy techniques, many of them weren’t even aware of it: they simply trusted their SEO expert to do a good job, and would probably have been very quick to pull out if they had realised the true extent of the risks that they were taking.

SEO should not be about tricking, misleading or deceiving Google. Real SEO is about helping search engines to correctly identify the relevance and quality of your website pages. If your website is bad or irrelevant, you don’t deserve the traffic.

If your website is good, then, yes, there are things you can do to help targeted visitors find their way to you. And that’s all there’s to it.

I have been optimising websites for 15 years now, and the core techniques that I employ have remained more or less unchanged. It’s not dangerous, it’s not sneaky, and to be frank, it’s not particularly clever or difficult. But it won’t get you slapped by Google in the next update, either, and, perhaps most importantly, it works.

Most of the time.

Dave Collins is the founder of Software Promotions.