SEO Exposed: Navigating the Maze of Search Engine Optimization
I spend a lot of time with customers and prospects that have worked with companies that “did SEO” and either think it’s a bunch of crap or a waste of money. Rarely do I hear: “Yeah, I got an SEO guy to help us, and he f*cking killed it.”
I’m always hopeful to get that feedback, but it’s probably not happening, and I think I know why.
First, I want to clearly state that my company offers several services that could be categorized as SEO. I submit that because I want to be clear that I don’t have an issue with SEO practitioners; in fact, it’s the opposite. Good SEO professionals are doing the heavy lifting for many businesses every day.
My issue is more with how SEO experts brand themselves, often self-assuredly making claims and guarantees that often lead customers and prospects to think we’re either full of crap or dark mystics, but neither is true in most cases.
Defining SEO (What is SEO?)
So, let’s be clear about what SEO is: a profession created to help non-experts benefit from using a fantastic piece of software. The way Salesforce begets Salesforce Admins, or Microsoft begets countless professionals supporting various applications they’ve developed for their customers, and Google begets the Search Engine Optimization expert.
One key difference here is this: Salesforce and Microsoft want their customers to know as much about how their product works as possible—deeper expertise = higher lifetime customer value. Easy math.
But Google is different. It doesn’t want the end customer to have a singularly profound understanding of how its algorithm works. It sounds ominous, but there’s an excellent reason why.
The Value of Google’s Algorithm
Most of the value created by Google starts outside its business. It’s the opposite of other enterprise software in that sense. The inputs for Google’s Algorithms are billions of pages of content they have ZERO control over.
To add a layer of complexity to that, its highest value add, being able to take a string of text and map a user’s intent to a subset of those billion-plus pages and provide a good response in milliseconds provides a lot of value for their customers-$59 Billion worth of value in the third quarter of this year (up 11% YOY).
To make that magic work in an economically driven environment where you don’t control your inputs requires rules and constraints at the very least. Imagine trying to wrangle the chaos of the internet in an economically valuable way without some restrictions. I can’t get my relatives to adhere to Christmas gift-giving rules, so I can’t imagine, but I digress.
The point here is that for Google to work, there have to be a crap ton of rules and constraints that allow its algorithms to do their job well in a world organized to make that impossible. But also, keeping how the special soup is made secret becomes a business-critical need.
The Implications of Algorithm Knowledge
Why? Because Google executes 8.5 billion searches a day. If anyone can reverse engineer how its algorithms work, they could crush that $59 billion dollar-a-quarter enterprise and screw a lot of companies out of a lot of money.
Here’s an oversimplified example of how. First, in the example below, I’ve provided a simple commercial intent (the keyword assumes that the customer wants to buy). The critical thing to notice here is that “watch” is searched for and estimated 368K times per month.
If you had some “hack” for Google that you could apply to this keyword, you’d have almost 400K of opportunity- your choice would be whether you used it for good or bad (more on that later).
To give you a glimpse of what that looks like in terms of money, here’s a list of the top five companies spending money to deliver their ads on Google when this keyword is searched.
As you can see, a single month of having an edge on Google’s algorithm can be very lucrative if you had that edge.
Google’s Approach to Algorithm Transparency:
Okay, enough of the technical stuff. My more significant point here is that Google doesn’t want anyone to know how its algorithm works because if it can be hacked or gamed, it would immediately reduce its value to customers and kill Google’s Golden Search Goose.
It will provide tips, guidelines, and even examples of how they grade content on the web. Those aren’t secret sauce ingredients; they are table stakes for getting in the Google visibility game. It will defend the value of its algorithms, sometimes with terminal business results.
One of the key things to point out here is that Google provides tons of documentation to help you get seen and potentially ranked by its algorithms. What it won’t do is give you an algorithmic advantage, and that is important.
Google doesn’t expect an equal page-to-user distribution of pages across its user base. It wants to consistently deliver the best responses to its user’s query intent. It’s constantly fighting to identify and spot people trying to game its algorithm, which is one of the reasons the algorithm is updated so frequently. Still, it’s not trying to deliver every page. It’s trying to provide the best ones.
That’s the critical point: you can deliver better content, experiences, workflows, value, etc., than your competitors. It expects you to for two reasons. It benefits Google’s users, and it minimizes how much Google has to spend indexing and serving up good responses.
Ultimately, the work SEOs do to help you improve your ability to be seen by Google as more valuable enhances your business overall. There’s a meaningful relationship here. If you deliver better results for its customers, Google will provide you with more of its users to your doorsteps.
SEO as a profession
From what I can tell, the support ecosystem that sprung up around Google’s search algorithm took two forms: a) those that proclaimed to know more about Google’s guidelines and technical requirements than a layman would (the same as other enterprise software support professionals), b) those that claimed to know more than Google or had some hack to get around Google algorithms.
These were black hats (that created click farms, bots, etc. ) and usually were hackers who had turned their attention to Google for new revenue streams.
What’s most interesting here is that SEO professionals took their mental model for thinking about SEO professionals directly from the information security/hacking community: A white hat uses hacking for good, and a black hat uses hacking for evil. It’s the same in the infosec world.
I’ve always taken issue with this mental model. I’m not sure why any business professionals would want to be associated with “hacking”; it creates distrust with the customer no matter how you spin it to them.
Also, it is a lie: either you are claiming to be able to hack the algorithm, which is difficult and short-lived, or you are willing to go as far as building some elaborate application and workflow designed to fool Google, which will lead to manual actions and killing a business’s web presence by putting some trick in place that you guarantee will work.
But if your hack is effective, why are you working for anyone? You should sit on a beach and have your marketing funnels do the work. You know, passive income dreams and all.
Lastly, unless you aren’t paying attention, Google frequently takes issue with the idea that people outside the company claim to know better than them how their product works. If you think about it, they have a point. It’s akin to that guy at the barbeque who tastes your special white sauce and claims to know the ingredients. F*ck that guy. He’s always wrong, and no one likes that guy.
The objective of this article was to level-set around what SEO is and what SEO professionals do. They aren’t magicians, and they usually aren’t hackers. They are professionals who understand what Google likes and doesn’t like and will help you achieve your business goals within those constraints.
Business leaders must get that. Understanding how SEO professionals can help you is the first step to excellent business outcomes. I hope that SEO practitioners help that process by dropping the business alchemist routines, but I would accept getting rid of the hacker mental model as a solid first step.
Some SEO experts and technologists think that ChatGPT (or Generative AI) means the death of SEO, but I think that view misses the point. These tools are trained off what’s been done before and can be used as a good starting point for building content, but what they can’t do is:
- Identify what information customers are asking for.
- Determine where they are looking for these answers.
- Build content that answers those questions better than your competition.
- Work with Google’s algorithm to give it the proper breadcrumbs to lead to business outcomes.