10 Years of SEO – What I’ve Learned

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When people ask me what search engine optimization (SEO) is I tell them “Helping companies become the number one search result in Google.”

I’ve spent ten years in the industry now and I’ve seen a lot of changes over those years. When I first started doing SEO work in 2004 it was more about playing games, trickery, and attempting to hack the algorithm. There has always been a lot of money to be made tapping into the free traffic of Google search and sometimes this competition brought out marketers’ worst tendencies. As a side note – no company I’ve ever worked for has relied on these hacks.

In 2004 doing trickery like keyword-stuffing, link-farming, and other such nonsense produced short-term gains, brief moments of fame and bursts of traffic. Some companies like Demand Media (also known as eHow) built their entire company around producing phony content. The heads of these companies would scan through the list of most popular keywords (ex. “How to bake a cake”), pay anyone almost nothing to produce a five minute clip about the subject, and market the hell out of it. The results of these videos are often hilarious. My personal favorite is this one. For a time these phony content producers got results.

This fame is fleeting though because Google is many things and stupid is not one of them. If Google serves up bad content to its users, users stop using Google. So it’s in their interest to serve up good content and watch out for hackers. Since they employ some of the smartest people in the world, it’s only a matter of time before Google engineers get wise, revise the algorithm and punish the transgressors mercilessly.

The results can be breathtaking. Phony content producers Demand Media saw their stock drop from $2 billion in 2011 to a quarter of that in 2013. JCPenney, after briefly flourishing with a link-farming hack, saw traffic nose-dive after getting caught and spent months recovering from it.

Want to destroy your business? Make Google angry. If there is one thing I want you to take away from this article it is this, the iron-clad rule – don’t do things that will make Google angry. If you are not particularly interested in learning more about SEO, just remember this one rule and you can stop reading now.

Thanks for reading on. So now that we’ve established what bad SEO is, how it will destroy your company, and why you should never ever do it, let’s turn to good SEO. This is what I like to call SEO 1.0.

In the beginning, Google search was relatively basic. The algorithm relied a lot on “keywords” – generally speaking, the more keywords the better. There were branded keywords (ex. “Coca-Cola”, “IBM”, “Dave Greten”) and non-branded keywords (ex. “soda”, “computers”, “great writer”). If I do a search for “computer”, I’ll buy one from anybody in the search results. But if I do a search for “Dell computer” chances are strong I will buy one specifically from Dell. These branded keywords deliver more sales by a large margin so it’s in your interest to thoroughly own those.

Recommendations during SEO 1.0 included making sure appropriate keywords appeared on the page, meta tags and URLs. I remember talking to a man who owned a jewelry store who was baffled why none of his ten karat gold rings were showing up in search. I took a look and pointed out all his products were titled “ten karat gold” and not “10kt gold” which was the search term people were using.

Like I said, basic. In fact over ten yeas the standard SEO checklist has not changed much. Use appropriate keywords. Make sure your robots.txt file is in order. Make sure your site is not restricting access. Use 301 redirects instead of 302 redirects for your URLs. Over the course of ten years these basic rules have hardly changed at all.

These are largely defensive measures – moves designed to make your site easier to index. They are basic but necessary. One of these rules is be wary of changing your URLs and removing keywords from them. Google search was a major source of traffic for us at one company where I worked. We got a lot of traction with our articles on “roofing options” and “kitchen countertops.” These articles were well written, had appropriate keywords in the URL, had been there for a long time, and were established as authoritative by a celebrity.

Enter the consultants. After a massive change in management at the company, consultants were brought in to redesign the site. The redesign was, in part, welcome and overdue – our art director confessed to me the site had started to look like a Frankenstein monster. But the consultants neglected the effect of changing all the site’s URLs, something we warned them about. SEO was completely disregarded in the site overhaul.

I was long gone by the time the redesign was implemented but I can tell you the day it took place because of the catastrophic drop in search traffic. You can tie the nose-dive to the moment they flipped the switch. From what I’ve seen on Alexa, its never recovered from the fall. The new site looked beautiful but the drop off in visitors made it as effective as a billboard in the middle of the woods far from the highway.

Now that we’ve established how to avoid losses in search traffic, how does one gain traffic? Ask yourself – what does Google want? Google wants good content. So give Google what they want.

This is something I like to call SEO 2.0 and can be summarized in the statement “Content is king.” Google likes easy to read, informative articles. Producing them on a regular basis establishes you as an expert in the field and Google likes that. You become someone they can turn to, someone to rely on for content.

Winning that trust is not easy. Many marketers eager for quick results turn to producing content they hope will go viral. Fame like that is short-lived. The better course is to distinguish yourself as an expert in the field. Produce good content on a regular basis and Google will smile upon you. In the ten years I’ve been doing this that rule has never changed. Remember it and you will prosper.