SEO is Not Dead – Why You Still Should be Paying Attention to Rankings
I hear the statement all the time that SEO is dead. I read it on my Facebook feed, see it in emails I subscribe to, and read it on many different blogs about digital marketing. I’m asked frequently about my thoughts on search engine optimization and if it is still relevant today. In short, yes, it obviously is. But the things to consider here are how SEO has changed, where we are at, and where SEO will fit in with the changing landscape.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
First, let’s just briefly dive into what SEO (or search engine optmization) is. A leader in the SEO industry, Moz, shares:
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.
For the layperson, here’s a breakdown that may be easier to understand. When you type something into a search engine like Google, a complex algorithm runs in order to decide what results are showed and where the appear. The algorithm looks at many factors across the Internet, and utilizes machine learning and an incredible database of websites in existence. The numbers are crunched at an impressive rate, and you get a page of websites maching your query.
SEO is a practice to encourage your site to pop up higher in search results. Although we don’t know the entire algorithm used, marketers with experience know many of these factors due to research, case studies, and minor confirmations from Google. There are hundreds of factors about which we know, with many more likely being used. An SEO campaign brings your site up in those first search results (ideally). Furthermore, an SEO campaign targets specific searches that are likely to result in traffic.
You can skip down to the section Why SEO Matters to see an example of how SEO works and why it is beneficial.
The Changing Game
One of the reasons you may hear that SEO is dead is due to the changing nature of the business. As the SEO industry has grown, Google has had to update its algorithm to combat spammers and common tactics. Google makes updates every day to their algorithm, with many core algorithm updates in recent years.
Many factors have changed in their weight on the overall algorithm. Back in the 90’s, certain quick tactics could guarantee a spot on page one. Now, Google has devalued these factors and added more so individuals and SEO companies cannot just spam the search results. Google’s goal is to serve quality results, and keep you using its search engine. Google makes an incredible amount of money from ad revenue. The more they keep you coming back (by providing non-spammy, relevant search results), the more they make.
SEO Today, Alive and Well
There are many traditional SEO tactics that just don’t have the power they used to. These include keyword stuffing, aggressive backlinking, cloaking, and anchor text stuffing. You may or not understand what these things are, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that many of the techniques that were essential to SEO ten years ago are no longer the most relevant or even useful. In fact, some of these tactics now earn you a penalty from Google!
New techniques and ranking factors have emerged even more quickly than others are devalued. Newer factors include:
- Social signals (shares on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
- Mellower anchor text (less backlinks with exact keywords; e.g. having a link to your site saying www.Google.com instead of Search Engine)
- Longer-form content (longer posts and pages correlate with higher rankings in Google)
- Lower keyword density (not over-using the keyword you’re trying to rank for)
- Load speed (Google wants to provide a great experience to its users!)
- Mobile-friendliness (Most searches are done on mobile devices, so mobile-friendly sites do better in search)
There are many more factors that have grown in importance recently. The idea to understand here is simply that SEO today is vastly different than SEO in 1999, 2005, and even 2016. The changes come fast, but that doesn’t mean it is dead. You can still indeed use an understanding of how search engines work to rank a site in search results and gain traffic. That’s just a fact that cannot be denied, and anyone who says otherwise is frankly un(der)informed.
Moving forward, SEO will continue to change. Google is constantly filing patents, inventing new forms of artificial intelligence, and more deeply understanding websites and their users. As Google catches on to what people are doing to game the system (also known as SEO), they update their algorithms to discourage spam and encourage quality websites. Things like voice search, location-based searches, and a user’s personal search history are already incorporated, and expected to grow in importance. SEO will continue to change, and people will continue to adapt.
Why SEO Matters
Okay, so why does SEO matter to you? Let’s take an example. At the beginning of March 2018, I started optimizing a site for a drug detox facility. They had virtually no traffic to their site, so we got to work. First, we used a tool to identify how many people searched for this term every month on Google and how hard it would be to get onto the first page of Google. This tool looks at search volume data and the competing websites to give these numbers.
Here you can see a search term I found, “Xanax high.” This tool (Ahrefs) tells us that this term is searched approximately 16,000 times a month on Google, and the difficulty of ranking on page one of Google is five (out of one hundred). Relatively easy term, and pretty good search volume! So I did what I do and built a page, optimized it, and observed what was working. Let’s look at what happened.
Here you can see the rankings on Google since the page started ranking. On March 10th, the client’s page was at the end of page two of Google (about the 19th listing). As you may know, almost nobody clicks on or sees these listings. On April 27th, the client was #1 on Google on the very first page. So, if SEO is dead, this is just a weird coincidence. But it’s not. I put the work in and used current research, data, and knowledge to get this site where it is. Google returns twelve million results for the term “Xanax high.” There’s a reason this page was first out of millions of possible pages.
So, what happened when this page got to number one? Let’s look at the traffic and clicks from search engines. Using Google Search Console, we can see the clicks onto the website from searches. This tool shows us how many people clicked on this client’s page from Google searches, and does not include Bing, Yahoo, or other search engines.
You can see this site has received 5,250 clicks during this period. In the first week on the graph, the client received about 4 clicks. In the final week on the graph, the client’s site received about 375 clicks. You can see the climbing amount of clicks. Below the graph is a table showing search terms. You can see the top seven terms in the image, with “xanax high” resting far above the rest. However, all of these terms are related to Xanax, showing that a well-optimized page can rank for many different terms.
Finally, let’s look at overall traffic according to Google Analytics.
You don’t need a degree in statistics or merketing to see what happened. The site got more clicks from search engines and received more overall traffic through this process. The simplified process was:
- Find the right keywords
- Do research into competitors to see what Google likes
- Build a page
- Spend time optimizing
- Rankings increase and the page shows up on Google
- Watch traffic (and conversions) rise
So, you can see this example of SEO in action. If you’re interested in other examples of clients with whom I’ve worked, feel free to ask. This is just a recent example, and we can demonstrate this process with hundreds of keywords on dozens of sites and clients. SEO is a valuable tool. It requires more work, less “gaming the system,” research, and creativity. No longer do we follow simple formulas that work across the board with automated programs. I pride myself in being able to come up with creative tactics, research the competition deeply, and stay 100% up-to-date on changes and news in the SEO industry.