When it comes to SEO, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing

  1. A woman using an iPad to search the internet.
    Martin Prescott | iStock
    Ray Newman

    Ray Newman UKBF Newcomer Staff Member

    11 0
    5 |

    There’s nothing quite as dangerous as someone who learned a bit about SEO a while ago but hasn’t kept their knowledge up to date.

    When Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed Google’s PageRank algorithm as researchers at Stanford University, they originally called it ‘BackRub’ – a reference to the idea that links between websites were ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ in practice.

    In the simplest terms, sites that were linked to by other sites were considered to have greater value, and the more incoming links, the better.

    When Google launched in 1998, what put it light years ahead of its competitors was the relatively comprehensive nature of its index (only possible through automated crawling and ranking, as opposed to directory-based curation) and the accuracy of its results. The famous “I’m feeling lucky” button was an expression of confidence, and a statement of intent.

    It didn’t take long, however, for people to start exploiting that clever but simple system, and for search-engine optimisation (SEO) to become a buzzword, a discipline, and even a career for many.

    Often, it was quite obvious and innocent: if your website sold tents, you'd make sure to mention tents as often as possible, so that the indexing system would recognise the main subject of your site. Yo might sign up to a third-party network connecting pages on similar topics.

    But second-guessing Google's algorithm also drove some sneakier behaviour. Website owners might agree to exchange links with each other, for example, purely to boost rankings – frowned upon, but relatively hard to detect.

    Those keen to boost traffic at any cost might set up entire networks of junk websites populated with generic or nonsensical content but all linking to the page or pages whose ranking they wanted to inflate.

    Or, if you had money but no time, you could simply pay someone else to add links to your website from their networks of spam pages.

    Spam commenting became common – drive-by responses to earnest articles or blog posts, usually meaningless or utterly vague, and stuffed with links. More often than not, there were no humans behind these comments at all – just automated bots.

    At the very darkest end of the spectrum there was SEO-focused hacking. I remember the horror of discovering that a website I was running had been infected with links to a range of websites selling illicit products, concealed in white text on a white background in the no man’s land at the bottom of every single page.

    All of this meant that Google, which had once seemed almost miraculous in its ability to surface the most valuable content, became frustrating, with the first page or two of results for popular terms consistently polluted with junk results.

    So, Google evolved. An additional algorithm called Panda was launched in 2011, with the intention of weeding out low-value pages from search results.

    The impact was less than subtle: all kinds of websites found themselves disappearing from first-page search results overnight. At the same time, quality content (properly edited and substantial) from providers less adept at playing the Google game leapt to the surface.

    For most searchers, it was a great relief – suddenly, all those ‘how to’ websites that didn’t really tell you how to do anything were bumped, for one thing.

    But for many search-engine optimisers, and those who had built entire business models around the way Google worked, it was little short of apocalyptic.

    Since then, Google has continued to tinker, improving algorithms and introducing new components, while merging or retiring others.

    It maintains a deliberate air of mystery around all this to prevent gaming of the system, sometimes denying particular rules are in place even as professional Google-watchers detect overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    And Google can seem capricious. In 2017, it announced that publishers could now display meta descriptions of up to 320 characters. The entire SEO industry scrambled to bring pages up to spec, only for the rule to be reverted a few months later.

    Google’s position seems fairly clear: don’t try to second guess the algorithms, don’t try to take shortcuts – just deliver good quality content that is trustworthy and useful, and you’ll be fine.

    For SEO specialists, though, that’s superficial stuff. What they’re bogged down in is, say, whether one type of page redirect is better than another, or whether the character length of the H1 tag is a help, a hindrance, or of no relevance whatsoever.

    If your business, or a client you’re representing, is operating in a competitive market, these small differences can decide whether your website gets found or not. They’re not trying to pull a fast one, they just want to streamline everything as far as possible, and be found by customers who want to find them.

    What all of this means in practice is that keeping on top of the latest thinking about what Google does and does not rank is a full-time job in its own right.

    If you’re taking advice from someone who got on top of it all  in 2015 but hasn’t checked in since, you could find yourself in trouble.

    And if you’re talking to someone who is promising page-one rankings or declaring SEO a quick fix, the chances are they’re wrong.

  2. Calvin Crane

    Calvin Crane UKBF Regular Full Member

    171 28
    All good advice Ray.
    A good SEO does his own testing and knows what works. Unfortunately just having good content is not enough. Time and time again a poor content page outranks a better one because Google can't seem to rank on the quality of content alone of course. Links being one of the most important factors. Oh by the way the right kind of link really matters so yes you'd better hire a pro. And why would you not? It's time consuming stuff better left to a professional.
    Posted: Feb 22, 2019 By: Calvin Crane Member since: Jun 8, 2018
  3. Clodbuster

    Clodbuster UKBF Enthusiast Full Member

    611 88
    Unfortunately - by personal experience - there are experts and "experts", how is the basic person meant to know?
    Posted: Feb 25, 2019 By: Clodbuster Member since: Apr 24, 2008
    OldWelshGuy likes this.
  4. Barry12345

    Barry12345 UKBF Newcomer Full Member

    20 1
    I was using two company's experts. After one year, no results at all, so how find real expert?
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 19, 2019 at 2:45 PM
    Posted: Mar 1, 2019 By: Barry12345 Member since: Jul 3, 2018
  5. FD Capital

    FD Capital UKBF Contributor Full Member

    34 7
    There are tools like alexa which show traffic levels so I guess you can see before and after and ask for customers names and web addresses to contact and check out what you are being told.
    Posted: Mar 12, 2019 By: FD Capital Member since: Mar 4, 2019
  6. FD Capital

    FD Capital UKBF Contributor Full Member

    34 7
    So many sharks in this area very hard to work out if you are being taken for a ride.
    Posted: Mar 19, 2019 at 1:30 PM By: FD Capital Member since: Mar 4, 2019