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SEO: Nobody Knows Anything

Marianne Sweeny

"Nobody Knows Anything" — Screenwriter William Goldman wrote this about studio executives in his excellent memoir "Adventures in The Screen Trade." I oftentimes feel it applies to us here in the Web Trade.

Daily, we are bombarded with advice, prediction, calls to action, dire warnings and prognostication. And that's just Search Engine Roundtable. The gurus, messiahs, thought-leaders, visionaries, luminaries and titans tell us that links are good, bad, should be sought out, should be cleansed, can help with ranking, have little influence on ranking, need to be monitored, can be had for $100, could be responsible for global warming.

I will be on a panel discussing SEO at SMX Advanced soon. It is the culmination of a long effort to get in front of the premier search audience and talk about the intersection of my passions, user experience (UX) and search visibility. Imagine my dismay when, during a preconference call, the panel moderator became increasing more dismayed at the nature of my contribution. "You can't say that," “Do you have metrics?” and “My audience will eat you alive,” was the response to my planned contribution.

You can't say that PageRank has been supplanted by a combination of other ranking factors. You can't say that user experience is the main driver behind ranking with most search engines. You can't say that social behavior and signals are used by search engines.

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 12.51.20 PMDang, just when I thought that my heresy had taken on enough patina of dogma that I could walk the streets with my head held high, I started to feel that it was time to start printing leaflets in my basement again. Goldman could be talking about us as well as those clueless sods running Hollywood. We don't seem to KNOW anything for certain. Google, Bing and Yahoo make sure of that.

Thankfully, Ian and Josh talked me off the ledge. They advised that I treat this as a case to be proven, circumstantial evidence and all. All of those years watching “Murder She Wrote” were not lost on me. I will build a case for what I believe and why.

Heretical Statement 1: PageRank does not mean what we think it means. When it debuted, it was links, links, links. Then it became links with authority. Then the Web exploded, link abuse took off with it and Google Dance went the way of the Hokey Pokey.

PageRank became "brands are better and everyone else has to duke it out for the long tail." Now, PageRank is about SocialRank, SimRank, TrustRank, content quality, clean link profiles, site speed, user experience — all or some combination of that changes daily. I believe that PageRank has become a label for whatever algorithmic alchemy the search engines are practicing at a particular moment in time.

Heretical Statement 2: We don’t have to worry so much about link juice. Since the search engines are not calculating PR in the same way that we might hope, link juice has also become a label for…I don’t know what. Navigation and footer links are referenced as “nepotistic” in research articles. So, there does not seem to be a juice leak there. Calculating the juice ebb and juice flow over a multi-trillion page Web would seem to defy logic let alone processing power.

Heretical Statement 3: Content is not king. There are no kings in an oligarchy and that’s what we have now; an oligarchy made up of user experience, quality content, clean link profiles, efficient and speedy site infrastructures.

Heretical Statement 4: SEO is not about keywords, stuffed or plain, and not about how many links, bought or earned or about tails, long or short. Oddly enough, it is finally about the users. Yes, those quirky folks who are looking for something and use search engines to find it have finally realized their quantified selves. SEO is now about clicks and bounces, query refinements and sessions.

I believe that SEO is finally about being “about something.” It’s about having sites that work, pages that say something, interactions that are clear and calls to action that compel. It is about pages that have links to other interesting pages on the same or related subject so that users do not walk into information rooms with no doors or windows.

We don’t need PageRank any more. Two (Matt Cutts and us) can play the user experience game. The difference is that we are also the users. We understand the metrics better because we live them. It is easier for us to figure out the why behind the “what” that we get from site analytics.

I’m not sure what metrics demonstrate the effectiveness of a good user experience. The ones I like to point to are that site visitors are going further into the site, spending more time there and, as a result, the client is making more money. This seems infinitely better than tracking keyword ranking that is heavily influenced by the experiments Matt Cutts admitted to or the robust user profiles the search engines rely on.

Seems like that is what SEO was supposed to be about in the first and last place.

Photo credit: http://www.upsidetrader.com

Author bio:

Marianne Sweeny is a Search Information Architect at Portent Inc. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s last article for SEMrush was “Links Today: Not Bad, Just Drawn that Way."

Marianne Sweeny

Provides valuable insights and adds depth to the conversation.

Marianne Sweeny is VP of Internet Marketing for Strategic Edge Partners, a medical marketing agency. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s most recent article for SEMrush was entitled: "SEOs, Guns & Religion."
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Either just recently joined or is too shy to say something.

Getting backlinks is one of the huge percentage that will optimized your site.. We can Rank our post on google in just second without any backlinks as long as the content is well optimized(content optimization means no Html error ) i proved it.. just sub..

Either just recently joined or is too shy to say something.

Hello Marianne,

Thanks for this terrific article. I would definitely agree with heretical statement #3. Too many organizations are too focused on just one thing (be it linkbuilding, content creation, etc). "Content marketing" is dead; what we have now is a diversified inbound marketing package- you have to be able to do it all (or hire people who can).

Occasionally takes part in conversations.

Tim Jessberger
Thank you for the kind words Tim. The SERP landscape is in constant flux. Any attempt to be definitive about what is driving relevance ranking for a particular user, in a particular geography at a particular time is the Road to Perdition. This is not to say that we should give trying to influence where our pages appear. However, the old ways relying on tags, meta Description, headings and inlinks has to make room for the circumstantial evidence of the patents filed and research released by the search engines. Those clues count too!

Either just recently joined or is too shy to say something.

Until Google is more transparent about why a site has been penalized we still have to keep the focus on ensuring technical details, links and content is right for their current iteration of penalty distributing algorithms. That is also not mentioning their ever changing criteria for what a site should be that we must abide by.

I would relish the day that SEO becomes more about users, but Google is boxing us into a corner now where we are not as free to explore ways of catering users and we are forced to built sites that avoid penalties.

Occasionally takes part in conversations.

Points well taken Agent. Google is as transparent as a data-driven company can on metrics that measure squishy, unpredictable thought-processing biped behavior. The dimensions and metrics in Universal Analytics are good pointers as well as a reminder of the locked in nature of all information retrieval that relies on the presence of some or all of the query terms or some or all of contextually related terms, information design that sees the user locus of attention maximized with text, not image and the reiteration of semantics with link components to contextually related sites.

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