Lately, there have been several high-profile penalties announced against companies that provide organic search services or call themselves SEO firms. Some people have suggested Google is going too far, but I’m not so sure this isn’t Google’s way of trying to get across – in a very emphatic and unequivocal way – something they’ve said for a long time: they want sites building for the end user, not the search engines. That’s a lesson worth heeding.
The cases that have surfaced include the following:
- MyBlogGuest was the first to be hit with a manual penalty, announced by Matt Cutts after a recent string of discussions about the practice of guest blogging. Cutts has been discouraging the practice in his Webmaster Help videos in recent weeks.
- Internet marketing company Portent was then hit with a manual penalty, which they first took as possibly being connected to a post or two on MyBlogGuest. This turned out not to be the case. Portent recovered quickly after addressing boilerplate links on client sites that were hacked.
- Then came the scary-sounding news that Doc Sheldon had been subject to a manual penalty for a single link to a site Google deemed off-topic and spammy. This one created enough noise that Matt Cutts himself weighed in via Twitter to argue the penalty was justified.
People in the SEO community find this scary. They have argued that it will have a chilling effect on the web. They further argue that MyBlogGuest didn’t violate the quality guidelines. Other voices have suggested that the penalty against Doc Sheldon was overly aggressive – penalized for a single link? How could Google do that? In comments to Ann Smarty’s response to Google on Search Engine Journal, some people suggested it was all part of Google’s ineffectual strategy of creating FUD.
Darn straight. I try to see all this through Google’s eyes. Google’s position in the consumer ecosystem reminds me of Amazon or Walmart. All three depend on an army of suppliers. All three are serving billions of consumers who demand instantaneous gratification at low cost. In Amazon and Walmart’s cases, low cost is literally low cost, measured in dollars. In Google’s case, it’s time. They are in a mad race to deliver the right result extremely quickly. Google can do that best if it has a large universe of content that is designed to respond to the queries of users and that it can dig into to find answers and if Google’s algorithms are free to comb through that content without any interference or attempts to influence the algorithms artificially.
In Google’s eyes, any effort to short-circuit Google’s algorithms, no matter how well-intentioned or how carefully designed not to violate the literal letter of Google’s quality guidelines, is counter-productive, because it takes the determination of quality somewhat out of Google’s hands and could result in Google returning less useful content to the user. In that context, Google is best served to sow as much FUD as they can among anyone who puts the word “SEO” in their company description and says their purpose is to help customers rank.
As other commenters to the Ann Smarty article suggested, Google is holding SEO firms to a higher standard. And you know what? They should. SEO’s shouldn’t be thinking short-term. We need to stop seeing our job as trying to understand the individual factors that might drive rank and rallying client resources for the latest and greatest trick that drives cheap traffic. We need to start seeing our jobs as helping companies make sound long-term investments based on an understanding of the internet and Google’s role within it. For one thing, the latter is just good sound business – developing steady, value-added competencies instead of resetting the clock every time some new correlation study comes out hinting at some sneaky way to get a bump in the rankings.
I’m not saying we should ignore Google (they’re too important a part of how users experience the internet to ignore), but we need to think of them as one player, not as the promotional channel that matters. We need to understand what they’re trying to accomplish, instead of focusing on how they get there and on how to find shortcuts within it. We need to do things the right way.
At the heart of SEO (or inbound marketing or whatever we’re calling it to avoid calling it SEO) should be an understanding of the user and really good content that serves the user. Add an additional layer for making sure content is discoverable. Add an additional layer for making sure that directory structure, tags, link elements and rich data reflect a clear vision of who your audience is and what they need from your site. Add a layer for promotion – not link-building, but true promotion: finding people to whom your content is relevant and building relationships with them through multiple channels.
They have a word for that sort of thing. It’s simply called “marketing.”