SEO is an Experiment


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Note: This post was originally written in September 2016. I’ve added a thought or two since it was published, but most of the text hasn’t changed. It still holds entirely true today.

The complexities of SEO are exacerbated by the limited visibility we have into Google’s algorithm. Google claims more than 200 signals make up the main web search algorithms. When Google told us content, links, and RankBrain are the biggest contributor, it didn’t exactly unravel any mysteries of how to improve rank. Google has since gone back on that statement, which only adds more unknowns to the big picture.

At its core, SEO has always been about experimenting. We (the collective industry of search engine optimizers) go into any campaign in several different ways. Some go in with a playbook of best practices and systematically start running through the list.  Others are more judicious, using data and a hypothesis to guide the order of tasks.  But in different verticals (of which Google may focus different updates upon), and with different levels of search competition and certain existing factors, the best course of action is almost always… well, it depends.

Ah, the dreaded D-word. Clients hate it.  Marketers sometimes use it as a crutch. Yet, any number of dependencies are always in play. Any SEO who gives you an absolute traffic or ranking gain, without spending several months already working on your site’s SEO, is frankly misleading you.

When you hire a good SEO company, they are experimenting on your dime (whether they phrase it this way or not). You should be accepting of that. SEO is, after all, a marketing channel; it’s one that requires small experiments to provide small answers to further your collective knowledge. It’s often these small wins in aggregate that give you progress. The skill is in picking the right experiments. But to look behind the curtain, even for us long-time SEOs, if we’re honest we’ll admit there’s certainly some luck involved. Google is always moving your cheese.

We simply can’t guarantee most things in SEO. We can’t guarantee adding copy to an eCommerce collection page will move the needle in a positive direction. We can’t guarantee updating URLs to be more contextual will improve rankings, despite the best intentions of 301 redirects. We can’t even guarantee Google will index any given URL. We have to be careful exchanging “likelihood” for “guarantee”.

Sometimes, as you get close to a moment of big picture clarity, Google shuffles the deck. The game starts over. Google updates various algorithms more than 400 times a year. Your progress is fractionally, partially, or completely wiped away. These are the rules of engagement that you abide by in trying to leverage Google for commercial gain. There’s no contract to sign, and even the Google Guidelines are fuzzy at best.

vulcano-krakatoaIt does feel like playing King Of The Mountain on a volcano. I’ll often talk to prospects who aren’t deeply familiar with the SEO channel. I’ll explain these “rules” and the real challenges. I’ll sometimes say, “SEO is not for the weak-hearted. The goal is that your wins will eventually offset your losses, to which there will be many losses.”  I’ve always found that to be a helpful metaphor. It gets the point across and elicits the required response.

Some like the challenge and see the enormous opportunity (according to Conductor a couple of years ago, organic search gets the most visitors – in most cases, we still see this today). However, others think I’m exaggerating and second-guess entering into the channel. I tell prospects that SEO wins might take a long time, and that any forecasting from the outset on how long it’ll take to see “results” is a wild guess. I avoid giving false hope where I can. I prefer to be a realist. I think that’s what a good consultant should always be.

Sure, the SEO industry has earned a reputation among some circles as snake-oil salesmen, many times simply because companies entered into an agreement without an accurate explanation of the rules of the game. In the real world, there are negligent doctors, lawyers, accountants, contractors, and SEOs. It happens. But good firms endure, and the experimenting continues.

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If you are a client of an SEO vendor, I want you to take away the notion that experimentation is a good thing. We have an obligation to use your money wisely and not waste it fruitlessly. Experimentation actually has a shelf-life.  A test will eventually hit statistical significance, or at least a point of diminishing returns. The result will hopefully lead to increases in qualified organic search traffic, while a byproduct will be insights. It’s pretty clear when the experiment has run out of steam. A good SEO has already gathered the KPIs to measure against. An SEO should also be able to look at the resulting data and use it to guide the next experiment. Maybe the experiment needs to be amplified, or maybe it was a complete bust. It’s better to run these small sprints than enduring a year-long roadmap and find yourself running in place. When a company says, “I really don’t know what my current SEO company is doing,” it’s often because they’re stretching thin on a roadmap that never had any legs to begin with.

Greenlane follows the practice of experimentation. It allows us to quickly pivot as needed. I tell prospects, who are accustomed to receiving a multi-month roadmap through a marketing vendor, that we don’t develop one until we’ve dug into the account. In my past life at a big agency, I was expected to create these with virtually no accumulated data. I used to follow the tradition of sweating over the development of a roadmap that became stale in about three weeks as I’d discover all the actual low-hanging fruit. But I was determined to do it differently this time with the creation of Greenlane.

Today I tell prospects that we make monthly roadmaps that are guided by the data. When I spend the time explaining everything I’ve written above, it makes sense. So there’s little pushback.  The best part is that it doesn’t interfere with the strategy. Strategies and roadmaps are different things. Sometimes strategies do take months to execute upon each milestone, but strategies are really experiments as well. 

At the end of the day, SEOs are detectives. We’re scientists. We are artists. But we’re not fortune tellers or soothsayers. We embrace the experiment.

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Bill Sebald

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Managing Partner

I've been doing SEO since 1996. Blogger, speaker, and occasionally teaching at Drexel and Philadelphia University. I started Greenlane in 2005 to help clients leverage search marketing to hit business goals. I love this stuff. Visit my profile page.

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