SEO is an Experiment

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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.

At its core, SEO has always been about experimenting. We (the collective industry of search engine optimizers) go into any campaign 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), with different levels of search competition, and certain existing factors, the best course of action almost always 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.

When you hire a good SEO company, whether they tell you or not, they are experimenting on your dime.  You should be accepting of that. SEO is, after all, a marketing channel; 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.  Dr. Ian Malcolm might suggest Chaos Theory. Google is always moving on the inside.

We 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.  Maybe we can’t even guarantee removing a <meta robots=”noindex”> will beyond a shadow of a doubt get a site indexed. Google doesn’t index everything it crawls, and they may have a reason for not indexing a site (e.g., prior penalties).  A likelihood is not a guarantee, but this isn’t about semantics anyway.  I think you get the picture.

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), while others think I’m exaggerating and second-guess entering into the channel.  I tell prospects that SEO can take a long time, and that any forecasting from the outset on how long it’ll take to see “results” is a wild-ass guess.  I avoid giving false hope where I can.  I prefer to be a realist.

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.  There are negligent doctors, lawyers, accountants, deck-builders, and SEOs (I’ve experienced all of these).  It happens.  But good firms endure, and the experimenting continues.

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If you’re an SEO firm’s client, and you’re reading this, I want you to take away the notion that experimentation is a good thing.  We have an obligation to use your money wisely, and to 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 be 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 marketer has the KPIs already in place to measure against.  An SEO should 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 beating a dead horse.  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.

This is how Greenlane works.  It’s a tough sell for some, because it’s unusual.  Then again, SEO is an unusual marketing channel; it’s to be expected.  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 around.  Today I tell prospects, “we make monthly roadmaps that are guided by the data.”  It makes sense, so there’s little pushback.  The best part is that it doesn’t interfere with strategy.  Strategies and roadmaps are different things.  Sometimes strategies do take months to execute upon each milestone, but strategies are really experiments as well. 

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

Bill Sebald

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.

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