Why SEO isn’t evil by search guru Rand Fishkin

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Rand Fishkin

Anyone working in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) will tell you it has a bad rep. But does it have a bad rap? SEO is the process of trying to make a website as visible as possible in your search results. Love it or hate it, SEO is important and if you run a website or have a brand that you want noticed, you want good SEO.

Google is out to get black hat SEO practitioners and poor quality content, while every site is working hard to make sure that its SEO is good enough for the search engine giant.

Most people see SEO as an attempt to “game” search engines (or Google, to be exact). By using the right keywords and by securing backlinks from quality sites, a site-owner can effectively push their content to the front page of Google searches without actually providing the right content. And who cares about page two — most users rarely go past the first search results page on Google, so getting a high ranking is critical.

Enter Rand Fishkin. Fishkin is famous in SEO circles and a founder of SEOmoz(now simply ‘Moz’), a software development company that specialises in search engine optimisation. The SEO guru practices another kind of SEO: white hat SEO, namely the optimisation of sites through good quality content and legitimate practices.

The company was founded in 2004 and raised US$1.25-million in Series A funding in September 2007. Between 2008 and 2011 it grew from US$1.5 million to US$11.4 million in revenue. In June 2012, Moz acquired Followerwonk, a tool for searching, filtering and managing Twitter bios with other Twitter management functions like analytics, after raising US$18-million in VC funds from the Foundry Group. Fishkin has been busy.

The man behind what is arguably the most respected search optimisation company in the world chatted to Memeburn about the future of SEO. Fishkin believes that Google isn’t actually out to get SEOs. He reckons the search giant has been “friendlier” to SEO in the last few years, providing guides to SEO practitioners to help them do their job better.

The search marketing guru says that Google’s actions against black hat attempts to game the search engine makes the illegal practice less attractive, which leads to better search results and better quality content for all. He also believes that the future of SEO lies in good quality marketing and good brands with good missions.

Memeburn: SEO has got such a bad reputation — why do you think that is?

Rand Fishkin: I think a big part of it is because SEO spam happens at such a big scale. A lot of people get emails in their inboxes that say “buy SEO from us.” It’s only a few bad apples — we’re not talking about thousands of people, maybe a couple of dozen — but they leave millions of spam comments on people’s blogs, they spam major articles on websites, hack websites, hack university sites and try to get the ranking for Viagra and porn. Those few bad apples give the whole industry a bad name.

I think another part of it too is that it strikes a lot of people initially as being manipulative. Not as a good activity that I should engage in to help search engines and people find my site, that makes the web a better place by providing the content that you, the searcher, needs. But instead, it is seen as “oh, you’re trying to manipulate things, and manipulation is bad.”

MB: Now it seems Google has declared war on SEO.

RF: I think that Google’s gotten a lot friendlier to SEO in the last five or six years than they ever used to be. They made a guide to SEO, they released Google Webmaster Tools about six years ago, they have a whole department that interacts and engages with us, there are representatives saying SEO is not a bad thing. That never used to be the case.

But, algorithmically, they’ve gotten way more aggressive about shutting down what they determine as manipulative black hat SEO practices. Which is good for those of us doing white hat SEO, as we don’t have to deal with as many spammers in our results.

MB: If we do away with SEO altogether, what will search look like?

RF: I actually think that search would be a worse place. When I look out there at a lot of the most phenomenal content, stuff that I enjoy the most on the internet, it’s created by people that practice SEO and social media marketing and content marketing and inbound marketing as a whole. Because of that, I think the web would be a much sadder, lonelier place [without SEO].

You would find worse search results, you wouldn’t find as much exciting and interesting content, there wouldn’t be as much to share with your friends and your Twitter stream, or on Facebook… There would be less good stuff out there and less of the good stuff would rank well because people wouldn’t be optimising it to perform well and Google would be much more lost.

MB: Why not just use marketing? Why have SEO?

RF: Actually I think that’s what the future is. Marketing in five to 10 years will just mean doing all these technical and marketing things for SEO as well as all the other things marketing has always meant: brand building, reach, networking, media, press, SEO, social, content, email, conversion rate optimisation, site accessibility and mobile design and all that kind of stuff.

MB: How does one optimise social media too?

RF: Optimisation is all about measuring, testing and improving. For social, if I’m looking at a tool like Followerwonk which can track when my followers are online, optimising my social timing is merely saying “I’m going to share important things when I know my followers are online”. Rather than the middle of the night when no one’s online.

MB: Would you say SEO is a nuisance to Google?

RF: I think this happens in every field – bad car salesmen make cars look bad. Bad convenience stores make convenience shopping seem sketchy. Bad people make great cities seem like dangerous cities. This happens all over life. I wouldn’t say Google is a force for evil. As an SEO, they’ve done some things recently that are very frustrating, things that I don’t think fit their mission or their core values very well.

Google’s mission supposedly is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible. I’m not sure how forcing ads in Google properties above the fold and pushing all the results down is organising the world’s information. That seems a little sketchy.

I’m also not sure why ‘keyword not provided’ exists. If I can pay Google and they’ll tell me the keyword [people used when searching], but organically they won’t, and that seems very sketchy to me. I think that’s Google saying “our advertising dollars are more important than our outputs”. I don’t like that. So I’m going to call them on it.

But Google does a bunch of wonderful things. They launched programmes in all sorts of countries, especially countries where rights for gays and lesbians are abused. They’ve poured money and marketing campaigns into those countries to make gay rights a priority, they’ve put money into getting broadband accessibility into developing countries where people don’t have access to computers and laptops. They’ve put money into education. They’ve certainly made the world a more connected and knowledgeable place.

They’re doing a lot of wonderful things along with some frustrating things. I think it would be fair to call them on both.

MB: Do you think SEO could get to a point where it can beat Google?

RF: I think that scenario was much more likely ten years ago when Google was in its early stages. It happened a lot more then. Today with Google’s sophistication, it can be gamed a little bit, but much less so than before, and I think it’s on a trend of being gamed less and less.

MB: How can we get rid of black hat SEO practices?

RF: Two things really help. One, when Google takes action against black hat SEO, that makes it much less likely that people will do it because it’s much less profitable and you’ll lose out.

Number two, I think you need to educate a lot more people. Not just SEOs, but marketers and brands and CEOs and executives at all the levels about what good SEO and good marketing is. If you do that, those people will embrace it and adopt it and you’ll see people doing more white hat forms of SEO, and black hat will lose out. And those will be the companies that get clients, investment, the search results, all of it.

MB: The future of SEO is…

RF: … the future of marketing. I think the two are thoroughly intertwined. Good quality content, good quality marketing, good brands with a good mission are going to win.

MB:Google is the 800 pound gorilla of internet search. SEO is so reliant on what Google does and doesn’t — doesn’t that make the practice inherently vulnerable and fragile (subject to change by Google)?

RF: If one is practicing SEO tactics that violate the guidelines or the intent of Google’s operations, then yes, your efforts are going to be vulnerable to shifts made by the search giant.

However, most SEO today is not practiced in this way. SEO is fundamentally about doing just a few things right:

  • Making your site’s pages and content accessible to Google’s crawler
  • Optimize the user experience so people easily find what they want, and that user happiness is reflected in usage data the engines track
  • Intelligently using terms and phrases in your content that searchers are seeking
  • Growing the share-worthiness and popularity of your brand and content on the web across platforms (social, email, links, etc)
  • This basic process hasn’t changed in Google’s 15 year history, and I suspect it won’t change much over the next 15 years. The specific, the tactics, and the opportunities change all the time (new keyword options, new ways to mark up content in the results, new social networks, etc), but the fundamentals stay the same.

I would say SEO is a constantly evolving and very dynamic field, but, when done right, almost never fragile or volatile.

MB: Surely SEO means that the best service or best site doesn’t win at the end of the day – it is just the guy with the best SEO? Isn’t there something wrong with that philosophically? For example: When I search Google, I want to know that I am seeing the top sites with the best quality content and services, not with the best and most expensive SEO attached to them?

RF: Unfortunately, like everything else in the world, the “best” service/site is A) subjective and B) influencable. The job of a marketer in any field is to make their product or service perceived as the best. In the online world, the SEO’s job is to do that with both the searchers themselves and the search engines. Saying “the best website should always rank first,” is like saying “the politician whose legislative proposals make the most sense should always win the election.” Tragically, both are naive views, and both practices (politics and search rankings) leverage marketing.

MB: How does mobile change the search game?

RF: It means that many more queries will be made on mobile devices and very frequently, will have some component of local intent to them. For content creators and local, small businesses, this is a huge opportunity.

MB: Do SEO professionals need to start paying attention to Bing?

RF: Not until A) they make their algorithmic/ranking process dramatically different to Google (today they’re quite similar) and B) they dramatically improve their share of the search engine market

Image: Moz

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