SEO is all smoke and mirrors. It doesn’t work. None of the tips, tricks, or software out there really does much of anything to boost the ranking on your SERP, aka Search Engine Ranking Page, particularly from Google. Yet, there are a multitude of professionals and non-professionals alike constantly beating the drum about all of these things you can do to improve your search ranking. Collectively, these techniques are known as Search Engine Optimization or SEO.
In reality, only three things matter. One is how many links there are to a specific webpage (adjusted in unknown fashion for quality of link). The second is what your title tag is. The third is how many other sites there are with the same title tag keywords as the search entered.
Everything else, is just billable hours for a SEO consultant.
Mystery and History of SEO
Google’s original rise to become the preeminent search engine on the Internet was based almost solely on the fact that its search results were “better” than the results from other search engines ranging from Yahoo Search, to Altavista, to Alexa, to whatever Microsoft’s search engine was called back then, if they had one. Better, in the search world, means being able to find more sites than the other guys, and for all of the sites that are found to be more relevant and less spammy than the sites returned by others.
While it took Google’s spider a while to achieve it, there can be little doubt today that Google’s index of Internet webpages is the largest one. That takes care of the first criteria. For the second criteria, things get a little trickier.
The OSEs (Original Search Engines) relied almost entirely on counting the number of keyword or key-phrases on a webpage. Later, they tried to use meta tags like description, and keywords, to help tune the results. Unfortunately, these criteria are incredibly easy to manipulate. It didn’t take long before webspam (as Google calls it) was filling up search engine results by repeating keywords hundreds of times. When search engines began to filter out that technique, websites took to creating articles stuffed with keywords. Same thing with the meta tags.
Google’s Search Algorithm Core
What let Google stand out from the pack was an algorithm that did not depend as heavily on what was on a webpage. Instead, Google ranked pages based on who linked to them and how good those links were. Since no one was actively trying to trick an algorithm like that, the rankings were surprisingly good because they were natural and not influenced by any SEO techniques.
Eventually, of course, all of that changed. As SEOs and SEO companies shifted tactics, new spamming tricks arose, things like link farms and paid-links. At every step, Google did its best to detect and filter out such tricks. And, it was very good at it, which allowed its search engine rankings to remain the best on the web even though every other search engine in the world started mimicking Google’s core ranking principal of counting the number of links.
If you want to cut to the chase, read Matt’s “disclaimer” at the top of the post about PageRank Scuplting in which he says that at least since 2000, the search engine ranking scheme that is repeated nearly verbatim by every SEO around has been through major modifications and updates. Nearly 10 years later, one can assume it would be nearly unrecognizable, but that doesn’t stop the converted from preaching to the choir.
SEOs Become Ineffective, But No One Notices
Here is where things get weird. Over the years since the basic Google algorithm became common knowledge, tiny tidbits of information about how rankings are determined have trickled out. Concepts like the Google Sandbox and so on also became part of the SEO knowledge base, but then it all stopped. In the last few years there have been virtually no new techniques added to the pile of SEO tricks. So, either you believe that Google stopped improving its system, or you have to believe that SEOs have been made irrelevant. Oddly, most people somehow choose to believe that both statements are false, although such an outcome is mutually exclusive.
These days, only two widely accepted ideas actually retain any value. One is the Title tag which is still overly influential in how a specific page ranks for a particular keyword or keyphrase. The other is how many links there are pointing to a particular webpage using particular keywords.
This became inherently obvious thanks to something called Google Bombing. Google Bombing is when a lot of websites all link to a specific webpage using a specific keyword phrase. When enough sites do this, the webpage targeted would rise through the ranks of Google’s search rankings. The most famous Google Bomb incident was making President George Bush (The Younger) bio page at whitehouse.gov to rank #1 for the phrase “miserable failure” despite the fact that neither word appeared anywhere in any form on the page.
In other words, ranking for a search term has much less to do with what is on a webpage than it does with what is on the pages that link to it. From here on out, the techniques of so-called search optimization experts didn’t evolve much. Instead, what evovled was their sales pitch.
SEOs today don’t say they can get you to a #1 Search Engine Ranking in a keyword or phrase that is commonly used (because they can’t) but rather that they can give you a number one SERP spot for not-commonly used, or less competitive, keywords. In fact, the SEO business is less about getting you a ranking than telling you what you should be trying to rank for! It is about here that we jumped off the wagon, though we kept listing it as a service offering to remain competitive with other writers. (We’ve never had a SEO only project.)
Recently, Matt Cutts, one of Google’s Senior Webspam Engineers and owner of a nearly universally read blog in the world of SEO outed the so-called SEO-pros in a blog posting, although none of them are acknowledging it that way. In a June 15, posting on Cutt’s blog he states in clear terms that one of the most common SEO tactics, which he terms PageRank Scultping, is utter nonsense.
PageRank Sculpting is the practice of trying to improve the PageRank of specific webpages by linking to them in specific ways, while at the same time either not linking, or adding the nofollow tag to the links that don’t point to the exact locations you want them to. The idea being that this will channel all of your good linking juju, known as “Link Juice” around the web to your best pages which will make them rank higher.
It turns out, that despite the concept being practiced and touted by virtually EVERY SEO anywhere (until June 15th, that is), it is utter nonsense that hasn’t worked for a very long time.
The important points from Matt’s post:
More than a year ago, Google changed how the PageRank flows
…some crawl/indexing/quality folks noticed some sites that attempted to change how PageRank flowed within their sites, but those sites ended up excluding sections of their site that had high-quality information
And then, the kicker that proves SEO is nothing more than Internet snakeoil:
Q: Why tell us now?
A: For a couple reasons. At first, we figured that site owners or people running tests would notice, but they didn’t. In retrospect, we’ve changed other, larger aspects of how we look at links and people didn’t notice that either, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
In other words, the only SEO tricks that the Search Engine Optimization community knows are those that are either a) out of date, or b) spoon fed to so-called SEO-pros so that the work they do will be more in line with what Google wants them to be doing. While Matt’s rationale for releasing the information is no doubt accurate up to a point, it likely isn’t the whole truth.
Google has probably noticed that the affects of PageRank sculpting have been making Google’s rankings worse and the complexity of fixing it by undoing what SEO experts are telling everyone to do, is no longer worth it. By passing out this tidbit, Google can end the practice of adding nofollow links to all manner of links on various websites for no reason other than attempting to artificially raise the ranking of another page on the website.
All of which leads inexorably to here. For every petty trick that some SEO claims to “know for a fact that it works” there is a counter-move in Google’s search engine ranking algorithm. If having a long URL with keywords separated by hyphens ever did help get a higher page rank, you can be sure that as soon as it became ridiculous, that Google either stopped using it altogether or made major modifications to how the data was used. Unfortunately, the SEO experts never changed their advice, so now thousands of websites have unweildly URLs that offer no benefit, but ensure that they will never be used or remembered by humans. You have to wonder how much that advice was worth.
We’ve been working on some search engine ranking tests of our own. Some, ironically, were to prove that certain SEO tactics offered no benefit. Others are to discover what things might actually have usable value.
In the meantime, the best advice is the same as it has always been. Producing good quality, useful, information and lots of it is the best way to a higher page rank. From that part of SEO, we CAN help improve your website’s PageRank by writing customized high-quality content on your topic. Maybe, we are SEO professionals after all.