Playing By Google's Rules: Why Traditional SEO No Longer Provides Long-Term Growth

Google's Sandbox

One of the questions companies ask us most frequently is "how can we rank on the first page of Google?"

The honest answer isn't quite as simple as people want to hear. Unless you're a very specific sort of company with a very specific sort of website, there's a great chance you cannot rank organically on the first page of Google.

Being behind the scenes of digital marketing isn't always glamorous, and sometimes it seems as if half of the job is breaking bad news to clients. But the reality is that today's search engine world is pay-to-play, and free publicity isn't in the rules.

One of the benefits of managing a wide variety of digital marketing campaigns is having a bird's eye view of what works and what doesn't work. We've worked on campaigns all over the world: social media startups, airfare companies, investment groups, NGOs, fashion, tech, and health.

While there are a few consistent rules you can apply to all business, there isn't a single global truth to which sort of marketing works for all. There's no single recipe for success: every vertical is different. The most important trend we've observed is that as Google gets smarter and algorithms improve, the only thing that will increase your rankings is by making a website that's actually more helpful to users.

But which industries work well with SEO? Which don't?

One of the verticals in which SEO does work best is local businesses. If you're a small coffeeshop, a mini-storage, a restaurant, or a local plumber, you've got a high potential for being able to increase your rankings through SEO. In a world where so many industries are behind the times with their digital presence, simply putting your ducks in a row can put you on the front page for "coffeeshops in Duluth". The great news is, if you've got some basic technical prowess, it doesn't even require hiring an SEO company to do this for you. Modernizing your website, making sure your social presence is active, and signing up for Google My Business will get you 80% of the way there.

Another vertical in which SEO works is content-heavy sites. If your business model revolves around steady production of content (magazines, travel sites, educational sites, review sites, local news, and others) then chances are you're a prime candidate for attaining high rankings. That's because your site is built around helping and educating viewers, not selling something to them.

And that's where the next part comes in: industries that SEO doesn't work as well for any longer.

In a nutshell, that's websites that are selling things: ecommerce stores, professional services that aren't localized, affiliate sites, and product-based websites. If you don't believe me, do a search for TVs. The front page (with the exclusion of ads) won't give you a listing of places to buy'll give you review sites, manufacturers like Samsung, and sites you will never outrank like Amazon or Walmart.

"In many cases, it's not just about optimizing a page for a keyword, or earning links to that page, but about what your brand means to people and how the entity of your brand or organization might be associated with topics and topical authority in Google's eyes." - Rand Fishkin, Moz

Google places an emphasis on sites that help users, not sites that are selling to users.

This is a difficult transition in the market for many smaller ecommerce and service professionals who saw success with SEO five or ten years ago. What used to work doesn't any longer: for many niches, SEO is an outdated model for attracting traffic, and if done improperly could actually be dangerous for your rankings. Backlinks, keyword stuffing, Web 2.0, PBNs, and the myriad of other black-hat tactics so many SEO companies do in the background will only trade short-term ranking increases for long-term stability.

Paying for immediate results is always more attractive to a company rather than waiting for long-term results, but that's what we're seeing the industry evolve to. And that's why we encourage a solid content marketing strategy that's geared towards helping users, rather than forcing them into an outdated sales funnel (we hate sales funnels!)

When playing in Google's sandbox, you've got to play by the rules. And Google's business model requires a fee. This fee is AdWords, and we have seen the most success with our clients by creating a hybrid approach by combining a PPC campaign with an organic content marketing strategy. This is mirrored in what we see in social media advertising: the way to increase conversions and improve ROI is by boosting organic content like blog posts, not running pure ads.

In the end, Google's algorithms are meant to help the average internet user have a better experience using their service. They know people hate being funneled into a generated landing page, so they penalize sites that use outdated attempts at pushing for sales. But they know people enjoy reading a quality educational post that enlightens them to the topic at hand: and those posts are going to be rewarded with a higher ranking.

In this industry you'll see a lot of claims, but hear very few guarantees to actually increase your revenue. Which is, after all, the entire point of digital marketing.

This is why we encourage testing, analysis, and making data-driven decisions when you're embarking upon a strategy. Don't pay for what you haven't tested. And be patient: don't believe it if they say you can make $8000 a week at home in your mother's basement.

Like everything, success and profit comes with a lot of hard work, careful thought, and patience.

Gil Gildner
Gil Gildner

Former creative type, current dork. Cofounder of search marketing company Discosloth. I'm into beer, Blade Runner, and fast German cars.

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