CALL IT “BLACK WEDNESDAY” FOR the SEO industry. Last week, just a day before wowing Wall Street with its earnings, Google adjusted its organic PageRank algorithm in a way that resulted in a major drop in rankings for many sites, both large (such as Forbes.com and WashingtonPost.com) and small. The algorithm shift wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was a major shock that prompted loud shrieks of protest from the SEO community after their clients’ sites started disappearing from Google’s SERPs.
As the SEOers gathered on blogs, licking their wounds, a myriad of crazy conspiracy theories emerged. One formerly top-ranked SEO blogger who saw his PageRank drop from 5 to 3 speculated that Google downgraded his ranking because Google didn’t like his politics. Others characterized Google’s update as a “jihad” (a loaded word these days) against the whole SEO industry.
We’ve seen this all before, of course. Every time Google makes a change to its organic algorithm, SEOers scurry and panic as they try to figure out a new way to reverse-engineer what Google is doing — and then sell this solution as a high-priced “secret sauce” to their credulous clients. Even when armed with advance information that Google is scrutinizing their tactics, they fail to clean up their act — and the result is the kind of smackdown we saw last week.
The whole crazy mess would be funny if it weren’t so sad. What’s depressing to me is there obviously remain enough people (and I’m talking about serious marketing people with serious marketing budgets) who continue to believe that you can run a business relying on organic rankings alone. This belief is as ridiculous as thinking that you can fire your sales and marketing teams and expect your business to thrive by relying on positive PR.
We all know SEO is important and that many commercial Web sites are in bad need of repair, both in regards to search engine visibility and in terms of general usability. But the mindset of many SEO practitioners bears an alarming similarity to those of professional gamblers who believe that they’ve figured out a surefire way to win at roulette or 21. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s spent a day at Atlantic City or Vegas surely knows, the house (Google) always wins once the law of large numbers comes into play.
The same rules apply to SEO. The relevance of any particular Website is an inherent quality that can only be faked for so long. You can’t be any more relevant than you are, and you can’t expect any temporary advantages you reap through link-trading or other edgy tactics to persist, because Google watches its index as closely as the security guys at The Borgata watch the craps tables.
Black Wednesday may have been inevitable, but SEOers aren’t the only ones to blame for this debacle. Clients who allowed themselves to be drawn in by their agencies’ seductive pitches have no one else to blame for following them into this ambush and seeing their traffic drop into a mineshaft.
The tragedy is that the whole obsession with rankings and optimization has stopped people from thinking about the fundamentals of good marketing. If a business wants to be taken seriously, why not offer a better product? A more relevant Web site? A more compelling offer? A better service? A lower price? Happier clients that are willing to give you a good reference? Unfortunately, our industry’s obsession with SERP visibility has blinded us to some very obvious truths, and I hope (but do not expect) that Black Wednesday will teach this industry a much-needed lesson.