Despite the best efforts of search providers, link spam is a self-fulfilling, guaranteed income.

SEO has become a dirty word these days. When people think of SEO they often think of shady practises such as comment spam, scraped content, horribly written outsourced text and so on. It’s not just within the SEO community either. There has been mainstream coverage about how SEO is dead and nobody needs to do it.

Do I agree? Actually, I agree with the majority of what is being said. Aggressive SEO is dying. Black hat SEO is dying. ‘Grey hat’ SEO is dying. Heck, even a lot of the stuff that people refer to as ‘white hat’ SEO is dying. The fact that it’s dying is probably a good thing.

But spam is NOT dead. I keep seeing people getting banned for spamming, only to then buy a new domain and get right back on the spam train. I saw a website ranking #1 for ‘SEO Company’. They got banned, and four weeks later, they have a new domain that’s also #1 for ‘SEO Company’. All their clients got screwed. Yet the blurb reads ‘100 % WHITE HAT! 100% SAFE!’

To claim this when you just got your clients and your old domain heavily penalised is essentially fraud; and let’s not forget that nobody, anywhere, could EVER claim their service is 100% safe. You have no idea what Google or Bing might pull out their hat tomorrow. You can claim to be white-hat if you actually follow the guidelines the search engines release (and follow them to the letter). But you still can’t claim you’re ‘100% safe’ or ‘future proof’.

I personally don’t feel obligated to make Google’s search results prettier. My beef with black hat SEO is not that it upsets Google. It’s that it destroys the websites of innocent bricks and mortar companies that have invested too much money in building a brand to buy a new domain and start again. For the black hat people spamming away to promote their own sites, selling their own products, I don’t really care unless they inflict their risk on others.

The one type of business that can afford to take risks with link spam is the spammers themselves:

Spammers cycle through domains to stay in profit

In this way, spam self-fulfills. Google’s fight against spam is a fight against market forces. I do believe Google COULD eventually ‘win’ (in that, for most people, spam will not be worth the risk) but I also think that people will be able to get (temporary) results with spam for years to come. Maybe forever.

The temporary nature of spam doesn’t pose a threat to churn and burn SEO’s. Affiliate marketers will still hand over their life savings to the black-hat SEO people.

Cleaning up the acronym!

SEO is not link spam, because link spam doesn’t involve optimising anything. However, when the average Jo or Jane gets their fingers burned, how are they going to know the difference? In all honesty, link building is not really SEO either. A great no followed link from an awesome website will get you traffic that is unaffected by Google policy. So it doesn’t help SEO, but it gets you traffic.

spam-rage

“But it’s comment marketing…”

Let’s be honest. Doing -just- SEO wastes other opportunities. Seriously. SEO can get you free additional traffic from search engines. Paid search will get you visitors too, and get results very quickly. UX will get you better conversions from the same amount of traffic. Link building will get you extra traffic that’s not dependent on search engines, AND help your search traffic. Social media will help your PR and push your brand at a wider audience. Email marketing can get you some loyal business interest. PPC advertising on non-search channels can make a nice return as well.

How many SEO’s out there have never done some of this stuff? It often makes sense to attack from all fronts. When SEO is part of the marketing mix it helps extract more value from your other marketing. And I think that’s where SEO belongs and will continue to belong for a long time.

An offline parallel to SEO: library science.

Tangent time: It’s true that SEO is related to marketing and somewhat related to web development; however, it’s actually more closely related to archival/library science or information retrieval system development than anything else. This flies in the face of the consensus but I think it’s true.

If you dig through the annals of SEO history to the time before SEO was something anyone knew about (and before the existence of Google I might add) you had people such as Eric Ward, who didn’t know about tricking Google then, and who happily admits he doesn’t know now. It doesn’t matter, because he has a background in library science, and as a result, understands a lot about the categorisation of information, information retrieval, and other fundamentals of search. Google ‘link-building expert’ and see what happens!

Library Science

The analogue SERPS have always been a bit more of a hassle to navigate

Let’s say you are an author that specialises in a certain topic. You want to get more exposure at the library. Let’s imagine your topic is engineering. One way to dominate the engineering section of the library is to get a book into as many categories as possible. That involves writing a lot of books – one about structural engineering, one about electronics engineering, etc. That is some pretty time consuming stuff! This is okay, as each book is an investment that will bring more readers.

The real issue here is that the books have to actually be good enough to get into the library in the first place – which means two things:

  • The content needs to be completely new

OR

  • If it’s not completely new, it has to be a more useful resource than its competing equivalents.

To put my metaphor out of its misery:

  • ‘Books’ are webpages
  • ‘Categories’ are niches
  • The ‘library’ is the search results.

This is how I visualise it when Google and others say to ‘act as if the search engines aren’t there’. The search engine is the shop window, and you’re trying to optimise for the customers peering through it. Search engines are just robotic interfaces for finding stuff, and robots don’t buy anything.

servers

..not your customers

As more and more data is being electronically stored and retrieved, there is a need for search expertise, even when completely separate from marketing and even from the web. Academic libraries and online journal depositories (such as JSTOR) need excellent search functionality and information organisation. Social networks, recruitment sites, eCommerce – not every search is conducted on a search engine. So even in a search engine vacuum there are areas where thinking logically about search can add value to an organisation.

Passion is not enough if it’s not delivered in a way search engines can see

Moving back to the web, the mantra of ‘ignore SEO and just create amazing content’ is the message you will get from a lot of people. But that’s not useful. ‘Create amazing content’. It’s a bit like saying ‘start a successful business’, or ‘become a musical genius.’ Creating amazing content is really difficult, and time consuming. It’s not enough on its own either!

If you can categorise & schedule your content according to the wants & needs of your audience, your website will get traffic. However, you will be unlikely to get the full potential out of your content unless you think about SEO, as whilst your content could well be great, your site might just not be optimised for search engines. That’s that crucial letter O making its appearance!

The following activities will always be valuable:

  • Identifying what people are searching for
  • Identifying the gaps in the content that is available
  • Creating content that fills those gaps

Also valuable:

  • Going through existing content and making tweaks to bring it in line with the sorts of things people are searching
  • Going through existing content and making it’s topic more obvious to search engines
  • Coming up with core topics to target based on your levels of existing visibility

Also also valuable:

  • Thinking about ways of encouraging people to link to you
  • Thinking of ways to optimise your site for crawlers, getting rid of pointless duplication of pages, making sure you redirect things properly, being standards compliant, following search engine guidelines, and keeping your site updated, etc.

Spamming is no use for real companies. Google only want to count genuinely editorial links and they are getting better at making this a reality. They have actual PhD mathematicians working on this, and nobody is going to win at outsmarting them in the long run. That said, in the short term, spam is king.

Spam and SEO are going to have to coexist for some time. Unless something is done to combat spam more effectively, the only thing that’s going to die is SEO’s reputation.

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