There’s a war going on my fellow SEOs and Search Marketers. Has been for a couple of years now. The war on organic data.
It was a war that started off very covertly, almost without incidence, as noted by Jon Henshaw over 2 years ago on Raven Tool’s Blog. Google, by way of depreciated APIs, quietly pulled SERP [Search Engine Results Page] ranking data. Which then led to more and more companies scraping the results from Google and placing an extra burden on their servers. And, perhaps Google was banking on the fact, though somewhat quietly kept, Google Webmaster Tools has had “ranking data” for over 3 years now. Maybe this was Google’s evolutionary step? Nonetheless, it was the one of the first assaults on organic data; Google’s conscious and deliberate action to close off a major pipeline to SEOs and Webmasters. It registered as nothing more than a blip to most of the community, myself included, but the SEO tool companies probably had a good idea where it was headed. Maybe they decided to just “wait and see”?
2011: Google Kicks in the Door
A year after Google shut off the Ranking Data APIs, they got brazen. They gathered up the troops and kicked the down the door to the SEO house, fingers
hugging the triggers. It was akin to enacting Google’s own personal Patriot Act. They black-boxed the organic search data. “NOT PROVIDED”. Users who were signed-in or using SSL Google searches would appear as “not provided” in your organic search keyword data to help “maintain the privacy”. All under the guise of privacy. Immediately this change was said to only affect less than 10% of data in analytics. “Single digits”, was the quote from Matt Cutts.
2012: One Year of “Not Provided”
Danny Sullivan’s excellent write up “Dark Google” tells the story. Single digits? It’s hard to imagine that Matt could say it and keep a straight face. I don’t know about you, but my sites are consistently between 1o% and 15% “not provided”. And, in some extreme cases, they range near 25%. 25% shielded keyword data for a small business is pretty big, and pretty crappy. That’s an awfully large gaping hole to be missing out on. How can they [small businesses] help it that people are signed-in or starting off in “https” search? That’s a ton of valuable data that small businesses could be using to help them analyze customer behavior, to help them write better, more targeted content to their customers, and to help them expand and refine their consumer funnels to convert more and stay afloat in an economy that still moving sideways. I think of it this way: if Google suddenly lost 15% of its collected search data overnight, don’t you think they’d be pretty pissed off? Just, “poof”, and it’s gone.
Losing That Data Might Be the Best Thing For SEOs
I know that it sounds backwards, but hear me out. Also, let’s put aside the obvious here: of course this move was intended to get every business involved in Paid Search (not just the those who spend millions over millions every year). Because like SEOs, Google knows it’s the thousands of small accounts [mid-tail/long-tail] that add up. If you ensure the data that was once free has to route through a paid resource, you’re going to get a large swath of folks to jump on board and buy-in.
Perhaps it was all part of their design (can’t discount that theory), but losing organic data has forced SEOs and Search marketers to expand their tool-kit to get that data. When you can’t rely on a single source, you’ve got to employ multiple channels (i.e. social, content, CRO, etc.) to piece together the story again. I won’t lie, that’s a stretch (even to the writer). However, there’s a small nugget of truth that this assault on organic data has forced us to become better marketers.
2013 and Beyond
The more Google pushes its own products (i.e. Gmail, Places, Google Drive, Insights & Trends) to its social platform (Google+) to create a fluid SUPER-DATA-HIVE, the more users must be signed in to interact. Luckily, Google+ hasn’t quite pulled off the interaction and engagement with users it hoped to (so far). Then add in Firefox moving to Google SSL search by default and iOS6 doing the same. What you get is a “black box” on organic data that is the size of Utah, and is only going to get larger and more vacuous. It is their data to do with as they please, after all. The hypocritical precedent set a year ago by Google will continue onward: “user privacy”. They clearly don’t want to be viewed under the same lens as Facebook.
I think that by the end of 2013 organic site data will reduced to drips from a leaky faucet as SSL search become the rule and not the exception. I can’t say what the end-game is here; whether its Google constructing a service to “buy back” organic data that they anonymize or making SEOs piece together the puzzle from several different platform strands. Or, just so it can be said aloud, push every business into AdWords platform to get “all the consumer data”. It certainly seems like that’s the objective with all these maneuvers: squeeze SEOs organic data into a corner so small that it becomes non-representative of overall searcher/consumer behavior.
In the era of “Big Data” and fast technology, it’s hard not to see HISTORY as the long chalk-smeared blackboard we want it to be. A relic of fragmented of letters. Broken thoughts and speech unlearned. We’re so intent on making up the “new rules” on the underpinnings of the “new marketing”, that we’ve thrown HISTORY to the dogs. They can’t teach us, because they don’t know.
Data-driven marketing is indeed smart, timely, and prudent, you’ll get no argument from me. We’d be foolish to abandon and squander the opportunity. But, I’ve given to thinking about data and people in the following way: like the double-slit experiment people behave differently when they know they’re being observed. Insomuch the data is blur of what’s real behavior and what’s not. Before we could ever calculate what a human interaction was worth, we were left with observation of interaction, sans data, in order to manifest strategy. It’s the one big problem with Big Data, everyone has access to it. Whether you can interpret and analyze that data is another question.
The Prince is the quintessential playbook on political strategy, and you can see its footprints and fingerprints throughout the 20th and 21st century political landscape. It altered the status quo going forward. It’s been adopted beyond the the political arena much like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been incorporated into business strategy and maneuvering. And, while the connotations of “Machiavelli” make you think of Evil Spock, and generally despicable-mad-genius behavior, it shouldn’t. Machiavelli had the gumption to unfold the dark-side of the human condition in a way that Shakespeare never could, and for this he’s been persona non grata in both strategic and literary circles for centuries, until his revival about century ago. So what’s the point, Tony?
All the Big Data and data-driven decisions in the world are just numbers, independent of relationship or action, without first defining a set of strategic rules in which to leverage all this data to create personas, paradigms, and models. While Chapter 7 in “The Prince” is most often referenced, I believe it is Chapter 3 that provides the greatest deal of insight. It’s this chapter that explains how Louis XII lost his hold on Italy and the five mistakes he made. These are five rules that every SEO and digital marketer can use as a guidepost to conduct search.
The Five Guidelines of Machiavellian Search
Machiavelli touted that Louis XII made five mistakes that proceeded to be the catalyst to his loss of Italy:
- He had crushed the smaller Powers
- He increased the power of a single person so that it became supreme
- He brought in a very powerful foreign ally
- He ruled his conquered land from afar
- He established military presence before colonies
These five costly mistakes can be transposed as rules or guidelines to help us engineer solid SEO and Search strategy.
1: Never Disregard Topical Niche Sites
While the largest hubs on the web cater to variety of people, personalities, and interests, and consequently provide the largest funnels of traffic, it’s the niche/small sites that can become your greatest champion. Niche sites serve people who are dedicated and fanatical about the topic (whatever it may be). They provide high rates of conversion, high levels of engagement, higher rates of shareability to other like-minded users. Take the time to do the research and find them for your target segments and forge relationships; they’re likely the ones peppering the first couple pages of results for terms and phrases your client wants to be seen for too. Forsaking the niche sites in favor of aggregation-esque sites may drive traffic, but won’t lend itself to long-term loyalty.
Data-driven marketing decisions are likely ignore the niche sites. The numbers would likely tell you that more wide-reaching, heavily trafficked sites bring more (but not necessarily of what matters).
2: Never Give a Single SEO/Search Strategy All the Power
It’s the common adage: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If you’re locked into a single way of doing this or doing that, you had better know that it’s going to work like gangbusters. The danger of a single strategy is that it perpetuates lock-step thinking; no one is allowed to move beyond a certain space as it must be able to tie back to THE STRATEGY. Whether it’s a content strategy, a link building strategy, or optimization schema.
Diversification of SEO and search strategies, like portfolios, helps to create balance, helps to target different segments and personas, and helps to lessen the effect of a single strategy that tanks. Moreover, strategy diversification helps to foster unconventional thinking that can snowball into new strategies that can measured with data.
3: There’s No Turning Back From the Dark-Side
As an SEO/Search Marketer once you slide into the place where ethics become “flexible”, it’s difficult to turn back from that. Each step takes you a little further down the slope, and before you know it, it’s become the way.
4: Never Follow the Data Blindly
Data is the best tool you have and it’s also the worst enemy you have. As I mentioned up top, the massive influx of data points has helped engineer more laser-guided strategy. But, it’s also that influx, the tsunami of data points, that can cause hesitation, and frankly voltage overload. The moment you stop analyzing and interrogating the data, tearing it down and unpacking it, and point to it as all the proof you need, is the moment you need to stop using it. Anyone can build a story around a number, bend it however they want to (just take a look at the latest political season); it’s not going to help you create a great search strategy.
5: Core SEO is at the Heart of Strategic SEO
When I say Core SEO, I’m referring to things like technical website architecture, information architecture, taxonomy, PageSpeed, canonical domain, etc. These are the lifeblood of every single strategic SEO campaign because without solid foundation no search strategy will perform as optimally as it could. To bring it back to Machiavelli’s 5th mistake, crafting a potent, kick-ass search strategy to funnel people onto a busted site is to militarize your new found land before you have a base of people to support you.
Data is good, great even, it’s become the status quo. As my friend Hugo Guzman says,” is redefining what it means to be skilled marketer in the digital age“. But don’t be so quick forget that strategy was built long before “data” even had a definition, built off the back of hypothesis, observation, testing, and postulation. Don’t disregard historical observations and behavior just because there isn’t a percentage you can attach to it.
“I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.” – Niccolo Machiavelli
It’s taken over a decade, but I believe that we’ve finally arrived at the point where SEO and search have entered the stage of ubiquity. Perhaps we were at the long downhill slide a few years ago with the explosion of Search and SEO, with the explosion conferences. But, it’s ever-present now. It’s sauntering through the halls of every agency, it’s dribbling off the lips of small business owners, and it’s the little voice in every head of every executive at the boardroom table. It’s in the common vernacular of how we talk about digital marketing: “what’s SEO’s part?”. And, we’ve waited a long time for this recognition, the juncture where it’s common place for businesses to ask how we optimize and leverage search. Ubiquitization. We might do well to be careful for what we wish for. And, of course, the caveat to that, is just because they know they need it, doesn’t mean they “get it”. But that’s a separate post entirely. And, perhaps, a nice follow-up to this one?
Ubiquity has it’s price. I think we realized this a couple of years ago as an industry, as a field, but it was better to say nothing. It was important to enjoy the renaissance, the birth of a long overdue movement treading water in the digital undercurrent as the long-toothed serfs of the digital world. What ubiquity brings in terms of positives for the industry is acutely contrasted by its negatives.
Same As It Ever Was
Recently, Rand Fishkin posted a Whiteboard Friday that discussed the SEO’s job. Specifically, it’s this quote: “The SEO’s job, in my opinion, should have no boundaries other than what are the things that positively influence this cycle. What are the things that will help you achieve your goals?”
Inherently, I can’t disagree with Rand’s assertion: SEO’s job is whatever is necessary to help the client and achieve the goal. It’s what I’ve spent my career doing (and likely what you’ve spent yours doing too), learning technical website structure, learning UX, learning enough about design and its advances over the years to make websites accessible, learning social, learning content strategy, learning to architect search strategies, unlearning how to write to write for the web, etc. King of all, master of none. Because each affects the end goal of throughput of a website, whatever that particular throughput is.
Hasn’t it always been this way? The fact is SEOs have always been responsible for a website’s throughput. When throughput was visits, it was our SEO that was held accountable for the throughput metric. When the throughput was TOS (Time on Site), it was SEO that was responsible for this metric too. We all know too well that throughput is a multi-shaped, multi-shifting creature (depending on the site), but if the company uses SEO/Search, you can bet your ass SEO is invariably being bonded to that throughput’s success or failure. When SEO claimed the lion-share of success, it bears the burden of failure.
As companies demanded more from throughput metrics, as the traditional ROI metrics began to filter down to the digital space, and the analytics became ever more capable of measuring traditional ROIs, the role/job of SEOs expanded. Traffic and SERP Position isn’t enough to satisfy traditional ROI metrics concerned with sales/dollars. Traditional ROI metrics demanded that SEOs incorporate other skills, become more holistic in their approach to satisfy ROI, expand their narrow focus.
And, just to wrap up the point, once SEOs were seemingly responsible for a website’s success or failure, it became less about the SEO (but that always remained our core strength) and traffic and rankings, but blending these techniques with other disciplines to create a throughput monster. The job expanded from necessity to become as valuable to the market as possible, to keep business moving through the door, and to earn as much as the market would bear. This is really no different than any other service industry job: create as much value as you can to create as much profit and growth as you can. However, the explosive expansion of the job role coupled with the explosive expansion of information available from professionals has led to a state of marketplace saturation. And, so here we are today: ubiquity.
Positive Change of Ubiquitization
There’s Enough Pie To Go Around. For Now.
It’s not all bad. Ubiquitization of SEO/Search has brought more people to the table than ever before. From giant Fortune 500 brands to neighborhood corner businesses, everyone is of the understanding that SEO is must have. It is an essential tool and channel in the marketing arsenal and practically writes itself into scopes of work (we’ll get back to this point later). The days of working really hard to get businesses to see the value are all but gone; they’re finding us now and convincing us why they are a good candidate for our services. Is that oversimplified? Ya. Granted, there are always small factions that lag behind and insist they will catch up when it’s time. And, there’s no denying the magic two-step of the Dog and Pony Show plays to an endless record.
The ubiquitization of SEO has led to more opportunities for more people and agencies. There are more slices of the pie to go around, offering entrepreneurial folks the ability to build something sustainable and scratch out a living thanks to the expanded job role of SEO. But, eeking out a living is as close to nirvana many will get to. In fact this post illustrates these points beautifully, and published today no less. We Can’t Help Every SEO Prospect!, makes the point for me. For every seasoned professional that turns down a site for one these reasons, there’s an opportunity for an other SEO to pick it up (yep, even the “ethics”. Some SEOs are bendy that way 🙂 ).
As much as we’d like to think that SEO is still a highly specialized marketing field that deserves a handsome reward, our collective work on a number of different battlefields and boardrooms over the last decade to make it inclusive to marketing mix, has also caused its commoditization. Like any commodity, there will be concentrated pockets and coffee-drip waterfalls, and has truly become a price vs. brand service.
Negative Change of Ubiquitization
The Monolith of the Super-Group and Homogenization of SEO
Evenutally, the concentrated pockets will grow and trickle-down will become less. It’s already started to happen; independent SEOs and those running small SEO/Search shops are packing in the tent for the seemingly greener pastures of agency-life (both digital and search). The information and voices have already started to become more concentrated and are coalescing, take Moz/Distilled, iAcquire, SEER, Blueglass, etc., as examples. And, concentrated pockets of influence tend to try and make things more homogeneous than they already are. They attempt to mainstream it and mainline it. Because, after all, when it’s about price (which it is), only brands are worth paying the premium for. It’s no real coincidence that Moz hooked up with Distilled 4 years ago to off-load the SEO/Search Clients, to focus on tools. And, it’s no real coincidence that Search “super-groups” are commonplace, and why every traditional and digital agency is hounding (and getting) the best SEOs with chops.
The attempted (still in progress) hijacking of SEO to be “inbound marketing” is just the latest attempt to mainstream it and mainline it. Make SEO a faceless, unassuming thing. Just another channel in the tome of the marketing playbook that everyone can lay claim to. By the end of 2013, I strongly suspect and agree, as Tad Chef so eloquently put it in his piece on The Future of SEO in 2013 will ultimately have to be “[…]about giving SEO a new meaning.” If not, you can either join an agency, go in-house, or become a marketer. That’s where this train intends to stop. Where the companies pay top dollar for “inbound marketing”, and the SEOs are working themselves into the grave taking the clients that “can’t be helped”.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma of SEO
Commoditization through our new-found ubiquity is/will be making life hell for Independent/Small SEO shops and small businesses alike. Maybe you got lucky and hooked with a big firm and get fed a stream of business to contract out on. If that’s the case, this might not apply to you. But, for the small business it’s about price. Plain and simple.
Their margins are slim enough, that they’re not going to want dump that into the prices being asked by Premium Search Brands, which means they’re going to haggle and shakedown every independent and small firm to the cent. It’ll be no different than any service or product that drops down from the “premium” tier; you’re willing to pay less in the hopes that what you buy gets you to the point-in-time down the road when you can upgrade. Make no mistake that small businesses are just as needy, if not more so. They intend to get every penny worth and ever so gently (though sometimes not) bend that scope. Indeed, it’s cynical, but it’s straight economics and a ever-revolving Prisoner’s Dilemma. The trick is learn how to cooperate to survive so every gets the best of the situation. Small shops and independent SEOs will have to cobble together several of these projects to make ends meet, struggling to keep it together until they either move up the Tier Structure or pack it in.
Going forward, I have to be honest and admit I don’t know how this shakes out. The industry is, and for the most part always has been, in its own Prisoner’s Dilemma. Experience and historical trends tell me that the Search and SEO industry shifted the gear to warp drive on this course. There’s always the possibility that this trend will reverse itself.