Now, there have always been bones of contention between Google and the SEO community; some believe that Google hates SEOs, while others believe that Google actually needs us.
I was always in the camp that thought Google knew they needed the SEO community because they cannot control the end product. No matter how great the search results, the end product is still the website. If the websites returned by Google are not very usable or relevant, then people won’t use Google to find them.
This has made the SEO industry an almost necessary go-between, giving Google a fairly direct method to affect site quality by getting SEOs to communicate their rules to publishers.
However, in light of Google’s recent actions — such as bypassing standard SEO industry channels to announce major changes and representatives telling us they know five percent or less of the algorithms — I think we need to consider the possibility that they’ve begun to care much less about transparently communicating Google’s website guidelines to SEOs and publishers.
Of course, those of us who spend our lives immersed in these algorithms know that is not likely to be a successful strategy. No matter how many helpful Webmaster Guidelines you put out, the average site owner will still never understand the intricacies of what makes a good site without help from a knowledgeable SEO practitioner.
It will also do little to stop spam, as spammers represent money, and money can always get around Google. However, for the rest of us in the industry, SEO is starting to become a painful process.
The loss of Matt Cutts
Matt Cutts — Google’s former head of web spam who went on leave indefinitely back in July 2014 — was always a polarizing figure in search. Some thought he purposefully misdirected the industry, while others felt that you just needed to understand “Matt Speak,” and you could learn a lot from what he said (or more importantly, what he did not say). I fell into the latter category.
However you slice it, Cutts had a very difficult role. I felt he did his best within the parameters of that role to help us understand how search worked and how it didn’t. He had a fine line to walk between the needs of the industry and the company he worked for, but I felt he did this well.
The Cutts transparency effect
Cutts played a large role in what was communicated to publishers and SEO professionals. There was advance notice of changes, sometimes months or years ahead. Publishers were told when algorithms were updated and guidelines were changed, and Cutts made himself available to answer questions via Twitter and YouTube videos and at industry events.
Matt Cutts helped create the rules. He understood those rules, and he communicated those rules to us to the extent that he could. For all the controversy around his role, Cutts was the little bit of transparency between Google, its algorithms, SEOs and publishers.
Then things changed. Google released Hummingbird, their entity-focused algorithm. Cutts went on leave soon after. Now we have machine learning and RankBrain, and spam-fighting algorithm updates like Penguin will soon be occurring in real time. Google is relying more and more on AI and seemingly less and less on humans. Whether or not that is a good thing is yet to be known.
Personally, I find search quality outside of “micro-moments” like reviews, times and directions to be sorely lacking these days. More and more, I go to Facebook for answers because I can no longer find them in Google. Google uses AI to throw me a kitchen sink when it is not sure, and that kitchen sink rarely has much in it that’s useful for me.
However, anecdotal experience is not evidence of anything.
What I do know is that the information coming out of Google about organic search has become more and more frequently convoluted and often inaccurate — so much so that in private spaces behind social walls, there is a general dismissal of Google having much information to offer the industry at all.
Google has gone deeper into their black box, and the little bit of transparency Cutts offered is gone. The rest of us are left guessing.
I think this puts Google in a dangerous position. Having worked with very large publishers, I know these sites are looking less and less for Google organic traffic and more and more for traffic they can control.
I have seen sites with more than 50 million visitors and less than 10 percent organic traffic relying more heavily on sources like Facebook (with traffic numbers as large as 50 and 60 percent). None of these sites are buying ads.
Of course, these are not commercial sites, which are much more heavily reliant on Google. But with the recent introduction of four ads on top of commercial queries and the sheer aggressiveness of the penalty algorithms such as Penguin and Panda, how long will it be before Google tips the scales against itself? When will site owners no longer care? If I can get my traffic from anywhere, and I no longer care if that traffic comes from Google, where does Google go?
And what does this mean for digital marketers?
SEO is dead
If we have seen them once, we have seen these articles hundreds of times. “SEO IS DEAD!” “THE SKY IS FALLING!” However, this is the first time in a decade I have started wondering if that writing may be on the wall, at least in terms of Google organic search.
This is not because Google does not need organic results. It is not because it is adding more ads and carousels and Knowledge Graph panels. Google still needs organic users to sell ads. Google still needs publishers to care about ranking.
The issue is that in my personal experience, those publishers that Google depends on are starting not to care as much about meeting Google Guidelines. Why put their money and effort into something that they cannot control?
When Google attacked spammers, publishers could say, “I am not a spammer,” and justify the expense of SEO. However, now that algorithms attack every aspect of a website’s presence, publishers may feel very uncertain about those waters. Why risk your boat in unknown channels, when others seems so safe and calm?
The necessity of diversification is likely the biggest driver of decreasing dependence on Google.
If I can spend $50 on psychographically targeted Facebook ads, and those users convert well, why would I spend that money optimizing my website for search engines?
If I have been hit by Penguin and am waiting 17 months for an update to get unpenalized, why do I bother trying at all? Or if an unknown quality update knocks me down, one Google does not even admits exists, when do I as a site owner stop rolling the proverbial rock up the proverbial hill?
Of course, anyone who does SEO knows there are very valid reasons to care about organic search. We know the value, but I am just not sure that the site owners still do, and the lack of transparency at Google is not making that much easier.
So what should a digital marketer do?
If you are in a highly commercial space, your job has gotten a lot harder. Product listing ads (PLAs), Knowledge Graph panels, and now four ads at the top of the page are crowding out your site, even if it is in the top organic position.
Optimizing for your commercially competitive queries will become more difficult, and the overall ad space has been reduced to seven slots total; thus, bidding may become much more competitive.
If you are using informational search, SEO hasn’t gotten harder — it has just become much more irrelevant. Whereas Google used to be very good at returning exact query results, AI goes with the “broad net” approach. If Google does not have a specific “thing” it can return, it will often return a set of more general results, leaving words out of the query set. Often, the word it leaves out is the most relevant modifier.
Then, let’s add to this the traffic-killing Knowledge Graph panels and direct answers/featured snippets. Google scrapes websites and other data sources and displays that information directly on the search results page so that users do not have to click to the actual site. If I were in that space, why would I still continue to care about Google’s engine?
Google’s ivory tower
Any way you look at it, Google has become almost solely about its bottom line. That is not new. However, over the last few years, it seems that it has become much less transparent and much more aggressive.
Google, it seems, now sits in an ivory tower, removed from the real day-to-day needs of publishers.
A lack of transparency, poor communication, hidden algorithm changes, site-killing updates that never seem to resolve — the list goes on — are all creating a negative climate that Google may come one day to regret.
This general lack of care in the Google-SEO-Publisher relationship has fostered a lot of negative sentiment towards the Search giant, but even worse, it has created sheer apathy among certain publishers.
Glimmers of yesteryear
There have been some very recent efforts to reach out to the SEO community. The return of the Google Dance — which included a private, behind-the-scenes meeting with 50 SEOs during which they were able to provide feedback — shows a potentially renewed interest in fostering communications.
Personally, I would have preferred to see a general feedback loop opened up instead of 50 individuals being selected for an off-the-record meeting. But it is a start, and of course, we all appreciate a good Google Dance. Many relationships have been forged there, including ones between the community and Google.
So maybe we are seeing a new direction. There are glimmers of hope. Maybe these efforts will usher in a new era of necessary transparency — transparency that is not just important for publishers and digital marketers, but for Google, as well. If Google continues to act so aggressively with so little transparency, the apathy is only likely to grow — and there is nothing good for Google at the end of that road.
As a famous movie once said, “You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” Okay, so we are not exactly Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.” But without digital marketers, Google will have a very hard time convincing site owners of much of anything, including the need for Google in the first place.