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Can We Stop Acting Like Robots Now?

Mike Essex

by Mike Essex on 28th February 2013

Human vs RobotFor each and every one of us somewhere along the line the SEO industry has turned us all in to robots. We tried to fight it but the desire to appease the Google robot finally hit us all and I‘m sure we can all admit at one point or another to using tactics that may have seemed a bit “robotic” or formulaic.

Robotic thinking, at least in the context of online marketing, concerns those moments where a project becomes more about ticking boxes and chasing ever growing numbers. Any time an SEO project has thought more about quantity rather than quality it’s turned us in to robots and it has to stop.

Robotic thinking corrupts the internet, the brands who put their trusts into SEO agencies and pretty much the entire Internet.

You’ll see signs of robot thinking all over the Interflora ranking drop. The entire situation smacks of people thinking like robots. With hindsight it’s easy to say that 150 advertorial links in a month and hundreds of articles with the exact same anchor text keywords would get a website hit. But when people are in robot mode and chasing rankings they can often be blind to that.

It’s the only justification to understand how such a situation arose. Despite all of their algorithm updates it’s a sorry scenario that Google still very often reward sites that manipulate the algorithm on a large scale.

Which is why Interflora had such great rankings. They were pumping out tons of content and it worked. Which could explain why they did more and more and before you know it got stuck in a vicious cycle.

When an SEO campaign becomes more about scaling every number upwards to reach large numbers instead of a long term strategy you’ve turned in to a robot.

Yet this isn’t exclusive to Interflora and actually if you look at almost any SEO tool on the market it’s easy to understand how we are all turning in to robots.

For example, here’s a screenshot from Linkdex which shows the number of links a client has in relation to other clients. We can see that in this market blogs and directories supposedly work great……..

Linkdex Graph

So what’s an SEO to do? The graph doesn’t lie and let’s face it if our client was the one with the very small light blue line on the right it looks like the only way to compete is to quickly get lots of links from blogs and directories.


That there is the exact moment we turned in to robots. It’s possibly what Interflora did and it’s just not going to work as a long term strategy any more.

The second we dictate our strategy based on a single data point, we’ve lost. Whilst there is lots of amazing data in Linkdex this is one example of how a tool can very easily change the way we approach a problem and it’s not exclusive to this report or tool.

Everywhere you look there are different metrics crying out for your attention and a multitude of KPI’s that you can use to assess the success of your campaign but just how many really help in isolation? All the tools mentioned below are brilliant for various things but results can make us look at things differently:

  • If Majestic SEO tells me a competitor beats us for SEO terms because they get links from Justin Bieber forums does that mean we should do it?
  • If our Klout, Kred and Peerindex scores are high does that mean we’re doing a great job at social media?
  • If Google Keyword tool tells me a keyword has high search volume and low competition should I choose it even if I don’t believe people would actually use it?
  • If the SEOmoz On Page Tool tells us we only have a C should we spend countless hours and money into getting an A?
  • If Link Detox tells us we have a “bad link” should we remove it without question?

There have never been more tools for SEO, which in theory should make the barrier to entry in the industry lower when really it’s never been harder to learn all you need to know. Plus if you could truly trust tools to do all of the work then what’s the difference between an SEO paid £15,000 a year and one paid £150,000?


That’s what separates the robots from the humans. Tools can make our lives amazing or they can make them hell. It’s all about knowing what data to use and what data to ignore which is something only a human can do. You can scrape as much data and build as many API spreadsheets as you want but if the person using them acts like a robot then it’s all for nothing.

For me personally my first ever robot moment was when I discovered Submiteaze many years ago. It’s a link building tool that includes lots of directories and allows you to submit to them.  I thought it was amazing and could save me hours and hours. The day I discovered the turbo submitter I thought I’d found the golden goose.

In reality most of the directories didn’t accept my requests and it just became an exercise in robotic thinking and processes. In fact when we did our own study back in 2011 in to the tool we found of 210 links none were accepted after 3 months.

So what seemed like an amazing tool was actually just a colossal waste of my time. Yet when I was thinking like a robot I thought it was unbelievably amazing and that I was doing a great job. As such, it has been a long time since I have gone anywhere near a tool like this!

Robot and Human handshake

So here’s the thing. If used incorrectly tools blind us. They encourage us to focus on single data streams – like getting an A for on page optimisation – or to constantly chase other people.

Keyword stuffing, over optimised pages, fake reviews, blog spinning and general flooding the internet with rubbish will look great to some tools. Sure you might build 100 links, sure the tool might say you’ve done amazingly but all that really matters is whether what you have done is sustainable.

Tools presume that the world is static. That the variables are fixed and that getting to X will mean you get result Y. Yet the reality is everything is constantly in flux. What ranks one day may not rank tomorrow and chasing a static metric is no guarantee of long term success.

It’s easy to feel like you are winning when you act like a robot and it’s easier to justify your progress. Saying “we built 50 links this month” is far easier than saying “we built one link all month” but if that link was great content on a strong site it’ll probably be far more stable.

I think that’s why robotic thinking happens; a desire to justify progress and a need to feel like you have a clear goal. But the types of goals we’ve relied on in the past – building more links, increasing social fans, and improving rankings – they can easily be gamed.

The metrics that matter such as engagement, brand opinion and long term increased value are harder to achieve or measure and don’t work with robotic thinking. They don’t look as good on an annual report and they don’t get bonuses for great work.

Robots get bonuses and a huge amount of praise when things are going well. Humans find it tough to justify why their long term strategies aren’t bringing in results early on. So that’s why we became robots and it’s why I’m unplugging you.

Yes you should use tools. Yes you should use checklists. Yes you should still have clear goals and strive to take on the competition but all I’m asking is think.

  • Think about whether the data your tool is giving you is what people really want
  • Think about whether scaling up is the right idea or if you can achieve more with less content
  • Think about whether you want to be the brand with 1 million followers that looks like a ghost town or the brand with 10,000 followers they talk to every day

And if nothing else think about what you’ll do the day you come in the office to find your client has fallen out of the rankings. If that doesn’t scare you in to a change then you really are a robot.

I’ll be chatting about this topic more at ionSearch in my keynote: 86 Billion Free SEO Tools: Why Your Brain Is The Best Tool Of All so would welcome any comments below that help continue the debate.

Human Robot Competition from BigStock Photo
Handshake image from BigStock Photo

Mike Essex

Mike Essex

Mike Essex specialises in digital marketing and everything search. A recent project of Mike’s was featured on BBC News, Radio 5Live and the Times here in the UK, whilst also featuring on USA Today and ABC News in the US. He will be writing throughout the month about digital marketing and much more...

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  • Ryan 28th February 2013

    Great post Mike, I can’t say I disagree with you on this one. Tools are fantastic at providing information but it is essential the brain is used to interpret the data. It is crucial to always consider what a given audience to a website wants instead of always thinking about the ‘robot’.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 28th February 2013

      Thanks Ryan. I agree and think that’s probably been one of the biggest changes in SEO in the last five years, the move away from “let’s do this for algorithms” to “let’s do this for humans”.

      Reply to this comment

    • Sahil 3rd March 2013

      Good post Mike. Totally agree with you Ryan! An SEO must never be tool obsessed and should allow his/her mind to think in order to analyze & act accordingly. A site should always be optimized by keeping an user in mind rather than a search engine just for the sake of rankings, traffic and revenue. This will not sustain on a long run.

      Reply to this comment

  • Jim Seward 28th February 2013

    Article does not compute


    404 – The comment you’re looking for can not be found

    ps…..I agree

    Reply to this comment

  • Joel Turner 28th February 2013

    Nice post Mike.

    I think the key is that there are no longer any shortcuts or ‘quick wins’ that will deliver sustained, long-term success.

    If it seems to easy, and that a tool ifs effortlessly automating something that should be time consuming and difficult, then it probably is.

    I think that using your knowledge, experience and intellect to judge the outcome of using a tool – and whether it warrants your time and investment – is just as important as implementing the tool as part of your strategy and processes.

    Really excited about your talk on this topic at ionSearch in April – will make fascinating stuff.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 28th February 2013

      Thanks Joel. My ionSearch talk will follow on from this post by looking at alternates to tools and showing ways to encourage creative ideas.

      So instead of “here’s X useful tools” it’ll be “here’s X useful ways to approach problems”. Really looking forward to it.

      Reply to this comment

  • Steve 28th February 2013

    Great post, Mike.

    The 210 web directory example really hit home for me. It’s the age-old battle of not only quantity vs. quality but also client expectations – and I’m sure there’s still some clients out there who focus and obsess on quantity (because they see it as ‘getting their money’s worth’).

    I mean it’s all well and good if you tell a client that you’ve gotten them 210 links, but if 0 go live, what’s the point? However if you spent that time getting 1 incredible ‘earned’ link (e.g. a kick-arse blog post) that you know would’ve trumped your 210 directory links, you risk the client thinking: “I’m paying you £[x] and you only got me 1 link in [y] minutes/hours?!” But I guess that’s where communication and helping the client to understand comes in – which itself is more of a human trait than a robotic one.

    Reply to this comment

    • Mike Essex

      Mike Essex 28th February 2013

      Thanks Steve. Yeah that was a real Eureka moment for me. It’s certainly hard at first to get clients to be just as impressed by a 2 page report as they would be with a 20 page one.

      I was taught from day one at Koozai that the size of the report is irrelevant even if there’s only one amazing task in the report which delivers value. Internally so long as someone on the team has fixed the basics and has a reason for devoting time to one big idea then we encourage them to do it and then it becomes about helping clients understand why it’s the top priority which is a whole other post.

      Reply to this comment

  • Matthew Redford 28th February 2013

    Thanks Mike. This post is spot on. There are so many resources and tools telling us what to do or think… or point us in the wrong direction. I tend to think “does this sound right?” or “does this sound natural?” when analyzing data or reading a post on a new SEO strategy for example. A strong dose of common sense is needed from time to time :)

    Reply to this comment

  • Alec Sharratt 1st March 2013

    Great post Mike… I totally agree, every client is different and has different affiliations, different needs and different strengths. A formula is ok so long as its general / broad and doesn’t apply to specifics.

    It seems to me like common sense should have prevailed at some point during the Interflora SEO’s strategy, but sadly common sense wasn’t on their SEO check list.

    Bite my shiny metal anchor-text.

    Reply to this comment

  • Andrew Isidoro 1st March 2013

    Another stormer Mike.

    I have to agree with pretty much everything here but I’d even take it further. We spend so much time working with robots that many miss the human side. A tool/checklist will guide you through the steps but you need to stop and think about the business and human issues that are around your decisions.

    Something I fear the whole Interflora debacle clearly missed.

    Reply to this comment

  • Bender 1st March 2013

    Bite my shiny metal ass!

    Reply to this comment

  • Jonathon Colman 4th March 2013

    Beautiful post, Mike, and exactly the sort of thing I wish the industry would realize and act on en masse. Thank you for pointing out that tools are not always the right answer for every challenge we face.

    While it’s amazing what we can do with scaling and automation, it’s also amazing how much quality can suffer.

    Reply to this comment

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