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by Stephen Logan on 21st August 2012
Businesses around the world spend billions every year on Search Engine Optimisation. With huge value placed on being top of Google, this would appear to be a safe investment. However, SEO is not a finite commodity. There is no guarantee of success and many results are unquantifiable. So why is so much faith placed in an industry where the cause and effect of activity is almost impossible to accurately measure?
The simple truth is that you are far more likely to get to the top of search rankings with SEO than without it. That’s why I use the example of the snowball effect.
Time for an analogy. Let’s imagine that every website starts as a small ball of snow at the top of hill. Each has the potential to become a huge, round mound; however, in order to fulfil that potential it must gather enough snow.
At this point you have a couple of choices. You can either wait for a kindly stranger to give it a shove, or you can do it yourself. However, even if you can achieve early momentum, without guidance your snowball can easily veer off course, become a muddy mess or even fall to pieces. So essentially you need someone to keep it on the straight and narrow.
This is what an SEO does.
If cracks start to appear, they fix them before the structural integrity can be compromised. When there’s a pile of fresh snow, or new link building opportunities, they will guide you towards it. Should things get all out of shape, an SEO can identify the issue and even things out.
But this is not a perfect process, nor is it an exact science. There are variables that nobody can control.
This is why, returning to Search Engine Optimisation, a great deal of time is invested in testing every possible combination. How do certain link sources, page layouts and elements of coding impact rankings? Should you add more content and what’s the perfect keyword density? Does site speed really have any kind of effect?
Again though, results can easily be disputed. After all, if you don’t fully understand the search algorithm (which nobody beyond the Google hierarchy does) how do you know if it’s the changes made to on-page copy, a new inbound link or just a shift in ranking factors that have caused your stock to rise? As a result, modern Search Engine Optimisation is essentially a series of educated guesses.
Best Practices and Best Guesses
An SEO can’t control everything, hence the snowball analogy. People will naturally link to site or share it with friends; while this may be a consequence of the optimisation work, the actual cause and effect is difficult to measure. This means that you will often pick up strength and authority completely independently of any actual work completed. This may even make all the difference.
Essentially, just as with the snowball, you can never be in complete control of all elements. Instead of thicker patches of snow, undulating earth and gravity, SEO is more likely to be impacted by social shares, customer reviews and natural linking. However, in both cases, the bigger you get, the more likely these coincidental benefits become. In fact, many would argue that they are likely to become a whole lot less coincidental.
The major issue in SEO comes from the shifting playing field. The search engines are notoriously difficult to second guess, particularly when it comes to the changing face of rankings pages and their constantly evolving algorithms. While they have hard and fast rules, enforcement is sometimes a little occasional. Invariably, this can create a few quandaries.
Measuring and Managing Intangible Elements
What you do today might have no effect tomorrow; that’s the unpleasant and unavoidable aspect of contesting search engine rankings. You need only ask someone who was hit by the Panda or Penguin update of how bad things can get. Consequently, the role of an optimiser is to help ensure that any bumps in the road are avoided where possible – promoting best practices, rather than short-term gains.
As other marketing disciplines have grown in influence, the role of traditional SEO has diminished. However it hasn’t yet, and probably never will pale into insignificance. Search engines will always have rules that sites need to adhere with and should continue to have a tiered system in which the best/most authoritative sites thrive. This is where SEOs will continue to pay dividends.
So Search Engine Optimisation is no longer a standalone process. It draws on other disciplines, sucking them all into a single homogenous ball of authority-building goodness. There’s social, local and PPC; everything now has an impact on rankings, which makes it incredibly difficult to separate out the individual elements accurately.
Cause and Effect
After all, I could write a page of copy today and the rankings for the target keyword may rise tomorrow; however, this may be coincidence, it may be because Google has booted out a couple of bad eggs from the first page, it could be that the target page has just received a few strong links. There is no way of saying that a particular action has had a specific effect. However, by continuing to grow and build the strength of your site/snowball, you can significantly increase the chances of good things happening and negate the impact of future issues.
So an SEO can act as a curator, managing and monitoring the impact of on-page and external elements. They look for opportunities and should distance your site from danger. However, if it’s tangible benefits and provable success that you’re looking for, then it’s not a perfect solution. For every argument supporting that every online action has an equal search engine reaction, there is always going to be an argument to the contrary.
A+B won’t always equal C. Just like when you’re rolling a giant snowball, it can break apart, pick-up wet snow and muck or become a little lopsided – there are very few absolutes in essence. As long as you can live with that element of doubt and look at the wider picture – i.e. your website is getting stronger – then you’ll never have any issues.
Removing an Element of Chance
You could argue that a website will naturally grow, just like that snowball. A gust of wind working in conjunction with the pull of gravity may see it hurtling down the slope, growing in size completely independently of any human persuasion. However, by taking this approach, you are entirely reliant on chance. Even without the guarantee of a perfectly rounded 6 foot ball of pure white snow at the end, your chances will always be greatly increased by having someone looking after it as it grows. Preferably, this will be someone that also knows what they’re doing, where the good snow is and the pitfalls to avoid.
If you have another analogy for the SEO process, or disagree entirely with the snowball idea concocted here, please share your thoughts below. If you’re a business that employs SEO services, how do you deal with the lack of absolutes involved and the trust that is required to continue even when results aren’t instant?
Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/si/2036334/