Both Guns Blazing: SEO ain’t what it used to be

What you need to know:

  • If your site did well in search three years ago but you’re struggling to regain that same level of performance, you’re not going to get it using the same tactics that worked back then. The game has forever changed.
  • Great metadata, keyword research, optimized code base, and link acquisition plan does not an organic strategy make.
  • Your site needs to provide objective value to both your ideal customer and those who may one day become your ideal customers.

SEO-unforgivenThe Golden Age of SEO

I’ve heard the lament so many times that I could play the part on stage at this point. “Why aren’t we getting as much organic search traffic as in 2010? That was with the old version of our site and we didn’t even have to do anything; we didn’t need to put out content then, or focus on user experience, or create resources for users. We pulled 10,000 organic visitors a month without having to invest all this time and energy, why can’t we do that again?

I like to call that period (2010 and before) the “Golden Age of SEO”. It’s when you could throw up a template website and start raking in traffic and revenue in a matter of weeks. It’s when all you needed was a catalog of drop ship products and then you could just dump that into your CMS, call it a day, and sit back and watch your secondary revenue stream grow.

Story Time

I’ve spoken to a site owner, let’s call him Evan, who confessed why he got into his current web niche in the first place. In 2004 or so, Evan had done a Google search for a product he needed to buy for his computer, got to an alright looking site, and placed an order. A few days later he called to check on his order status and the site/business owner actually answered the phone. They got to talking and the site owner raved about how easy it was to set up this site, do close to nothing, and just watch the money roll in. That’s when Evan decided that if it was that easy, there was no reason he couldn’t do it, too. So he did. For a long time, it was incredibly successful. But nowadays, organic search traffic is down 50% year-over-year and has been for the past 24 months. He wants to know what happened to the “Golden Age of SEO”.

Game Changer

What happened is that Google changed the game. When our back was turned, no less.

It’s a hell of thing killing a site. You take away all it’s got and all it’s ever going to have.


Well, I guess it had it comin’.


We all have it comin’, kid.

Yeah, it’s not just Evan who had it coming. We all had it coming. Success in organic search came too easy and it was only a matter of time before it came to an end. It had to. How long could people keep cramming websites of questionable quality into the internets before the reckoning came? If it didn’t we’d be up to our necks in template sites with low utility. I mean we still are to a certain extent.

So with updates like Panda, Penguin, and updates that flew under the radar that few ever talk about, Google has changed the game that we play. I’m not going to spend the rest of this post talking about what Google’s algorithm looks for in its current state; that would be short-sighted and tactics would be quickly outdated as the algo continues to evolve. What I want to talk about is what Google’s trying to accomplish with all these changes, because everything they’ve done in recent years paints an amazingly clear picture of what they’re trying to do.

The Man with the Gun Makes the Rules

Here’s what Google and other engines want to identify and reward in search:

If your site’s performance has tanked, take a look at the thing from Google’s POV. Even if you think you’re the top dog in auto parts, are there signals that Google can pick up on that tell them that?

If you’re creating what you think is good content, look at if from an outsider’s perspective. Is your content useful, does it have objective value, are people sharing it, linking to it, or commenting on it? If the content you’re creating is only geared towards people who are one visit away from converting, you’re missing the bigger picture. You need content to not only close the deal, but to establish that first touch as well. Make sure your site is incredibly useful not just for your ideal customers today, but for those who may become your ideal customers far in the future.

Finally, is your site worth using in 2014? Does it provide the kind of experience that users can reasonably expect from a top site on the web? If your site takes 15 seconds to load, looks bad on mobile, and still users gradients on buttons (you know who you are!), you’re not keeping up with the times and that’s a risky proposition these days.

When you have to shoot, shoot.

Both Gun's Blazing: SEO ain't what it used to be

When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.

So the bottom line is this: doing keyword research, optimizing sub-par (or even par) content, and streamlining your code base isn’t going to cut it anymore. Nor should it.

We have two options as site owners: keep our old sites on life support and adjust our expectations for performance in organic (we’ll never get back to that “Golden Age of SEO”) or say “I’m all in”, coming out with both guns blazing, and really invest in making our sites exceptional. The later is the only path to improvement, to evolution.

I waste my time beating my head against a brick wall; sharing words with you.

I’m not going to argue with people who want to hold onto those glory days. Grasping for that seemingly perfect past and trying to bring it back only leads to suffering (on personal and business levels).

Remember, we’re all playing Google’s game. They make the rules and they’re under no obligation to make us feel like the game is “fair” and that we’re having a fun time playing it. You can either follow the new rules as they continue to change or you can cash out and call it an evening.

Mike Arnesen

Mike Arnesen - Director of Analytics & Optimization

A diehard SEO and web analytics geek, Mike is the Director of Analytics & Optimization at SwellPath. He is also a board member at SEMpdx. Mike's fascination for search experience optimization, structured data and semantic markup, and web technology knows no bounds. Beyond geeking out with SEO and analytics, Mike is also a prolific blogger, speaker (MozCon, SemTechBiz, SEMpdx, SMX, State of Search Conference, etc.), and company culture advocate. When not in the office, Mike is spending time with his wife, enjoying the outdoors, or keeping up with inbound marketing news via mobile; most of the time, it's all three simultaneously.

Watch Mike talk about his role and life at SwellPath

5 Responses to “Both Guns Blazing: SEO ain’t what it used to be”

  1. SearchCap: Google Knowledge Maps, Right To Be Forgotten & No Google Algorithm Updates

    […] Both Guns Blazing: SEO ain’t what it used to be, SwellPath […]

  2. Josh Gates

    EXCELLENT post Mike! Funny (or sad) how many folks think it is still 2010…or earlier~!

    “I’m all in”

  3. Tony Griego

    I LOVE this post. I’ve following your work for about a year and a half now and constantly find myself self saying “that’s what I’ve been thinking!” What I appreciate about this post is the fact that it points out that we (the SEOs, the web marketers, etc) need to call a spade a spade. SEO ain’t what it used to be. And to your point… it shouldn’t be.

  4. Tony

    Thanks, this was a painfully good article.

  5. Michael Cottam

    Right on, Mike! I’m continually trying to convince clients that just because people don’t GO TO social media to buy their obscure product, it doesn’t mean that Google isn’t looking at those channels to determine IF ANYBODY CARES AT ALL about their product. Because honestly, if you’re talking about your product on social media, and NOBODY likes it/shares it EVER….well, you probably suck. And if even YOU don’t talk about it, that’s probably an indication to Google that you’re out of business and your hosting contract hasn’t expired, so your website happens to still be up. Google don’t wanna be sendin’ no precious customers to a site like that :-)


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