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.
The 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.
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”.
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:
- Brands and authoritative sites (see the Knowledge Graph)
- Experts (see Google Authorship)
- Site’s with a track record of creating content with objective value: timely news coverage, sharable content, in-depth resources (see Query Deserves Freshness, Google+ actions in personalized search, and In-Depth Articles)
- Sites with positive user experiences (see Google’s stance of Page Speed, Responsive Web Design, and Site Quality).
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.
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.