In the minds of many, SEO has a bad reputation. It’s often seen as a seedy way to game the system, or a sneaky way to get spam on the screens of innocent people. It’s bound up with ideas about keyword stuffing, link farming, and click-servers on the other side of the world generating mountains of false traffic. SEO professionals are seen as flim-flam people, peddling promises and cheating their way to the top of the SERPs.
And in fairness, there was a time when this wasn’t far from the truth. But the state of SEO today is different in every way from its inauspicious beginnings, and it’s the work of digital marketing agencies like ours to keep it that way. By working symbiotically, as part of a broader digital marketing web, practicing responsible digital marketing and white-hat SEO is better for providers, facilitators, and users alike.
Paved with Good Intentions
We recently wrote a post on the history of SEO but some of that information bears repeating here. By about 1997, search engines, as we understand them, were in operation. Google is the one most people think of, but there were certainly others. Each of these tools used slightly different algorithms and processes to render results. For instance, AskJeeves seemed to invert a query (like “what are ducks?”) and return results that included the inverted text in their content (“ducks are …”). Google used Boolean operators (“and”, “not”, “exactly”, “from…to…” and so on) to help a user call for exactly the terms or text they were seeking, but that still turned in thousands of pages of results for most queries. In such cases, Google had a very interesting way of ranking those results, hoping to find a way to ensure that the best result would be at the top.
Google’s algorithm mapped out the network of links between pages, and gave priority in search results to pages that were linked to by a greater number of other domains. Theoretically, sites would be more likely to link to pages that were of higher quality.
Let’s pause a moment and take inventory. Google’s system is built on two major ideas. First, that pages with the keywords a user has searched for will be relevant to that user, and second, that pages which are linked to more frequently will tend to be better or more desirable pages to find. All other things being equal, those are probably fair assumptions.
The Letter of the Law
When developing that algorithm, Google made a very simple error. The algorithm only worked up to the moment when people figured out how the algorithm worked. It’s easy to game the system when the system is built on the presumption of honesty.
Here’s where SEO’s bad reputation gets started. The very, very first attempt to increase one’s own standings in the SERPs was inherently deceitful. One could artificially inflate the prominence of a particular page by packing it full of keywords and deliberately hosting links to a page from multiple domains. An enterprising person with a dedicated server and some free time could create thousands of domains with the sole purpose of hosting links to pages that wanted to build out their link portfolios – for a price. And, at the time, Google didn’t have any way to combat this. The whole algorithm was ripe for abuse.
So, to recap, the very first SEO professionals were doing little more than stuffing keywords (remember when white text on white backgrounds was the norm?) and farming links to desolate directories with .ru and .io domain suffixes.
SEO Was a Zero Sum Game
That kind of SEO (what we now call black-hat SEO or bad-practice SEO) was self-defeating. As soon as one page started employing those tactics, any competing page would be pushed to do the same, in a process of mutual escalation. When you add the monetization from ad revenue or from conversions, the pressure was even greater.
And on the other hand, it wouldn’t take long for a prospective user to get wise to the situation and avoid the worst offenders. I remember, in grade school, taking as a rule of thumb that I would skip the first three or four results for any query, because the spam rose to the top like froth, and you had to skim it off to find anything useful. The spammy practices that made up SEO were, themselves, enough to drive off traffic, and Google was losing face in the process.
There are three major groups when it comes to digital marketing, or really to the internet in general. First, content providers. These are the sites themselves, or the things that users engage with. Second, users. These are the people who visit different pages and engage with various pieces of content. And third, a larger group, the facilitators. These are digital marketing agencies, SEO professionals, search engines, and even ad networks. The digital ecosystem only flourishes when all three of those systems work in harmony.
Users are savvy, and won’t stay long on a page that doesn’t deserve to hold their attention. No amount of conniving to force thin content to the top of the SERPs will change that. Google has too much invested in user trust to stand for abuses of their system (and they’ve developed strong countermeasures for black-hat SEO tactics) and digital marketing agencies will only be able to demonstrate lasting successes if they’re doing the right kind of SEO.
Black-hat SEO might be enough to get a temporary boost in raw traffic, but it won’t lead to an increase in conversions, and your bounce rate will skyrocket. Any short-term growth will falter soon after, and you’ll have ruined your online reputation in the bargain. It’s like biting the hand that feeds.
White-hat SEO, on the other hand, is a way of building lasting growth, building trust, and supporting the digital systems we all depend on. That’s why responsible digital marketing agencies like ours are working every day to reshape the perception, and the practice, of SEO.
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