The following is a true story, however names and places have been changed to protect people’s identities:

Last week I was sat in a meeting in the North West of the United States.  The company is a medium sized division of a multi-billion dollar NASDAQ listed company.  Let’s call them “ABC e-commerce” for the sake of this post.

Me: “So, who has overall responsibility for your SEO?
Them: “Us three share the responsibility
Me: “But you’re Product Managers?
Them: “Sure, but we’ve stuffed keywords in the appropriate places already

I can’t blame “ABC e-commerce” for this attitude, as an industry we’ve really done a great job of screwing ourselves over for the last decade.

We have had a preoccupation with shortcuts, hacks and tricks to make money, frankly I’m probably – more – to blame – than – most – for promoting this way of thinking – and for that I apologise.

With this kind of attitude being prevalent in large corporations its making it tough for SEO to gain traction where paid search and other forms of marketing can.

Its hardly surprising either, in the past three weeks I’ve had long conversations with two journalists writing about how our industry is spoiling the web, and Im scheduled to have another this week.

 

The problem is triplicate:

1)  a lot of people’s only exposure to SEO is stuff like this:

wordpress comment spam

actual screenshot from this blog :(

Anybody that runs even the smallest blog or forum (or any other site based on a popular CMS) is well used to comment spam, and its the unfortunate public face of our industry.

 

2) when we see black hat SEO getting traction.
The annoying thing here from my perspective is not that these practices exist, its that they are so bloody effective.

Casino spam tactics SEO

When people see stuff like this, how can we possibly as an industry claim that “tips and tricks are dead”, or “lets concentrate on ethical SEO because its safer” when operating further down the scale of grey is demonstrably so damn effective?

 

3) Google is still really, really bad at identifying the source of content.  

example of what duplicate content looks like in google

This actually came up in my conversations with that company last week – they, unlike most, had actually done a fantastic job of writing great, unique, compelling content – written for the user NOT the search engines, yet they still were not ranking.

The reason was that typically another site had scraped their content and was ranking above them for their own text.  Its hard work getting people to produce great content.  That job is made harder when others can scrape it and rank with little to no effort on their own part.  Its even harder then to convince companies that SEO is worthwhile when their efforts have been nullified, under the banner of SEO by some outfit armed with a scraper and lack of morals.

 

Progress so far

In order to look for a solution, lets take a quick look at what Google have been doing so far to combat webspam and return better results.  This isn’t by any means meant to be scientific, but a quick glimpse of what the ranking factors were roughly in 2008:

SEO Ranking Factors in 2008

As you can see, links were the the pac-man slice of the pie chart.  They were overwhelmingly strong – you could rank just about anything with enough links. Something that was demonstrated time and time again, often to the embarrassment of Google.

In the interim of course, we have had a huge step forward havent we?

With Panda dealing with sites that used copied, low quality, spun or farmed content, Penguin dealing with sites that have high quantities of low quality, manipulative anchor text, similar types of links?

No, not really…

SEO Ranking Factors in 2013

Of course the above charts are massively over simplified, and not to be taken as anything other than illustrative, but lets face it:
Spammers would not be able to rank, if links were not still the biggest part of the algorithm.

 

A solution?

We need to devalue links.*
   There, I said it.

(*links in unqualified content)

The problem has long been that there hasn’t been anything really possible on the horizon, but as much as I dislike the platform,  it has to be the future of SEO.  The answer is Google Plus, or at least “social” in some form (I still believe that Google made a huge error in not buying twitter when they had the chance).

The link graph is easy to manipulate. The link graph is easy to fabricate.
Spammy SEO is either of the above, but usually a combination of the two.

The social graph is not easy to manipulate:

Social Graph Example Facebook

Every person’s social graph is entirely unique, its like a fingerprint with billions and billions of permutations.  Within that fingerprint there is an unlimited amount of interactions. This fingerprint fits into the worlds social graph like an incredibly complex polygon tessellating into the most incredible puzzle ever known to mankind.  Any attempt at re-creating a social profile would look simplistic, and even if you recreated a million profiles that all interacted with each other, they still wouldn’t interact with the rest of the world in a realistic pattern.

The beauty of socially credited web content is two fold: firstly you can add an author rank or “agent-rank” metric into the link strength, and those with higher than average followings can infer higher value through their links.

Authors who you follow are already relevant to you.
Authors who write on authority sites (ie. Forbes, the New York Times etc) can be prioritised.
Authors who write exclusively on one topic and do so extensively are given higher scoring for that topic, and so on.

In addition, fake profiles are incredibly easy to spot, as they might interact with other fake profiles in a “plastified” replica of reality, but they simply can not interact with the rest of the world with any credibility.

fake twitter profiles

Spot the REAL follower, its not that tough!

It allows highly personalised search results, relevant to your life as an individual consumer – which surely is the main objective of any search engine.  Correctly executed you will see results that make sense geographically, politically and demographically.

Socially claimed content practically eliminates the issue of scraped content as long as the engines are pinged on publication – it sounds like the perfect application for PubSubHubBub but really any such service would suffice as long as the search engine had a direct interface into the social platform.  Like Google does with G+.  Or Bing does with Facebook.

But it leaves what we know now as SEO in serious doubt…

 

Will SEO Die?

SEO is dead

No. Of course not!

Any suggestion that a study of how search engines rank results and attempts to mimic the optimum blend to improve your business’s ROI is a completely ridiculous assertion.

Anybody that claims that “SEO is dead” has another agenda.  That I guarantee you.

The thing that will die, is the practice of “Search Algorithm Manipulation” practiced by many (including myself historically), and that I welcome.

The elements that will die first are spammy comment links, forum spam, directory submissions, scraped content and the rest of the things that have given our industry the terrible name it has.

What about new skills?  

  • PR and SEO will become further entwined.
  • A great contact list will be more important than having a network of CMS plugins.
  • Respected writers will be more important than having a blog network.
  • One piece of amazing content will be worth 100k spun pages.

Crucially, those of us that approach marketing as a real value add will continue to thrive.  Those of us searching for the next great trick will finally whither away.

 

But whats this about quitting SEO??

I look forward to the day that SEO is not associated with Spam, but this is Google’s fault – not the SEO Industry’s.  

Until then call me an “inbound marketer“, “growth hacker” or just plain “online marketer“. It comes with less stigma attached.  

 

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of SEO, and how search engines should deal with spam, please leave a comment!

MartinMacdonald

Founder of WebMarketingSchool.com and a career professional in SEO and web marketing. Experienced in travel, gambling & entertainment niches. Former head of SEO for Omnicom UK, Inbound Marketing Director at Expedia & current Senior Director for SEO at Orbitz Worldwide.

MartinMacdonald

@searchmartin

Brit in the Bay Area. Head of SEO & Content Marketing for @orbitz & @cheaptickets. Blogs @forbes, @huffpost 40+ global conferences & keynotes

Categories: Opinion

Leave a Reply

81 Responses

  • Colin

    I thought you quit SEO yonks ago Mr Director of Inbound Marketing for Travel Company? :)

    April 2, 2013 at 1:35 pm
  • Andrew Seymour

    This makes familiar reading. I have, for the last year or so, become a total advocate for “stop worrying about links” approach. I pretty much had to leave a company because of this, as everyone looks at you like you have two heads. Since my change in philosophy, however, I enjoy SEO a whole lot more, and I actually get good results, without the worrying. Nowadays, every search engine update brings our rankings up, and our clients rankings up.

    You can second guess Google and try to game the system by working out criteria for increased rankings in the short term. This is great, and then Google will realize it, and you will have wasted your time.

    -OR-

    You can spend your time focusing on site architecture, content, and big hairy audacious link ideas. Even then, scrap the links until you fix the first two. Your link campaign might get you ten links, but if you get them from respected universities, via phoning up a professor somewhere and building some rapport, then your links will still mean something a year down the line. If you get them from big print media sites, by clever targeting or breaking news (not through buying them) then they will also stick.

    If the website you’re trying to rank doesn’t warrant these sorts of links, then worry about improving the content of the site until it does! If you can’t see that the site ever will, then you don’t that client on your books. The website is the cake, SEO is the icing!

    Seriously, all we need to do is read the Google guidelines and actually implement them. You’d be amazed at the results you can get from ignoring links for a change.

    Personally, I’d point to Michael Martinez (at SEO Theory) as a bit of a guru for the “forget links” approach to SEO, if anyone is interested.

    Anyway, good luck! Enjoy not having that SEO cloud over your head!

    April 2, 2013 at 1:41 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hey Andrew, thanks for leaving the comment.

      Its funny, as I spent years working in gambling SEO I would ridicule those with the viewpoint I expressed above.

      It was Wil Reynolds from SEER that is in a large part responsible for changing my views though – he said (I think at LinkLove 2010?)
      “Do you want to be the kind of SEO that wakes up every day and the first thing you do is check your rankings? Is today going to be the day that Google nuke you?”.

      That phrase stuck with me (hey, Im quoting it 3 years later), because at that point I *WAS* checking my rankings every morning wondering when I’d get caught.

      Now I dont.
      And I sleep better.

      April 2, 2013 at 3:34 pm
      • Dennis Goedegebuure

        I wake up everyday and think by myself:
        “Today is going to be the day I’m gonna get me some link juice..”

        April 2, 2013 at 9:05 pm
        • Kelvin

          I wake up everyday and think:
          “Ah, another day where I’m going to coerce someone into paying for something that just isn’t [or shouldn’t] be needed…”
          The worlds a funny place really!

          April 3, 2013 at 8:01 am
  • David

    I was starting to worry for a second, I’m looking forward to seeing you at ionSearch 😉

    To me, the fact that spam can work is only part of the problem. For every malicious spammer using comments, directories etc to game the algorithm, there is another doing it haplessly and unintentionally as they think that’s what good SEO is. A lot of it seems to be about misinformation rather than actual malicious intent.

    Nearly every web design agency now sells SEO as an add-on service, but only a fraction of them have hired the specialist talent or put the resource aside to upskill their existing staff. But the fact they know more than the buyer puts them in the position of an expert. They aren’t out to spam or trick, they just have no idea how modern search should be done.

    I see this regularly on a local basis; good people doing very bad SEO without any realisation of the damage to the industry they are doing.

    April 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hey David, you raise a great point…

      I reckon a good % of webspam out in the wild is actually good intentioned, and as long as a percentage of it works the hapless will continue to do so.

      If we cut it off at source though, ie. eradicate the market for directory submissions, spam comments etc. by nullifying its effectiveness, there will be less places for people to go, and I eventually wont need to delete close to a thousand spam comments a day on this blog alone!

      (hey, we can dream..)

      April 2, 2013 at 3:38 pm
    • Igor Mateski

      Very good point. The thing is that anyone can do anything if they can sell the idea to a prospect. The problem of value and quality seems to be a very relative issue. Perhaps a part of our SEO shady stigma is that the industry isn’t regulated, and there’s no “official” SEO certification body. Granted, there are tons of certificates (seomoz comes to mind first), but that’s just one of the many. In the meantime, it does seem unfair that Google keeps on talking about link devaluation, duplicate content and what not, but those of us who push content marketing as ethical SEO do end up on the wanting side.

      May 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm
  • Mike Charalambous

    Awesome. Congratulations to you.

    Must say, it was a damn good feeling when I realised (around 6 months) I wasn’t an SEO guy anymore.

    April 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm
  • Mert

    Hi Martin,

    I can assure you that creating well connected social profiles are cheaper than buying rich content links. We live in a world of 6 billion people where manpower is a lot cheaper than tech rates. If you think social media spamming is expensive; I would say that travel agency has not dealt with the revenue models of casinos, payday loans, etc. The moment Google gives more algorithmic weight to Google Plus it will be the downfall of that network. You know it; I know it and Google aka Matt Cutts definitely knows it.

    April 2, 2013 at 1:49 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      Hey Mert, thanks for the comment – I in turn can assure you though that its easier for me to build links from 80,000,000 domains (a total of 300,000,000 indexed pages) than it is to build 10k social profiles.

      Ive got dormant networks of CMS plugins that equate to that amount of backlinks, and its free to place links for me on them.

      If however the search engines chose to disregard non socially annotated links it would make a huge difference, thats my point 😉

      April 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm
      • Mert

        Socially annotated links cost around 400-500 bucks a link from well known “bloggers aka link sellers”. It is even cheaper when you get hackers into play. :-) The issue with that is are university/government pages social? Are manufacturers social? Are most of the boring college research papers social? The web is a lot larger than socially annotated.

        April 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm
        • Martin Macdonald

          Im happy with people having to pay $500 for a link, rather than people selling xrumer runs at 10,000 links for $5 😉

          Totally agree that the web is much, much bigger than the socially annotated web though. But when will the pivot point be? If 20% of the web is socially owned, would that be enough to build a better index?

          Possibly, it might need more than that, but it will happen eventually if we aren’t there yet.

          April 2, 2013 at 4:04 pm
  • damian

    it’s google’s fault people spam? a bit like how it’s Ford’s fault that people break the speed limit? Or Yum! Brands of America’s fault that some people overeat?

    Counterpoint – until they SEO Industry takes some – any! – responsibility for its actions, there will be spam.

    You do not have to spam. You don’t! you don’t. Seriously.

    April 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      @damian the point is, its google’s fault that spam still works. They have at their disposal the ability to filter out 99% of it, yet they have failed to act. SEOs can’t be blamed for pursuing a tactic that is proven to still work can they?

      April 2, 2013 at 2:07 pm
      • damian

        It depends on whether they feel any responsiblity for the outcome, I guess

        April 2, 2013 at 2:57 pm
        • Martin Macdonald

          my assumption is that they feel a responsibility for the quality of their results – seeing that “casino bonus” screenshot I posted earlier, I suggest that would embarrass them a bit..

          April 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm
    • Ian Howells

      “it’s google’s fault people spam?”

      Google creates the incentives that SEOs base their behavior on.

      Expecting people (including SEOs) to actually act counter to the blatant incentives staring them in the face is a long shot.

      April 2, 2013 at 8:38 pm
  • Jim Seward

    And there was me thinking you’d given up the jetsetting SEO lifestyle and were going to become some sort of beatnik hippy

    April 2, 2013 at 2:03 pm
  • Paul Atherton

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with my brother last summer, where he asked what I’d do now SEO was dead.
    I think you make some good points, the only issue with Google+ is this sort of stuff – http://www.authorlinks.net/ – there’s always somebody out there looking for a quick buck.

    April 2, 2013 at 2:28 pm
  • Annie Maloney

    Like Mert said, I don’t think that giving more algorithmic weight to Google+ would be a good thing. It would turn into a link toilet. The only good thing about it is the fact you could shelter yourself from it with your circles.

    Martin you are so right! Google has the ability to fix this. They preach and preach about the serps and returning results that are of the best relevance. They are far from succeeding in that department.

    April 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm
  • Nick

    In the past couple of weeks I’ve spoken to and heard of A.I. students trying to create bots which will mimic social conversations. They probably suck and humans could pick them out of a crowd but could Google without manually checking? I think something like this would be enough to trick Googles algo for years to come.

    Google will always be one step behind the spammer.

    I remember your talk a few years ago about the industry growing up. I agree. I just can’t see how it can when spamming is so easy, cheap and accessible. Those are 3 words big and small brands like to hear.

    April 2, 2013 at 3:25 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      They will be able to maintain great looking algorithmic conversations within their own group, my point about social graphs being polygons that tesselate into the rest of the world still stands though.

      By your own statement “…and humans could pick them out…” that infers greatly reduced interaction from **the rest of the social graph**.

      Thats my point, in the real social graph we’ve got the six degrees of seperation theory, that couldnt apply to social botnets as they would have far less interaction with the rest of the planet, no matter how well programmed they are.

      At the end of the day, people dont go drinking with bots, they go drinking with people. People dont socialise online across multi platforms with bots either, but they do with people.

      April 2, 2013 at 3:42 pm
  • Jason Dilworth

    I’ve been trying to run fifty6 without doing any specific ‘link building’ techniques for clients for a while. Sure, there’s less links. But the ones that are there are completely natural – not even because we tried to write the content for links, but because it just happens to be aligned to what the visitor was trying to find.

    User Oriented Optimisation – that phrase still needs to take hold in the market!

    Cheers for a great article Martin :)

    April 2, 2013 at 3:53 pm
  • Ryan

    SEO is rapidly changing for the better. I agree that Authorship will become one of the most important factors when it comes to website ranking. Panda was a nice first step, but clearly there’s plenty of work left to help clean the internet of spam. It’s beyond frustrating to see so many spammy websites ranking even after the multiple updates. Apparently they’re “grandfathered in” because of there old domains? Hard work trumps get rich quick ideas every time. Google will catch up to most if not all spammy techniques, it’s just a matter of time…

    April 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm
  • MagnificentDuke

    I love this.

    Literally love it.

    I was at that very LinkLove conference when Will Reynolds said “Do you want to be the kind of SEO that wakes up every day and the first thing you do is check your rankings? Is today going to be the day that Google nuke you?”.

    It stuck with me too.

    April 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm
  • Kevin Burke

    Links are an issue….but if Google devalues them….then they WHOLE RECIPE that they have lived on for all these years is out. Must be like trying to change the formula for Coke.

    And there are industries where Content and Social have very little traction. How do you wax poetic about rubber molding that has not already been covered? And who is going viral about that topic? There is no one on Twitter burning it up discussing melt points of butyl rubber.

    And if you are Google and own the search space and you are a public company, how anxious are you to blow up the golden goose? And we all just keep returning to that Google search box for our next phrase. Until searchers abandon Google in big numbers, expect only tweaks.

    April 2, 2013 at 4:03 pm
  • Adam Butler

    Hi Martin,

    Long time listener, first time caller! I think I might have an idea as to why this is STILL going on.

    You know how not taking your full course of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistant bacteria? I think there’s something to be said for that…

    The biologist in me would postulate that, in the past, when Google tackled spam and failed to “catch ’em all” the only thing it was achieving was to make the intelligent, un-penalised blackhats (those that can build links from 80,000,000 domains at the flick of a switch ;P) stronger and makes their expertise more valuable and legitimises their blackhat services and the cycle continues.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is until they can find a way to pull out, nuke the site from orbit and invalidate BOTH ends of the spam spectrum completely, you won’t see many attempts to directly deal with this aspect of spam or that aspect of spam, rather, they’ll continue to address UX until they’re able to eradicate spam in one fell swoop a couple of years from now.

    April 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm
  • Ian Howells

    With ya, but…

    The link graph is so easy to manipulate because links have been the focus for so long that it gave ample time to develop tools etc to automate link creation.

    Shift the focus to social, and all you’re doing is buying time until “social-blackhat” matures more and makes it (nearly) as easy as manipulating links is currently.

    It’s all a cycle. The machines need to look for patterns. People find those patterns, and fake them.

    Not disagreeing with your point – but I don’t know that there *is* a solution – maybe there’s only iterations that get a bit better and kick the can down the road more?

    April 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm
    • Martin Macdonald

      yeah – not disagreeing with your comment at all, there will always be ways of manipulating and the extremely proficient “social engineers” will be able to appropriate influence in a “black hat” fashion.

      But it will stop me getting a thousand spam comments a day 😉

      April 2, 2013 at 4:31 pm
  • RwdFwd

    So nothing about time on site, page views, bounce rate, site speed?

    April 2, 2013 at 4:27 pm
  • Tommy Landry

    Some great points in here, but the reality of the situation is that anything based on an algorithm can be manipulated. Google is most certainly heading in the right general direction, however, even they will tell you that they are nowhere near the finish line.

    Social is definitely a big part of what it will take to sort this our in the long run. Just yesterday, I read a blog post suggesting that they build a commenting plugin that will tie to Google+ profiles. If they make it available on enough platforms, this could really put a big dent in all of the automation spam we see today on blogs. I’d move to it without pause.

    Thanks for the great thoughts Martin.

    April 2, 2013 at 4:39 pm
  • Malcolm Gibb

    Some of those example client convos definitely rang true, also very true that there are loads of spammers out there (and it sucks when you see something working that Google says shouldn’t work), but on the other hand there always will be someone out there looking to take a short cut or make a quick buck where there’s money to be made.

    Your view on re-working search algorithms to take a more social graph approach however, I think has some minor flaws. I’m not disagreeing with your six degrees of separation idea as I believe true social interaction cannot be mimicked by bots or automated and patterns do exist, although spammers will still exist and somehow find a way to game this system again.

    However, de-valuing links would be the issue. The web was fundamentally built on the power of links, mainly from an academic standpoint where people could easily find further reading on a topic using citations found on whitepapers or academic research. These links gave signals of authority and contextual relevance and were useful to the reader. That is why links are seen as a search signal today, changing the algorithm to use social signals as a more relevant signal for rankings could undermine some parts of the web, mainly academic papers and research etc.. where social would be of little relevance as a key ranking signal. I can even think of other parts if the web where social shouldn’t be the most important such as manufacturing companies, even lawyer/solicitor websites etc..

    I’m not taking a dig at your proposal as I’d be all for taking a more holistic approach to ranking signals, I just think the search algorithm is a system and needs to be treated as such.

    April 2, 2013 at 4:51 pm
  • Durant Imboden

    Three comments:

    1) “Social” works for some things (e.g., trending topics or cat videos) but not for others (diagnostic procedures for chronic pancreatitis, the price of an RER ticket from CDG Airport to cedntral Paris).

    2) Quite a few people still use links the way they were intended to be used: as citations and pointers to additional resources. For example, our editorial travel-planning site gets a constant stream of unsolicited inbound links from forums: Somebody on TripAdvisor or Cruise Critic has a question about how to get from Rome to the cruise port at Civitavecchia, and the person who answers the question links to our article on that topic. (No SEOs involved–just regular Web users.)

    3) Google could wipe out much of the paid-links industry tomorrow by devaluing links to e-commerce sites, real-estate sites, and other categories of sites that can earn a decent ROI from purchased links.

    April 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm
  • Connor MacIvor

    I cannot wait until that PIE reverses itself…

    I’ll be the next star of HGTV :)))

    Great research Martin…

    April 2, 2013 at 7:02 pm
  • Ralph aka fantomaster

    Oh Martin, Martin! Your linkbaiting title aside (even though it only proves the “SEO is shady spam” point you say you’re so concerned about): what on earth makes you think that “Spammers would not be able to rank, if links were not still the biggest part of the algorithm”? Seriously?

    Hey, maybe you actually ARE to young to remember this, but do you actually believe that before links were hyped as the panacea of relevant site rankings in search by the Google boys, spammers didn’t know how to game the system? They always done it, and trust me on this one: without links, it was a hell of a lot less complex. I mean, what do you think IP Delivery aka Cloaking is all about in the first place? And yes, it’s no daft sales pitch on my part when I keep tweeting that it still rocks the engines like there’s no tomorrow – and has always done so when conducted right.

    As for social, that’s even more of a nobrainer, I’m afraid. So you say that “fake profiles are incredibly easy to spot”, eh? A bit of a confirmation bias at work here, methinks: doubtlessly you’ve come across tons of fake profiles you were immediately able to spot, my – haven’t we all. But what about those you’ve overlooked for the simple reason that they’re so well construed there’s really no difference between a real human and a fake bot profile that an algorithm could detect?

    Incidentally, the same applies to entire networks set up by bots for SEO – ok, make that: for ranking purposes. Badly crafted ones are one humunguous footprint fest. The really good, efficient ones, however, you’ll never manage to detect.

    So will I show you a few? Most certainly not, guys: there’s such a thing as monetisable trade secrets after all. So without such proof positive on hand – do they actually exist? Who knows, who knows… What Churchill said about Russia: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Though he did actually indicate a possible solution as well – read it up if you will.

    Finally, it’s not our fault if corporate management bozos get it all wrong all of the time, coming home for every SEO conference with new chunks of badly digested and even worse understood chunks of half-knowledge, but projecting an “now I know it all!” attitude. Don’t seem to see a lot of people claiming that kind of unwarranted entitlement in the fields of brain surgery or advanced calculus, to pick two random examples. How come? (Hint, hint.)

    April 2, 2013 at 7:22 pm
  • Edgars

    You want to quit SEO, I want to quit internet sometimes. There is too much spam, so many people hoping for quick bucks. Appeareantly due crisis and hype of internet money. They read backlinks are important, they see offer ’10 000 backlinks for 5$’ and then we are facing hordes of comments like ‘Thanks great post’ .. Is it Googles fault? Yes, imho they should say they ignore comment backlinks, atleast anonymous (not linked to social sites) ones.

    You say social graph is difficult to fake. I agree they are complex than backlinks but I seriously doubt that someone who owns some kind of social site can’t extract info and make mathematical model of how should real social graph look like, how people are submitting content etc. And as there is article spinning, there will be social profile content spinning.

    Only solution I see, maybe utopic idea,that social profiles are digital passports, confirmed by government thus one person has one digital passport. Websites linked to profiles, people rating websites using these profiles. No faking, no spamming. Utopia, 1984, privacy issues? Of course. But as in real life we have police, cameras, rules etc, I believe internet, technology and people using them are envolved so much, there should be some restrictions

    April 2, 2013 at 8:54 pm
  • Joe Youngblood

    except that author rank is already getting spammed

    April 2, 2013 at 9:10 pm
  • Christopher Skyi - Words Words SEO Words

    There’s an answer to dealing with scraped content: DMCA. You can start a content take down process by going here: http://support.google.com/bin/static.py?hl=en&ts=1114905&page=ts.cs

    Trust me — I’ve used it and it works like a charm.

    April 3, 2013 at 1:48 am
  • Malc

    Ralph makes a good point (he always does) in that the real deal (hat tip to Ralph) is really hard to spot by humans let alone an algorithm.

    That being said it would be a massive step forward if the low end stuff didn’t work. Ralph et al. would continue to evolve while the monkey at keyboard style spam would hopefully cease to have an effect.

    I recall seeing someone speak at ThinkVisibility in 2011 about how simply removing Anchor Text as a factor could clean a lot of crap up. I think it was Chewbacca.

    The thing that frustrates me the most about spam is the effort I have to put into convincing people that it isn’t the best route forward, which of course is made a lot harder when said people can see it working within their particular niche.

    Let’s see what 2013 holds.

    April 3, 2013 at 9:17 am
  • Nick Ker

    In the past, I have avoided the term SEO since it is only part of what I do. I tried inbound marketer and a few other things… eventually just surrendering to SEO and having to deal with the stigma. I have just about had it, though. People still assume the worst, or can’t figure out why I am not sending link building reports with hundreds of new links daily.
    Enough spam-SEOs have started calling themselves inbound or content marketers, and some consumers have figured out that it is just smoke and mirrors for many. Kind of like how there is no mafia: “I’m in the waste management business”.

    So I try to get clients to forget the keyword-stuffing, link-spamming, keyword focused ways they have learned – only to hear “yeah, that’s great – good content, social stuff, yadda yadda yadda… Should I buy these domains that are all my keywords and buy some articles to spin? When will I be number one for (insert highly competitive yet non-converting keyword here)?”

    April 3, 2013 at 3:20 pm
  • Marianne

    Kudos on a well reasoned analysis Martin. I take issue with two points. I believe that your representation of Google’s relevance weight distrribution still favors links too much. Google’s migration from pure PR started in with the introduction of contextual machine learning and has been a forward march since that culminating with what I believe was an early release of unbaked Panda that has been refined with multiple updates since. My other departure from your premise is that social is a solution. I am with the dystopian Evgeny Morozov and disclaim any technological uber solution to these ills. The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves as does the solution. IMHO, we need les technology and more human in human computer interaction, more awareness and pro activity in how information retrieval systems consume and display our work.

    April 3, 2013 at 3:20 pm
  • Marianne

    Kudos on a well reasoned analysis Martin. I take issue with two points. I believe that your representation of Google’s relevance weight distrribution still favors links too much. Google’s migration from pure PR started in with the introduction of contextual machine learning and has been a forward march since that culminating with what I believe was an early release of unbaked Panda that has been refined with multiple updates since. My other departure from your premise is that social is a solution. I am with the dystopian Evgeny Morozov and disclaim any technological uber solution to these ills. The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves as does the solution. IMHO, we need les technology and more human in human computer interaction, more awareness and pro activity in how information retrieval systems consume and display our work.

    April 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm
  • Michael Angstadt

    Unfortunately, the label ‘SEO’ for the reasons you list has become synonymous with “Search Algorithm Manipulation”.

    When we wrote SEO is Dead that’s exactly what we were addressing – the fact that traditional SEO needs to be re-tooled, leaving out the garbage, as it’s developed a nasty stigma for many consumers of SEO services and products over the years.

    April 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm
  • Ben Milleare

    The problem with SEO is that, for a long time, most people have not been practicing just SEO – so it makes sense to drop the term in favour of something more generic like ‘inbound marketer’.

    This is pretty easy to do for anyone in-house or for people embedded in media groups, but it doesn’t work so well for freelancers and small digital agencies. They need to use whatever label people know them as; unfortunately that’s generally still ‘SEO’ and will be for some time I imagine.

    The sad part is that as soon as that tipping point happens, and the general public stop looking for ‘SEO’, then the spammers will simply follow the trend. Then the cycle starts all over again. People know what they’re looking for but most of them still want it cheap as chips – bad guys are a by-product of demand and are prevalent in most industries.

    April 3, 2013 at 4:00 pm
  • Jamie Knop

    Certainly a catchy title Martin! I personally agree with alot that you say but is social the answer? I’m not sure.. I know fake profiles can be easy to spot but that’s because at the moment the sellers don’t care. It wouldn’t but too hard to make them appear real from an outsider. Also if it did go this way it wouldn’t be too long before a service pops up where anyone can sign up (real people), connect all their social accounts and get paid for some social activity (in fact their probably is one already). The future of SEO? With the threat of more and more PPC taking over the natural results I can’t say. But PR/SEO is looking like a winner to me.

    April 3, 2013 at 4:04 pm
  • Brian

    Come on Marty, I knew you wouldn’t quit!

    We all knew that once G launched its own social platform it was only a matter of time before it started becoming a factor in determining authority and influencing rankings.

    The problem with the current state of SEO is, just like everything in life, some people try to take the easy way out (sub par tactics) and end up giving the rest of the hard working folks in the industry a bad name. Count me in for the PR/SEO movement

    April 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm
  • Ed

    I feel engineered in a socially inawkward and acceptable manner. Gotta love seeing the kinetic waves of the swarm in full tide

    April 3, 2013 at 8:11 pm
  • James Norquay

    Google removing links as a metric is many years off in my eyes. Even yesterday at SMX Brian White “some what” said this. He aylso said a new penguin update is “comming” so more drama for SEO. But yeah I do more online marketing these days any way.

    April 3, 2013 at 9:27 pm
  • James

    I tried mentioning something about my SEO work in some of my public social profiles, and just got bombarded with spam as a result.

    April 4, 2013 at 8:17 am
  • Barb Young

    Thanks for reaffirming my career choice as a PPC’er. I have wonderful folks on my “virtual” team who handle my clients’ SEO and they definitely feel your pain. Day after day of “doing the right thing”, writing exceptional unique content, and careful, legit link building – only to see the clients’ spammy competitors leapfrog to the top of SERPs.

    It frustrates the PPC effort as well – we’d much rather have the client’s SEO team really excel, to allow us to allocate some PPC budget to more interesting keyword strategies, the display network, etc.

    Onward.

    April 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm
  • Tony Leger

    That explains some things for people like me who have always tried to create good content but hurt by Panda. I see now that content alone is still a smaller part of the equation.

    It was not that links do not count for much anymore. However, certain types of links, such as those from article directories I relied on, were greatly devalued.

    April 8, 2013 at 12:45 am
  • Phil Gregory

    I’m still trying to work out where that social graph came from. There used to be a tool online that did graphs like this. Can’t remember what it was called though.

    April 8, 2013 at 3:33 pm
  • Ash Buckles

    Martin,

    Thanks for the well-thought-out points but I have to disagree that social is the way to control web spam over links.

    Links have several properties that can be evaluated but there will always be some spam included not matter the algorithmic balance that search engines employe.

    As for social, I’ve seen just as many social bots and software to replicate people and generate social spam that flys under Google’s radar. This will continue as more emphasis is placed on people/authors. And some content should never belong to an author; product pages, category pages, home pages, etc.

    As we continue to educate and build better platforms for SEO components, our teams will provide better content that is naturally SEO-friendly and provides a solid UX. But its an evolving ecosystem of brands, web pages, industries, technologies, economies, etc. It will always be this way.

    April 9, 2013 at 12:00 am
  • Phil Gregory

    Many thanks Martin, Touchgraph, yes that’s it. cheers.

    I thought your article was interesting. I agree and disagree. Whilst I totally hear your point about .” do some grey hat stuff because it still works and you’ll still rank” Isn’t that a bit short termist. Surely you are going to have to work a lot harder to fix all that when Google finally slaps you down? Which they will. Surely it’s better to start now on building a squeaky clean link profile.

    April 9, 2013 at 9:16 am
  • Ashok Kumar

    Hi Martin, Would you like to rename our Industry? If so, what is it?

    April 9, 2013 at 1:26 pm
  • TymB

    Would someone PLEASE explain to me how a strong “social” profile with lots of social friends and lots of social interaction, blah, blah, blah – can help Google present the most relevant results when I’m looking for swim fins for my kids who swim competitively and few of my friends ever get in a pool? Or if I live in Siberia and want to take a trip to Florida and 0.001% of my social circle has ever even heard of Florida?

    This social crap is just an excuse to try and fix a sub-optimal ranking system (that still works pretty well overall), and satisfy some people’s desire for popularity to be the ultimate measure of importance like it was in high school.

    Social Relevance = GOOD for deciding which party to attend this weekend. Social Relevance = BAD for which ecommerce store to buy my next set of boots.

    April 10, 2013 at 11:06 am
  • Yolanda Padilla

    Bots being easy to pick out by humans? Not so fast! I wrote a bot. Just for fun & experimentation. People carry on conversations with it. Is amazing to sit back & watch. It’s social. It passes the human “sniff test.” How is a search algo going to catch on?

    I’m down to my last SEO client & not taking on any more. (I feel like this is part AA meeting.) But so what? I still have my own network of sites & ventures to manage. I’m still drinking the kool-aid.

    I have sites (including real, “sincere”) sites that Google kicked to the curb, yet blatant copies of them rank on page 1.

    When I say I do SEO, people respond better than when I say I’m an internet marketer. I’ve been A/B testing it.

    PR is not the answer. The best books I’ve read in awhile:

    “Trust Me, I’m Lying” by Ryan Holiday

    “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” by Daniel J. Boorstin (published in 1961, Ryan Holiday says it’s a “scathing indictment of the deliberately false reality molded around us by our media culture.”)

    Search is broken. Google is ripe for being disrupted.

    April 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm
  • Brad

    There are a lot of smart SEOs commenting here with all kinds of different experience and perspective. Perhaps Martin, you are using all these comments to determine how you will transition your black hat plan using those 80M sites to get links to how you will create your social graph SEO black hat plan for 2013?

    What about creating really good social profiles that targets themes we want to rank for. Then creating a content plan that matches those themes. This will build your authorship authority correct?

    If Googles goal is to show their users who the thought leaders are it seems like that is the way to go right now..

    BTW can i get a few links from your 80M network? J/K…

    April 10, 2013 at 11:50 pm
  • Pedro

    Great article.

    I really think that PPC, SEO and Analytics have to be worked as a full strategic marketing plan and not only SEO….but hey…thats me :)

    May 14, 2013 at 5:59 pm
  • Muriel Velez

    Yet, we whine about how SEO is viewed by those outside of the industry. And we’ll whine again when Google gets a search result wrong and shows a scraper above the original content. Indignant blog posts will be written.

    May 15, 2013 at 9:04 am
  • Aaron Hemmelgarn

    Great article Martin. I’m fairly new to SEO and have been studying, reading and practicing now for 8 months and I can say with all certainty that “Links” don’t have the same relevance than they once did. We consistently rank our clients on the first page with 50 times less links than their competitors and in a lot of the first page rankings we’re above the competition.

    This is true of my own company as we climb the rankings above our competition for the same key terms and thousands less links.

    Everything we do is white hat and works. Now we’re in the battle from the middle to the top of page one.

    June 5, 2013 at 10:16 pm
  • Thoufeeq

    In the end, it again boils down to the saying ‘the only constant is change’.

    Those who can adapt to the new changes, will strive to exist, regardless of white or blackhat. And new hacks will always rise, only to renew that terrible impression up on the minds of people and scare the hell out of em.

    June 16, 2013 at 12:26 pm
  • Spook SEO

    While a lot of people are starting to lose faith in SEO, I’m not one of them.

    Considering how Google is constantly updating their algorithm, things will definitely look better in the SEO platform.

    I also agree with you on giving importance to the social media sites. Considering how Facebook’s also making adjustments or updates on their search feature, there’s a huge possibility that they might replace the search engines (just speculating though).

    August 14, 2013 at 9:26 am
  • Chris @ Buoyancy Media

    I`m not quitting SEO, I love it! I have had to adapt though..

    January 10, 2014 at 1:08 pm
  • Electronic Ninja

    The ever-changing world of SEO…. There have been some highly insightful points in your article and the comments tackling the issues going forward.

    I think little tweaks will continue to polish the algorithm and make it harder to game the system. My predictions are: More emphasis on social credible mentions, more link juice from highly trusted sites, less emphasis on blog commenting/quantity of links, better understanding of natural backlinks vs link-spam, more penalties for ongoing link spam, more authority for great original non-spun content (first to publish needs to be a simple submit to google – then identical content appearing later must be tagged as duplicates – warning then penalty), greater benefit for well designed sites that help people answer their questions.

    Google perhaps should offer incentives to it’s searchers to opt-in and judge sites after visiting. they could then sell market research results to sites and a the same time, better rank sites based on customer feedback. After a few months of judging sites the user could order some rewards with the points they’ve accrued.

    March 3, 2014 at 8:38 pm
  • Paul Brewster

    Hi

    Excellent article. Search engine optimisation is about building relevance and reputation over a sustained period of time.

    To be successful think of it more as a pull strategy than a push marketing strategy. By creating great content and building authority you will discover that many will link back to you – without you having to ask!

    Paul Brewster

    May 2, 2014 at 3:23 pm
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