I heard it again last week - "I"m so frustrated by SEO!"
The comment came from a small business owner who was articulating his frustration while trying to understand SEO. I heard words like "mystery", "black magic" and "black box".
Thing is, SEO is not a mystery. It's certainly not black magic. But there is some truth to the suggestion that it might be a black box. I'll explain why below.
If you're a small business owner in the United States, Google is the only search engine you really need to worry about.
Google has a near monopoly on search. It controls 65-85% percent of the market according to estimates by Comshare, an Internet measurement company and Rand Fishkin, a leading SEO expert and founder of Moz, a Seattle-based inbound marketing and SEO company.
If you don't rank well on Google, you have a problem. 40% of the world's population, approximatly 3.1 billion people, have an Internet connection today. Google processes over 3.5 billion search queries (on average) every day. It's highly unlikely, in this day and age, that the business can be taken seriously or earn enough revenue without an Internet and Google presence.
For small business owners, that's a problem.
Google's Ranking Algorithm is a Closely-Held Secret
How do you get to rank on top of Google?
Google uses an automated ranking algorithm to decide who ranks on top. It doesn't publish it's ranking algorithm and it has no stated plans to do so. Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, said flat out in September 2010 that "it's a business secret (time stamp 0:40 / 1:02)" and he has no plans to disclose it.
Neither, unfortunately, is particularly helpful when it comes to figuring out what you might be doing right or wrong. Both lack detail about how any of these things relate or are measured and weighed. There is also nothing in the way of how-to information.
So how exactly, do SEOs figure out how the algorithm works?
Some SEOs study Google's guidelines, publications and patent applications full-time. They monitor trends, perform experiments, conduct correlation studies, and track Google's algorithm changes over time. Moz surveys and shares the opinions of dozens of the world's brightest search marketers every two years. That way, we can identify consensus and patterns that allow us to draw conclusions and surface best practices.
Bottom line is SEOs don't know exactly or verifiably how Google ranks web pages. We make continuously updated, collaboratively assembled best guesses based on research, experimentation and opinion.
Google's Ranking Algorithm Changes Constantly
Google's ranking algorithm isn't cast in stone. It changes constantly.
Google has said it changes it's ranking algorithm anywhere from 350 to 550 times per year. Here is a video quote from Matt Cutts, the head of Google's webspam team and official spokesperson when it comes to the Google ranking algorithm. He's speaking about the number of changes made in 2009 alone.
Moz, a well respected SEO tool maker, estimates Google changes their algorithm about 500-600 times a year. It keeps a running log of all the changes (we know about!) that have been made to the algorithm since the year 2000.
So even with all the research and consensus that goes on around the ranking algorithm in the SEO community, some of the conclusions drawn could already be outdated.
Competition Is Tough
The growth in competition has also made it increasingly difficult for small business owners to rank on top. It used to be fairly easy. You'd populate some keywords on your website and be done with it.
Problem was, it was so easy, everyone took advantage it and the quality of search results started to reflect that. Google noticed and began increasing the number and types of criteria it took into consideration when ranking websites and web pages. There are few, if any opportunities to game the system nowadays. If you're in a small, noncompetitive niche, you might be able to rank well with relatively little effort. Otherwise it's an expense, a lengthy proposition, and a creative struggle.
There's one other exception. You can pay to be on top.
The fastest way to the top is, and always has been, Google's Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising platform, Adwords. Through a complicated bidding and auctioning process, you can position your website at the top of sponsored search results in less than a day. Problem is, it's a very complicated process and you can end up spending a lot of money to achieve poor results unless you're experienced and methodical.
That puts small business owners at a disadvantage. They can ill afford to put the time into becoming highly skilled at PPC. Nor can they typically afford to hire or contract for those services. The dabbling that many small business owners do in order to try to turn a profit often results in poor results and even more frustration.
Google Doesn't Share Everything
Google has never openly shared its ranking algorithm, but it used to provide business owners with a lot more data - data that helped us better understand how prospects and customers were searching for our products and services. The last few years, Google has been tapering - no cranking - back on that as well.
Google's Keyword Research Tool - Google Planner
Given Google's near monopoly on search, it makes sense you'd want to go to Google to figure out the words (keywords) people use to search for your products and/or services. And that's where the vast majority of keyword researchers go, to the Google Keyword Planner tool.
Problem is, Google doesn't believe in full disclosure. The tool doesn't give you everything you need to know to make well informed decisions. Google lies by omission. As Rand Fishkin of Moz discovered in February 2012, Google chooses to hide some of it's keyword information unless you specifically ask for it.
Then there's analytics. In September 2013, Google announced they were no longer going to share information about unpaid (non-PPC) keywords in their Google Analytics software - the most used analytics tool on the Web.
This information is key to understanding how people search for and find your products and services on the Web. The fact that non-PPC keyword data is no longer available puts small business owners at a serious disadvantage. Big business owners don't have access to this data either, but they do have bigger wallets, and a bigger wallet lets you into the PPC game where you can learn through trial and error, what works and what doesn't.
If you are a PPC advertiser, you still have access to keyword data. If you are not, you'll see only a small subset of the words people use to find your website, and the majority of those are going to be branded.
Small Business Owners Have a Right To Feel Frustrated By SEO
In fact, small business owners have every right to feel frustrated by SEO.
- There is no single, fact-based and verifiable explanation for the inner workings of Google's ranking algorithm. The information we do have is based on research, experimentation, consensus and opinion. It hasn't been verified by Google.
- Google has a near monopoly on search. The rules it uses for determining who ranks on top are "a business secret" and constantly changing.
- Competition is a lot tougher than it was a few years ago and it's only going to get worse.
- Google (and the market) seems to favor big brands and paid advertisers. Small business owners often don't have access to detailed keyword information - the words people use to search for your products and/or services - because Google chooses to hide it.
What do you think? Do you agree? Are you frustrated? Am I missing something? I'd love to hear your comments below.