Why SEO isn’t SEO anymore

I’ve been doing SEO for a while, not since the stone-age of SEO, but as far back to remember when you could so easily game the system. That is now a lost world.

Super Diet PillsIn the not so distant past SEO’s could offer their clients a the equivalent of a diet pill. No need to spend hours on the treadmill, just take this fairly expensive pill and you will become more attractive to your suitor (Google).

Last year, Google finally put their algorithm where there mouth is. In the past, Google has averted their gaze from “low quality” sites. They discounted many of their tactics, but an aggressive site owner who is driven to rank can make it up in volume. Thousands of inbound links based around highly sought after anchor text could overwhelm more conservative sites that played by the rules. White hat SEO consultants would advise their clients to take the high road and follow the Google webmaster guidelines, but their sites seemed to float around on page 2 or 3 of the search results.

As the 2 monochromatic animals of the SEO apocalypse rode through the SERPs a change took place, and mostly for the good. Sites that had looked good only by subsisting on super diet pills started to lose their attractiveness. The sites that had spent their time on the treadmill started ranking.

A search for a fairly generic term like “insurance” now rarely shows a weird result like the one below (which was on page 2 when I grabbed this screenshot).

insurance SERP

This listing is no longer on page 2, but at one point it had in excess of 20,000 backlinks pointing at it. Many of the backlinks were from foreign domains (.ru, .ua, .pl etc.) but it was enough to push them into the space that is normally reserved for the giant insurance brands.

backlink spike

8,000 to 22,000 backlinks in a month

Their backlink graph looks like a Everest in Kansas. This site might as well camped out on the front lawn of the Googleplex flying a pirate flag and dancing around a fire pit.

The New Face of SEO

We still need to talk to site owners and explain the benefit of high-quality, relevant backlinks because they are still a major force in the core algorithm  but there is so much more to it now. How are you planning on building links, where, when, what will they point to?

Links to the homepage

If you are getting sites linking to your homepage, chances are it will be a branded link. For example, if I mention my favorite restaurant is The Pit in downtown Raleigh, I use their name and link to their root domain like any normal person. If I want to link to an interesting video I ran across on the Cisco website about the basics of data protection I’ll probably link directly to the interior page with a more descriptive anchor text.

When I look at the link profile for a site and see a lot of highly sought after anchor text pointing at the homepage I immediately get suspicious. So that begs the question, how does a site get highly optimized links for their site? The answer is easy to say, but hard to do.

Content is your only hope

If you want to rank for a term like “data protection” you need to start creating content around that idea that is worthy of links! I know, you’re rolling your eyes because it’s like your doctor telling you if you lose 10 pounds you’ll feel better.

Go look at a site that ranks well for some term that you’re not specifically knowledgeable about. I’ll use a competitive term: “small business phone systems“. After the ads I see Panasonic at the #1 position. When I click-through I see an entire page about best practices when choosing a business phone system that comes complete with case studies. The page itself has 26 backlinks from 7 unique domains and needless to say the Panasonic domain is a super trusted and authoritative domain.

Panasonic has people (or an agency) to generate great content for their site. They will continue to rank well for that term because of it.

There’s nothing exciting about my product

This is the knee-jerk response by someone who is intimidated by the thought of being forced into a creative role.  There are thousands of sites out there that are doing great things around products that often seem ho-hum. My favorite is Best Made Company and their axes.

Best Made Co. "Unfinished" American Felling Axe

“Unfinished” American Felling Axe

Best Made Company takes the time to tell their story about why you should consider yourself happy to fork over $158 for an axe. They have an interview with the axe designer and even footage of the axe being used in a snowy forest chopping down a tree. It’s great content from a company who is all about the content and telling a story.

If you’re not a story-teller you need to set aside some time and figure out how you’re going to convince people that your product is worth them considering. The average American no longer actually “needs” what you’re selling, they have everything the need and a $99/month storage room full of shiny stuff they thought they wanted.

Find your internal storyteller. If there’s no answer, find someone who can help you. Crafting your story is job one.

If you’re unsure where to start, ask questions. Start by talking to your best customers. Ask them why they buy from you. Ask old customers why the left. Ask strangers to talk about problems they’re having that you might be able to address with your product or service. After a couple of weeks, your story will start to take form.

I’m a commodity

If you sell something where you think the only way to more sales is to compete on lowest price, you can stop reading. Racing to be the low price leader is only going to work for one person. There are a lot of products that probably feel like their a commodity, like paper towels. Yet there are paper towels that sell for less than a dollar a roll and linen based paper towels that cost a fortune.

The biggest problem when you race to the bottom is that you lose the drive to make something great, because all your focus is on making it cheaper.

My friend runs a site at cheappens.com. You can probably guess what she sells… right. The new world order is not a friendly regime for her site. Yes she offers a nice variety of inexpensive pens. She has great promotional items and everything your expect. The problem comes from the site needing to be different/remarkable/noticeable. How do you take the $0.19 pen and build a community around it. Who will become your evangelist? There’s the rub. It’s a transactional purchase of a true commodity. If the site went dark tomorrow, there would be someone else selling the same pens at about the same price and the customers wouldn’t care. It’s the same thing that would happen if your local Mobil gas station becomes a Sunoco station.

I would say that Lynne’s best hope is that SHE has to become the brand evangelist. She needs to be the artist in residence at cheappens.com and make people’s dreams come true when they need 300 pens for the trade show next month.

I’d love to hear what you’ve found over the 18 months with your website.


  1. Great article Phil. Very simple concept that isn’t as readily accepted by the biz community as it should be!


  2. Thanks Mike. Although the concept is simple, the execution takes a lot of hard work and planning and that where it usually fails.


  3. I love reading these types of posts and I always respond by asking the same question. When you create the highest quality content possible for your website, how do you get people to find it? People will naturally build links to your content for you if its good. But they need to see it in the first place. You need to get it in front of those people who care about the topic. So what do you recommend to get that initial push of readers or viewers?


  4. First off, I disagree with the premise that people will naturally build links to great content… if only. Like everything else in life, proper promotion is the key. It’s imperative that the company work constantly to keep themselves in front of the right people and in the right places.

    That means being active on the social networks and/or building in-person relationships with people who can help spread your message.

    Getting to page 1 of the search results is still a great place to be, but there are many other ways to make your business flourish in the hyper-connected, always-on world we live in.


  5. Great post! Agree with everything. We managed make refrigeration somewhat interesting. That was tough!


  6. It’s not all that strange of a concept when you realize that passion is what makes a story interesting. If refrigeration is your passion, I bet you have told a lot of great stories.


  7. Watch as “SEO” agencies rebrand to “Content Marketing” agencies as the new trend in 2013-14.


  8. Most SEO agencies already pushed content as the sustainable model to their clients, just like the personal trainer tells his clients to stop eating at Wendy’s. But original, linkable, shareable content is hard work… the diet pill was easy.


  9. Very good read and definitely agree with the trend. We’ve been doing a lot more content marketing for our clients (and trying not to lose focus on SEO though), both on-site and through guest blogging on blogs that we see that get carried by Google Alerts we’ve set up on specific topics. The challenge is coming up and developing new creative engaging and interesting content on a regular basis, but that’s everyone’s hill to climb.


  10. That’s right Rob, and I think Brent is correct when he points out that SEO agencies will need to pivot. Coming up with better ways to develop content will be a big differentiator for agencies this year. We’ve come up with a handful of good ideas for our clients but still feel like we need a lot more.


  11. Great article, Phil, but I’m still left wondering what Lynne needs to do to become the brand evangelist. How does one write a steady stream of great content on cheap pens? There’s only so much you can say. This is the dilemma facing many small businesses hoping to better their rankings.


  12. Thanks for asking Ivan, because I started writing that paragraph but edited it out. It would have added even more to what was already a pretty long read.

    I’m not so sure that Lynne is limited in what she can create content about more than anyone else. I use the Best Made Company as an example because I’m sure there’s a marketing manager at some axe company complaining that he can only say so much about a tool that’s been around 10,000 years.

    Small businesses have never been more able to compete with big brands, while at the same time still at a huge disadvantage. The big global brands own most generic terms in the SERPs, so SMB’s need to move down the tail and know their customers better. Spend more time giving and less time selling. As backwards as that sounds, I think it’s your best chance to land better business from better people.


  13. Oh, my! Lynne of CheapPens.com checking in. First off, thanks for the advice, Phil. I appreciate your using my business as an example of…something.

    You probably don’t know this (and please don’t tell anyone), but my first business was a web site development company, which I started in 1996. After doing a few e-commerce sites for some clients, I decided to start one myself. My concept was to sell custom printed promotional products to web site owners (including my own clients) as one of the many ways for them to promote their web sites. My original site included a section devoted to web site promotion and SEO tips and (please be shocked) had excellent Google page ranking for the search term “web site promotion.” This resulted in a lot of visits to the site and a lot of sales.

    SEO started to become very dirty, sleezy and cheezy at about the same time that it became a profession. I began neglecting the “tips” section of my web site after I found myself writing an article about doorway pages. I didn’t feel good writing about ways to cheat yourself to the top. I completely eliminated the “tips” section of the web site about 6 years ago, even though that section of the web site had previously brought me a bunch of traffic.

    So, Phil, I hear you. Content is king. The question is…do you really think that I have to just write about pens? What would be so bad about gaining popularity for some other reason as a means of just driving traffic to the site and hoping that someone buys some custom printed pens on impulse?


  14. Great stuff Phil. I’m working on our content building and at the moment that’s primarily to improve our SEO. Luckily there’s a lot to be said about web development and the tech world in general and that helps create interesting content. We just need some video stuff now too!

  15. davidleblanc699200142 says:

    A compelling story to tell? You mean, like, marketing?

    Google’s new algorithms seem to be kind to experts in their respective fields. It will be interesting to see how a sites that sell Viagra for the lowest price suddenly have to be Viagra experts offering original content to get ranked again.

    Or maybe not. The online vistas for a good plumber, however, or now wide open.


  16. Really nice post thanks. I agree with what you say and have been waiting for years for Google to get to the point where it ranks people on credit rather than just on volume of back links!

    I find people’s mind set hard to change – they say I want SEO, so you say as a consultant OK you need to do X, Y, Z and you need a content strategy. They look at you and wonder how they are going to create content about their products/services regularly. I find most small business owners (that are not in creative/art industry) really struggle with the concept. With a good discussion you can bring them around, my opening statement is always “The search engines primary goal is to find good content, how do you expect to rank without it?”


  17. That’s right Jon. To be on the first page you have to be one of the ten best pages on the web, that’s one hell of a high bar – if you are paying $0.10/word for your content don’t expect to be on page 1.


  18. Hi Phil,
    I was honored to get to know you and connect with you on Google Plus! enjoy reading your insightful articles!Thanks!


  19. SEO still has the same concept behind it. Content definitely a must,however backlinks are still a huge factor in ranking. The only difference in SEO of the past, is you can not get 20k links from foreign sites, with exact keyword anchor and expect rank high. Have to build links very carefully and make them all highly relevant with little emphasis on the anchor. But is is still the links and not the content.



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