SEO is one of the most ambiguous fields in marketing.
There are hundreds of factors that impact search engine rankings, and it’s nearly impossible to accurately track causes and effects (besides broad takeaways). Furthermore, it’s even more difficult to garner universal insights that can be applied at scale.
Consequently, there is controversy in the SEO industry. Every search engine marketer has their set of best practices, some of which are in direct conflict with the best practices of other search engine marketers.
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at this phenomenon to explain why SEO is so ambiguous and why search engine marketers lack consensus.
We will break this analysis down into three parts:
- The ambiguous nature of SEO
- The limited experience of search engine marketers
- What this all means to you
Let’s get to it.
The Ambiguous Nature of SEO
SEO is one of the few digital marketing fields where it is incredibly difficult to track “cause and effect” relationships.
In email marketing, you can send an email, track open rates, track click rates, and track sales with minimal ambiguity.
In paid advertising, you can track click through rates, conversion rates, performance by placements, and dozens of other quantifiable metrics with almost no ambiguity.
SEO is different because cause and effect relationships are not entirely measurable. Search engine optimization is a multivariate process in which hundreds of different factors can impact a website’s ranking. Here are just a few:
- Site authority
- Site speed
- On-page optimization
- Content quality
- Content length
- Content organization/categorization at the domain-level
- Keyword competition
- Social media shares
The list goes on and on….
Any search marketer worth his salt is optimizing for all of the categories simultaneously. While this is considered to be a best practice, it also makes the efforts more difficult to track.
If you engage in 10 SEO activities to rank a page and the page ranks – which activity was responsible for the ranking? Are they equally responsible (10% each) or did one activity pull most of the weight (90%)?
It’s nearly impossible to tell. You can run isolated case studies, as many marketers do, but once again there are too many factors for these case studies to be entirely accurate.
For example, let’s assume I want to test the effectiveness of a backlink from Forbes.com. I take a website that has been sitting dormant for a year and I build a link to one of it’s 50 posts. If the linked page jumps to spot 1 on Google, can we confidently say that “Forbes backlinks boost rankings”?
Yes and no…
While we tested for a single variable (building a link), there were actually many other variables in play. Here are some questions that would arise if you wanted to see if “Forbes backlinks boost rankings” was a universal rule:
- How competitive was the keyword? Would this work for other keywords?
- How good was the content being linked to? Would this work for other content?
- Our test site had 50 posts. How would this work for a site with 10 posts?
- How old was the domain we were linking to? Would this work on a newer domain?
Once again, the list could go on and on… and this is just to garner a single insight. Imagine if you wanted to run similar tests for other SEO factors like:
- Site load time
- Keyword density
- Image alt tag usage
- Header usage
- Interlinking strategies
- Article keyword density
- Backlink anchor text distribution
You’d have to spend a lifetime gathering insights (and by that time, Google would likely have an entirely different ranking algorithm).
My point here is not that SEO efforts can’t be measured. It’s that SEO efforts can’t be measured with pinpoint accuracy.
Search engine marketers learn to work with “best practices” instead of “absolute rules,” and, often times, these “best practices” don’t paint the full picture.
For example, most experienced SEO’s wouldn’t argue with the following statements:
- Quality content is a ranking factor
- Backlinks (and overall site authority) are a ranking factor
That said, if you were a novice search engine marketer who only had experience in one of those areas, you may draw a false conclusion. For example, if you were able to rank with quality content alone, you may assume that backlinks are not a ranking factor (which is objectively wrong).
This also leads to one other phenomenon that I will call “insignificant validation.”
I gave an example above where a search engine marketer applies 10 SEO “best practices” and ranks a page. Since each of those best practices is not directly measurable, this marketer must assume that those 10 actions lead to ranking, when in reality a single factor could have been responsible for the ranking, with the remaining 9 being a waste of time. The site may have even ranked despite one of the 10 “best” practices actually being a poor practice.
This marketer may be drawing false conclusions and perpetuating a cycle of poor marketing practice. This could be spread even further through online discoure.
This is seen all of the time on online forums. People ask questions about SEO, and other marketers (who couldn’t possibly have definitive answers), answer with such certainty and authority. This further perpetuates bad marketing practices.
Sometimes, the answer is to admit what you don’t know.
This leads to our next talking point.
The Limited Experience of Search Engine Marketers
By this point, we should agree that there are no absolute rules in SEO – just best practices.
We should also agree that these best practices will vary by project. For example, in a low-competition niche, you may be able to rank a mediocre 500-word article, whereas in a high competition niche, you may need to write 2,000 words of content and back it up with links from authority sites to even stand a chance of ranking.
Context matters and the variability of contexts within SEO is virtually infinite. Every situation is unique and there are billions of situations search engine marketers can find themselves in.
Most search engine marketers only find themselves in a few of these unique situations.
Accordingly, their experience is very limited, and the insights they garner have limited application. You can’t draw universal best practices with limited experience, and this is exactly why there is a lack of consensus in the world of SEO.
Every successful strategy has an unsuccessful counterpart. Take the following best practices, all of which can be both true and false depending on the context:
- You only need quality content to rank
- Longer content outranks shorter content
- You need to build links if you want to rank
- Paid links improve rankings
- White Hat SEO outperforms Black Hat SEO
This is a list of high-level insights. The concept could be extrapolated to hundreds of other lower-level insights (i.e. alt tag usage, keyword density, header usage, etc.)
Search engine marketers are blinded and biased by their own experience.
So, how can we thrive in a field of chaos, ambiguity, and seemingly contradictory strategies?
How Search Engine Marketers Should Operate
SEO is ambiguous and search engine marketers have very limited experience, but this doesn’t mean search engine marketing is a futile endeavor – far from it. I’ve had plenty of success with SEO over the past decade.
This success relies on two things:
- Differentiating objective best practices from subjective best practices
- Relying on my own contextual data and insights
Let’s delve into the first one.
Accepting the ambiguity of SEO does not mean you do not accept any universal best practices. There are certain best practices that are objectively effective. There may be exceptions to these rules, but the exceptions don’t negate the rules themselves. Furthermore, there’s really no reason to avoid these best practices because they have almost no downside.
For example, improving your site speed has zero downside. It improves user experience and may help you climb the rankings. Is it guaranteed to skyrocket your pages to the top of the SERPs? Obviously not, but it certainly won’t hurt. We know that Google prefers fast sites – they’ve said it. Here are some other factors that have nothing but upside (either by common sense or by Google’s own admission).
- The use of SSL (make your site secure)
- High quality content (give the readers what they want)
- Logical site structure (make your site easy for Google to crawl)
- Proper page markup + technical SEO (make it easy for Google to understand your page content)
These are all objective ranking factors. Any marketer that would counter these points would be pointing to exceptions to the rules of SEO. Furthermore, none of these practices will hurt your SEO, so there’s really no reason not to follow them.
Of course, the objective side of SEO is easy for any marketer to follow. If SEO were as simple as following objective rules, we’d all get rich by following an SEO blueprint.
We’ll call the objective side of SEO, “the science of SEO.”The subjective side of SEO is, “the art of SEO.”
SEO is both a science and an art. The science is proven and measurable. The art is subjective, creative, and flexible.
This is why I rely on my own data to address the contextual components of SEO. This type of data helps me answer questions like:
- How long should my content be?
- How should the content be written and formatted?
- How much content to I need on my site for Google to recognize my niche authority?
- Do I need backlinks to rank?
- How many backlinks do I need and how powerful should they be?
- Do I need social shares?
The answers to these questions will vary by project, but the process itself remains the same. Start by following the objective best practices of SEO and then work on tackling the subjective (contextual) factors.
There is a lot of value in recognizing the differentiation between the two categories. If you assume that everything in SEO is objective, you are at a disadvantage. If you assume that what works in one context will definitely work in another, you are at a disadvantage.
Be flexible, test your strategies, and don’t take the words of others as gospel (especially if they are an anonymous name on a message board).