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Monday, Jun. 4, 2007 at 3:40 pm

How Can SEO Firms Keep Up With Google?

By Robert Gorell
June 4th, 2007

The New York Times has the gripping–albeit long–story of Google’s never-ending quest to improve/tweak its search engine. The goal of the search engine is to bring you the most relevant content available. But the obvious question remains: How relevant is so-called Search Engine Optimization when Google keeps changing the game?

It’s not like SEO firms have access to Google’s secret sauce. And even if they did, Google would just reinvent itself once again.

According to the Times:

[Google] …has hundreds of engineers, including leading experts in search lured from academia, loosely organized and working on projects that interest them. But when it comes to the search engine — which has many thousands of interlocking equations — it has to double-check the engineers’ independent work with objective, quantitative rigor to ensure that new formulas don’t do more harm than good.

As always, tweaking and quality control involve a balancing act. “You make a change, and it affects some queries positively and others negatively,” Mr. Manber says. “You can’t only launch things that are 100 percent positive.”

THE epicenter of Google’s frantic quest for perfect links is Building 43 in the heart of the company’s headquarters here, known as the Googleplex. In a nod to the space-travel fascination of Larry Page, the Google co-founder, a full-scale replica of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed spacecraft, dominates the building’s lobby. The spaceship is also a tangible reminder that despite its pedestrian uses — finding the dry cleaner’s address or checking out a prospective boyfriend — what Google does is akin to rocket science.

Seth Godin comments on the story, insisting that:

It seems to me that in the SEO arms race, shortcuts have a shorter shelf-life than ever before. Building 43 is obsessed with them, and they outnumber whoever you might hire to beat the system. Organic success, on the other hand, is a clear path. If you want to be on the front page of matches for “White Plains Lawyer”, then the best choice is to build a series of pages (on your site, on social sites, etc.) that give people really useful information. Not just boilerplate information you stole from a legal website, but really useful stuff about you, the local courts, the forms people need… the things you’d want to find if you were doing that search.

Once you’ve done everything you can… once you’ve built a web of information and once you’ve given the ability to do this to your best clients and your partners and colleagues, then by all means apply the best SEO thinking in the world to your efforts. Hire the best consultants and use the resources you’ve got left to be sure you’re playing by the right rules.

Betting against Building 43 doesn’t seem nearly as smart as betting on them.

Absolutely. But if you can’t bet against Google, aren’t most SEO firms just selling Search Engine Optimism?

(Our advice: Before hiring any consulting firm, including Future Now, be sure to ask bigger questions.)

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Comments (8)

  1. How relevant is so-called Search Engine Optimization when Google keeps changing the game?

    Certain fundamentals don’t change Robert, regardless of which algorithm Google might throw into the mix, tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or even next year.

    The goal of the search engines is to bring searchers to relevant and meaningful web pages and information that match the queries of their users – in spite of which new algorithms may be implemented today or tomorrow.

    Building a sound and well organized web site, that uses a strong and intelligent information structure, is able to be crawled easily by search engines, and navigated easily by people, is one start. Making certain that you know your audience and their expectations, and the words that they might use to attempt to meet those expectations is another.

    SEO isn’t a bag of tricks or a bunch of shortcuts. It’s also not an arms race against a search engine. A good SEO will try to track and understand changes to the search landscape, which can take considerable time and effort. But many of us SEO folks don’t see that effort as a battle against search engines, but rather a collaborative effort to help searchers find what they are looking for, and help them accomplish what they set out to do on the Web.

  2. Bill,

    If only your reasoned approach were shared by what I grouped (a bit unfairly) as “most SEO’s”…

    The problem is that so many SEO folks come from a technical background, and not a strategic marketing background. Since the qualification for who is or isn’t a marketer is so vague, suddenly anyone who roughly knows how to build and/or optimize a website is a marketer. The same thing happens, by the way, when companies let designers and developers create the online strategy de facto by just building the site.

    “Build, launch, tweak” might apply to software development in some cases, but it shouldn’t apply to online planning. When it does, this approach tuns into “Ready, fire, aim.”

    Every day, we hear from companies who’ve poured untold dollars into optimization BEFORE they’ve created a site worth optimizing. It’s simply dangerous to think that strategy can be an afterthought. That’s what Seth’s talking about, and I agree with him on that point.

    I completely agree that real SEO takes strategy; knowing the right keywords, and tailoring the visitor experience doesn’t happen right out of a playbook. What I’m lamenting is how Search Engine Optimization is sold by countless firms who confuse tactics with strategy. And while the strategic fundamentals don’t change, regardless of what Google does or doesn’t change, it definitely makes things rough for SEO’s who rely on tactics alone.

    I also don’t mean to suggest that keyword and linking strategy should be an afterthought; rather, it should be born from an understanding of customer motivations. We do that by planning sites based on personas, which has the added benefit of vastly increasing organic rankings in a stabilized way because they help companies create, you guessed it, relevant content–and THAT’S something worth optimizing.

    Your blog’s a powerful resource for anyone really interested in learning about Search Engine Marketing, by the way. I definitely appreciate your perspective.

  3. I can’t speak for any SEOs other than ourselves, but for us SEO is about understanding the search algorithms, not “beating them.” Good SEO is about learning what is necessary to achieve strong search placement within the context of sound marketing principles that get conversions.

  4. Robert
    You are right that many of the SEO firms can give people who do the real work a bad name and too many firms focus on tactics rather than overall strategy, but I don’t think you are right to dismiss them from coming from a technical background.

    As Bill is pointing out, so much of what is quality SEO is making sure the search engines can find your content and correctly index and rank it. Often, this is a task for someone more technically minded, who can understand how incorrect server and CMS setups can tank your rankings, who knows how to dynamically generate sitemaps and guide a client on site architecture so that the search engines get all the great content that was written.

    For example in the company I work for we found one part of our site was having a problem because the content management system was generating a if-modified-since tag that was incorrect for the content. The result was that the Google bot was not coming back that frequently, because it thought the page content had never changed. The pages were flat filed and the headers and server codes fixed and we saw an increase in the spidering and traffic from Google. This is the sort of technical analysis a good SEO can do to make sure the great content written by the marketing department is found.

    There are always going to be firms that over promise in any industry but I think those that give solid advise and technical expertise will come to stand out above the crowd. Just takes a little time for it to all shake out.

  5. Michael,

    I agree 100%. But what I’m trying to get at is that SEO services are commonly sold–and, more importantly, bought–in lieu of the strategic planning that must come first.

    I’m not suggesting that SEO doesn’t involve strategy. It does. I’m also not saying that those who practice SEO come solely from technical backgrounds, which would be silly; rather, that they tend to, and for the reasons you mentioned.

    Marketers, on the other hand, tend to come from any number of backgrounds. For better or for worse–often for better–marketing’s a mutt industry. But not all SEO folk can be marketers and vice versa.

    The real point here, though, is about planning. Optimization, without first planning the experience–at best–doesn’t solve the problem. At worst–and this is very common–it can confuse people into thinking they’ve gotten the most out of their website. Well, they may have. But what if the experience is broken to begin with?

    What if they’re optimizing cow paths?*

    Sure, SEO might help their CURRENT site perform at its best, but how well was that site planned to begin with? If I fine-tune a 4-cylinder car, an 8-cylinder should still beat it–even if the V8 needs a tune-up as well.

    (*Hardly the choice of purple cows.)

  6. [...] article generated a lot of discussion, but none of it was more off-target than what Robert Gorell wrote on GrokDotCom: “…aren’t most SEO firms just selling Search Engine [...]

  7. I agree with the general gist of the conversation that fitting SEO into the greater framework of the strategic outcomes is critical. As a long time strategic marketer, it is interesting to see that the issues raised in “ask bigger questions” are the same ones people were asking back when direct mail or telemarketing were the technologies of choice. It is easy for our clients to get caught up in the immediate needs and lose track of the big picture, and it is our job to identify the real issues and keep them focused on the main goals.

    Bottom line: SEO is one of the tools in the marketers toolbag that needs to be used with other tools to achieve the desired objectives – and not a means unto itself.

  8. they release this info so that people can build better sites and googles searches become more relevent

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