SEOs ♥ Drama: Why Our Industry Thrives on Gossip and How the Over-Optimization Issue is a Perfect Example
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• The echo chamber in the SEO industry often fuels fires to the point of being too hot.
• Taking things out of context is something we need to be careful of when trying to decipher information.
• Sometimes it better serves us to refocus from things like the algorithm to the bigger picture.
It’s true; the SEO industry feeds off of the hearsay, the juicy gossip, the scandal of algorithm changes and their effects. But it’s not our fault. The environment that we operate within – the constant feeling of never quite knowing whether or not we’re playing by Google’s rules creates a paranoid culture, where we’re constantly seeking answers from one another, sometimes obsessing too much over the “what if” details we know nothing about.
This gossip can escalate to the point of causing mass hysteria, but our little SEO society can’t seem to get enough. We propagate it further by creating more and more content surrounding said topic because, hey, people want to read it. And the vicious cycle continues.
As marketers, we’d love to take a relaxed approach to SEO, casually siding with Google’s stance about user experience as our guiding light; but in the same breath, our inquisitive (and sometimes-obsessive) personalities kick in, fanatically looking at every potential signal, trying to get our websites just right according to Google’s algorithm, which seems like the very thing the search engine is trying to get us not to do.
But as SEOs, we walk the fine line between what the user wants and what Google wants, which is technically what the user wants, but also what the algorithm wants – head spinning yet?
When we were students in school, we were taught very methodically. We knew that if we wanted to get an “A,” this is what we had to do to get there. The path was laid out and we could choose whether or not we wanted to be the best student we could be.
Fast forward to a career in SEO, and it’s not ever crystal clear what we need to be doing to stay afloat in Google. Everything is self-taught, based on data we uncover individually and collectively, our experiences and the user experience, and sifting through the mounds of statements that Google makes about its intentions.
So it’s no wonder the SEO culture is the way it is. Especially when people are dealing with site-crushing penalties that sometimes seem to have no clear explanation. Humans aren’t perfect and neither are algorithms. I truly feel for those people who have tried to do everything the right way and still get hit. For most people, their sites are their livelihoods and it can be confusing and devastating when penalized.
But that’s the sandbox we play in, folks. And sometimes, I think we need to stop obsessing over the details, take a step back and look at the big picture.
When Algorithm Changes Send SEOs into a Tailspin
Let’s take the soup du jour of the SEO industry, Google’s “over-optimization penalty” announced at SXSW this past March, as an example of how we can take an issue and turn it into a complete freak out. Matt Cutts mentioned an upcoming initiative to target sites that are over-optimized, and all hell broke loose.
As the story goes here in our industry, speculation followed. Posts about best practices and things you should and should not do in SEO ensued – and this is all great. The people who do White Hat SEO as a profession need to continue to reiterate what they’ve been saying for years about good SEO practices and methodologies.
But the fact is, even after all the great advice people are giving, the unknown “what ifs” of this over-optimization penalty are still there. The algorithm is still a mystery.
I like Vanessa Fox’s level-headed approach to the issue. I tend to think this former Googler turned SEO happens to have a good understanding of what Google’s intentions are. Her approach to the over-optimization topic reminds us to look at the big picture and to not take things out of context.
Context is important when trying to interpret something. For example, you hear someone say, “I’m so hungry I could die.” When I say this, it’s just me being melodramatic. But, the same statement made by a person in a starving third-world community, well that’s legit.
Yes, over-the-top example, but my point is: you have to look at the big picture when trying to evaluate statements – how it was said, where it was said, who it was said to, what the context of the conversation was, what other things were said in addition to it, an understanding of the background of the issue and so on.
In many cases, only snippets of Cutts’ conversation with the crowd at SXSW were honed in on and discussed heavily. When you listen to the full audio recording, there’s all sorts of clues that this “over-optimization penalty” is not meant to be doomsday for SEOs. Here’s some quotable quips by Cutts at that session that gives more context around the issue:
“But absolutely, there are some people who take it too far. And what we’re mindful of is when someone says ‘We’re White Hat, we continue to do the right thing, and we see the Black Hats who are over-optimizing or going too far and they seem to be doing too well.
And so, we’ve been working on changes to try to make sure that if you’re a white hat, or if you’ve been doing very little SEO, that you’re gonna not be affected by this change, but if you’ve been going way far beyond the pale, then that’s the sort of thing where your site might not rank as highly as it did before.”
Going back to Fox’s thoughts on the matter, and building on the idea of context, Fox says that depending on a person’s definition of SEO, some people should worry.
“At some point, search engine optimization goes beyond making sure pages are as useful as possible for the target audience and that the site is crawlable and becomes a game of guess the algorithms.
Anyone who’s read or heard me before knows that I’m not an advocate for algorithm chasing. Historically, I’ve had this view because I don’t find it productive. Algorithms change hundreds of times a year. Signals differ for individual queries. The goal is always to extract all of the data on the web and show the very best page for searchers. So why not just invest time in making sure all of your content is extractable and are in fact the very best pages?”
As usual, this issue, like many prior, are a “wait and see” event. But when we focus less on the algorithm signals and more on what we know to be good SEO practices for the end user and the search engine, the changes Google makes every day seem less scary.
And all too often, I think we get sucked into playing a game of “Telephone” that snowballs out of control; where we hear only what we want, where the meaning gets lost in translation or perhaps where we just thrive on the gossip of it all.
The SEO community can sometimes be its own worst enemy. And in such a tight-knit community, the echo chamber can be deafening.
Do you agree with me when I say the over-optimization issue is an example of where the industry can often take an issue, morph it into something bigger or different than perhaps it needs to be at the moment? Do you totally disagree with this stance? Weigh in with a comment below!