I’ve always been a firm believer in the value of SEO. Google’s made that case easier in recent weeks.
There have been many debates on the right approach to SEO in the past. Do you chase algorithm updates or try and understand what the search engines are trying to do? Should you tweak every last technical aspect of your site until it is picture perfect, spend time developing precious links or build your reach and popularity on social networks in order to better amplify your content?
There had been one anti-SEO argument in the evergreen debates that I was rather partial to. This argument said you should just concentrate on being great at the rest would follow. Work on great content and it would naturally attract links. Work on great customer experience and naturally attract praise. Work on a great brand and naturally attract coverage. Although this argument assumed a basic level of technical competence it was an attractive one.
As it happens working on great content, public relations, brand and customer experience are all part of SEO. Google, for example, has said that negative reviews on your brand online could harm your rankings. You could ask, “Why bother calling it SEO in the first place then?” and have a fair point. Good brands were going to do all these things anyway.
Not anymore. Now there are activities absolutely exclusive to SEO that cannot be addressed with great content, branding and customer service.
If Google does not like your “link profile” you are in trouble. Your link profile is the evaluation the search engine makes of the landscape of webpages with anchor tags pointing at your site. If those web sites are too poor in quality too often or Google suspects the origin of the links was not natural then the search engine may drop your own site down the search rankings.
You can have “unnatural links” pointing at your site even if your brand has never engaged in any SEO.
Unnatural links may have been picked up from press releases. Google likes some types of links (branded) but not others (exact match) and it doesn’t matter whether you are the focus of the press release or just mentioned in it.
Unnatural links may have been picked up from a social media, PR or TV originated competition with Google now suspicious that so many sites use the same or similar phrases when linking to you. Your brand may have old domains or microsites that now redirect to your current site that bring the poisonous touch of poor quality inward links to you. In fact, Google recently made a change to its webmaster console to make it easier to spot just that sort of redirect.
You certainly have no control over the quality of the websites that talk about you. Perhaps your brand has had a TV campaign that created a lot of attention in the past and as a result many abandoned blogs are left with references to you that are now left to fester and become toxic. It may have been an old celebrity endorsement that persuaded the poorly designed fan sites of the time to link to your brand. Now, with the original moderators gone on to other projects, all that remains is dilapidated content soon to fall below Google’s threshold of quality.
Competitors can make trouble for you. The practise of “negative SEO” is still thankfully rare but is the horrible technique of creating unnatural links to a competitor with the intent of getting them caught and penalised by Google.
It is too easy to continue to speculate on the myriad of reasons why sites might now fall below the link profile quality Google expects. The threat should not be dismissed either. It is happening. Back in March 2013, months before the most recent evaluation of the quality bar, Google notified the BBC that it was unhappy and that punitive action was likely. The problem turned out to be with just a single article on the site and nothing to do with SEO activities the BBC may or may not have taken in the past.
The idea that big brands will not get penalised by Google is a myth. The most recent analysis from Searchmetrics should put this misconception to bed, as they show a number of familiar names in difficulty.
Today you must do SEO. You must use the tools that Google and others make available to check the links pointing to your site and the quality of the sites they are coming from. To reduce the risk of unnatural link warnings and action from the search engine you must be prepared to take action; whether that’s contacting the owners of the sites in question to ask them to remove the links, or nullify the risk by placing a “nofollow” value into the relationship attribute of suspicious links, or even more advanced SEO action through the use of a disavow request.
Even Google encourages SEO these days. It has published guides, blog posts and regular video updates to help brands and site owners through the minefield of choices.
Brands must now create great content, engage wonderfully with their audiences, offer a fantastic service and they must also keep close watch on the network of links that build up around their site. Brands must do SEO.
Andrew Girdwood is media innovations director at DigitasLBi