Deer-in-Headlights“It’s Google’s game; we’re just playing it.”

~ Igor Tossell, The Globe and Mail

There’s been a lot about SEO in the mainstream news lately, from the Wall Street Journal to The Globe and Mail, and even the New York Times. Last week, we posted a rant, (If You’re Going to Write About SEO, Get It Right) showing off a little bit of spirited irritation for the inaccurate and often sensational portrayal of an industry we love.

It’s no wonder some of these places might not be completely accurate about SEO, especially if you count the Huffington Post as “properly SEO’d”. For the longest time, almost every article started out with something similar to, “If you searched for [key term], you’d find [large number] of searches. What does that say? That a lot of people want to know about [key term].” You’d also find a long list of key words “artfully” disguised as tags.

These methods worked, getting the Huffington Post ranked for a many an unusual term. Therefore, people interested in SEO (but not having much knowledge) nodded and said, “Yup, that must be SEO.” In fact, a similar method was made in a NYTimes article about websites not fighting fair for the term “Mother’s Day flowers”.

Which just happens to be the very first three words on the page.

Standing all alone by themselves.

In a single sentence.

Hmmm… Was the NY Times trying to take over the SERPs for a highly targeted phrase around the same time as Mother’s Day? Just a thought; not, of course, an accusation.

Pardon the digression. The point of this article is to shine a little light on some misconceptions.

SEO and Google Gaming

Many online places have written about SEO from the view of someone who doesn’t actually practice it. You can tell, because very seldom will an actual optimizer use the term “gaming the system” or “gaming Google” to describe optimization (although the number is rising as the term becomes just “part of the lingo”).

The more Google changes the SERPs, the harder it becomes to rank for terms without at least nudging the guidelines a little. However, that doesn’t mean the basics they outline have changed. In fact, when you’re looking at the Google SEO starter guide, what you actually find is some good, common sense information.

Now, keep in mind that Google doesn’t care about your business. Google cares about Google’s business, and Google’s business is relevant results.

Visitors, Google’s users, want relevant results. They’re on a hunt for information; they don’t want round about titles and descriptions where they have to guess what’s on a page. They don’t want to come to a page and find out the information on it has nothing to do with what the search snippet promised.

Tips from Google’s SEO starter guide include things like:

What do you think?

  • Choose a title that effectively communicates the page’s topic
  • Write a meta description that informs and interests users
  • Use simple-to-understand URLs with relevant words in them
  • Use mostly text for navigation
  • Keep your on page content organized around the topic
  • Create anchor texts that makes it easy to tell what content is being linked to

This is a short list of steps that fall under search engine optimization – and it’s followed by SEOs everywhere. It’s the closest thing you’ll probably find to an “optimization template” in fact.

This isn’t “gaming the system”, people. This is focused marketing.

SEO – Laser-focused Marketing

Search engine optimization is all about relevance. You have a site that covers everything about home improvement. You want to rank for home improvement, and hire ABC Professional SEO Specialist to take care of that for you. The first thing they’re going to do is find out what your business is about and what you hope to accomplish for your site.

Somewhere along the line between the first step and the campaign creation, they’re going to check the pages of your site for topical relevance. Almost every optimizer will have a story about the client that “over optimized”, and put every descriptive tag they could think of on a page. Our job, as the professional SEO, is to clean it up and categorize into as few, tightly focused categories as possible.

Further reading on this topic: Building Campaigns Around Key Words and Phrases: SEO, Marketing, Social Media Information Architecture – Content Layout is Everything

In fact, our job – the real job of optimization – is to make sure everything is relevant to the search, that each page and everything surrounding that page is tightly focused around a single topic (aka key term). As a visitor, who isn’t thinking about SEO, it can be helpful to see things like informative page titles, a beginning paragraph that summarizes the article, or concise wording in links.

Why Oo Why ?

So why do people call it “Google gaming”?

Well, for the most part, people in the industry don’t use this terminology to describe SEO. Why? Because it takes hard work, constantly staying updated in an ever changing industry and applying it all. When “gaming Google” is used, it’s generally used to describe blackhat SEO (SEO that doesn’t follow Google guidelines).

Everyone who steps into SEO as a business eventually has to decide how far they’re willing to go – what they’re willing to do outside of Google’s guidelines – to achieve rankings. They have to decide if they’re going to “game Google” and risk their client’s online businesses, or do the hard work of the whitehatter. To be honest, most choose “grayhat”- a fine line between black and white.

As a side note, it’s important to understand that black hat SEO isn’t illegal; it’s just against the guidelines Google sets up. –And, as the search engine continues to ignore legitimate sites in favor of content farms, content scrapers and the like, more white hat SEOs threaten to change sides, or at least push the line a little. Plain and simple, keeping to Google guidelines and providing client results is increasingly getting harder; for many, “gaming the system” is beginning to look pretty good.

Further Reading

If your website isn’t doing well in the SERPs and you can’t figure out why, Google released a list of 23 questions to ask yourself when looking at your site. It’s post-Panda, so this should give you a good idea of what the search engine is looking for now.

SEO Isn’t Google Gaming

If you want to think of SEO as gaming the system, that’s fine. If you prefer to say SEO is a bag of tricks, that’s fine, too. However, if you don’t actually get the truth about SEO and what it does, you’re going to lose this “game”. It’s focused marketing, often on a microscopic level. It’s micromarketing; it’s targeted marketing. Through SEO’s various subsets (SEO copywriting, link building, coding, etc) your site becomes more visible – to the search engines and, most importantly, to your prospective buyers.