If there’s one thing that separates winners from losers in internet marketing, it’s traffic. We all know it’s not the only thing that matters, but if you had to choose just one metric besides profit, it’s probably the one you’d pick.
Unfortunately, most search engine optimizers don’t necessarily chase after traffic in the most effective way, and many of our behaviors end up working against us. Here are a few such behaviors.
1. Obsess over ranking factors
General knowledge of how the search engine works is a necessity for anybody who wants to call themselves an SEO, but “ranking factors” aren’t really the way to go about understanding the search engine. As we all know, Google has at least 200-something ranking factors, but SEOs know close to 0 of them.
Yes, we know things like “links influence rankings,” and Matt Cutts has confirmed the existence of a few other ranking factors, but we do not know exactly how the search engine uses those ranking factors, or which other ones are currently being used.
- These ranking factors correlate but that doesn’t mean they cause your rankings to increase. Google has publicly said that they don’t use +1 data as a ranking factor, and yet it is the highest correlated factor on SearchMetrics latest report. This should cause you to distrust any impulses you have to conclude cause and effect when you look at these studies.
- These ranking factors are based on datasets that Google isn’t using. The links reported in Open Site Explorer are not the links currently recorded in Google’s index, and other metrics like Page Authority aren’t used by Google at all. They may estimate factors that Google might use, but that’s a few “ifs” you need to be aware of.
- Google’s true ranking factors, whatever they may be, are prioritized differently for every search result. They aren’t added up as fractions of some overall score. For some SERPs, only one ranking factor matters, and it isn’t always links.
We’re strong believers in data-driven marketing but it’s important to understand what we mean when we say things like that. Data-driven marketers start with guesswork and then put it to the test, then build models to predict what future actions are going to make the most benefit.
The successful SEO spends less time trying to analyze search results and uncover patterns, and instead conducts internal experiments to measure how they influence rankings and traffic.
This is a crucial difference. When you conduct experiments of your own, you come closer to establishing genuine cause and effect relationships.
PPC marketers talk a lot about experimentation and tests, but for reasons beyond my comprehension, the subject doesn’t come up very often in SEO. Counter-arguments often come up that SEO is too complicated to perform these kinds of tests.
I disagree. SEO is too complicated to perform meaningful correlative “ranking factor” studies that actually tell us about the algorithm. It’s not too complicated to create simple controlled experiments on your own sites, as long as your goal is to figure out how to improve traffic and various other metrics, not how to reverse engineer Google’s algorithm.
2. Obsess about the competition
SEOs will often identify a keyword that they want to rank for, and immediately start analyzing the competition and trying to replicate their backlink profile and other factors.
The reality of the situation is that you need to do something entirely different from your competitors if you want to take the lead. Replicating what has already been done isn’t going to establish you as superior.
This problem is closely related to the issue with ranking factors. SEOs will assume that they know which ranking factors matter for this particular search result, and attempt to beat them on that metric alone (generally, the number of links).
This is a poor way to beat the competition because you don’t have their internal metrics. You have no idea how much traffic they are getting or how many conversions they are earning. You don’t know which links, if any, count for how much, or what other ranking factors might be playing a part.
All that matters is what you think works, whether you can make it happen, and whether it actually makes a difference when you do it.
3. Obsess about better rankings
This is a central problem that many SEOs have. Because SEO isn’t about maximizing rankings. It’s about using knowledge of search engines to maximize KPIs.
Take this as an example. Is it better to rank on page 1 for a keyword with 1,000 monthly searches, or page 3 for a keyword with 100,000 monthly searches? If you answered anything other than “It depends on the query,” you’re misinformed.
When we focus exclusively on taking the top spot for a particular keyword, we end up either focusing on weak keywords, or we end up pouring resources into links that may not even ever have a hope of getting us to the top spot. You don’t maximize KPIs by maximizing rankings. You do it by maximizing KPIs.
It seems obvious, but this is a basic step that gets missed very often. If the end goal is to maximize traffic with maximal conversion rates, rankings are just one part of that, and not a very big one at that.
There are any number of alternatives:
- Post more content to grab more long tail traffic
- Focus on low competition keywords
- Focus on keywords with such high traffic that low rankings still bring high traffic
- Focus on high-converting keywords where the amount of traffic isn’t as important
- Focus on converting search traffic into social and repeat traffic
Some mixture of all of this is probably going to be ideal, and the ideal mixture is going to depend on your niche. The point is, there are often better things to focus on than to improve rankings for that one keyword you think you need so badly.
It’s also worth realizing some of the following points:
- The number 1 ranking doesn’t always have a better click through rate than the number 2 ranking
- Rankings change based on user data
Think beyond rankings. SEO campaigns are projects; they often require serious planning and execution through tools like Microsoft Project or smaller alternatives like WorkZone. Rarely are they one-off projects that only demand the skillset of a single individual. You need to think about ROI, conversions, traffic, lifetime value, branding, ethics, business longevity, and so much more.
4. Follow the crowd
Finally, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is just go off the advice of the crowd. This is a big problem because the most common way of doing things is so rarely the best. That’s true of any field.
For one thing, Google isn’t considered about the one slippery spammer who finds a loophole nobody else knows about and exploits it. They’re more concerned about the massive herds of “gray hat” marketers, because they are the ones who do most of the manipulating.
Google went after content farms with Panda before it went after outright spam with Penguin. Why? Because content farms were turning up in practically every search result. Spam results were only showing up for heavily commercial search terms. Which one was more important for Google’s image?
Spam tactics never last, but don’t assume you’re safe because you’re doing what everybody else is. If what everybody else is doing also happens to be lowering the quality of the search results, it’s probably not something you should be using as your primary strategy.
There is a fairly consistent cycle of building things up and watching them topple in this industry. Every time Google slaps down a certain type of scheme, a new one gets invented. It starts out relatively safe, but the industry grows. It becomes a new way of buying links and thus it becomes lucrative. Eventually, it grows big enough to impact the Google user experience. Then it gets slapped down.
You need to stay ahead of the curve or move in a different direction entirely if you want to see success.
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