April 24, 2014

Sustainable SEO


Good SEOs get hit by algorithm changes. Great SEOs see their traffic increase.

If I’ve learned one thing in my years as an SEO it’s that success comes not from chasing algorithms but from chasing visitors.

Last month I asked my team what came to mind when they thought of sustainable SEO. I got a few definitions of the word sustainable, but nothing concrete that applied to SEO – so I took the question to twitter. Much to my surprise, I didn’t get any good answers there either.

I’d like to think the first 3 sentences of this post paint a good picture of what sustainable SEO is, but just in case they don’t let’s spend a few minutes talking about it.

Way back in 2004 @mattcutts let slip a comment about b tags carrying slightly more weight than strong tags due to Google’s slowness to catch up to HTML versions. Several prominent SEOs went around changing their strong tags to b tags only to change them back years later.

Fast forward to a couple years ago when @randfish preached about pagerank sculpting with nofollow and tons of SEOs spent countless hours redoing footer links on their clients sites only to find out that the technique never worked in the first place.

Modern day content farms like Mahalo and Demand Media are more recent examples of algorithm chasing strategies that failed to provide long term value.

These are all examples of non-sustainable SEO. Quick-fix algorithm chasing may work in the short term, but it’s just going to create more work for you in the long term and possibly expose you to unknown issues.

Sustainable SEO is all about quality

No matter what Google’s algorithm looks like 10 years from now, you can bet that searchers will still want useful sites and Google’s algorithm will be focused on returning those quality, useful sites. The individual factors that determine the rankings may change, but the goal will still be the same – and that’s what you should focus your SEO efforts on.

The trick to creating sustainable SEO strategies is not to react to algorithm changes, but to anticipate them. With every algorithm change Google makes they ask themselves “does this make the results more relevant to the query?” and you should do the same. Instead of starting with a site and asking “how can I make this rank for [term]“ start with that term and ask yourself “what kind of results would I want to see?”

Sustainable SEO is all about increasing the quality of your site. While things like bounce rate, time on site, conversion rate, page speed, ect are not (for the most part) ranking factors, they are great indicators of the quality of your page. If you’ve got issues in these areas, chances are there’s something you can do to increase the quality of your pages.

Once you learn sustainable practices, you can start working on self-sustaining practices.

What do I mean by self sustaining? The 2nd part of creating a sustainable strategy is using techniques that will not only survive the test of time, but continue to work for you as time goes on.

A good example is how we handle vehicles on Ford.com. You’ll notice that the URL for the 2012 mustang is the same as it was for the 2011 mustang, which is the same as it was for the 2010 mustang. They’re all at www.ford.com/cars/mustang

Amazon does the same thing with Kindle URls. Apple does it with their products. The macbook pro always lives at http://store.apple.com/us/browse/home/shop_mac/family/macbook_pro regardless of which model is out.

By keeping product URLs the same we allow all of the previous years link building efforts to work for future products. If a product ever becomes discontinued a simple 301 redirect to a similar product preserves all that link equity.

Sustainable SEO starts with your linking structure and HTML. Good strategy and code is an essential foundation for you to build upon.

Then, it’s about looking to the future.

Don’t wait for Google to tell you what you should be doing before you implement it. People were looking at page speed way before it was a ranking factor because they knew that a faster site was more useful to their users. People like @pageoneresults were preaching about rel=author and other microformats way before Google put out a blog post. Linkedin and allrecipies had hCard and hRecipe implemented way before Google even started showing rich snippets. They recognized ways to make their sites better for users and did so – without Google telling them. When the algorithm eventually changed, they were in prime position to take advantage of it. That’s sustainable thinking.

There’s really no secret to finding what Google is going to use next either. All you have to do is read the HTML specifications. Rel=prev and rel=next have been in there for quite some time now. It’s only logical that Google use them. rel=search and rel=tag also exist. They’re not used yet, but will they be? Most likely.

So stop chasing the latest algorithm change and start focusing on what the next one will be. Ask yourself “what would make this more useful to users” and do that – regardless of whether or not it’s a ranking factor.

TL;DR

  • Sustainable SEO is about chasing users not algorithms
  • It starts with good link structures and content strategies
  • Sustainability = Quality
  • Keeping up on HTML standards can keep you ahead of the Google announcements
About Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is an SEO from Detroit. By day he works as a manager of SEO & Analytics at SapientNitro where his team performs SEO for Fortune500 clients. By night he's either playing hockey or attempting to take over the world with his own websites - which he would have already succeeded in doing had it not been for those meddling kids and their dog. The views expressed here have not been paid for and belong only to Ryan, not any of his employers or clients. Follow Ryan on Twitter at: @RyanJones, add him on Google+ or visit his personal website: www.RyanMJones.com

Comments

  1. Alan Bleiweiss says:

    Some good points Ryan. I especially like the reference to non-changing URLs. All too often I see a different URL for each new year’s thing on sites in all different markets. Totally lose existing link equity, and have to start from scratch. Totally unsustainable.

  2. I’m a serial over-user of metaphors, so bear with me:

    Google is the well-meaning parent, SEO’s are the rebellious teens.

    Google keeps telling us “focus on creating great content” and we groan and say “YOU ALWAYS SAY THAT!”

    Then we spend all our time figuring out what we can get past them, until we get caught and end up down at the no-visitor lock-up.

    But, like a good parent, Google is always willing to forgive our misdeeds with a reconsideration request. :)

    One day, we will look back on all the stupid things we do and say: “Damn, why didn’t I just focus on creating great content”

  3. That’s a great metaphor Andy. I like it – and may or may not steal it for a future post.

  4. Content is always going to be the key to success. I just wish more people would stick with the methods that are white-hat and are honest ways of doing SEO and link building. I can not go to any site without some person saying they will get me 100 PR 3+ links for 10$. It is just ridiculous really.

  5. “why didn’t I just focus on creating great content”
    Because no moron in marketing or management will buy into that.

    While I’m at it, teamdetroit the website that my eyes are still burning from.

    Don’t pat your selves on the back too hard, advertising and bullshit are destroying civilization one little profit point at a time and your lot is just helping them sell the turds.

  6. If they’re not buying in, then you failed at selling it. SEO isn’t just about doing work, it’s also about educating and evangelizing within your organization. It’s the SEO team’s job to show management the value in doing things right.

  7. Try to practice ” Timeless SEO ” and let Google to follow your SEO footsteps, time and again, to refine its algorithm to serve its SE users the best possible results / content. Here, Timeless SEO = Quality content + SE Optimization with a 6th sense to see the Google’s algorithm changes in future.