The Wild, Wild West
In the early days of digital marketing (what I called internet marketing when I first started), when you walked into a marketing agency, there were clear lines drawn in the sand. Search engine optimization was one area, paid search was another, content was something you stuffed full of keywords that your SEO expert gave you, and social media consisted of Live Journal, MySpace, and the toddler years of Facebook. Never mind traditional marketing because back then you would never find digital and traditional within the same agency.
In the early 2000s, SEO could be boiled down to a checklist of tactics. Tactics that in the last decade Google has seen fit to debunk, refute, and discourage with wave after wave of algorithmic updates pushing digital marketers towards a more holistic approach to online brand building through the use of highly relevant content and social promotion. Taking a step away from the gray, or black-hat tactics of the early 2000s, today’s SEO is an amalgam of site structure best practices, user interaction design, well-written content, and promotion via a number of channels.
Changes in Google’s Thinking
In 2002 it was not unheard of to comment on a blog post with a link back to your own content with keyword-rich anchor text. Or stuffing keywords into your content at astounding rates. Or hiding keywords in the background of your site with invisible text.
Shady, link wheeled sites ruled the net and stole rankings from more established, legitimate brands who may have had an SEO on staff, sweating it out day in and day out in an effort to catch up. This gray area of SEO made it nearly impossible for quality brands to compete in the rankings, and though it took a while, eventually Google caught on.
Let me illustrate this slow evolution.
2003 - Google rolled out regular updates addressing link quality, hidden links and text, and issues with keyword stuffing in a number of on-page and backend places. LinkedIn and MySpace both launched in 2003.
2004 - Facebook launched as a Harvard student-exclusive social network.
2005 - Google introduced the no-follow link attribute and the onset of personalized search.
2006 - Facebook opened registration to the general public. Twitter was launched.
2007 - The introduction of additional verticals in search results, such as images, news, videos, etc.
2009 - Google introduced real-time search for time-sensitive news and social media updates, and major updates to crawling speed and index infrastructure.
2010 - Google Instant gives search query suggestions as you type, and the introduction of social signals as ranking factors. Instagram was launched.
2011 - A major year of updates, including penalties to major brands implementing questionable SEO tactics, fighting content scraping, content farming, and high ad-to-content ratios. This also introduced structured data with schema.org, and “not provided” keywords.
2012 - Google began more aggressively pushing users towards Google+ for social signals and search personalization. It also hit parked domains and fought against web spam while encouraging faster page load times.
2013 - Payday Loan update targeted towards typically spammy niches (such as payday loan sites, obviously, but also pornography).
2014 - Google gave preference to secure sites utilizing https and SSL certificates. Snapchat was launched.
2015 - Google announced an upcoming update placing priority on brands with mobile-friendly sites within mobile search results.
Throughout the last 13 years there have been a number of minor algorithm changes and updates addressing site quality, on-page factors, and social signals. While they may not have been named updates, or announced in detail, the overarching realization is that Google is pushing for authoritative brands with a loyal following to rank in the SERPs.
What’s Social Got to Do With It?
Google has made it known that social signals are a valuable tool in a brand building arsenal. There is no longer any singular or cluster of ranking signals that can be manipulated to increase your traffic and rankings, so including tactics like social media marketing aid in building a strong foundation to your overall marketing online.
Outside of being a ranking signal, what social media is best suited for is content promotion. Any single piece of content can be adjusted, reworked or reworded to suit the audience of any social media platform. Building a community of brand advocates can make the promotion of your content a no-brainer, and it doesn't hurt that that popularity tells Google that you are a trusted authority in your industry.
Also, with the steady and significant growth of searches made via a mobile device, social media apps are a perfect marriage of convenience and content sharing.
SEO, social media and content all need to work together in order to be effective as a singular tactic.
You can manipulate the on-page elements of a website all you like, but if you don’t have quality content and an audience to read it then you are fishing in a desert.
You can tweet until the cows come home, but if you aren't providing quality content to your followers, then they'll lose interest in you quickly.
And, you can write amazingly insightful and brilliantly laid out blog posts, but if you have a site that is poorly optimized for search engines and no social following, you will be hard pressed to find someone to read it.
What is quality content? Well, that can depend on who you are and what you do. Primarily, quality is derived from user experience.
- Are you giving them something unique that they cannot find elsewhere on the web?
- Does it answer the user's questions?
- Are you providing supplemental sources such as videos or links to other relevant websites?
- Are you overwhelming your users with too many ads?
- Is the content itself well-written and easy to read?
If you had told most SEOs 15 years ago that everything they thought was right was going to end up in the garbage bin of the internet, well, a) you would have done the world a big favor, and b) you would have sent us into a tailspin. Very few of the tactics employed in 2003 will get you very far today, and the landscape is still in flux.
Don’t buy into articles that tell you that you can “get traffic without doing any marketing!”, because there is no longer a line in the sand between SEO, social media and traditional marketing tactics. What you do offline affects your online audience, and vice versa. It is all marketing, and as “digital marketers” we need to take a step back from the title and think of ourselves more simply as “marketers,” focusing on building a brand from the ground up.