Google – everyone’s best friend or unstoppable superpower?

December 18, 2015

“I came in like a wrecking ball!”

It’s like a scene straight out of Hollywood. You’re sat sipping a coffee in your office in London, New York, Berlin – you decide. You look around, full of pride. It’s taken years of hard work and graft and at times it looked like you’d never make it. You’ve positioned yourself well within your marketplace – happy and content. And then, WHOOSH. Cue Miley Cyrus. A wrecking ball sweeps through the building and takes your office out. You pick yourself up and can hardly believe it. You’ve been targeted. Deliberately. The city council has decided to optimise its plans for the improvement of the city – and you no longer meet the specifications. The result? You’re out. Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen.

Terrifying, isn’t it? But luckily a scenario which is restricted to Hollywood. Here in the real world we’re protected from such catastrophes.

Or are we?

Many markets and businesses have long since moved out of the stationary, physical world and into the virtual world of the internet. I recently saw a film in which a businessman resolutely believed that he didn’t need an online presence. “This internet malarkey will never catch on”. Sorry to disappoint you but this internet malarkey has caught on. About ten years ago – and it’s here to stay!

Companies no longer consist merely of buildings and offices, but increasingly of brands, placement and platforms. Physical assets are negligible whereas immaterial products are worth millions. Jobs such as “blogger” are no longer met with a smothered laugh and a condescending “yeah ok, mate”, nor are terms such as “YouTube star” particularly new. The dangers and threats to businesses have also shifted – the wrecking balls are now digital. The modern equivalent of the nightmare demolition described above is a loss of Google rankings. Google is permanently “optimising” its search algorithm to respond to search queries accurately and efficiently in order to deliver the best possible search results to users.

Your online shoe shop may be the number one search result for the keywords “women’s shoes” and “women’s shoes online” but, come the next update, you could disappear from Google’s index altogether. The corresponding flat-lines on the graphs in the XOVI Suite are no longer something only cardiologists need to watch out for! There’s no need to take risky black hat SEO measures – Google changes the rules with its updates often enough as it is without throwing dodgy tactics into the mix. Most people are familiar with the biggest Google updates, the ones with the cute animal names like Penguin, Panda, etc. As for the “Squirrel Update” targeting websites which climb too quickly or the “Elk Update” aiming to punish websites whose code is too thin … well I’m still waiting for those.

“If horses were squirrels, they would gallop up trees” (Bernd Stromberg)

When the wrecking ball scenario occurs, it can mean commercial and economic disaster. Keyword density used to be all the rage. Not any more. Now it’s all about WDF*IDF. But the Google bandwagon is moving fast – making a speeding train look like a snail in comparison. After ten years worth of experience, I would describe SEO as follows:

Google is sat on the comfiest, highest throne in the world whilst we website optimisers clamber around on ladders trying to massage the search giant from head to foot – or rather from WDF to IDF, all the way down to its social signals and its increasing number of links. But not too many! Otherwise they’re artificial and spammy and this is where we’re heading into black hat territory … and we don’t want that. Exactly what too many or too few means of course remains a mystery. The search giant can be a right little diva – especially towards those patient, long-serving and obeying SEO masseurs.

What if, what if, what if…

I hear it time and time again in meetings as colleagues discuss their online marketing strategy. “What if we place this or that link?”, “What if we were the first to have this in our code?” …. What if? But Google has been hiding whatever keywords are best used to find a web presence behind it’s useful “not provided” function for years. Perhaps its about time I started tentatively edging towards Google AdWords … ?

No, I see SEO as a marathon, not a sprint. I fly the flag of consistency and quality, high value content. “What if?” has no place in my meeting room. What’s interesting however is that Google has registered a patent whereby it is able to identify SEOs – by tricking them. And so, SEOs which in Google’s eyes are too progressive are penalized and placed unter surveillance. If you then remove any links you have placed, you are the still punished. “Oh so you WERE optimising!”

Straight forward and objective – just how the customer likes it

How to explain technical gibberish to a customer? How to explain that techniques which we were encouraging just last week are now actually counterproductive and should be avoided at all costs? A single Google search uses up as much electricity as a 100 watt bulb in an entire day. This is an interesting fact, and that’s exactly how the customer likes it. Interesting, concrete and comprehensible. But most of all – measurable. I’m a big fan of objective facts. Whether in SEO, SEA, web design, you name it, “I think …” and “I reckon …” are expressions of the past. Analytics is being de-emotionalised.

The most interesting things crop up when emotions are involved. The customer loves a user-friendly website and he’s probably heard “from his mate”, who also happens to be the system administrator, that “these meta tags” are all-important. Quickly adjust the page and the customer has visions of his website gloriously topping the Google rankings for “digital agency Watford”. Happy days. The fact that a long tail keyword may have a high CPC in AdWords doesn’t occur to him. Search tools such as forms to fill in often become little more than tools to prevent searches as the webmaster tries to search for too many things at once. The web presence ends up being managed in a similar way to bait which the fisherman likes … but not the fish. Fair enough, if you only go fishing to enjoy the act of sitting there and fishing, that’s fine … you won’t be expecting to catch anything anyway.

We’re all quite open about our SEO/SEA tools nowadays so allow me to direct your attention directly to XOVI and the 10 competitors which the tool instantly throws up when setting up a project for your domain for the first time. 10, you say? The customer is often surprised to see that his Google “competitors” aren’t necessarily the same as his “real life” rivals. And it’s even worse when he sees that the Joneses next door are ranked considerably higher! Must have been using “those meta tags” again.

Having identified that there are only ten places available on page one, even the most techno-phobic internet newbie can see that a positioning here is going to involve a degree of displacement. There is already somebody in position 1. It follows therefore that I should find out what they’ve been doing and do it better to knock them off their perch. You realise pretty quickly that links are considered “recommendations”. You also notice to your displeasure that you only have ten. And poor quality ones at that. Your competitor already has a hundred times that amount. But if this makes you worried, then you’re already making progress. Perhaps there’s more to this “SEO” lark than a few “meta tags” and luck after all. Perhaps websites have to be more than just pretty in order to convert visitors into paying customers.

Unpredictable headings, predictable users. This is SEO – unpredictable and yet still very much (and perhaps for this very reason) predictable. Your in-house SEO is like a project within a project. Watching your business grow and monitoring it’s progress is one of the most beautiful things in the life of an entrepreneur. This is THE project. Similarly, monitoring rankings and identifying positive developments online is also exciting, interesting and, at the end of the day, highly lucrative. Because as we know: “The internet is here to stay!”

When I speak to our customers about their online presence, which is then valued as “nice” or “not so nice”, I often find that there is a lack of objective principals for evaluation. And so I take them by the hand and advise them. Whether the colour blue is “nice” or not can be debated until the cows come home. But whether a telephone number is well positioned on a website or whether the customer is able to dial it automatically with a single click – these things can be measured. This is where Steve Krug comes in, waving at us frantically with his usability bible. Today’s user doesn’t want to bore himself to death searching for an elusive contact button, he wants an experience! Hence today’s big topics: User Experience (UX), mobile design and local SEO. So if colour is a matter of taste and usability has a language of its own, what do we need to do to convince as many users of the quality of our internet presence? You can’t please everyone, says the customer, right on cue …

Oh really!? Let’s compare our internet presence to a wardrobe. When attending an interview, those skinny jeans with the rips are probably not ideal. The dinner jacket and bow tie on the other hand could be construed as overdressed. So stick to a nice pair of trousers, shirt and a smart jacket and go with the flow. This works when presenting a business to the outside world as well, and this is why we say that design isn’t a democracy. You have to adjust the outfit for different displays. Over two years ago, I advised my customers to climb aboard the “responsive” bandwagon – advice which most of them heeded. Now, since April 2015, mobile versions of a website have become compulsory for all users who wish to attract an increasing number of mobile users. Google results for mobile devices are now different to results on a PC, and mobile optimisation has gone from being an optional geeky extra to a an absolute must.

Google – the capital of the internet

“Google – everyone’s best friend or unstoppable superpower?” – a questionable characterisation of the search giant, even for us here at Baseplus DIGITAL MEDIA GmbH. What does it mean and what should we take from it?

Google offers us lots of tools – free and useful, interconnected and numerous. The one thing they are not is anonymous. Do customers really know how much they are paying for these tools? Not in terms of dollars, euros or pounds but in terms of data? It’s an almighty paradox. On the one hand, the public want to pay as little as possible (when at all) for services and software. On the other, the debate rages on social media and on TV about data protection and data collection – the transparent user.

Is Google useful? Of course it is. Is Google on the road to becoming a global superpower? Unfortunately yes. I’ve been saying for years that “Google is the capital of the internet”. It’s an expression which is still met with condescending smiles today.

Finally, when SEO becomes 100% transparent, when the final purchased link has been identified, when the best SEO texts feature on Google’s spam list, when the ultimate CPC high value has been reached and when Google AdWords becomes compulsory for wont of alternatives, we’ll have to ask ourselves the question:

Who can afford AdWords now anyway?

Author Branimir Witt

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