Search Engine Optimization and Secret Knowledge

There is indication that Google may be planning a fairly major change soon, one that could disrupt a lot of current search engine optimization practices. The story is that Google will start to include fact verification of content on a website in their rankings. Like many of the changes Google has made over the years, this has created a lot of anxiety. Also, like many of the changes Google has made, those websites that follow good web content strategy practices are not particularly at risk. The websites that need to worry the most are those that try to use “secret knowledge” to outsmart the search engines. [update: see our follow up on the story about the upcoming change]

While we will talk a lot more about this algorithm change in an upcoming post, today we’re just going to talk about this “secret knowledge” aspect.

Most martial arts have some kind of origin story. In this tale, usually an individual isolates from the larger school, and either discovers or re-discovers hidden knowledge. Then he or she passes down this hidden knowledge to select followers.

We are programmed to believe that this hidden knowledge is better than the more publicly available common understandings, and on rare occasions it is. But often, the stuff you can find in any yoga study or Tae Kwon Do school is more suited for a modern person studying these arts, and that stuff is usually shared widely between schools and even between different arts, because it works. A good school is also copying techniques and approaches from other fields, such as exercise physiology and cognitive psychology and mixing it all in.

If you search for search engine optimization or even SEO for small businesses, the first ten or twenty results will generally be reputable SEO firms providing well-known advice that is widely shared across the industry. But, amazingly, many small businesses and entities end up employing obscure devices and stratagems intended to trick search engines. Or, worse, they hire search engine optimization specialists who take over some over their site to add in custom metadata and re-directs and other flim-flam.

Some people take a self-defense course and walk away thinking they know how to defend themselves when, really, they don’t. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Confidence, whether justified or not, is often enough to keep people safer. On the other hand, if they actually try and use these techniques, they might end up getting hurt a lot worse than they would otherwise.

With shady black-hat SEO strategies, there is no real upside. It’s true that really good black-hat SEO practitioners can generate rankings and traffic, for a time. But inevitably the techniques fail as the search engines get smarter. These black-hat pros move on, of course. But the small business owner who learned how to generate “link-juice” or use “negative SEO” in some forum is probably getting the technique after it has already stopped working. And, normally, using these tricks after the search engines have caught on actually results in penalties.

A lot of small business owners would be better off if they had never heard the term “search engine optimization.” The vision of doing something smart and tricky to your website that will somehow drive tons of visitors who will then buy your product or service after having been somehow lured to the website is appealing. Maybe the name should have been “Search Engine Tricking.”

The boring, hard work of real search engine optimization is NOT secret. It’s creating good content, with good information architecture, and good generally accepted website design practices. If you do that and forget everything you’ve ever heard about SEO, you will come out ahead of anyone trying to trick the search engines with the secret knowledge they found. There is still room for good search engine optimization to be done on top of that layer, but never instead of it.

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