There’s a large number of conceits — that is, ‘stories we tell ourselves’ — in SEO. We tell ourselves that if we build enough backlinks, our clients will make enough money to succeed online. We tell ourselves that organic SEO is better for small businesses than pay-per-click marketing. Each of these stories helps to justify our work as SEOers, and lets us feel good about charging the rates we do. But every one of those conceits is based on another, much more fundamental story: the story that says that Google likes quality content.
To many people, the thought of questioning that conceit is fundamentally bizarre. Of course Google likes quality content — their business is delivering quality content to searchers through their search engine, isn’t it?
Not for the last decade at least. According to Larry Kim at wordstream.com, 97% of Google’s income comes from advertising — most of that from AdWords. The upshot of all of that, quite simply, is that Google doesn’t (at least from a business perspective) actually need to worry all that much about the quality of search results anymore. They do, of course, because it’s kind of their mission as a corporation, but they don’t need to.
What that means for us as SEO people is that we really ought to stop telling ourselves that Google is interested in quality content. What they’re actually interested in is keeping people coming to Google more than Bing or Yahoo! because that’s how they keep the advertising revenue from AdWords high. Unfortunately, quality content isn’t necessarily the path to keeping people coming back to Google. Search speed, interface simplicity, and, perhaps most depressingly, appealing to the lowest common denominator are all on the list as well.
Lowest Common Denominator?
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that you just finished your magnum opus — your life’s work — and it’s the greatest piece of content you ever produced. Because of the narrative that the content is centered around, the obvious title for the piece is “The Safe Way”. But if you use that title, no one will ever see your content, because it’ll be at the wrong end of dozens of pages of Safeway.com listings. The quality of your content is completely irrelevant in the face of your average searcher’s overwhelming desire to find someplace they can buy General Tso’s Chicken and Jamba Juice.
So What Does Google Like, Then?
The answer to that question changes over time. Right now, Google isn’t being terribly communicative about what they like. You can get a lot of ideas about what they don’t like (thin pages, scraped content, grey- or black-hat link building practices…all those things that Panda and Penguin were meant to put a stop to), but not many people are talking about what the big G does like.
There are some things that will always be true. Google will always prefer content on older sites to newer ones. It will always prefer content on user-friendly sites to sites that are annoying or hard to use. It will always prefer branded content to unbranded content. But almost every other “rule” has changed over time as Google’s algorithm or their stance on some or other SEO practice shifted.
In the end, getting your client’s pages ranked on Google is always going to be possible — it’s just important that we SEOers (and our clients) recognize that quality, while it’s critical for the surfers, isn’t always enough to get Google on your side. You’ve gotta have a little something extra.