It’s been a few years since the Panda update obliterated SEO and replace it almost entirely with content marketing…and what do you know? Google’s results are once again becoming corrupted with horrible links that take Panda’s ruleset over its knee and spank that black and white savior until it’s red all over. What am I talking about?
The Failure of Branding
When Panda came out, SEO was on the verge of becoming huge, but most big corporations didn’t need to think about it. Being a national brand was all the SEO they need to dominate results for words like ‘Subway’ or ‘Guardian.’ As part of the Panda/Penguin matrix of changes, Google took this fact as part of their salvation, and made ‘branding’ an explicit ranking signal: if your brand was well-known, that was going to help you rank.
Little did they know, they were engineering their own downfall. Because today, if you go to Google and search for virtually any random everyday object and combine it with one or two keywords that indicate that you’re not interested in buying anything, or even just an everyday object combined with a random concept (‘house renovation hat’), at least two and sometimes up to half of your results will come from Pinterest.
What’s wrong with Pinterest? Well, go there, log off if you’re logged on, and try to use it. Scroll down just a little bit. See that big black wall that comes up? See the massive content wall that is supposed to be explicitly against Panda’s user-friendliness rules? Yeah, well, Pinterest is a brand now, and as such, they get to show up multiple times on the first page despite having an explicitly and deliberately sh**ty user experience.
Now, go to Google and put in the name of anything you could potentially buy. You’ll get one-to-several results from Amazon.com. Unlike Pinterest, these are not 100% annoying, but it’s incredibly often that you’ll find a result on the first page of Google that leads to an Amazon page that is currently sold out of the item. (Same applies to eBay and other such retailers, too.) Again, the page is a crap user experience — you can’t achieve your implicit goal of purchasing the item — but they get displayed because Amazon is just too powerful of a brand signal to ignore.
The Failure of Social Signals/Fresh Content
There are forums out there — SEO forums — where people are actually forbidden from using their targeted keywords inside of forum posts, because they’ve learned that Google will rank a random forum post from a popular forum above a legitimate commercial website that has been SEO’d to target that keyword. The same is true of almost any link that gets featured on a decent number of Facebook posts or Tweets — one of the major sources of variation in search results over time these days is ‘what is popular right now,’ but for smaller, lower-traffic keywords, that could literally mean one press of the Like button puts a random half-wrong blog post from AGuyWithAPalWhoUsesFacebook.com in front of a relevant but non-mentioned post from a niche expert’s site.
It’s almost impossible given the sheer volume of social media to find the website of a legitimate expert in niche subjects. Even if that specific item hasn’t been targeted by some aggressive squad of Internet marketing solopreneurs looking to add a side hustle to their J.O.B., the chance that an actual established industry professional will get their website and-or blog to the top of the SERPs in the face of the mountain of ‘random crap getting social media mentions’ is essentially nil.
The Failure of Ranking Signals
Then you have the most fundamental failure of all — the failure of Google to actually eliminate basic exploitable ‘SEO hacks’ like keywording up your H1/Title/Description tags, repeating a keyword and some sufficient LSI phrases on-page, and netting just enough inbound anchor text keywords that you look relevant without looking spammy. This is what Penguin was designed to stop, and instead the only thing that has happened is that these tricks now only really work when combined with the above two tricks.
So we now live in a world where the rich and powerful (i.e. pre-existing brands with massive amounts of pull and/or socially-connected movers and shakers) can use the SEO tricks that everyone used to use to compete with the rich and powerful (before they realized what SEO was even for.)
(And all of this is just for commercial results. The problems with trying to look up something like an obscure bit of scientific data that should be easily verifiable, or details about an obscure disease that are well-known to a specific subcommunity but barely glossed over on WebMD, are even more massive. Not to mention the effect that branded-only SEO-oriented journalism has had on the news. Ugh.)
This is 2015. It’s supposed to be the Golden Age of Content. Instead what we’re getting is the Golden Age of Big Names Clogging Up Your Search Results with Undesirable Schlock, and the truly passionate people who create content because they care about it are stuck on Page 8 because Google would rather force-feed you a first-page result that slams you directly into a paywall, because Pinterest.