Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) in 2023
We’ve had many a conversation with clients and potential clients over the past couple of years about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). We’re going to talk here about the current state of SEO and how we see it.
Brace yourself for some controversial views - there is no shortage of snake oil salesmen out there selling a dream with no ability to deliver any kind of tangabile or measurable results. We don't believe its always worth spending large sums of money on, or putting major effort into off site SEO strategies. Whether it's worthwhile or not completely depends on what your business is selling and who your competitors are.
The Good Oul Days
Back in 2007 around the time Problue Solutions was first established, we had a few initial clients who we did a lot of SEO work for. Looking back at how the internet was then in general, its incredible how much things have changed.
In the SEO industry it was the wild west back then. Google’s search engine algorithm was still in its infancy, relatively speaking compared to how much it has changed since – Google actually turns 25 years old in 2023!
Everyone working on SEO was gaming the system in the 2000’s. Even the guys who believed they were using 100% legitimate techniques to rank a client’s website were gaming the system, simply because the Google algorithm wasn’t good enough to not be manipulated.
A big part of this manipulation back then was pumping out loads of fake blog posts on blog networks and manufacturing links to websites. Content and Links have always been a big factor in the Google algorithm deciding what position your website should rank in search results (they still are).
One of the biggest misconceptions about SEO from a business perspective is that it's purely about how your website is technically built. Although there are many ranking factors related to your website structure, some of the biggest and most important factors that affect your rank have got nothing to do with your actual website itself.
Create loads of articles or blog posts containing key search words and post them all over the internet with links back to your website, viola! – up the rankings you go!
This practice was even automated with articles being created by software and ‘spun’ into different versions which were basically the same articles with the words re-arranged, something akin to copying your mate’s homework in school and changing the order of the sentences so you don’t get caught.
Being in the top 3 positions in a Google search result can be very lucrative and can earn businesses a lot of money, so naturally there were a lot of people running these blog networks and link farms trying to manipulate rankings for their clients.
Back in the good old days any business that was trying to rank their website didn’t need to offer a particularly good product or service, nor did they need to be well known or popular. Their ranking was almost entirely due to the technical knowledge and expertise of the guy that was gaming Google on their behalf.
That’s why it was the wild west, it was a time when much smaller businesses could outrank large corporations on Google. David could take on Goliath if David could hire a decent SEO expert.
There have been massive changes in Googles algorithm since then which we will summarise in very basic terms below (there's a lot more to this, but its far too much to include in this blog post):
2010: Google started taking into account signals from social media when deciding what pages rank highest. This was the beginning of the end for a small business trying to outrank a huge one, Goliath has far more twitter and Facebook followers than David.
2011-2015: The Panda algorithm updates went live to help demote ad-heavy and thin content pages, which offer a somewhat unfriendly user experience. With this big round of changes, Google helped push up high-quality content and websites to the top of the list. A grammatically-incorrect paragraph or two just doesn’t cut it anymore.
This meant that keywords interspersed among a few lines of text were not enough, there needed to be long detailed articles on a subject if you wanted Google to approve. This blog post you are reading right now is likely not considered detailed enough by Google, so it's a good job we are writing this to give our mere opinion and not declare we are suddenly the highest authority on SEO and expect to appear in search results for SEO experts!
2012-2016: The notorious Penguin updates took a swing at websites using spammy tactics to improve their rankings, such as keyword stuffing and manipulative link building. In other words, if you’re writing for the machines and not humans, or you’re getting links from low relevance sites, Google probably doesn’t like your site.
2017: Google announces that machine learning was being built into the algorithm and was one of the most important ranking factors. Essentially, Google is not just reading the words we search, but also interpreting what we really mean when we type them.
Algorithm updates gathered pace with even more frequent changes focusing on fundamental performance metrics of websites, like speed and mobile usability. There are so many changes in recent years that even fully dedicated SEO teams have difficulty keeping up. You can see a more detailed breakdown of more recent algorithm changes here.
AI has also landed on the scene and threatens to completely transform the SEO industry, with many people turning to ChatGPT instead of Google when they are looking for information.
Google are implementing their own AI called 'Bard' and are increasingly replacing search results with AI generated snippets, making much of the previous work of SEO experts irelevant. An important thing that website owners should know is that Google doesn't want to send users to your website unless you have paid for Google Ads, they would prefer to use AI to answer the users query without them ever leaving Google itself, which means zero traffic for your website unfortunately.
The Google algorithm is still evolving and changing, and it will continue to do so. Technology is also moving on though and its entirely possible that Google will lose its stranglehold on the search engine market, mainly because search engines as we know it may be completely replaced with AI in the next few years.
Right now, in 2023, if you believe Google and many SEO experts, the current state of SEO means the following for any website hoping to rank well in their search results, in layman’s terms, and without going into a whole heap of detail:
- You need to have a fast website.
- Your website needs to work really well on mobile devices.
- Your website needs to make sense structurally.
- Your website needs to have valuable or useful content that satisfies a searchers intent.
- You need to have citations/backlinks elsewhere on the internet (other websites or social media posts mentioning and linking to you, the more popular these are the better).
Looking at that list, it makes sense why Google has made these changes. We like to think of David conquering Goliath as much as anyone else, and we miss the days of the internet wild west in some ways, but the changes largely make sense for an end user searching for something on Google, they are likely going to see a search result that is more relevant to their intent.
There are a couple of reservations to this – as well as AI generated results mentioned earlier, Googles own commercial interests that promote corporations, and the fact that their Ads platform is in contest with their organic search results, you can't have missed the fact that half the search results on Google now are adverts instead of organic (normal) listings, but that’s a whole other blog post!
Any web developer worth their salt can solve the first 3 points in the list above. It’s the last 2 that could be a problem for a small business.
There are many companies that specialise in creating content that can be posted on your website or elsewhere. They will research your business and what you offer, and they will create articles or blog posts for you. Depending on what company you use, there can be a big difference in the quality of these articles.
To have articles or blog posts that Google really loves means being an expert in a specific niche, or offering something a bit different, something that people are interested in, and writing these articles yourself for the genuine purpose of providing information someone really wants to read, instead of trying to manufacture the scenario.
Getting a large social media following that tweets or posts articles linking to your website relies on the reality that you simply need to be popular enough for this to occur. Likewise, to get good quality incoming links from other popular websites requires you to reach some level of recognition within your industry, or in general.
So, what does all of this mean for your website that you would like to rank well on Google?
As far as the onsite SEO goes (the factors that are within the control of the web developer), the website speed, performance, mobile usability, semantic structure etc, we’ve got you covered. Every website we develop is optimised for SEO as standard.
There are also a lot of fundamental things that can be done to help achieve good rankings in search engines, and if you get the basic things right then a big part of the job is done. For example, ensuring that you are describing your products or services in a way that a customer might search for them, instead of how you want to advertise them.
If your business is in a less competitive industry and/or other circumstances are kind to you, then it's possible to rank well in search engines without spending a fortune on a dedicated SEO service, and without putting in any huge amount of time or effort on your own part.
If the technical aspects and the fundamentals are all in place, and this still isn’t enough because you are in a competitive industry, or you are targeting competitive keywords, then you must be prepared to invest time and effort in researching and producing high quality content for your website, and you need to do this on a frequent basis. You don’t necessarily need to wite the content yourself; you can hire an SEO or marketing company to do it for you.
You must also be prepared to build a social network by performing various forms of outreach on social media channels as well as seeking links to your website from other reputable websites.
Unfortunately, even if you do all of the above and you do it well, with algorithms constantly changing and AI becoming much more prevalent, there is no guarantee of success and you are at the mercy of Google's whims.
An SEO expert or marketing agency may be able to get you ranking high today, but you could be on page 10 tomorrow. You will have to continualy invest significant amounts of money trying to maintain your rankings, and even then there is no guarantee.
If all of this sounds like a crazy amount of effort and investment, our advice is don't sweat it. Not every business needs to rank high in Google, and if trying to rank high is not realistic then you should put your effort and money into other forms of marketing instead. If you want some honest advice on whether it is realistic or not for your business based on your budget, get in touch.
Long gone are the days of gaming Google. If you run a website that isn’t offering anything unique then It’s a case of go big or go home (actually become a relevant quality source of information that a user is seeking), or if you think you can offer something unique that people want, then SEO can actually work in your favour, providing that your web developer has all the technical bases covered.