Stop calling it SEO. What we really mean to say when we say SEO is “Google Organic Search Optimization”–so i’m going to start calling it that, GOSO.
I studied history in college and remember (perhaps incorrectly?) that the 13th century philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas characterized people as having various tiers of spiritual and intellectual access to god: some experiencing the church teachings as literal narrative, others as parable, and at the purest/highest echelon, altogether different divine connection. GOSO similarly has different levels of access and understanding, divided into 2 major groups.
GOSO Group 1: Folks that know
There are only 2 tiers of folks that really know how things work, current and former employees of Google, and people you will never meet, as follows:
- Secret Society GOSOites (insiders). These are the several 1000 Google employees that work on the actual algorithms and on any given day, as a collective consciousness, could tell us all *exactly* how the system works and how to create content and what tactics to take on the web to *guarantee* success. (note that any single member of this tribe actually does not have full consciousness… it really requires a hive mind to grok at this point!) Members of this group have never, and will never, speak about specifics on the subject of GOSO’s true inner workings. Spokespeople for Google such as the excellent Matt Cutts (his blog here) talk about GOSO and give guidelines, but these become the least-common-denominator best practices that everyone (who is competent) follows, thereby creating a series of hoops that we all must jump through just to get back to the starting line, and thus largely removing any real positive impact from following them. I call this the GOSO Tax–it is web development, copy writing, and significant time and energy that must be invested just for table-stakes… to actually get ahead, you need to go further, and will have to look elsewhere. Unfortunately every business owner I know has to deal with this hidden but significant tax, or suffer the consequences of *really* tanking and getting NO organic traffic.
- GOSO Ninjas. Just like a real Ninja, you’ve never heard of, seen, or talked to a GOSO Ninja. By their very definition, these people are unknowable. Here’s why. These are the folks that have reverse engineered or otherwise figured out (albeit sometimes just for a window of time, before google employees track down and close the loophole) how to *print money* with GOSO. Just like a alchemist that has discovered how to synthesize solid gold by mixing water and sand, a GOSO Ninja has access to the arbitrage that comes with knowing how to really manipulate SEO rankings and by extension, to drive meaningful volumes of clicks/traffic which is a commodity that can be turned into ready cash. GOSO Ninjas work for *themselves*… printing money for *themselves*… and they keep all knowledge about GOSO strictly for *themselves*. If you discovered a limitless well of solid gold, would you charge $150 USD an hour to teach other people how to extract gold from the well, knowing that in doing so it would only take a few extra folks tapping into your well before the well would be sealed off by Google? Or would you be greedy, and just pull gold from the well for as long as you could… maybe take several trips a year to exotic luxury islands and enjoy your Ninja-ness? Oh, and anyone that claims to be a GOSO Ninja is a fool, because they don’t even know what they don’t know, which is that they are NOT. 1st rule of GOSO ninjadom, you don’t talk about GOSO ninjadom!!
GOSO Group 2: The unwashed angst ridden masses
Everyone else, including myself and all of my friends that work in tech (especially those that work at google but not in the search algorithm group, because they know what they don’t know!) and every vendor i’ve spoken to who is a “GOSO specialist”, and every competitor i’ve competed against–all of us, without exception–are members of a collectively “in the dark” group of folks that don’t know how GOSO really works! What separates us is to what extent we portray ourselves as something other than what we are, divided approximately in these sub-tribes:
- GOSO Coaches. These are the benevolent and generally well meaning folks that know what they don’t know, and limit their GOSO services to “coaching” and providing guidance and best practice advice, largely if not entirely by repeating what they have learned from staying very current with Google spokesperson guidance for best practice. The information that GOSO Coaches peddle is public domain knowledge, but requires a lot of attention to detail to track (as Google is making changes all the time), and requires a lot of content management and technical maintenance: keeping web pages up to date with different metadata and HTML & CSS code syntax, recommendations on keyword sets to focus on for success within your specific geography and business sector, writing good copy that is both structured for human beings and also for Google robots that will index the page, and most importantly, good old-fashioned marketing which encompasses visually appealing and subject-compelling content that human beings will actually click on, blog-about, refer to their friends, tweet, and otherwise celebrate. This last piece is the stuff that dreams are made of (good content) and if a GOSO Coach can be in your corner helping you to be better at these tasks, then they can be an invaluable partner towards your business’ success in organic traffic. The best GOSO Coaches are the ones that tell you in so many words “hey, i’m just a coach–i’ll work with you, we’ll do some good stuff together, i’ll tell you what i’m doing and bill you for those hours with a clear statement of work, and together we’ll carefully monitor the results in meaningful terms (money you are making selling your product is the best!) and evaluate this investment as we go along together, because there are many ways you can spend your hard-earned money, and GOSO may not be appropriate at all for your business.”
- GOSO Charlatans. These are folks that charge by the hour and suggest that through their efforts they will be able to “make you a first page result”, or suggest vague goals such as “improve” or “gain traffic” without any hard numbers or metrics. They will never actually tell you what they are going to do, how they are going to do it, and most importantly, what the cost/benefit analysis is of actually succeeding. They instead suggest that GOSO is a dark art that involves secret skills that they command. What GOSO traffic/benefits are even possible within your particular business category/geography? Would success achieving those ranking and traffic results warrant the investment, and how does that ROI (return on investment) calculation compare to OTHER investments that could be made that might be more easily tracked, measured, and perform better? These considerations rarely enter the discussion with these folks–because for them GOSO work for GOSO sake is the real agenda… and there is always work to be done when there is no clear metric for success, and no transparency into the work! Here are some tell-tell signs that you are talking to one of these folks:
- they claim to be a GOSO Ninja (remember, if they are talking about being a Ninja, then they aren’t–why would they waste time talking to you?)
- “i’m an expert and will improve your results”–highly suspect because if they were really self-aware they would say “I will try to improve your results but can’t guarantee anything because GOSO is an unknowable black art!”
- “I can’t tell you what i do, when i do it, or how i do it–because xxxx”–where xxxx is any excuse of any kind–there is NO legitimate reason why a vendor doing hourly labor work as a service would not be able to fully document their activities.
- They report on their success/progress with statements like “we are making great progress, we have moved from position X to position Y in google results”–(one possible exception is where Y is the number 1, 2, or 3.) Even if you are getting ranked in the top 3 positions, reporting the “ranking on the page” as the primary measure of success is disingenuous, because SOOO many factors are involved and the direct activities of your vendor are probably only one small part of that success. It is more likely that the New York Times wrote an article about you or your customers are raving about you on Facebook or Twitter, and that is what drove your breakthrough–and any social media driven SEO vendor would be characterizing your success because of their work for you in social metrics, not in page rank slots! “Page rank slot up/down movement” is the stuff of charlatans and fools.
- GOSO Factories. These vendors provide a laundry list of “things we will do for you” that are easily done automatically by computers, or that can be outsourced to low-skilled technical labor in a far away exotic land. Here you are getting what you pay for (i’ll give them that), but what you are paying for is a whole bunch of meaningless stuff that Google has already completely negated and made pointless. Anything, and i mean *anything*, that can be done systematically to improve your GOSO performance is something that Google must ignore, because it gives too much leverage to someone to go build a systematic GOSO distortion engine. “we’ll submit articles with great links to your site to 1000s of blogs”, or “we’ll register your business with 100s of online directories of businesses”–these are two classic “we will do something measurable” offers that are 100% worthless, worse, they can degrade your performance because Google can identify the massive scale/automation at play and Google doesn’t like to be manipulated in this way (it’s too easy, they’d rather leave that to Ninja’s who work much harder at it!)
- GOSO Fools. These are vendors that don’t know what they don’t know but have no sinister intent. They often will refer to online experts as sources to credit their activities and tactics, but unlike coaches who go straight to the source (Google is the only source!), they will quote 2nd and 3rd degree references much like when we were in high school and used Encyclopedias for a quick fix of “expertise”. The heresy of “such and such SEO expert” (usually a GOSO Charlatan or other Fool) is foolish testament, unless they are preaching the one true faith–the inherent *futility* of GOSO expertise to begin with! Again, if it was knowable and scalable, Google has already closed the gap–so fools are simply trading in the lowest-common-denominator of best practices, but representing this information as something special and valuable, when it is not.
- GOSO Laypeople. This is the majority of the online community, of both creative and technical web professionals as well of the business owners and marketing professionals that they serve. They are either angst ridden about the subject of SEO, and in search of a Coach… or they are at peace, comfortable in their bliss of unknowingness and spending their karma points on other things (SEM perhaps!).
Nobody reading this post (which should have been interpreted as intentionally faux-serious-silly) should feel offended by my segmentation except for the Ninjas (who don’t like their existence to even be mentioned).
My favorite reading from others on this subject
One of my guiding lights on this subject has been the phenomenal journalism on this subject that the New York Times has published over the past 18 months. While SEO-beat journalist David Segal doesn’t use my terminology–the characterizations are here; some of my favorites:
- The Ninja’s favorite monetization strategy, “lead generation”: Picking the Lock of Google’s Search Jul 2011
- Google’s penchant for shutting down any loopholes that have real impact in SEO scores, in this case for a Ninja who spoke out about his skills and was cast-out of the club: A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web in Nov, 2010 and then later Online Seller Who Bullied Customers Pleads Guilty in May 2011
- The Dirty Little Secrets of Search (in which JC Penny’s SEO Charlatan agency turns out to be pretty effective, landing JC Penny in trouble with Google) Feb 2011
- And this is a recent goodie I just read this AM, by Jill Whalen