The most alluring aspect of SEO is the challenge of making decisions with incomplete information. Few endeavours are as demanding as trying to reverse engineer an algorithm that is worked on by thousands of the best developers and engineers in the world.
Luckily, there’s plenty of help.
The SEO community continually works to unravel the mechanisms of Google Search, and there are thousands of blog posts, podcasts, and entire books dedicated to solving this riddle.
However, the abundance of resources on the topic comes with a catch: your hardest questions will usually not be answered with a universal truth.
There are several reasons why this is the case.
Firstly, the workings behind Google’s algorithm are, for obvious reasons, not publicly available. In addition, even the developers that are working on Google Search will usually be part of just a small subset of the algorithm (local search, autocompletion, natural language processing, etc).
The fact that the algo is partly machine-learning complicates this matter even more. Often referred to as the “black box” of AI, machine-learning algorithms cannot explain their internal operations.
Simply put, the inputs and the outputs will be available, but not the process that lies in between. That means an algorithm will not be able to tell you “why” it rearranged its results.
Another challenge that comes with learning in our field is that many SEO writers will have some type of hidden agenda. The creator of your favourite backlink tool will tell you proactive disavowing is important, while the Private Blog Network (PBN) salesman will tell you that PBNs are a great way to achieve top rankings in 2019.
There are some less obvious reasons as well, like the publishers that pump out a gargantuan number of articles every week to maximise ad revenue (you know who you are). These domains, ironically, often go against their own recommendations on keyword cannibalisation and long-form evergreen content to increase clicks and ad exposure.
Just to be clear here, there are no hard feelings from my side towards any of these parties – I have no issue with people trying to make a buck. Just as I don’t expect McDonald’s to release research on the negative effects of fast food, I don’t expect publishers to release material that goes against their own products or interests.
However, we do need to be wary of how this affects our goal: learning about SEO in an efficient way.
Lastly, the sheer amount of content that’s being published on SEO makes it hard to focus on the most important developments. Content is king after all, right?
Barry will write at least a handful of articles every day, and the SEJ often more than doubles that in 24 hours. Reading everything from the main sites quickly adds up to a significant chunk of your day and that time could often better be spent on optimising your site.
Let’s look at what we can do to make the most out of our time.
Firstly, set up a feed. I use a Chrome RSS plugin, but there are many other options out there. Making sure you have a quick way to separate the wheat from the chaff makes all the difference in identifying what’s worth a read, just a skim, or a skip.
Going through each site that might produce a valuable article is not a viable long-term strategy. Assuming you have a finite amount of time to dedicate to keeping current on SEO, you should be picky about what you read and efficient in finding them.
Another decent way to make sure you’re not missing out on great information is to have a Twitter account dedicated to SEO. Whenever a high-quality article gets released, it will be quickly spotted and shared by the most authoritative people in the industry.
However, we still need to be careful – which brings me to the second point.
Always keep in mind who is writing the article and if there might be personal interests involved.
Just as I hope you check the credibility of any other news you might consume, we should keep in mind the possible motivations of an SEO writer when reading their material.
In addition to the three examples I gave earlier, a good rule of thumb is to disregard the most sensational-looking titles. “12 Ways to Double Your Organic Traffic this Summer” is most likely going to be a waste of your time.
Read (about) patents
The most direct feedback (apart from the often trivial “official” messages from John Mueller, Gary Ilyes, and Danny Sullivan) arguably comes from Google Patents.
However, most people would agree that reading patents isn’t their favourite pastime. Luckily, there are people out there who do the hard work for you. Bill Slawski is probably the most active Google patent analyst, and I’ll reward him with a link to his blog for it: SEO by the Sea.
We do need to keep in mind that just because Google owns a patent, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using it. If every patent would be used, you might be surprised to know that Google would be checking your facial expression through your phone camera in order to gauge the relevancy of a search result.
In any case, the new patents that are registered give a solid indication of how the Google algorithm might develop in the future. As an example, it’s quite clear they are moving towards an entity-oriented approach to indexing given their focus on patents related to Knowledge Graphs.
All your knowledge is worthless without putting it into action. Make sure to have some test domains where you can try out some spammier tactics than you’d feel comfortable with on your main sites.
SEO testing is tricky because you cannot control all the variables. However, that’s a topic for a different day, and possibly a different blog post.
Regardless of the dynamic environment in which we test, often we will be able to draw correlations between what we did and the results it produced.
Unless you’re reading about SEO to stay entertained, the holy grail of your journey is to make your websites rank. Trying out things is the number one way to find out what’s worth your time and what’s not.
Thanks to whoever made it to the end of this read, and please send me a lot of backlinks if you want me to write another one in the future (kidding).