“Why do some sites with bad SEO still rank high?”

the complex and ever-changing SEO.

(part of a common questions series)

TL;DR
…because search engines don’t care about SEO. Search engines care about an easily crawlable website with good content that people like using. The goal of SEO is to build that easily crawlable website with good content that people like using.

This question reminds me of the story about the island man who has only ever seen black birds. Every day, when he looks to the sky, he sees black birds flying by. Naturally, he assumes all birds must be black. Don’t try telling this island-bound man about the menagerie of birds available to the rest of us. As far as he’s concerned, black is the only color of bird in existence.

Now, think of the “birds” as Google’s ranking signals, the “rest of us” as a select few people who work for Google, and the ignorant “island man” as the vast majority of people.1

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professionals, then, are ornithologists with varying degrees of bird-based expertise. Some SEO professionals many know a few tidbits and will talk of fused ossifications but probably don’t know a remiges feather from a rectrices feather. Top-tier SEO experts not only know the difference between these wing and tail feathers but can also detail the difference between mammalian alveoli lungs and avian parabronchi lungs. But nobody outside the foremost bird experts at Google know everything about every bird species.

So what’s my point? The high-ranking site in question might actually not have bad SEO. Rather, the person claiming the site has bad SEO probably just doesn’t know many bird species. And who could blame him for knowing so little? Remember, only Google knows everything about this analogy-straining aviary algorithm.2

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How many birds are there?

It’s an oft-cited belief that Google’s search algorithm considers over 200 factors (birds) when determining where a page will rank in its search results.3 SEO may broadly be defined as the practice of figuring out what those 200 factors are and how to modify a website with those factors in mind.

But this broad definition is flawed. The job of an expert SEO should be less about chasing and manipulating an algorithm and more about supporting the intentions of the algorithm. Search engines want easily crawlable websites with high-quality, relevant content. Logically, every ranking factor should serve this end. Therefore, instead of trying to dissect the algorithm, why not simply focus on what it wants: easily crawlable websites with high-quality, relevant content. This way, no matter how the search engine algorithms change, your website will always reflect what those search engines want.

What about those websites that have never seen a bird? How do they rank so well?

It’s possible that a website can rank well for a relevant term but not have an SEO program at all. How is that possible?

Google is all about delivering the right result to the right user. An SEO program isn’t always needed to make this happen. Sometimes a well-built website without any SEO aid has the right content for the right search at the right time.

In a previous blog post I outlined eight reasons why Google rankings will change. I recommend you read that list for fuller context. The important takeaway is that Google rankings change depending on, among other things, the implied locality of the search (Google knows that a search for pizza is a search for a nearby pizza restaurant, not for the history of pizza), changes in competition, the user’s search history, and even the time of day the search is conducted.

For every variable/factor/bird that expert SEOs know and can control, there are several more unknown, uncontrollables.

How many birds can an SEO expert realistically know?

Knowing that Google will never divulge all of their ranking factors means that what determines a strong vs. a weak SEO strategy largely depends on the individual expertise of the person in charge of your SEO program.

I will refrain from listing what I know, what I assume, and what I can refute as the ranking factors because as sure as I am, these factors and the weight they are given are not static. I want the value of this blog post to outlive the whims of a Google.4

Therefore, I will organize the varying levels of expertise into three categories.

Islanders

These are people who know a few SEO phrases and are happy to discuss the merits of leading a title tag with a branded term vs. a more general service term. They may reference outdated and debunked topics like an ideal keyword ratio or using keywords in code comments or class names. In general, these are non-professionals and should be avoided if you are serious about developing an SEO program for your website.

two men on a small island, caption says "I spy something blue."

Bird watchers

These are the people with a passing interest in SEO, and may even work as professional SEOs. They know about title tags, meta keywords, and meta descriptions, but may still speak of meta descriptions and meta keywords as ranking factors (neither have been part of the ranking algorithm since 2009). Bird watchers generally mean well, but simply don’t have the expertise needed for an effective SEO program.

a man looking through binoculars at a bird

Ornithologists

These are your top-tier SEO experts. They are professionals who often work at an SEO or marketing agency. They follow (and contribute to) discussions that shape the SEO industry. They not only make informed recommendations about how a website should react to algorithm updates but also help you, as a business owner, understand which metrics are worth measuring and which can be ignored. Ornithologists approach SEO not as a siloed tactic but as an overall website marketing strategy, incorporating elements of website crawlability and content relevancy.

When the Department of Justice rules on ADA compliance issues, an ornithologist is there. When you want to understand in simple terms how a search engine works, an ornithologist is there. When, for some reason, you want to hear a group of passionate nerds talk about SEO, an ornithologist is there.

Wow, birds are confusing

SEO is not a binary concept. The idea of good vs. bad simply doesn’t make sense when talking about a process that involves over 200 variables. And not just that, but these variables vary in importance and affect search engine rankings unequally. And not just that, but these variables are known to only a select few individuals. And not just that, but these variables are changed–sometimes dramatically, sometimes just tweaked–over 600 times every year. And not just that, but…okay, just that.

Search Engine Optimization is complex and ever-changing. Sometimes a website doesn’t need an SEO program to rank well for relevant search phrases. Most of the time however, especially if your website is part of a highly competitive industry, an SEO ornithologist may be able to help.

 


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Footnotes:

  1. And “menagerie” as my complete misuse of the word menagerie.
  2. Avialgorithm ™
  3. Though like most things involving Google and its search algorithm, the 200 factors belief can’t be fully confirmed. The original citation goes back to 2006. A lot has changed since then. Steve Irwin hunts crocodiles in Heaven now. And Earthly crocodiles, therefore strut around with an annoying degree of self-confidence. Watch out, crocodiles. Bindi Irwin is coming to avenge her father!
  4. “Whims” is an unfair term. Google’s process for adjusting its algorithm is actually quite methodical. In 2012, for example, Google conducted over 10,000 side-by-side SERP experiments, over 7,000 live experiments, and launched over 660 changes to their algorithms. That’s more than two changes every day. https://www.google.com/insidesearch/howsearchworks/algorithms.html

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