From algo to aggro: How SEOs really feel about Google algorithm updates

As SEOs working in the weeds with our clients each day, it can sometimes be hard to truly see how major Google algorithm updates affect our industry as a whole. Sure, we can perform test after test to see how our clients are affected, but what about the poor account manager or technical SEO director who has to put in the extra work and placate potentially panicked and frustrated clients? How are they personally affected?

BrightLocal (my employer) anonymously polled 650 SEO professionals recently on this very subject, asking them a host of questions about how algorithm updates impact their workload, their client relationships and their job satisfaction. Below, I’ll go over some of the startling results from our survey, “The Human Impact of Google Algorithm Updates.”

Google update? What Google update?

First, and almost most alarmingly, 36 percent of respondents couldn’t say whether their business or their clients’ businesses have ever been impacted by a Google algorithm update. This should come as a shock — although this isn’t necessarily Day 1 SEO Stuff, it’s certainly Week 1 SEO Stuff.

The high percentage shown here suggests that either Google needs to better communicate the potential effects of an algorithm change (we can dream, right?) and/or SEOs and in-house marketers need to do more to stay on top of updates and investigate whether their clients have been affected by them.

‘And how does that make you feel?’

Of the significant 44 percent who said their business or their clients’ had been affected by algorithm changes, 26 percent say they struggle to know how to react, and 25 percent get stressed when updates happen. (Note: For this question, respondents were able to select multiple answers.) However, on the flip side, an encouraging 58 percent either don’t get worried about updates or are actually excited by the challenge.

It’s perfectly natural for different types of people at different levels of experience to have differing reactions to potentially stressful situations, but 26 percent of respondents say they don’t even know how to react. This means that all the content you put out immediately after a Google update — whether to cash in on suddenly popular “what just happened to the Google algorithm” keywords or to genuinely help SEOs serve their clients better (we’re hoping it’s the latter) — isn’t reaching everyone.

At this point in the Google updates timeline, we should all, as content creators and content readers, be better versed in learning how to react after a Google update.

The penultimate straw

For many, it seems, the camel’s back can very nearly be broken by a surprise Google update. Just over a quarter of respondents said they’d considered leaving the SEO industry because of algorithm updates but ultimately decided to stick around.

It’s worth taking a step back next time an update hits. Take a look around your agency — are your SEO staff or colleagues ready to break? It takes strong leadership and a solid bedrock of skills for an SEO agency to bounce back from a big update, so make sure your best SEOs are made of the right stuff to prepare them for the worst — and, as we’ll see now, it gets bad.

How to lose clients and alienate Google

Nearly a third of respondents who said that Google updates had had an effect on business actually lost clients as a result.

But it’s not all bad news. Twenty-six percent won clients, 23 percent saw the opportunity to grow their work with existing clients, and 29 percent of respondents noticed no change after the update. So there’s quite a lot of positivity to be found here, especially considering respondents were able to choose multiple answers (which could mean that respondents both won and lost clients because of Google updates).

What this ultimately means is that what happens after a Google update is up to you. You can’t point at the above chart and say, “Well, everyone loses clients after a Google update,” because they don’t. The range of responses shows just how much is at stake when an update hits, but it also shows the huge opportunities available to those agencies that communicate with their existing clients quickly and knowledgeably, carefully managing expectations along the way, while also keeping their eye out for businesses who have taken a beating in rankings/traffic and are looking for help.

The client-agency relationship

One final point the survey touched on was the client-agency relationship and how it can be affected by Google updates. A majority agreed that updates make clients more dependent on agencies. (Who knew it? It turns out that every time Google released an algorithm update, they were doing SEOs a favor all along!)

However, with that extra dependency comes extra scrutiny, as seen by the 31 percent of respondents who feel that Google updates lead to clients distrusting agencies. The wisest SEOs in this particular situation are the ones going into client update meetings with clear, transparent overviews of what the client’s money or their time is being spent on, and simplified (but not necessarily simple) explanations of the ramifications of the Google update.

And for the 28 percent who said that Google updates make clients consider changing agency? Well, I hope you do better next time!

What is the first thing you do when an algorithm update happens?

Before I leave you to stew on all that data and start pre-packing your next Google Update Emergency Go-Bag, here are some of the qualitative responses we received to one particular question in the survey, “What is the first thing you do when an algorithm update happens?” May these serve to remind you that whatever happens, no SEO is alone:

The data-divers

“Run ranking reports on all clients.”“Review all the sites that are affected and determine what they have in common. That gives me a starting point as to what has changed.”“Determine which high-volume pages are most impacted, then review existing SEO to try to uncover anything that might be the cause of the traffic from an on-page or technical SEO perspective.”

The researchers

“Read the posts on it to find out what happened and how to react.”“Figure out how I need to change my strategy.”“The first thing I do is research to find out what has been impacted. Next, I inform my team of what to expect from incoming client calls. Following that, I write an article for our blog to include our clients in on the updates.”“Read, read, read everything I can get my hands on.”“Read and study. Then work to fix it.”“Check forums/respected sites to find out as much information as possible.”“Get educated.”“Read as much as I can on what happened/what was affected, then find what it did to my websites/keyword rankings, then rebuild and re-conquer.”“Start reading news releases and blogs from highly respected SEO professionals to try to figure out the changes.”

The vice users

“Grab an adult beverage (or two).”“Drink coffee.”“Smoke a cigarette.”“Go for a few beers.”“Take a Xanax.”

The waiters

“Wait a few weeks while watching the SERPs.”“Nothing, I wait for the algorithm to normalize. I take a look at websites that drop, and websites that increase in rankings. I then compare and contrast my clients’ sites to those. Once I have better understanding of how the algorithm affects sites, I will adjust the strategy.”“Just ignore it for a couple weeks then make adjustments.”

The communicators

“Check for confirmation of update. Assess impact. Communicate with affected clients.”“Share the news with my team and engage them in coming up with a plan.”

 The extremes

“Prepare for the s***-storm ahead.”“Freak out.”“Cry.”

The one person who was actually positive about it

“Celebrate the new consulting opportunities that will result.”

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

6 ways ad agencies can thrive in an AI-first world

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have long been part of PPC — so why are AI and machine learning all of a sudden such hot topics? It is, in part, because exponential advances have now brought technology to the point where it can legitimately compete with the performance and precision of human account managers.

I recently covered the new roles humans should play in PPC as automation takes over. In this post, I’ll offer some ideas for what online marketing agencies should consider doing to remain successful in a world of AI-driven PPC management.

Be a master of process

According to the authors of the book “The Second Machine Age,” chess master Garry Kasparov offered an interesting insight into how humans and computers should work together after he became the first chess champion to be defeated by a computer in 1997. In matches after his loss to Deep Blue, he noticed a few things:

    A human player aided by a machine could beat a computer.When two human players were both assisted by a computer, the weaker human player with a good process could beat the stronger player with an inferior process.

The first point is covered in my previous post, and it is the foundation for why smart PPC managers will learn to collaborate with AI rather than compete against it.

The second point got me thinking about some other scenarios where the winners aren’t necessarily the most skilled. Does the world’s most successful coffee chain have the best baristas? Do the most successful hotels employ staff who innately know how to make guests happy?

No. In almost any scenario where humans are a big part of the experience, success is achieved by having a clear mission that is supported by a really strong process and tools to achieve the mission.

Hence, I believe that in the world of PPC agencies, a primary focus should be on building an amazing process and equipping the team with tools that make that process easy to follow. So as AI takes over some of the tasks in your agency, make sure your staff knows and follows the process for leveraging the technology to deliver results.

Accept that your old value proposition is toast

Consider how you convinced your existing clients to sign up with your agency. If your pitch included that you produce amazing results because you’re really good at bid management (something machines are getting really good at), you may need to tweak your positioning. You don’t want to make your main value proposition something that can be put on autopilot by anyone — and will hence become very difficult to price at a level that makes you successful.

That’s not to say that you should stop thinking about something like bid management altogether. Instead, you should offer skills that are complementary to the AI system rather than skills that compete against it.

Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, gives the career advice to “become an indispensable complement to something that’s getting cheap and plentiful.” For example, become a data scientist because we’ll need more people to make sense of the data and to figure out how to turn new insights we get from more sophisticated AI into new strategies.

In the context of an ad agency, this makes a lot of sense. You want to be able to say you have great data scientists who can make sense of what the automated systems are doing and make solid recommendations for the next thing to test.

Determine your new value proposition

Do you know California’s largest agricultural export? I guessed wine, but the correct answer is almonds. How did this come to be? It turns out that almonds are easy to harvest mechanically; you basically have a machine that violently shakes the tree so the nuts fall down to be harvested. So farmers figured they could be more productive by using automation, and all of a sudden tomato fields across the state were turned into almond orchards.

But people want more than just almonds on their plates, so despite how automation moved an entire state’s economy in a certain direction, it also created opportunities for farmers who didn’t automate.

We can apply this analogy to paid search agencies. Thanks to advances in AI, it is a given that they will do a good job of managing bids, and it’s also assumed that this service will be cheap because technology has commoditized it.

Agencies, like farmers, can supplement their highly automatable service offerings with something that commands a higher fee. So figure out what will be your niche in things that are harder to automate. And think about why a client would want to hire you if you’re just as good as the next agency at managing bids. Figure out what additional services you are really good at that are harder to automate (for now) and can be used to win new business.

Be the best at testing because testing leads to innovation

Innovative agencies win awards, which makes it easier for them to land new clients and grow their business. But how can an agency be innovative in a world where a lot of the work is done by a handful of automated systems that produce similar results?

I believe economist Martin Weitzman’s recombinant view of innovation offers a possibility. Recombinant Innovation describes innovation as a process through which new ideas emerge as the combination of existing ideas. Thanks to better prediction systems using machine learning, it is now possible for agencies to test new ideas faster and to iterate faster. Hence, an agency that leverages machine learning for testing and has a really strong process will be able to out-innovate its competitors.

Innovation in an agency is to recombine ideas into valuable new ones. The problem with testing new ideas is that it used to take a lot of time. But thanks to technology, you can test more things more quickly, and the winning agencies will be those that are the fastest at finding new winners. And they can achieve this by prioritizing the most likely winners into the fastest process, with the best testing technology.

You need to monitor the tradeoffs between labor and technology

Business is a big optimization problem. As an agency owner, you balance labor (headcount), and capital investment (technology) to achieve outcomes with a target level of speed, quality and cost. As technology takes hold in more aspects of PPC management, knowing how to optimize the equation becomes critical.

What some advertisers fail to see is that there is no perfect technology (just as there is no perfect human employee), but if a technology gets you close enough to the desired result while freeing up your staff’s time to work on other things, that is a win.

We all hire people for our companies, even when we know that ALL humans make mistakes. But we hire the best we can because it gets us closer to our goals, even if not 100 percent of the way. So why should it be any different when we think about capital investments?

A former colleague of mine who is still at Google shared examples where advertisers told him that they would not use broad match because it resulted in some impressions for their ads on irrelevant queries. But when prodded further, they were unable to quantify the impact this had. In many cases, the additional clicks were negligible, while the time they could have saved by letting Google’s AI handle query exploration was significant.

In my view, this is a poor optimization of that account manager’s time. In exchange for a small sacrifice in targeting precision, they could have freed up billable hours worth hundreds of dollars.

Hire one extraordinary (wo)man

American philosopher Elbert Hubbard said that “one machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” And he was on to something. In engineering, a great engineer can do the work of 10 good engineers.

So, as more of an agency’s work gets done by machines and you need fewer humans to do repetitive work, having the smartest possible person to work on the tasks that remain will be more important than ever.

Conclusion

There’s never a boring day when working on PPC, mostly because Google pushes so many changes every year. But this year, AI is going to stir the pot and create some challenges unlike the ones we’ve been used to dealing with. Hopefully, some of the thoughts shared here will get you thinking about strategies for keeping your agency successful in a world of AI-first PPC.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series, where I’ll cover how the technology got us here and what we can automate today.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

4 things SEO professionals should do consistently

As SEO professionals, we’re expected to have a solid understanding of our trade and to be able to communicate our knowledge clearly and professionally with our clients. But I think our expectations should be set a bit higher, similar to the fiduciary responsibility that certain financial professionals are held to. This would go a long way in further improving an already amazing industry, helping us to build greater trust while better serving our clients.

Never intentionally put clients at risk

Marketing requires us to constantly evaluate risk vs. reward, and that’s especially true when it comes to search engine optimization because algorithms are constantly changing. Some of the tactics that would have been acceptable just a few years ago could get a website penalized today.

But it goes beyond algorithms changing.

I’m a proponent of white-hat SEO because it creates a sustainable foundation for success, rather than the churn-and-burn approach that is required with black-hat SEO. But every now and then, clients will insist on tactics that will eventually hurt them. In some cases, this may be because they have little to lose and much to gain; in other cases, it may be because they are simply misinformed. Either way, it’s our job as professionals to never intentionally put our clients at risk through our actions, as well as help educate them so that they don’t do something stupid on their own.

Much like the medical profession and their Hippocratic Oath, our first obligation as SEO professionals is to do no harm to our clients’ websites.

Work with absolute transparency in all matters

I was recently speaking with a potential client who was unhappy with the results from the SEO company he was working with. It didn’t take long to figure out why. When I asked what they had done for his campaign, he couldn’t answer — because they told him their techniques were proprietary.

Every truly experienced, professional SEO practitioner knows that there is no such thing as “proprietary SEO techniques” because the days of tricking the search engines are dead and gone. Modern SEO consists mostly of three components:

Technical SEO (on-site SEO).Original, high-quality content.Editorial links from relevant websites.

There are no secrets, silver bullets or magic spells, and anyone who claims otherwise is simply a con artist.

We are performing work for clients that will have a long-lasting impact on their website, so it’s their right to know exactly what we’re doing on their behalf.

Now, some people will say, “But Jeremy, if I tell them exactly what I’m doing, they might try to do it themselves!” If you fear that, then you’re simply not providing enough value in the relationship.

Clients come to us for several reasons. One is that we can see and understand things that our clients can’t. Another reason is our ability to get certain things done.

Look, I want my clients to know exactly what goes into a proper SEO campaign because once they do, they realize that they don’t have the time to do it themselves — especially when you consider that it’s not enough to simply check a box. Tasks like content development and link building require a lot of work and have to be executed with a high level of quality. Most clients are already too busy running their own business to write content or send link outreach emails, and that’s exactly why they come to us.

Speaking of transparency…

Ensure that the client owns their properties, content and data

About a year ago, a small web design agency here in Tampa closed down with little notice, and because of a mutual contact, the former owner reached out to me to help migrate their clients to their own servers.

In doing so, I stumbled upon a huge problem that I often see in our industry, and that is digital marketing agencies and web designers setting up digital assets under their own accounts rather than their clients’. Such assets include, but are not limited to:

domain registrationshosting accountsGoogle AnalyticsGoogle Search Console / Bing Webmaster Toolssocial media profilesPPC accounts

This poses a huge risk for our clients. Had this particular web designer gone out of business and simply disappeared, like many do, then his clients — dozens of small businesses — would have been forced to start their digital brands over from scratch. Some may have even been forced out of business as a result. This is a completely unacceptable practice.

Any accounts you set up for your client should be set up in their name, and they should always have full access. You can then add additional users for your team or simply log in with their credentials.

Work with specialists when necessary

One of the hallmarks of a true professional is knowing when something is outside of their expertise. When you encounter this scenario, it’s important to set ego aside and seek the assistance of a more qualified specialist.

No one is above this — in fact, I often see some of the brightest minds in our industry asking for advice from other experts who possess a different specialization.

The fact of the matter is that many of the most proficient SEO practitioners typically focus on a particular aspect of search, like Alan Bleiweiss does with forensic audits, or like Cindy Krum does with mobile SEO. By its nature, specialization in one area means weakness in other areas — and that’s OK because there are plenty of top-notch professionals in our industry we can lean on for their specific knowledge.

Obviously, that means added costs for our client in these cases, but it’s our job to convince them of the necessity in order to produce the best results possible with the least risk possible.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

PPC agencies will play these 4 roles when automation takes over

Earlier this year, I wrote about how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are driving automation in PPC and then again about how Google’s latest wave of AdWords innovations is driven largely by these same technologies.

As the move towards automation accelerates, how should agencies and PPC managers update their strategy? What processes will they need to remain competitive? And what can they really expect from automation tools in the market today? I’ll cover all these topics in a series of upcoming posts, so I’d love to hear your ideas. But today, let’s begin by looking at what roles humans and agencies will play in PPC.

1. Agencies will teach machines to learn

Now that machines can learn, they certainly will surpass humans, right? The reality is that machine learning is still very dependent on humans. We program the algorithms, we provide the training data, we even manipulate the training data to help the machine get it right.

Machine learning often requires structured data to learn from, and it needs a very well-defined problem to solve. We as humans will play a role for some time to define the problem and help shape the desired outcome by manipulating how the machine can “learn.”

For now, the machines need us to be its teachers. AdWords Quality Score only works because the wisdom of the crowds provides a massive set of data about queries and clicks that the machine can use to learn from.

Tesla’s autopilot works because thousands of drivers control their cars manually through tricky situations. Because they’re all networked, this helps the next Tesla better drive itself through that same spot.

In PPC, what we have learned from years of manually managing campaigns can be the basis for teaching computers how to respond in similar situations.

Teachers can’t teach everything, so a large part of what they do is help students ask better questions. As teachers to the computers, we should allow ourselves to ask more questions, because synthetic intellect doesn’t have the same human constraints for how quickly it can find answers.

Take Quality Score, for example — it is a machine learning system that can analyze hundreds of factors related to a search and find patterns of things that have a meaningful impact on CTR. Because it can analyze data so much faster, we can feed it seemingly random and unconnected data and let it tell us if this makes a difference.

Here’s a crazy question we once asked the Quality Score system: Does the lunar cycle impact CTR? While the answer isn’t what’s important (no, there was no correlation), what is important is that we were able to ask entirely new questions and quickly get an answer that helped make the system better.

But we should also prioritize the questions we ask based on human intuition. We don’t want to waste machine power by asking everything when we already know with a high probability that some answers won’t help us improve. Consider the following example: Ask Google Maps to calculate the best route from San Francisco to New York. Calculating every possible backroad will take a long time, and considering that we know highways tend to be faster than local roads, that calculation will almost certainly not yield a better result — so we can safely ignore that question.

2. Agencies will provide the creativity machines lack

The biggest value of an agency will be the ability of its employees to work collaboratively with automation.

Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov notes that when it comes to chess, teams of humans assisted by machines dominate even the strongest computers. In a 2005 experiment, Playchess.com launched a chess tournament in which participants could play in teams with other players and/or computers. According to Kasparov:

The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

Humans are still good at creative strategy — putting old ideas together in new ways and testing the results. The reason we don’t have Google’s computers writing all the ads for AdWords is that they all would end up looking the same — and then they would stop evolving because the machine would no longer have any variations to test.

Evolutionary algorithms, a subset of AI, are based on biological evolution, and they need access to variations to work well. And while they can create their own mutations, humans often still know the right shortcuts to come up with better ideas.

An advertiser on Facebook once submitted an ad that was a static image that shook a bit. This had a far better CTR than the same ad when it was completely static. It’s kind of a silly way to produce better CTR, but it’s a great example of humans trying something new that the machine probably wouldn’t have thought of because nobody had done this before inside the realm of the data it had access to.

3. Agencies will be the pilot who averts disaster

Self-driving cars are not “driverless” cars because there’s still a human behind the wheel to monitor the machine. That makes sense because not killing its passengers or others on the road is valuable enough to deserve some human resources.

In PPC, we’re fortunately not dealing with life-or-death scenarios; but we can still put a pilot in place to monitor the most important areas of automation. The trick is figuring out the 80/20 rule and saving the human involvement for the automations with the biggest potential impact.

I once audited an account that had completely tanked because the bid automation had correctly reduced bids after the launch of a terribly performing landing page. But while the landing page was quickly fixed by humans, nobody remembered to reset the bids, and the account spent months with subpar performance because its best keywords were lingering on page two of the search results.

The problem with many systems built today is that they have narrow goals that can fail due to self-reinforcing feedback loops that can cause a downward spiral:

bad performance →  bid down a bit → even worse performance → bid down some more → doom!

We can also look beyond what our own automations are doing to find weaknesses to exploit in our competitors’ algorithms. Remember that many automations are doing tasks that are well-defined, and this makes them predictable. For example, I once had to cross four lanes of traffic on my bike and was going to wait to let a car pass me first. But when I noticed it was a Google self-driving car, I went for the turn anyway because I knew the car had perfect vision and was programmed not to hit bicyclists. And since I’m sharing this story, things went well for me in that scenario.

Sometimes, we can learn from what the machine does. Lee Sedol, the world-champion Go player who was beaten by DeepMind’s AlphaGo computer, became a better player from the experience of losing to a machine. He, as well as many others watching the game, were perplexed by move 37 that the computer made. It was simply not a move any human would have played. But it was the move that set the computer up for the win, and now humans have added it to their own repertoire.

And sometimes your job as copilot is to see something that’s not there but that should have been. The book “How Not To Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg tells the story of mathematician Abram Wald, who figured out what part of an airplane should be made stronger to resist being shot down by enemy aircraft during World War II. The data from planes that returned with bullet holes showed that there were more bullet holes in the fuel system than the engine. Scientists concluded that they should re-enforce the fuel system. But Wald argued that planes that were hit in the engine probably crashed and never returned, and this skewed the data.

Let’s put that into a PPC example. When you look at what leads to a conversion because you want to do more of that, maybe you should also ask what doesn’t lead to a conversion and do less of that. For example, high shipping fees may tank your conversion rate, but you wouldn’t find this out if you asked the wrong question.

4. Agencies will have the empathy machines lack

Even when computers will be doing every part of PPC management, they still won’t have the same human connection that you have with your clients. Understanding the nuances of your client’s business (which will help you come up with new ideas to test), understanding their fears about PPC, understanding their frustrations with the last account manager and so on. All this will help you have a more productive relationship with them.

One surprising profession that is leveraging AI is medical doctors. They simply can’t read as much of the existing research as Watson, so IBM’s supercomputer can be a magnificent diagnostician. But Watson may not be able to explain conditions to a patient, and it certainly will not have the empathy of a human when sharing potentially devastating news. There is still a place for doctors even when they have a supercomputer to help them.

And as PPC experts, a large part of our role will be to know which expert automations to test in an account. For bid management alone, there is an overwhelming number of options, ranging from Google’s free Portfolio Bid Strategies to upstart bid management companies that charge thousands of dollars for the promise of a slightly better result. Knowing what is available, what is worth testing and how to calculate the trade-offs is certain to be a large part of the value agencies provide.

Conclusion

Automation is taking over a lot of the tasks humans have historically done in PPC; but as this shift continues, there will be plenty of new opportunities for PPC experts and agencies to provide value to their clients.

Next time, I’ll cover new strategies and processes that will help bridge the gap between humans and artificially intelligent PPC machines.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Looking to get out of the SEO business? Good!

It’s not your imagination — there’s no denying that SEO has become increasingly difficult over the last few years.

A recent thread on WebmasterWorld highlighted this fact when a poster lamented the challenges he has faced adapting to changes in the SEO industry, and he said that he was considering leaving the industry entirely. This prompted Barry Schwartz to share a poll collecting feedback on the topic from a wider pool, and I was initially quite surprised to see that a large percentage of respondents shared the same concern as the original poster.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. I can definitely understand the frustration. You build a business based on what you think the rules are, and almost immediately, they seem to change.

Isn’t that the nature of every industry, though? Amazon, Uber and Netflix all shook their respective industries in seismic ways. And as that happened, we heard the same cries that things are getting too difficult, that things just aren’t fair, and that people can’t make the same kind of money doing work the same way they used to.

But is that really such a bad thing?

How change can lead to improvements

Change is good for every industry, especially when it forces everyone to up their game. I’ve been in the digital marketing industry since long before Google dominated search, and I’ve seen a lot of changes to our industry during that time — some good and some bad.

I’ve watched search engines rank web pages based on nothing more than crude and easily gameable signals, like meta tags, keyword density and title tags. Later, I watched a clunky algorithm evolve from basic and easy to manipulate into something highly refined and effective. Along the way, I’ve watched many tactics come and go — and wave after wave of SEO practitioners enter, then retreat, from the industry, moving on to what they saw as greener pastures.

Maybe you’re brand-new to the industry, so you don’t have much to compare it to. Or maybe, like me and some of the other veterans of the industry, you’ve experienced every iteration of search engine optimization firsthand and have weathered the storms.

For example, I remember when link building was as simple as just getting more keyword-rich anchor text links than your competitors, which predictably resulted in the SEO equivalent of a nuclear arms race. Marketers took every opportunity to create links in any way they could.

I wasn’t immune to this thinking. In fact, at one point, I had built a massive network consisting of hundreds of websites that published a constant stream of user-generated, spun content, all with the sole purpose of linking to the other websites I owned. This network added no real value and existed solely for the purpose of manipulating organic ranking.

I had managed to fly under the radar with this tactic for many years, but eventually, Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithms destroyed it by penalizing websites that published low-quality content and/or participated in manipulative linking schemes. This destroyed both sides of the manipulative linking equation.

The fallout was brutal for many SEO practitioners and even worse for their clients, who often didn’t know what tactics were being used on their behalf. Websites that had previously benefited from these tactics now suffered aggressive penalties and were often removed from the search results entirely. Often, link-based penalties lasted for years, even after fixing the issues, which predictably destroyed many businesses.

Today, we’re living in an entirely different world. While they’re still being sold, the cheap and easy tactics of the past no longer work. This means that as SEO professionals, we have to work significantly harder than ever before. I know that might sound like a bad thing, but I believe it can help the industry.

Much like the housing collapse of 2008, which forced a lot of below-average realtors out of the real estate industry, this newest evolution of the SEO industry will hopefully purge many of the SEO practitioners who are still trying to peddle ineffective and/or dangerous tactics.

As the algorithms become more effective at differentiating artificial attempts to manipulate ranking from legitimate ranking signals, and they get better at understanding or even predicting what a searcher needs, we will see a lot of people — people who didn’t belong here in the first place — finally leave the industry. This means only the truly passionate will stick around.

SEO isn’t dead, but your tactics might be

There will be a lot more of “the sky is falling” and “SEO is dead” nonsense proclaimed by those who rely on tricks and are incapable of delivering any real value. But those of you who have been in the game for awhile have heard it all before. In fact, we see this collective panic play out nearly every time there is a major update, going as far back as the infamous “Florida” update of 2003.

After Panda, we heard a lot of SEOs asking, “How can we possibly compete when we have to hire real writers to write well-written and longer articles?” While some could no longer compete when churning out a bunch of 350-word, poorly written articles each month no longer moved the needle, those who focused on producing lots of unique, thoroughly researched and well-written content reaped massive rewards.

Penguin created a similar situation when it destroyed manipulative link building. Once tactics like guest posting at scale, directory submissions and paid links were effectively eliminated, many stopped offering link-building services entirely because earning real links takes a lot of work.

Today, we’re approaching a similar situation — the next evolution, if you will — as artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly larger role in Google’s algorithm. SEO practitioners who have relied on clever tricks will be forced to either adapt or exit the industry, while those who focus on producing quality content and earning legitimate links will become the new standard.

Does that mean some SEO practitioners will be forced out of the industry? Absolutely. It also means that some SEO agencies will go out of business. And I’m completely fine with all of that because it means that the industry as a whole will be pushed to a higher standard, benefiting professionals in the industry, search engines, searchers, and most importantly, our clients.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Has AI changed the SEO industry for better or worse?

With Google turning to artificial intelligence to power its flagship search engine business, has the SEO industry been left in the dust? The old ways of testing and measuring are becoming antiquated, and industry insiders are scrambling to understand something new — something which is more advanced than their backgrounds typically permit.

The fact is, even Google engineers are having a hard time explaining how Google works anymore. With this in mind, is artificial intelligence changing the SEO industry for better or worse? And has Google’s once-understood algorithm become a “runaway algorithm?”

Who was in the driver’s seat?

The old days of Google were much simpler times. Artificial intelligence may have existed back then, but it was used for very narrow issues, like spam filters on Gmail. Google engineers spent most of their time writing preprogrammed “rules” that worked to continuously close the loopholes in their search engine — loopholes that let brands, with the help of SEO professionals, take advantage of a static set of rules that could be identified and then exploited.

However, this struck at the heart of Google’s primary business model: the pay-per-click (PPC) ad business. The easier it was to rank “organically” (in Google’s natural, unpaid rankings), the fewer paid ads were sold. These two distinctly different parts of their search engine have been, and will always be, at odds with one another.

If you doubt that Google sees its primary business as selling ads on its search engine, you haven’t been watching Google over the past few decades. In fact, almost 20 years after it started, Google’s primary business was still PPC. In 2016, PPC revenues still represented 89 percent of its total revenues.

At first glance, it would stand to reason that Google should do everything it can to make its search results both user-friendly and maintainable. I want to focus on this last part — having a code base that is well documented enough (at least, internally within Google) so that it can be explained to the public, as a textbook of how websites should be structured and how professionals should interact with its search engine.

Going up the hill

Throughout the better part of Google’s history, the company has made efforts to ensure that brands and webmasters understood what was expected of them. In fact, they even had a liaison to the search engine optimization (SEO) world, and his name was Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam Team.

Cutts would go around the SEO conference circuit and often be the keynote or featured session speaker. Any time Google was changing its algorithms or pushing a new update to its search engine, Cutts would be there to explain what that meant for webmasters.

It was quite the spectacle. In one room, you typically had hundreds of SEOs who were attacking every loophole they could find, every slim advantage they could get their hands on. In the very same room, you had Cutts explaining why those techniques were not going to work in the future and what Google actually recommended.

As time when loopholes were closed, Cutts became one of the only sources of hope for SEOs. Google was becoming more sophisticated than ever, and with very few loopholes left to exploit, Cutts’s speaking engagements became crucial for SEOs to review and dissect.

The ‘uh-oh’ moment

And then, the faucet of information slowed to a trickle. Cutts’ speaking engagements became rarer, and his guidelines became more generic. Finally, in 2014, Cutts took a leave from Google. This was a shock to insiders who had built an entire revenue model off of selling access to this information.

Then, the worst news for SEOs: He was being replaced by an unnamed Googler. Why unnamed? Because the role of spokesperson was being phased out. No longer would Google be explaining what brands should be doing with each new update of its search engine.

The more convoluted its search engine algorithms were, the more PPC ads Google sold. As a result of this shift, Google capitalized immensely on PPC ad revenue. It even created “Learn with Google,” a gleaming classroom where SEO conference attendees could learn how to maximize PPC spend.

An article by Search Engine Land columnist Kristine Schachinger about the lack of information on a major algorithmic update, and Google’s flippant response by interim spokesman Gary Illyes, had all of the SEO industry’s frustration wrapped up in a nutshell. What was going on?

Removing the brakes — the switch to an AI-powered search engine

At the same time, Google was experimenting with new machine learning techniques to automate much of the updating process to its search engine. Google’s methodology has always been to automate as much of its technology as it could, and its core search engine was no different.

The pace of Google’s search engine switch to artificial intelligence caught many off-guard. This wasn’t like the 15 years of manual algorithm updates to its index. This felt like a tornado had swept in — and within a few years, it changed the landscape of SEO forever.

The rules were no longer in some blog or speech by Matt Cutts. Here stood a breathtaking question: Were the rules even written down at Google anymore?

Much of the search engine algorithms and their weightings were now controlled by a continuously updating machine-learning system that changed its weightings from one keyword to the next. Marcus Tober, CTO of SearchMetrics, said that “it’s very likely that even Google Engineers don’t know the exact composition of their highly complex algorithm.

The runaway algorithm

Remember Google’s primary revenue stream? PPC represents almost 90 percent of its business. Once you know that, the rest of the story makes sense.

Did Google know beforehand that the switch to an AI-powered search engine would lead to a system that couldn’t be directly explained? Was it a coincidence that Cutts left the spotlight in 2014, and that the position never really came back? Was it that Google didn’t want to explain things to brands anymore, or that they couldn’t?

By 2017, Google CEO Sundar Pichai began to comment publicly on Google’s foray into artificial intelligence. Bob Griffin, CEO of Ayasdi, wrote recently that Pichai made it clear that there should be no abdication of responsibility associated with intelligent technologies. In other words, there should be no excuse like “The machine did x.”

Griffin put it clearly:

Understanding what the machine is doing is paramount. Transparency is knowing what algorithm was used, which parameters were used in the algorithm and, even, why. Justification is an understanding of what it did, and why in a way that you can explain to a reporter, shareholder, congressional committee or regulator. The difference is material and goes beyond some vague promise of explainable AI.

But Google’s own search engineers were seemingly unable to explain how their own search engine worked anymore. This discrepancy had gotten so bad that in late 2017, Google hired longtime SEO journalist Danny Sullivan in an attempt to reestablish its image of transparency.

But why such a move away from transparency in the first place? Could it be that the move to artificial intelligence — something that went way over the heads of even the most experienced digital marketing executives, was the perfect cover? Was Google simply throwing its proverbial hands up in the air and saying, “It’s just too hard to explain?” Or was Google just caught up in the transition to AI, trying to find a way to explain things like Matt Cutts used to do?

Regardless of Sullivan’s hire, the true revenue drivers meant that this wasn’t a top priority. Google had solved some of the most challenging technical problems in history, and they could easily have attempted to define these new technical challenges for brands, but it simply wasn’t their focus.

And, not surprisingly, after a few years of silence, most of the old guard of SEO had accepted that the faucet of true transparent communication with Google was over, never to return again.

Everyone is an artificial intelligence expert

Most SEO experts’ backgrounds do not lend themselves very well to understanding this new type of Google search. Why? Most SEO professionals and digital marketing consultants have a marketing background, not a technical background.

When asked “How is AI changing Google?,” most answers from industry thought leaders have been generic. AI really hasn’t changed much. Effective SEO still requires the same strategies you’ve pursued in the past. In some cases, responses simply had nothing to do with AI in the first place.

Many SEO professionals, who know absolutely nothing about how AI works, have been quick to deflect any questions about it. And since very few in the industry had an AI background, the term “artificial intelligence” became almost something entirely different — just another marketing slogan, rather than an actual technology. And so some SEO and digital marketing companies even began pinning themselves as the new “Artificial Intelligence” solution.

The runaway truck ramp?

As with all industries, whenever there’s a huge shift in technology, there tends to be a changing of the guard. There are a number of highly trained engineers that are beginning to make the SEO industry their home, and these more technologically savvy folks are starting to speak out.

And, for every false claim of AI, there are new AI technologies that are starting to become mainstream. And these are not your typical SEO tools and rank trackers.

Competitive industries are now investing heavily in things like genetic algorithms, particle swarm optimization and new approaches that enable advanced SEO teams to model exactly what Google’s RankBrain is attempting to do in each search engine environment.

At the forefront of these technologies is industry veteran and Carnegie Mellon alumni Scott Stouffer, founder and CTO of MarketBrew.com, who chose to create and patent a statistical search engine modeling tool, based on AI technologies, rather than pursuing a position at Google.

Now, 11 years into building his company, Stouffer has said:

There are a number of reasons why search engine modeling technology, after all these years, is just now becoming so sought-after. For one, Google is now constantly changing its algorithms, from one search query to the next. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this doesn’t bode well for SEO tools that run off of a static set of pre-programmed rules.

On the flipside, these new search engine models can actually be used to identify what the changes are statistically, to learn the behavior and characteristics of each search engine environment. The models can then be used to review why your rankings shifted: was it on-page, off-page, or a mixture of both? Make an optimization on your site, and rerun the model. You can instantly see if that change will statistically be a positive or negative move.

I asked Stouffer to give me a concrete example. Let’s say you see a major shift in rankings for a particular search result. These search engine modeling tools start with what Stouffer coins as a “standard model.” (Think of this as a generic search engine that has been regression-tested to be a “best fit” with adjustable weightings for each algorithmic family.) This standard model is then run through a process called Particle Swarm Optimization, which locates a stable mixture of algorithmic weightings that will produce similar search results to the real thing.

Here’s the catch: If you do this before and after each algorithmic shift, you can measure the settings on the models between the two. Stouffer says the SEO teams that invest in Market Brew technology do this to determine what Google has done with its algorithm: For instance, did it put more emphasis on the title tags, backlinks, structured data and so on?

Suffice it to say, there are some really smart people in this industry who are quickly returning the runaway algorithm back to the road.

Chris Dreyer of Rankings.io put it best:

I envision SEO becoming far more technical than it is today.  If you think about it, in the beginning, it was super easy to rank well in search.  The tactics were extremely straight forward (i.e. keywords in a meta tag, any link placed anywhere from any other website helped, etc.). Fast forward just a decade and SEO has already become much more advanced because search algorithms have become more advanced.  As search engines move closer to the realistic human analysis of websites (and beyond), SEOs will have to adapt. We will have to understand how AI works in order to optimize sites to rank well.

As far as Google goes, the hiring of Sullivan should be a very interesting twist to follow. Will Google try to reconcile the highly technical nature of its new AI-based search engine, or will it be more of the same: generic information intended on keeping these new technologists at bay, and keeping Google’s top revenue source safe?

Can these new search engine modeling technologies usher in a new understanding of Google? Will the old guard of SEO embrace these new technologies, or is there a seismic shift underway, led by engineers and data scientists, not marketers?

The next decade will certainly be an interesting one for SEO.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

7 reasons to enter the 2017 Search Engine Land Awards

There’s just under two weeks left to finalize your entries in the 3rd annual Search Engine Land Awards — already considered the “world cup of digital marketing” by some — the competition is heating up as we approach the final deadline for entries.

The final deadline is July 31, 2017 at 11:59 PM PT, so don’t delay – start or complete your awards submission now.

Still not sure if you should enter? The question really is, why not enter? We could think a lot of reasons why you should, but here are just a few to consider.

Be recognized among the best of the best in SEO & SEM

Since the inception of Search Engine Land by co-founders Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman, our mission has always been to provide information to shape the best practices in search marketing, and deliver actionable tactics to help the marketing community achieve amazing results.

Our annual awards are recognition of how the industry has continued to grow over time across the globe, and honor the most impressive and innovative campaigns, individuals and teams in search marketing today.

Provide validation for clients that your services are top-notch

Awards are an effective tool for client acquisition and retention, as well as providing internal motivation. “It’s always very good to have something tangible for the work the team has been putting in over days, nights, weekends … the team will be very, very happy, as will as the client,” said Daniel Olduck of Acronym Media for their work with Scott’s Miracle-Gro in 2016. You don’t have to be an enterprise brand to derive value from award-winning campaigns either; the same holds true for small to medium sized businesses and agencies driving results from SEO and SEM.

Prove to the executive suite that your team is valuable

Applicable to both in-house SEO & SEM teams as well as digital agencies, having your methodology and results evaluated and recognized by the Search Engine Land Awards validates the resources invested in search marketing.

After the 2016 Best Overall Search Marketing Initiative went to Edelman (traditionally known as a PR firm), they had this to say about why taking home the coveted award was so important: “in conjunction with our global paid media practice – [the Atlanta team] has its proof point that smart people, especially when sincere in their quest to deliver client ROI and backed by ambitious leadership willing to invest in talent and technology, will forever be the greatest and most genuine asset any agency can have….”

Recognize individual achievements and industry contributions

In 2016, popular Search Engine Land contributor and industry luminary Eric Enge took home individual honors, but credited his team for the hard work and research they do to contribute to the industry. In 2017, Enge will participate as one of the judges in the Search Marketer of the Year categories, alongside previous winners Jennifer Lopez and Larry Kim, to hand off the crown to other deserving recipients.

A portion of entry fees contribute to charity

Every year, a portion of proceeds from the entry fees in the awards program go to a charitable organization. This year’s selected charity is Women Who Code, which follows a large donation by Third Door Media (Search Engine Land’s parent company) to Girls Who Code earlier this year.

Michelle Robbins, Search Engine Land’s newly appointed Editor-in-Chief, chose Women Who Code as part of her continued advocacy for gender equality in tech:

“As a female technologist for 20+ years now, I’m thrilled we can partner with Women Who Code. I’m proud that via our industry awards program, we are able to support their mission of not just growing the pipeline of female engineers into marketing technology roles, but also provide the resources to keep them growing, engaged and successful throughout their careers.”

It’s one more reason to justify your trip to SMX East

All entrants also receive a 15% discount code off our best rates available to attend our SMX East conference in New York City, October 24-26th. Finalists will be notified in August and will be able to purchase tickets to the Awards Gala on October 25th. Any remaining tickets may be available to all other entrants and SMX attendees on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The awards gala is the biggest night in search marketing

Attend the best party of the year for search marketers and celebrate your achievements with your industry peers and colleagues. Win or lose – you’re guaranteed to have a fabulous time! The evening will be filled with four hours of first-class fun with dinner, flowing drinks, dancing and entertainment at the historic Diamond Horseshoe at the Paramount Hotel in Times Square. Our favorite party band, 45 Riots is returning to rock the house once again! You won’t want to miss it!

Ready to submit your awards application now? Click here to enter.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Rand Fishkin to step away from day-to-day operations at Moz

Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, is stepping down from his operational role at the company and moving into an advisory role. Fishkin founded Moz, originally called SEOmoz, 16 years ago with his mother, Gillian Muessig.

Sarah Bird, the CEO at Moz, announced the news this morning, calling this a six- to nine-month transition period as he moves into the role of a Moz Associate. Moz Associates is a part-time volunteer program where passionate marketers “contribute time and effort” within the Moz community.

Rand Fishkin first joined the search marketing world in 2002 and became a well-known personality in the community by 2004. He started SEOmoz as a blog to contribute to the SEO knowledge base while also offering SEO consulting services. Soon after, SEOmoz turned into primarily an SEO software company. It rebranded as Moz and expanded its product lineup, but trimmed operations in 2016 to focus back on SEO tools.

Fishkin stepped down as CEO in 2014.

As for what is next with Rand, that remains to be seen. Bird said he’s still one of the “largest shareholders and will remain Chairman of the Board” of the company.

LISTEN: Danny Sullivan reflects on 21 years covering the search industry

There aren’t many people who can claim to have created an industry, but Danny Sullivan is one of them. When he first published “The Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines” in 1996, he attracted an audience of online marketing pioneers who wanted to understand how search engines of the day — think Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos and the like — ranked online content. Soon after, he launched Search Engine Watch and started hosting search marketing conferences. And in 2006, he co-founded Third Door Media — the company behind Search Engine Land and its younger siblings, MarTech Today and Marketing Land.

As journalists, we don’t like to consider ourselves “the news,” but when Danny announced earlier this week that he’d be stepping away from daily duties as our Chief Content Officer and taking an advisory role, it was industry news. Big news. And so we think it’s apropos to spend this week’s episode of Marketing Land Live chatting with Danny about his beginnings as a search industry reporter, the evolution of both SEO and online journalism and, of course, his decision to shift careers. I had the pleasure of doing the interview, and I think you’re gonna love it.

This week’s show runs just over an hour. You can listen here or use the link below to subscribe via your favorite podcast service.

We invite you to subscribe via iTunes or Google Play Podcasts.

Show notes

Danny Sullivan: My new role as advisor for Third Door Media

10 big changes with search engines over my 20 years of covering them

Thanks for listening! We’ll be back soon with another episode of Marketing Land Live.

[This article originally appeared on Marketing Land.]

'SEO: The Movie' aims to trace the rise of internet marketing

Grab your popcorn. There’s a new movie that looks back on the history of SEO from the mid-1990s to today.

Wait. A movie about SEO?

Yep. It may seem odd at first glance, but as anyone who’s been around the industry for the past 20 or so years could tell you, there are definitely some interesting stories to tell.

So that’s what John Lincoln, CEO of Ignite Visibility, set out to do. He began working on “SEO: The Movie” last October, interviewing a half-dozen industry veterans (including Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan and Barry Schwartz) about topics like

the early days of SEO and the impact that affiliate marketers, in particular, had on the industry.the impact that the Google Toolbar had on SEO thanks to the visible display of the PageRank meter, and how that quickly created a marketplace for buying and selling links.the monthly “Google dance,” when SEOs would suddenly find out if Google’s latest rankings update impacted them for better or worse.

Lincoln also narrates the movie, which covers topics up to and including recent developments like Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm updates.

A couple of stories really stood out to me: Rae Hoffman (aka Sugarrae) talking about how her first affiliate marketing commission check was worth more than what her then-husband was making in an entire year, and Rand Fishkin of Moz talking about the company’s early financial troubles and how attending two conferences set a course toward profitability. There’s also a section that very appropriately discusses the huge impact that former Googler Matt Cutts had across the SEO industry, from his days as “GoogleGuy” at WebmasterWorld and other forums up until his recent switch to a career at the US Digital Service.

I’m the farthest thing from a movie critic, but others who want to pick apart the film will rightly point out that it’s US-centric and that a lot of industry pioneers weren’t interviewed. (Link building pioneer Eric Ward even supplied Lincoln with a tongue-in-cheek rant about not being interviewed; it’s included during the end credits.)

The bottom line is that it’s impossible to tell the entire history of SEO in about 40 minutes. As Lincoln told me via email, his movie purposely focuses just on some of the key events from the early days of SEO up to recent times.

Still, I think industry veterans and newcomers will enjoy it. I did, and it left me hoping to someday see a longer version with more SEO luminaries — young and old — telling stories about how the industry began and evolved.

If you want to check out “SEO: The Movie,” the full-length movie is embedded below.