What is SEO?

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is, according to Wikipedia, “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s unpaid results – often referred to as “natural,” “organic,” or “earned” results.”

When I started my first blog at CreativeEdgeMusic.com, I used Google’s platform called Blogger to host my site and its content. And to my surprise, within a relatively short amount of time I had written an article about guitar picks that was ranking well in the search results. In fact, it continues to rank well for its keyword category to this day. Just last week I was contacted by another guitar pick manufacturer with an offer to send me free product in exchange for an honest review on my site.

Sometimes I wonder if it helped that I was using Google’s very own service (Blogger) to host my blog. Had I used WordPress (which I use for this blog), perhaps the same exact content wouldn’t have ranked. Honestly I can’t say for sure, but I do have my suspicions.

So… what’s the big deal about “ranking” for SEO keywords and topics?

Ranking on the front page of Google for your search term gives you free, long-term visibility online.

If you’re a business selling a product or service, this means free business leads. And there’s a lot of money in it for most businesses.

If you’re simply trying to build a blog readership like I was with my music blog, then it means readers. That’s good, too, of course.

In my case, I receive about 15,000-20,000 page views every month on CreativeEdgeMusic.com – without doing much of anything. Every day I get 100-200 unique visitors (real people) who land on one of my pages to read or learn about something music-related.

Some users click on the advertisements posted on my website, earning me money via Google Adsense. I’m also approached often by guitar pick manufacturers asking to write product reviews. Since my site ranks high in the search engines for terms related to guitar picks, their strategy is to get some free merch in my hands in exchange for posting an honest review.

This makes enough sense after all. When someone who may want to buy guitar picks lands on my site, there is a chance they will see my product review and decide to buy the company’s guitar picks I’ve promoted.

Long term benefits of SEO.

Somehow all this magic happens even though I barely maintain the site these days. While I used to post daily at one point in the past, nowadays I will often go weeks or months in between posts. (I do have plans to change that, but since I started a FT business this year, it just hasn’t been a priority.)

In some ways, I kind of wish I’d put some more thought into turning my music blog into a real business. After all, I did manage to build up a consistent, self-sustaining stream of traffic from my initial efforts. If I had something relevant to sell – it would probably be a good way to make some extra cash.

A brief history of SEO; how the game has changed.

It was almost certainly easier to build a website and get ranked in the past. Even a few years ago, when I started CreativeEdgeMusic.com, I focused mostly on producing great content (rather than focusing on promoting my articles) and it worked well enough.

But with Google’s ever-changing algorithms for calculating search results – which exist mostly to combat “black-hat” methods of manipulating one’s search ranking – the playing field has gotten a lot tougher.

This brings us to the subject of backlinks. Let’s talk about backlinks for a minute. Backlinks are when someone links to your site from theirs. It might be a direct link to your main domain, such as stevenfies.com, or it could be a more specific link to a particular article.

Backlinks have always been very important in determining relevance and search visibility. But these days, it seems they are more important than ever before.

Back in the beginning, in fact, much of Google’s original algorithm was based on sheer quantity of backlinks. The problem came when programmers – a.k.a. hackers, opportunists, black-hat SEO specialists… – came along and devised methods for automatically creating backlinks across the internet to boost the rankings of their desired pages.

For a while, this worked like a charm and made some people a lot of money. If you got in during the “backlink rush” of the early 2000’s, you probably did well.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you view it), many of those same people eventually came crashing down. As Google released major updates to its search algorithm over the years (penalizing sites who obviously spammed backlinks all over the web), it put quite a few people out of business.

Most of the guys out of business are from the black-hat crowd, but have other winners and losers been created by Google’s ongoing updates?

Realities of SEO today: money and power reign supreme.

My hypothesis is that current ranking algorithms stack the deck a little too heavily in favor of the rich and wealthy. But why?

Google’s goal has always been to promote the best, cleanest, most sought-after content on the web. This is certainly a noble enough goal. And to achieve that goal, it still places lots of weight on backlinks – only now, the backlinks that matter are the ones coming from trusted “authority” sites (sites that are already well-ranked, for the most part).

All this has done for the opportunistic black-hat crowd is shift their focus.

Now, instead of spamming backlinks in massive quantities all over the web, they are spending their time building relationships with influencers who might award them a coveted “white-hat” backlink.

In truth, this is actually a pretty “white-hat” thing to do, too. What’s wrong with building genuine relationships with others, after all? That’s kind of how life works!

Well… from a moral perspective, one issue is that many of them probably wouldn’t care to build those relationships whatsoever if they weren’t getting something in return – the quality backlink. (If they did care, they would have been doing that originally – but they didn’t, because in the old days it was more “efficient” to simply spam backlinks everywhere.)

And from a logistical perspective, it is surely much easier for an individual or an organization with significant financial resources to build such relationships – and this is the real issue I see.

An SEO consultant recently explained to me that I could expect to make 100-150 cold calls to obtain one quality backlink, for example. This seems like an awful lot of work for a small business or an individual to achieve.

Take the teenage blogger who posts fun vegan recipes after school, for example… they may not have time to make hundreds of cold calls every day in hopes of persuading someone to give them a backlink.

On the other hand, corporations or wealthy individuals can easily hire or outsource this type of work, putting it mostly on autopilot. The sites and content they are promoting may not be as high quality, accurate, or even true… but if they have lots of authority links coming in, they will likely wind up on the top of the search results pages.

But hasn’t life always been this way?

You might be thinking… yeah, yeah… people with financial resources have always been in a position of greater power and leverage – so what!

To some extent that’s true – that’s just how life is at the present moment. And generally speaking, life just plain isn’t fair!

Also, to Google’s credit, they have really done a lot to clean up the web and their search results with their updates.

But there’s still no changing the fact that the barriers to entry have become much higher, though, for the little guys (those wanting to start a blog or build a website).

While there may always be a lucky few who start a blog, do relatively little promotion, and somehow still get found and blow up… that’s basically like winning the lottery, and not everyone can expect those results (even with excellent content).

This is much like the author or musician who is suddenly discovered and blows up overnight – it could happen, but the odds aren’t in anyone’s particular favor.

Possible solutions for long-term SEO algorithm improvements.

One idea that might “level” the playing field, so to speak, is for Google to factor into their algorithm a site owner’s relative power or financial wealth. The idea is they would set the bar higher for companies and wealthy individuals.

For example, one quality backlink pointing to a small site might earn 10 points, whereas that same backlink pointing to a large corporation’s site would only earn 1 point.

This would effectively make it “just as hard” for the big guys to make progress with SEO as the little guys. It would eliminate the arbitrage that occurs when someone hits a threshold of wealth that allows them to indefinitely stay on top.

There are obviously certain issues with this, though, such as the power or financial assets of a given website owner. But perhaps there could be a voluntary registration process whereby you declare, within broad categories, how much money you have.

If someone doesn’t register, they wouldn’t get any benefits. But when someone does register, they would be given preference in the search ranking algorithm.

To ensure people that do register are legitimate, they could go through a verification process to confirm yes, they are a real person and not a spammer or a black hat guy.

This might seem a little intrusive from a privacy perspective, but then again Google is a private company and they’re fully allowed to make their own rules, so long as they fall under the law.

As long as the program is voluntary and awarded as a bonus, it would align moral incentives appropriately.

Scammers and black hat guys wouldn’t come forward and identify themselves, for fear of being exposed. But the people doing the right thing for the right reasons will have no problem registering.

I’m sure there are other issues with this idea. Plus I’m sure there are people out there who risked and sacrificed a lot to obtain the wealth they have today, and who would be upset about being “penalized” after investing so much in their success.

But in truth, it’s not so much a penalty as it is a handicap for small guys. And those small guys would still need to produce great content that others want to link to and share.

It would just mean that the “big” guys would need to continue working hard to stay on top. It would prevent them from resting on their laurels, using leverage and financial power for personal gain. It would keep them honest about continuing to create great content – regularly, and on a larger scale suited to their size.

What do you think?

Feel free to tell me what you think – am I totally out of left field, or is some of this making sense?

What ideas do you have for improving search algorithms in the future?

Do you have some thoughts on how to structure search rankings in a way that’s fair and still accomplishes the core goal of showcasing the best content on the web?

Has SEO turned into a game of money and power – or is that too strong of a reaction?

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