The changes to the Google algorithm belie their cuddly  names – Pandas and Penguins might sound like friendly creatures, but these guys have a real bite.

I was at a recent event called Travel Babble organised by a Brighton-based SEO agency called Fresh Egg aimed at getting travel bloggers and SEO people in the same room. There was a panel Q&A session with a bunch of SEO people both client and agency side. The general commentary was that websites need to be more ‘normal’ these days – clever link tactics and technical tweaks are increasingly being discovered by the search engines (in particular Google) and sites doing this stuff too aggressively are getting penalised. The recommended SEO approach was to analyse the backlinks to a website you’re working on and review them. Has historic work to accumulate lots of links to boost the position of a website in search results left it looking a bit too good to be true? Are there thousands of links all using the same anchor text pointing to the same single page for example? Real people just don’t link to things like this and search engines increasingly spot these sites that are – to use the current term – ‘overoptimised’. (The word ‘overoptimised’ is itself a contradiction in terms… but anyway…)

The key way to fix this problem? Consensus from the panel was to create better quality content that’s more genuinely focussed on users rather than on search engines.

Hurray! That ought to be where a content creator like me comes in. But guess what? People are a tad more demanding than search engine robots. If you want to create good stuff that people really want to read, look at, engage with – you have to cough up some proper cash. It takes time, research, craft.  And there are no short cuts. Again and again the SEO guys on the Travel Babble panel dithered around this point. There’s an acceptance that ‘proper’ content is needed – but no desire to actually make the financial investment necessary to achieve this. There was a lot of waffle about 'getting hold of content' as it if was something you could go somewhere and harvest on the sly. (How about user reviews? That might work!) One panel member said ‘We have 5000-plus pages of content about places on our website. If anyone can tell me how to get hold of decent content for this quantity of pages feel free to tell me.”

Well – here’s the answer. Pay for it.

And accept that it’s a big investment. And see it as part of the whole marketing story for your business – not just something you can label SEO and stick in a separate box. Take cash from your loyalty marketing and brand budgets to pay for it.

The end goal for search engines is to be able to recognise the really useful, good stuff that people actually want and to promote it to the front of the queue. And I personally think they will get there. It’s just a matter of how long. Viewing things through the narrow prism of SEO and rankings is an increasingly out-moded way of working.

That’s a challenge for SEO agencies – but it’s also a challenge for the companies they work with. If you’re a travel co or tour operator and you have individuals in your marketing team called SEO managers – who are measured against key performance indicators that revolve around rankings and links and little else you are on a highway to confusion and you’re probably creating conflict within your business where it need not exist. Chasing search engine rankings without thinking about the bigger picture will become increasingly dangerous - more and more likely to get you penalised by the search engines. SEO is just one of a number of tools in your marketing tool box and you need to use the whole lot of them.

In the very near future good digital marketers will get SEO and understand how it works, but that will just be a part of their skillset and their responsibilities.

The days of the SEO specialist marketer are numbered.

Image: miralize

37 thoughts on “Time to fire your SEO manager?

  1. Hi Jeremy

    I hear you and I do echo your sentiment but I also think that you are doing SEOs a disservice, and I think what you are saying may be more of a reflection of big agency ways of working than anything else.

    In the most-part a good SEO will not disrupt and cause confusion. In the most-part SEOs are a rounded bunch, who over the years have evolved and come to embrace SEO as a very important element of marketing. We've all seen the impact of a Google update on a client's bottom line, and that is an SEO issue to deal with.

    To a good SEO great content is the elixir of their working life. When you produce great content it lubricates the gears of your work. Without it you will be left wanting. If you hold a £10 article in your hand you know that the lieklihood of getting anything other than a low PR auto-submit link is slim.

    The Google updates are a good thing, maybe a better thing for content creators, but I think great content has always been the same - it's easy to tell great from poor. But SEO, well it's now either the technical or the creative in the biz that will, and should do well. The industry was getting swollen - now hopefully things are changing for the better.

    As for big agencies... well good luck to you ;)

    1. Hi Tim
      I don't know if what was said on the panel at the event was 'big agency'. There were 4 people - 2 from Fresh Egg and 2 from their clients, so maybe? The thing that happened time and again was that people would say 'yeah, quality content matters' but would refuse to clarify what that really meant. In the end I asked the question - could each member of the panel tell us what they would pay a blogger to write them a guest post. Not a trick question. Pretty simple stuff. All I got was one person telling me the most they had ever paid for a page of content was £6000 - but admittedly that included a stack of UX and dev work too. Everyone else just looked hard at the floor. Weird when you think the whole point of the event was to hook up travel bloggers and SEO people. THAT'S the question they want answered. You gonna pay me or what?
      The cart and the horse have been the wrong way round for a good while because it was possible to game the algorithm. Those days are numbered. I don't think most SEOs fully understand what that means. That's a sweeping generalisation I know, but if the people on that panel are a good representation, I rest my case.

  2. I've been thinking along similar lines recently. The old technical skills of SEO are fast becoming redundant and the skill set required nowadays is more akin to a generalist marketer, after all if you are chasing rankings, PR is just as important as content.

    The problem as I see it for SEO agencies (and content agencies for that matter) is that they can probably scale generalist content (destination guides, top 10s, curating pics and videos) but how are they going to provide the deeply specialist detailed content that you need to rank nowadays? This is the content which will rank and prove useful to customers.

    Taking a personal example, I work on ranking highly for searches for climbing Toubkal and trekking in the Atlas Mountains. There are probably only two or three writers who know this area well enough to create the quality of content needed to rank well (and to be useful to customers). Their rates will inevitably be high, so instead we'll do it in house (e.g. http://www.tourdust.com/blog/posts/toubkal), we are out there anyway researching product and by doing it ourselves we can tightly manage the balance between content and pushing product. It is just one example to illustrate the point, but I am deeply skeptical that agencies can do anything more than advise on content strategy whilst the content creation will be in house. I guess the only exception being where a company is willing to spend serious money putting product and time in the hands of the writers so they can do a proper job of it.

    1. Yep. Agree with much of what you say here Ben. For the client who does have the cash though no reason why a well connected editor (like me!) can't find them those two or three writers who DO really know a place. Although I'd be curious to know what you mean by 'high'. If I could get you that content for say £300 a page would that be too much - for a page that will rank really well for niche terms that are spot on for your prospects and will inspire and engage them - possibly even convert them? OR else how about using someone like me on a consultative basis training your in-house guys, helping you develop appropriate formats, advising on photography etc.

      1. You are right it can be done, and the investment is worthwhile. But it does hammer home the point - You need a bloody good editor and bloody good writers to make content work, otherwise you are just adding to the reams of useless dross out there. Oh and whilst you are at it, you are going to need a very well thought through UX to connect that content to your purchasing paths.

  3. "If anyone can tell me how to get hold of decent content for this quantity of pages feel free to tell me. Well – here’s the answer. Pay for it."

    We've just launched a travel writer/blogger Jobs notice board for companies to post work like this and for bloggers to post their resumes.

    It's at http://jobs.travelllll.com/

  4. The big SEO companies (including the best ones in Brighton and around) are being shy about it Jeremy because they don't want to admit the amount they're paying. Check out the new Travelllll jobs board. Not huge amounts is the answer...(but enough for some)

    What is truly revealing is the amount they're charging clients. I've seen the figures. Mega wonga. Still if you're desperate or insecure enough to pay...

    FYI this is what we pay(ish)good quality writers...

    £100 for 400-450 new words plus an image for a destination blog
    50% for rehashes
    £150 for a specific blog/article.
    More articles for bigger bulk deals (say 8 new ones for £1k)

    According to Will H (ex of the Times) on the floor at STM2011 at WTM, that was roughly about what the same as a Times writer got per session.

    Won't leave my web address but Jeremy and Ben know who it is (Scottish/loud/handsome/full bodied lush hair) as have enough top writers at the mo.

    Any travcos (not competitors - they can keep churning out shite) happy to help = just leave a note.

    Does it work - I think so but I've got some rather large corporations up my arse buying links left, right and centre so I need good quality writers that make me chuckle or weep (sorry that's what floats ma boat, Whether that's what pax want is debatable but I think our customers are witty, urbane, amusing etc)

    But as Ben said - structure, editing, correct content, niches, ides, integration (Christ that's an ungoing battle), support, opportunism, boxing smart, yes there is a cost.

    If any largish travco moved 10% of their ad-buy bugets from adwords to QUALITY CONTENT they would be Panda Proofed. Cept they won't. Coz they're scared. They need results *today* not 6-12 months. So they spunk it on adwords (not all). Very short-term gain though. Ho hum.

    Quality. quality. quality - As GLEE said - don't stop believing...


    ps Do you need an SEO manager? Nah not really. An SEO consultant like Mark Hodson http://www.travel-seo.co.uk/ is a top notion though. Really helped me out in the early days. Recommended.

    1. Think Stuart's point about shifting budget from Adwords to content is a good one - especially in longer term. A second thought would be to shift dosh from link buying to investing in content. Most people I know who still flog links do so in the $200-500 per link bracket. Let's be conservative and say the agency is only slotting a 25% margin on top of that and it's still a lot of cash that could be being used to support quality writers, boost your content and not spit in Google's eye.

    2. Stuart L. do you have a website? There is no link for me on your name and I'd like to take a peek before following a recommendation for SEO. Thanks & sorry if I missed something...

  5. Great piece.

    Write stuff that real readers will find informative, useful and perhaps worth linking to. Support that with some basic SEO (page title, description, link text etc). Don't buy links.

    Rinse & repeat.

    Be patient.

    Staggering that the above has been turned into a multi million dollar dark art industry.

  6. Thanks for the post Jeremy and the comments are great to read.

    SEO isn't a service in its own right and the fact this is constantly discussing the 'SEO Agency' seems to show the changes that are occurring.
    SEO should be an integration of the digital marketing mix, as should content. They go hand in hand whether the content or SEO people like it or not.
    I'll give the content people a challenge - write great content and generate vast amounts of traffic without the benefit of a search engine. I'll say to the SEO 'turn vast amounts of traffic into an engaging audience without the use of quality content'.
    It can be done but its not easy or sustainable so this discussion around dumping your SEO agency might be right, but not if they are integrated into the whole digital marketing mix, which I believe most of the decent ones have now evolved to be.

    I had arguments several years ago with 'technical' SEOs that getting crap links and targeting irrelevant terms just for the sake of traffic wasn't 'marketing' but that is all they knew, that was 'SEO'. The people that understand it has evolved beyond this do a great service for their clients. I'll say to any content person don't get into the same illusion, content needs other forms of marketing and can't strive without support, including SEO.

    1. HI Adam
      Thanks for commenting. I agree with you pretty much 100%. Without search engines content creators would be stuck completely - that's a great point. I actually remember going into an 'internet cafe' in the 90s well before you could get online at home and well before Google. I was just bamboozled- where to start and how to find it? I used to describe the net in those days as the biggest library in the world - where someone has pulled all the books off the shelves and muddled them up totally. Google in particular changed that... and in that respect it's a great thing.
      ~BTW- I'm not suggesting people fire their SEO agencies. I'm saying people shouldn't have individuals in their businesses who are purely focussed on SEO. Many SEO agencies are (as you'd expect) adapting fast to this new environment. What slows them down is clients who are behind the curve and still insist they report thinks like links and rankings in isolation. An agency can only be as smart and useful as their client lets them be. (Of course I would say this as I work agency side much of the time!)

  7. Fascinating. I only understand some of this, but here's my big takeaway. If Jeremy's right, then all that SEO stuff that used to make my eyes glaze over - which I couldn't grasp then and still can't grasp now - was all crap anyway. Silver-tongued office bods who thought chasing Google was clever have, it turns out, stiffed an entire generation of writers. They've turned the internet sour with shitey floods of travelcrud. They've driven out the decent middle, pushing aspiration to quality out of reach and replacing it with linkbait. Travel writing has become a joke. It's going to be a long haul back from here. Pardon me, and present company excepted, but f*ck them. And f*ck SEO.

    1. That's certainly one way of looking at it. I do feel at times as if there's a very limited window of opportunity. If the balance doesn't tilt back towards valuing content creation for what it's really worth we'll be left with a big pile of crap and those of us who create content will be on the scarp heap. What is more depressing is the net is killing print media too. Did you see Word magazine is closing and Chris Moss wrote brilliantly about the demise of print at Time Out too recently. (http://www.bjr.org.uk/data/2012/no2_moss) Very sad.

      1. Yes, I saw that. Sad indeed. But it's not about being on the scrap heap - it's that people who should be writing (or "creating") are having to stack shelves or start businesses or some other shite. For years and years SEO has (as you said) put the cart before the horse. They need us, but they're so bloody clever they've convinced themselves they don't. And, worse, they've bamboozled everybody else - who never understood anyway - into nodding along. So writers stop writing. And it seems like a natural death.

        1. Don't think we can lay all the blame at the feet of SEO people tho ;-) It's a whole raft of things - the Net primarily - destroying old print business models whilst not really supplying new ones that work (yet?). I have another piece brewing for here about why I still prefer print - having worked primarily in web for 4 to 5 years now. But I wonder if I'll just sound like all the old vinyl lovers who moaned and moaned when CDs came in?!

  8. "The days of the SEO specialist marketer are numbered"....well that's half of the twitterverse on the jam roll then.

    Agree though, really good piece.

  9. So I need some content written, it needs to say 'travel company' 42 times, be 500 words long and I'll pay £5.42. Oh, and it needs to go 'viral'.
    Any takers? ;)

  10. If you suggest that SEOs should make content sematically correct, manage navigation on site and come up with strategies for encouraging better linking from partners, they are a tech-led job and they will still be well served by knowing the ins and outs of Google.

    If you suggest they should be head of content strategy and curation, then it's a different kind of hat and a different skillset.

    Too often one head tries to wear both caps, and does neither well. So you end up with a separate CMS system to curate relatively cheap (and poor) content and link it back to the main site.

    That's what I keep seeing anyway.

  11. Great post Jeremy, and a good discussion as well.

    My perspective on this is that we've just had 5-10 years of writers being required to think like SEOs. Now we risk entering a period of SEOs needing to think like writers and content creators. Not much fun for writers'/content creators and not much fun for SEOs.

    Maybe everybody could be cut a break. Would it not be possible for SEO specialists to slightly recalibrate their responsibilities to focus purely on the technical aspects of digital optimisation (on- and off-site)? This way, there would be no need to worry about becoming content creators or PR people to get links. And similarly, couldn't writers and content creators simply create the content that the SEO people then help optimise?

    It would actually entail a much smaller shift in an organisation's internal and budgetary structure than removing the SEO person completely. And it would remove the main problem in all of this - the existence of one lead discipline (usually SEO) that the other gets shoehorned into.

    Perhaps this is too simplistic and idealistic, but I'd be interested to hear what other people think about this 'third way'.

    1. Hi Simon
      Good perspective. I think the writers (people like me) are a tad frustrated though. As per my description of the panel responses at the event. The SEO guys still wanted to sound like they knew it all, but wouldn't for a moment consider paying for content. Lots of worthy commentary to the audience (who in theory were bloggers) about how you need to find a niche and 'be real' - coupled with the impression that they still wanted to try and get content for free from somewhere. I do think content creators have a right to feel a bit cheesed off with this. I do think SEOs need to accept that their happy days in the sun making hay are over.

      I think what you propose is though a pragmatic approach - that's how it should work. But from an agency perspective if you are stuck with a client asking you to 'get me to position #' or 'get me ### links' because they 'think' they know what SEO is all about, you're in a difficult no man's land. Hence my - admittedly a little aggressive - title.
      I don't know that I'd remove the SEO person really - I'd change their KPIs and if they hadn't done one already I'd send them on a much broader direct marketing course.
      Ultimately the web should be about people rather than algorithms. And I genuinely worry that at the moment the balance is wrong all over the place.

  12. I worked for a travel company doing SEO and at the time they really didn't understand the concept: " SEO is just one of a number of tools in your marketing tool box and you need to use the whole lot of them."

    I think companies are starting to wise up these days.

  13. Sorry, but you missed a key point, that is only getting 'worse' as more and more sites hop onto the Web with the hope of making $ (it's insane what is going on in the 'Travel Writing' field, for example)... that is, that Google itself is primarily focused on making money.

    No, focusing on good writing/content production will get you next to nowhere without some very good SEO... luck? No, wrong again. SEO bullshit for what it is... whatever Google happens to play privy to in their current algorithm scheme. Sorry, it is the reality.

    Yes, you HAVE to have decent content for the most part (spam bots, content aggregators of others content, link farms are being screened out finally) but that DOES NOT guarantee, or even give the slightest edge in some cases, of success online.

    Look at the reality, see what ranks high is Google serps. Yes there are some here who have commented and do well, do great work but that is NOT the norm. I could give you a zillion examples of complete crap that ranks high, simply because:

    1. they got lucky, started years back and have been basically given exemption from many of the metrics that Google has used to kill newer sites (tons of examples there).

    2. they play to Google, kiss ass to Google (whether Google realizes it or not and is kissing back) via SEO tricks, buy adwords (yes, that gives preference in the SERPS even if you have shit content), use adsense, etc. etc. ad naseum.

    Good content is what us writer's want to think will give some measure of success/be rewarded but that is wishful thinking.

    At the moment, until BING or some other Web/seach engine cataclysm occurs, whatever the F' Google rewards will be what gives higher ranking, more visitors to a site, the appearance of 'good SEO'.

    1. Love the article Jeremy, and yes, I agree with you and the author completely - SEO's don't really care about content, as long as it somehow, someway is pandering to what Google wants, and they are all continually guessing what that is with writers thrown in the middle for better or worse.

      "Content Marketing" - lovely term from the article, no? Too bad it doesn't mean anything close to 'content of value', and yes, that is depressing.

      Not to be a downer but it's really the reality. You can hope and pray that hard work and diligence and providing info your intended audience will like or love is what is going to make you a success on the Web but the reality is it just ain't so. At least now, sigh.

  14. Should add quickly my viewpoint isn't meant to discount the importance of, or bash in any way, SEO professionals - many who are highly technically skilled with IQs equal to top Google engineers and do much great work.

    It's Google that is the problem, and the reality that they are a monopoly focused on making money and currently control (is it over 70 percent I think) what is read/valued on the Web, which is not necessarily information of value.

    1. I agree Molly. I've been doing a lot of research on travel websites over the last few months after the growth rate on my own site(s)stagnated. The fact is that every single "Mom & Pop" travel website I researched has suffered as a result of Panda/Penguin. They all had great content, hand-crafted by people that actually knew the destination and they mostly have been losing ground to Big Box sites like Tripadvisor, guidebook forums, Wiki this & that and big companies with heavy-duty offline reputations. The only exception I found is, unhappily, one of my competitors who has been online longer than any entity in this destination. The site is small; the content is OK. Content is not King, SEO does matter but it's simply gotten much trickier to implement.

      1. Hi Jeanne

        I think the observation that you are noting amongst all the websites that you conducted research on is still as a result of SEO though.

        Since SEO was conceived practitioners have been using directories as a basis for link building. Masses of thin-content directories (most of them clones) have cropped up and in one swift stroke Google Panda identified them de-indexed all of them.

        This has led to a huge movement in search engine ranking visibility and traffic from search across the entire web.

        Things are starting to settle down, but I'm afraid old school (cheap/tactical) SEO was probably in part responsible for this.

        As I said previously I think there's always space for SEO - maybe more at the consultancy level than the on-going link building level - but if we don't hold greater value in the content that is needed to succeed we won't get very far.

        1. Hi Tim,
          De-indexing directories (actually Penguin, not Panda) certainly hurt some people but the sites I've been following were, for the most part, not agressive link builders. They were all agressive content builders though with hundreds, if not thousands of pages of content. Good content too if not a bit keyword-driven. But every one of the sites that lost out were sites you would be happy to use for trip planning. There's a place for SEO, no doubt about it, but you have to be very, very good at it. No SEO and you get killed; amateur SEO and you can also get killed or at least wounded and gasping.

      2. Hi Jeanne, the bottom line is Google is going to put on top what Google wants, and more and more it has little to do with content (regardless of that the promo PR coming from within their ranks tells you - not that it all isn't true, Panda did have a PART goal of eliminating poor/shallow content, I'm not familiar enough with Penguin to comment) but simply to do with what is making Google money now, or what will make Google money in the future.

        Nothing wrong with that per se, and they do excellent work in many ways -- could you imagine having the chore of parsing out crap vs. substance on the Web, and developing the programming to accomplish that goal? yikes, no? -- but many don't understand the game, understand the intricacies of the technical manipulation going on. That's my two cents.

        I have quite a lot to learn as well, so my opinion may be complete crap, just happens to be what my experience and body of knowledge up to this point brings me to acknowledge. Happy to work on my site, love travel writing, monetizing the best I can.

        Cheers :)

  15. Great post Jeremy,

    Made me think of Rand Fishkin's "F%$#! Link Building - Content Marketing FTW" presentation from Link Love.

    Exciting times for marketers of all shapes and sizes.

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