The greatest cliche in digital marketing

“SEO is not an exact science.”

Those exact words appear 78,400 times online.

And like most cliches, it exists for good reason. Even if there was a time where a Google engineer could have told you the secret sauce, there is now so much machine learning involved that nobody could definitely state that A+B=C. Not only are things constantly evolving, but even at one singular moment in time every search vertical will be behaving that little bit differently.

We tend to focus on what this fuzziness means in terms of elevating your SEO, but the lack of clarity also applies to the things that can damage it. Of course there are certain broad principles that the SEO world is in agreement over – avoidance of spammy links, thin or duplicate content, aggressive anchor text – but alongside this short list of things to definitely avoid, there is a much longer list of things (I think) you should probably avoid, even in the absence of any concrete proof.

The question I would encourage you to ask is this – if you were head of the Google search team, would you consider X a good thing or a bad thing for this particular market?

That may not sound like a particularly robust approach – it isn’t – but frankly it’s all that we have. And the smarter that Google becomes, the more important this question will become.

Let me illustrate with some examples:

Speculative problem 1 – An imbalance of landing pages to other content

Some websites, such as ecommerce websites, naturally contain lots of high converting sales pages in the form of category, sub category and product pages. That’s just the way it is and it would seem absurd for any ecommerce site to be punished for that.

However, for a professional service website of say, a law or accounting firm, it would seem rather peculiar if 95% of the pages all corresponded to high traffic search terms. In that situation, Google’s machines might reasonably conclude that the website was being developed primarily for SEO purposes and with little interest in adding value to either the user or the broader internet.

I would therefore suggest, even though I have no specific evidence of its importance, that websites in these sorts of markets maintain a healthy ratio of broader engagement content to landing page content – at least of 1:1.

Speculative problem 2 – A sudden surge of internal and external links to a new landing page

Naturally, when we create a new landing page, we want it to index quickly and inherit lots of authority from relevant internal pages and, if possible, an external domain or two. However, I would suggest this is another area where we may need to tread carefully.

If I was that head of the Google search team, this is going to get my spam radar tingling with excitement. Let’s remember, the purpose of these signals are not to help you or I rank, but to produce better results for the user. Me picking up a bunch of internal links from half a dozen relevant pages then getting my mate to throw me a link from her site is hardly likely to correlate with improved user experience. Sure, if this was a news page then it may all make sense as it could represent a great piece of PR that people, including myself via internal pages, wish to link to, but if it’s some deep landing page that correlates to a competitive search query… that’s going to look mighty suspicious!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t pick up these links. But maybe, as with the landing pages, it would pay to think about how you might add other links to non landing pages to achieve a more natural distribution?

Speculative problem 3 – Using the same landing page template

There’s nothing wrong with consistency, and when creating landing pages there are likely going to be certain key messages / value propositions / sources of credibility that are shared across all of them. Likewise, there will probably be a consistent way you choose to format that content.

However, if you’re not careful, these pages can end up being comprised of not only the same code, but also much of the same copy and other rich media, such as a glowing video testimonial you choose to use on every sales page. It may be entirely legitimate in your mind, but from the point of view of Google what we’ve created is a textbook target for the old panda penalty, which has long been built into their standard algorithm.

With each of these points, I’m not suggesting you avoid these practices as they are all fundamental to SEO, but my point is that it pays to put yourself in the shoes of Google and consider how things may look given what their machines know about your market.

It may be far from an exact science, but the closer Google’s algorithm comes to reflecting the human brain, the more we stand to gain from approaching SEO with a very human mindset.