Say SEO then you say: higher in Google! Everyone who starts working with SEO, does so with the desire to be higher in Google on a number of important top keywords with high search volume. Logical right? Yes, very logical, but what do you do if it does not work? What if you have been working for weeks or months to get to position 1 for that one search term? What if you have spent hours optimizing a page for that one keyword and fixed a lot of links? How do you explain to your manager or your client that you are still somewhere around position 5 or 6 or maybe even dropped a spot? Probably you’re at the end of your rope, maybe frustrated but still combative, or maybe you’re considering just throwing in the towel. Is it up to you?
No, it is not you
First, let me start by reassuring you, because it is -in my opinion- probably not you. I’ll believe you right away when you say that you’ve done everything the SEO books say you should do: keyword research, creating and optimizing pages, creating internal links to important pages and chasing external links. Since that last one may not have worked out well, you may have bought some links here and there in the form of blog posting or something else. You probably had to make some concessions on technology because the IT capacity is very limited. So you have to deal with a slightly slower website, a website that scores lower on Page Speed Insights or a CMS in which you can’t adjust everything nicely (e.g. hreflangs and canonicals). But otherwise you’ve really worked hard to reach those top positions.
And yet you’re still not ranking #1 in SEO
But despite all your hard work, you’re not at 1 on those few important keywords, maybe you’ve even dropped a few positions. How can that be with everything you’ve done? You did exactly what all those books, trainings and courses say, right? Some online courses promise you fantastic results in 10 days…. If it’s so easy, how are you going to explain to management that you haven’t succeeded?
SEO is not a trick
It’s perhaps my biggest irritation: that SEO is talked about as if it’s a trick. That if you do x, y and z you will automatically be in position 1 in Google within 10 days. It is pure b*llshit, nonsense and nonsense. It is an illusion to think you are the only one who is busy ranking for that one keyword. There are a lot of factors at play that are beyond your control but that do bother you.
Complicating factor 1: everyone does the same within SEO
First it is good to be aware that you’re not the only one in your market who is busy with SEO. Depending on your market you can say ‘many websites are doing SEO’ to ‘everyone in the market is doing SEO’. Everyone has read the same SEO books and blogs and everyone is doing the same as you: finding the same keywords in the same keyword tools, creating more or less the same content, internal links and chasing external links from (probably) the same websites to get to 1 on that one keyword. If you think you can get to #1 on that one keyword by completing some simple roadmaps, then I believe you are thinking too lightly. If there are only 10 parties competing for visibility on that one keyword, the chances are 1 in 10 that you will be number 1.
Complicating factor 2: the big players determine the game
Because we are all doing the same thing, the big players per market determine the game; these can be very strong niche players or big generalists. Are you a smaller player in a competitive market with 5-6 big players? Then you’ll have a very tough time. Probably the battle for the top positions is an endless rat race between the strong players. They are always trying to outdo each other to gain more online authority than the other. It may be that they manage to earn a lot of links in a creative way, it may be that they are very creative in another way to acquire fewer natural links. If you are a big player in this market yourself then you might agree that you are indeed putting your best foot forward daily to stay ahead of the competition.
I often think of DIY markets where players like Gamma, Hornbach, Praxis and some niche bathroom parties are active. But I also don’t envy the owner of a smaller shoe chain who has to compete with Omoda, Zalando and Wehkamp, not to mention the local clothing boutiques. And what about the electronics industry? The optics world? The furniture and craft stores? The question is to what extent achieving good positions in SEO is still feasible for small players or whether they can better focus on another form of (free) online marketing (pinterest, spotify podcasts, build your own fan base in Instagram etc).
Indeed, assume that the big player will always win from you when it comes to non-branded keywords with a lot of search volume. The rankings for these keywords are in fact the result of your authority and relevance. You can partly control your rankings with on-site optimization, while another part depends on your link profile. On-site optimization is the least exciting part: usually everyone can optimize on-site until they’re blue in the face. The disadvantage: your competitor can do it too. On-site optimization alone (your content, technology and site structure) is not enough. To rank higher on top terms in competitive markets you need something else: an insanely strong link profile but that is not easy to achieve.
Complicating factor 3: a good link profile is not easy
Building a valuable link profile is anything but easy. An example: I’ve written quite a few blogs by now, created podcasts, interviewed in podcasts and it’s gotten me very few links. Websites write about my strange vision of SEO but don’t link to my website. Why not? Because many websites don’t want to link outbound because they’re afraid of sending traffic away or they don’t want to do it for free. The only links I have at the moment are links from Marketingfacts, Frankwatching and Mediaweb because I have published there. Are those valuable links? Mwah. These platforms link to anyone who publishes for them. So they may be platforms with authority, but because they link to everyone it hardly distinguishes my link profile from the rest. Hopefully this will change one day if I keep investing in my story and my reach: hard work, good content, networking and luck.
In the end, links are extremely important, but obtaining them is anything but simple. Because it is so difficult, many companies fall back on buying links through link networks or through blog posting. Whether these types of links are relevant could be debated for entire evenings. Assume that if you have to compete with Omoda, Coolblue or Wehkamp and you are not a party of this caliber, you will lose from them on those top keywords with high search volume. If you are such a party, you will have to join the daily rat race for the best links.
You can do link building until you drop and in the most favorable case it will help a little bit. But if you constantly have to beg and plead for links, don’t you ask yourself what you are doing wrong? Why does a Coolblue have shitloads of good links? The answer: because (perhaps in addition to link building) they do a lot of things just really well. They make cool content and cool videos. They make April 1 jokes, invite Sinterklaas in their funny videos and have an incredibly fine brand image. Coolblue seems to be our national darling: we like everything they do and we cover it in all media, complete with a link.
Just like Coolblue there are many parties that have their marketing and communications in a slightly better order and therefore consistently earn links very easily. Brands with great campaigns on radio or TV. Or they do an interesting study, send out a PR message and have another 20 good links. Or they have huge budgets for “natural link building”. If you have to compete against such large parties, can you really beat them? Isn’t it a kind of David against Goliath? God bless the try!
Sometimes the competitor just does everything better
Be aware that those big guys have a whole team sitting around (or have hired a top agency) to do the best things on a daily basis: map out the best searches, create the best and most content, create the best PR, chase the best links. Experience shows that big players often don’t get it right on the IT front but still get it right enough that they don’t suffer much.
Small player, can you play that game?
If you focus on a number of top terms or short tail keywords with a lot of search volume and a lot of competition and you are not a big player, then you must ask yourself whether you can really play this game. Because adding your keyword once extra to a title tag, in an h-tag or in your content just won’t get you there. There comes a time when you are done with your on-site optimizations and become dependent on your authority, the link profile. The more competitive a search term, the more important it becomes. Technology ensures that spiders can find your site, content ensures that your site can be matched to a search query but the link profile and the internal links to a page determine how high you rank. If you have to drag and drop links on a daily basis and still can’t compete with the top, then to me that is a sign that you are competing in a league that is out of your league.
Great players play a different league
This argument is emphatically not aimed at the big boys in every industry who dominate the market, because this rat race is their game, their daily bread. Compare it to FC Barcelona against PSG. They simply play a different league than most people who ‘play soccer’. So the question is: can you play Champions League (pursue SEO at the top) or is it better to play an ordinary game of soccer (see where you can win)?
Great players are constantly competing with each other. They constantly compete with each other and for that they pull out all the stops: creating huge amounts of content, chasing links and even buying up expired domains. Everything to constantly get the most authority. One week they are number 1, the next week number 2 and when they speed up they will hopefully be number 1 again the following week. And so the results fluctuate throughout the year. One week there is cake, the next week tissues.
SEO is not something you do on your own
It is a big misconception to think that someone can just “do the SEO”. You just do not have it on your own in the hand, you alone can not ensure that you rank higher in Google. You need a lot of manpower, budget and marketing power for that. And if you have little marketing power and manpower, budget is perhaps even more important to arrange good links. If you fall short in any of these areas, depending on the type of market in which you operate, you can actually immediately abandon the desire to rank as high as possible. I have therefore long since abandoned the desire to rank at number 1: I don’t like the struggle, I don’t like the game and I think it’s easier to be busy somewhere that fewer parties are focusing on.
A less crowded market
I personally believe that 80% of websites are playing a game in SEO that is out of their league. It’s fine to decide that you do want to play Champions League if you enjoy being constantly frustrated that you’re not getting higher in Google on that one term. You can also decide to play a different game: the game I call horizontal SEO.
Let the big boys fight for that number 1 position on that search term with the most search volume, because there is a lot out there that together might be even more interesting than that one top term. If you could become findable in width on many other relevant search terms (and there are infinitely many) you could easily and without competition bring in a lot of SEO traffic. But for that you need to play the game differently with a different strategy and tactics. And of course other KPIs because rankings do not have to be monitored.
In horizontal SEO you don’t do any keyword research into top terms, you don’t keep track of rankings, you don’t optimize like mad for a number of desired terms and you also don’t do any link building aimed at focus keywords. With horizontal SEO, you’re going to be findable in Google across the board. Think of search terms in the Think and Do phase of the Customer Journey of your customers. Depending on your business you can identify a lot of interesting search queries. Not through keyword research, but through customer research. And the advantage: this market with search queries in the See and Think phase often turns out to be a forgotten goldmine, precisely because everyone is always busy with top terms. For horizontal SEO, you often need fewer budgets, marketing power and resources.
Of course, also in horizontal SEO there will come a point in the markets where a good link profile will count, but it will be a while before we get there. As far as I’m concerned, horizontal SEO is the alternative for anyone who gets stuck and doesn’t get higher in Google on those top terms.Want to read more about this? In my e-book The End of SEO as We Always Used To Do It (currently only available in Dutch) you can read all about the changing SEO market and why I think the traditional form of SEO is not sustainable. In the e-guide to Horizontal SEO (Dutch only) you get practical tips to get started with horizontal SEO.