One-Trick Ponies Don’t Win the Race

You know who I mean… those folks that learned a technique a long time ago and seem stuck on using it over and over, ad nauseum. It may have been 6 months ago or 10 years ago – and it may even have worked wonders the first time they tried it. But that was then. And it seems to be the only tool they have in their box.

The question isn’t really just one of “does it still work”, either. Let’s just assume it isn’t the sort of thing that’ll either be a waste of time or will get a client in trouble. Just for the sake of argument, we’ll say it still works.

The real question should be “will it still work the way it used to”. And regardless of which technique we’re talking about, as well as how long ago it was first used, the answer is “almost assuredly not”. Why wouldn’t it, you ask?

one-trick ponies are like bread and water

Like bread and water? It might get old!

Why it’s not the same

Because search doesn’t work the same way it did. Even in just 6 months, the search algorithms have evolved – they’re barely recognizable from 10 years ago. They may still take pretty much the same things into consideration, but the weighting of those factors has shifted. Some things have taken on less or more importance, and some things have been diluted in importance simply because of the addition of new factors.

Google is focusing on many more criteria today than it did 10 years ago (or 5, or even 2). To complicate things more, some things that just weren’t that critical 10 years ago are now considered very important. Like a site being mobile-friendly, for instance. Whatever weight Google decides to put on whether a site renders well for mobile users had to come from somewhere. Some factor or factors had to carry less weight, in order to assign some importance to mobile operability.

And that shift to mobile had a lot of peripheral effects. Page-load speed, file size and image resolution are just a few… there’s a host of things that come into play, regardless of how you decide to approach a solution. Responsive, adaptive, mobile-first… they all call for doing some things differently.

Some of the things we need to do today were of minimal impact back in the day, but are critical now. Other aspects that were considered extremely important at one time are now thought to be insignificant or of minor impact.

No factor (or keyword) is an island

Perhaps even more important than the changes in weighting of some factors is the interweaving of those factors. Google has worked for years to consider a variety of factors in determining how to rank a page in the SERPs for a given query – that’s no surprise. But the number of factors has increased dramatically, as has their interdependence. Very few factors can have as much impact on their own as was once possible. They’re now each seen as more of a contributory factor, in combination with others, to an extent we never saw before.

There was a time when the placement of key terms on the page was considered to be independent of any other factors (although a good argument could be made that this was never entirely true). Today, though, placement of key terms is much less critical. As semantic capability is gradually introduced, the algorithms are now more able to determine the dominant context of a page, sometimes even in the absence of the specific keyword, so placement is largely irrelevant. That’s not to say that having a KW in the H1 or H2 heading isn’t advantageous…. just that it isn’t absolutely necessary.

So when we see someone stuffing their meta keywords with Centrelink Sydney, Centrelink Adelaide, Centrelink Melbourne, etc., we’re probably seeing a one-trick pony at work (not to mention a throwback). But more importantly, we see someone that’s missing the boat on considering how a lot of factors work in concert to establish relevance and authority of a page. To expect them to understand a concept like entities is just a pipe-dream.

Even keyword research has had to evolve… it’s no longer enough to know how many searchers per month are Googling payday loans. Now we need to understand the nature of their query. Would it be classified as informational? Transactional? Navigational? Are they searching from a desktop or a phone? Does their search history reflect previous searches for payday loans that would point toward one of those classifications over the others?

Obviously, we can’t answer all those questions, but we can certainly learn more than just how many searches per month. And with a whit of creativity, we can learn even more once they arrive on our site. That knowledge can help us develop a more effective conversion funnel. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, right?

So although the primary difference is one of depth, not concept, I don’t consider keyword research to be sufficient these days. “Query research” seems more in line with what I want. I need not only the query term, I need the context of the search.

Explaining this to the client

It’s not easy explaining this to clients – particularly those who’ve been reading for years about the importance of things like meta keywords, having the main keyword in the first and last sentence and achieving a particular keyword density. First, we have to help them unlearn the garbage, then help them to understand how search works today. If we’re very, very lucky, we may even be able to get them to understand how search may work a year or three down the road.

Of course, the first step is to understand all that ourselves.

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Doc Sheldon

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