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Are you Banking on your Ranking? How Today’s SEO research can be misleading

As has been established in numerous videos and blog posts, SEO is one of my favorite tasks here at Adster, and one of my more challenging (and super fun) projects at the moment is quarterbacking the ongoing SEO for our own website.

While SEO for our clients can at times be challenging, the simple fact of the matter is that for a great many ‘lucky’ local businesses, SEO simply means adhering to best practices / user friendly  website design, constructing proper meta and microdata information, and ensuring that the business is listed somewhat consistently in a handful of appropriate citational sources.

When SEO’ing against fellow SEO’ers however, the playing field is definitely leveled. No self respecting Online Marketing Company is ranking by ‘accident’, which means that our fellow agencies are using any number of different strategies (with varying degrees of success) to ‘be’ where they ‘are’.

Naturally, the cornerstone of any mid to large scope SEO project begins with detailed research, and in the case of Adster – that means digging under the hood of many of our competitors, both locally, regionally, nationally…and across the universe!

The results, to put it mildly – have been both shocking and fascinating:

Ranking Scenario #1 – The “Squeaky Clean, totally legit, nod head with approval” guys.

white hat seoThe guys I love to hate. These are the companies that have some sort of truly stand out product or service, and garner those juicy editorial mentions in a wide variety of respected SEO and technical publications. They are active in the online marketing sphere, and their ‘guest’ posts and author profiles show up in all the right places.

Yes, they’re active in their communities both on and offline, and belong to all the right geographical and niche specific organizations.

Finally, Their own site is blossoming with blog posts, news updates, and complete transparency in what they do – and in their own commitment to training and ongoing education.

Summation and Future Prediction: Ultimately, these guys have done it the hard (right) way, and have every bit earned their good rankings that no doubt took several years to achieve. I would expect these guys to stay where they are rankings wise, provided they stay the course.

Ranking Scenario #2 – The “Terribly Clever, bend but not break, eye wink finger gun” guys.

Grey hat SEOBy far the most interesting to research. These are the guys with a very clear understanding of the rules, and recognize that ‘gray’ contains a thousand shades.

Their websites are generally somewhat recent in terms of content and vary in transparency, but their backlink profile is the most telling.

Typically, I’m finding a mixture of ‘legitimate’ links , and those clearly intended to sculpt rankings. Some are quite obvious in how they’ve gone about this ‘sculpting’, while spending time dissecting others showcases techniques and concepts that are downright brilliant.

Summation and Future Prediction: All in all, these guys have achieved their positions through a balance of legitimacy and trickery, and their continued good rankings will be depend on how well they can adapt to the rapidly changing SEO landscape.

Ranking Scenario #3 – The “How the *$&# are you guys still ranking, waiting for Armageddon” guys.

Black Hat SEOThe ‘easy to spot a mile away’ if you know what to looks for fellows. Forget their websites, the dead giveaway here is a quick glance at their backlink portfolio – which will typically consist of nothing but horrifically spammy blog comments, incomprehensible articles, and ‘directories’ whose sole purpose is to devalue the internet as a whole.

Tragically, these techniques and styles of SEO slipped through the cracks for many years, and if done properly worked like a charm. So is the case here.

These companies seem to be caught in some sort of ‘grandfathered’ system of ranking, where the penalties leveled against their ‘style’ of SEO hasn’t affected them as directly. Google continues to reward these companies (for now), even though they are quite openly breaking the rules.

Summation and Future Prediction: I give ’em 6 months, tops.

Enter Confusion

As you may be able to tell by now, many of the top ranking competitors in the SEO / Online Marketing space are there because of what ‘had’ worked, not because of what ‘does’ work, and certainly not what ‘WILL’ work moving into the future.

If your business operates in a competitive space online, the scenario(s) above regarding competition are likely very true for you as well.

But how can you tell who’s who? How they got there? And perhaps most importantly – how to get there TODAY?

This is the Million Dollar question, and where researching (and mimicking) the WRONG high ranking website’s strategy could get you into a whole lot of hot water.

Experience is Key.

The longer I do SEO, the more I realize that it’s becoming less and less about technical factors, and more about what makes ‘sense’ – seeing beyond the obvious – as the search engines become increasingly sophisticated and more socially biased. As accountable SEO’ers, we need to be thinking about what the Search Engines are trying to achieve down the stretch, not simply what is the ‘technique du jour’.

Though it may sound like the biggest cliché in the book:

Now more than ever, experience is everything when it comes to SEO.

So, dear reader, before you consider handing over your business’s online future to any old high ranking SEO agency near or abroad, I’ve prepared a list of questions to ask below – some of which are intentionally (mis)leading:

Do you intend to use the same strategies you used to rank your own company to rank ours?

What are your thoughts on directory submissions, blog comments, and article directories?

Do you use Precise Keyword Density when optimizing on page?

What is your present view on the usage of ‘Anchor text’?

How current is the last content item added to your own website?

How will you use website Analytics to improve my website’s Rankings?

What is your opinion of the Influence of Social Media in Search?

Who on your team heads up SEO research, training. and ongoing learning?

I know how I’d answer them.

But  I’d really love to hear how some of the companies I’ve been researching would.

That is, if they’re around in 6 months.