Our special guest for episode 333 of the award-winning EDGE of the Web podcast was SEO expert Bruce Clay of Bruce Clay Inc. Host Erin Sparks spoke with Bruce about how he got into SEO back in the day, how search has changed over the years, and the recent claims by the Wall Street Journal that Google is manipulating people’s search engine results. Here’s what we learned:
Bruce Clay: His Background and Experience
Bruce Clay is the Founder and President of Bruce Clay Inc., a global search marketing optimization firm providing SEO, PPC, social media marketing, content creation, SEO tools, and education. The company has locations all over the world, including the USA, Australia, Japan, India, Switzerland, and Dubai.
Bruce is known as the father of SEO. He speaks at leading industry conferences. He has spoken over 300 times at these conferences and conducts a lot of training courses for students worldwide. He’s been featured in various publications as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, PC Week, and many more.
He actually got started in SEO all the way back in January 1996, which he jokingly notes is when Al Gore invented the internet, and several years before Google got started. At the time, Bruce was interested in starting some kind of consulting business, and this brand-new thing called the internet seemed promising. His undergraduate areas of study were math and computer science, and his graduate degree was in marketing, so it was a good fit. He was optimizing for the first search engines – AltaVista, Excite, and InfoSeek (Yahoo was only a directory back then). Because he built his own website for his consulting business and optimized it, people found him and it grew very quickly. But as a field, SEO was horribly primitive compared to what it is today. Back then it was so easy to rank #1 with very little effort.
Fast-forward a decade and it started to become apparent that there were tons of SEOs selling their services, but only a tiny fraction of them really knew what they were doing. Very few could be considered experts or senior staff. Bruce figured the best way to stay competitive as an SEO consulting agency would be to make sure every SEO on his staff were experts with at least 10 years of experience. The average at his firm today is 16+ years of experience. This allowed his firm to cater to larger clients. But the larger firms had their own in-house SEO teams and weren’t motivated to hire an agency. Or their team failed to get results and then hires the agency, which is a tricky position to be in since a bunch of people are going to resent your agency for being brought in to fix what they did. This is why for most of Bruce’s new clients, his is their third or fourth agency because of failing to get results.
How Searching the Internet has Improved Over Time
Think about how we used to search the internet. It used to be that somebody would put in a query and they would actually scroll down as many as five pages, and if they didn’t find what they wanted, they switched to a different search engine because they believed they knew what they wanted and the search engine just didn’t have the answer.
In today’s world, people will do a search, and if the top of the page, above the fold, in the Google search results does not address their particular query, they actually change the query. For example, Bruce had a client who ranked #1 for any search on the word “cars.” But then they dropped to #2 and all their traffic evaporated. Can you guess why? Because suddenly the entire top of the page was all about a Walt Disney movie – Cars. Anyone not searching for the movie had to take a different approach with their query.
Google has made some huge changes over the years that greatly affect search. One is that a query deserves diversity. It used to be if you searched for something, Google would take the most likely answer and give that to you. But in some cases, there are too many answers. For instance, where Bruce lives in California if you search for “hammer,” the number one result is the Armand Hammer Art Museum, number two is a vitamin, and number three is MC Hammer. Many might say none of those qualify as a “hammer,” but that’s all relative to the person doing the search. In Google’s world, there are too many hammers. Pianos have hammers. Guns have hammers. So diversity is their response. Google gives you a little bit of everything and that has totally changed from the early days when whatever had the most keywords won.
The second big change was RankBrain. It attempts to figure out what the intent of the query is, whether it is transactional like shopping or informational or even navigational (how do I find…). People who used to rank very, very well for a particular keyword, but they were a shopping site, suddenly vanished. And they didn’t vanish because their SEO was worse, they vanished because Google thought the intent of that head term was informational. So the transactional site got pushed down.
But what remains a challenge is how much of all this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If RankBrain thinks everybody wants information sites, so they present information sites, by definition everybody wants information sites because that’s all you can click on. So there is an issue where ultimately the search engine isn’t going to be able to represent the fringe. Some of the sites that actually might appeal to that query, it’s possible they will never appear in the results. And that is a particular problem Bruce thinks we have to pay attention to.
The Wall Street Journal Accuses Google of Manipulating Search Results
There was a long article (23 pages) in the Wall Street Journal on November 15 by Kristin Grind, Sam Schechner, Robert McMillan, and John West called How Google Interferes with Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results, with a sub-headline of “The internet giant uses blacklists, algorithm tweaks and an army of contractors to shape what you see.” The consensus in the SEO community, for the most part, is it is a shockingly, embarrassingly poorly-researched article. The writers clearly don’t understand many of the basics of how to search and SEO work.
Bruce’s take on this article is simple: News sources look for some form of sensationalism in and of itself. There are a lot of ways you can spin any number of things, and this article spun them a certain way to poke Google. Here’s how spin works: Bob and Fred run a race. Fred wins and Bob loses. But Bob could say “I came in second, and Fred came in next-to-last.” Spinning it in this way sure makes it seem like Bob beat Fred, but he didn’t.
Bruce went on to say that in the case of this article and its claims, Google having an army of quality reviewers that have as their core mission to improve the overall quality of search results is nowhere near a black hat action, which is how the article spins it.
There’s a large infrastructure required in order to improve quality. Trust of quality is the number one battle throughout Google today. But for the last year-and-a-half, Google has finally been able to figure out with artificial intelligence whether sentiment is positive or negative, whether people actually are supportive of you or whether they hate you. Up until the last year, August of last year, Google hasn’t had the power to do that. Now they’re getting it debugged. Bruce is expecting what will be seen is a great amount of leap forward in presenting proper results.
It seems like a lot of companies want to cry foul just because their traffic dropped. But that doesn’t mean Google did anything wrong or underhanded. They’re trying to improve search results so users will trust them. Take the example of BMW – they were caught red-handed doing shameless keyword stuffing, so Google removed them from their index. But they were very quickly reinstated because from Google’s perspective it’s not a good user experience if you search for a specific brand like BMW and don’t get any results. Google takes manual actions when it feels it is warranted. Otherwise, it lets the algorithm do the work. Just keep in mind that Google’s enterprise is an evolving piece of software and their end goal is get users to trust their results so much that they will also click on an ad. And Google isn’t going to favor anyone if it would result in alienating another huge portion of users and revenue.
As an industry, SEO is actually extending itself into actually helping build something that is actually reputable and has expert information and other authorities in the field agree and everyone can be proud of it. If all you do is build a website and expect to make money, then you’re going to lose.
Google is struggling, as any very large company would, with very, very large teams all contributing pieces to an algorithm that is highly complex from the standpoint of just the data elements. Then you have to layer on top of it the biases by location, you have to understand whether or not the intent is this or the intent is that. There are a trillion keywords. It is entirely possible that there are a trillion algorithms because every intent is different, every location is different. Web history totally changes it because one person’s web history is different from yours. Every keyword one person queries is a different keyword from everybody else on the planet. That’s how many algorithms there are.
What the Wall Street Journal reporters obviously failed to do was talk to any real SEOs for the article. They could have gone to the WSJ’s own SEO team and they would have had serious problems with the article and how it portrayed what Google does. And it’s sad because now the politicians who are creating legislation for big tech companies like Google are being informed by this article, which makes Google out to be evil. Google is not evil. It’s doing the best it can to deliver the highest quality of search results as possible to users (and make a boatload of money doing it). Do Google properties rank well on Google? Yes, not because Google treats them differently but because everyone clicks on Google properties! If you don’t want Google to rank well, stop clicking on it!
What Bugs Bruce Clay About SEO
What really bugs Bruce about SEO right now is the degree to which it’s treated like a commodity, or like a one-and-done affair. There are those who just want to press the “easy” button and rank number one. There is no easy button, especially as Google continues to change its algorithms constantly. The complexity of successful SEO is very much underappreciated. And then there are the people who will say “SEO? Yes, we did that. It’s done.” But the reality is that it’s never done. It’s ongoing. Bruce’s favorite saying about this: “SEO is done when Google stops changing things and all your competition dies.” In other words, never.
What Bruce Clay Loves About SEO
What Bruce loves about the industry and his work is how it is like the ultimate real-time business simulation game. He makes changes to your website, and if he messes up, you could be out of business. He is competing against your competition using your website, using your expertise, to help win in a very, very competitive sport. He makes a change, there’s an impact. They make a change, there’s an impact. That is a highly competitive, never-ending, 24/7 game, and it is probably one of the most exciting things anybody could ever get into.
The Bruce Clay WordPress Plugin
For every SEO in the world there are 50-100 writers. And those writers are creating 54 million pieces of content every month. There is no way SEOs can keep up with that volume. The Bruce Clay SEO WordPress Plugin is a tool for writers to build good SEO into their content as they’re writing it, as opposed to writing the content and then turning it over to some team who can hopefully tweak it for SEO without doing too much damage.
Connect with Bruce Clay
Twitter: @BruceClayInc (https://twitter.com/BruceClayInc)
Facebook: @BruceClayInc (https://www.facebook.com/BruceClayInc)
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