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SEO Homesteading 2016

Happy New Year to all you entrepreneuring SEOs. May 2016 treat you well. I hope you have the guts to execute on your instincts in the next 2 quarters.

Remember when SEO was about executing on tactics that had influence in the search algorithm, and that effort would be rewarded with organic search traffic?

Remember when things like links and anchor text and on-page content had real influence?

Welcome to 2016. Don’t tell your cubicle-minding professional Junior SEO, but that stuff is all (mostly) working again. If you have patience…. and execute well… and avoid the traps that the modern SEO world has set for you.

I know what you are thinking… WTF is he talking about! Links no longer deliver. Anchor text is done. And content needs to be either so outstanding or so comprehensive, that it doesn’t make economic sense to chase that pig around the barnyard any more.

Oh, and there is no longer any organic listing in the SERPs anyway, so GAME OVER for “traditional SEO”, right?

If you believe that then yes you are correct. None of it works anymore. Go home, and try some other career. Sorry you won’t be getting one of those sexy Search Awards. Maybe you can get a Government Grant or perhaps you can get into the next wave of healthcare insurance enrollments?

But the rest of you SEO entrepreneurs would be well advised to check your SEO tests. SEO works.

What Works and What Doesn’t

The key to SEO endeavors as we close out 2015 is to keep perspective. I think we have advanced a bit too far, while Google has regressed, and the clash is confusing the hell out of the amateurs, inbound marketers, and wanna-be non-technical SEOs.

I remember what it was like to study complex topics in Engineering school. At first, I was totally lost. Nothing made sense, and all the work in the world didn’t give me clarity. But after a ton of work and repetition, things started to come together.

Some of my classmates never got that far… they dropped the class at withdraw time, or waited to see their future foretold by midterm grades, before bailing late. The ones who stayed either “got it” and were keeping up, or were starting to “get it” and therefore confident.

None of it was easy, but one thing was certain : until you got yourself past a certain point, which not everyone could do, it was all very confusing!

Just like SEO today. It’s not easy to “get” SEO these days. The data, the signals, the cause-and-effect… it’s all hidden and obscured.

There are time delays built in to thwart efforts. There are sandboxes and thresholds in place to block you. In addition to competitive pressures, Google has built in over-optimization controls and Google throttles many factors that influence signals, which you also can’t access directly.

How can anyone understand all of this? SEO just doesn’t seem to work!

Selling Shovels to Miners was Easy. Try Selling Ice to Eskimos!

For the SEO consultants, what used to be as easy as selling shovels and blue jeans to gold miners is now more like trying to sell ice to Alaskans. The days of “say you’re an SEO and you are one” are gone. SEO takes real work now, and many easy-money consultants are giving up.

When was the last time YOU ran an anchor text test of your own? When was the last time you did a keyword content test of your own? When was the last time you honestly researched the SERPs to examine just how much organic opportunity there is, and how it is currently filled?

And what will you do when your tests work, but don’t work when implemented for a money site?

I’m betting you haven’t done all of your homework. Just like the Junior WannaBee SEO bloggers. Because if you have been doing the hard work, you should be seeing that these things work, and often work better than ever… if you can wait and tune.

For some semantic spaces, it can take 6-9 months OR MORE of execution before you are granted to resulting power and influence in the SERPs. Who has time to wait that long?

The secret in 2016 is not that you should be executing careful, professional, tactical SEO. The secret, if there is one, is that the system has changed so much that routine quick-glance analysis and careless SEO work no longer work, no matter how badly you want them to work.

And “traditional” SEO consulting models aren’t economically feasible. The key to SEO now is perspective.

Owning your SEO Efforts

When there is no room in an organic SERP, it is likely because of competition, not any death of SEO. When your anchor text isn’t influencing Google it’s likely because of the combination of HOW and WHERE you are doing that, in what context, and against what competition (and you should know I consider Google a primary competitor).

Google doesn’t want classic SEO to work, but has to let it work. So Google inhibits it, and makes it costly, and withholds the rewards as much as it can.

Every time Google consumes a SERP with its own properties or ads, it damages its search engine while protecting its advertising business.

Thin content? Why is it surprising that as we advance, with more accessible tools and cheaper, faster publishing technology, plus more and more competition on keywords and semantic spaces, the thresholds for content depth change? And why is it shocking to learn that…. when you strip away all the ad-tech crap in certain contexts, thin content actually ranks again?

Except for the times when thin content doesn’t get any traction. LOL.

Bottom line : as the money got harder to earn, the work to earn that money increased. Logical? Of course! Yet I am still seeing the same shallow SEO voices proclaiming that SEO doesn’t work. Huh?

Cheap-ass, lazy SEO doesn’t work. But it never should have worked anyway. It worked because there was a wide open frontier of free landscape available for the taking.

Homesteading after All the Good Land is Gone

At one point in the 1800’s our government was facing urban crisis and needed money. They recognized that there was gold hiding out west, as well as natural resources, and they also knew they needed to settle the “wild west” before anyone else did.

The Homestead Act declared that anyone could travel out west and stake out a piece of land as their own, provided they would work the land. Over the next 50 years vast tracks of frontier were claimed by US citizens, who created ranches, farms, mines, and took private ownership of nearly every square mile of the wild west.

Where I live in Seattle was only settled less than 150 years ago.

Isn’t this like Google’s web? If you view the semantic landscape monetized by Google’s advertising as the open plains of the great unsettled Western United States, you had your chance to claim keyword space in the first wave of SEO. It wasn’t a permanent claim, but we can consider the top ranking positions to be like a claim.

Later, can we say “long tail SEO” was akin to choosing smaller, sub-prime plots after the best land was already claimed?

Perhaps, at this point in 2015-2016, all the good land has been claimed. Now what?

Google Still Controls the Traffic

A few years ago when we realized Google had a virtual monopoly on search traffic, we were aghast. Yet, YEARS LATER, Google still controls that search landscape, via SERPs.

Unlike actual land, semantic keyword space can be re-allocated by the landlord (Google). But I think the land analogy stands up to the test of time.

We “SEO homesteaders” are tasked with working our claims, or we risk losing them. Fair or not, Google can also simply re-assigns claims as it wishes. But we SEO Homesteaders also have a benefit that didn’t exist with land Homesteading – Google never actually runs out of landscape to allocate.

Instead of the frontier closing due to “all the land is taken”, we SEOs get a competitive landscape with an increasing barrier to entry. There is always additional land, but it gets harder and harder to claim it, often with diminishing rewards.

The frontier is still open to all comers, but they need to do more work to get a claim.

Working the SEO Landscape

It is true that you can’t expect to move in and take 10% of the market for some money terms anymore with a low-cost pure SEO play. That land is already claimed. You CAN challenge that claim, but it will take a lot of work to accomplish that.

However, the similar analogy also applies to longer-tail keyword spaces where the competition is not as strong. The land is “all taken” but much of it can be re-taken. Well-executed SEO can jump those claims!

Just as the first generations of SEO discovered, you start out analyzing chaos and trying to learn, and having to test test test. But as you start to see the results, you start to “get it” and earn your rewards (achieve those claims).

The work doesn’t stop… you have to work the landscape to keep the claim, and that work continues to increase with competition.

It’s the same process all over again, just more expensive and harder… so you must consider carefully whether or not the rewards justify the efforts required.

Fortunately for the die hard SEO entrepreneurs, there is no real way to KNOW the potential rewards without investigating, so we enjoy an infinite game of strategic and tactical challenge, with risk and hopefully surprising rewards. I love SEO.

SEO is not Dead

SEO is not dead. SEO is the “same as it ever was” but the stakes are higher all around. To the strategic minded SEO entrepreneur, that suggests that the challenge is not in the SEO but the strategy, where business goals (rewards) get aligned with efforts.

As before, testing and execution provide you with the tools for SEO success, as long as you do the work to understand your landscape.

My best wishes for your 2016 is that you uncover opportunities that provide suitable rewards for your efforts. Unlock that achievement, and you can enjoy another full year of success as a hard-executing SEO.

Then….Think about What Happens Next

If you have read this far and are continuing as a hard-core SEO, the real fun comes when you ponder what happens NEXT. When the rest of the SEOs drop out, because it’s the wise thing to do, what happens to your claim?

And with Google as not just your strongest competitor but your primary competitor, how will your strategic business plan hold up?

For me, that’s the real fun. And I so much look forward to finding out what happens then!

The Future: This is Not your Father’s SEO

While everyone left and right of me is either not really doing much SEO or is deeply engaged in hard-core SEO, the middle ground is an active battle field. That middle ground… which I refer to as Competitive Publishing, involves smart, strategic deployment of publishing (using technology) to achieve business goals (specific to search and search marketing).

Under the Competitive Publishing scenario you :

  1. Decide to publish into a market as a way to achieve specific business goals
  2. Choose and implement technology to enable effective and efficient publishing into the corresponding search markets
  3. Execute for optimal results, which may include SEO tactics, content strategies, market shaping, etc etc.

While you do this, you are under constant pressure. Sometimes extreme, constant pressure.

Pressure from Direct Competitors : You’re not usually the only one chasing an opportunity, so you have to deal ith direct competitors as well as copy-cats. They can take the wind out of an opportunity very quickly, and sometimes shift the winds of opportunity in unpredictable ways.

Pressure from Indirect Competitors : Like it or not, Google is not your friend, but a competitor. In fact, just about every tech company out there wants the money you take out of the Internet ecosystem. If you are monetizing attention, you have indirect competitors that are also some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.

Pressure from Technology : Technology is constantly advancing, and the forces driving change these days are closely tied to effective monetization of Internet consumers. In other words, if something makes money, technology adapts to reduce the costs of executing that, at scale… while those arge tech companies also create platforms that foster a “race to the bottom”. You are forced to maintain older technology while upgrading to newer technology that is not clearly better for you — and may turn out to be bad for you (overly commoditized, or lacking differentiation needed for success along your business plan).

Pressure from Economic Systems : Every time I meet up with non-Internet people, I am reminded of how desparate everyone is for an economic opportunity. Savvy people always want to know where your money comes from, and how they can get some of it. They don’t want to go to school or get training or do an Internship. They want to execute as business people have always executed:  pay for a Realtor credential, pay a middleman for a “launch your own local town website” package, hire a designer to “build a WordPress site” so they can join an affiliate program, etc. And as the economy shifts to move the pressure around (real estate, student loans, day trading, vitamins, pre-paid legal programs, etc etc etc) those pressures impact your efforts, your markets, and your ability to execute (hire, sell, market, etc).

Pressure from Markets: Search markets themselves are quite dynamic, even after separating out the major economic pressures noted above. While many in the SEO Media seem to think search is search and Google’s algorithms are what matters, the truth is that Google is chasing markets just as much (if not more) than we SEOs are. I’ve hinted at this before… if you follow Google, you are following a big heavy truck down a steep hill. Pressures from shifting markets are very real, and those shifts can be quite fickle.

The Future of SEO is Different

Now, headed into the future, we see the big players working hard to lock up segments of the Internet marketplace, seemingly as a way to protect their interests before executing sub-plays into the portions of the market they are able to corral.

Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft… nearly all of the large consumer players are creating software tools and platforms that actually foster sub-Internets. Segments in the “walled garden” style, that are on the public Internet but published in ways that are not universally accessible.

I’m not referring to apps vs websites, but websites (including mobile experiences) that in the near future will be required to run on proprietary platforms that are likely to be publicized as “open source”, but are not, really.

We are 4-6 years away from Google specifying coding languages and “platforms” that enable Google to manage published content for search, discovery, and monetization. Google comes at this from the angle of search and advertising systems, which it has mastered. Webmasters will have to comply, in order to participate in Google.

Facebook is more obvious since it started as a closed system, but Facebook also developing new systems (including coding/development platforms) that will be public yet work best for Facebook, and will be required for publishers who want to participate. Again, from its existign perspective, approach the same goals.

Apples is also, from its own perspective, executing hard on this and other approaches to the same desire to segment the Internet into manageable segments. Apple already has commerce, OS, platforms, app stores, etc. from which is executes. Coming are development environments and tools to lock up some of the future — more than we’ve seen already.

Amazon has the underlying technology base and ecommerce, and is working hard to own things from the transaction outwards, eventually as far as discovery, to the extent it matters. Want to participate as a publisher? You will need to comply.

This is Not Your Dad’s SEO

The SEO of now and tomorrow is quite different from the SEO of yesterday. I think this fact is a major contributor to the failed SEO Media we have today. But I’m hopeful for a new SEO media tomorrow, focused on what actually matters to us.

The existing SEO Media will focus on segments that care about Google keyword research and Penguin updates… as you can see has already happened. That stuff is simply not relevant for true SEO any more… it only matters to a smaller subset of people…who remain passionate about it.

For the rest of us, things like the shift of WordPress from an open source code base to an API accessed via specific development tools (integral parts of practically dedicated development environments) is more important. Microsoft’s “open sourcing” of  dotNet and its new version of C# (known as M#), Facebook’s new “open source” tools that require very strong commitments from developers, are signs of what’s coming.

Have you noticed that browsers are no longer following “standards” for viewing web content? The very thing that enabled the world wide web… a standard interface to published content, has already fragmented along paths that lead to proprietary browsers and “systems” such as ChromeOS, iOS, FAcebook’s Apps… consumers may not be fully aware, but they are not all on the same Internet.

Your new Plan for Success in SEO:

Given these new systems and what they will bring in the next 2-6 years, all you need to do is:

  1. Decide to publish into a market as a way to achieve specific business goals
  2. Choose and implement technology to enable effective and efficient publishing into the corresponding search markets
  3. Execute for optimal results, which may include SEO tactics, content strategies, market shaping, etc etc.

Simple, right? All you need to do is read up on all the latest SEO blogs, press a button to install WordPress, and hire a bunch of low-cost content creators from overseas, to fill out your sites.

Or maybe it won’t be that simple. Sigh. I guess we will have to wait until Search Engine Land tells us what is working, or SEOMoz adds the new tools we need to make it work, or GreatSEMToolio shows us impressive data revealing the tactics all the winners and cool kids are doing to rank now.

Or maybe we just need to make good content that users want, and mark it up into classifyable bits that Google can harvest automatically. Whatever.

So tell me, “what do you do for a living, is there good money in it, and is it something I can do, too?”

Footnote: That is an actual quote from an interaction I had at the local yacht club. I was on the race committee boat preparing for the start of the last kid’s race of the season,  and we were chatting about a recent boat sale/purchase that was a great deal for the cash buyer. One of the men was also selling his 43′ keel boat, and he feared suffering a similar fate at the hands of cash buyers in a soft market. He was pressured to sell his boat since his last venture was over, and he didn’t have a new revenue stream. There are always two sides… liquidate something, and get somethign new going. Today, it seems you just cut to the chase – what do you do, and can I have some of that??

This picture is to reward Jon Henshaw for reading all the way to the bottom of this essay.

This picture is to reward Jon Henshaw for reading all the way to the bottom of this essay.

It’s Your Move, SEO

These days I really want to say “it’s your move!” to all the SEOs out there. It really is. Go for it.

The world has a search engine at that is filled with crap, sponsored listings, and placed listings. The algorithm is fooling around with new ideas, offering “how’s this? Anything good in here?” style search results, and it’s ok because, frankly, nobody cares. Most people are staying inside their favorite, daily addictions (apps, sites, SM channels).

Google is busy building the next big thing… the current search thing doesn’t matter…. it is what it is. So where is YOUR stuff in Google?

The Yahoo! search engine is not really a search engine any more. Yahoo! is a portal, like it was when it started. Millions of people start at and get sent somewhere, for a fee. The ones who do search, get a mish-mash of junk, plus some remnant of Google’s (often experimental) search results. What are you doing to benefit from Yahoo! referred traffic?

Bing’s engine is stable and opinionated… and hasn’t changed that opinion much in what, years? It’s pretty clear what it takes to get into Bing’s index, and pretty clear on how to rank. So where is YOUR stuff in Bing?

Many of the “I can rank you #1 in Google for money terms” SEOs are gone. Off selling Content Marketing, hawking SEO tools, or doing audits.

Social media has admitted the truth… it’s chaos in SM world, like it was on the old AOL was before everyone learned how to get on the web without AOL. In fact each social media channel is now clearly unique… and deserving of dedicated attention on an ROI-justified basis. Either it’s worth playing, or worth paying, but there is little doubt once you test.And pretty easy to test.

So where is your stuff on social media?

The spammers have automated their methods so much that spamming is cheap and scales incredibly… and is incredibly easy to detect and counter. Those guys are either killing it or keeping really busy executing and re-executing again a week later, to skim profits off the SERPs. Some things never change.

Really it’s your move now. What matters is what YOU do with your URLs.

The important thing in SEO is no longer what Google is doing. The priority is no longer what spammers or social media gurus are doing. The Guidelines are pretty stable, and of minor importance. Content Marketers are off to the side, struggling to draw budgets capable of producing what has to be produced to generate results. And the link builders are also grinding hard for their paychecks.

What are you doing?

There are few excuses now. You either do the SEO, establish and advance your positions over time, or you don’t (and don’t enjoy the traffic). You are either in the game or not. There is little room for talkers these days… the chatter doesn’t hold water. You need to be doing, or you look bad. Real bad.

It’s your move.