Towards a Holistic SEO Approach

When internet marketing began, it gave birth to an entirely new marketing field – Search Engine Optimisation. In the bad old days SEO flourished in the way that any field must; by doing what worked. Keywords? Great, got ‘em by the dozen. Links? No problem; farm it out to a freelancer in Bangalore and you’ll have all the links you want overnight.

Well, we know that the crude methods in use just a few years ago no longer work. We’ve adapted, or so we think, to the series of changes Google has made to its ranking algorithm, and we think we have a pretty good handle on what we have to do to get our clients, if not to rank no 1, at least onto the first page. In fact, adapting to Google’s changing dietary habits is what SEO really is, right?

But are we missing something? Moz’s Rand Fishkin certainly thinks so. He thinks the clunky nature of early SEO has led us to erect a wall around the province of SEO whose existence is no longer justified, and is an obstacle to creating enduring ranking improvements. In his analysis, we define SEO as having to do only with signals which directly influence Google ranking, while disregarding important indirect ranking influences.

Direct

Effect

Link Building Powerful positive influence on your ranking
Load speed Improve it from 10 secs to 4 secs and it will definitely improve your ranking, but not hugely
Keyword usage Using the keywords you want to rank for – very basic, but important positive ranking signal
Title tags and meta descriptions These serve much the same function as an old fashioned advertiser’s billboard, persuading the searcher to visit the site. As well as telling google what the specific page is about
XML Sitemap Incredibly important – Should be working and submitted to Google Search Console.
Flash Google hates it; don’t use it on your site!

OK, there are many more aspects of your website that directly affect its ranking, but these examples illustrate what we mean by “direct” ranking signals. Basically, everything we think of as “classically” SEO.

So why bother with Indirect Ranking Signals?

Rand makes a powerful argument that while these direct ranking signals are all vital components of an SEO campaign, they are not the only actions that influence your rakings. He thinks we tend to ignore a variety of powerful indirect ranking signals simply because the guys at Google say they don’t recognise them as relevant to our ranking – and that we do so at our peril.

So What’s Wrong With Sticking to the Rules of SEO?

Just asking Google what it would like you to feed it is a bit like asking your friend the nutritionist what she wants for dinner. The nutritionist might reply with a list of proteins, fats, sugars and other carbohydrates, cellulose and trace elements. The friend will reply “Spaghetti Marinara, thanks”. Both are, strictly speaking, accurate. But the first is, at best, a puzzle you need to solve before you can gratify your friend’s appetite, while the second gives you all the information you need to realise it in the form an appealing dish.

And that’s the point – you’re not trying to gratify Google the nutritionist; at the end of the day, you’re trying to gratify your friend, the customer.

Google’s ever-evolving algorithm is really trying to do exactly the same thing. It’s highly sophisticated, but it’s trying to create a regime that works across every single kind of human enterprise, meeting every single kind of human need. But we’re engaged in a particular kind of enterprise, and we’re trying to connect with people with a particular need for what it produces. So simply following Google’s “rules” is a necessary, but not a sufficient component of a successful campaign. We also need to look beyond the rules, to what they are trying to achieve, and what they imply for our enterprise. And when we do that, we find there’s a lot more we can do to influence, albeit indirectly, our rankings.

So let’s look at some of the indirect ranking signals identified by Rand:

Action

Signal Mechanism

Personal. You meet a like-minded and opinion-leading journalist at a conference, and you impress them sufficiently over a coffee that they write a story linking to your site. According to Google, “drinking coffee with people” doesn’t count as a ranking signal, but, come on!
Anything that ultimately creates a link, builds rank, and should be within the SEO’s purview.
Twitter endorsements by opinion-leaders/celebrities Again, Google disowns any suggestion that Twitter activity is a ranking signal. Well, of course not – not directly. But indirectly, having a your business pop up on the phones of our celeb’s couple of million followers is going to get you an awful lot of clicks, a lot Time on Page, and so on
Cute additions to your site. We’re not talking about a repayments calculator here, but something really novel and really cool that helps customers relate to the product. You get it talked about on SM. Again, Google is technically correct in saying that SM conversations are not ranking signals. But that assumes that they remain just conversations. In reality, people in the conversation are going to visit the site to try it for themselves.

You can probably think of more examples, but this gives a useful taste of what we mean by “indirect” ranking signals. They may take longer to have the desired effect, but they tend to be longer-lasting. The guys from Google will tell you that these are not true ranking signals, but the experience of the market tells a different story.

The wall we built around SEO in its early days is stopping us seeing the bigger picture. We need to argue, both with ourselves and with the account managers we work with, for a more holistic approach to SEO, one which satisfies Google’s known dietary preferences, but with some good old fashioned home cooking, in the form of well-crafted indirect rank-building campaigns.

What SEOs Can Do

  •  Actively collaborate with your colleagues in Social Media and other forms of media, and look for opportunities to coordinate your efforts.
  • Be aware, and explain to your clients, that indirect rank building takes longer, but can bring more enduring results.
  • Don’t neglect the value of old-fashioned personal networking in attracting traffic and generating links.
  • Review all your direct SEO rank-building actions, and consider what you can do to indirectly influence their success.
Andrew Hocking

About Andrew Hocking

Andrew is the Social Media Manager and SEO specialist at Webfirm. Developing and delivering digital marketing strategies is his bread and butter.

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