Your company is paying to be on the first page of Google search results.
Let me explain.
You’re either paying up to $65+ a click for AdWords ads (PPC). Or you’re paying someone to create content and optimize your website for search (SEO). Or you’re paying in terms of lost sales to competitors who are doing the first two.
In any case, there’s a cost to ranking highly in Google. You either pay directly or indirectly.
Here’s one reason: In February 2016, Google eliminated paid listings on the right side of search results. Ads now occupy up to four of the top search results and another two or three at bottom. That means unpaid “organic” search listings are being squeezed out.
Which makes sense, when you realize that approximately 97% of the revenue Google needs to build self-driving cars and virtual reality gadgets still comes from pay-per-click ads.
But it’s getting even harder to appear in organic search results.
For example, do a Google search for “water damage Minneapolis” and you’ll find four paid listings up top, followed by a “map pack” with three local listings, which pushes organic listings even farther down the page.
And right below the map are listings from directories like Thumbtack, Angie’s List, and the Better Business Bureau – all of which you have to pay to be featured in.
What this means: Given the intense competition to appear in Google search, nobody ranks highly for free. It was true once. But not anymore. And the faster you get your head around that concept, the better.
Now here’s another harsh truth about search: There’s no single recipe to follow if you want your website to rank highly in Google.
For example, there’s no formula for how many words your web page should have … how many times a keyword should appear on a web page … or how many links to include on a web page. None of that matters. No anymore.
When deciding which pages to rank highly for search, Google uses multiple sets of rules, or algorithms. One of those is called Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), which mimics the human mind to find patterns and meanings in web pages.
Example: a Google search for “shop for apples” could mean you want to buy fruit … but it probably means you’re in the market for a computer. That’s why you’ll see search listings pointing to the nearest Apple Store.
LSI is great for Google users because it picks up on subtle differences and shows you relevant results.
That means LSI is bad for anyone trying to game the system. Because you can only write “locksmith” or “Chicago orthodontist” on a web page so many times before Google realizes that you’re creating artificial content. And your website can be penalized as a result.
As I learned by talking to a number of practitioners at Over The Top SEO, creating content for Google is really not about Google. It’s about people — your audience. Who are they? Where are they? What are they searching for help with? What do they want? When the content on your website answers those questions — and inbound links from other websites recognize that value — Google can rank you higher.
(A word of warning: Once upon a time, you could rank higher in Google by paying for inbound links to your website. But this ended in 2011, when a Google algorithm change, code named Penguin, penalized sites with high numbers of suspicious links. Today, multiple links to your site from similar sources will hurt your rankings in Google.)
Speaking of suspicious links, there’s a dark side to search that could effectively take your website offline by making it impossible to find in Google. It’s called negative SEO. As the name implies, it’s the exact opposite of SEO.
Negative SEO is an attack on you by hackers, competitors, or other bad actors. And all they need to do is link to your site from unsavory sources. That’s a red flag for Google, which may push your website way down in search results or remove it entirely.
That sad part about negative SEO is how easy it can be to pull off. Attackers don’t need access to your computer network or web server. It’s as simple as building back links to your website from nonsensical blog posts, irrelevant foreign websites, or “bad neighborhoods” like gambling, porn, and payday loan websites.
Yes, Google says it takes steps to prevent negative SEO from happening. But they can’t catch everything. (A Google search for the phrase negative seo returns more than 18 million results, so it is an issue for some people.)
As easy as negative SEO may be to carry out, it can be hard to undo. While it’s a simple matter to tell Google that you want to disavow 500 link from porn sites, getting back to where you ranked in search can take time.
Negative SEO is a lot like identity theft: Filling out the forms and disavowing fraudulent activities may take a few hours, but getting your credit back may take an eternity. And this is not a predicament any business owner can reasonably expect to get out of alone.
Now, more than ever, SEO is a double-edged sword. Used against you, negative SEO can virtually destroy your business.
But SEO can help you exploit the fact that 70% of the clicks in Google listings are organic, not paid ads, according to Search Engine Journal. And up to 95.85% of all traffic to ecommerce sites comes from organic search, according to a 2016 study by Similar Web. The challenge, of course, is ranking high in organic search.
If you decide to partner with an SEO expert, due diligence is key.
Look for client case studies, although you should be suspicious of any example that mentions names and specific numbers. In SEO, confidentiality is a sign of competence.
Think about it: If you suddenly ranked higher in organic search and started getting your competitors’ web traffic, would you want to tell the world? That’s why the best case studies are often available only during a confidential consultation with an SEO firm.
Also, any good SEO team should run continual experiments in Google to see what works and what doesn’t. Over The Top SEO executives told me they purposely try to get their own test websites penalized, to find out where the limits are for ethical SEO in Google. Then get those sites de-penalized and re-listed in as little as five days, to practice recovering from negative SEO.
In other words, situations that are mysterious or traumatizing to the average business owner should be routine for an SEO expert.
Their corporate clients find that we can get them very competitive results in organic search. They don’t rank on page one of Google search everywhere. No ethical SEO firm does. But they rarely fall short of anything we go after.
Here’s the bottom line: Nobody who ranks highly in Google got there for free. There’s just too much competition. And nobody who gets penalized by negative SEO can be expected to climb out of that hole by themselves. Not without sophisticated tracking techniques.
Those are the realities of search in Google today. Once you recognize them, you can use them to grow your website traffic — and your business.
Brian Rashid is an international speaker and expert at helping people build brands that monetize. Say hi at [email protected]