What Makes SEO So Difficult?

In April 2016, I wrote a post on the Geek Powered Studios blog titled “What Makes SEO So Difficult.” The post was meant to share my opinions on why the SEO industry is relatively difficult to master and stay up to date with. I wanted to give readers something to consider when entering the industry so that they would understand that it is a huge commitment if you really want to succeed. The post was well received, so I decided to double down and reach out to some of my peers and see if they would be interested in sharing their opinions as well. What resulted is the series of videos below, featuring some of the brightest minds in the search marketing industry answering: why is SEO so difficult?

Thank you to all who participated!

Jesse McDonald

Rand Fishkin

Duane Forrester

Eric Enge

Mark Traphagen

Keith Goode

Damon Gochneaur

Jon Henshaw

Matt Siltala

John Leo Weber

What Makes SEO So Difficult?

Your focus should be less on your rankings and more on getting traffic to your site that turns into customers.

This is one of the most frequent questions asked by people new to the search engine optimization / digital marketing realm. Theoretically, you should just be able to build a website utilizing basic SEO techniques, build some links to the site, then sit back and watch your rankings go up, right? Wrong! Things might have been this simple back in the early days of SEO, but that is definitely not the case anymore. Plain and simple, the reason why SEO is so difficult is because the landscape is always changing. What works today might not work 6 months down the road.

The Ever Changing Landscape of Search Engines

Search engines are always updating their standards and guidelines to help improve their user’s experiences. Google alone updates their main algorithm anywhere from 500-600 times a year. That’s potentially twice a day! On top of that, their major updates, like Panda and Penguin, previously only rollout around once a year, if you’re lucky. Now, these updates happen a bit less frequently with Penguin not updating in almost a year and a half, at the time of writing this. That means that if you are still using “black-hat” practices or have acquired a site that has received a hit from these updates, you will have to wait quite a while before realizing the fruits of your clean-up efforts. This makes it incredibly hard to attribute what is working and not working on campaigns.

It has also been stated, by Google’s very own Gary Illyes, that Panda has been made a part of the main algorithm and that Penguin will potentially move to a real-time update in the near future. Because it is impossible to know when these updates are rolling out, if you have a site that has a penalty, it can become frustrating to wait to see the fruits of your cleanup efforts. Obviously, if you create great content and follow Google’s guidelines about link building, you don’t have to worry about Panda or Penguin. That being said, you still should keep them in mind when performing SEO on your site.

Penguin updates from 2012 to 2016By updating the algorithm so often and establishing guidelines, search engines like Google and Bing can make sure that results for search queries give the best possible answers to their users. Basically, it’s like any business making sure that their product or service is top notch so that they continue to satisfy customers, both new and old. Making improvements is imperative to customer satisfaction. Because the search engines are always making improvements, the traffic going to sites from searches is going to be more qualified and likely to convert / buy. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, like spam-bots.

What Does it Take to Rank Well

As an SEO, it is extremely important to stay up to date on current trends and techniques.What are some of these things someone can do to help their site rank well? While this is an excellent question, really, you should be asking yourself what to do to help your site get more qualified traffic. Your focus should be less on your rankings and more on getting traffic to your site that turns into customers. There are a few things you can do to help generate more traffic to your site and hopefully increase rankings simultaneously.

Write Great Content

Everyone keeps hearing the phrase “content is king”, but what does that really mean? In the early days of SEO, a page’s rank could be influenced by how many times a keyword was mentioned on that page. Over time, the search engines have become smarter and can actually recognize what a piece of content is about. Now, the actual content of the page is the driving factor which the keyword is just that: a keyword. Using keywords is basically just setting the topic of your piece of content, but you have to be careful not to use that keyword too much (AKA keyword stuffing). A piece of content should be organic and genuinely helpful.

One of the biggest movements in the industry, at the moment, is the idea of 10x content. Basically, you are creating a piece of content that goes above and beyond to answer all the questions your reader will have on a single topic. To learn more about 10x content, check out our post on Pubcon Las Vegas 2015 where the Geek Powered team was truly introduced to the concept. This concept has been highlighted and evangelized by Rand Fishkin recently. It was a large part of his Pubcon keynote, as well as several Whiteboard Fridays on the MOZ Blog regarding the topic. By putting an emphasis on creating 10x content, you will hopefully satisfy your target reader, which will lead to more engagement with your blog either through social shares or inbound links. These are both great signals to search engines, meaning you’ve simultaneously pleased your users and search engines.

Creating content that makes an impact on a campaign can be extremely difficult. To be able to write comfortably for different industries can take a lot of time and research. You have to make sure the content you are delivering to your audience has the information they will be looking as well as accurate information. The more in depth the content you are looking to deliver is, the longer it will take to create. Now, with SEOs focusing on more in depth content, having a piece of content stand out organically is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Follow Basic SEO Principles

Some people say that “SEO is dead”. I completely disagree. Traditional SEO has simply evolved, making it necessary for professionals to pivot and adopt new techniques. Content, no matter how good it is, will always need some SEO love. Having great content that is appropriately optimized for a site is incredibly important to having a successful organic campaign. Organize sites in a way that both pleases search engines and users simultaneously, as well as making sure they are user-friendly in both the desktop and mobile realms. By taking the time to make sure your on-page optimization is spot on, you are taking the content that you have spent so much time on and telling the search engines exactly what you are trying to say.

Link building is still extremely important. Utilizing outreach techniques is a great way to get your content out into the world. By outreaching your content to bloggers and industry influencers, you are increasing the chances of getting links back to your site as well as traffic to your content.

This can be difficult because you always have to stay on top of changes being made within the industry. That takes time. A common misconception about SEO is that it's a one and done practice. That's simply not true. You have to always be proactive and look for new ways to improve your strategy.

Be Active on Social Media

Social media, though not necessarily a ranking factor, can be extremely important to your organic campaign. If you are putting your business out into any of the social media platforms, you are helping create an awareness around your brand and potentially getting people to your site. This sort of traffic can be a great signal to search engines that you are delivering something on your site that your audience is interested in.

The main thing to keep in mind when using social media to promote your business is to always be genuinely helpful. Sharing pieces of content, regardless of if it’s from your site or someone else’s, is key. If it would be helpful to your audience, share it. If you only share your site’s content, this could be a negative in the eyes of your audience.

Being engaged with your audience is also very important. Answering questions and conversing with your followers is a great way to build brand-loyalty and trust with your audience. You can also use platforms like Twitter to find potential customers and draw them to your brand.

While, for the most part, social media doesn’t have an instant ROI, you are creating a larger awareness of your brand. Having your customers caring about who you are and what you do can be incredibly powerful. This awareness, in the long run, could even potentially lead to customer conversions on your site.

Matt Cutts summed up social media pretty well when he said, “When you’ve got 5 minutes to fill, Twitter is a great way to fill 35 minutes.” Basically, social media is going to take a lot of time. In the beginning, things move slow and it feels like you are just shouting into the void with no return. There is also quite a learning curve when working with different platforms. A strategy on Facebook might not work so well on Twitter. You've got to spend time trying different things to see what works best for you. Once you've created a qualified following, then it takes time to engage with your audience. This can prove to be very discouraging and difficult to deal with, but it's worth it in the long-run.

Think Outside the Box

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but trying new things with campaigns is a great way to stay on top. It’s very important to know your target audience to determine the best way to get content in front of them and gain new customers. I always encourage my team to read industry blogs and books to continue growing as a digital marketer. I find that the more I read from other people’s perspectives on the industry, the more unique ideas I can bring to the table for our client’s campaigns.

Becoming an Amazing SEO

To sum it up, SEO is difficult because search engines are always changing and updating. It could be anything from Google changing the way it looks at a certain type of link, including a new major update to their algorithm, or even recognizing something new as a ranking factor. There is always something new to try that could potentially make a huge impact on a campaign. You have to be extremely proactive to stay on top of what's going on in the industry. It takes time, dedication, creativity, and patience to become an excellent SEO and get great results.

Video Transcripts

Jesse McDonald

Hi! My name is Jesse McDonald and I'm the Director of SEO at Geek Powered Studios. I decided to write an article in April of 2016 on the Geek Powered Studios blog talking about why I think time and dedication are two of the main factors that make SEO difficult to both learn and keep up with and stay relevant in. I decided that it would be a good idea to reach out to some of my peers and see what their take on the topic would be and that's really what follows. A group of videos telling different depictions of why they believe SEO is difficult.

Rand Fishkin

Howdy! I'm Rand Fishkin founder and Wizard of Moz, and SEO is difficult in my opinion because the practice combines so many unique aspects of marketing. It's creative, it's strategic, its technical, and it's multidisciplinary, meaning that you have to talk to a lot of different departments in an organization, right? Oftentimes your engineering & web-development department, your marketing team, your brand folks, your content people, anyone who's involved in product or public relations or outreach. It is a very complex set of tasks and to top it all off SEO changes dramatically all the time, so the fundamental best practices are often very very similar from year to year but there's always nuance, new additions, new opportunities, new ways that the search engines are changing up what the results look like, how you can target terms and phrases, how searches are happening what types of results appear. This makes SEO very very hard.

Duane Forrester

I was asked what seemed like a pretty simple question for this video which is "why is SEO difficult?" and you know, on the surface it's tempting to just be able to say "oh you know, it's complex, there's a lot to it" and so on, but the fact of the matter is there is usually a lot more to SEO or what generally people hold to be the goal of SEO: increased rankings, traffic, revenue, and so on then pretty much everyone realizes.

There's a lot that goes into this and we're talking the technical aspects of it: getting your hreflangs, your rel canonicals, all of this stuff right down to your title tags you know making sure you don't push out a robots.txt that blocks your website accidentally. All that technical stuff. Way into the more more arcane areas, the areas that require a deep expertise in managing javascript properly and building things properly the actual code level work all of that contributes to the difficulty around SEO.

But, there's still more to it. You also as an SEO today have to be aware of how you impact other work in a business and how other work in a business impacts you. Which means you have to be good at cross-platform marketing. You have to be good at social media You have to be good at pretty much everything; conversion optimization, project management, product marketing. All of these areas come together to make a product what it is they all have an impact on the final product which ultimately then has an impact on the work that an SEO does so you have to be aware of these things. You should have some level of knowledge of them and in some cases you probably will grow an expertise in these somewhat related areas.

So, tough to learn. Absolutely! Can you go learn the basics of SEO? Yep! Easily, that stuff's out there it's free if you've got a mind that can deal with the minutiae and the kind of mind-numbing boringness of some of it By all means dig right in and you will reach a certain level of proficiency. But, to become truly expert in SEO is to really understand a lot of various aspects. Everything from psychographics, and what makes a buyer take the action they take, to being able to sell the senior executive or mid-level executive on why work needs to be done. Why a company needs to invest their time, resources, and money into the work that you're saying. So for all of that, if you can accomplish it, you've got a great career ahead of you in this "world of SEO". But still you face other challenges. Things like: so many businesses out there don't even understand what SEO is. They simply have no concept that it's even there. They don't understand that it has an impact, how to leverage it, what to do with it, why it has the value that it has, and frankly why you can charge someone $5,000 for a service where someone else is saying they can do it for 50 bucks. So, there's a perception out there and that perception comes across in businesses, it is something that needs to be managed, and you face that.

SEO is difficult, not because its technical, it's difficult because it's largely still unknown by so many people. So many people overlook it. And, if you've got the chops for it I think it's a great career path, I think it's a great opportunity, and I think it's a great way to grow a career that's going to be in demand in the future So, seem like pretty simple question at first, but I've stewed on it for a couple of weeks and we could go on for hours and hours on why SEO is so difficult but the fact is: it ain't what it used to be and in 10 years it ain't gonna be what it is today.

Thanks, gang! Bye, bye.

Eric Enge

Hi! I'm Eric Enge. I'm the CEO of Stone Temple Consulting and I'm here to talk to you today about why SEO is so difficult. There are a few things that feed into this but I think the most important ones are: that there are hundreds of different ranking factors that Google has and Google has every incentive to not be public about what those ranking factors are. So, they're obscured and of course if you've been in the SEO industry for a while you know probably the most important ones which are things like: the content, the relevance of the content and the links. But there are many other things in play that are much less well known. And the result of this is that you end up having to learn through experience, and testing, and having worked with many different sites, and frankly it takes years to accumulate that level of experience. And that is why SEO is so difficult, in my view.

Mark Traphagen

Hi! I'm Mark Traphagen, Senior Director of Marketing at Stone Temple Consulting and I want to give a little bit of a take on some areas that make SEO more difficult than a lot of people think it is. In another part of this post you're going to see a video from our CEO Eric Enge and he covered a couple of really good points, so I want to cover some other areas of SEO that make it a little bit more difficult than a lot of people think it it might be.

One of those is just getting the right information. SEO is only beginning to be taught in university courses and part of degree level courses and even there it's difficult for them to keep up with all the changes that are happening. So, most SEOs are self-taught. Self-educated. It's one of the great things about the field. I think any reasonably curious and educated person can get into it but that's one of the dangerous things also because there's, you know, how do you know the information you're looking at is credible? So, I think each person in SEO has to work hard to develop good, credible sources of information. You begin to find over time as you you get part of the community the blogs and the news feeds that are giving you the best, you know, whether it's a Moz blog or Whiteboard Friday from Rand Fishkin, Search Engine Land certainly, and then individual people that you get to know in the community. People like Glenn Gabe and Bill Slawski who, just, you get to know over time, their reputation that they're careful, that they give the right information. That's one thing.

I think that another thing that I would share is that many people don't understand that SEO is really an integration of many things and bringing that integration together can be difficult. Sometimes people try to make it too simple, it's like if you just do this thing and you can learn those individual things whether it's, you know, creating good tags on the page, or how to do good keyword research, but the really quality SEO happens when you bring dozens and dozens of skills together and when you realize that the different things that influence how search rankings work are very integrated to one another.

So, those are just a couple of things that I would share and I hope those are helpful to you.

Keith Goode

My name is Keith Goode and I'm the Chief SEO Evangelist for seoClarity.

As a practice I don't think SEO is difficult, to be honest. SEO only becomes difficult when other people become involved that aren't SEOs. I've often seen where people say that SEO evolves too much. It evolves too quickly. They get used to one rule and a new rule comes into place, when in fact, if you look at the evolutionary direction of SEO, it's been consistent throughout its history. It's been consistent with Google's message. Google is driven to bring the best answer to its users and, as a result of that, it has had to evolve its algorithm to meet its own goals. SEOs often like to use tricks and they like to use the most recent tactics to fool the algorithms to rank their pages higher and, when this works at first and then stops working, that's when a lot of SEO say "SEO is hard!" Well, it's not hard if you tap into the evolutionary direction of Google.

From an organizational perspective, when an entire company has not embraced the importance of SEO, you run into problems where you get a developer who goes out and they they code page and then they completely break your canonicals or they obfuscate all the content behind a Javascript script or Flash, nobody uses Flash anymore, and in that case, that's when you run into problems where SEO is difficult because SEO is an afterthought. It's something that is thought about after something has been developed. After content has been written. But, when your entire organization is behind the SEO framework, you tend to have fewer problems. It tends to run more smoothly. It's not perfect, don't get me wrong it's not absolutely perfect. Sometimes Google throws little wrenches into the machine. Hreflang for example. Many global organizations embraced hreflang. They went out and they spent thousands, and tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands of dollars on implementing hreflang code on their site only to find out that Google really still prefers links and so, you know, a Canadian version of a page might be preferred to rank in the Canadian Google but the U.S. page has more links. Therefore, Google might rank the U.S. page, so, when it comes to sort of trying to apply the latest tactic or the latest trick, the challenge of course is that SEOs want to apply globally not small bits at a time, when most organizations actually prefer let's test this first. Let's see what the impact is first and then move forward, so, a lot of SEOs forget that it's important for us to test a lot of these things first. Go out, test a few pages, then apply it universally.

A/B testing is not something that's exclusive to paid search, for example. It should be applied to your content efforts, it should be applied to any sort of coding changes you do on a site. Test first, then apply universally, and then you stopped running into problems.There's still some nuances.

There's still some challenges but overall I don't think SEO is difficult.

Damon Gochneaur

Hey guys! This is Damon Gochneaur with Aspiro Digital Agency. I want to talk about "Why is SEO so hard?"

I think the one thing that nobody talks about, that we should, is that there's no right way. There's so many different types of sites, different ways that you can optimize, different types of optimizations you can try to achieve from different page rankings and different styles of search results. There's also no syllabus, there's no Google training, there's no Google certification, and we also don't have any Google reps for SEO, or Bing reps for that matter. So, from a communication standpoint, from a, how the whole entire paradigm is set up it's a really difficult place to do business.

Number two: compared to other digital marketing channels, tactics, platforms SEO is a long-term investment. The things that we do today very rarely are going to affect change tomorrow, next week, or maybe even this month. If we build links, if we make changes to our site, it typically is going to take weeks, months, even a quarter, or multiple months to see that investment return itself. That is so counter-intuitive or so polar opposite of what we get in AdWords, and Facebook, and every other paid platform when we put a dollar in and we get results right away. Good. Bad. Indifferent. We get something to measure, something to hold ourselves accountable to, and something to ultimately iterate and draw conclusions from. And then, I think the third most difficult part or the thing that makes SEO so difficult, at least for me, is the misunderstanding around what SEO truly is. Right? So, what it can do, how long it takes, how much it costs, the effort involved. The entire understanding of what we do as good SEOs is, to some degree I think, is completely lost in the majority of people.

So, no right way to do it, takes little longer than other channels, a lot longer, and then most people just totally misunderstand it. That provides a situation where makes it a little harder than others.

Appreciate y'all.

Jon Henshaw

What makes SEO so hard? That's really easy, easy answer: it's Google! Google makes it really hard. Aside from that, maybe a better answer or a different answer would be that things that people tell you you should do don't always work and vice versa. And, so the reason why SEO can be hard is because you have to test things out yourself.

There's so much misinformation floating around out there that it's kind of hard to know what to trust and even people who are basically saying the things that have worked for them, again, it may not work for you in your case. There's just so many different variables The bottom line is that SEO is a whole lot more than just optimizing your page titles and writing good content. You're going to run into things that are going to be unexpected and will get you in trouble with your clients or will give you a nice big dip in the wrong direction as far as search results go.

And so, it just takes experience. It takes working with many different sites of many different genres, different sizes to really get an idea of what works and what doesn't and you spend enough time doing those things and you're going to find out that a lot of the information out there is misinformation.

John Leo Weber

Hi! I'm John Leo Weber, Digital Marketing Manager at Geek Powered Studios in Austin, Texas. So why is SEO difficult? This question kind of comes up over and over again and I'm happy to participate and to try to answer. So, 3 to 5 years ago you could get a job, an entry level position in the SEO industry and it wasn't difficult. Back then, if you would, to get just kind of a basic SEO job your primary tasks would be link building, which was probably primarily article and directory link building. Maybe a little bit of content writing. And, depending on how, or where you fell on the scale of white hat to black hat, article spinning. And, then, a little bit of on-page optimization. Putting keywords into title tags and h1s, h2s, h3s. Now, today, if you were to use those same methods not only would you not get the same results in SEO, you would actually, potentially, get a Google penalty. So, over the past 3 to 5 years, Google has gotten really smart about reacting to people who are gaming the system. So, not only have the algorithms gotten smarter, Google has implemented machine learning to better understand search queries through their RankBrain technology. So, their algorithms no longer just use keywords, you know, keyword count in content. The algorithms actually understand the intent of your searches now. So, there's a landscape now in search marketing where you can no longer just game the system through stuffing keywords into websites and building low-quality links. Modern SEO, now, kind of has two major areas. One is technical SEO. The markup languages have become more important to SEO. The way that websites are built are more important and more scrutinized by the algorithms. And then, number two is content marketing. We can no longer just game the system by creating low-quality links. Now, we have to create high-quality content that attracts authentic links. Now, that was always kind of the goal but it was just easier to get around that. Now, in modern SEO, we have to do really really good content to earn those quality links. And, that's not easy. It's time consuming, it's expensive, and kind of cheap SEO firms aren't going to do the work needed to get real results in SEO. So, if you ask me why SEO is difficult, it's because over the past 3 to 5 years Google has gotten smarter to the fact that the algorithms could be gamed and now you have to work harder to get the same results you did before.

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