The Bulls and Bears of SEO
In the stock market, “bulls and bears” refer to trends (or the people that support those trends) as stock prices rise or fall. For example, if the market is on a general rising trend, it is said to be a “bull market,” and if a person is optimistic about the price of a specific stock, he is said to be “bullish” on it. Bearishness, conversely, is the belief or observation of prices going down.
The bulls and bears of the stock market have come to represent a degree of speculative uncertainty, forcing many investors and economists to either rejoice in the bounty of the market or wallow in the nightmare of it. It’s a little extreme in my opinion, but the stock market isn’t alone in these dramatic shifts of consumer opinion. Bulls and bears affect the SEO community almost as heavily.
Why SEO Is Subject to Drama
People regularly shift their opinions on SEO as a strategy; some believe it to be highly cost-efficient, while others think it’s a spammy, temporary strategy that will turn out to be a waste of time once the trend becomes obsolete, and both are subject to switching sides or landing somewhere in between. The same can be said for individual components of SEO, like link building or social media marketing.
SEO is particularly vulnerable to these dramatic reactions for a number of reasons:
- SEO doesn’t have much history. Unlike traditional printed advertising, which has been around for more than a century (and even further, depending on your definition of “advertising”), SEO has only been around for around 15 years. It’s poorly understood by anyone outside the community, and is still seen as “just a fad” by many outsiders.
- SEO is subject to volatile, sudden shifts. Thanks to updates like Google’s Panda and Penguin, most search marketers are perpetually on their toes for new developments, each of which spurs a temporary overdramatic reaction, such as those proclaiming that it means the “end of SEO.” Furthering these disruptions are new technologies and new consumer trends, which have the potential to derail otherwise solid strategies.
- SEO favors the future-minded. When an update hits, it’s not the reactors who win or lose—it’s the people who were proactive in their approach. SEO favors forward thinkers, so people are far more likely to think about the future than they are about the present, naturally aligning people with one side or the other when it comes to opinions about the strategy’s future.
Because of these qualities, SEO is an industry especially vulnerable to sudden shifts in the hopes and fears of its constituents.
Like I mentioned earlier, these opinions do tend to manifest themselves in the form of reactions against individual strategies:
- Backlash against the Panda update spurred former supporters to claim the “death of keyword strategies.” This was temporarily reinforced by the Hummingbird update, which actually did render most keyword-based strategies obsolete, but keyword research is still an important phase of any long-term campaign.
- Similarly, the Panda update spawned some bulls who believed that content was suddenly all that mattered for an SEO campaign—forgetting the many other onsite and offsite elements that still factor in.
- When Google engineer John Mueller advised against link building, thousands of SEOs claimed that link building was officially dead, and many still believe that link building is a dangerous, non-effective strategy. However, external links still pass all-too-important domain authority to your site, and need to be built (or attracted) if you want any hope of ranking.
- Some people profess the wonders of social media activity for increasing a site’s rank, while others claim that all of the data is purely correlative and should be ignored. As new evidence comes and goes about how social signals play into the calculation of domain authority, these people tend to realign themselves one way or another.
The list goes on and on, but the basic story is the same: a new update or piece of information enters the fray for a given strategy (or subset of a strategy), and anyone who reads that information shifts their opinion, if only slightly. Collectively, this results in broad reactionary trends similar to the “bulls and bears” of the stock market—suddenly everyone’s excited or everyone’s worried.
Why the Bulls and Bears Don’t Matter
There are three reasons why you shouldn’t concern yourself with these sudden shifts in trends:
- Most of these are temporary. Mobilegeddon was once heralded as the search ranking apocalypse, to define a new era of mobile-only ranking, but it turned out to have only a slight effect on SERPs. Given enough time, most of these reactionary trends reset to more reasonable ground.
- The future is unpredictable. You can try to think about how link building will work in 2020, but it won’t do you any good. Instead, it’s better to focus on what you can do, right now, to improve your position and protect yourself against penalties.
- SEO data is fuzzy. Some things are very clear in SEO, but most data points are fuzzy and open to multiple interpretations. Even clear experimental data usually suggest only a correlational relationship, rather than a causational one.
Toward More Tempered Expectations
As a member of the SEO community myself, I encourage you, me, and SEO experts everywhere to have more tempered expectations about SEO. SEO will never stay the same—it’s going to grow, and change in ways we never expected, but it isn’t going to up and disappear one night, nor is it going to suddenly skyrocket in value. It’s a reasonable, cost-effective strategy, and will continue to remain as one for the foreseeable future, even as circumstances and strategies surrounding it iteratively evolve.
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