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ADAPT for SEO Success in Our Constantly Changing World

In a recent blog post, the Google Search team announced that 540 quality search improvements were made to the ranking algorithm in 2009 alone, an average of 1.5 improvements per day.  In an industry that literally changes on a daily basis, it is vitally important for SEOs to constantly question our tactics, and subsequently adjust our strategies accordingly.

It’s human nature to return to a strategy that has worked in the past.  But consider the caveman enjoying a hearty potato after a long day of club-carrying and grunting.  How many years were ancient cavemen and cavewomen munching down on raw potatoes before they realized that by dropping them in some boiling water or rolling them in some prehistoric tin foil and dropping them in a fire made them infinitely more desirable?  Clearly this is an exaggerated example, but the fact remains that it’s not uncommon to become complacent with a strategy or a process that has worked in the past, and SEO is no exception.  That brings us to the moral of today’s story: ADAPT.

Always Ask “Why”

“Why?” is perhaps the oldest question in our arsenal.  As kids, it was “why do I have to go to bed?!” As adolescents, it was “why does the world hate me?”  But as SEOs, “Why” is probably our most powerful weapon, provided it’s wielded properly.  First off, I must make it clear that there is an important distinction between questioning your strategies and processes, and second guessing yourself or your peers; the latter of which can be very damaging to a team atmosphere.  I’m not calling for everyone to walk up to your co-worker and interrogate his or her linking strategies, keyword selection, or competitive analysis – far from it.  What I’m calling for here is an internal register that determines what the real value is to any strategy.  Think about the last recommendation you made to a client and ask yourself: “Why should they dedicate their precious and finite time and resources to this?”  This sort of forward thinking benefits us in two ways; first, it allows us to better understand our clients, their needs, and their concerns.  If we know what is important to them and can accurately and correctly explain the rationale behind our thought processes, it builds their faith in us while at the same time reinforcing that they made the right investment in us.  On the other hand, by asking “Why” internally, you are able to see what aspects of your strategies can be improved; you must have faith in your processes, but at the same time maintain a healthy understanding that there may be a better way to do things.

Finally, we cannot talk about “Why” without touching on “Why’s” ugly stepsister: “Why Not.”  You should be able to tell a client why not to buy links (and “Because Matt Cutts Said So” is not an appropriate answer).  You should be able to explain why not to include white text on a white background and why a company that sells fax machines should not be targeting “Purple Giraffe on a Pogo Stick” as their primary keyword.  These examples may seem a bit outrageous, but the sentiment rings true; by asking “Why” you do what you do (and “Why Not”), it allows you to a) prepare for client questions and b) provide the most comprehensive consulting possible.

Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Hooray, we’ve made it to page one!  Now what?  Time to call it a day and go out and celebrate, right?  WRONG!  Complacency has always been the enemy of innovation, and SEO is no exception.  Until you’ve done everything you can to achieve top rankings, capture all relevant local listings, create a robust GoogleBase feed (for eCommerce clients) and leverage relevant Universal results, your work is not fully finished.  Again, I want to be clear here that anything short of top rankings across the board does not necessarily indicate failure; on the contrary, I’m simply cautioning against growing complacent with success when there is room to improve.  Work constantly to improve your strategies, using past accomplishments as a springboard for continued success.  Run an eCommerce website?  Try conducting a brand audit to target specific products that may be underperforming.  Manage a blog?  Try running a contest for your readers.  Stuck with a linkbuilding writer’s block?  Digg up some new ideas.  What separates the good from the great is a constant drive to be the best, so put yourself in a position to be the best by learning not only from your failures, but also your success.

Adjust

Adjusting strategies doesn’t necessarily mean changing how you approach SEO best practices; it could mean something as simple as making sure you’re delivering the most complete portfolio possible.  The recent launch of Open Site Explorer, for example, has forced us to re-evaluate how we look at link data.  The information pulled into this database is not new information, but rather an improved medium through which to view the information.  In any industry, a refusal to adjust to changing times is a surefire way to pigeonhole yourself into a menial desk job with no prospect at advancing.  However, in the world of SEO, a refusal to adjust to advances in the industry won’t even secure that menial desk job.  Consider a telephone company that refuses to sell anything but rotary phones – how long before that business model implodes?  We are in a very unique space where we must constantly adjust to changing times, whether due to updates in the search algorithms, the merger of two search giants, or the introduction of new features such as Personalized Search.  While the social implications are certainly different, Bob Dylan’s words still ring true: As the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’.  And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin’.

Proactively Seek Information

I was an avid procrastinator for the vast majority of my life up through and including college, and I got along fairly well.  However, the SEO industry is not one where you can sit back and wait for someone to clue you in.  “Wait, Yahoo! and MSN are doing what?!?” is not a statement that’s going to instill a lot of faith in your clients when they ask what the implications the impending merger has on their SEO and PPC efforts.  And the strategy of proactively seeking information is not one that requires much preparation on your part, just a thirst to learn.  Google Reader, Twitter, Delicious, Digg, and heck, just talking to friends and colleagues are some very simple ways to stay on top of trends and changes in the industry.  The trick, however, is knowing how to parse this information, how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Read multiple opinions on the same topic to put yourself in a position to form an educated opinion.  The value of the nofollow tag, for example, is one that has caused the best of friends to glare menacingly at one another across the proverbial battlefield.  If there was a black-and-white handbook for SEO, we’d all be out of the job.  Our true value lies in our inherent need to proactively seek out information and, furthermore, to take this information and…

Test, Test, Test!

You can spend 4 hours of day reading the latest blog posts from SEO gurus across the country, but there has never been (nor ever will be, in my opinion) an adequate substitute for testing.  In fact, the experts in our field gained their well-deserved renown from constantly questioning, testing, and re-testing theories until they found what works.  Anyone holding out for that miraculous day when Google just tells us how to achieve page one rankings will be blue in the face for a very long time.  Successful SEOs know how to take their questions, their successes, and their failures and transform them into something that can truly be revolutionary in our field.  And remember what Thomas Edison said when attempting to invent the lightbulb: I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

So there you have it: Always Ask Why, Don’t Rest on your Laurels, Adjust, Proactively Seek Information, and Test, Test, Test!  Five relatively simple strategies that allow SEOs young and old to ADAPT for success in the constantly changing world of SEO.