SEO Is Squirrely and Most SEOs Aren’t To Blame


You’re driving down a dark country road late at night and suddenly a squirrel darts out in front of you. You hesitate. You don’t know if the squirrel is going to go left, right, stand still or run straight into you.

SEO is like that. It’s hard to predict the outcome of your actions. Your rankings and conversions could go up, down, stay the same or tank completely.

This post puts search engine optimization’s unpredictability in context. It is not a defense of unscrupulous SEOs that might try to take advantage of you. Rather, it’s meant to shed light on some of the things that contribute to search engine optimization being unclear and seemingly random. It also suggests a few things you can do to protect yourself and minimize the unexpected.

Here goes.

SEO Is Complex

If you are a budget-constrained, small to mid-sized company marketing to US customers, the only search engine you really need to worry about is Google. Google commands 65-85 percent of the search market depending on who you ask and what they measure. If you rank well on Google, you will probably also earn a decent showing on other search engines too.

How does Google work?

The above video is a 3 minute, “from the horse’s mouth” explanation of how Google works from Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team and spokesperson for all things search. The main points I want you to pay attention to are:

  • Google doesn’t search the Web. It searches its own, proprietary index of the Web.
  • If you’re not in Google’s index, you won’t get found.
  • Google doesn’t rank websites. It ranks entities (topics about people, places, and things) contained on individual pages, blog posts, and images using a complex ranking algorithm comprised of hundreds, at least 200, different decision criteria.
  • Google shares high-level guidelines to help web designers and SEOs ensure their pages, blog posts and images get indexed and ranked on Google while steering clear of anything that might trigger an algorithmic or manual penalty.
  • The guidelines aren’t specific and are subject to interpretation.
shows business man in front of a confusing maze
Google guidelines aren’t specific and subject to interpretation.

Some SEO experts devote their entire career to hypothesizing, testing and reverse engineering the algorithm’s inner workings with the goal of being able to predict results and share best practices. Their conclusions are documented and shared publicaly, but never confirmed or endorsed by Google. Instead, SEOs and site owners are left on their own to figure out what will and won’t meet with Google’s approval.

SEO is squirrely, in part, because Google makes the rules and no one outside of Google knows what they are. Reputable SEOs adhere to industry-sanctioned best practices in order to mitigate the risk of Google bans and penalties. You should too.

SEO Is a Moving Target

Google admits to changing its ranking algorithm 300-400 times a year. Some SEO experts believe that number is higher, that it could be as much as 500-600 times per year. So it’s probably fair to assume the Google ranking algorithm changes at least daily.

While most of the algorithm changes are minor – Google testing various scenarios and their ranking impacts – there are occasional changes that impact businesses in a big way. A recent example of that was “Mobilegeddon”, the mobile update that Google rolled out in April 2015. The update gave a ranking boost to sites that display well on mobile devices and bumped non-mobile friendly search results further down the page.

Mobilegeddon was a rare, announced-in-advance Google algorithm update
Mobilegeddon was a rare, announced-in-advance Google algorithm update

Mobilegeddon was an exception in that Google announced the rankings change before it rolled out. The vast majority of algorithm changes are unannounced. That means SEOs and site owners have little to no chance to be proactive and avoid potential ranking disruptions. It also means we can be caught off guard.

SEO is squirrely, but that’s because the rules are always changing and rarely unannounced in advance. It’s another reason to adhere to industry best practices because these have been shown to mitigate the risk of ranking disruptions over time.

SEO Is Competitive

The other thing that’s squirrely about SEO is the competition.

SEO is a competition. Your content ranks relative to others. If there’s a page on the Internet that’s more relevant, more popular, or more authoritative than your own, it will almost always outrank you. And while there are tools that can be used to help surface some of the strategies others might be using to boost their visibility, rankings, and conversions, the tools are inexhaustive and potentially inaccurate. They also have no way of reporting what might have in the pipeline.

There are only 10 spots on the first page of Google’s organic search results, three for local. Yet there are approximately 30 billion indexed pages on the Internet (2014), all competing for rankings.

Those numbers are growing. The 2013 estimate was 27% less (22 billion). In 2012, it was 17 billion.

SEO is squirrely because it’s a competition with moving players with unknown strengths. It’s always best to assume the competition is “in the game” and to try to keep one step ahead of them.

SEO is not a one-time event. Never rest on your laurels. 

Guaranteed Rankings

So how is it that some SEOs are willing to “guarantee” a first-page ranking?

Some SEOs will steer you towards wanting to rank for unpopular search terms with little to no competition. Not reasonable terms that a comparable business might want to rank for, but something so specific, so obscure, that you will effectively face no competition.

For example, the term “SEO Philadelphia” has a pretty consistent demand of about 260 searches per month. Competitors are willing to pay around $ 20.85 a click in order to rank at the top of sponsored search results.

Google Planner search results for "SEO Philadelphia"

If I type “SEO Philadelphia” into Google, there are 1.6 million results. The top ranking websites tend to be reputable companies that have been around a number of years and have earned a good reputation with Google.

“SEO Philadelphia” a pretty competitive search phrase. You would probably have a hard time finding an SEO who would be willing to guarantee a first page ranking for that term, at least not in the short term.

Alternatively, the term ”small business SEO Driftwood PA” has zero people searching for it on a monthly basis. Google returns 15,800 search results, but there is only one practicing SEO company ranking in the top 10, a company called SEO Expert that uses the domain.

search results for SEO driftwood PA is actually owned by a company based out of Silsoe, Bedfordshire, England. So it’s NOT a relevant search result and should be able to be bumped by one that is.

Results 2 and 3, in the screenshot above, also don’t appear to be relevant results. They look like directory listings. The 4th result comes with a caveat at the bottom (see the arrow) that Google didn’t actually find the term “Driftwood PA” anywhere on the page.

So an SEO company could probably guarantee a first-page ranking for anyone who wants to rank for “small business SEO Driftwood PA”. There probably aren’t many companies that would want to rank for that search phrase, and I doubt it would be highly profitable even if they did.

The Bottom Line

SEO is complex and ever changing. There is a ton of competition and every year, it gets tougher.

Reputable SEO companies can’t guarantee first-page rankings, especially for highly sought-after and competitive terms. That’s because they don’t know the inner workings of Google’s ranking algorithm, they can’t predict what and when algorithm changes are coming, and they don’t know what the competition is up to.

Your best chance of ranking well on Google and avoiding unexpected outcomes is to stick with Google and industry-sanctioned best practices and not rest on your laurels. Even that doesn’t come with a guarantee.

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SEOs Can Do More: Site Migrations and Content Strategy


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 38 seconds

In this post, I’d like to explore the idea of tackling content strategy when handling a site migration. Although they may appear on first inspection to be somewhat disparate strategic activities, I believe site migrations can present a great opportunity to investigate and overhaul website content strategy.

Site migrations – no mean feat

Many digital marketers will encounter at least one site migration at some point in their careers. Working agency side and having been involved in numerous site migrations to date, I find projects like these can involve some of the most exciting work for an SEO. Each migration is different and I relish the wide variety of challenges: the success often hinges on the effective collaboration of many different stakeholders in a sometimes epic feat of project management, diplomatically merging disciplines and skill sets. The ideal scenario is where you work as one cohesive team, all moving together towards a single goal… That said, the reality is often not that rosy! Site migrations can certainly be stressful. There may be high stakes involved, or the set up could be complex (whether technically or politically), adding pressure to the project. In some instances, it may be a huge challenge to even get SEO on the radar, let alone keep it within focus and as a priority throughout the process.

With that in mind, you might be wondering why you would chose to look at content strategy when dealing with a project like a site migration, when there’s a lot of important SEO work that needs to happen. But before I delve further into my point, it’s worth considering why a site migration might happen and recapping the role of an SEO in such a project.

Why migrate?

A site migration – whether it’s the changing of a domain name, building a new site, merging content, etc – may be instigated for a variety of reasons, for example:

  • Changing vendors: whether it’s changing dev teams, marketing agencies, etc.
  • Updating technology or changing CMS: necessary for keeping up to date and overcoming limitations.
  • Renewing visual design and layout: whether it’s a rebranding exercise or restructuring based on business needs, the addition of new products, etc.
  • Overhauling content: perhaps the strategic direction of the website has changed.

But the primary role of an SEO in handling a site migration is protecting organic visibility, i.e. ensuring relevant and valuable content remains visible to search engines, maintaining rankings and therefore traffic, revenue, etc. I shouldn’t understate the importance of ensuring a smooth migration, since there are often so many things that can go awry. A quick bit of Googling will reveal plenty of site migration horror stories if you fancy some bed time reading.

Traditional role of an SEO in a site migration

So what steps should an SEO take to protect organic visibility? Well, the focus of this post is not to go through the “how to and whys” of conducting a site migration, since there are plenty of great articles on that subject already (although I’ve popped some links towards the end to refer to). But here’s a selection of key areas across pre-, during- and post-migration, that an SEO would typically look at (although not limited to):

  • 301 mapping: vital to have these in place from old site to new site.
  • Moving content: ensure all valuable and relevant content is transferred across, paying attention to internal links as well.
  • Tracking and tagging: analytics is in place, tagged coherently and firing correctly.
  • XML sitemap: revise and update in line with the new site changes.
  • Site architecture and URL structure: define based on business/brand needs, restructuring if necessary and having clean, user friendly URLs.
  • Benchmarking and reporting: meticulously record and monitor backlinks, keyword rankings, organic traffic, pre-launch and checking daily post launch for any fluctuations.


Site migrations also give you an opportunity to tackle legacy SEO issues, so there will be those to consider as well. But before most of this activity gets underway, it’s really important that you understand why the migration is taking place in the first place. What are the brand and/or business objectives that are driving this? How have these decisions been made and who (client, agency, vendor, or otherwise) will continue to dictate and influence the project as you go? What resources are available for this project and for SEO?

The answers to these questions will guide the research that needs to take place to see what solutions are best, ultimately shaping the SEO solutions you recommend, as well as let you know who the relevant parties are.

So where does this content strategy element come in?

Beef up your pre-migration research

There is a level of auditing necessary during the pre-launch phase, particularly around assessing the value of content to see what is worth transferring across, what pages from the old site need redirecting and what can be deleted. As part of an effective migration, a good deal of research will go into many elements, and assessing the value of content – by looking at backlinks, social shares, organic traffic, internal links, keyword rankings, etc – will be one of them.

The context of this research is taking place under the guise of a site migration but, if you think about it, your research can also be used to help inform content strategy (before I band around big, lofty terms like “content strategy” I should be clear that I’m talking about content strategy specifically in relation to the website!)

So my argument is, that, by beefing up the research pre-migration, I’d like to challenge the traditional role of an SEO and consider that it is possible to address website content strategy and future-proof the site for content as part of the migration process. With the role of content becoming ever more important, it’s an ideal opportunity to take the content bull by the horns.

Our primary goal is to maintain traffic, yes, but we want our clients to have the best possible product at the end of the migration, i.e. the best possible website. So, can we be more ambitious and look to actually increase traffic over time, by overhauling content?

Pre-migration research = building blocks of content strategy

If you’re feeling all fired up and ready to tackle content strategy, then pre-migration research can be categorised into these three key areas:


Let’s now look at each one, detailing what the pre-migration research can entail.

Clients: Whether you’re in-house or agency side, the starting point is understanding the client, i.e. the site that’s being migrated. Inputs for this research phase can include:

  • Target audience: what data do we have on them and their behaviour? E.g. CRM databases, Facebook data, etc.
  • Auditing owned/earned assets: relative success and roles of these, focusing on SEO metrics where relevant, e.g. backlinks, social shares, organic traffic, internal links, keyword rankings. What current investment in content is there? Are there plans to invest more? Who are the relevant content stakeholders?
  • Previous campaigns: DR/brand or otherwise – focusing on those that either did well or fell short, understanding objectives and learnings.
  • Current website strategy: what is the role of the website, relative to other channels?

Always remind yourself of the key question again: What does the client want to achieve from this migration?

Through this research, you can get a really clear picture of the client’s current performance, with a view to what’s working and what’s not on the site. Valuable for site migrations, but also useful for thinking about content strategy, no?

Competitors: Similar to client research, we would also look to see who is doing well in this space. Where there is overlap between our client and their competitors, this is where we need to think about how we can differentiate.

Inputs for this research can include:

  • Share of Voice: assessing organic search, as well as social channels
  • Backlink profile: can give insight into content strategy and historic SEO activity
  • Estimated traffic: paid versus organic
  • Recent campaigns: as with the client, understanding the success of any recent campaigns and the intended target audience

This will start to give us a competitor overview, which can again help to inform decisions about elements to do with the migration (e.g. seeing what filtering and categories are being used), but the insights also have value for content strategy.

Customers: A vital piece of the puzzle. Where there’s crossover between the client research and customer research, we can assess whether the current content is doing a good job at both targeting core search terms and satisfying user needs. And how do we compare to competitors?

Inputs can be drawn from sources such as:

  • Keyword research: evaluating the relevancy of existing target terms and looking to build this list out from a variety of sources, e.g. social listening, competitor research, PPC data.
  • Search trends: being aware of potential seasonality, and shifts towards more longtail “how to” and “why” queries.
  • Survey data: are there any surveys that can illuminate customer behaviour, needs, expectations, any pain points with the brand or products, etc.
  • CRM or demographic data: whatever you can access, drawing on CRM data, or from display, PPC, Facebook, etc.
  • Customer journey: using analytics to understand how users are interacting with your site, or perhaps even interviews with focus groups to show you what people expect from your site

The aim to get a really clear picture of the customer journey, their needs and desired experience online.

Bringing it altogether

The great benefit of all this research is that you are now in a strong position to make robust recommendations for the migration that are well tailored to the client’s set up and vertical, having truly got under their skin. But why stop there, when all this research can act as the building blocks for website content strategy, where you can inform the build/design/functionality of the site to serve the ends identified in the research!

For example, our client, competitor and customer research can inform:

  • Site architecture and URL structure: where should content be, based on SEO requirements, as well as user expectations?
  • Language/target terms: what language is our audience using? Are there other terms, e.g. longtail queries we can be targeting?
  • Content opportunities: what’s working well, is there scope for new content to address user needs, e.g. FAQs, or a content hub?
  • Content formats: are users more receptive to videos, or long form content? What’s the most suitable for the target audience?

Be ambitious

I appreciate all the important SEO work that has to go on with a migration will need to take precedent. And doing this kind of additional research obviously requires more resource. However, it can be valuable to you and your client in so many ways. For example, tackling this kind of research at the pre-migration phase qualifies you to move the conversation on from “we would like to have XYZ on the new site”, to “you need to have this on the new site”, encouraging the client to effectively target user needs and differentiate from the competition.

This is certainly where tight working relationships play a key role and, as an SEO, you should look to be involved as early as possible and get as broad a view on what’s being decided when and by whom. The site does not necessarily have to go live with all the content recommendations from this research and it certainly may not be feasible or practical at the time of the migration, as has been the case for some of our clients. Nonetheless, this client, competitor and customer pre-migration research provides invaluable insights that produce robust and detailed SEO recommendations but with the added benefit of informing website content strategy in the long term.


Think beyond just the usual role of an SEO with a site migration (although it’s vital to nail all that as well!) you should consider whether there are opportunities to address content and future proof the site. Comprehensive research on client, competitor and customers can inform content strategy AND best practice SEO.

Draw on as many sources as you can access in the pre-migration phase, as these can inform the recommendations, ensuring they are well tailored to your client, their vertical and the target audience.

And as a general rule of best practice, be involved in the process as early as possible and understand the project objectives.

A selection of resources on handling site migrations:

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With experience in SEO, Social as well as PPC, Briony is passionate about integrated digital marketing strategies and handles accounts for a wide range of big brands in the UK. She enjoys the challenge of working with multiple teams, agencies and stakeholders to develop holistic strategies and is always looking for ways to improve and tailor processes, relationships and practices.

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