The factors that play a part in search engine optimization (SEO) are constantly evolving, requiring a multi-faceted strategy that involves multiple disciplines and talents-and, in many businesses, multiple departments. Given those factors, are you better off hiring or outsourcing?
To be effective, SEO specialists may need to work with an editorial or communications team to create content that provides its intended service while incorporating SEO. They must also be involved with the company's social networking strategy; work with design and development; advertising; and other departments and practices.
Is this a job best left for an outside agency that focuses specifically on SEO, or if your business has a significant online presence are you better off having a full-time SEO professional on staff whose sole job is to continually address the company's SEO needs?
How Quickly Does SEO Evolve?
One question that many companies ask involves the speed of the evolution of SEO tactics over the last few years. What was once considered to be acceptable SEO practices now fall under the gray or even black hat SEO banner. Changes that have been incorporated by Google over the last two years have been drastic and for the online industry, devastating.
As SEO author Ashley Tate says in a recent SEO-for-beginners article, "SEO strategies have gone through incredible amounts of evolution over the last year. From algorithm updates like Penguin and Panda to new search engine restrictions on over-optimization and spammy links, optimization methods for getting the best rankings in search engines all across the web have advanced."
Tate is not alone. Other SEO industry pundits agree. As SEO expert Harvey Pearce puts it, "The landscape of SEO has been changing dramatically over the last year and frankly it's been a big job to keep up. It's absolutely clear now that some of the risky tactics that worked over the last few years not only no longer work but can actually get your website penalized and given a ranking penalty."
What Were the Google Panda and Penguin Updates Designed to Do?
In a little more than a year, Google has implemented more than 500 updates. The two largest are the much-discussed and seldom-loved Panda update (which launched in February of 2011), and, most recently, the Penguin update (which launched in May of 2012). The updates from Google come so continually that SEO experts often look at drops in traffic in conjunction with the period in which the changed were implemented to help explain the gains and losses. One site covers the algorithm changes for that specific purpose.
The Panda update was implemented to reduce search engine rankings for websites that provide no useful purpose or service to the end user. Known as content farms, these sites often copy content from other sites or generate content using filler material--that is, enough text on any given subject to get a hit in the search engines, but not enough to be useful for any human looking for specific info on that topic. The end result of Panda is good for anyone who uses a search engine to search the web, and in the long run, good for SEO practices, which were at that time refocused on producing quality, relevant content to engage a community, rather than entice them with bogus filler material of no use to anyone.
The Google Penguin update, on the other hand, targeted what Google termed as "webspam." As Google puts it, "The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google's existing quality guidelines." Penguin penalized sites that used tactics that, even before the update, where considered to be black hat techniques, such as keyword stuffing. It also penalized for less obvious techniques such as "link incorporating"--the tactic of using large numbers of irrelevant outgoing links in a page of content. Sites using legitimate SEO tactics had nothing to fear, according to Google, but those that actively engaged in webspam tactics for the purpose of manipulating search engine results would notice the difference the most.
Does the SEO Firm You Just Hired Use Black Hat Tactics?
The term "SEO service firms" brings up more than 16 million results on Google, while "SEO firm reviews" brings up more than 3 million itself. Finding a competent, reliable SEO firm is not easy, given the large number of fly-by-night SEO firms and the fact that no SEO industry standard is currently available for SEO companies to adhere to.
Many SEO companies will guarantee top search engine results placement. This can be accomplished only two ways: One tactic is providing high-quality content and using legitimate SEO techniques. The other is black hat SEO tactics. Many companies are unaware of just what an SEO firm is actually doing to their websites to achieve such goals, or if they are aware, they are unlikely to even know that such techniques are considered a no-no by Google--or could be considered as such in the next round of updates.
What Is SEO in 2012?
Last year social networking SEO was still in its infancy, but today it's an important part of the SEO toolbox. Keeping up with SEO is not like keeping up with changes to an operating system---it requires serious handling and constant attention from an SEO professional who is aware of the latest aspects of online marketing in regard to SEO. For example, Google is now working to replace or devalue the use of "anchor text" and instead encourage what it terms "niche/content relevancy of linking sites" that primarily determine the relevancy of a link, which helps to tell if a website is legitimately providing a service, product or information about a given searched topic.
So what does legitimate "white hat" SEO involve these days? As mentioned above, many technologies and departments are now involved in the continual process of SEO. Tasks that used to fall under the hat of a web developer or designer, such as the amount of time it takes a page to load, or how well a site performs, or the design, layout and location of a website's navigation and pagination system, now fall under SEO. Other things, such as the quality of the content on a website, or the way that content is formatted, the use of sub-domains and cross-domain content, or even the user experience and site's usability, are now included in an effective SEO plan.
Social Integration and SEO
The use of social networks and what is termed "social integration"--how well your company integrates social networking into its main site--is increasingly important to SEO. It involves various aspects of SEO, including ecommerce, international, local and mobile SEO, as well as mastering the use of social networking sites to effectively market to, and not isolate, an audience. Just as most companies woke up to the reality of the need for an online presence in the 1990s, today companies are beginning to realize the true value of having a Twitter, Facebook and Google+ account.
Google Places and Yahoo Local have also become increasingly important to SEO, as they are places that legitimate links to a company site can be gained, as well as consumer reviews and feedback. Black hat techniques such as "review stuffing" are already in use by some SEO firms--a practice that is likely to be taken more seriously as social relevance continues to increase.
New SEO techniques are appearing regularly, such as the use of well-written alt tags for images--important for inclusion in Google Images search result--and LSI (latent semantic indexing)--a technique that Google is integrating into its algorithm that gives extra context points (and better ranking) for using related terms other than those keywords that are being targeted, within the content of a page. If a website is targeting a specific term, such as "wallpaper" along with other terms such as paint, do-it-yourself and wallpaper remover, it will be rewarded by Google. If, however, the website instead uses the same term, or parts of the term, over and over again in the content, the site will be penalized.
Why In-house SEO is Better
All of this information can be daunting, but that is why having an in-house SEO position is often in the best interest of a company that relies on its web presence for sales and marketing. By having someone whose sole focus is SEO, he or she can spend the time it takes to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques and work with those in the various departments of a company to incorporate (or remove) SEO tactics in their site.
Additionally, a company has much greater control (and knowledge) of what techniques are being used if the SEO role is filled in-house. An staff SEO specialist's paycheck should revolve around the ethical use of legitimate SEO practices to increase a website's search engine ranking.