My Last 10 Years as an SEO Nerd and an SEO Cheerleader
I’m told we just entered a new decade. I’ve been too busy to notice. Kidding.
I’ve always said that 1 year working in the SEO industry is like 3 years working anywhere else. So, for those of you who started their career in 2010, happy 30th anniversary! This is your pearl year.
As we enter the Roaring 20s, I thought this would be a good chance to look back at the last decade I’ve spent as an SEO nerd and an SEO cheerleader.
The amount that has changed over these last 10 years is staggering. The way Google indexes our pages is different. The way they display your search results is different. The ways we search and the devices we use are different.
Some of the basic fundamentals and strategies of SEO are the same as they were in 2010. However, most of them will hold you back today. Things are more challenging than they’ve ever been and the playbooks can change overnight.
The challenge of being an SEO consultant is that the rulebook is changing month-to-month, and sometimes week-to-week. The only constant is that Google algorithms and your link building strategies are constantly going to be changing on the fly.
There is no way of predicting when that big algorithm update or announcement is going to shuffle the deck. All we can do when a big algorithm update drops is analyze, learn, reflect, adjust, and keep going.
If You Never Lose in SEO, You Actually Have No idea How to Win
To work in SEO, you have to learn how to take a punch and keep fighting.
An iron jaw and titanium skin will serve you well. An algo update can completely change the landscape overnight. We’ve seen it happen more than once.
When this happens, you know in your heart it’s time for you as the SEO expert to double down. You need to write better content, you need to fix the website. You need to do something, because Google didn’t do that update for no reason.
Say what you want about Google, but every update they do is in the name of a better internet for everyone. There’s always a reason.
Figuring out the reason and the response is your job. And those are the invaluable lessons that teach you how to really do the job. The best clients are the ones who will listen to you after one of those algorithm updates and listen to your plan to rebound… But more on that later.
There are wins and losses. I’m proud to say that, over the last 10 years, my win-loss record is closer to the Patriots than the Leafs. It has to be, or I would be a waiter somewhere right now.
If You Put SEO Expert on a Business Card, You Better Know Your Shit
I’ve been doing SEO since 2008 when I started off working at Canada’s largest search engine company (at the time). And I’ve been totally addicted ever since.
I didn’t really get to ease into things. I have personally managed at least 40 to 50 campaigns a month, every single month, since April of 2008. People say there is something very wrong with me. There may be… Not too many other people in Canada (or the world) have handled that type of SEO volume. But, I have never known any other way.
I am truly proud of all the work my team and I have done over the years and all the amazing results we’ve earned for our clients. At the same time, it has been tough. It has been a challenge. Yes, there have been many sleepless nights, especially right after Google algorithm updates. But, I’m extremely passionate about it and as a result, I have scaled my business immensely and I take a lot of pride in that.
You have to be passionate about it. It’s a challenge that nobody should take lightly. When someone wants to hire a professional SEO consultant they need someone they can trust. You look someone in the eye, you take their money. You shake their hand and you say that you’re going to deliver page #1 results. Now, it’s on, period. Buckle up, baby!
I’m a competitive guy. Just ask anyone who watches me scream at the TV during a Leafs game. And that competitive spirit fuels me and supercharges our entire team. “We’re not here to just work. We’re here to win.”
After all the dust has settled, I can confidently say, I know my shit. And my team knows their shit. But, to get to this point, here is the journey that we gray-haired SEOs have had to survive.
2010 – 2012: The Wild West of SEO
The Web in 2010: No law, no sheriff
Let’s set the Wayback Machine for 2010. My online handle at the time was NicheMasterFlex. Oh, yes it was!
A lot of people call this the glory days of SEO. I don’t know about that. It certainly was easier. OK, It was way easier. I could get a white page to rank. Try that now, I dare you.
It truly was the wild west. There was no law and no sheriff.
There was no responsive design. Nobody was searching on phones yet, because websites looked terrible on mobile, unless they had a .mobi. The iPhone came out in 2007, but Apple didn’t take over the web until 2010 with the iPhone 4.
As an SEO, we didn’t worry about page speed — everything was slow. HTTPS security didn’t even exist. This was the landscape.
I would go to a popular web/internet marketing forum called Digital Point, which was also one of the biggest link buying and selling communities at the time. I would put out an offer that I was looking to buy links site-wide, and footer links as well from time to time.
I spent day and night on Digital Point, building connections with bloggers. And that’s where it really all began for me. I would build, learn, comment, participate and meet like-minded SEOs. I built relationships, many of which I still have today.
It was a link arms race. The more links you had, and exact match keywords you stuffed into them, the quicker you ranked. Period. Back then I could rank the site number one in three to six months. No questions asked.
It was all about how many links you could buy, for the cheapest price, that were page-ranked three or higher. That’s it. That’s literally how hard SEO was for many niches. Writing blog content and socializing that content barely existed.
However, a few years later, something happened. Google announced the Penguin 1.0 update. That update flipped over the link building bandwagon and then set it on fire.
The Updates That Defined the Decade
Before we dive into the next section, and how the Penguin shook the SEO world, I’ll just add a bit of context.
Between 2011 and 2013, there were three absolutely massive Google algo updates the cost SEO consultants like me a lot of sleep: The Panda and the Penguin, and to a lesser extent, the Hummingbird.
The Penguin Update:
This was the biggest update, in my view. The term game-changer is overused these days. But the Penguin legitimately meant a whole new link building ballgame.
We will try to summarize the Penguin Update in a few hundred words. But, at the time, a few million words were written and spoken about this update. Many of them cuss words from jilted marketers and business owners.
The Penguin was Google’s “webspam algorithm update.” In April of 2014, Google blogged that, “We see all sorts of webspam techniques every day, from keyword stuffing to link schemes that attempt to propel sites higher in rankings.”
“The goal of many of our ranking changes is to help searchers find sites that provide a great user experience and fulfill their information needs. We also want the ‘good guys’ making great sites for users, not just algorithms, to see their effort rewarded.”
As I alluded to earlier, the state of link building (and SEO, as a whole) was very primitive and pretty rough in 2012. Whitehat and blackhat existed even back then, but there was a lot of gray.
The Penguin was officially announced in 2012, with several updates before it became part of Google’s core algo in 2016. Things got a bit confusing in between, with updates going by different names in the SEO community. So, let’s lay out a timeline.
Penguin 1.0: April 24, 2012 – The official launch
Penguin 1.1: May 25th, 2013 – Matt Cutts Tweets, “We pushed 1st Penguin algo data refresh an hour ago”
Penguin 1.2: October 5, 2012 – Another refresh
Penguin 2.0: May 22, 2013 – Cutts says this update is big and, “2.3% of English-US queries are affected to the degree that a regular user might notice.”
Google Penguin 2.1: October 4, 2013 – This update was said to help the Penguin crawl deeper into sites, although there is no official confirmation of that.
Google Penguin 3.0: October 17, 2014 – Another data refresh, but was still given 3.0 status. This would be the last major update before…
Google Penguin 4.0: September 23, 2016 – Two years after the last update, Google confirms that the Penguin was now part of the core algo.
This was actually really good news for businesses and marketers that may have been hit with the Penguin Penalty previously. This update meant any work that you did to clean up your link profile would be rewarded and noticed much faster.
The Panda Update:
The Panda preceded the Penguin by about a year. It was also an attempt to cut down on web spam, most notably link farms. And something did have to be done. Again every Google update is done in the name of a better internet.
2011’s internet was pretty rough. Odds are pretty good that you had to Google things twice to get what you wanted, because the first result was too spammy. You hated this, but Google hated it way more.
Business Insider actually declared a time-of-death on Google in 2011, saying, “Google’s Search Algorithm Has Been Ruined, Time To Move Back To Curation.”
So, Google said “enough is enough” and announced the Panda by blogging, “we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking—a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries—and we wanted to let people know what’s going on.”
“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”
These were shots fired almost directly at link farms/content farms like Demand Media. And those shots landed! In fact, Demand Media rebranded as Leaf Group to try to hit the reset button and shed the content farm image.
The Panda was a big shake-up. Smart SEOs changed their playbook after Panda, so they were somewhat prepared for the Penguin. Not everyone did. As a result, the Panda and the Penguin tag-teamed to close a lot of SEO agencies.
2012 – 2014 – The Post-Penguin and Panda Paradigm Shift
Google pulled the rug out from under us when Penguin 1.0 hit
Personally, I actually did OK. I had just started my own business. I didn’t have that many clients yet and none of my clients really got hit.
But, as one of the first SEOs for hire in Canada, I was fielding calls from a lot of really upset people who were leaving other agencies. That’s what most of the next two years were for me. I showed people the Penguin penalties and issues with their link profiles and came up with a plan to fix them.
My SEO consulting business scaled dramatically at this time as I was overwhelmed with new client request and my reputation here in Canada continued to grow.
The post-Panda-and-Penguin years really set the table for what we now call organic link building. Link builders now had to start giving a damn about content quality and domain authority.
For all of you young SEOs out there: If you’re thinking of starting your own agency, make sure you do it right before a massive upheaval in the industry. Kidding!
2014 – 2016: Running in Neutral
It often felt like SEO was dead during these years. It felt like you were constantly betting against the house. Google’s always going to win. Anything that actually worked felt like black voodoo magic.
There was an industry-wide feeling of us-versus-them between the SEOs and Google. There was some distrust and a lot of SEOs often felt like they weren’t getting the whole story from Google.
There was a lot of, “Hey Google. You said ABC, but data is showing me XYZ. J’accuse!”
Matt Cutts was sort of the poster boy for this time, as he was often the one handing out Google’s bad news. A lot of SEOs thought he was the devil, or at least doing the devil’s work. Poor Matt.
For example, in 2014, Matt very famously declared guest posting dead. I’ve addressed this a few times, as guest blogging is still very much alive and thriving today. Matt was declaring guest blogging, as it existed in 2014, dead. He basically declared spammy guest blogging dead, as that is mainly what people were doing.
Let’s also not forget that Google announced a systematic and gradual shift towards mobile-first indexing in 2016. The writing was on the wall for some time, as we all knew that mobile browsing numbers were poised to take over desktop numbers.
This meant we all had to shift towards mobile-first planning. And SEO agencies had to figure out how to get enough SEO content onto each mobile page, without killing the user experience and overwhelming the user.
The tools back then were also a bit more primitive. I was using different combinations of Moz, Majestic and Google Search Console to cross-reference and create a big picture. That is not how I recommend doing things today.
People that got their sites smacked around some rebounded, some started a new site. Slowly but surely, from the ashes, the SEO industry started to really pick up.
2017 – 2020: SEO’s Age of Enlightenment
This brings us into the present, where the Google search algo makes more sense than it ever has before. Everything that Google has done to clean up Search, as a whole, has brought us here.
The experience is the best it has ever been for a searcher. Meanwhile, things make sense for marketers and SEOs too. We know what we have to do. We have to focus on creating quality content and organic links. It’s harder to do, but it makes a lot of sense.
The algorithms are getting smarter, businesses are getting smarter, and bloggers are getting smarter. When you have all those three things working together, the algorithm makes more sense than ever.
Also, information is more readily available than ever. It’s the most united our industry has ever been, in my mind. We have our blogger communities and SEO communities sharing knowledge all over Twitter, Facebook groups, forums, blogs and conferences. We’re all digital marketers who spend all day plugged into the Matrix. We’re addicted to the internet and our phones. We’re addicted to learning new information.
Quality Over Quantity
I really love that a lot of clients “get it” now, and know that they need to pay for real quality, instead of playing SEO like an arcade game, popping in one quarter at a time until they win or quit.
Clients literally are calling and asking for the best links possible at whatever budget. They say, “Whatever piece of content you need to create, and whatever relationships you need to build, we’re in. Go get it done, we trust you.”
This is the total opposite of a few years ago where they wanted the cheapest high-volume we could find and didn’t really know or believe if this whole SEO thing would even work. It’s a total inversion in 10 years. Clients now know that quality is what ranks, so they’re demanding it.
That’s where we are now today, and it’s a nice place to be.
My Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
I’ve only been able to give a broad view of the SEO industry today because so, so much has happened. If you worked in SEO in 2010 and went into a 10-year coma, you would wake up today recognizing nothing on the internet.
However, I’ll try to boil it down to 3 key takeaways that I’ve learned first hand over the years, which also sort of doubles as advice for anyone looking to work in SEO over the next 10 years:
1. Expect CONSTANT Change
Let me put it this way, while I was writing this blog, I got an email announcing another Google update. So, yeah, Google literally changed while I was writing this blog.
This is the pace you need to expect if you hope to work or succeed in SEO. The phrase “The only constant is change” is unbelievably real for us.
Expect the changes instead of being blindsided by them. You will see better results and you won’t burn out in a few months.
2. Google’s Past Informs Your Future
Listen, I cannot predict what Google is going to do next. If I could, I would be living on my own private tropical island right now, instead of Toronto in the middle of the winter.
However, I can make informed predictions and decisions for 3 reasons:
1. I’m still tracking every link I’ve ever created
2. I have a deep knowledge of Google’s history
3. I collaborate with a team that also knows Google’s history
If you run an SEO company, but you don’t have tons of data-driven decision-making processes, you’re going to get smoked.
You can’t predict what Google is going to do, but you can prepare for what they will likely do, based on a few million data points. Try and predict the future by understanding SEO trends of the past.
If you’re reactive instead of predictive, you’re doomed. You’re going to be creating sloppy content and alienating site owners (and Google too for that matter) by approaching them with irrelevant and low-quality content.
3. The Clients That Listen are the Clients That Win
Listen to your SEO company and trust them to do their jobs.
When my plumbing bursts and the water is going everywhere, I call a plumber. I don’t Google or go to Wikipedia and start trying to learn how to do plumbing repair. And if the winter freezes my water again, I blame the cold and not the plumber.
So, listen to us, trust us. That’s why you hired us. SEO is a team sport, so let’s play on the same team.
If you want to start preparing for the next decade of SEO today, let’s talk! Hit me up at 647-448-4449.