The SERPS are not an abstract

Another day, another company closes. In what is a remarkably candid and candour-free missive to customers, The Children’s Furniture company has admitted that they are closing as a direct result of engaging in ‘SEO’ and a change in Google’s algorithm. I suggest you read it.

This is just one case that has come to the attention of a wider than usual circle. Businesses die like this every day, unable to crack the SERPs in the first place, or tossed casually into the bin overnight by the same algorithm that yesterday rated them as a trustworthy site.

Were the Children’s Furniture Company a good company? Who knows? Certainly not Google. Nor did they care. What is it to Google if they fufilled all their orders, had great customer satisfaction and a satisfactory range of products? The algorithm trumps all and thus customer choice is lessened and another few mouths are on the dole queue.

If you think that the Google of 2012 is a search engine, you’re fooling yourself. It is an advertising channel. It was only yesterday that a screengrab was doing the rounds showing that just 14% of a Google search result is made of organic listings. The rest? Adwords and Google’s own properties – YouTube, News, Shopping and so on. Throw in the increasing personalisation and localisation of results and  tie-ins with review sites you’re left with not much space for the little guy. Even the long tail has been ceded to such “quality” sites as eHow and Yahoo! Answers leaving the middle ground for people to fight over the scraps that fall from the top table.

And maybe that’s fair enough. Businesses used to close all the time because they couldn’t afford  to advertise during Coronation Street and no-one cried about it very much. That’s an expensive way to get in front of a million noses and get your brand known that was always closed to small business. If Tesco decided they were going to start selling paint and rollers, then your little round-the-corner DIY shop was often toast by the time the 3rd ad for Tesco Paint was on rotation during Hollyoaks.

Google was supposed to be different: a leveller. If you sold paint out of your little shack on the A650, you could go toe to toe with Wickes, B&Q and any retailer in the world so long as you paid your dues, built a good site, offered good service and worked within Google’s guidelines. And for a while, that held up. It’s still the message they peddle.

But I think we can safely call bullshit on that notion now. The head phrases in any competitive vertical are on brand lockdown. In the top 30 results for “used ford focus” to give an example with personal resonance, you can see just 11 domains. Worse still, if you’re in the know about the industry, you know that Autotrader and Exchange and Mart are proper, established ‘brands’ in the sector. You also know that someone like bought their way into the top 10 on link building 5 or 6 years ago and are grandfathered in on the back of backing from the Daily Mail and, latterly, Mannheim. You also know that a bunch of the remaining sites are aggregators, affiliates and, bluntly, ranking on the back of expensive link building programs which they are doing right now as you’re reading this, apparently without harm.

Some of these sites have thousands of thin-content duplicate pages, boilerplate word-replacement text (not even spun) and are for all intents and purposes affiliate sites with some content stuck on top of a linkbuying campaign. I’m not knocking that model – hell, I’ve spent the last few years playing at this end of the pitch so I can’t claim any moral high ground. But then, neither can Google.

What I do know is that a good SERP indicates nothing about the quality of the site that ranks there. On AutoTrader and Exchange and Mart, for example, you will find private sellers selling their own cars direct from their driveway. That’s fine, but in most cases neither buyer nor seller understand what they could be buying or selling.

Anyone who’s bought a lemon from a friend of  a friend or for £500 from Happy Jack’s Carshack and Greasy Spoon knows that you can find yourself hurtling down a moneypit if you buy a duff car – or maybe down a motorway embankment if you’re really unlucky. So are these sites the “right” sites for Google to be showing, or is it just an unlucky function of brand recognition? Maybe Autotrader and E&M are not so bad – but what of Gumtree or FridayAd? Buying something as potentially expensive and lethal as a car from a site like that is Russian Roulette, but Google will happily serve them up on the basis of ‘brand’.

Matt Cutts will stand up each and every day in his webmaster videos and tell you to “build great content” and that Google will do the rest. In truth, that’s horseshit. You can build all the great content in the universe, but without spending time (and therefore money) promoting that content everywhere you can then you might as well piss your money into the drain. “Great” can’t be algorithmically defined – and links are an increasingly poor proxy in an increasingly “social” world as opposed to the publishing model in which Google was forged.

In 2012 “great content” means “most expensively promoted content”. Meerkats will do the trick for you, if you can afford the millions necessary in terms of buying power and creative muscle.  Yes, out of the back of that will come “natural” links and they’ll be dutifully counted, but if you’re spunking a few grand each month on the side on direct linkbuilding and “editorial coverage”, Google will probably go easy on you. After all, if you don’t see Meerkats in the top 10 you’d think Google was broken.

Great isn’t cheap.

Up ’til now, it was cheaper to buy an SEO agency to come in and ‘fix’ the gap by tinkering with the site and going out to buy links and build networks for you. No need to worry about the creative (how much ‘creative’ is in a link anyway?) or the editorial. But if you’re not there now, you’re going to find it next to impossible to get in on the ground floor now unless you’ve got plenty of time (itself merely a proxy for money). And if this is route that got to your successful position, don’t feel too smug about it. If Google haven’t visited your vertical yet, they surely will.

So just as TV has become the playground of those who can afford the entrance fee, Google is remorselessly headed in that same direction and more small businesses are going to find themselves burned like The Children’s Furniture Company.

And actually, this is your opportunity. Stop looking at the SERPs, tracking that notional ranking and assuming that this week’s traffic is  tomorrow’s income stream. Think about what you genuinely do that is different. About the value you can add. About how you can tap into other spaces such as tablets or mobiles. In those areas, you can still legitimately beat bigger names who actually offer poor service. Ultimately, word will spread. But you’re fighting a war – not a battle.

If you’ve got £50000 to spend should you buy in some SEO? For the first time since I started in this game, I can’t truthfully say “yes”.