The Great Google/SEO Communications Conundrum


The Great Google/SEO Communications Conundrum
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Google is certainly good at throwing wrenches into SEO processes.

Google likes to channel their inner coach from the movie “Dodgeball”.

“If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.” – Patches O’Houlihan.

Patches O’Houlihan might as well be Google’s John Mueller, throwing heavy metal objects at SEO professionals.

One such recently hurled SEO wrench involves link building, a subject I hold close to my heart.

Google’s John Mueller, in a Google Webmaster Help thread, said:

“If you’re making quality links to your site, then that would be considered against our webmaster guidelines, and by that, those links would definitely not be considered ‘quality.’”

On the surface, it seems that Google is saying that any work done building links to a site is tantamount to spamming.

The outcry from a confused search community was like a cornered animal – lashing out at anyone and everyone, including other SEO pros and Google, trying to protect their precious territory.

Many SEO black hats were quick to smugly respond with their tired mantra of “See, if you do anything to manipulate the search engine results, you’re no better than a spammer like me.”

The debate became so prevalent that Mueller took to Twitter to answer questions about his statement. His clarification shed some light on his thinking, but his efforts didn’t seem to do much to clear the confusion.

There’s a Lot to Unpack Here

First, let’s talk about Mueller’s comments.

After reading his clarifications, as well as looking closely at his wording in his original comments – the key word seems to be “make”.

If you “make” links, you are probably violating Google’s webmaster guidelines.

The question is, what does it mean to “make” links.

I have to assume that Mueller is referring to those who create sites or participate in Personal Blog Networks (PBNs), where links are not earned, but they are made by someone for mostly SEO purposes.

The big distinction I see is that if you control the property where a link is given, you may be violating Google’s rules.

But this brings up more questions. Internal linking and linking between properties that you own has been a standard SEO practice for as long as links have been a ranking factor.

Where does earning links slide into making links?

In a Twitter exchange, Mueller indicated that Google is OK with buying links, as long as the links are “nofollowed”. I think most of us in the SEO community already knew this.

But the context of this exchange indicated Mueller was doubling down on his statement that “made links” are against Google’s Terms of Use and may put a site in the crosshairs for a manual action or algorithmic downgrade.

Today, as I write this piece, another Twitter exchange with several SEO folks and Mueller is getting attention.

This conversation centers around ideal word count, anchor text mentions, and backlinks.

Mueller states on Twitter that none of those metrics imply a quality piece of content.

To veteran SEO professionals, this should not come as a surprise.

In my opinion, anyone working off of an “ideal” content word count, number of anchor text mentions, or similar hard metric is doing it wrong.

In a Facebook group I belong to, there was a request for comment on Mueller’s statements.

Here is my comment:

“Someday SEOs will realize that rankings are not black and white. The algorithm is no longer linear. There is no such thing as ideal word count, ideal anchor text mentions or (gasp) keyword density. Many SEOs desire to ‘be right” and have an exact formula are damaging the industry. It’s sophomoric to think that there is an overall formula that will universally work to increase rankings for every keyword. If you think that there is, it’s probably time to find a new profession. I might suggest coding, where there are more absolutes. Don’t get me wrong, there is value in knowing why a site is ranking for a certain keyword. But it’s correlation, not causation. Just because something works for one site doesn’t mean it will work for another. You can create hypotheses and test them – but realize that you aren’t going to come up with a unified theory around content length or backlink numbers. You create the best you can, promote the best you can and make sure that you do what Google says. If you create quality content (which is subjective and hard to define), promote that content adequately and make sure your technical aspects are up to snuff, you succeed. If you try to work in some formula, you’ll usually end up failing.”

I think fellow SEJ contributor Jenny Halasz said it best in How Ranking Factors Studies Damage the SEO Industry:

“ALWAYS and NEVER do not exist in SEO.”

John Mueller Has the Hardest Job in SEO

Effective communication is difficult.

I’ve spent most of my professional career studying communication in both interpersonal and mass settings.

And I think Mueller has the hardest job in SEO.

Another thing I’ve studied for most of my life is theology.

I grew up in a Christian home, with a father who studied theology at a leading conservative seminary.

I’ve been immersed in the Bible since I can remember.

Over the years, my conclusions from reading the Bible have changed from my upbringing.

I don’t see scripture as a black and white instruction manual.

Context is of ultimate importance in understanding any religious work.

Without context, it’s easy to pick and choose scripture that supports your own worldview.

It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to realize that the misinterpretation of scripture to defend a defined worldview can have disastrous consequences.

But it’s human nature to want to support our own worldviews with communication from those in authority.

There is no doubt that Mueller is an established authority.

After all, Mueller is authorized to speak on behalf of Google, and he is privy to inside information about the Google algorithm.

So, much like the apostle Paul, Mueller’s every word is scrutinized by those who follow the god of search – namely Google.

The difference between Mueller’s tweets and Paul’s letters to the early church is that Mueller can, if he wants, clarify his electronic missives.

But once Mueller says something, those words can be taken out of context – much like religious leaders have been doing to the apostle Paul since the early church.

And like Paul, Mueller’s (and other Google spokespeople both past and present) tweets, posts and other responses live on forever – not in a document passed down through the generations, but on digital formats that can spread misinformation faster that Guttenberg ever imagined.

And that is how SEO myths develop.

It’s our duty to dispel these SEO myths and work to understand what Google is trying to communicate.

We must also realize that Google is neither omniscient nor infallible.

We need to push back when the communication doesn’t match reality – but also realize what Google is trying to communicate.

Like I said, communication is hard – no matter if you are on the sending or receiving end.

In Conclusion

Google doesn’t have to communicate with the SEO community.

It’s important for all of us to realize that it’s not our right to get clarification from Mueller or anyone else at Google.

Google’s communications are not commandments.

They are not written in stone by the hand of God.

When we quote a Google representative to make our point, we need to make sure we are aware of the context in which the quote was given.

And we need to continue doing our jobs, no matter what wrenches Google throws our way.

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Image Credits

Featured Image: Modified by author, October 2018

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