Brutal Reality: SEO is a Process that Guarantees Frustration

Picture of man discouraged to illustrate SEO frustration

Whether you do SEO for a living (like me), or hire someone to do it for you, I need to prepare you for something.

SEO Discouragement

I don’t mean to overstate this. Obviously business (heck, life for that matter) is impossible without encountering obstacles and disappointments. Sometimes the most obviously brilliant plan leads to disaster. Or, maybe even worse, it leads to no change, with nothing to show benefit (and prove the strategy right) or harm (and prove the strategy wrong).

Nevertheless, I think Search Engine Optimization is in its own category for plans that don’t seem to work out right.

TL;DR I’m going to lay out a great example of SEO disappointment that made the site owner almost give up on SEO, and then I’m going to demonstrate how giving up on SEO would be the WRONG CONCLUSION to come to during a period of SEO discouragement.

Just today I received an email from a client who has been working away at their site for many years, and has hired the team at Horizon Web Marketing for some professional SEO help.

“I am feeling a bit discouraged,” the client wrote me, “it seems the more I keep trying, the more [my competitor] is kicking my butt.”

In our field we see this time and again. We feel it ourselves. That feeling that you’re making the changes, you’re doing what Google recommends, and if anything your site is doing worse than before. What’s more, from what you can see, your competitor is doing nothing, or the wrong things, and they are performing better.

I want to give you an example that hits close to home. I’m talking about a travel website that is NOT a client of our digital marketing agency, but was developed by a friend of mine. I’ve helped my friend out with advice, analysis, and encouragement, and they have worked tirelessly and diligently to apply themselves to optimizing their site for search. For years it’s worked well for them. But let’s take a look at what happened to their site in 2018 as Google released update after update:

Chart showing Google updates and rankings declines

Pretty Sad SEO Results, Right?

Here’s the ironic part of this. Google has been incessantly pushing unique, high quality content across the Internet. They preach it like Billy Graham preaching personal salvation.

The friend of mine whose site you see above, whose identity I’m not revealing for privacy reasons, has a website developed over 20 years with objectively among the best, least commercial content available online about visiting a certain Central American country. The site has been checked and rechecked for technical issues. The backlink profile has been vetted and any low quality links weeded out and “disavowed.” Every page is transparent without collecting improper information. The owner and publisher, and the author of many of their hundreds of blog posts, is a recognized, international expert in their field. Everything about the site conforms to Google’s E-A-T acronym (expertise, authoritativeness, trust – for some of the best explanation of this, check out SEO update expert Marie Haynes’s page on EAT).

And despite all of that, plus a heavy investment in SEO, which they made as they responded to the downturns you see on the above timeline, they were hammered not once, but twice by major Google updates.

Now let’s look at one of their major competitors. No such negative effect. Unlike the previous website, none of their content displays an author, so right off the bat they fall short in terms of E-A-T. So were they slammed down by those Google updates? Here’s the chart:

Screen shot of website staying strong in Google rankings

Makes no sense, right? They were kicking the quality site’s butt!

Well here’s the REALLY interesting thing about this website: almost every ranking page I looked at actually triggered malware alerts. When I checked the pages with the best malware checker I know of for this type of situation, namely Sucuri, they also said the page was dangerously infected.

So we have on the one hand a quality, authoritative website declining in search, and a website that actually was at risk of infecting its visitors holding up just fine in Google.

Clarification for you SEOs who might be reading this:

  • I know I’m not detailing all the other factors here, such as backlink profile, site speed, mobile friendliness, site architecture, etc, I guess you’ll have to take my word that I went through all the usual checks (after all, I have over 100 points on my checklist, which you can download for free here)
  • Additionally, I also vetted the site with one of my Search Engine Academy fellow trainers, Tampa  SEO expert Steve Scott, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything that was hurting my friend
  • Finally, yes, I reported the malware infected pages to Google numerous times over a months-long period, without apparent impact

As you might imagine, the site owner was beyond discouraged. I shared in that discouragement and continued to advise the only thing I could: persist with SEO best practices and over time you probably will see improvement.

Not Every SEO Challenge Ends Well, but This One Has … So Far

In this case, patience and persistence have been paying off. Here’s an updated version of the chart you saw above:

Chart showing a site recovering in SEO rankings

I want to stress that during that decline, lots of SEO changes were being made.

During the recovery period, no major SEO changes were being made.

How’s that for counter-intuitive irony? It’s maddening, frustrating, discouraging. But there’s a lesson to be learned. As you’re working hard at your SEO, sometimes it seems like the most useless, counterproductive endeavor imaginable. In this case, if we had fallen into the “correlation is causation” trap, we might have lost our heads.

Did I think, even at the time things were going badly, even in the face of discouragement, that SEO was useless or even harmful? Absolutely not. I thought, “this is merely an example of what Google themselves says, expect SEO to take 4 months to a year or more to pay off” (and in my experience it can take much more; in this example 9 months to start paying off and benefits are still being seen 12 months later; see the video below if you’d like to view that Google reference for yourself).

Here’s the conclusion: if you enter the world of SEO, prepare for discouragement and frustration. But don’t give in to it. Don’t lose heart, if you persist, your best results are quite possibly right around the corner.