The Sliding Scale Fallacy Of Search Engine Positions

By | January 28, 2013

I’ve not been posting a great deal over the last few weeks, I bet that comes as a relief to some of you. What have I been doing? I’ve been out and about, speaking to clients and getting on with some “bricks and mortar” work.

It’s a common thing this time a year. Many of my contracts begin and end in January and require renegotiation. I have one or two new clients, and conversely a couple have left.

Remember other webmasters are also engaged in active SEOYou may also be aware that I’m not really that keen on bricks and mortar clients or local SEO. Despite having an assistant to help me with content creation and link building, all the admin to my company is done by myself. Client management is not something I enjoy. Receipts, invoices, chasing late payment..Hours pent with an ear pressed to the phone discussing new product lines, being told they will process the payment to my bank today, whatever…yeuch!

The hours that really fail to add any value to my own business are the long meetings. I like to think I’m quite clearheaded, so when meeting is convened to discuss the previous period’s search engine optimisation work, the fee payable and how the contract can progress going forward, I have all the figures to hand and know full well that we could have talked through everything that needs talking through inside 20 minutes, shaking hands and the deal done… but that’s never how it works out is it?

A typical SEO meeting is half a day, and in January having several of these meetings, some of them some distance from home, the whole process involves perhaps a week of downtime.

There are some advantages in this. After returning from a long discussion last Thursday it occurred to me that I have been asked one question by nearly every client I have spoken to this year.

A clients idealised idea of the climb “Up Mt Google Rank” – A smooth increase in effort for each successive position.

A simplified and unrealistic view of Google's index difficulty.

“My site seems to have slowed down and isn’t climbing so much any more. Why is that?”

I’m always a little bit irritated when this comes up, the metric I prize above everything else is the client’s profitability through their website. Behind that is the overall traffic level. The number of targeted visitors that they receive. The right business thinking should be that if they double their profitability while not moving one spot on Google then that’s a job well done. Who cares about the number Google give you for one particular phrase if you are making more and more cash?

But as my title is “search engine optimisation consultant”, I am obliged to give an answer. But what has just occurred to me is the clients themselves don’t understand the nature of search engines and the fact that there is no smooth scale of ranking of any particular phrase or turn.

Here is an example;

Let’s say I have a new client, with a new website, in a niche for local marketing. Selling a product or service within say a 10 mile radius of their business premises.

Initially they rank for nothing, but within the first three months several of the long tail targets have hit page 1 and the “on the nose” money terms are perhaps on page 2 and 3.

From then on, each month, we are looking for an aggregate upward gain across the range of words and phrases. (I’m happy to say that most months this occurs).

At some point, in almost every case, from seeing steady progress over a period of months, the site hits an invisible wall. If you are lucky this is somewhere on page one, if you’re not its lower down in the search engines where the money really “isn’t”.

Here is the fallacy,

“If we can just get past this site, we will be back on our way again.”

Two issues seem to be at play here;

The first is that the graduation of competition is not even. There is no gradual competition curve for each word or phrase. The sites at number 11 and 12 in Google could be incredibly easy to beat. The site at number 10 could suddenly ramp up the difficulty 50 fold. Did you do your competition analysis?

How many high competition phrases really are in terms of competition difficulty. Notice the possibility to be lulled into a false sense of security by the low level of competition up to a certain point. Note also that the scale on the left is an order of magnitude higher than that used in the first graph.

A more realistic competition analysis view in SEO terms

Of course I will respond by saying that the website is bringing in more visitors and creating more cash quarter by quarter. And that is normally enough. But I’ve realised and come to understand that clients don’t see the Internet as it really is.

They apportion a difficulty level for ranking on a sliding scale stating at “most difficult” at number one on page one, then a steady line (or curve) down.

It is probably the fact that a number is assigned in their mind that means that this erroneous conclusion is drawn.

“1 = 100% hard. 2 = 99% hard 3=…”

If a site is ranked number one then it has difficulty level 1, if a site is rank number two for particular phrase that it has a difficulty level of 2.  That’s not how it works.

The other issue here is that clients, as well as those professionals helping them with their optimisation, can fall into the trap of thinking that they are the only ones working hard to promote their site.

Here’s an issue I have never seen mentioned.

Competition analysis is something you need to do regularly even for the same terms and phrases.

It’s something you need to revisit every three months at least. This will give you an idea of which of the websites you are competing with are also indulging in active SEO.

In high competition phrases and on page 1 of Google it will be most of them.

Here a reality check is required. As an example I had a client who sourced and sold crystal bracelets. The competition on page 2 of Google was very weak. The competition on page 1 of Google was almost exclusively high street shops and well-known Internet outlets.

Monsoon, Asos, Amazon, Accessorize and the big high street jewellers.

The idea that an SEO campaign costing a couple of hundred dollars a month was going to beat the tens of thousands per month that these big guys paid to promote their sites is not realistic.

But that didn’t stop the customer thinking that, because getting to number 12 in Google was easy, it was just a case of scaling that up via some predetermined and proportional amount to get onto page 1 and possibly number one.

Su, my VA, creates links and broadcasts content primarily using Ultimate Demon. I’ve asked her to keep a graph of the number of indexed links created, the amount of content added and the position each website we are trying to rank for is achieving against our competition. The results are nearly always more in line with the second graph on this page than the first.

What do you think?