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Top 10 Coconut Headphone Moments in SEO

About a year ago, there was a great posting somewhere about how the SEO industry often resembles a Post-WWII “cargo cult”. These were cults set up by Pacific Islanders that missed  all the equipment and food the U.S. Military used to bring in, who mistakenly thought it was some divine intervention that required rituals they saw American servicemen performing.  This eventually led them to performing activities like making their own airfields, waving in non-existent planes with coconut headphones, etc, all in the hopes that material would magically come from the sky, but to no avail.

Because Google, understandably, does not disclose much about their ranking algorithms, SEO folk often create scenarios in their mind to explain effects they are observing.  It’s understandable, but I often feel  that Tinfoil Hats and Coconut Headphones are too rampant in the SEO business.  If you’ve ever seen “The Gods Must Be Crazy” which involves tribesmen concocting a religion around a soda bottle they found, or read the Science Fiction novel “A Canticle for Leibowitz” where an entire post-apocalyptic religion is created based on a long-dead suburbanite’s shopping list, then you’ll know what I mean.

This being my first anniversary of being heavily immersed in the SEO end of the industry, I thought it would be appropriate to share my top 10 “Coconut Headphone” moments – moments where an SEO expert told me something that they truly believe, but which I have a hard time swallowing from an evidence-based viewpoint.  I’ve heard these these from startups, fellow employees here at The Search Agency, and industry pundits I’ve met at trade shows.

I will preface this with – I am absolutely guilty of many of these myself from time to time!

10. “Google doesn’t like that.”
SEOs constantly anthropomorphize Google, their spider, and their ranking algorithms.  The fact is, Google doesn’t like or dislike anything.  It’s just ranking, scoring, and calculating (well, with the exceptions of human review perhaps perhaps – but for the most part Google does not experience actual emotion, it’s much more like Skynet (“The fate of humanity was decided in a microsecond”).

9. “Hmm, I don’t know, but that would probably be a tiebreaker.”
Although few know for sure, it’s reasonable to assume Google’s ranking algorithms are similar to other methods such as credit-scoring etc. which involve straightforward but large regression equations with many factors weighted in different weighs.  As such there’s no real “tiebreaker”, just factors that weigh in.  Certainly anything helps, but to talk about a tiebreaker is a silly way to think about it.

8. “Google has 800  variables in their algorithm”.
I have heard numbers all over the map throughout the industry on this – some guy has it on the Q.T. that it’s 800, some other guy was sitting next to Matt Cutts in an audience and heard him say 250 to another guy,etc….this keeps coming up every few months.   I would be shocked if Matt Cutts even knew how many variables are in the ranking algorithm let alone what they are – it’s akin to Coca-Cola’s formula.  If Google has a clue at all they have parts of the formula broken up and shared out to separate teams, it’s way too valuable to have anyone have access to the whole thing; otherwise they’d be having employees quit the company left and right to become lead-gen millionaires overnight. The bottom line on this is, if your SEO firm tells you that Google has X number of ranking variables, that just illustrates they have no idea what they are talking about.

7. “You need 250 links.”
I picked up a recent book on Search Engine Optimization at Barnes & Noble (while my wife wandered off to get some coffee), and pored through it with great expectations.  One section claimed to answer the question “How many links do I need?”  The author had it all figured out: You need 250 links.  You can imagine the looks I got other shoppers as I began laughing uncontrollably.

6. “Position reporting doesn’t matter anymore because of geo-oriented results.”
This is typically a valid-sounding criticism of SEO-coconut-headphone-types by more rational people, but in my opinion, the coconut-headphone folks have it right and their detractors are wrong in this case.  If traffic is obtained by ranking, and you want to improve your traffic by ranking higher, it’s important to know and track where you’re at – even if measurement is extremely difficult now due to different results being presented by Google in different geographic areas.  Google’s addition to their Webmaster Tools of position tracking information by Geo illustrates that position tracking really is important and is not going away any time soon as an important metric.

5. “Google will see the update within 2 weeks.”
I have seen effects all over the map, going from days to multi-months before Google is fully updated (certainly Google adds things to their index quickly, but that does not mean those pages are ranking for terms – it just means Google knows about the pages – see – there I am anthropomorphizing!).  There is a whole process involving indexing, then later on, ranking pages for queries – often changes can feel like pushing on a string and can just plain take time before they take effect.  The best key to push change along is a solid site map update strategy.

4. “Google told us this is OK, or at least, they don’t mind what we’re doing.”
This is a pet peeve of mine from a previous employer. I used to get people coming in my office all the time telling me “I met with a VP at IBM and they think this”, or “I met with a VP at IBM and IBM wants to do such-and-such with us”.  I would always tell them “no, you sat in a room with some guy that works at IBM – do you know how many VP’s they have? As many as a bank, so they can send ‘execs’ around to help close large deals!”.  With Google it’s the same way – Google is a ~20,000 person company; talking to someone there is far different from getting Google’s blessing or official take on something. Startups with sketchy business models in particular always seem to “have it on the QT” that Google doesn’t mind what they’re doing.

3. “The founders are ex-Google employees.”
Again, Google has ~20,000 employees.  As an ex-Apple and ex-Microsoft employee, I can tell you – I’m not impressed – whoever is being talked about could have been a Google janitor for all you know. There’s a popular book out now about some Microsoft exec changing the world – something about Tibet I think – the cover calls him an entrepreneur.  He’s no one I ever heard of before, and I’ve been in the software industry since 1983.  Working for Microsoft, Google, or Apple does NOT automatically make you an entrepreneur, or anything else particularly special, believe me!  On the other end of the spectrum, a Wall Street Journal blog recently referred to Andy Hertzfeld as “the software engineer who built the [Google News Timeline] service” – this is akin to referring to Paul McCartney as “one of the founders of Wings”. Go Google Andy if you don’t know who he is, you’ll be shocked. It’s truly a Google world now I guess!

2. “That site has a lot of Topic Authority.”
Don’t get me started.  There are a million theories about how Google incorporates Trust-Rank, Anti-Trust-Rank etc. in addition to the PageRank approach, how you can establish “Authority”, or get “Link Juice” from “Topic Authority” sites, and the speculation goes on and on and on.  I am not a believer in “Authority” – only in a regression equation for ranking that consists of many variables with various weights.  I admit, Matt Cutts often refers to “Authority” but whenever he does I could swear I hear him whispering “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” under his breath.

1.“SEO is great for getting free traffic.”
There’s no such thing as free traffic.  Free equals hard work (that’s what SEO is all about – a lot of heavy lifting!)

About Ted Ives

Ted Ives joined The Search Agency in mid 2008 and is responsible for its wide array of product and services offerings, including the agency's proprietary AdMax™ bid optimization platform. Ted previously worked for technology companies ranging through every layer of the information technology stack including APC, National Semiconductor, Apple and Microsoft. He brings great depth in product management as well as product marketing across multiple business platforms and in various types of technologies. Ted currently serves on the board of directors of FindHow, a how-to search engine startup which he co-founded in 2007. He has a degree in Computer Science and Economics from Dartmouth College and an MBA with a focus on technology marketing from Santa Clara University.