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7 Lessons to 1 Million Monthly Visits

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7 Lessons to 1 Million Monthly Visits

Examine.com was able to reach over 1 million monthly visitors from Google search results. The best part? It did so without any manual backlink outreach or even having a focus on SEO.

Examine.com's Google Search Console traffic

That’s not all. Despite not using outreach, it acquired links from sites like The New York Times and Forbes—on autopilot. 

How? I spoke with the co-founder, Sol Orwell, to find out. 

He shared the site’s entire approach to SEO with me, including how it recovered from a 90% traffic drop and how the business grew to over 30 employees. Here are a few lessons learned from a multimillion-dollar company.

What does Examine actually do?

Examine provides evidence-based analysis of supplements and nutrition through its team of researchers with varying backgrounds, including PhDs in physiology, neurobiology, nutrition, and more.

Examine.com's homepage

It makes money by selling a subscription service that gives you access to its in-depth research on health conditions and goals. So if you want to learn how to improve osteoarthritis, for example, you can access the most actionable and up-to-date research that exists online.

If you were paying attention, you’d notice I already revealed some of Examine’s SEO secrets. But let me break down the seven specific SEO lessons you can learn from it:

Lesson 1. Focus on relationships over link building

Examine has received dozens of extremely high-quality links from The Guardian. How? Sol attributes it to a by-product of caring about people. 

He met someone years before they ever got a link, and that person happened to make a connection with a writer for The Guardian and mention Examine to them—the writer loved what they saw and now regularly links to them in their articles.

Examine.com's backlinks from The Guardian

Of course, Examine also needed to have content worthy of receiving these links. Relationships alone won’t build links for you, at least not the best links.

But how can you build relationships that lead to backlinks? 

Mostly from meeting and assisting as many people as possible. One of the best ways to do that is by going to in-person meetups and events. But if that’s not possible, being active in forums and online communities is also a great option. 

Check out these online marketing communities to get started. Just remember—you’re trying to build genuine relationships, not just manipulate people into linking to your website. Be helpful and give without expecting anything in return.

Lesson 2. Provide unique data to journalists

This is where Examine truly shines. It summarizes over 150 studies every month with key findings and actionable takeaways.

Unique data is one of the best ways to capture extremely high-quality backlinks. 

For example, Examine’s research page on L-theanine contains all of its findings about L-theanine’s effects on the body in a single, easy-to-digest page with unique data.

Examine.com's research table for L-theanine

This page has attracted over 1,000 backlinks. Some of these links are from strong sites like Psychology Today and The Huffington Post and were acquired organically without outreach.

Backlinks overview for Examine's L-Theanine research summary page

Don’t worry—you don’t need to create 150 study summaries every month to use this strategy. Instead, just a few targeted statistics summary pages can do the trick.

For example, we created a summary of SEO statistics. It ranks #1 on Google for keywords like “seo statistics” and has accumulated nearly 4,000 backlinks.

Ahrefs backlinks report for SEO statistics page

Want to learn how we did it? Check out our full case study.

Lesson 3. Create the best content that exists

In addition to incredibly strong backlinks, Examine regularly receives mentions on the “Huberman Lab” podcast—one of the most renowned science and health podcasts in the world. 

This is because it publishes ridiculously good content.

So what’s its secret?

Well, it lays out its exact content creation process on its editorial policy page:

  1. Researcher and reviewer create outline to fully address the question/topic at hand
  2. Researcher writes the article
  3. Article is copyedited by content editor
  4. Article is edited by editor
  5. Article is reviewed by reviewer
  6. Corrections and clarifications are incorporated at every level
  7. Article is published on the website

It also discusses how it minimizes bias.

All in all, it has several layers of edits and reviews for each piece of content that’s published on the site. 

More importantly, these reviews are done by “a diverse team of researchers who fully read all relevant scientific papers completely and have no conflicts of interest.”

This rigorous process is expensive and time consuming, but it has to be in the health and science space. More lax spaces can get away with much less scrutiny, but you still need to do the work to ensure your content is top-tier.

Here are some ways to make your content better:

  • Create content outlines for your articles before you write them
  • Do extensive research and give your articles at least one “editorial pass-over”
  • Back up your claims with evidence where possible
  • Read up on how to become a better writer—and practice every day
  • Invest in graphic design, photography, and/or video to enhance your content with media

It may also be worth hiring an editor if you don’t already have one. You can find one on job sites like Indeed or on service sites like Fiverr.

Lesson 4. Delight your customers

I mentioned earlier that Examine never focused on SEO as part of its strategy. 

Yes, it optimized its headings and added schema markup—but it never did extensive keyword research or wrote articles specifically to rank on Google.

Instead, it focused on providing the best possible experience for its customers. This is highlighted in a story Sol told me about his company:

One of Examine’s employees was on her way home from a company retreat. The Uber driver was feeling chatty and asked her the typical question, “What do you do for work?”

When the employee answered, the Uber driver proceeded to pull over and bawl her eyes out. 

Apparently, the driver’s chronic health conditions had got so bad that she could no longer work. But Examine’s evidence-based information helped her deal with her health conditions to the point where she felt well enough to work again, allowing her to give that very Uber ride. 

She told the employee she was so grateful for Examine and that it changed her life.

Experiences like these with companies are exceedingly rare in a profit-driven, cut-throat world. But what does this have to do with SEO?

It comes back to building a strong brand and a company that people love. 

One of the reasons this is important is because it increases your search visibility, i.e., the percentage of people who click on your search result when they see it. This is one of the most important SEO metrics to track because the higher your search visibility, the more people value your result over competing results.

If people know who you are and love your brand, they’re more likely to click on your result over a competitor’s. Speaking of branding, let’s move on to… 

Lesson 5. Build a strong brand

Examine was hit with a major traffic loss after a 2018 Google core update related to E-A-T.

Examine.com traffic report in Ahrefs

After the algorithm hit, 90% of its traffic came from branded searches, such as “examine.com creatine.” This means these people are searching specifically for resources from Examine’s brand as opposed to other websites. 

Examine.com's branded keyword rankings

In fact, it was receiving almost 4,000 visits per day from these branded search terms. This is important because even if your site loses on an algorithm update, you will still retain your rankings for branded terms.

But how did it manage to get a “cult following” of people who specifically want to search for its brand? By focusing on the other things I mention in this case study:

  • Provide an amazing customer experience
  • Create the best content in the world
  • Build strong relationships 

There’s, unfortunately, no shortcut for hard work in this case.

Lesson 6. Be trustworthy (E-E-A-T)

As mentioned above, Examine lost the majority of its traffic back in 2018 to a Google update related to E-A-T (now E-E-A-T, or experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness). 

In other words, Google only wants to display content that is written by people who actually have the qualifications to write about a given topic.

When Examine relaunched the website, it wanted to be more trustworthy. Here’s how it did that:

1. It added a section above the fold of each article showing exactly who took part in researching and fact-checking said article.

    Examine's author box

    2. It deeply expanded its “about” page to add bios for everyone in its company, an explanation of how it is funded, and a section on why you can trust it.

    3. It created an “editorial policy” page showing exactly how its team researches, writes, and edits each article before publishing.

    Essentially, it is as transparent as possible about where the information is from, who found the information, and why they are qualified to write about that information. This transparency helped the site recover its traffic to the tune of over 1 million visits per month.

    The takeaway here for you is that you should have experience or expertise in a given topic in order to write about it and be displayed on Google. You should also effectively demonstrate E-E-A-T on your website, as Examine did in its relaunch.

    That means:

    • Use the products you’re reviewing
    • Go to the places you’re talking about
    • Speak with real experts if you aren’t one
    • Create an “about” page and “editorial policy” page showcasing why people should trust you

    Lesson 7. Run regular SEO site audits

    While Examine never focused on SEO as a main strategy, it wasn’t oblivious to it either. It runs twice-a-year SEO audits on its site to ensure it’s not missing simple things.

    Its SEO audit consists of asking questions like:

    • Are there any orphaned pages?
    • Are there dead links?
    • Are there pages covering the most frequently asked questions from its users?

    You can quickly and easily run an SEO audit like this on your own site with Ahrefs’ Site Audit. Just plug your site in, and you’ll get actionable advice on how to fix any issue:

    Top Issues report, via Ahrefs' Site Audit

    From here, it’s easy to find and fix all the SEO issues on your website. Go through and fix each one to improve your odds of ranking highly. 

    If you don’t understand an issue, it may be worth hiring a developer to help you make the fix.

    Final thoughts

    There are a lot of reasons Examine has been so successful. But if I had to narrow down to just three that you could replicate, they would be the following:

    1. Create world-class content by spending time becoming a better researcher and writer and consider hiring people to help you, such as an editor
    2. Build quality relationships with other professionals in your industry by offering to help them with no expectation of getting anything in return
    3. Become an expert in your field through research and experience, and create an “about” page showcasing why people should trust you and your website

    Sol told me he attributes most of Examine’s success to being an extremely high-quality resource for journalists, doctors and, most importantly, customers. 

    This level of trust isn’t easily won, but it can be done. I’ve outlined everything you need to do to achieve it in the lessons above.

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The Lean Guide (With Template)

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The Lean Guide (With Template)

A competitive analysis (or market competitive analysis) is a process where you collect information about competitors to gain an edge over them and get more customers.

However, the problem is that “traditional” competitive analysis is overkill for most businesses — it requires impractical data and takes too long to complete (and it’s very expensive if you choose to outsource). 

A solution to that is a lean approach to the process — and that’s what this guide is about. 

In other words, we’ll focus on the most important data you need to answer the question: “Why would people choose them over you?”. No boring theory, outtakes from marketing history, or spending hours digging up nice-to-have information.

In this guide, you will find:

  • A real-life competitive analysis example.
  • Templates: one for input data and one for a slide deck to present your analysis to others.
  • Step-by-step instructions.

Our template consists of two documents: a slide deck and a spreadsheet. 

The Slide deck is the output document. It will help you present the analysis to your boss or your teammates.

The spreadsheet is the input document. You will find tables that act as the data source for the charts from the slide deck, as well as a prompt to use in ChatGPT to help you with user review research.

Competitive analysis template — spreadsheet sneak peek.Competitive analysis template — spreadsheet sneak peek.

We didn’t focus on aesthetics here; every marketer likes to do slide decks their own way, so feel free to edit everything you’ll find there. 

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the process. The template consists of these six tasks: 

  1. Identify your direct competitors. 
  2. Compare share of voice. 
  3. Compare pricing and features.
  4. Find strong and weak points based on reviews.
  5. Compare purchasing convenience.
  6. Present conclusions.

Going forward, we’ll explain why these steps matter and show how to complete them. 

1. Identify your direct competitors

Direct competitors are businesses that offer a similar solution to the same audience. 

They matter a lot more than indirect competitors (i.e. businesses with different products but targeting the same audience as you) because you’ll be compared with them often (e.g. in product reviews and rankings). Plus, your audience is more likely to gravitate towards them when considering different options. 

You probably have a few direct competitors in mind already, but here are a few ways to find others based on organic search and paid search ads

Our basis for the analysis was Landingi, a SaaS for building landing pages (we chose that company randomly). So in our case, we found these 3 direct competitors. 

Slide 1 — direct competitors.Slide 1 — direct competitors.

Look at keyword overlap

Keyword overlap uncovers sites that target the same organic keywords as you. Some sites will compete with you for traffic but not for customers (e.g. G2 may share some keywords with Landingi but they’re a different business). However, in many cases, you will find direct competitors just by looking at this marketing channel. 

  • Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer and enter your site’s address. 
  • Scroll down to Organic competitors
  • Visit the URLs to pick 3 – 5 direct competitors.
Top organic competitors data from Ahrefs.Top organic competitors data from Ahrefs.

To double-check the choice of competitors, we also looked at who was bidding for search ads on Google.

See who’s advertising 

If someone is spending money to show ads for keywords related to what you do, that’s a strong indication they are a direct competitor. 

  • Go to Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer.
  • Type in a few broad keywords related to your niche, like “landing page builder” or “landing page tool”. 
  • Go to the Ads history report. 
  • Visit the sites that have a high presence of ads in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). 
Ads history report in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer.Ads history report in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer.

Once you’re done checking both reports, write down competitors in the deck. 

You can also take screenshots of the reports and add them to your deck to show the supporting data for your argument. 

 Slide 2 — direct competitors by organic traffic. Slide 2 — direct competitors by organic traffic.

2. Compare share of voice

Share of voice is a measure of your reach in any given channel compared to competitors. 

A bigger share of voice (SOV) means that your competitors are more likely to reach your audience. In other words, they may be promoting more effectively than you. 

In our example, we found that Landingi’s SOV was the lowest in both of these channels. 

Organic: 

Slide 3 — share of voice on Google Search.Slide 3 — share of voice on Google Search.

And social media:

 Slide 4 — share of voice on social media. Slide 4 — share of voice on social media.

Here’s how we got that data using Ahrefs and Brand24.

Organic share of voice 

Before we start, make sure you have a project set up in Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker

Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.

Now: 

  • Go to Ahrefs’ Competitive Analysis and enter your and your competitors’s sites as shown below. 
Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.
Create a new project in Ahrefs' Rank Tracker.
  • On the next screen, set the country with the most important market for your business and set the filters like this:
Content gap analysis filter setup.Content gap analysis filter setup.
  • Select keywords that sound most relevant to your business (even if you don’t rank for them yet) and Add them to Rank Tracker
Common keywords found via Ahrefs' Competitive Analysis.Common keywords found via Ahrefs' Competitive Analysis.
  • Go to Rank Tracker, open your project, and look for Competitors/Overview. This report will uncover automatically calculated Share of Voice
Organic share of voice data in Ahrefs.Organic share of voice data in Ahrefs.
  • Add the numbers in corresponding cells inside the sheet and paste the graph inside the slide deck. 
Filling the share of voice template with data.Filling the share of voice template with data.

It’s normal that the numbers don’t add up to 100%. SOV is calculated by including sites that compete with you in traffic but are not your direct competitors, e.g. blogs. 

Social share of voice 

We can also measure our share of voice across social media channels using Brand24.

  • Go to Brand24.
  • Start a New project for your brand and each competitor. Use the competitors’ brand name as the keyword to monitor. 
  • Go to the Comparison report and compare your project with competitors. 
Using Brand24's Comparison tool for competitive analysis.Using Brand24's Comparison tool for competitive analysis.
  • Take a screenshot of the SOV charts and paste them into the slide deck. Make sure the charts are set to “social media”.
Social media tab in share of voice report.Social media tab in share of voice report.

3. Compare pricing and features

Consumers often choose solutions that offer the best value for money — simple as that. And that typically comes down to two things: 

  • Whether you have the features they care about. We’ll use all features available across all plans to see how likely the product is to satisfy user needs.
  • How much they will need to pay. Thing is, the topic of pricing is tricky: a) when assessing affordability, people often focus on the least expensive option available and use it as a benchmark, b) businesses in the SaaS niche offer custom plans. So to make things more practical, we’ll compare the cheapest plans, but feel free to run this analysis across all pricing tiers.

After comparing our example company to competitors, we found that it goes head-to-head with Unbounce as the most feature-rich solution on the market. 

Slide 5 — features vs. pricing.Slide 5 — features vs. pricing.

Here’s how we got that data. 

  • Note down your and your competitors’ product features. One of the best places to get this information is pricing pages. Some brands even publish their own competitor comparisons — you may find them helpful too. 
  • While making the list, place a “1” in the cell corresponding to the brand that offers the solution.
Filling data in the spreadsheet.Filling data in the spreadsheet.
  • Enter the price of the cheapest plan (excluding free plans). 
Adding pricing data inside the spreadsheet.Adding pricing data inside the spreadsheet.
  • Once finished, copy the chart and paste it inside the deck. 

4. Find strong and weak points based on user reviews

User reviews can show incredibly valuable insight into your competitors’ strong and weak points. Here’s why this matters:

  • Improving on what your competitors’ customers appreciate could help you attract similar customers and possibly win some over.
  • Dissatisfaction with competitors is a huge opportunity. Some businesses are built solely to fix what other companies can’t fix. 

Here’s a sample from our analysis: 

 Slide 6 — likes and dislikes about Competitors. Slide 6 — likes and dislikes about Competitors.

And here’s how we collated the data using ChatGPT. Important: repeat the process for each competitor.

  • Open ChatGPT and enter the prompt from the template.
ChatGPT prompt for competitive analysis.ChatGPT prompt for competitive analysis.
  • Go to G2, Capterra, or Trustpilot and find a competitor’s reviews with ratings from 2 – 4 (i.e. one rating above the lowest and one below the highest possible). Reason:

businesses sometimes solicit five-star reviews, whereas dissatisfied customers tend to leave one-star reviews in a moment of frustration. The most actionable feedback usually comes in between.

  • Copy and paste the content of the reviews into ChatGPT (don’t hit enter yet). 
  • Once you’re done pasting all reviews, hit enter in ChatGPT to run the analysis.
Sample of ChatGPT output with charts.Sample of ChatGPT output with charts.
  • Paste the graphs into the deck. If you want the graphs to look different, don’t hesitate to ask the AI. 

There’s a faster alternative, but it’s a bit more advanced. 

Instead of copy-pasting, you can use a scraping tool like this one to get all reviews at once. The downside here is that not all review sources will a have scraping tool available. 

5. Compare purchasing convenience

Lastly, we’ll see how easy it is to actually buy your products, and compare the experience to your competitors. 

This is a chance to simplify your checkout process, and even learn from any good habits your competitors have adopted.

For example, we found that our sample company had probably nothing to worry about in this area — they ticked almost all of the boxes. 

Slide 7 — purchasing convenience.Slide 7 — purchasing convenience.

Here’s how to complete this step:

  • Place a “1” if you or any of your competitors offer convenience features listed in the template. 
  • Once done, copy the chart and paste it into the deck.

Step 6. Present conclusions

This is the part of the presentation where you sum up all of your findings and suggest a course of action. 

Here are two examples: 

  • Landingi had the lowest SOV in the niche, and that is never good. So the conclusion might be to go a level deeper and do an SEO competitive analysis, and to increase social media presence by creating more share-worthy content like industry surveys, design/CRO tips, or in-house data studies.
  • Although the brand had a very high purchasing convenience score, during the analysis we found that there was a $850 gap between the monthly full plan and the previous tier. The conclusion here might be to offer a custom plan (like competitors do) to fill that gap. 

We encourage you to take your time here and think about what would make the most sense for your business. 

Tip

It’s good to be specific in your conclusions, but don’t go too deep. Competitive analysis concerns many aspects of the business, so it’s best to give other departments a chance to chime in. Just because your competitors have a few unique features doesn’t necessarily mean you need to build them too.

Final thoughts 

A competitive analysis is one of the most fruitful exercises in marketing. It can show you areas for improvement, give ideas for new features, and help you discover gaps in your strategy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s fundamental to running a successful business. 

Just don’t forget to balance “spying” on your competitors with innovation. After all, you probably don’t want to become an exact copy of someone else’s brand. 

In other words, use competitive analysis to keep up with your competitors, but don’t let that erase what’s unique about your brand or make you forget your big vision. 

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Critical WordPress Form Plugin Vulnerability Affects Up To +200,000 Installs

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Critical WordPress Form Plugin Vulnerability Affects Up To +200,000 Installs

Security researchers at Wordfence detailed a critical security flaw in the MW WP Form plugin, affecting versions 5.0.1 and earlier. The vulnerability allows unauthenticated threat actors to exploit the plugin by uploading arbitrary files, including potentially malicious PHP backdoors, with the ability to execute these files on the server.

MW WP Form Plugin

The MW WP Form plugin helps to simplify form creation on WordPress websites using a shortcode builder.

It makes it easy for users to create and customize forms with various fields and options.

The plugin has many features, including one that allows file uploads using the [mwform_file name=”file”] shortcode for the purpose of data collection. It is this specific feature that is exploitable in this vulnerability.

Unauthenticated Arbitrary File Upload Vulnerability

An Unauthenticated Arbitrary File Upload Vulnerability is a security issue that allows hackers to upload potentially harmful files to a website. Unauthenticated means that the attacker does not need to be registered with the website or need any kind of permission level that comes with a user permission level.

These kinds of vulnerabilities can lead to remote code execution, where the uploaded files are executed on the server, with the potential to allow the attackers to exploit the website and site visitors.

The Wordfence advisory noted that the plugin has a check for unexpected filetypes but that it doesn’t function as it should.

According to the security researchers:

“Unfortunately, although the file type check function works perfectly and returns false for dangerous file types, it throws a runtime exception in the try block if a disallowed file type is uploaded, which will be caught and handled by the catch block.

…even if the dangerous file type is checked and detected, it is only logged, while the function continues to run and the file is uploaded.

This means that attackers could upload arbitrary PHP files and then access those files to trigger their execution on the server, achieving remote code execution.”

There Are Conditions For A Successful Attack

The severity of this threat depends on the requirement that the “Saving inquiry data in database” option in the form settings is required to be enabled in order for this security gap to be exploited.

The security advisory notes that the vulnerability is rated critical with a score of 9.8 out of 10.

Actions To Take

Wordfence strongly advises users of the MW WP Form plugin to update their versions of the plugin.

The vulnerability is patched in the lutes version of the plugin, version 5.0.2.

The severity of the threat is particularly critical for users who have enabled the “Saving inquiry data in database” option in the form settings and that is compounded by the fact that no permission levels are needed to execute this attack.

Read the Wordfence advisory:

Update ASAP! Critical Unauthenticated Arbitrary File Upload in MW WP Form Allows Malicious Code Execution

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Alexander_P

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How SEOs Make the Web Better

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How SEOs Make the Web Better

SEOs catch flak for ruining the web, but they play a crucial role in the search ecosystem, and actually make the internet better for everyone.

Let’s get the criticism out of the way. There are bad actors in SEO, people who seek to extract money from the internet regardless of the cost to others. There are still scams and snake oil, posers and plagiarists. Many parts of the web have become extremely commercialized, with paid advertising and big brands displacing organic and user-generated content.

But while there are situations where SEOs have made things worse, to fixate on them is to ignore the colossal elephant in the room: in the ways that really matter, the web is the best it’s ever been:

  • It’s the easiest it has ever been to find information on the internet. Searchers have a staggering array of tutorials, teardowns, and tips at their fingertips, containing information that is generally accurate and helpful—and this was not always the case.
  • Bad actors have a smaller influence over search. Search is less of a Wild West than it used to be. Once-scam-ridden topics are subject to significant scrutiny, and the problems and loopholes in search that need fixing today—like big brands and generic content receiving undue prominence—are smaller and less painful than the problems of the past.
  • More people use search to their benefit. Online content is the most accessible it has ever been, and it’s easier than ever to grow a local business or expand into international markets on the back of search.

SEOs have played a crucial role in these improvements, poking and prodding, building and—sometimes—breaking. They are Google power users: the people who push the system to extremes, but in doing so, catalyze the change needed to make search better for everyone.

Let’s explore how.

SEOs help regular people benefit from search

SEOs are much-needed intermediaries between Google and the rest of the world, helping non-technical people acquire and benefit from search engine traffic.

There is a huge amount of valuable information locked up in the heads of people who have no idea how to build a website or index a blog post. A carpet fitter with a bricks-and-mortar business might have decades of experience solving costly problems with uneven subfloors or poor moisture management, but no understanding of how to share that information online.

SEOs provide little nudges towards topics that people care about and writing that’s accessible to people and robots. They help solve technical problems that would hinder or completely block a site from appearing in search results. They identify opportunities for companies to be rewarded for creating great content.

It’s a win-win: businesses are rewarded with traffic, searchers have their intent satisfied, and the world is made a little richer for the newfound knowledge it contains.

SEOs turn helpful standards into real websites

SEOs do many things to actively make the web a better place, tending to their own plot of the Google garden to make sure it flourishes.

Take, for example, the myriad standards and guidelines designed to make the web a more accessible place for users. The implementation of these standards—turning theoretical guidelines into real, concrete parts of the web—often happens because of the SEO team.

Technical SEOs play a big part in adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, a set of principles designed to ensure online content is “perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust” for every user. Every SEO’s fixation with Core Web Vitals fuels a faster, more efficient web. Content teams translate Google’s helpful content guidelines into useful words and images on a page.

(Case in point: check out Aleyda Solis’ Content Helpfulness Analyzer.)

Screenshot: Aleyda Solis' helpful content GPTScreenshot: Aleyda Solis' helpful content GPT

There is a lot of overlap between “things that help users” and “things that improve search performance.” Even if the motive behind these changes is as simple as generating more traffic, a well-optimized website is, generally speaking, one that is also great for real human beings trying to engage with it.

SEOs pressure-test Google’s systems

The biggest criticism leveled at SEOs is that they break things. And they do! But that breakage acts as a type of pressure testing that strengthens the system as a whole.

Abuse of spintax and keyword stuffing forced Google to develop a better understanding of on-page content. Today, that loophole is closed, but more importantly, Google is much better at understanding the contents of a page and its relationship to a website as a whole.

Hacks like hiding keywords with white text on a white background (or moving them beyond the visible bounds of the screen) forced Google to expand its understanding of page styling and CSS, and how on-page information interacts with the environment that contains it.

Even today’s deluge of borderline-plagiarised AI content is not without benefit: it creates a very clear incentive for Google to get better at rewarding information gain and prioritizing publishers with solid EEAT credentials. These improvements will make tomorrow’s version of search much better.

This isn’t just Google fixing what SEOs broke: these changes usually leave lasting benefits that extend beyond any single spam tactic and make search better for all of its users.

Illustration: how fixing problems leads to smaller future problems and improved search experienceIllustration: how fixing problems leads to smaller future problems and improved search experience

This is not to argue that blackhat SEO is desirable. It would be better to make these improvements without incurring pain along the way. But Search is huge and complicated, and Google has little incentive to spend money proactively fixing problems and loopholes.

If we can’t solve every issue before it causes pain, we should be grateful for a correction mechanism that prevents it—and more extreme abuse—from happening in the future. SEOs break the system, and in doing so, make future breakages a lot less severe.

SEOs are the internet’s quality assurance team

Some SEOs take advantage of the loopholes they discover—but many don’t. They choose to raise these issues in public spaces, encourage discussion, and seek out a fix, acting like a proxy quality assurance team.

At the small end of the spectrum, SEOs often flag bugs with Google systems, like a recent error in Search Console reporting flagged independently by three separate people, or Tom Anthony famously catching an oversight in Google’s Manual Actions database. While these types of problems don’t always impact the average user’s experience using Google, they help keep search systems working as intended.

At the other end of the scale, this feedback can extend as far as the overarching quality of the search experience, like AJ Kohn writing about Google’s propensity to reward big brands over small brands, or Lily Ray calling out an uptick in spam content in Google Discover.

SEOs are Google’s most passionate users. They interact with it at a scale far beyond the average user, and they can identify trends and changes at a macroscopic level. As a result, they are usually the first to discover problems—but also the people who hold Google to the highest standard. They are a crucial part of the feedback loop that fuels improvements.

SEOs act as a check-and-balance

Lastly, SEOs act as a check-and-balance, gathering firsthand evidence of how search systems operate, letting us differentiate between useful advice, snake oil, and Google’s PR bluster. 

Google shares lots of useful guidance, but it’s important to recognize the limits of their advice. They are a profit-seeking company, and Search requires opacity to work—if everyone understood how it worked, everyone would game it, and it would stop working. Mixed in with the good advice is a healthy portion of omission and misdirection.

Google Search plays a vital role in controlling the flow of the web’s information—it is simply too important for us to leave its mechanics, biases, and imperfections unexplored. We need people who can interrogate the systems just enough to separate fact from fiction and understand how the pieces fit together.

We need people like Mic King, and his insanely detailed write-up of SGE and RAG; Britney Muller and her demystification of LLMs; the late Bill Slawki’s unfaltering patent analysis; or our own Patrick Stox’s efforts in piecing together how search works.

Screenshot from Patrick Stox's presentation, How Search WorksScreenshot from Patrick Stox's presentation, How Search Works

Final thoughts

The web has problems. We can and should expect more from Google Search. But the problems we need to solve today are far less severe and painful than the problems that needed solving in the past; and the people who have the highest expectations, and will be most vocal in shaping that positive future, are—you guessed it—SEOs.

To SEOs: the cause of (and solution to) all of the web’s problems.



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