6 unpopular SEO opinions you need to consider

It seems like the search algorithm changes have been hitting harder than a Taylor Swift breakup song.

There’s been much talk about core updates, helpful content, reputation abuse, etc. OpenAI is building a search engine, and Google’s Search Generative Experience is likely expanding soon.

It’s getting hard to keep up, and many SEOs are having some serious FOMO.

With all that discussion, one can’t help but notice some recurring themes. Search engines are clearly evolving (very fast), but it seems like neither our mental models of search engines nor our philosophy of SEO have evolved as quickly.

Whenever a new change happens, I first try to understand what the search engines are doing and why they’re trying to accomplish it. This can be hard, as it’s often the opposite mind view of a site owner or business.

I’ve been playing the role of the contrarian a lot lately, and I’d like to share some unpopular opinions that I think could help many businesses – even if they are a bit hard to swallow.

1. SEO is real marketing now

With every algorithm and change, we move further away from the old days of tricking the search engines and closer to having to do real marketing.

If you aren’t thinking about user needs, personas and intent, you’re already failing.

Too often, I meet with SEOs and businesses whose approach is backward. They start off saying, “I have this thing. Make it rank for this keyword.”

That’s the wrong approach. 

A better approach is to start with the keyword, understand the user intent and what they would find useful – and then go build that.

2. Spam/tricks aren’t a business model

Every SEO – even the whitehats who won’t admit it publicly – dabbles in spammy tactics and what some call “programmatic SEO.”

Most have test sites and side hustle sites. We’re all pushing the limits of search engines to see what works and what doesn’t.

That doesn’t mean those tactics are a good business model. They come with risks.

If you’re doing a small affiliate site that you can easily throw away and restart later, that risk might be worth it. If you’re a business with employees who have families to feed – you probably shouldn’t be taking that risk. 

3. Search engines don’t owe you traffic

It’s not a level playing ground. Search engines are not a public utility and their rankings do not have to be fair and balanced.

Legally, their rankings are still that search engine’s editorial opinion. A search engine’s responsibility is to its users. If the users aren’t happy, they won’t use the search engine (or click the ads!) anymore. 

Too often, people are quick to complain about Google and Bing having a “brand bias,” but they wouldn’t have that bias if their users didn’t.

As recent public disclosures showed, Google uses click data to train their systems, meaning people must be clicking on the known brands or they wouldn’t be ranking. 

Our goal as marketers should be to become the brand – and I know that’s not easy. It takes a lot of work, effort and time – all things the current leading brands have invested in.

SEO isn’t an overnight success.

Dig deeper: What should Google rank in Search when all the content sucks?

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4. Search engines care more about their own users than your business, website or revenue

Once we accept this, we can align our interests with those of the search users.

Remember that real marketing line? We don’t just have to give our users what they want.

We also have to make sure we’re giving the engines what they think their users want – and accept that those wants may change over time, so we shouldn’t base our business model completely on them. It’s still important to differentiate.

5. Not all searchers want websites

A search engine’s goal was never to surface the 10 websites that mentioned the search query and order them by which ones had the most links. That’s just the best tech we had in the late 1990s.

Search has evolved – a lot. 

When a user searches [how old is Taylor Swift?] they don’t want a link to a webpage with a cookie consent notice, newsletter sign-up, alert notification opt-in and age check (in the EU) that’s full of autoplay videos and overlay ads hiding the actual answer buried five paragraphs deep in a made-up story by a made-up author that’s been medically reviewed by a doctor for some reason because we misunderstood E-E-A-T

They just want the number – which is 34 (or 10 if you’re still stuck with a 1999 model of SEO.)

There’s a great quote from Bill Gates from 2009 (when 20-year-old Taylor Swift was working on her “Speak Now” album), in which he said, “The future of search is verbs.” 

What he meant by this was that people are searching to accomplish a task. It instantly hit me that I needed to focus on websites that helped users do something – not ones that tricked a platform to try and rank for some information that I didn’t create, am not an expert in and isn’t unique. 

Since that day, I’ve been trying to pivot SEO back to “real marketing” – which always starts with user intent. As search becomes more AI, this strategy becomes even more important.

AI can answer those simple queries (without having to have some random doctor in some random country review it), but it can’t substitute for real human experience and insights. It’s not going to discuss the latest fan theories of a TV show, and you probably aren’t going to trust it to buy a house for you. 

6. On reputation abuse

If somebody is paying you to put it on your website, that’s not content. It’s an ad.

That ad might be super useful to your website’s users, but in a search engine’s opinion, it may not be useful to their users. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You can probably make some money by promoting that content in your newsletter or in a widget on your website or on your social media accounts. 

If it’s useful to your users, great – but don’t expect to rank for it unless the search engines think it’s useful for their users.

So, what do we do about all of this?

Back in the days of our Wildest Dreams, these You Belong With Me SEO tactics might have flown. But ever since the infamous Florida!!! update, they’re just creating Bad Blood with the search engines. Our current models feel like Fifteen-year-old Cardigan(s) – comfy, maybe, but definitely not Timeless. We need to Shake It Off and stop clinging to outdated tricks. 

Change is needed. It’s time to Speak Now in a Fearless pursuit of user intent. Our Song deserves better than chasing trends. Let’s Begin Again by focusing on what search engines think their users actually want, not just trying to fill a Blank Space with content that misses the mark or Hits Different than searcher intent. This is a new era, and we need a Long Live SEO strategy that prioritizes user experience and builds trust. This is Nothing New. Long Story Short, it’s time we do real marketing. Are you...Ready for It?

I sincerely apologize for the last two paragraphs, but I couldn’t resist.

Yes, it’s an AI-augmented, giant Taylor Swift joke. But it also shows why non-AI or keyword-stuffed content like this paragraph is preferable to users.

Our next steps are clear. We need to focus on user intent and search engine intent: what they think their users want. It’s also a good time to start diversifying our businesses to be less reliant on one source of traffic. 

Search engines – and how they present results – may change, but one thing will always be the same: users will still need to do things.

As long as users have needs, marketers will always be needed to help them make those decisions or achieve those tasks.

Is it SEO? Is it marketing? Call It What You Want. 🙂