SEO has always been a game that pits the marketer in direct conflict with the search engine.
Search engines funded by an advertising model will always have a conflict of interest in serving up organic results that directly benefit its own self-interest, often at the expense of the “free-riders” who game the search platform for their own benefit or for that of their clients.
It falls in line with the very definition:
In the scenario where rules are both created and oft-changed by a publicly-traded, profit-maximizing search engine, white hat search engine optimization ceases to exist.
And when compliance with the platform’s rules means following a moving set of goalposts, course corrections in SEO and digital marketing strategies will be required to bring a website back into full “white hat” compliance.
The alternative is a slow, painful slide into irrelevance through full content deindexation from search engines.
While webmasters attempt to comply by engaging in today’s version of white hat SEO, the shifting sands are likely to land them in scenarios that do not bode well for long-term, sustainable keyword ranking and growth.
Treating SEO Like the Prisoner’s Dilemma
Most full-service digital marketing agencies are on the same team as the search engines.
They’re very likely certified and partnered for all best practices related to paid search engine marketing.
They help drive revenue to the search engine by operating as agents for many paying brands that utilize the system for better results.
You can think of executing on white hat SEO campaigns as the ultimate Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The following graphic should prove helpful:
Only, there is one caveat, there is information asymmetry and an imbalance of power.
It’s very different than the scenario of the Chargers and the Raiders, where a tie would benefit both, but the double-edged sword of a loss would be devastating to one but zero-sum on the other.
In our scenario, let’s call the search engine Player 2.
If Player 2 defects in our scenario, there is no true dilemma or downside for Player 2, other than a few angry webmasters.
However, if collusive strategies could be instituted, but are almost 100% unlikely.
As Player 1, SEOs and marketers are typically forced into playing and cooperating with the game rules, motivated partly by fear and partly by reward.
But, it’s not search engines alone that mask an incentive to cheat.
In the absence of a completely open and mutually-agreeable set of rules that only changes by mutual confirmation and acceptance, the party with the greatest access to the right data wins.
In our scenario, search engines provide just enough information to keep the users at bay, but not enough for them to fully know all the secret sauce.
Enter third-party marketing tools.
In the absence of all the right information, third-party martech software solutions have helped to fill the void by reverse-engineering ranking factors, providing more detail on things like backlinks and specific keyword rankings in search engines.
Such solutions have helped to fill the gap, but information asymmetry will always persist.
For instance, we’ll likely never fully know organic click-through rates for specific keywords, dwell-time and especially not dwell-time based on keywords.
This asymmetry creates an imbalance of power, in spite of martech’s attempt to even the playing field.
On the side of the marketers, the last holdout for at least some asymmetry is link building, where search engines may not fully know if a site is legit or if its linkgraph is poisoned with paid links from PBNs.
But that is
Symbiotic vs. Parasitic
The relationship between both site owners and digital marketing agencies and search engines is simultaneously symbiotic (sometimes mutualistic) and parasitic.
Both are prone to benefit overall, but agencies often leech off the search engine host.
And the search engines don’t necessarily like this relationship.
There is a lot of value left on the table that agencies are gobbling.
This creates incentives for both parties to step into moral gray-space.
“I have a dream” where both parties could play together with aligned incentives, but the outline for that business plan wouldn’t be worth the breath or dreamful supposition.
All SEO is Gray Hat at Best
At its best, SEO is truly a game that pits marketers (whether direct or agency) against a platform that owns the user experience.
In such a scenario, white hat SEO can and does not exist.
At its best SEO is gray hat.
Black hat SEO at its worst.
But, that doesn’t mean you get out of the game.
So much of winning in internet marketing is gifted to those that are able to survive those proverbial “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
I greatly applaud those who simply do their best to stay inside the guise of the rules of white hat SEO, even if those rules are somewhat nebulous and shift with frequency.
In reality, marketers truly interested in the long-term viability and sustainability of their clients’ SEO campaigns should always seek to be on the cutting edge of white hat SEO.
But, can you blame the marketers if they never dip their toes into darker waters?
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