TL;DR – It used to be way easier!
When I first started working at Coast Digital, I was around 6 months into my SEO career. I’d previously worked for an extremely small agency and had picked up some basic knowledge that was just about enough for me to get by and achieve positive results for my clients.
Over the past 7 years, the game has changed significantly as Google’s algorithm increasingly becomes more sophisticated and the search landscape continues to evolve. We SEOs have had to grow from “secretive box tickers”, to actual marketers.
What I mean by this is that SEO used to be a fairly simple job; it took a lot of work/studying to gain the knowledge, but once you had it there wasn’t really a whole lot to it and it effectively became a box-ticking exercise. There were a few tactics that – when done properly – could secure you a place on Google’s first page without too much hassle (for most keywords, not all).
Nowadays, those tactics either don’t work (to the same extent), or they’re considered bad/outdated practices – some of the tactics that were once a staple in an SEO’s day to day can now result in penalisation. The key focus now is on developing a great brand with a great site and great content that is legitimately worthy of organic search visibility.
Whilst the challenge of evolving with Google’s algorithm has been rewarding, and whilst I can genuinely say that practising SEO is far more enjoyable now than when I first started, there are a few things that I do miss…
Organic Keyword Data in Google Analytics
Believe it or not, there was a time when pretty much any search term someone used to organically visit a site fed right through into Google Analytics. This data was extremely useful when it came to reporting, as we were able to split organic traffic, conversions, conversion rate etc into “Brand” and “Non-Brand”.
If you were to run an organic search report for Dec ’18, you may for example see that organic conversions are down year on year – other than comparing landing page traffic, rankings, and maybe some Google Trends data, there’s not a whole lot more insight you can gather from this information.
Had you done the same thing in 2011 however, you could ascertain that the reason these conversions were down was that fewer people performed brand searches, and in fact, more visits came through non-brand keywords, and those visits converted at a higher rate than the year previous.
In this scenario, your SEO work is justified as you are more than likely working towards non-brand keyword rankings, and the problem may be down to brand awareness.
This information could also help to inform your paid search efforts – e.g. if you can see that a particular longtail keyword is converting especially well, you could make sure it’s being targeted in your Google Adwords campaigns.
Google’s Old Keyword Tool
The Keyword Planner has changed a few times over the years and is now unrecognisable compared with the keyword tool of 2011.
Apart from being far more difficult to navigate, my main gripe with the Keyword Planner in its current form is that you aren’t able to be anywhere near as granular with your keyword research. Google will now group similar keywords and give you the same monthly search volumes for all of them, meaning you’ll never know whether “digital agency” or “digital agencies” has the larger search volume.
Granted, Google’s algorithm is now better at interpreting page content and therefore you don’t need to use every keyword in its exact form to allow you to rank, but still, this information was interesting and useful and (back then) made a difference.
Title Tag Importance
I still consider title tags to be an important part of on-page optimisation, however I used to place far more emphasis on them and saw on multiple occasions that very small tweaks to a title tag could result in huge gains in rankings.
These used to be my silver bullet when approaching a new client’s SEO – perform in-depth keyword research, then write optimised title tags (all <70 characters), sit back and watch the rankings roll in… now, not so much!
Whilst they’re still the first step for me (for on-page optimisation, after keyword research), I rarely see significant movement in rankings purely off the back of an optimised title tag – Google needs much more to deem a page worthy of ranking.
I worked on a client that had the following homepage title tag:
Deposit Protection Scheme | Landlords, Agents & Tenants
For this client, the 2 most relevant keywords with the highest volume were “deposit protection scheme” for which they ranked #2, and “deposit protection service” for which they were unranked. I tweaked the title tag to:
Deposit Protection Scheme | Service for Landlords, Agents & Tenants
Once this had been cached, they went from being unranked to #2 for “deposit protection service”. I wish this still worked, but it doesn’t!
Easy Link Building
There have pretty much always been rules about what you can and can’t do when it comes to link building, but those rules used to be a lot more open to interpretation than they are now, and you could get away with a lot more “grey hat” techniques than you can now.
As an example, I used to have a list of relatively legitimate web directories… I’m not talking www.seolinks101.com or anything equally as dodgy (although you’d be surprised how many still use those to this day), but they weren’t all of the quality of something like www.yell.com or www.hotfrog.co.uk. I could then spend hours submitting a site to the directories on my list and over time, once links had been approved and made live, rankings would gradually rise.
Another example was guest posting – this is still a legitimate technique when done by the book in “2019 SEO” – but the confines within which you have to work are far stricter and most blogs will charge for a guest post, knowing how valuable a link from their site could be.
Again, for each client I could find hundreds of industry-related blogs, and over a period of weeks/months I could write (fairly similar) articles, outreach them and then I’d get a stream of contextual, keyword-driven anchor text links which could significantly boost the rankings of the page I was linking to.
Whilst this does still technically work today (to an extent), you are far more in danger of being flagged by Google for unnatural links.
It used to be that very few people actually knew anything about how to “SEO a site” – it was perceived as some sort of technical wizardry that only people within the inner circle of the SEO community actually knew how to do. This was due in part to the fact that it was still relatively new as a marketing channel (at least in as much as many businesses didn’t even know they needed it), but also the way in which SEO’s used to market and sell themselves…
“You need me to do this, because you could never understand it”.
There were pros and cons to the mystique surrounding ‘what SEO’s actually do’ – on one hand it allowed what were commonly referred to as “snake oil salesmen” to give the industry a bad name. These people claimed to be able to guarantee #1 rankings, but then failed to deliver.
On the other hand, as an SEO you felt (rightly or wrongly) like you had the ability to single-handedly transform the success of a client’s website.
So in summary, whilst achieving organic search visibility for a client is much more rewarding nowadays, there are aspects of the old ‘day to day’ that did make things slightly easier.