Google Leak? What Google Leak?

If this were 15 years ago, I might have cared about the supposed Google Leak that broke in late May.

But it’s not, and I don’t. And I’m guessing you don’t, either. In fact, you could well be saying “What Google leak?” Unless you’re an SEO, there is nothing of interest here. Even if you are a SEO, that might be true.

I happen to know Rand Fishkin, the person who publicly broke the leak last week. Neither Rand nor I are in the SEO biz anymore, but obviously his level of interest in the leak far exceeded mine. He devoted almost 6,000 words to it in the post where he first unveiled the leaked documents, passed on to him by Erfan Azimi, CEO and director of SEO at EA Eagle Digital.

Rand and I spoke at many of the same conferences before I left the industry in 2012. Even at that time, our interests were diverging. He was developing what would become the Moz SEO tool suite, so he was definitely more versed in the technical side of SEO. I had already focused my attention on the user side of search, looking at how people interacted with a search engine page. Still, I always enjoyed my chats with Rand.



Back then, SEO was an intensely tactical industry. Conference sessions that delved into the nitty gritty of ranking factors and shared ways to tweak sites up the SERP were the ones booked into the biggest conference rooms, because organizers knew they’d be jammed to the rafters.

I always felt a bit like a fish out of water at these conferences. I tried to take a more holistic view, looking at search as just one touchpoint in the entire online journey. To me, what was most interesting was what happened both before the search click and after it. That was far more intriguing to me than what Google might be hiding under its algorithmic hood.

Over time, my sessions developed their own audience. Thanks to mentors like Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman and Brett Tabke, conference organizers carved out space for me on their agendas. Ken Fadner and the MediaPost team even let me build a conference that did its best to deal with search at a more holistic level, the Search Insider Summit. We broadened the search conversation to include more strategic topics like multipoint branding, user experience and customer journeys.

So, when the Google leak story bleeped on my radar, I was immediately taken back to the old days of SEO. Here, again, there was what appeared to be a dump of documents that might give some insights into the nuts and bolts of Google’s ranking factors. MediaPost’s own story said that “leaked Google documents have given the search industry proprietary insight into Google Search, revealing very important elements that the company uses to rank content.” Predictably, SEOs swarmed over it like a flock of seagulls attacking a half-eaten hot dog on a beach. They were still looking for some magic bullet that might move them higher in the organic results.

They didn’t come up with much. Brett Tabke, who I consider one of the founders of SEO (he coined the term SERP), spent five hours combing through the documents and said it wasn’t a leak and the documents contained no algorithm-related information. To mash up my metaphors, the half-eaten hotdog was actually a nothingburger.

But oh My SEOs -- you still love diving into the nitty gritty, don’t you?

What is more interesting to me is how the actual search experience has changed in the past decade or two. In researching this post, I happened to run into a great clip about tech monopolies from “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver. He shows how much of the top of the Google SERP is now dominated by information and links from Google. Again, quoting a study from Rand Fishkin’s new company, SparkToro, Oliver says that “64.82% of searches on Google…ended..without clicking to another web property.”

That little tidbit has some massive implications for marketers. The days of relying on a high organic ranking are long gone, because even if you achieve it, you’ll be pushed well down the page.

Rand Fishkin and I seem to agree on that point. In his post, he says, “If there was one universal piece of advice I had for marketers seeking to broadly improve their organic search rankings and traffic, it would be: ‘Build a notable, popular, well-recognized brand in your space, outside of Google search.’”


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