Why are less salubrious competitors always ahead of us online?
They may not be, but don’t panic
A very common issue experienced with Search Engine Optimisation clients over the years is the dreaded conversation about competitors and why they are seemingly doing so well online. I say seemingly as there are many different factors at play. Let’s look at just a few of them.
It’s more common than you might think for rivals in the sector to not only know each other but also to compare notes, for example, in the bar at Trade Shows, or in some cases they are friends or old work colleagues from a larger company. In our experience however good these relationships appear on the surface they are not to be trusted when direct questions are asked about the business. Questions like “how much of your business is online”, or “how much do you pay per lead” will nearly always receive inaccurate answers either because they don’t know the real answer and blag it, or they are trying to undermine your confidence. So disinformation is the norm and it’s best not to rely on this kind of intel without additional collaboration.
For many years now the leading search engines have attempted, with much success, to deliver search results to each of us that reflect a degree of personalisation or unique tailoring based on what they have learned about us (or our computer) through past behaviours and perceptions about demographics and interests. It’s not yet a perfect science but suffice to say if two people in different locations working for different businesses type in the exact same search phrase they will be unlikely to receive the exact same set of results. It is difficult but not impossible to switch off some if not all of these processes (and this is something we aim to do in our monthly client search reports so they get a view of what a virgin prospect customer may be seeing) but most people do not have the skills or time to bother with this and hence we all put up with skewed data. The skewing may not matter if the results are good but it IS important to understand it’s there, particularly if you are a client buying Online Marketing services.
This phenomenon even has a name – Google Filter Bubble and in Wikipedia, you will see it explained and some obvious worrying impacts.
For the perspective of this article and considering your competitors suffice to say that when you type something into the Internet regarding your business, the search engines will most likely have an idea that this is an area of interest and hence you will be seeing results that are NOT typical of your customers who will probably be less focused on one sector. So it shouldn’t be a surprise if you regularly see competitors appearing even though they may not be such frequent results for your customers.
In a concept our agency has dubbed “The Maradona Effect” (aka Hand of God), for many years we have suspected that from time to time Google and other engines manually interfere with the results of their normally automated search algorithms. They claim not to do so but a Wall Street Journal investigation a few years ago appeared to confirm our suspicion that “the company does interfere with search results more than it cares to admit”.
This came to light for us when clients with SEO campaigns running smoothly for years delivering top positions on hundreds of terms suddenly had single phrase drop out of results completely – so they’d immediately stick £5k into Paid Search for the day to bridge the gap. This was happening against a backdrop of no major client/website / SEO or algorithm changes and the positions would reappear in a day or so as if nothing had happened. It seemed to us that a team of say only a dozen Search Engine employees secreted away in a Room 101 bunker could tweak results of major business like this to add £1bn a year to search engine revenues. Hard to imagine it might NOT be happening – boy, I hope they get good bonuses.
Fresh from this conspiracy theory we came up with another unique to our agency, “The Skip Scenario”. This is maybe even weirder but would also impact competitor apparent results in some industries.
It has been our theory that as the Internet is so huge and the algorithms so complex, major engines like Google use something akin to an 80/20 approach when rolling out services and changes so not everything happens all at once – not as may appear the case, everything simultaneously applied globally.
In the past Google used to roll out changes to algorithms region by region, presumably to enable a halt or fine-tuning if income was adversely and unexpectedly impacted. With improving technology they are now able to change everything globally within seconds but we firmly believe they apply major changes to major profitable sectors first, then roll through sectors of lesser importance. So if your business is in say travel, retail, financial services it will be impacted to the full force of most algorithms. But sectors that are small and potentially troublesome or difficult in some way, and for this we tend to use Scrapyard services such as ordering a Skip as the benchmark example, we believe the sectors are left pretty much untouched by the latest expensive algorithm updates.
For this reason, sectors like Skip Hire, which tend to have a multitude of small regional suppliers and many resellers tend to break all the search engine rules and yet get away with it by being rewarded better search positions than they deserve. They build multiple micro-sites, keyword stuff phrases, litter pages with every village place name. You name it, they try it and get away with it. We believe for the simple reason it is not yet economically viable for the search engines to bother working through the mess to try and deliver better results in these areas, but one day they will, and when that day of reckoning happens we believe many niche websites will be penalised or banned completely.
So, back to the original question regarding why are less deserving competitors always ahead of you?
The answer is, a) they may not be, b) you may not be seeing or hearing the results most others see, and C) even if they are, it may not stay that way forever if they are playing fast and loose with the search rules.
To succeed online you need to keep on doing the right things, avoid any temptation to look for shortcuts or tricks, and just keep ongoing. With that approach, you can generally beat any competitor over the long term, however big they are.
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