There Are No Participation Trophies in Search
Do you deserve a reward just for showing up? For simply existing, at a certain time and place?
In the context of youth sports, that’s the premise behind participation trophies: a ballast against poor self-esteem, ensuring young athletes know that, just by trying, they are already winners.
In the context of SEO, for some reason, the issue doesn’t seem to be as polarizing. Year after year, site after site, I hear the same thing: “Why am I not ranking? I did some SEO and used all my keywords.”
Sorry to say (actually not that sorry), but there are no participation trophies for SEO. If you want to win, you have to be the best — not simply “show up” to the web.
You Don’t Deserve to Win — You Earn It
Critics assert that participation trophies create unrealistic expectations — that life is never so easy or accommodating, and that kids who get participation trophies are being set up for future failures and disappointment. As the pundits have it, millennials brought up in a culture tolerant of participation trophies become adults with an attitude of entitlement, laziness, and any other criticism you can imagine applying to “kids these days.”
An extremely similar attitude permeates the world of search — in which some people think that, just because you have a website, you “deserve” to rank in Google. At the risk of sounding like a cantankerous old person:
Having a site doesn’t entitle you to visibility in search results. Saying that you “did some SEO” and “used your keywords” is like saying you should have taken first place because you showed up to the game. Google doesn’t award participation trophies. If you want to “win” in search, you need to compete, not just exist.
What Does it Take to Win?
Part of the reason people hate the very idea of participation trophies is that it rewards one step above all others, without regard to any other measure of success, performance, or commitment.
What all is being ignored, devalued, or left out of the conversation when we award participation trophies to kids? What does it actually take for an athlete to be successful?
- Good Fundamentals (strength, conditioning, endurance, etc);
- Practice (building muscle memory, handling equipment, moving in uniform, improving precision/dexterity/control);
- Coordination (learning to communicate with your teammates and coach, building a strategy or game plan, learning to make decisions and communicate new strategies in real time);
- Showing Up (coming prepared and ready to play, with all necessary equipment and all members of the team/your coach);
- Execution (actually using all of the above: strategy, communication, muscle memory, et al);
- Adaptation (knowing how to read the competition, the field, your team, and adjusting to respond to these changing conditions and other variables);
- Dedication (repeating all of the above as a matter of habit, always setting new goals to challenge yourself to improve, learning from setbacks and losses, learning from the competition, never taking victory for granted).
You don’t need to be an athlete, or even have a specific sport in mind, to see the problem here. Participation trophies take the easiest (albeit essential) step of ‘being there’ and make it award-worthy.
Real life, by contrast, makes no such concessions to self-esteem or devaluations of hard work. Why then, when we talk about SEO, would anyone expect the situation to be any different?
What Does it Take to Rank in Search?
In many respects, good SEO is no different from good athletics; the details may vary, but the principles are the same. And unlike the world of sports, the competition to appear in Google’s SERPs has no half-time, no end, and no shortage of underdogs waiting in the wings to take your place at the top. What are the winners doing to earn (and hang on) to the top spots?
- Good Fundamentals (Technical SEO: clean site structure and HTML, crawlability, no errors disrupting the user experience or the ability of bots to read and index the site);
- Practice aka Research (ongoing keyword research to stay up-to-date on how people search and what language they use, maintaining and updating your site);
- Coordination (learning to communicate with your marketing, sales, web development, and any other teams/departments/stakeholders in your site, building a strategy for your SEO, learning to interpret relevant data to make it actionable to your team);
- Showing Up (publishing your website, setting up and maintaining your Google Analytics account, ensuring you are being crawled and indexed correctly);
- Execution (actually using all of the above — strategy, communication, maintenance, and research — to create high quality content and fully optimize your site for both humans and search engines);
- Adaptation (knowing how to study the competition, the SERPs, your site, and how to adjust and respond to changing conditions and other variables);
- Dedication (repeating all of the above as a matter of habit, always setting new goals to inform your content creation and research, evaluating and improving/updating/deleting old content learning from the competition, and never taking victory for granted).
I know it isn’t very concise or satisfying for the answer to be a seven-part cycle with no shortcuts, but, then again, why should search be any different from any other form of success?
You get what you work for, and if you don’t work as hard as the competition, you don’t win. As the saying goes, “The best place to bury a dead body is Page Two of the Google search results.”
Easy to Describe, Harder to Do
Nobody likes a “Monday morning quarterback” — that lifetime member of the peanut gallery who believes that being a spectator also makes them an expert. It is easy to describe what a team or player “should have done” after the fact. In the moment, performance is a challenge; that’s what makes sports engaging and competitive.
SEO is similarly easy, in theory, to describe: do some keyword research, create content based on those keywords, and get links to that content. While this outlook isn’t technically wrong, it misses the hard work and complex challenges that actually go into successful SEO campaigns.
When we talk about SEO, the ultimate measure of success is having your content appear in relevant SERPs. Whenever someone searches for any of your target keywords, ideally your website will be among the top results.
In reality, success is nearly always more of a mixed bag. You might rank for some target keywords but not others; you might rank for some nice-looking long tail queries, but only the ones with minimal monthly search volume. And of course, you may well rank for all of your target keywords, but nowhere near the top 10 results.
In other words: being the best at something means just being really good a lot of the time, and always finding ways to get better.
Google is in the business of advertising and search — not handing out participation trophies, not ensuring that your site ranks where you feel it deserves, and certainly not making it easier for you to get a slice of the traffic pie.
It isn’t impossible to win, but it isn’t an easy or passive process either. With the right team, the right strategy, and a whole lot of practice, you can earn your trophy; just don’t wait around to be rewarded for showing up.