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Search Engine Confidential: Conspiracy Theories

Nov 09, 2015
search engine optimization theories

In my spare time, I like to read about conspiracy theories and unresolved mysteries. I have a few sites I like to check out, like Atlas Obscura, and the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit.
I have a few personal favorites, and I prefer the truly strange and mysterious. One of my favorite mysteries to read about (even though I think there’s a rational explanation, written below) is an event called the Dyatlov Pass Incident (do not google this, a few unsavory photos show up. I’ll hit you with some links below).
The Dyatlov Pass is a place. It is in the Ural Mountains of Russia, and it is a place where experienced hikers go on extended hiking trips to test their mettle. In February of 1959, a group of hikers did just that. They were experienced, and they were well provisioned. But something strange happened.
When the hiking group did not arrive at their destination at the end of their trek, search parties were sent out. They discovered a grisly scene: nude hikers, expired in the snow. And their large communal, winter-proofed tent, designed to protect them from a February storm, crushed and tattered in the center of the pass.
The hikers appeared to have run from the tent in a frenzy, in various states of undress and disarray; some wearing the clothing of their companions, if they wore any. And, the tale breathlessly continues, their eyes and tongues were missing! And everything was radioactive!
However, the only possible hint of violence at the scene of Dyatlov Pass were knife holes in the side of the tent. It appeared they were made to help the residents of the tent escape. The injuries suffered by the hikers before they passed all appeared to be self-inflicted when they fled their tent, if they were injured at all. Many succumbed to the cold. As for those eyes and tongues... well, crows gotta eat.
If you were to put yourself in the shoes of the search and rescue party sent to Dyatlov Pass that cold day, I am sure that the discovery was sad, and more than a little frightening. Here was a trip gone wrong, and in a very awful way. And in an era of crime television and CSI, reading about the incident with a modern lens makes you wonder what the cause could be.
The result of the 1959 investigation was inconclusive. (Nothing was radioactive. That got tacked on by conspiracy theorists.)

The internet took over from there!

It’s a tale that grows in the telling, with theories about yeti, extraterrestrials, infrasound, avalanche, and more. Because there is no record, and widespread North American suspicion about the government who performed the initial investigation, the Dyatlov Pass Incident has sparked many conspiracy theorists’ imaginations.
The likely explanation, to me? Hypothermia. I’m originally from Canada, and am just rounding out my first year here in California. I know how dangerous winter can be, and I know how much hypothermia can compound that. I am confident that these unlucky travellers experienced a cold snap, and then succumbed to hypothermia.
Their behavior fits the symptoms: emotional outburst, amnesia, poor coordination, and something that is called “paradoxical undressing”, which fits the bill for the strange state the hikers were found. I am sure that Dyatlov Pass was simply a tragic case of hypothermia, but that won’t stop writers, bloggers, and podcasters from supposing what unearthly cause happened upon that small expedition.
An unfortunate accident like the Dyatlov Pass Incident combines with a lack of information to blow up into the subject of books, movies, and films, all bordering on fantasy.
Some days, coming in to work and reading or talking to people about SEO feels like I’m back on my couch reading about Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Experiments.
As soon as human brains get a whiff of secrecy or confusion, it seems like they are ready and willing to leap into action, making up scenario upon scenario about nefarious, confusing intentions.
Like, for instance, if the largest provider of internet traffic in the world deliberately made it hard to figure out how to get more traffic to the website you rely on for your business.
The tendency to believe in conspiracy and hyperbole in SEO is very real, and it is very dangerous to small business owners who may find themselves taken in by a compelling, but false, story.

Some SEO myths I’d like to bust...

“We don’t need to blog or update your website. We pay someone $X/month to put keywords out there for us.”
The keywords game is over, at least the way you're used to. Keywords matter for tracking, competition, and editorial direction; but simply listing keyword upon keyword on a page is no longer going to cut it for your search traffic efforts. This isn’t helping anyone but the person you’re paying… and it’s only helping them order more pizza.
“Our traffic has gone way down! It’s probably sabotage by a competitor.”
Hold up. Running a small business is a lot of work. It's a lot of work for your competitor to run theirs, too, They probably don't have the time to do this!
There are definitely instances where someone has turned to subterfuge to hurt a competitor’s search engine ranking through black had link building and duplicate content – but this is usually either done in very bad faith, or by a company who has a lot of resources.
The more likely possibility? Your website was hit by a Google algorithm update. There are constant tweaks and improvements to the way that Google classifies websites, and sometimes business owners find themselves on the wrong side of an update. Whether fairly or unfairly, it’s more likely that you just need to update your website and its content to be more google-friendly.
“Google just wants me to buy ads!”
Why? Do you click on google ads, in most of your searches? Do you really? Some people do, but it is not the majority of search clicks or traffic, by far. If Google destroys its organic results to sell ads, people will move away… even to a place like bing. Yeah, I said it.
Of course Google likes to sell AdWords. They are more than happy to take your money, but not buying AdWords is not going to hurt your organic search ranking unless your competitor is engaging in a PPC campaign targeting you. If they are, give us a call. I love a good fight!
“I don’t want to do all of this writing and marketing work... I only want to do SEO”
This is what it all comes down to. Running a business is busy, tiring work. And often, when you hire a marketing company, we just tell you to do a bit more work! Not that we don’t do our fair share, but most marketing companies will tell you the same thing: the best content you can make is the kind that comes from your heart, and your passion for what you do. And the one who makes the best content, usually has the best rankings.
It is no longer the case that Search Engine Optimization is completely separate from the work that your marketing company provides your business website. What it brings to the table is strategy about what is on your website, how it is structured, and when it is released. We track, monitor, plan, ship, and then track and monitor some more.
If a company tells you they’re going to do SEO for you, but they aren’t making your website better and releasing regular content, they’re going about it all wrong. While it might work in the short term, it won’t work in the long term.
Just like with many, many other conspiracy theories, what sounds like an interesting and compelling explanation is also the explanation that keeps you from having to do more work. The story behind Dyatlov Pass is Prepare, Prepare, and Prepare some more. The story behind good SEO right now? Write, Create, and Write Some More.
Just like most areas of business and marketing, the real contributor to success is a lot of smart, hard work. The right marketing and search engine strategy is going to involve focusing that extra work in the places that will bring you the traffic and conversions that you’re missing. They weren’t taken away by an alien or a yeti. They were probably taken by a Penguin or a Panda.

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