Gaming the Algorithm

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A creative approach to SEO

Amy Broadfoot, Audience & Influence Director, Sydney

In a time when Google algorithms create absurdist art, Tinder prioritises local hotties based on data, and Spotify can optimise your playlist of 80s synth pleasures, is it possible to reverse the trend and use playful creativity to game the algorithm and put the human touch back into the digital ether?

Yes. Not only is it possible, it’s proving very profitable. You might have heard of the website Ship Your Enemies Glitter. It went viral after the novel concept – paying $9.99 to have your nemesis sent an anonymous glitter bomb – was covered by global media in early 2015. What you might not know is that it was also an SEO stunt.

A clever young man named Matt Carpenter from regional Australia with a background in SEO came up with the approach after reading Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me I’m Lying. Holiday’s book explains a technique that can gain the attention of the lazy or stressed journalist via creating a buzz on platforms like Reddit. Once an alluring story presents itself, the time-pressured journalist often doesn’t perform the correct background checks and potential media hysteria follows. That’s exactly what happened in this case – and Matt Carpenter ended up making $85k for roughly a month’s work.

Carpenter’s mischievous approach appears temptingly easy. Google’s search algorithm (and I am simplifying this) likes social media buzz and inbound links. And not just any links, but high quality, creditable ones typically coming from news websites. Facebook’s algorithm also favours publisher content, with even Buzzfeed’s organic reach benefitting from recent changes.

All SEOs will know these principals, but only a handful of creatives, brand marketers and PR professional do too – which is unfortunate as this is a rich area going largely untapped by businesses. And here’s why: all who work in search agencies lust over the concept of using large ideas to generate inbound links and social mentions. These ultimately have the ability to increase page rank and domain authority. The better these are, the better the site ranks in organic search results. You would have heard the wellworn statement ‘content is king’. Well this is its nucleus. Truly unique creative ideas drive earned media, earned media creates links and increased social activity. Algorithms just love earned media.

While I’m not suggesting we create false spin pieces here, there’s still a valuable lesson to be learned. Firstly, we need to value (and make room for) creativity while integrating SEO practices into all aspects of our existing campaigns. By value, I mean ensure our data teams are ready to capture the true value of earned media by attributing its financial worth to the business. Secondly, we need to ensure that our next PR campaign works with search teams to capture and optimise the inbound links it generated, and not just focus solely on the column inches gained.

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This approach will allow for awareness building activities such as branded content, social media, PR and experiential to form a powerful argument for their place in the marketing ecosystem, rather than simply crediting last-click attribution to platforms like AdWords or tactical sales bursts immediately prior to purchase.

However this is not a new concept. Google has been valuing inbound links to various degrees for years. So why are we so late to the game?

We have siloed digital marketing away from marketing. And out of all the online practices SEO seems to be the most underappreciated dark art of the online realm, yet it secretly holds a very valuable key. This key unlocks very profitable benefits when combined with existing creative activities. We need to move it away from being seen as this complex ‘thing’ that has been delegated to the too-hard basket for far too long. After all, it’s the same thing. Digital marketing is marketing. We know that fortune favours the brave. The brave will be the ones who chose to play the game and win the algorithms by the new set of rules.

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