Is SEO a myth?

Jigsaw puzzle with word "evidence"There is an old man in Woking, Surrey, who carefully places a bowl of custard outside his front door every night before he goes to bed. For years, people were curious about this until a couple of school children knocked on his door and asked “why do you put a bowl of custard outside your door each night?”. He smiled and said: “It is because of the elephants.” The children looked at him rather puzzled and said “But there are no elephants in Woking.” “So,” the old man said, “it must be working then.”

Of course, this is not a true story, but it shows that we often have unshakable belief in something. The old man puts his bowl of custard out, no elephants arrive, therefore the bowl of custard must be warding off the animals. At least that’s his belief.

We can see unshakable beliefs all around us – indeed, we often have them ourselves. You may be a Christian with the unshakable belief  that Jesus was the son of God. Or you may be Jewish, regarding Jesus as a kind man, but not the son of God. Alternatively, you may be an Atheist, unmoved by the concept of a deity.

Similarly, you might believe that the medicine you take for your illness provides you with a power of good. Yet many people with the same condition get better without that medicine. At the same time, doctors give people placebos – sugar pills that have no impact on a disease – yet people get better because they believe the “drug” is working.

Beliefs are powerful and are part of our everyday lives, helping us to operate in the world according to our “rules”.

Like it or not, SEO is a belief system. There are many people convinced by its power, whereas other people manage to thrive online without giving it a second thought. It is sometimes like the man with the bowl of custard, if you do lots of SEO and you get results, you prove to yourself that it must have been the SEO that achieved those results. It is impossible to think that your belief might be wrong. After all you have the “evidence” that it works. Equally, there are people with the “evidence” that it does not work.

This whole arena of what we believe in has been brought into focus with new psychological research conducted in Toronto, Canada. This looked at what happens when people get evidence that counters their belief system. What would happen, for instance, if there were evidence that businesses achieved online greatness without paying attention to SEO? What would the devoted fans of SEO say?

This research gives us a clue. When people have their beliefs challenged by the evidence, they start to adopt a viewpoint which presents something that cannot be falsified. For instance, the research showed that when people were presented with factual evidence about the positive life outcomes of children from same sex couples the people opposed to same sex marriage decided that the matter should not be decided by evidence, but by opinion. Similarly, when politically motivated people were presented with facts on an issue, they effectively changed their stance to say that the facts were not as relevant as opinions. Of course, you cannot prove an opinion to be untrue – only facts can be verified.

So, when you think about search engine optimisation, the fans will be likely to adopt a position that whether or not it works is down to experience and opinion, when the facts go against them.

For business owners this is important. There are facts on both sides of SEO. There is considerable evidence that SEO works and brings in business. Equally there is evidence that companies do rather well without SEO. Indeed, Google itself produced its own “report card” showing that its own SEO was, frankly, poor. They are not doing too badly in spite of some pretty shabby search engine optimisation of their own. Perhaps what the Google report card demonstrates is that branding is more important than SEO. It’s a thought.

Of course, SEO fans will be unshakable in their belief – the evidence against them from Google’s own SEO report will make them retreat into a viewpoint that is something no-one can say is true or untrue. They will counter any evidence against SEO with opinion, rather than fact.

And therein lies the problem for business owners. When is an SEO company giving you fact and evidence that will show you how your online business can improve and when will the company be providing mere opinion that you cannot verify?

SEO is not a myth; it works and there is plenty of evidence to support it. But equally some of what we are told is mythical and we have to be careful to sort out the truth from the opinion so that we can be sure we are getting the right advice. Thankfully, Google has some advice to help us. But in the meantime, be careful. Not everything SEO firms tell you will be true. Some of it will be unshakable belief, flying in the face of evidence.

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