5 fundamental problems in SEO

Knowing the fundamental problems in an industry helps you truly understand it. In this article, I outline the 5 fundamental problems in SEO.

After 13 years of outstanding economic growth, the triple punch combo of a global pandemic, supply shortage, and hot war are pushing us into the ropes of stagflation. This is literally a problem. Stagflation, the combination of high inflation and high unemployment, is a fundamental problem in economics because there is no good solution. Lowering inflation can worsen unemployment and vice versa.

Every field has fundamental problems that are so deeply ingrained that most sub-problems trace back to them. For example, In Artificial Intelligence, it’s the bias in training data. In Medicine, it’s aging. In Evolution, it’s the Missing Link. In Science, it’s the replicability crisis.

Understanding these fundamental problems deeply means understanding the field deeply. Limitations define a space. Positive constraints allow us to solve problems faster. But what are the fundamental problems in SEO?

5 fundamental problems in SEO and how to overcome them

In September, SEJ published a survey based on almost 3K SEOs that also covers the biggest challenges they faced over the last 12 months. [1]

Here are the top 5:

  1. Budget cuts
  2. Strategy issues
  3. Lack of resources
  4. Pandemic-related issue
  5. Management/stakeholder approval

I want to offer my own twist on the answers because I believe that there are more fundamental problems under the answers given in the survey.

#1 Competition

One of the fundamental problems in SEO is that organic search is a zero-sum game. There is a limited number of slots (10 in most cases) and an uneven distribution of attention. The top 3 spots get more than half of all clicks on the page - if no SERP Features are present. Thousands of sites might compete for these 3 spots, leaving only a fraction of a percent of a chance to make it.

The best way to get around competition is by changing the rules. Or, in the case of SEO, changing your target keywords. Head terms like “cough” are so competitive, that only a few hand full of sites have a chance to even get to the first page. But long-tail queries like “child coughing at night but not during the day” are easier to win and typically more intenful.

In the most competitive verticals of SEO (finance, health, wellness, insurance, etc.), competing requires a high minimum investment. We often call search engine advertising (SEA) pay-to-play and SEO free. But the reality is that in competitive verticals, SEO is just as much pay-to-play. The feedback loop just takes longer to complete and the money is spent on content and optimization.

Winning in competitive SEO verticals takes a lot: advertising, brand building, Product-Market Fit, PR coverage, technically optimized site, good user experience, and a lot more. In plain terms, competitive verticals are like a high-stakes poker game and not everyone can afford the buy-in.

Those who can afford to chip in need to avoid the content commodity trap and build content moats instead.

#2 Shipping

Getting things out the door is more difficult than knowing what to do in SEO. Resources (especially developers) are scarce and SEO highly depends on collaborating with other teams. As a result, companies have to prioritize what to ship by opportunity sizing recommendations or committing to a set capacity that SEOs can use as they please (much rarer).

Good opportunity sizing is a matter of understanding the impact of a recommendation on revenue (or conversions as a proxy). If you know that optimizing your titles can drive +5% more revenue every year, you want to prioritize it over something else that might only have a +1% effect. But sizing is not always clear cut in SEO.

Tactics with a larger impact are easier to measure because they send a stronger signal. It’s clear when they work and when they don’t. But smaller items like site hygiene with a lagging effect or ones that only show after hitting a threshold are much harder to size. Good inhouse SEOs focus on things that make a difference, drive results to build trust, and use that trust to push recommendations that are harder to measure.

Another part of shipping well is knowing what language to speak. Unclear recommendations force developers or designers to explore the problem cost time and create resistance. Crystal clear recommendations that roll up to the company’s mission and strategy are easier to prioritize and faster to work on. When dealing with bottlenecks, the best thing you can do is be as efficient with their time as possible.

#3 Reverse engineering

When I started in SEO, algorithm updates were easier to reverse engineer because they had a bigger impact and rolled out at the same time. Today, any changes in Google’s ranking system take longer time to become visible and mix with all sorts of other factors that make it harder to see what happened to which site. The noise makes it hard to understand what Google rewards and punishes.

In the same realm, the sheer amount of ranking signals paired with a lot more competition and Google’s increasing use of machine learning leads to volatility in the search results making it hard to say why results are ranked the way they are. There used to be a time when getting to the top spots was more predictable but today, the SERPs are volatile. On the micro (rank) level, SEO can be an unstable channel.

We can still look at the top search results for a keyword as a proxy for what Google likes to see but we have to be much more careful and user-focused. Understanding the user intent, working with real user feedback and treating your site like a product is your best bet. Develop hypotheses for important pages and systematically test them. What goal is the user trying to achieve when searching for this keyword? What would a 5 star experience look like? How can we predict the next question a user might have?

#4 Google direct answers

Organic traffic can propel a business upwards but what Google giveth it can taketh away. If Google were to replace all search results with ML-driven answers tomorrow, a whole list of companies would go out of business in a heartbeat, especially those dealing with:

  • Travel
  • Real estate
  • Insurance
  • Medical questions
  • Affiliates (especially finance & ecommerce)
  • Ecommerce
  • Publishers

The list is long. The reality is that many companies benefit from organic search . It has no direct cost but brings in customers at scale. And yet, Google can destroy organic traffic for an industry in a heartbeat by showing answers and results directly instead of sending users to websites.

Flight and hotel search companies suffer significantly under Google’s SERP Features. Enlarged image carousels compete with Pinterest. Local reviews from Google Maps are making life harder for Yelp & Co. Weather sites, dictionaries, translation services or stock price sites are long dead. Car rental and car purchases might be next. [2]

What can companies do? Besides partnering with Google when the time comes, building a strong moat by collecting emails, driving more direct/returning traffic, and funneling users into native apps seem to be the best ways to go. Resting on organic traffic without diversifying is Russian Business Roulette. Pulling users into environments you can control is a steel helmet.

#5 Technical limitations

Lastly, every SEO's favorite: technical limitations. SEOs can only run as fast as the CMS allows. If you edit page templates your impact is the one of a dentist that can only treat front teeth.

We're in 2022 and there are workarounds like using Cloudflare or Semrush PageImprove to bypass your "CMS" and inject changes through the CDN. This workaround might allow you to change almost everything on the site. However, not every company allows SEOs to use solutions that bypass the CMS due to security and control issues.

Many SEOs pivot to focusing more on offsite work but without a good user experience, you can only get so far. The best thing to do in this case is to go back to good opportunity sizing and show the business how much money it's losing.

Bottom line: Not all problems can be solved but you can work around them

SEO has five fundamental core problems:

  1. Competition
  2. Shipping
  3. Reverse engineering
  4. Google’s direct answers
  5. Technical limitations

Every system has limitations (and everything is a system or a system of a system - bear with me). The key is to either work around them or work with them as efficiently as possible. Whenever you face a bottleneck, the best thing you can do is use its capacity as efficiently as possible. In other words, be intentional with your recommendations and diligent with your research.

Another benefit of knowing the fundamental problems in SEO is becoming solution agnostic. When one solution stops working, you can find a new one without getting lost in proxy problems (like budget or strategic buy-in).