Google’s John Mueller recently stated that hreflang is one of the most complex aspects of SEO.
TBH hreflang is one of the most complex aspects of SEO (if not the most complex one). Feels as easy as a meta-tag, but it gets really hard quickly.
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) February 19, 2018
He used the word complex and not difficult, and rightfully so. That’s because the concept of hreflang is quite simple, but implementing it can be a challenge especially when dealing with multilingual sites. One experience I had was with a retail website of a popular fashion brand. Not only did the project manager had a different idea of how hreflang was implemented, it was also thought of as a search signal that supersedes local search rankings. It was a challenging way to start a new phase of my career.
Mueller’s comment on hreflang is an epitome of how tough SEO can be done. On the surface it’s easy to follow, but once you get to the nitty gritty details of implementation it can easily get murky. I was therefore inspired to make a summary of why SEO is a tough job — not necessarily difficult — to do.
1. It’s both science and art
There are many ways to optimize a site. But it also depends on many factors: what’s the objective, who is the target audience, how you define success, and many more. The problem is that unlike Google AdWords which had certifications to prove one’s expertise, SEO has no such counterpart, partly because search algorithms are rightfully not disclosed by search engines to the public. That is why SEO is a science: it’s based on facts that a website has to have content accessible to search engines and acquire relevant links to be visible. SEO is also an art; it can summon your creativity to develop overarching strategy such as to generate link-worthy content and how it’s presented on your website. Without one, the other isn’t as effective.
2. Search engine factors evolve
Years ago, I shared at a seminar organized by HKU alumni about the importance of optimizing for keywords on page title and meta description because I noticed that so many websites apply “Untitled Document” as default page title (they were probably using WYSIWYG HTML editors back then). While that piece of advice still applies, its impact is no longer as intense as it was before, a time when keyword density, keyword-rich URLs and other keyword-centric recommendations were on high priority. Later, Google Hummingbird update placed emphasis on keyword relationships rather than individual keyword presence within content, and further introduced RankBrain to better understand a user’s search intent which may not necessarily be part of the search query he or she is using. Then there’s latent semantic indexing, a term that sounds awfully complex to understand.
3. It takes multiple talents to get it done
I used to work in an agency as web developer before I embraced SEO. During this time I experienced challenges on implementing SEO. I had to tread carefully with designers so as not to disrupt the look and feel of the website, and front-end developers to ensure functionality is in place. I also had to explain properly the rationale of my recommendations with back-end developers to justify why they had to change the way they implement staging sites and accelerated mobile pages, and endure lengthy discussions with copywriters to emphasize content theme without disrupting their creative space (not to mention dealing with languages I personally am not familiar with) and project managers on adjusting timelines to accommodate SEO strategy recommendations.
4. Search results formats change
When Instant Results, a feature Google implemented in 2010, was launched, it changed a bit how users behave as search results, not only predicted search queries, are displayed immediately as a search term is entered. Although Google said it won’t change the way search results are ranked, SEOs at the time are wary. For example, should we start optimizing for shorter keywords, anticipating that they’ll yield results sooner than longer ones? Thankfully, the rise of mobile search use has prompted Google to drop the Instant Search feature to make the experience consistent across multiple devices.
Not only that, we used to be amazed about Universal Search results which blends various verticals (news, images, videos, etc) when it was released and immediately thought of strategies on how to leverage our sites towards this feature. But as years go by, how search results are displayed have also changed: knowledge graph, featured snippets and structured data have been introduced and prompted SEOs to draft a new set of recommendations to adopt these new features.
5. It takes time to see results
SEO, unlike PPC campaigns which can get activated and see results within a few minutes and tested by trial and error in a short period of time, is less straightforward about results. You can implement one or more recommendations and won’t know for sure if it yields desired results instantly. There are other factors in play — competition, search algorithm changes, and limitations on how we implement our recommendations — page layout doesn’t accommodate longer content, client does not intend to migrate old content to new site, and so on. That is why it’s sometimes difficult to estimate how much SEO costs especially when others claim they can do the job at a fraction of your price. Achieving such desired result is not necessarily an end to an SEO effort, it just means the tactic works and should be cultivated further, something that deserves another round of convincing to a client that SEO is an on going activity and not a one-off campaign.
6. Other people with less SEO understanding are involved
Little knowledge is dangerous, and those with a different perspective of SEO can be labeled as such. Even with a guide from Google, myths about SEO abound: PPC campaigns aid in rankings, using XML sitemaps and robots.txt or structured data helps improve search visibility. This is understandable because of (at least) two factors: there is no official disclosure about the different ranking algorithms from search engines (Google, though, said content, links and RankBrain are three important ones), and changes happen all the time in the search engine world: mobile-first ranking to become a factor, and site loading speed and adoption of HTTPS makes sense in the realm of user experience.
So if people not working on SEO on a daily basis gets into the team and injects a nugget of information that may be outdated, it can be a recipe for an endless debate.
I treat SEO work as like a detective’s job. Identify what’s wrong and why it’s going. Set a hypothesis and draft a number of possible solutions to solve the problem. But while it’s an exciting job to do, it is tough to do it because of factors that are sometimes beyond our abilities: clients have the final say on budgets and priorities, some colleagues just don’t get it, and of course, search engine behavior has been changing to address user needs and adopt to emerging technologies.