Why is Organic SEO So Hard?

Domm Holland (CEO of asked this question:

I find it crazy about DTC/eCommerce that the sector excels by directly communicating and engaging with their customers, yet is almost exclusively driven by paid ads through FB/Insta.

People should be able to uncover great brands more organically.

Which, as you can imagine, got me thinking. Why is organic SEO so hard? Why does it take so long? When search engines exist to help us find things, why do some things end up so hard to find? My gut reaction surprised me but, the more I think about it, the more I think it might be right…

The current social and search platforms don’t need or want your business to grow organically.

It’s in the interests of all social media platforms to create a model where a small number of people can achieve huge success at low cost, then use this as the inducement for others to spend their money on advertising.

Think about it – how many people are trying to emulate the success of outliers on social media right now? How many proto-Kardashians have swarmed to Instagram to try and make their fortune? How many PewDiePie-lites are there on YouTube? It’s more than just a crowded marketplace – it’s a crowded marketplace where the rules are arbitrary and controlled by a third party for their own benefit.

If this were a real marketplace, you would be able to take a look at your neighbour’s wares and make sure you had something better. Fresher meat. Bigger buns. People in the market would see the goods side by side and, hopefully, pick yours. But online marketplaces don’t work that way. In an online marketplace you can have the absolute best product on the planet and still find yourself behind (or under) an inferior competitor. Online marketplaces don’t reward the quality of the product, the algorithms just aren’t built that way.

Now, maybe in our fictitious real-world marketplace you don’t get to be right next to your competitor either. Fair enough. But you can shout louder, you can build a brighter and better stall. You can stand at the entrance to the market and give out fliers. Of course, you can do these things in an online marketplace too but… there’s a limit. If you want to shout over a certain volume or have a stall over a certain size then you need to pay the marketplace – in the form of ads.

And so what was a platform where everyone was equal and only the quality of the content matters suddenly becomes skewed – now, bad content but deep pockets can triumph more often than not.

And it’s not just social networks that work this way. Search engines do exactly the same thing. You don’t have to take my word for it, Sridhar Ramaswamy (former head of ads for Google)  told the Times that the quality and usefulness of search results on Google had been compromised by the focus on ad revenue. Just take a moment and let that sink in – generating advertising revenue from search results is more important to Google than giving you the right answer.

Beware of geeks bearing gifts…

So, is Organic Ranking Just Impossible?

No, organic is entirely possible with sufficient time and effort. It doesn’t even have to cost you that much money, if you’re prepared to sacrifice your own time to learn and do it yourself.

But for many businesses, the timeline will be too long and the implementation costs (even doing it themselves) will be too high. Organic should, long term, give you the biggest ROI but its the equivalent of choosing to go to the gym every day and train for two hours instead of drinking Slim-Fast shakes. A lot of businesses want to Slim-Fast.

But organic shouldn’t be slow. It should be fast. Changes to your website should make a difference quickly, but they don’t. New content should get indexed quickly, but this doesn’t always happen. Search engines are stuck using skewed metrics like backlinks to measure popularity because, like organic ranking, the next big jump in search engine technology – proper AI interpretation of the content and its quality – is a quantum leap away.

In the meantime, search engines prioritise adding features to their search engine results page that keep customers with them and force-feed them more advertising. They’ve proven the quality of their product; now they need to keep customers coming back for more of the same. These platforms simply aren’t built to facilitate the organic discovery of new things because there’s no money in that.

You Make It Sound Like There’s No Hope!

Actually, there’s a lot to be hopeful about. As new platforms emerge they normally prioritise organic discovery (the early days of Instagram, for example) then, as the audience reaches the critical point for monetisation, ads overtake organic in usefulness.

So, if you want the easiest organic reach – go to new platforms. The audience will be smaller but they are there for the taking and you can benefit while they grow. Eventually, though, plan to pay or move on.

There’s also growing interest in subscription-based search engines and social networks where customers will pay for the service rather than use the service for “free” and be bombarded with advertising. People are waking up to how valuable their data is to the big platforms. In the past, the only option was to “vote with your feet” and go “off the grid” in terms of social, but a new breed of platforms is emerging that prioritise privacy and subscriptions fill the gap in their bottom line.

As always, SEO is changing.

In the meantime, the gains are still there to be had – just work hard and don’t drink the Slim-Fast.

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