As someone who makes a living in SEO and digital marketing, I am about to pose a question that might sound contradictory to my livelihood. Here it is: we know SEO works, but do we really know why? I am forced to ask this question after reading an excellent article on the scientific principle of emergence; specifically, how the principal relates to understanding the inner workings of Google search algorithms.

Search Engine Journal contributor Jeff Ferguson wrote the article as a follow-up to a previous article in which he criticized poorly done correlation studies within the SEO industry. In a nutshell, Ferguson’s previous article pointed out the obvious fact that correlation and causation are not equal. Just because a researcher can draw a correlation between a specific SEO metric and better ranking does not necessarily mean manipulating that metric leads to better rankings.

The follow-up article on emergence explains why that is. Ferguson believes it important for every SEO pro to understand the emergence concept. I agree, but I would go one step further: those who hire SEO pros should understand that as well. Emergence explains why there are no 100% guarantees in the SEO field.

The Basics of Emergence

This writer could go to great lengths to explain emergence in scientific terms. It is rather complicated, so perhaps it’s better to boil it down to something we can all understand – human vision.

The eyeball, in and of itself, is not capable of facilitating sight. In order for you to see something, your eyeball has to work correctly and in partnership with the retina, macula, choroid, optic nerve, brain, etc. There are dozens of moving parts, as it were. Even the eyeball itself is made up of numerous parts.

Emergence dictates that none of these parts have the capability of providing necessary function on their own. But put them all together and they accomplish something. That is what makes human sight so amazing. Remove just one of the dozens of components that make it possible and you suddenly cannot see.

Emergence in SEO

We can apply the emergence concept to SEO by starting with the fact that Google currently ranks for at least 200 factors. There may be as many as 200 more, depending on who you believe. But even at the minimum number, the SEO pro has hundreds of factors to take into consideration.

You could make the case that keywords are the one factor Google pays the most attention too. And indeed, keywords are still the primary thing SEO pros worry about when doing what they do. The remaining 199 or whatever factors are less concrete.

For example, does anyone know just how important social media likes and follows are to SEO results? No. We do know that they are a ranking factor, but we don’t know how important they are and how Google uses them.

The fact is that we have hundreds of ranking factors that individually have very little value to SEO. If you were to focus all of your marketing efforts only on Facebook conversations for example, you would probably not improve your SERPs significantly. It is only when all of the ranking factors are combined that Google’s algorithms come up with their rankings.

What It Means to SEO

Do not take any of this to mean that SEO is a crapshoot. It is anything but. The only point to be made here is that SEO is not as scientific as some experts make it out to be. SEO pros can and should conduct extensive keyword research. As the people behind WebTek Interactive point out, keywords still represent the primary means by which search engine algorithms understand content. They cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, SEO pros should not be so obsessed with keyword research that they ignore every other aspect of SEO. Likewise, they cannot focus exclusively on any one principle. The only way to succeed in SEO is to take a well-rounded approach that addresses everything we know about SEO, to the extent that we know it.

In the end, even that does not guarantee great results 100% of the time. In many instances, the best SEO results are achieved by pros who intuitively have a ‘good feel’ for what to do and when to do it. There are some things in SEO that cannot be explained. We know it works; we do not always understand why. And that’s okay.

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