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A long time ago, people used to talk more about sustainable SEO. I don’t know exactly when the whole discussion died down (as a trend, of course), but today, I see very few people talking about it, and fewer still practice it.

Sustainable SEO is all about quality. It’s about truth, genuineness, and “being natural” as opposed to “acting natural.” Many people say SEO has changed vastly; experts say SEO is re-inventing itself. Matt Cutts says Google is becoming even smarter, and industry publications are alive with gurus constantly discussing Google’s rapidly evolving algorithms.

But while it’s fun to debate and discuss Google’s latest algorithm changes, all you really need to know is what one ex-Google employee said: Forget SEO. Build your content as if there was no Google. Craft your marketing campaigns like there are just people out there to please, not search engines to placate.

In doing so, you’ll actually be practicing the most powerful and safe SEO strategy: Sustainable SEO.

What’s sustainable?

So what is “sustainable SEO”? I define it as policies that are not aimed at increasing rankings, but rather at improving user experience, building quality relationships, and building a positive brand image. Sustainable SEO policies don’t get you in trouble no matter what kind of algorithm change Google makes.

Think about what you’d do if you were performing charity work with what you have to offer. You’d produce the best quality and share it with people. To find the people who’ll use your content, you’d build relationships. These relationships would result in inbound links, mentions, and other signals that would benefit your traffic while satisfying the three necessary conditions above.

Why Google likes sustainable

It’s funny in a way, because when we’re talking about sustainable SEO (and I’m sure you’ll appreciate this better once we get to the actionable steps that characterize sustainable SEO), we’re really talking about being several steps ahead of Google. We’re talking about strategies that will define what Google will be looking for in the future rather than being in a reactive mode.

Blog networks, article marketing, blog commenting, and countless other SEO “tactics” have come and gone over the years; these were all tactics that used to work in the sense that they did have a positive benefit on rankings. However, with the rollout of the Panda and Penguin algorithms, Google put an end to these tactics.

In each of them, it’s easy to see patterns that are detected by algorithms. Google does just that in order to detect attempts at manipulation of its search results.

Sustainable SEO goes beyond all these patterns. It’s about creating value (content); it’s about creating long-term relationships with key players (links); it’s about reaching your target market before they begin to find you through Google.

Sustainability challenges

The problem with sustainable SEO is that it’s vague and unfamiliar to people who’ve become accustomed to watching Matt Cutts pick apart specific SEO tactics in excruciating detail. Sustainable SEO has many other issues too:

  • Sustainable SEO is radically different from the technique-oriented SEO that we often see/use.
  • The results of sustainable SEO efforts accrue slowly, often to the point of appearing worthless to your clients/superiors (if you work for someone else).
  • Much of your sustainable SEO efforts will fall outside the ambit of analytics: this means you can’t track and measure the results the way you would with, say, link building campaigns, social marketing campaigns or A/B tests for conversion.

What to do right now

If you’re like me, you want to know how to take action. So here we go. Sustainable SEO is plain, simple, and old school. It’s easy to get started, but the key is perseverance and consistency.

On-page sustainable SEO

  • Create content that’s easy to consume and enormously helpful to your target market. Content that is lengthy (but not unnecessarily so), unique, and timely gets valued more highly by search engines and readers. The emphasis on lengthier content is especially strong right now, but this has always been a basic tenet of sustainable SEO.
  • UX Design and presentation matter. Think from the user’s perspective: design your website and content in such a way that helps users find great information faster and better. Don’t try to get greedy with ads; Google is smart enough to figure out when you’ve got too many ads above the fold, which contributes to a poor user experience.
  • Build AuthorRank, but don’t be dependent on it. The purpose of setting up rich snippets is to put a face to your content. It helps people “connect.” AuthorRank isn’t here to please Google and its whimsical nature. When AuthorRank and rich snippets first came about, not everyone cared. It was only after Google said they mattered that people began adding them. But think of it from a natural perspective: if Google let you show your author headshot next to your content within search results, why wouldn’t you add it?
  • Tweak your website so it’s easy for the crawlers to understand it. But don’t sweat too much over this. I’ve seen websites with clearly no professional onsite SEO rank highly on the first page for competitive keywords.
  • Make your website content easily accessible both on the desktop and mobile. Use responsive code wherever possible. Google’s recommendation is responsive, as opposed to separate sub-domain or content serving. Thinking in terms of sustainability, it makes sense to go for a mobile responsive design where content duplication is avoided.

Off-page sustainable SEO

  • Link building: Build relationships with fellow bloggers/experts in your niche, and with people who talk about your niche within social channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Building relationships pays off in the long run for many reasons, one of which being that your content will often be shared or linked to.
  • Social engagement: Be socially sustainable too; social signals are vital, but you need to understand why they are. Google understands or believes that people share content only if they find it worthy of sharing (and this system has been gamed a lot, obviously). Being socially sustainable means you don’t use social channels to share links. Create an engagement, connect with your followers, and keep it live.
  • Social shares: Share content that is genuinely valuable. I see too many Internet marketers and SEO professionals who only share content from their own websites, but this isn’t a good way to build relationships. Share the love and you’ll get it in return.
  • Content marketing: Often, people think their website/blog should have high-quality content, and the content they use for marketing (published elsewhere) can be mediocre. This is working precisely against the ideals of sustainable SEO. If you promote mediocre content elsewhere, you run the risk of destroying brand reputation. Instead, all the content you publish — whether on your own website or on external publishers’ sites — should be top-notch quality.

Sustainable SEO is about being genuine — not just in your SEO efforts, but in the way you provide something valuable for your market. It’s hard work and takes a lot of time, but for those who implement it wisely, there’s no looking back or fearing the algorithms.

Jayson DeMersJayson DeMers is founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based SEO agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn or by email.