8 things I learnt in my 5th year as a professional SEO

Filed under: SEO | AI | tech

Today marks the fifth anniversary of me becoming a digital marketer (you can read about my first year, second year), third year), and fourth year to follow my journey).

It’s been an amazing journey so far and I like to share what I’ve learnt every year so here are some of my lessons from my fifth year as a professional.


1. John Mueller still remains the MVP

John, if you’re reading this, thank you for your patience, hard work, and technical support. Same as last year. And the years before.


2. My attraction to AI, web performance, and graph science have waxed and waned

Last year, I said that AI, web performance, and graph science had “enhanced my experience of technical SEO far beyond what I could have imagined” and while that’s still true, they haven’t all continued on an upward trajectory. I did an AI webinar last year and released a tool (which is effectively a OpenAI wrapper with some Python automation, built primarily for entry-level use) but my personal feelings have decreased as AI tech is used as an excuse to put people out of work and retain profits for capitalists. Now, I use generative AI sparingly and general NLP a bit more. Web performance still remains a passion although I still don’t like how it’s used as a beacon for ranking improvements when its focus should be on revenue and session quality attribution. And I haven’t touched graph science for a long time. neo4j still isn’t functional on M1 or M2 Mac chips and that’s the only way I used it. I don’t have the energy to find alternatives and learn a whole new UI.

3. Python still rocks and I’m learning JavaScript (again)

I’m building more tools in Python and it feels good. I’m also trying to learn JavaScript again because it matters for my work more than ever and I’ve been putting it off for years.

4. I still love web performance

I’m still doing lots of Core Web Vitals audits but now pushing back (in my head) on them for sites where site speed isn’t a priority. If a site is small, CWV scores won’t do anything for ranking and there are always bigger priorities.

And I still say that synthetic data is important and we can build a more inclusive Web for everyone if we care enough and put in the work (sadly, I’ve not found a way to show this in a work capacity that DOESN’T involve a business case)


5. Seriously, stop using (generative) AI for everything

NLP, embeddings, vector search, clustering, fuzzy matching, all that kind of stuff? Good. It’s under the AI umbrella and I think they are good use cases when done properly. But most of that isn’t sexy so we’re stuck with generative AI as the poster boy and a lot of it sucks. I’ve written that generative AI works well as a creative kickstarter but that’s not how it’s sold or how most people use it. Everyone complains about search results pages being filled with AI garbage written for the sake of SEO and The Verge are taking the lead on calling SEO out for a lot of the blame (with varying success, I won’t go into it here because it bores and annoys me). We could just not use it so much and take care in how we use it. But experts couldn’t pretend to know-it-all and sell us all snake oil and apparently, that’s worse.

5a. I find generative AI really boring

I’ve used generative AI a fair bit in the last few years but I apply some critical thinking to what I do because a lot of it isn’t tested thoroughly and it’s not scaled for mass use (tl;dr - it’s not really at an adequate production level). The problem is, I see a lot of use cases that are promoted as “something for everything” but without any indication of methodology or testing. And everyone seems to be okay with it because they say “ooh, interesting!” And I honestly find this repetitive cycle boring. Generative AI may produce coherent sentences but they’re soulless and even if you get a human to juj it up, why not just get the human to write it. Now, I’ve mentioned that generative AI is good as a kickstarter and I stand by that. But so many people are trying to hoodwink us, pretending that things have been checked when they haven’t. We already have soulless, stale content written by humans—generative AI models only speed that process up and that’s not innovation for me.

6. I don’t want to see your keyword/traffic graphs

In or out of context, all these Google Search Console and Ahrefs graphs mean nothing. And even with added information on how you scaled 100s of pages with templated text, you just look bad and that traffic will go the opposite way and you’ll blame Google rather than yourself. If you start a website with no content and then start adding indexable content, your lines will eventually go up. It’s not magic, it’s not strategy, it’s just how search engines work. Please stop.

7. We all need to get our priorities straight

Saving the best til last. I’ve had to learn that a lot of what we’re asked to do or think we need to do isn’t that important in the grander scheme of things. Site speed for most small sites isn’t a priority compared to “helpful content” (unless the site is so slow that it’s unusable and this often isn’t the case, at least in my experience). Meta descriptions? Not a priority compared to literally anything. Bold keywords, keyword density, word count, “LSI keywords”, keywords in headings, all things that should never be looked at or made priorities.

And beyond the technicalities of our work, we also need to get it together from a moral and human perspective. Who are we working with and what do we stand for? I wrote about being Black in digital marketing last year and it was sad to see so many of those micro and macroaggressions still prevalent 3 years later. D&I is getting cut heavily in the tech industry and what is left isn’t working for everyone. I get that these things are a work in progress but the progress isn’t the thing to applaud and feel good about. And we shouldn’t need data to justify actions—we should just be doing the actions, which goes beyond D&I.

The reality is that people think SEO is spammy crap. Whether that’s true or not might not the thing to focus on. What these figure heads should be doing is demystifying a lot of our practices, not couch everything in vague language as to obscure what’s really happening, and stop walling free information. There are plenty of things Google could do but profit and notoriety comes first. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep fighting them on their crap practices but we should also keep our expectations in check. We won’t find out what all the algorithms and factors are. Even these reports claiming they know what they are (looking at you, Backlinko) aren’t that helpful.

I once said that I liked SEO academically but disliked the industry. That still rings true today and there’s still time to change that, for everyone.

Shout outs

Thank you to anyone I’ve spoken to personally in the last year or have shouted out publically or in a work setting (you’ll know who you are). I’ve decided not to list people this time as not to forget anyone.

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