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algorithms
competitive research
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Web Scraping and the Demands of Data-Driven SEO

December 2, 2021

In discussing SEO and web marketing strategies, this blog has repeatedly called attention to the importance of both competitive research and a broad range of data. It has also emphasized the value of integrated strategies that treat each element from web design down to external marketing as pieces of the same larger picture. Such integrated strategies generally call for one set of web service providers whose expertise encompasses design, SEO, third-party advertising, and so on.

That expertise should bring with it a capacity for collecting and analyzing data in each of the relevant topic areas. That data, like the accompanying components of an integrated strategy, will frequently overlap and prove relevant to multiple tasks. The broader a service provider’s expertise, the more data they are liable to collect, and the more applications they will tend to find for any given data points. Toward this end, an effective service provider should have ready access to applications that perform the task of “web scraping,” something that has become vital to SEO strategies over the past several years.

In its simplest terms, web scraping constitutes comprehensive and ongoing data collection targeting a variety of specific sites and webpages that have been deemed relevant to a client’s SEO strategy. Each time the process runs, it results in a huge information dump which marketers can interpret anew with help from the relevant application. By regularly using this process, service providers can keep track of changes in search engine results pages, then attempt to match those changes to corresponding changes on the websites that appear on those pages.

At a glance, this may seem like a straightforward tool for identifying which elements of competing websites – and one’s own site – have positive or detrimental effects on SEO. However, the sheer amount of data that is acquired from web scraping makes the outcome anything but straightforward. In theory, any given site owner could collect the same volumes of data by simply learning to use the correct application. But in absence of the appropriate experience, they would surely struggle to make sense of what they collected, much less apply it to an effective SEO strategy.

The problem is that even after all potentially relevant data is in hand, adjustments to a website necessarily proceed according to trial-and-error. Considering how many overlapping changes websites and SERPS might undergo in any given month or week, it should be obvious that not every instance of overlap is meaningful. When sifting through data, one will inevitable come across examples of changes that correlate without one having caused the other. And unfortunately, in many cases, the only way of telling the difference is by making a corresponding change to one’s own site and checking back later to see whether it affected the site’s page rank.

Experienced SEO companies and web service providers will generally be able to make more educated guesses about which data points are relevant and useful, but there is still a great deal of guesswork involved. Those companies can most certainly work more efficiently toward discovering relevant changes, compared to site owners who have relatively little experience. But the fact remains that there will be times when changes don’t result in their intended effect, and other times when a positive effect on SEO comes as a complete surprise.

This goes to show that some patience is required when working with partner companies to boost SEO. Site owners should recognize, however, that promises of instant gratification are usually red flags when it comes to web marketing, and that such instant gratification only becomes less accessible as the internet continues to evolve. At the same time, site owners should understand that discovery of each new data point by their SEO team is a valuable piece of information that will help to inform marketing decisions over the long term.

This is just the reality of SEO in the current era, where search engines have been designed to conceal the relevance of most data points and make it virtually impossible for marketers to cheat their way to the top spots on a SERP. It is well understood within the SEO community that every new refinement to the Google algorithm makes the ranking process more ineffable. This isn’t to say that websites are resigned to simply rolling the dice and hoping for an outcome they can’t control. But it does mean that the people in charge of marketing those sites have to work blindly and piece together the best strategy from data points that rarely proclaim their own importance.

Again, it’s entirely possible for site owners to work through that process on their own. They are capable of accessing all the same data as their SEO partners. The trouble, as we’ve said before, is that when one starts from scratch in developing a digital marketing strategy, there is a steep learning curve which makes the process far more time consuming and risks sapping the energy a person needs for running their business.

In fact, site owners may have to adopt their own process of working blindly through new problems as they emerge. It is difficult to imagine such a person coping with the need to also sift through piles of data in the wake of web scraping, only to then have to add or revise web content, run different online ads, initiate new social media connections, and then embrace a whole new pile of data just to see whether those changes made any difference.

To be most effective, SEO should be part of an integrated strategy, and that strategy should constitute a full-time job for a digital marketing team. Although the days of quick fixes to SEO are long gone, the current situation is better for those who are able to claw their way to the top. Considering all that is involved in that success, you can rest assured that when a marketing team discovers which elements of a given strategy define the best SEO outcomes, chances are slim that another team will come around and dislodge the relevant site from its top slot.

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