Sustainable SEO —
A Definition.

Let’s start off with a definition:

“Sustainable SEO means the planned, spam-free and fully compliant optimization of websites for search engines where the focus is on creating long-standing growth, instead of any favoring any short-term gain.”

Not bad. Now let’s open up the scope.

Similar to growing coffee in a sustainable way, the idea of sustainable optimization revolves around principles of work ethics and quality standards. Put in a nutshell, the three commandents of sustainability optimization are these:

  • Grow quality produce
  • Do not harm or exploit others
  • Have a long-range plan.

Transposed into the world of SEO, sustainability would mean a form of optimization that revolves around:

  • Rich Content (i.e. quality produce),
  • Compliance (i.e. no harm to others),
  • A Strong USP  (i.e. quality produce)
  • Strategic Planning (i.e. long-range plan)

We will have a closer look at these four cornerstones right after the table of content.


Part A: In Theory
1. Sustainable SEO in Theory
     1.1. Compliance
     1.2. Rich Content
     1.3. Strong USP
     1.4. Strategic Planning
         1.4.1. Site Speed
         1.4.2. Privacy
Part B: In Practice
2. Sustainable SEO in Practice
     2.1. It’s an Unrecognized Trend
     2.2. It’s an Investment
     2.3. It’s Highly Efficient Advertising
     2.4. It’s the Final Type of Optimization


1. Sustainable SEO in Theory (4 cornerstones)

1.1. Compliance

To use a more frank definition, Sustainable SEO means optimization that will survive the next Google update. This is not surprising as sustainable SEO does not seek to undermine search engine policies. Rather, it seeks to embrace them. 

And that is not a bad thing. With Google finally catching up on spam tactics through Hummingbird and the personal assessment of content (content raters), compliance no longer is a bottleneck in optimization. Instead, it is becoming a full-fledged conditio sine qua non, meaning that in the long-run only the compliant ones shall prevail.

What applies to compliance with search engine also applies to legal compliance. Here, data privacy regulation like the EU’s GDPR, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) or Britain’s Data Protection Act of 2018, which has implemented the entire GDPR verbatim, force companies to take consumer privacy seriously. Severe transgressors will be punished

And they should be: personal data about an individual can never be owned. It can only be processed, a permission that comes to an end once consent is withdrawn. 

But here, too, compliance is no invention by windy bureaucrats. To the contrary, embracing compliance with privacy demands can be used as a comparative advantage against competition: assuring consumers that their data is in safe hands acts with you as a massive trust signal, in particular for ROI-heavy markets that happen to be strongholds of privacy enforcement such as Germany.

1.2. Rich Content

Just like non-trickery is part of sustainability, so is providing a surplus value to the consumers of your content. Put into yet another frank one-liner, we can say that Sustainable SEO simply forbids low-quality content

Sustainability works in the favor of users of both users and service providers alike: the former get to prevail in the market, the latter get a spam-free experience that answers their search intent.

Sustainable SEO commands and requires high-quality content. As crawlers are able to separate thin from rich content very easily these days, rich content in itself is a ranking factor. Not to mention that it is rich-content that will trigger social signals en masse, another (temporary) ranking factor that can pave the way for long-term ranking through the backlinks it triggers.

Lastly and in consequence, one cannot promote low-level content in a sustainable way. Low-quality content always happens to be at the brink of non-compliance (or worse). Therefore, it is always at the brink of getting penalized, be that by search engines, by regulators or both.

1.3. Strong USP

On the one hand, having a strong USP is a prerequisite for rich-content. To put it another way, how would you create rich-content for a product that happens to be yet another USB-ready cool bag? Once the USP is strong, creating content comes naturally.

In addition, a strong USP happens to be strongly connected to the success of your media outreach. In a world where the market of novelty is saturated like no other, standing out is not only a hard, if not impossible thing to do. Even worse. It is, you guessed it, a prerequisite.

Only a strong USP will trigger the attention necessary to obtain backlinks from those outlets that have the site authority that your project needs in order to achieve the rankings that you want.

Only a strong USP has the substance to be extended, expanded and updated so that you can trigger attention in order to obtain new backlinks—an extremely powerful wildcard for the case that competition is increasing their SEO efforts.

And only a strong USP will allow you to fully comply with search engine policies long-term. This is because thin-content — the natural outcome of a weak USP — is more and more becoming outlawed by Google and even Yandex.

Today more than ever, rich content – and be it just rich in words – is outranking thinner content even with the most transaction-related queries. Ever wondered why the category pages of your 2-million page-strong online store are not ranking? Try adding a good 1,000 words in unique copy to each of them and see what happens to rankings in the following months.

1.4. Strategic Planning

Even though sustainable optimization can be applied at any given time, it is able to unfold its full potential only when it becomes an integral part of the project itself, meaning when it is implemented before the first line of code is ever written. 

Talking about code: today more than ever code quality plays a severe role in optimization. This is because code quality heavily plays into site speed. And site speed has become perhaps the third most striking ranking factors of our time (think bounce rate for slow mobile sites).

The big irony in strategic planning is that as much as people love to reap its rewards they hardly ever know (or care) about it. For instance, at SustSeo we have worked with companies that were approaching their IPO. Yet in regard to optimization they had not done anything. Not pre-launch (i.e. by design), not during their growth phase, not recently. Nothing.

Such a lack in sustainable thinking does not only mean leaving “money on the table”. It poses a risk to companies. This is because it is only sustainable optimization that will “survive the next Google Update”, as we put it at the beginning of this chapter (see 1.1. Compliance). Now what does that mean?

Any company will agree that proper fire protection is worth every penny. Such type of protection is implemented right into an office’s infrastructure before any business ever moves in. Understandably so: when the house burns down, so does the business, at least most of the time.

For a digital business, however, no one really considers the new need of traffic protection. What  Sustainable SEO does is to protect your revenue flow in your #1 marketing channel, i.e. in organic traffic from search engines. From a strategic point of view, Sustainable SEO is the first and only “traffic insurance” for digital businesses.

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2. Sustainable SEO in Practice

2. 1. An Unrecognized Trend

The blue graph on the above laptop screen is real. It shows the popularity of the term “Sustainable Seo” in Google Trends from 2004 until today.

As you can see the term has not seen the slightest buzz in over ten years. Instead, it has been flying under everyone’s radar for years. Why is that? Why has Sustainable SEO never gained any traction? The answer has to do with 

Someone scouting for SEO in a way where he is looking for a service will only see a certain type of result to his queries. When someone seeks out SEO that way it simply means he will purchase SEO like he would any other service for the better of his business. 

Now, who is the #1 responder to search queries with heavy buyer’s intent behind them? The answer is unsurprising: it is marketers. 98% of all information on SEO out there is de facto linked a product or automated service which you are supposed to buy.

In that sense, the eternal rule of ‘You Get What You Pay For’ becomes ‘You Get What You Search For’. If you approach SEO with a transactional mindset, you are looking to buy, not to invest and grow. 

Sustainable SEO, however, is long-term growth and not short-term gain. It is strategic and not operational. It is an investment, not a transaction.

2.2. An Investment (case study)

One of the biggest misconceptions about SEO is in its pricing. While SEO is never “cheap“, the cost of properly executed SEO is not “expensive”, either. This is because of the investment-like character of optimization. Let us take the following real-life example:

(1) The Company
A US-based company has developed a innovative medical device that caters to a highly-selected audience (Strong USP, remember?). The company mostly sells the product over medical fairs. The additional sales they generate online are marginal.

One day one of their clients tells them there might be a strong demand for their product in Europe. Enticed by the good news the company conducts some research and confirms what the client has said. As a consequence the company decides to expand into European markets. They make out Germany as a their first target. 

(2) The Business Situation
The company’s website is only mildly developed. The conversion rate for the innovative product stands at just 0,8%. This means that for every 100 visitors to the site 0,8 of them convert into a sale. The company’s average order volume stands at $2,150 (1,950€).

In terms of traffic the company’s website sees 360 monthly unique visits. Together with the average order volume the visits lead to monthly sales in the extent of: 0,8 x 3,6 = 2.88 x $2,150 = $6,192. Put into nicer formatting, the business situation looks as follows.

(3) The Expansion
To achieve their expansion goals the company partners up with a seasoned SEO agency in GermanyThe contract runs for one year and implies a monthly retainer of 4,000€ (USD 4,400) which makes for annual SEO cost of 48.000€ (USD 53,000).

About three months into the contract the agency manages to raise the company’s organic traffic from 360 to 700 monthly visits. This leads to additional monthly revenue in the amount of $5,848.

2.3. Highly Effective Advertising

We now have to compare the company’s annual SEO expenses of $53,000 against the SEO-created increase in sales. The expenses in SEO look massive — does the new ROI justify the spent?

Originally, the company saw 360 in monthly visits and the monthly gross was $4,128. With the new 340 monthly visits from the third month onward there is another $5,848 in revenue.

Held against the annual expenses, it takes a little more than 9 months for the SEO expenses to amortize ($53,000 / $5,848 = 9.06). Together with the first three months that brought in no additional revenue we can say that the contract has amortized by its end.

All the revenue coming in after the 12 months will be full-on profit. The rankings that brought the traffic are there, while the company no longer pays for the SEO agency.


2.4. The Last Man Standing in Optimization

Sustainable optimization will stick around. Not only that,  sustainability is the only thing that will remain once search engine algorithms step up their game.

We will go on record forecasting that, within the next 5-10 years, we will see a shift in optimization practices that will leave sustainable SEO as the Last Man Standing in the world of search engine optimization. How can that be?

Today and for the first time ever, it is possible to look up information without being hassled by omnipresent spam: Remember when companies would advertise in your local phone book with ad copy such as “AAAAA Plumbing Company”? Those times are over for good.

It took companies like Google a good 20 years to (halfway) keep up with spamming techniques. Even though Google search results are still teeming with spam today, the absolute level of spam has reached an all-time low.

With the Google algorithm being one of the most prolific text, content and voice recognition software of our time, the wheel of history cannot be turned back. Furthermore, the overarching trend of the past ten years goes toward hand-curated content. This is not despite, but because of the never-ending release of new content.

Do you see a pattern here? Without rich-content, without a strong USP and without strategic planning one will not even get a foot in the door with any major search engine in the mid-future. Sustainable SEO, however, happens to master all of the above with flying colors. 

Time to get sustainable, we say.


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