SEO Questions – How Long is a Piece of String?

As a child, it used to piss me off no end when my parents would answer my frequent requests for quantification, with the above question.

“How long till we get there?” “When does it stop?” “What time does it get dark?” “How deep is water?” “How much do apples cost?” “How long do Goldfish live?” All such questions would be met with the question “How long is a piece of string?” It’s a colloquial saying which I think is fairly common in the UK, though for sake of clarity means, “It depends.”

Whilst of course it wouldn’t take much for a parent to guess the sort of parameters the childish mind is working within; fill in the necessary missing data points (origin, destination, average case etc.) and give a straight answer, however kids can fire off a phenomenal amount of unquantified questions per second. I find after ten or so in a row, I’ve lost all patience and then it’s time for a game of “Who can lick their own ear?” (Two minutes of silence, guaranteed. Bliss.)

Never getting a straight answer is annoying. As adults we can’t help but feel we’re being fobbed off, or worse; deceived in some way. So I can sympathise with many of the online marketing professionals that I meet, that complain that SEO professionals never seem to be able to give a straight answer; however when it comes to Search Engine Optimisation, I would argue that most good practitioners will decline to offer an immediate answer to questions like…

“How many links do I need?”

“How long till I get to page one?”

“What changes need to be made?”

“Why is my content not indexed?”

“How come [competitor] is number one?”

Given the sheer number of factors and dependencies, research and analysis is required to even begin to answer questions such as these. Even then, it would be foolhardy to give a guaranteed answer. However, I’m getting a bit sick of hearing myself say “It depends…” in response to every initial question in a first meeting (or words to that effect.) To the uninitiated it must seem at times as if SEO professionals have adopted the same tactics as the bad mechanic. This response is the SEO equivalent of raises bonnet, sharp intake of breath, tuts and shakes head.

Of course this isn’t really the case, and there are numerous, extremely valid reasons why any good SEO professional is unable to offer immediate answers to questions about quantification.

Multi-dimensional Attributes

Search engine algorithms are complex and comprise hundreds of componants, such componants being weighted and such weights varying frequently. Number of links is immaterial, without frame – in terms of quality, variety, position, type, relvancy, and a load of other weighted considerations assessed.

Factors Outside of One’s Control

We may be able to legislate for our own activities, however a great deal of dependencies are outside of our control – such as competitor activity, significant algorithmic updates, macro socio-economic factors.

Sector Relativity

Even when it comes to perceived wisdom, what is required and valid for one client, may be completely unsuitable for another client. As an example it is generally inadvisable to pursue site-wide footer links, such links being generally low quality, out of context and often unnatural; however in the IT hosting sector, the leading host companies (in business and SERPs) all have a huge majority of sitewide footer links in their backlin profiles. In this sector it is perfectly natural and valid for host company clients to have a “hosted by” footer link, to either the host URL or TOS page. Many high-trafficked and e-commerce brands link to their host as good quality hosting companies have extensive terms of service, codes of practise and sophistocated disaster recovery set-ups.


Although much of the technical and analytical resource required for SEO is provided by the SEO professional, when it comes to content marketing and sophistocated linkbuilding campaigns, much of this is dependent on the available resources and collatoral provided by the client.

Working with PR and marketing teams to leverage content and brand messaging is a much more efficient and effective strategy at times.

If you are buying or assessing SEO services, please do consider the above points and indeed there are many more reasons not detailed here as to why prospective agencies will not be able to provide on-the-spot answers and guaranteed parameters. In fact, if a prospective service provider does offer immediate quantified guarantees on aspects of your SEO objectives I’d be inclined to question their knowledge and proposed strategy in detail.

As always – DYOR!

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