Mediagistic Blog

The SEO Icarus Principle

Chris St. Jean
Chris St. Jean

At the dawn of internet marketing, the practice of search engine optimization (SEO) was invented. This discipline naturally arose because Google and other search engines use complex algorithms wherein some elements can be manipulated and optimized.

In truth, the practice of optimizing a website for search engines should really be called “search engine algorithm optimization (SEAO).” At the end of the day, professionals tasked with improving the online performance of a website are consistently and systematically deconstructing search algorithms to discover elements they can use to produce improved online visibility and organic traffic.

When it comes to manipulating these search algorithms, though, you can fly too close to the sun and get burned. This is something that Mediagistic’s digital strategy team calls the “Icarus Principle,” and it’s an important concept for business owners to understand when considering their internet marketing strategies.

Aggressive or Practical SEO Strategy – Icarus or Daedalus?


When creating and implementing your SEO strategy, are you more aggressive like Icarus or practical like his father Daedalus? This question lies at the foundation of the SEO Icarus Principle.

If you’re more like Icarus, you knowingly push the boundaries of Google’s best practices because you know that, to remain competitive in a crowded vertical, you have to keep pace with your competitors. If you have chosen this path, do you constantly fear that Google’s next algorithm update could destroy your online visibility and organic traffic?

Or are you more practical like Daedalus in that you realize that — while SEO does involve some risk — the more you manipulate a site, the more likely you are to burn it and lose organic visibility?

No matter who your SEO strategy more closely resembles in the cautionary tale of Icarus — don’t worry, you aren’t alone. The reality is that, if SEOs followed Google’s suggestions and rules to the letter, they essentially would be doing very little to improve the performance of a website other than produce content each month.

There comes a time in every SEO’s life when one has to make a decision about which path to take. Take the path of Icarus and aggression, and reap the rewards of short-term gains, a turbocharged site, and more organic traffic that you know what to do with.

Of course, as the rewards begin to roll in, so too does the natural human reaction to want more. Some may call this greed, but it is really just SEO ambition. It’s an ambition that — more often than not — ignores the warnings of seasoned online marketers who’ve had sites burned by Google and other search engines for being too aggressive with their strategy especially when it comes to linkbuilding. You can read more about Google’s stance on linkbuilding schemes in its published webmaster guidelines.

The morality tale of Icarus has been adapted and retold throughout history with endless examples of mankind believing it can control and manipulate forces greater than itself. While there are many skilled and successful SEOs working today, those who think they’re smarter than Google’s search algorithm engineers either are delusional or destined for failure.

Algorithm Manipulation

Search Engine Optimization and the Icarus Principle

Algorithms exist to solve problems efficiently. The algorithms used by search engines synthesize factors like content, relevance, prominence, links, and reviews into a mathematical process to keep the web organized. However, as previously stated, while these algorithms are certainly complex and constantly evolving, they nonetheless can be manipulated.

Since the rudimentary days of early SEO, Google’s algorithm could be manipulated by using exact match anchor text in backlinks, or on Yahoo and Bing by using an .org extension and an exact match domain name. These are just a couple examples of the countless other parlor tricks and backlink manipulations used by SEOs since the beginning of online search.

While these days have long since passed, the progression and optimization of the algorithms used by Google, Yahoo, and Bing have in some ways remained the same. This means that, although they’re frowned upon, some of those SEO tricks used 10 years ago are still effective today.

However, search engines have continued to evolve and improve upon detecting low-quality websites and ones that have used deceptive practices to influence the outcome and organization of the web.

Thus, whenever you use SEO to enhance your site’s online visibility, it’s important to be fully aware of the risks. If your SEO company is using techniques and strategies specifically outlawed by Google, your site is at risk of being singled out for your SEO’s aggressive behavior. And you could end up being burned just like Icarus.

Be More like Daedalus

When it comes to SEO and linkbuilding, the smart way to proceed is to be more like Daedalus than Icarus. Fly, but not too close to the sun. Optimize, but don’t over-optimize.

You want a website that is technically optimized for search engines, produces valuable and fresh content, and secures golden backlinks (links that pass SEO value and generate referral traffic). In this way, you’ll achieve online success without risking the long-term health and performance of the site.

When the next Google algorithm update hits, will your site remain healthy? Or will your organic traffic and visibility fall back down to earth like Icarus?

Christopher St. Jean is the Digital Marketing Strategy Manager for Mediagistic, and he places an emphasis on analytics and optimization. He’s passionate about helping companies and clients see the “big picture” not only by acquiring qualified traffic, but by maximizing each site visit to ensure the best possible chance of a conversion via A/B and multivariate testing. Connect with him on Linkedin.

Icarus image and Icarus fresco image via Wikimedia Commons

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