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by Stephen Logan on 17th July 2012
The search engines, albeit unwittingly, created SEO. Ever since rankings were invented, optimisers around the world have been finding loopholes and shortcuts to help them dominate the first page. However, in recent times many of these avenues have been closed off by algorithm updates and various penalties. Google is fighting back.
Like Doctor Frankenstein, Messrs Page and Brin inadvertently created an unyielding monster in the pursuit of scientific advancement. Google has grown from a simple college project to become one of the most recognised brands on the planet in a little over a decade. But, like the aforementioned literary creation, this success has come at a price.
Not financially it has to be said; last year the company made a profit of $9.7 billion, adding to overall equity of over $58 billion. However, their mantra to “not be evil” has often been called into question, with accusations of profiteering from copyrighted data, destroying competitors and damaging sites that are reliant on rankings overshadowing their success.
The quality of the results provided has also been a bone of contention for many. Whilst we shouldn’t forget that things were much, much worse before PageRank arrived, Google SERPs are consistently cluttered with spammy garbage. But things are changing.
Before going into the changes the search engine has implemented, let’s first look at the auld enemy – SEO.
A Brief History of SEO Vs Search Engines
As mentioned at the outset, Search Engine Optimisation has been around since the first webmaster guidelines were published. Early search engines were little more than bloated business directories. They were clunky, disorganised and better suited for casual surfing rather than pinpointing exact information. As the Internet widened, search engines began crawling content to extract relevance for particular terms.
Yahoo, Lycos and Altavista were at the head of this early development. However, by today’s standards they were incredibly basic. Essentially, the pioneers of search were given the unenviable task of finding a way of sorting all this data that was now being shared online. This is effectively where the notion of keywords was first spawned. By including specific terms within the Meta and content of a site, SEOs could get them to rank for those same words. The more frequently they were included, the higher they would appear – and so the gaming began.
Early optimisers would be able to get decent results from filling every spare inch of space with keywords. If that looked too spammy, simply hide it as white text. There were other elements to consider, but this was the bulk of what passed for SEO. Essentially, the search engines struggled to determine authority and so they were reliant on more simplistic factors. This all changed when Google introduced PageRank.
Keywords were still a factor, but now it was the links between sites that determined authority and would therefore inform where they would rank for those same terms. Very clever indeed – theoretically. However, this is where the gaming got serious. Suddenly Meta was being eroded and links were currency, both figuratively and literally in some cases.
So whilst gaming of results had been in operation previously, suddenly SEOs were faced with a whole new proposition. The focus shifted from on-site to off, with people desperately seeking links from anyone and everyone. Links provided PageRank and PageRank would deliver rankings, it was that simple.
Google did introduce guidelines and rules about how they should be procured, outlawing the buying of links for the benefit of PageRank and eventually cracking down on reciprocal linking too. But for all the warnings about potential penalties for sites found to be contravening any such rules, the reality was very different.
The link building gold rush consumed SEOs. Whilst most talked about “quality” and “relevance”, many were still submitting dubious spun content and joining blog networks to inflate their profiles. Just a few short years after PageRank was introduced, optimisers were successfully promoting poor quality sites to the top of Google through basic manipulation.
Invariably some results suffered. However, what could the search engines do? They created rules that their algorithms were unable to enforce; instead they had to simply carry out a few manual changes and keep upgrading their search signals. PageRank went from an algorithmic idyll to just another easy-to-manipulate factor.
A Change is Gonna Come
In the immortal words of Sam Cooke:
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Whilst Sam may have been writing about a far greater struggle, the excerpt above could easily be applied to the fight faced by search engines.
Google weren’t sat around helplessly while SEOs ran amok; they were making small adjustments that would lead to big changes – sometimes behind the scenes, often in full public gaze. For instance, way back in 2003 they introduced the Florida update, which was designed to improve relevance of search queries by banishing the most spammy sites, they signalled their intentions to clean things up. The residue of this can be seen in the later algorithm updates, most notably the recent Penguin adjustment.
There have been a number of major changes in the last decade or so, but the one that really signalled a change in direction (in my opinion at least) was the Brand Update in early 2009. This was the first update that couldn’t be gamed; rather than assuming authority, Google would simply identify brands and give them a leg up in the rankings.
Suddenly wayward, unrelated links didn’t appear to be as effective as building a brand. The game was changing.
As mentioned, Florida hit in 2003 and the Brand update came in over three years ago, but neither had a massive ongoing impact. They were just stepping stones to something more significant, which we may only now be seeing the full effects of.
Paid links, blog networks and spun content would all potentially give you a leg up in the ranking up until a few months ago. In fact, plenty of sites still have elements that contravene the webmaster guidelines but still achieve decent rankings. However, the net is tightening – slowly.
There has always been a misnomer that SEOs somehow help Google and therefore it is up to people like Matt Cutts to appease the industry. Sure, search engines need links to follow and they want sites that are easy to crawl, but whilst the former has been forever ruined by continued manipulation, the latter is simply a question of decent design and ought to be the domain of webmasters.
SEO Becomes Online Marketing
There has been so much said about both the Panda and Penguin updates that it doesn’t really bear repeating; however, one of the upshots of this ongoing process is the eradication of numerous SEO techniques. Google has cleansed its results and algorithm in such a way that the optimisation work that was standard just a few years ago is now useless.
Whilst this isn’t a devious attack on the wider world of SEO, it has served to eliminate a number of the tactics that many had become reliant on. Consequently things are changing.
The talk now isn’t about how you can squeeze spammy links into tens of thousands of articles; it’s about building brands and reputation. But hang on, that’s not SEO, it’s just good, old-fashioned marketing. With agencies working on behalf of clients, it is also merging into other traditional markets, such as PR. But this hasn’t happened by accident, Google forced our hand.
Arguably this is what should have been happening ever since search engines were first conceived. If you want the best results, then the best sites should rank. How do you know it’s the best site? Because people like it. But how do you know people like it? Because they discuss the brand, link to it and return to their site time and time again.
Branding Takes Off…Again
With the push towards brands we’re back to an offline status quo. Branding has been around for centuries. Coca Cola essentially invented the modern-day Father Christmas, putting him in a red and white suit to represent the colours of the company in the 1930s. It’s nothing new, only the medium has shifted.
We hear a great deal about how SEO is changing and incorporating new facets. A more accurate assessment would be that optimisation is simply becoming a squeezed minority in the wider field of online marketing. The landscape has changed, and continues to change as the search engines evolve.
Search Engine Optimisation is all about strengthening a site to give it the best possible chance of gaining positive rankings. However, the way in which those rankings are determined and even the way that they are being presented has changed dramatically. On-page SEO is a dying art; even up until recently, making changes to the back-end of a site could pay huge dividends. Sure, a few anchor text links between key pages on your site could still help build authority and your copy is also going to influence rankings; but old standards like bolding certain terms and optimising Meta descriptions are on the wane.
Therefore, SEO has effectively been reduced to link building and producing copy. Why? Well, because the old system simply didn’t work, meaning Google have had to re-evaluate ranking signals and how authority is being judged. They’ve not been subtle about this intention either.
Even keywords have taken a hit. Google decided to remove data for logged-in users on Analytics. [Not Provided] has left keyword research in the doldrums and effectively eroded another key SEO element. This is only likely to get worse too, as more Internet browsers also restrict the data provided to analytics users. It’s a messy old muddle and one which has put a few noses out of joint, but optmisers have to simply move on and adapt.
Google Fight Back Against Gaming
When search engines become aware of gaming, they do something about it; not always instantly, but it rarely gets ignored. A year or so ago, the wider world was up in arms because a number of big brands had been buying links and sitting atop the results pages as a consequence. While Google were only able to hand out limited-period ranking penalties at the time, this negative publicity forced their hand. Now we have the Penguin update and thousands of low value sites slipping off the front pages.
You could call Penguin an ‘anti SEO’ algorithm change, but in truth it just got most people to clean up their act. Why should sites have hundreds of landing pages or benefit from thousands of completely irrelevant links? Sure, while the sun’s shining you make hay, but those days are quickly passing. Online businesses need to be investing in long-term online marketing plans, not spammy short-term gains.
SEO had become bloated. While ‘white hats’ plugged away, filling the Internet with a web of weak but legitimately gained links, ‘black hats’ would prosper through a few shortcuts. Neither method was perfect, not by today’s standards certainly. Quality was a phrase that got bandied around, but more often than not quantity would suffice.
It’s this attitude that has changed and with it, many old optimisation techniques are now being undone or abandoned. Google necessitated this alteration in course and I believe we should be grateful for that.
A Push Towards Quality & Authority
As we slip further and further towards a semantic style search engine, complete with personalised results and an acute awareness of an individual’s history and even location, the role of SEO is being eroded. However, as mentioned previously, it hasn’t died a death and nor will it. Instead, Search Engine Optimisation is being joined by other techniques with the same end goal.
You’ve got social marketers, building networks of followers, promoting content and conversing with the world. Then there are local SEOs, developing the locational relevance of a business through various channels. Content marketers are writing guest blogs and anything else that will help to build authority and links. So while this may be a collaborative process, it isn’t Search Engine Optimisation per se.
As the algorithms become more aware of genuine signs of quality and authority, the role of SEO will invariably diminish. However, as it does so, it is being joined under the online marketing umbrella by a whole range of activities.
Just like all brands, online businesses require some level of marketing to compete. Now though, we’re back to a more conventional type of promotion. Word of mouth campaigns have been reignited by social media, authors can build their own profile by getting work published in authoritative publications and everybody is predisposed with building the brand. Of course the one underpinning element that makes all of this exclusively online is the humble link.
It is this small piece of code that maintains SEO and provides the beating heart of search results. Building links in the right way and through the correct channels should always result in a rankings boost. Google have always promoted the value of these connections; but when the system was abused, action had to be taken – albeit belatedly.
Better Results for all?
Every algorithm update now is designed to eradicate old techniques that were designed to undermine the search engines’ methods of deciphering authority. They aren’t always on the mark and some perfectly good sites have been negatively impacted, but sadly that is the way of things online. Google is hacking away at SEO, leaving only the core elements. Article spinning, keyword stuffing, Meta optimisation, excessive footers, landing pages and over the top anchor text linking have all been set adrift. Article marketing has evolved into something more targeted and beneficial to the wider world. Websites aren’t cluttered with over-optimised pages and link building has been forced into a new evolution.
Search engine results still aren’t perfect and they may never achieve the levels many of us expect or hope for; but, thanks to the improvements made in the algorithms, things are improving. Google has slowly recognised and dealt with gaming of the system and are now removing many of the shortcuts that some were taking advantage of. As a result, the way in which sites are optimised and promoted have had to adjust.
SEO is not dead, it’s just growing up along with its growing number of siblings.