Until now, search engine optimization has been tactical and reactive in nature. But that's all changing.
Search engine optimization has changed significantly since the earlier days when the term was first coined and industry leaders are beginning to hint at a fundamental philosophical shift that would effectively render the traditional SEO as a dead or dying craft. It is time to re-imagine what it means to manage search engine rankings.
Some history to put this into context: Since it’s inception, SEO has been tactical and reactive by nature. Optimizers would determine what a search engine uses to qualify a site and find the more efficient means by which to satisfy that requirement in order to perform well in a search engine’s search results. The tactics employed by practitioners have evolved over time, reflecting an evolving coyote-versus-roadrunner game in which marketers try to reverse engineer the ranking algorithms of popular search engines like Google and Bing, in order to make their website more favored and thus higher ranked by the search engines.
In the earliest days, search engines relied heavily on webmasters’ use of HTML meta tags to identify keywords related to the content of each page on the site. A search engine would then prioritize rankings based on characters such as keyword density (the number of occurrences of the keyword on the page) in order to determine ranking order. When Google was introduced in 2001, it revolutionized search engine relevance by looking at inbound links to determine quality and significance of a document. The concept was modeled on the academic notion that the number and quality of the citations for an article was a good measure of the article's significance.
This was an important step forward because webmasters were already gaming the search rankings through a method known as "keyword stuffing." A site would place as many as a hundred repetitions of the same keyword at the bottom of the page and make it the color of the background, so users would never see it but the engines would.
Eventually, the emphasis of SEO shifted from on-site content, to the offsite effort of link building. In the beginning, webmasters would simply maintain a "links" page somewhere on their site and trade reciprocal links (I’ll link to you if you link to me). Google figured this one out, and the practice became more complex with link building services offering three-way reciprocal linking, a method that was a degree more sophisticated and couldn’t be detected, for the moment. And as the search engines became more savvy as to the quality of links, the tactics continued to evolve and cottage industry services began to emerge to service the demand for increasingly sophisticated link network implementations.
The tactics have continued to evolve and become more complex since then, as search engines have become increasingly able to debunk efforts to manipulate or influence rankings. In 2009, Google released an update called Vince that marked a significant philosophical shift toward biasing large and well-known brands in the search result. Later that same year, releases followed that enabled the search engine to begin factoring user behavior as an indication of quality of a site, such as how long a visitor would stay on a referred website before returning to the search results. In 2010, the search engine began factoring in social signals, looking at how frequently a website is mentioned in the social sphere. All of these new criteria have set the stage for increased scrutiny of websites based on offline reputation and what end users actually think of the websites. Collectively, these efforts signaled a move in favor of overall long-term brand reputation and user preference, and away from the tactical methods that had been used and gamed so pervasively up to this point.
And then the storm came, as Google began rolling out more frequent and more aggressive updates that both strengthened its search engine's ability to both detect quality signals beyond simply looking at content and links, as well as taking dramatic steps to reign in quality of those criteria. In 2011, Google’s first Panda update was released, which made sweeping changes to the search results, wiping out more than 12 percent of its index, due to perceived low quality content. Numerous releases followed. Then, in 2012, Google's Penguin updates began discounting the sophisticated inbound link structures that have been built.
Today, it is not uncommon to hear about online businesses that have built successful online media websites that have done well for years, but then suddenly see a loss of half of their traffic overnight. In many cases, these businesses thought they were playing by the rules, but have ignored one important point: Their entire business is predicated upon ranking well in the Google search results, and outside of Google, they oftentimes do not exist. By Google’s new definition of quality, this premise positions the website as probable spam that should be removed from its index.
For this reason, the zeitgeist of the SEO world has recently started to make a fundamental philosophical shift. Until now, the craft of SEO has been markedly tactical and reactive in nature--just figure out what the search engines want and adapt to it. But thought leaders in the space have begun hinting that tactical reaction isn’t going to work much longer. In fact, it may already have become cost-ineffective for many businesses. For this reason, online businesses need to begin thinking beyond search rankings now. What is going to work in the future will be the traditional business and brand building efforts that have been the foundation of building a business for centuries.
NEAL CABAGE: is a product strategist and technologist. He has worked with top online brands, spoken at leading industry conferences, and founded and sold two online start-ups along the way. He co-authored the 2013 book The Smarter Startup and continues to research why some online products succeed when many do not. You can find him on Twitter @NealCabage.