“SEO, the bell tolls for thee” – Google


The Evolution of SEO

In order to understand what is happening in the world of Internet Marketing, or more specifically, in the world of SEO, I’d like to first take you through an incredibly over-generalized look at what search engine optimization used to be, and what it has become. It is truly amazing how much Google has revolutionized the search world.

Please keep in mind that this is roughly, not perfectly, chronological. This is meant to be informative, not a perfect historical resource. Without further adieu…

The Old Days: Anything Goes

Ah, the good old days, when a search for ‘mortgage’ might well have revealed a SERP full of pornography or payday loan brokers. These were the days when one could create a site about virtually anything, and rank for completely unrelated keywords that were stuffed into the meta tags, and maybe spammed 50 times in microscopic hidden text at the bottom of the page.

This was the “Wild West” of search engine optimization. The algorithms were in their infancy, and most of the search engines were happy just to find the websites, let alone index them properly and display them accurately in terms of relevance. Here was the dawning of the SEO and the black-hatter reigned supreme.

There’s a New Sheriff in Town

At some point during this free-for-all, someone enters the double swinging doors of the saloon. There’s a whistle as tumbleweed rolls by in the distance, and Google hands hover over its guns. Everyone turns to look. Here begins the showdown, and the dust is still clearing.

Search engines become better at understanding the content on page. “Spammed the keyword 30 times did you? Well, it’s hidden test, so we’re not going to count that; in fact, we might penalize you for it.”

Nowadays we have Latent semantic indexing, which is a fancy word that always impresses people; but really its a simple concept. You used to be able to write “dog” 50 times and the search engines would nod their heads approvingly and say your website was about dogs. With LSI they can say, “ok, well, most people that write about dogs also have the words “bone” and “collar” somewhere in their content. You don’t, so your page is probably spam.” And usually they are right.

PageRank

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Everyone knows that Google really revolutionized the search engine landscape with the advent of PageRank. Before this, SE’s didn’t have a very effective way of determining much about your site, besides what you said about it (with your content, meta tags, etc.). PageRank uses a system that counts inbound links to your site as “votes” and uses the anchor text to determine what your site is about in conjunction with your content. It was brilliant, until it was exploited.

The Bad Guys Fire Back

After being roundly beaten for a while, the SEO’s started to figure out ways to exploit this new system. The problem was that Google counted any link from any source in determining PageRank. This was the dawning of reciprocal links pages, which are taking a long time to die out and still exist today amongst the more clueless. SEO’s started affecting their rankings with off-page factors rather than on-page factors by soliciting link trades and controlling their in-bound anchor text. Once again, rankings were completely subject to being manipulated.

Google Catches On

At some point in the recent past, Google got a handle on this reciprical link fiasco and shook things up again. They started favoring one-way links. Then at some point, they started favoring one-way relevant links. Google can now determine the ‘neighborhood’ that your website is in and assign a value to the links based on a combination of PageRank and relevancy. So, if you’re site sells dog collars, and most of the anchor text in your in-bound links says “dog collars,” but most of those links come from sites that sell Viagra, those links are going to count less.

THEN it got even more complicated. Maybe the site isn’t about Viagra, and maybe it’s even vaguely related to your site… but that site links out to a bunch of Viagra sites, and your dog collar site also. Well, then Google might come in and reduce the value that that site can pass to your dog collar site.

Link Buying

Somewhere in the midst of all these changes, buying links became very popular. It is still somewhat effective, but has become far less so due to the efforts of Google’s watchdog. At first the idea was to buy a link from a site that had the highest PageRank you can find. This was very effective for a while, until the aforementioned changes. The ideal link became a one-way, high PR link on a related site, on a page with few other outbound links, with good placement on the page (in the body of the homepage text, for example). That’s right, because Google values citations deeply embedded in related content as more valuable than let’s say a random link in the footer of a page.

PageRank is Just for Fun Now

Nowadays, it’s even worse. Pages that sell links are often found, and if they are, they are stripped of their ability to pass PageRank. And a few years ago, Google basically made the little green PageRank toolbar just for “entertainment purposes.” Essentially, it means nothing.

Now you have to find out how often a particular page is being spidered by search engines to determine it’s worth, as well as it’s in-bound link quality and relevance, and a myriad of other factors, to determine if a link from that page will be worthwhile.

It has become about quality of links, rather than quantity. This obviously makes it much more difficult.

Currently in Development

But this is not the truly scary stuff for an SEO. Despite all this, the system can still be beaten. It is the current developments that will sound the death knell for Search Engine Optimization.

One of the most recent developments is that Google actually measures the value of a link by determining how many people actually use that link. Gone are the days when you could simply buy a link on a high PR site and watch your rankings soar. Now it doesn’t even matter as much if the page is related; it has to be a good link that people actually use, and the page they end up on has to be relevant.

And finally, the most controversial thing Google does: gathering user data. Through their ubiquitous search engine, their toolbar, information they purchase from other sources, GMail, their countless applications, and now even their new browser, Google is more and more able to determine whether you thought a particular site was relevant for a patriculr search query. By aggregating this data, they can now decide whether or not a site should rank well, despite all other factors that an SEO has managed to manipulate.

What Does it All Mean?

Well, what it means is the gap between the search engines and the user is lessening. The larger the gap, the more space an SEO had to work and manipulate. But as Google can see further into the minds of the user, the SEO smoke and mirrors becomes less effective. It means that search engine optimization as we have known it over the past decade… is destined for extinction.


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