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What Does the Future Hold for Us?

1 Sep

Search Engine Optimization has been around since the mid 1990s, and has gone through a lot of growing pains. Some were caused by the periodic shifts of priorities by the search engines, but most, I think, were our own fault, either individually or collectively.

Initially, the web was a virtual Dodge City… no law, no order, every man for himself. Looking back, for those of you that remember the Web-Ring days, it was all about links, and there were no “rules” to follow. Then, the Marshal came to town, in the form of the search engines. They couldn’t set actual rules, per se, but they could penalize those that didn’t follow their guidelines, by either degrading a site’s position in the results pages, or by eliminating it altogether. To some, it may have seemed like living in Langtree, Texas, during the reign of the famous “Law West of the Pecos”, Judge Roy Bean.

(eclectic link for the easily distracted)

Jumping back from the late 19th century to the early 21st, however, it’s easy to realize that lawlessness and chaos aren’t conducive to growth. Some things, of course, will grow in spite of the chaos, such as was the case with the Old West, and has been the case with the internet. But eventually, those growing pains stop showing growth, and all that’s left is the pain.

The search engines need to serve up the best possible results in response to the users’ queries… that’s the cornerstone of their business plan. Fail in that, and ad sales decline quickly, users migrate to the competition to meet their needs, and even a behemoth corporation like Google can be brought to its knees in a remarkably short time.

The pseudo law that came in the wake of the rise of search engines was sorely needed, and the results have been nothing short of fantastic. The wealth of information now available at our fingertips makes the Industrial Revolution look like no more than a neighborhood block party.

Still, the initial efforts to aid in ranking sites, in order to improve the relevancy of results, brought with it a beast of many heads… the link. The search engines didn’t invent that – they just fed it, until it became unmanageable. Spamdexing crawled from beneath the bed, and became the boogeyman.

The Boogeyman under the bed

Having focused most of their developmental efforts on pagerank, which is driven only by backlink quality and quantity, the SEs were faced with the necessity of dedicating a HUGE amount of energy on containing that spam. Perhaps they would have been better advised to instead move away from links as a prime motivator for the SEO community. Easily said, but not so easily done, I imagine. A major shift like that would take time (and money, but then, they have plenty of that) to implement, to avoid drastic repercussions. A commodity – and don’t kid yourself, links have long since become a commodity – isn’t easily removed from an economy, without creating havoc.

Enter, 2010. By my guess, we’re at LEAST two years into a highly focused, and necessarily top-secret, plan, to make links all but obsolete. Remove the incentive, and spamdexing will largely evaporate. Sounds easy on paper, doesn’t it? Well, let’s look at a few recent and ongoing developments, and consider what they may mean to us.

  • Caffeine came out, which dramatically increased the speed at which pages were indexed. A necessary precursor to what some have called “real-time search”.
  • Mayday is simultaneously thrust upon us, supposedly having the most impact on long-tail keywords (there’s some subtlety here), but really, it’s still unknown what other intended effects were built into Mayday.
  • Major new pushes toward the semantic web, a concept proposed by Tim Berners-Lee as early as 2001, such as microformats, RDFa and Ctags.

So what might be the effects of all these? Let’s take a look at the last one, first, since it’s key to the success of what I think is planned.

First, I think it’s obvious that microformats and RDFa technology will allow the search engines to deliver more relevant search results. In addition, they put more information on each individual result right on the SERP, allowing the user to get a better preview of what he might find on a site.

Second, implementation of Ctags will create a deadly loop for the folks that would try to spam the search engines, in an effort to create relevancy where none exists. Go ahead and spam! You’ll only be spamming yourself!

As for the effects of Mayday… I know a lot of SEOs that have been testing, trying to determine what was done with this update. But most seem to agree that it’s essentially impossible to say, with any certainty. And I think we can all agree that Caffeine was a logical step, even by itself. But given the additional information to be parsed, as we provide more information, the speed achieved through Caffeine will be an integral part of any success of Google, in the days to come.

Links won’t go away. They’ve been there as long as the ‘net has existed, and they’ll be there for some time to come. But I think they’ll soon be a very minor contributor to the ranking algorithm. That means that much of the potential for spamming will disappear. We have the opportunity, finally, to unite behind a common purpose… provide the user with the most relevant results possible. The user, the search engines, the SEO and the site owner can all win!

If you see holes in my logic, or have a different take on these developments, please feel free to share your thoughts. This is my opinion, but it’s not cast in stone.

SEO Turned on Its Ear

21 Aug

Iago, whispering to Othello, “SEO is dead!”

Since the first search engine began to provide results for our on-line queries, there have been extensive efforts made to divine exactly how they determined what results to display, and in what order. Usually, someone who was thought to possess some golden information would utter a statement, and like lemmings, millions of wannabe SEOs would hoist their banners, and follow them… anywhere.

In all fairness, it’s easy to be wrong about some of what it takes to make a site rank high in the SERPs. By necessity, the search engines keep their formulas closely guarded secrets, in order to minimize unfair manipulation. Even the formula, called an algorithm, is suggestively mysterious (algorithm – alchemy… coincidence?). As a consequence, many people tend to cling to one or two aspects above all others, often to their own detriment. Even more often, to the detriment of their clients.

Such things as links, pagerank, keywords, sitemaps, URL structure, QDF, pagerank sculpting, meta tags, keyword density, load speed… very few SEOs can agree on the importance of even most of them, much less all. At any given time, someone can be found espousing the theory that one or more has no value, or is soon to disappear entirely.

Oooh... Oooh... Oooh...

For instance, in October of 2005, Steve Gilmore published Links are Dead, Doc, followed shortly thereafter, by W.G. Moore’s Are Reciprocal Links Dead? Both were preceded in their dire pronouncements, by Jeremy Zawodny, who blogged PageRank is Dead in May of 2003. Danny Sullivan, in June of 2009, published PageRank Sculpting is Dead! Long Live PageRank Sculpting! Then, in January of 2010, Paddy Moogan guest-blogged on Richard Baxter’s SEOGadget, SEO is Dead – Long Live SEO. Some preached death, some not. But all gave light to the issue.

As you can see, there’s a great deal of death in the SEO community… or at least, predictions of death. If we wait patiently, someone will probably soon predict that the internet itself has met its demise. Given the dearth of information as to what the Google alchemists consider most important, none of this should be surprising. Then, consider the new factors that seem to pop up just when we think we’ve got things nearly figured out… is it any wonder that we begin authoring hopeful obituaries?

Premature?

At this point, not to be outdone, I’ll make my prediction. First, however, I must admit that while I came to this conclusion on my own, I am not the first to give voice to it. For one, my Sensei at SEO Dojo, David Harry (@theGypsy), recently wrote a guest-blog on WordStream,  entitled, The Evolution of Ranking Signals: Google is Getting Past the Link.

Stole my thunder, well and proper, did he! Good on ya, David! Everyone really needs to read David’s piece… it’s spot on!

So – my not-so-original prediction is that links will have a diminishing role in determining the ranking of a page. Many others are saying it, as well, in varying degrees, such as Eric Enge, Nichola Stott and Kieran Flanagan to just name a few of the most recent voices.

Why do I believe this? First, the multi-headed link-beast is Google’s own creation. Oh, I know that Google didn’t create links, per se. But they DID feed the beast till it became unmanageable, thus providing the single greatest tool ever, for gaming their own system. Manipulation of rankings hit a new high (low?), owing to the sale, barter, hacking and spamming of links. I have to believe there were a few palm-to-forehead slaps around the conference tables at the GooglePlex, when they realized what they had spawned.

So it stands to reason that some thought must have been given to the process of taming the critter, and replacing it with a more manageable, more capable creature. Which is where I think we find ourselves now.

Google has been focusing much of its collective talent on behavioral, temporal and semantic analysis. As these all come together, links will no longer be necessary, in order to serve up the best response to a user’s search query. Entirely new algorithms can be developed, giving far less weight to backlinks. I’m not saying that I think links will go away completely… they’re bound to still be rolled into the equation. I’m simply saying that they’ll no longer be playing the lead – they’ll be reduced to a bit part.

As links take on less importance in the ranking of pages, the efforts to link-spam will diminish too. The crap-hat SEOs will always go where they can get the biggest benefit with the least effort. In my opinion, with links no longer providing the biggest bang for the buck, there’ll be a lot of scrambling to find a replacement activity. Well, guess what, folks? Link-spamming may well be the only aspect of SEO that actually DOES die! And it appears that its stand-in will be virtually un-spammable!

As the search engines polish their application of personalized search, tempered with temporal data, RDFa technology and CTags, the crap-hatters will find that the only spamming they can do will be against themselves. Query results will be greatly improved, link-spam will be reduced, and the user experience will be enhanced.

Don’t think for a moment that this means SEO will be dying. On the contrary, it will grow in depth and intricacy. Which means, I sincerely hope, that the crap-hat SEOs… those scumbags that give decent SEOs a bad name… will be dramatically reduced in number.

They needn’t worry, though… I hear McDonald’s is hiring.

The 2010 Funniest Man Around Award

10 Jul

In one of my recent posts, Where Have All the Links Gone?, I talked about how people used to cheerfully link to sites and pages they found worthwhile, just out of the goodness of their heart, but that, of late, the practice seems to have become more mercenary.

I’ve been accused of many things in my life. Thankfully, in most of those instances, there was insufficient evidence for formal charges. One thing I have never been accused of (at least not by anyone with a BAC of less than .25) is having a heart that overflowed with goodness. But even a cantankerous cuss like me has a soft spot for someone that strikes a perfect balance of funny, satirical and irreverent, every time they put pen to paper.

Logo for Simon EdhouseDavid Thorne, of 27b/6, is such a writer. If any of you have also been deprived of the utter hilarity of this man, I say now, that if you visit his site, your life will change. Your marriage will be saved, your children will all grow up to be Nobel Prize winners, that distressing noise your car makes when you make a left turn will remedy itself, and if you’re a man, you will have larger, thicker erec… well, you get the picture. At the very least, you’ll laugh your ass off!

If there’s such a thing as the 2010 Funniest Man Around Award, David, you’d better prepare your acceptance speech!

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