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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?


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!

Article Spinning? How About Word-Vomit?

10 Jul

I write a lot. I write articles, press releases, webcopy, blogposts… you name it! And occasionally, I’ll get a request to do a re-write of a piece, for re-publication. That’s generally not hard to do. There are even some programs available that do a dynamite job of comparing your text to existing text on the web, and identifying identical passages and phrases, even telling you what percentage of similarity exists.

If a client requests six or seven re-writes of the same piece, it becomes more challenging, making such a program a necessity. I prefer to just write each piece manually, off the top of my head, but trying to get the same idea across in half a dozen different ways can be difficult. We all tend to mentally plug-in certain phrases, metaphors and adjectives, and it requires a lot of attention to avoid doing so. Even so, it’s all too easy to screw it up, which can cause embarrassment to my client and to myself.

While searching for one of these programs, I came across several hundred thousand SERPs listings offering a slightly different variation on that sort of program… a spinner program. They claim to automatically generate as many “unique copies” (THAT’S an interesting turn of phrase, isn’t it?) as you might need, in a thoroughly readable style. Never having seen or used one, I thought I’d take a look, and see if one would be a worthwhile investment. I picked a couple that offered a free trial, and gave them a shakedown.

Two things were immediately evident: they’re not as automatic as they’re purported to be, and the end result is about as “readable” as a US Navy technical manual on nuclear reactor maintenance. I quickly came to the conclusion that if people were actually using these things, and distributing the 1,000 “different” versions of each article that was advertised, the internet would soon be full to brimming, and we’d all be washed away in the overflow.

I’m not exaggerating (well, hardly). The results of all those that I checked out were laughable. They may be accurate, but readable? As readable as “Look! See Dick run. Run, Dick! Run!” can get, I suppose. How about, ‘Observe! Watch Dick perambulate rapidly. Sprint, Dick! Jog!’?

My first thought was, ‘What an insult to the intelligence of article publishers and directories, to send out such drivel.’

Then I realized that article publishers and directories apparently are buying that drivel by the truckload, so those that do so certainly don’t deserve any sympathy. If there’s a market for such crap, it’s because they created a market for it.

And the worst aspect of these programs is their purpose. It doesn’t appear to me that they were designed for people like me to offer different versions of their own work. It looks MUCH more like their intended purpose is to allow THIEVES to plagiarize the work of others!

I think I’m just going to continue in my old fashion, of manually re-writing my OWN work, and checking it against existing webcopy, to make sure that I haven’t inadvertently typed something in the same way that I had read it. If a client requests six re-writes, and I can only give them four within those parameters, then I’ll tell them that, and be done with it.

And may all the publishers and so-called writers that perpetuate such cartoon-style word-vomit burn in Hell!

Where Have All the Links Gone?

7 Jul


I was reading an interesting piece today, on Outspoken Media, in which they presented a number of linkbuilding questions to eleven prominent professionals. The answers were given individually, so as to get independent responses.

After getting my brain jumpstarted  by some very thought-provoking answers, I began thinking about the issue. I think most of us have heard a few of our SEO peers make a remark along the lines of, “It’s getting more and more difficult to get enough natural links to do the job these days”. I can understand why. I recently saw an estimate that stated there are currently over 231 million websites. I tried to find numbers for previous years, but I think it’s safe to say that growth has been exponential.

And some would say there are two self-proclaimed SEO experts for every site out there. That’s obviously a stretch. Maybe one for every two sites. ;>)

But back to the point, that’s a hell of a lot of sites that have popped up in a relatively short time-span. Now, I remember in the old bulletin board days, even before web-rings hit their hay-day, when linking to someone was much like a courteous nod when passing a stranger. There wasn’t that much worthwhile content on the ‘net yet, and when we found something decent, we were eager to share it with others. Linking to it was the most common way of saying ‘thanks’. But that seems to have fallen by the wayside nowadays. Courtesy links seem to be reserved for those with whom we’ve established some sort of e-connection, however tenuous. Many will e-mail a link to a buddy, but few will place a link on their site, just out of the goodness of their heart.

I’m not trying to say that natural links are dead. But I will venture to say that were it not for the SEOs that pursue natural links, they’d be on their last legs. Add to that, the fact that a good portion of the natural links that a run-of-the-mill-blogger like me can hope for, are nofollow, and it’s no surprise that some industrious soul came up with the idea of starting the first linkfarm. I’m fairly certain that Eric Ward would disagree with me on this, though, judging by his response to the first question.

In all fairness, I think I understand Google’s philosophy in keeping some level of purity in the link world, and I agree with it. Unfortunately, there are some highly competitive niches in which natural links just don’t cut it. So many SEOs end up advising their clients to buy links, and to buy into the risk of Google-Wrath, if they’re detected. Natural links would be so much cleaner and lasting, and if enough of us go that route, then purchased links will become more easily detected, and thus more easily thinned out. Purity could become more than just a wistful dream.

Erik did say, in response to another question, that there’s still a “tremendous willingness to link to the good stuff”. I would like to believe that’s true. Because if it IS true, and we can rejuvenate the practice, it will make all our jobs a lot easier.

And contrary to what some might think, I believe it would make our jobs more secure, as well. ‘Cause the wannabee SEOs out there will ALWAYS go for the shortcut! And that’s why true SEOs, not gamers, will rise to the top, while the guys that go for the quick bang will fall by the wayside.

I was reading an interesting piece today, on Outspoken Media

A New Community at SEO

20 Jun

A friend of mine, John Britsios (widely known as Webnauts), contacted me a couple of weeks ago, and asked if I’d be willing to be moderator on his new forum at SEO Workers. Having done this for several years, on various forums (a couple of which were even start-ups, which is no picnic – getting a forum off the ground these days is a challenge), I was hesitant.

But I soon found out that this situation was different. First, his “new” forum was a follow up to his “old” forum, that had around 1,500 members*. So his “new” forum wasn’t a start-up, it was a clean start.

Second, he’s a very prominent member of the international SEO community. That he’d even ask me was flattering enough, but that he’d give me the opportunity to participate in a relatively unique venture such as this, made it even more attractive. And he’s well enough known, that seeking like-minded members should be no challenge for him at all.

What’s unique about another forum, in 2010, you might ask?

First of all, this is to be a no-nonsense, high-level professional community, with a membership of the who’s-who in SEO, web design and development, internet marketing and copywriting. These are the pros, that in many instances, have long since given up on forums as a waste of their valuable time. This community is designed and managed to re-spark their interest in an on-line community, as a resource. It’s someplace to bounce new ideas off other professionals, discuss recent developments and seek second opinions. It’s a meeting ground, where they can find others that are capable of talking code or optimization at the same advanced level. And it’s someplace to be able to do so without the “Thanks for the great info!” and “Me, too!” posts that always seem to be found on so many forums. Spammers will have a half-life measured in nanoseconds, and link-droppers will quickly find themselves on the outside, looking in. We will show zero-tolerance for nonsense and spam.

My marching orders are to be brutal, if necessary, in enforcing the high standards of the community. We hope to see our ranks graced with some of the finest minds in their fields, people that are household names in the internet community. But in order for a forum to achieve the credibility necessary to attract folks like that, it has to be worth their time and effort. This community is for the people, after all, that lead the industry, not follow it.

A lofty goal? Perhaps. But I think John has the right idea, and his gameplan looks solid. His forum is not monetized, so there are no annoying ads. It’s not designed to attract link-droppers… quite the contrary. Less than two weeks after its inauguration, we’re already seeing some pretty nifty solutions to issues that have plagued many SEO pros for some time. There are a lot of new challenges facing SEO specialists these days, and a group of masterminds can help each other meet those challenges head-on, by sharing ideas, information and analyses. Our members are proving that already.

If you consider yourself  to be an internet professional, accustomed to working at an advanced, cutting-edge level, then you should check out the SEO Workers community.

We intend to prove that an activity that is often a waste of time, can sometimes be turned into a great time-saver.

*My apologies! My original post incorrectly stated 30,000 members, In reality, membership was around 1,500, a great many of whom had to be eliminated for spamming.