Traditional search engine optimisation is something of an oxymoron. The industry is so relatively young and so inherently dynamic that it seems almost impossible for it to have any tradition.
But there are established ways of doing things and there are alternative and innovative practices within the business. As Google’s new algorithms continue to strengthen the bias towards sites with a lot of unique, interesting and well-written content, could it be that old school SEO just can’t cut it anymore? Is a new skill set stepping up to take its place?
Search engine optimisation grew out of a need to be found online. To begin with it was as simple as meeting a set of simple technical requirements that would allow Google and other search engines to crawl your site and know what it was about. Meta keyword tags, for example, were originally designed to indicate that a site included information about the terms being searched for and have therefore been included as ranking factors.
For Google in particular, external links have played a vital role in traditional SEO. The search engine’s success has largely been thanks to the linking aspect of its original PageRank algorithm, which checked backlinks to determine a site’s importance. The technology analysed incoming links and made the assumption that sites with a lot of links from important and relevant websites were more likely to be important themselves.
This is thought to tie in well with the way in which a human brain works. If a topic or idea is often referenced and linked to by other areas of the brain, the stronger the connection/synapse and the more important the information is to us. This could be part of the secret as to why Google has overwhelmingly been the most successful search engine: It’s the one that most closely mimics our natural behaviour, so using it is simple.
But Google started life as a Stanford University research project. Its early versions were excellent technical developments, but they weren’t designed to organise the sheer volume of websites that exist now. There are hundreds of millions of websites that need to be ranked and Google handles around 100 billion search queries every month – a mammoth task by anyone’s standards. Of course as the number of sites grew, so did competition between them. Tactics and ideas emerged about how Google’s PageRank worked and so SEO as a business was born out of an essential need to rank above other sites in order to increase web traffic. From the turn of the millennium, Google has been dealing with the ongoing evolution of the internet, playing cat and mouse with SEO experts, who monitor and attempt to predict the search engine’s algorithm changes. The problem for Google is that, particularly in competitive industries, website owners were all carrying out very similar technical optimisation.
This included site structure, setting a ratio of keywords to copy, meta-tags, labeling of images and, of course, link-building. Many webmasters had created link-building programmes that were a sophisticated mix of automated and human requests. The combination of a hugely expanding index and a commitment to SEO techniques by millions of website owners meant that Google’s search accuracy at the top of its listings was being blunted.
It was no surprise then to witness Google’s latest manoeuvre in this ongoing battle: the introduction of several major algorithm updates that shifted the focus heavily onto the quality and quantity of website content. Overnight, owners of websites that were packed full of duplicate content, over-embellished with keywords or holding hundreds of pages of skeletal product information found their sites’ Google search positions plummeting. Sites with adequate content but no social media presence were also suffering. No community equals no authority.
These updates have moved the emphasis away from traditional SEO techniques towards the creation and curation of truly relevant and engaging content that feeds the market’s informational requirements. Certainly, many basic SEO tenets still apply today, but on their own they are impotent.
To build search rankings, it is becoming obvious that a new type of ‘SEOer’ is needed. The skill sets that are now required are significantly different from those of SEO practitioners that worked (and continue to work) on the principles set in place ten, five or even two years ago.
Moreover, search rankings themselves are no longer the single goal of the online marketer.
Those that have taken a holistic approach to the discipline have generally subscribed to the belief that content in context is king. By this we mean that simply producing great content is not enough – it needs to fall within the sphere of the audience’s interests and, if you really want to be noticed, you need to know what to do with the content.
Listen to your market. Find out what your audience needs and address the disconnect between this and your current user experience.
Currently there are still too many teams working independently on the technical side of SEO, social media, PPC, editorial or public relations. As the boundaries between these areas become blurred, as search engines change their ranking criteria and as online discovery has broadened to encompass Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social channels, it is necessary to tie these different aspects of online marketing together. Content has become the common binding agent.
Fortunately, increasing numbers of online marketers are embracing this holistic approach. The need for integrated campaigns is uniting marketing departments with IT and PR departments, thus bringing some very different skills together in order to achieve optimum online exposure.
For information to flow freely, communication channels need to be opened and widened. Everyone must work towards the same marketing objectives, and have access to a shared, collaborative content calendar.
Without marketing, public relations, and social media, content would have no distribution channels and be rendered useless. Without good content – be it in the form of industry news, blog commentary, press release, video, independent research or a white paper – the PR and marketing departments have little of interest to share and discuss with potential clients and customers.
As consumers become increasingly demanding of their informational requirements, and search engines become more adept at directing this information, high quality content is becoming more of a focal point.
If you are in the market for ‘SEO’ expertise, make sure you select people with the right combination of skill sets to deliver the best content possible, instead of relying on traditional SEOers who have picked up their creative skills out of necessity rather than out of a passion for communicating through content.