I have been known to criticize Google.
It is an amazing company doing great things, and any company that has a fleet of cars that drive themselves should be worthy at least of a bit of respect. But its immense influence in search also introduced a significant shift in the way that the Internet arranged itself, and that's not necessarily a good thing.
In particular, I'm talking about the core of the Great Google Algorithm - the piece of technology that figures out what site (among the millions available) contains the information that you are most likely looking for, when you do a search. The algorithm is truly an amazing thing and, to me, the closest thing we have ever come to something like artificial intelligence. Seriously - the ability to choose from an immense catalog the particular item that contains the answer to a question you've asked is remarkable. The algorithm essentially reads content and figures out what it is "about."
While we humans have that ability innately, the computer has to be programmed to perform this task. And because it has been programmed, it is following a set of rules. And while those rules can be guarded closely, the essential elements of them can sneak out into the world. And when those essential elements - the rules that determine relevance - get out, then those who create content can begin to use them to their advantage.
The algorithm started out as a clever way to observe and categorize the Internet. It got famous and powerful and it soon became the coin of the realm. Rather than just create content for its own sake, site owners would create content to follow the rules of the algorithm. We end up with an Internet packed not with content about topics, but content designed to rank high in search engines. By observing and categorizing the Internet, Google changed the Internet.
That's not necessarily a good thing, and it is prompting some people to begin to see an end to the practice of search engine optimization (SEO). They feel that the prominence of the algorithm has gummed up the content online and that users will begin to find alternative ways to discover new content - particularly through social media channels. There is a rising voice declaring that SEO is SEOver.
These people are really, really wrong.
Changing Nature of SEO
The Google algorithm (as well as the Bing algorithm) is not a static piece of software. Although no one outside of the companies know precisely what goes into the algorithm, we do know that, essentially, these are programs designed to scour all available sources of content and data to answer a question. Yes, these algorithms have been first built to look at websites, but that was just the particular set of data that was most prevalent and available to them. Therefore, SEO practices focused almost entirely on developing out websites.
Today, the Internet has changed not just in the way that site owners are building content, but also the very platforms they are building upon. Content no longer simply goes up on a site, but rather goes on a site, gets crossposted to a blog, picked up on an RSS feed, sent as a status update, and archived in a mobile app. Often this is the same piece of content, originating in a single place and distributed among many platforms.
Clearly, many of these platforms are not nearly as accessible to the search engine crawlers as plain old HTML is. But the best SEO efforts have never been solely focused on just one single engine as a source of traffic. Instead, even in the early days, great SEO practitioners looked in every corner of the Web for the places where consumers may be looking for content. That meant various vertical search engines and shopping search for the most part, but the intention was always there to ensure that a site be found when appropriate and relevant. If you ever met someone whose definition of SEO was 100 percent about getting a high rank on Google, you could be guaranteed that this person was not someone you could trust with your business long-term.
How SEO Will Change With the Landscape
The best SEO people always had a very broad definition of what a "search" was. Certainly, putting a term like "cell phone" into the Google home page qualifies, but now we have to think about all the other places where that search may occur:
The list will continue to grow. The biggest change in all of this is that we can no longer expect that we can simply create one piece of content and send it out over all these different channels. Each one not only requires a different form of content, but also a different set of tactics to ensure that your content bubbles to the top.
But the new magic ingredient in all of this is people. I don't mean the people you have working directly for you, to make your site go to the top. Those experts who were able to divine the rules of the algorithm have always been important. But now, the people who really matter are the readers themselves - those who find your content and decide on their own that it is relevant to a particular topic and worth paying attention to. That's because, increasingly, consumer voice is figuring into the systems of relevance ranking as a wildcard. The site with the best by-the-book SEO will drop like a rock against content that has been recommended.
This ultimately is the change in SEO that we are experiencing. It's the same pattern that we've seen in just about every single corner of the world. A system that was once ruled by a minority holding special knowledge is overturned by a crowd of people wielding small and simple tools. And, believe me: the Facebook Like button is about as small and simple as it gets.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014