Back in 2001, search was cool. It was the golden age of Google, when the company was so confident you would find relevant results that it had an "I'm Feeling Lucky" button that would take you directly to the first Google result. (Yes, the button still exists, but it's a relic of the past. Google has even said that it doesn't remove it because people identify nostalgically with it, and because it helps defend the brand.) Google was the Dirty Harry - or perhaps more aptly, the Cool Hand Luke - of search.
Search was cool for a long time. Then one day, it wasn't. Ironically, it took Microsoft to channel popular dissatisfaction with search by portraying zombies who were, literally, channelling a search engine.
The "Cure for Search Overload" adverts produced by Bing were a breath of fresh air, in part because Bing aimed to challenge Google's dominance. They were also the first intentionally funny thing Microsoft has ever done. The premise was that trying to get information from a search engine can feel like a strident conversation with a possessed psycho who can't pick up on the context or intent behind words. And isn't that true? Search can still feel like a warped user experience. Keywords, keywords, everywhere, and not a drop of relevant information. No answers - just word noise.
Psycho Search Results: An Artefact of the Medium?
Why all the keywords? Of course, you typed them into the box. The website publishers placed them in the body of their documents, or even in page elements (like title tags) intended to help people find the information. Keywords appear in the anchor text of hyperlinks that point to pages. They're skillfully placed there sometimes by good information architects, and other times by marketers.
Steeped in HTML and web standards, early online marketers developed a kind of tunnel vision. In subsets of the medium that cropped up as much through timing, happenstance, and market need as by conscious design (think Google's PageRank or Yahoo's categorized directory), we were lulled into becoming closed off to the wider possibilities for reaching out to audiences.
Early SEO tactics seem almost comically shortsighted. The search engines just "did things this way," and we needed to keep up with them. Cutting-edge at the time of its release in 1996, "A Webmaster's Guide to Search Engines" started life as a grid that had rows for the seven or eight popular search engines at the time, and columns for different dimensions of how those search engines treated content. To please several search engines at once would be difficult, but you did not have to fear: a dungeon master's technique called "cloaking" made it possible to show different content to please various search engines. Yeesh.
Hundreds of thousands of marketers marched in lockstep to tactics of this nature. Others took shortcuts, including using submission tools to submit to "all 550 search engines." Sites such as All Search Engines listed thousands of search engines - you know, in case you missed any.
Directories proved to be less nimble and comprehensive than users needed them to be. The hundreds of competing search engines shrank down to a competitive landscape of approximately one. After a time, the shine was off Google's (albeit skillful) ranking of the best web pages in the classic 10 blue links layout. Not only did spammers gain something of an equal footing with Google, but the results were getting to be, well…boring. Google, of all companies, knew that, because a lot of its own users went looking through different sources of information - News Search, YouTube - that Google also happened to own.
SERP multiplicity would be the antidote to a humdrum search experience. Hatching a perfect plan to drive traffic to its own properties and to spice up the look and feel of the results pages, Google released "universal" search, a type of blended page that would deliver a mix of result types depending on the user and the perceived intent of the query.
Companies like Bing and Wolfram Alpha picked up on similar trends. If you seemed to want movie times, weather, news, a video, or a scholarly journal, the engine would pull the information from the appropriate database and serve it to you more directly, or at least give you better options to go directly to a premiere source rather than leaving you to sort through a jumble of web pages of uneven quality.
Add to that page a variety of ad formats, and you get a much different landscape, one where there are fewer rewards for ranking by slavishly throwing resources at the same old ranking tricks. Tack on to that more sophisticated signals for the search algorithms to take account of - like behavioral signals of trust and satisfaction, now made much easier for companies like Google to measure because of the high number of logged-in users and the widespread installation of tools like Google Analytics - and you really set the table for the liberation of marketers from dinosaur SEO tactics.
What else changed in Google's world, and yours? Today there are 250 million Android devices in the world, 90 million Google+ users, 500 million Twitter users, and 800 million Facebook users. The average Facebook user has 130 friends.
The Medium Dictated the Strategy, and Now It's Changed
What if your message wasn't constrained by the old, unimaginative rules of the medium? What if you could come up with a timeless statement of the products, service, values, and other core meanings associated with you and your company, and just "port them over" anytime you faced a shift in the landscape of conventions and standards that the medium seems to be following?
Hang on a minute. It's never that way. To borrow an idea from Marshall McLuhan, what makes it onto a medium is constrained and inspired by the interactive experience dictated by the medium itself. When "new media" meant TV, it forced advertisers to play a very particular game as skillfully as possible to maximize their return on investment. As cool as it was at the time, TV had standards like every medium before and after it. For advertisers, that largely meant whatever you could say in 30 seconds inside of a rectangle measuring 20 inches diagonally.
Indeed, every advertising medium in history has been a constrained game that has about as much flexibility as, say, tennis: the boundary lines are clearly drawn, and you always keep score in the same way.
Yet web standards and search conventions aren't as constraining as they seem, and now we're forcing them to be more flexible whether they like it or not. Consumers and device makers today are in a party mood. It's Interactive Spring. We, the 99.9 percent, are looking to break those conventions. For starters, a lot of people are sidestepping the browser already, as Mike Grehan observed in a July 2010 interview. That's only the tip of the iceberg. We're not going to be stuck with narrow, arbitrary standards and conventions much longer - if we ever really were.
The proliferation of devices, business models, and truly creative uses of how information is dealt with via Internet Protocol is astounding. We jump from strict-seeming textual navigation or email (another medium that seemingly forces you to adhere to its acronym-spouting protocols) into broadcast media. We move seamlessly from online to offline information consumption and targeting. Consumers look at scanned online versions of the flyers that clutter up their mailboxes. Marketers more easily track phone calls back to online actions. QR codes provide instant gratification.
Some of the Psychobabble Comes From Your Peers
Probably the most far-reaching shift in how we are going to consume and seek out information has to do with our social networks. We're essentially tuning into a collective channel, where we are constantly exposed to what our real-world peers are thinking, doing, buying, reading, and listening to. Prior to Facebook and Google+, this was already taking place, fitfully. But with these universal connectors, the information follows us around.
I know that my high school classmate Jackie - a comic actor with whom I'm connected on Facebook, and who hosts a cooking show in Canada - recommended a recipe for pumpkin soup. I know that not because I was on Facebook at the time, but because I was reading a different recipe on a popular website that she also visited. It's become a universal signal for many of us: "Jackie likes this." To add a dash of sincerity, Jackie's face is looking out at you next to the cartoon thumbs-up.
When I visit the home page of YouTube, before searching for anything, I see six featured videos all based on +1 recommendations by my peers. Search marketer Jill Whalen is at the top of the list. Jill has been following me around the web quite a bit lately. Among other things, that means that Jill is a top-notch marketer, not content to rest on her laurels.
After years of riding high on the cachet of "the algorithm" - the secret, holy formula that would magically return the most relevant results - search engines are quietly showing it the door. Many of the narrow, seemingly dispassionate measures of quality and relevance will be replaced by, quite simply, what people think.
Of course, the old measurements won't be gone entirely. A much more complex, natural conversation is going to be reflected in what you see and do online, including search. It seems that we now place less trust in the ultimate wisdom of search engines. They're shifting the game to inject more of what we do trust: people we know. In real life, the links between us aren't hyperlinks; they're actual links between people.
SEO Requires Doing More, but Not Necessarily Doing More SEO
So, what are you going to do with this new-found freedom? The classic SEO response has always been to "chase the next algorithm": if posting video to YouTube is now a great way of gaining search engine visibility, then you should put out a YouTube video. That specific tactic may indeed work, but it misses the point. Today, you do better if you take advantage of the opportunity to unburden yourself from marching, lemming-like, to the beat of whatever quirky tactic seems to get you ranked well in search engines this month. The fact that the algorithm is rapidly becoming an obsolete concept should liberate you to pursue your fundamental visibility wish list in a more varied way, driven by company priorities and empathy with your audience and customers rather than a narrow set of web indexing and keyword ranking best practices. Following the most basic rules remains important work, but it only gets you to average performance. You must do more.
For over a decade, that more amounted to so-called link building. Why? Because search engines were less sophisticated and came to rely too heavily on one measure of peer reputation: link authority. Even the phrase "the structure of the Web," as seen in the background literature that explains how that structure is used to calculate the relevance of a page, treats the web as something akin to a natural phenomenon such as a crystal. But it isn't. Ninety percent of it has been grown by marketers trying to logroll and game their way to better rankings. "Links were a better quality signal when the world didn't know that they were a signal," Eric Enge recently wrote. "But, those days are gone."
So mix it up. Pursue a visibility strategy cooked up on its own merits, completely independent of how it might affect your search rankings. The fruit of that effort in terms of improved rankings then becomes icing on the cake. As a sample, you could try the following six initiatives in 2012:
All of the above has to be about something - if not about your products or company, then what? Well, something. Empty self-promotion is tedious. Follow Hugh McLeod's dictum and work on creating social objects. Whether they are cartoons, new and original takes on something, or personal photos with charm, these social objects have to be remarkable enough to share.
Am I merely stating the obvious? Actually, I'm swimming against the mainstream tide of mediocre SEO, where the din of "just pay a company to write and scrape articles so that you have enough keyword-rich material to feed to search engines" convinces many business owners that they should align their companies with just that type of mediocrity. Would you (non-ironically) put a velvet Elvis in your dining room? Then why put that kind of junk on your company site? There is no cloaking this stuff anymore. People can see it.
Any visibility tactic in which you decide to invest should provide you with multiple benefits. The bonus for companies that do all these things while their competitors lazily buy a few links from phony blogs is - yes - ranking better in tomorrow's search engines without having to chase the algorithm du jour.
Real Marketing vs. Boondoggles
It's 2012, not 2002 - time to move on from the sad grey zone of trumped-up busywork, algorithm-chasing, and voodoo. You can spend a lot of cash on this for very little result. With a hat tip to the great Jill Whalen, your bottom line may improve if you avoid these boondoggles. They made sense in a narrow window of time when users and marketers accepted the limitations of a conversation that resembled a keyword-spraying confab with a possessed psycho. Now, it's smarter to move to the edges. Either cover the basic best practices better, or step up your output in the exciting new realms of visibility, sociability, transparency, and trust.
This article was originally published in SES magazine. Get the complete magazine here.
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Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service marketing agency founded in 2000. Page Zero focuses on paid search campaigns as well as a variety of custom digital marketing programs. Clients include Direct Energy, Canon, MIT, BLR, and a host of others. He is also co-founder of Traffick.com, an award-winning industry commentary site; author of Winning Results with Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill, 2nd ed., 2008); and frequently quoted in the business press. In recent years he has acted as program chair for the SES Toronto conference and all told, has spoken or moderated at countless SES events since 2002. His spare time eccentricities include rollerblading without kneepads and naming his Japanese maples. Also in his spare time, he co-founded HomeStars, a consumer review site with aspirations to become "the TripAdvisor for home improvement." He lives in Toronto with his wife Carolyn.
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