SEO’s Future: The 10 Blue Links Must Die

After traveling extensively in the U.K. and Europe, I’ve not had much chance until now to react to various comments about my column “The Future of SEO.”

Most feedback came from people representing the client side who wanted to know more. As expected, there was sweet whatsitsname from the SEO (define) agency/consultant side — noticeably at the thread “Search: The next five years” I started over at Search Engine Watch. (More later.)

Information Retrieval and Mindless Bots

Occasionally, I get pulled to the side by an SEO salesperson or someone else who wants to rant. Typically, the gist is that a potential client may have read my thoughts on textbook SEO, including “SEO is dead.” The last thing these salespeople need is a potential client doing an “SEO is dead” number on them or complaining about the diminishing value of the SEO shop.

If you’re still selling SEO circa 1999 these days, you’re likely to paint yourself into a corner with a client.

Keep in mind, I’m an executive board member at a leading New York search marketing agency. And, yes, we provide SEO. The thing is, none of us is sitting around fixated on crawler activity and indexing the way so many SEO shops are.

I first came into this industry back in 1995. Back then, information retrieval on the Web was totally focused on the effort of a dumb bot randomly crawling the Web trying to parse text out of some gobbledygook mark-up code and indexing it.

In 1998, there was a seismic shift when Google became so visible about its hyperlink-based ranking algorithm. And then things got really interesting.

In 2000, I published an e-book that covered the SEO on-page/off-page spectrum. Barriers to crawling, link building: it was classic textbook SEO. This week I had my first opportunity to sit down for a couple hours with an updated version of “Search Engine Optimization: An Hour a Day” by Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin. All I can say is: same old, same old.

For two people who state they’ve been in the business since 2000, haven’t they noticed any changes during that time? Is information retrieval on the Web in a time capsule? I get the feeling that maybe the authors haven’t read any books or done any serious research into the science of information retrieval on the Web and where it may be going in the future.

Even if it’s a book for beginners, isn’t there anything new to say or speculate about? Yes, textbook SEO is the bedrock we build our organic search marketing efforts on. That’s the easy bit. It’s the “what do you do next?” that really counts.

So I’m researching and writing a book myself. And it will have to live or die on its own merit. I’m ready for that. But the more research I do for this book, the more I feel the entire industry should be trying to dig up new information about important new signals to search engines.

Surely I’m not the only person in the industry to see the limitations of information retrieval on the Web. After so many years, it’s still just about a mindless bot parsing text out of static Web pages and ranking 10 blue links.

The 10 Blue Links Must Die

I talked with a potential new client about rank checking. He said he was relatively happy with his existing SEO guys. They had managed to achieve top 10 rankings for very relevant keywords and keyword phrases. So I asked if he was monitoring how much qualified traffic he was getting.

We all know that when it comes to ranking, it’s easy to be number one at Google for your own name spelt backwards. What fun! No traffic!

But what if your reports show that you’re in the top 10 for so many relevant keywords and keyword phrases, and still you get little or no traffic? It’s a known fact that people rarely (if ever) click through to the second page of search engine results. And researchers have identified patterns of query chains, in which end users prefer to reformulate the query than scroll down the page.

Here’s an interesting example from a month or so back. Take a look at this screenshot of a search for “iron man” There’s only one result above the fold. What happens if you’re number 10 or 9 or 8? You’re still less likely to be found. If you sell “Iron Man” merchandise, being in the top 10 organic results may not be so beneficial. So you may have to pay to compete and become visible.

Look at this search for “bed and breakfast New York.” What’s the number-one result here? Would you rather be in the top 10 organic results or the 10 local results pushing the organic listings below the fold?

For the future, we must think more about visibility and screen real estate. Where can we position ourselves to be most visible?

And think about this: local listings don’t necessarily rely on a crawler coming to your Web site. A number-one ranking video from YouTube doesn’t rely on a crawler coming to your site. And end users are sending strong signals to search engines with their bookmarking, tagging, and rating. Again, no crawler or textbook SEO involved.

It’s time to provide our clients new strategies, new tactics, and new products and services. So, I’ll continue to through out some of my thoughts, simple as they may be to start with. Please join me over here and add your thoughts.

Meet Mike at SES Toronto, June 16-18 at Metro Toronto Convention Centre (South Bldg.).

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