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The Changing Face of SEO

(This article was originally published in the Belfast Telegraph on 3 Feb 2010. It’s been modified slightly for this blog.)

Search engine optimisation, or SEO for short, is defined as ‘the process of improving ranking in search engine results’.

When search engines first appeared on the scene in the 1990’s to help people make sense of the exponential growth of websites, it suddenly became important to show up first in these search engine results pages.

Savvy entrepreneurs quickly figured out how search engines worked and what a website needed to rank first, and the dark art of SEO was born.

The first search engines were relatively simplistic pieces of software that crawled the world wide web and matched words found on websites to search queries entered by its users. All a search engine optimiser needed to do to get his site to the number one spot was stuff as many keywords on a website as possible.

Whether or not that site was actually useful and relevant for the user’s query didn’t matter, at least not for the optimisers. It’s at this stage the SEO industry earned its dubious reputation, a blemish it has yet to discard.

This of course led to abundant complaints from search engine users who were looking for one thing but ended up on websites that offered something entirely different. In response search engines got smarter, but search engine optimisers got smarter as well, and the arms race has been on ever since.

The big breakthrough came with Google who in 1997 added a whole new approach to determining what websites were really relevant for a given search query. Keywords on a page were still important, but more important than keywords were the links from other websites pointing to that page.

Google’s idea was that every link to a website counts as a vote, a recommendation from one website owner to another. The more links point to a website, the more important that website is. That, in a nutshell, is Google’s secret recipe, and while it’s gone through many iterations over the years the core premise remains intact.

Search engine optimisers were quick to catch on. The focus shifted from optimising sites for keywords to optimising them for links. The goal is to get as many other websites as possible to link to your website.

Unscrupulous optimisers, the same types that didn’t hesitate to stuff as many ‘Britney Spears Nude’ keywords on a website that sold vacuum cleaners just to get extra traffic, devised all kinds of different schemes to quickly and cheaply generate as many links as possible.

Search engines like Google also kept updating their software to filter out these false links, trying to count only those links it considered to be real recommendations.

But the web is so unimaginably vast that search engines have no choice but to rely on automatic processes to filter these false links. Machines, no matter how clever we try to make them, are easily fooled, and the ‘black-hat’ search engine optimisers (contrary to ‘white-hat’ optimisers that use only legitimate methods) are smart and inventive.

But perhaps the era of unscrupulous optimisers is nearing its end. The past few years have been very exciting for website owners and search engine optimisers. Search engines have enhanced their results pages with all types of extra content such as YouTube videos and local businesses. Recently new tweets about the topic a user is searching for started showing up in Google results as well.

The latest refinement Google is deploying, called Social Search, integrates content from the user’s online social circle. If, for example, you are searching on Google for a holiday home in Portugal, and one of your Twitter friends blogged about it, Google will show that blog in your results.

This new level of personalisation of search engine results, combined with other changes Google has made and continues to refine, means that search engine optimisers are increasingly unable to rely on the basic optimisation factors of keywords and links.

There are signs that indicate Internet users are being drawn more and more to online community website such as Facebook and Twitter and begin their search for online products and services there as well. Why trust an anonymous search engine result if you can get a recommendation from a real friend? Or at least a real friend of a real friend.

Black-hat optimisers will continue to try and outsmart search engines and force their websites to the top of the list. Setting up fake social media accounts is already a common practice, as any Twitter and Facebook user can attest to, but generally these are easy to spot and filter.

I wouldn’t go as far as to proclaim the death of SEO – this has been done many times before and been proven wrong each time – but as web search moves towards social media, and social media becomes more about web search, it’s definitely going to change the search engine optimisation landscape.

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