I've been thinking a lot about SEO as we know it. It might be due to all of the gloom-and-doom blog posts since the latest Penguin update. You know the ones: "SEO is dead," "Matt Cutts is out to get us," "SEO is not dead but breathing its last,” "Now that Google is taking care of SEO what do the rest of us do all day?" All of this FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) has our collective imaginations running wild. Here's what I think: SEO is not dead. Instead, it is going into an Optimization Witness Protection Program. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) should henceforth be referred to as Information Optimization (IO), with a new focus. The information retrieval systems that we know as search engines have roots going back 40+ years to Term Frequency/Inverse Document Frequency (TF*IDF), the granddaddy of all information retrieval algorithms. TF*IDF stipulates that to make the first consideration cut for search results, one of the query terms must be present in the document and give points for frequent mentions of the query term. There are additional algorithms that make sure the long boring documents do not get primary position based on their size. As long as the pointy-headed academics were running online information retrieval, this worked great.
GAMBLING IN CASABLANCA? I'M SHOCKED
Once the Web went commercial in the 1990's, keyword stuffing and other rudimentary SEO tactics inspired a cadre of coders to take on the challenge of ensuring relevant search results. Next thing we know, PageRank appears on the horizon like that big alien ship in [pick your favorite alien invasion movie and insert title here]. PageRank factored in human influence over ranking by counting the links pointing to a page as endorsements of its merit. Pages with lots of links pointing to them had to be very good because they had all of those links pointing to them. There's also athesurfer element, the Random Surfer. This is because there was a lovely but brief time period where many of us would traverse the Web on an aimless information journey at $20 a month for 5 hours of 28K connectivity.
A relative calm ensued as the SEO community cleared the bookstores of anything remotely related to learning HTML in 10 minutes so that they could make a ton of money getting nonsense sites to the top of the SERP. Only humans that could build links got to “curate the Web.” Gaming PageRank became easy and fun. Sergey and Larry were very disappointed, as this is not how it worked out in the hallowed halls of Stanford with the academic citation model that was the foundation for PageRank (except for the surfer part).
It took a few years of Moore's Law for the empire to strike back with a massive update in late 2002 that brought the beginnings of semantic association between documents online. With this update, some documents were more authoritative than others (Hilltop algorithm) based on links from expert documents. Following along this semantic path, the search engines launched algorithms that applied a categorization to the Web (Hypertext Induced Topic Selection and Topic Sensitive PageRank algorithms) that better calculated what the document was about and applied further semantic mapping between documents. Double freaky, I know, and a standing 8 count for the SEO community.
The SEO community of self-taught hackers was not about to be stripped of their lunch money by those geeks in Googleplex Building 5. It was not long before "write-on-the-fly" articles and content farms started appearing in massive numbers on the Web. This, combined with a seemingly limitless supply of overseas link builders, brought sigh of relief through the SEO community as press releases were once again ranking #1.
NO ONE EXPECTED THE SPANISH INQUISITION
Leave it to Google to take a heretofore icon of sweetness and turn it into an instrument of terror. Okay, JCpenney.com and Overstock.co had a hand in it with their egregious link building and parasite hosting that became news with The Dirty Little Secrets of Searchin the New York Times Business section. It is not a good day at the Googleplex when they see themselves at the top of the SERP for less than rescuing kittens from a blazing building.
Not long after, the Panda updates started rolling out. Google press secretary Matt Cutts tells us very little and leaves it to Vanessa Fox, former Google loyalist and still true to the cause, todistill the Panda update so that even 3rd world link builders can understand it: click-through (do they select the result?), bounce rate (do they do anything once they get there?) and conversion (do they return to the search results and select another from the set, refine their query and search again, or take a quick peak at Google News thereby signaling an end to their serious information search?) are the new SERP relevance cocktail. Fun times, but then it got worse.
April 2011 was the first appearance of the Penguin set of link spam algorithms where Google revealed once and for all their control over the search results. Sites not only lost position for their precious keywords, but some even lost positions for their brand. Now that’s harsh. Google tried the site in absentia and levied their index removal punishment with such indiscriminate speed that it makes a Formula One race seem like Sunday driving.
WHAT IS INFORMATION OPTIMIZATION?
They say that a leopard cannot change its spots. I’m suggesting that we give it a try. SEO as it was is over. We lost the home court advantage while the engineers programmed sophisticated machine learning systems built on big user behavior data. Bill Slawski pegged it best in his post We're all Google's Lab Rats. Unlike real lab rats, we have opposable thumbs and smarts of our own. So let’s act like it. Let’s stop optimizing for the search engine and start optimizing the information that the search engines need to process their search results.
Information optimization is more interested in traffic and conversions instead of where you are in the results in a precise moment in time for a specific location, all based upon the customer’s user profile with the search engine. Information optimization is user research that is:
- Realistic about what you can and want to place visibly for in search results. Being there means nothing if you don’t present the information that the customer is looking for.
- Keyword research based on user research using data mining tools like Google Trends and sophisticated keyword mapping tools such as SEMrush. Research what customers are actually using to find the information that we have to offer as well as term phrases that represent related concepts.
- Keyword optimization from a content strategy that includes content development and link models that tie together semantically related pages.
Information optimization depends on a content strategy where:
- Bite-sized page content becomes authoritative and informative.
- Flesch-Kincaid readability tool is your new best friend that helps you to develop deep, rich content.
Information optimization is a user experience design that moves away from page layout that is big on images and low on text. Page layout optimized for information maximizes the search engine-designated prime real estate that is found in the middle of the page and above the fold. This all has information that the customer wants and of course the search engine rewards.
Thought processing bipeds rule. Let’s take back control of the SERP by acting like one. Join me in the SEO Witness Protection Program and assume your new identity as an IO. Knowing how the search engines work and playing it straight with what they consume will force them to play it straight with our search results.