Tommy Swanson is the Social Media Specialist at KMA (A Pursuant Company), a full-service fundraising company. Swanson is in charge of SEO and social media for numerous nationally recognized non-profit organizations. He is also a serial online entrepreneur who has built and sold several large businesses since his early teens.
Type a query into Google and, nine times out of ten, you’ll find a result that does not seem right. It’s not a bug or a website getting a lucky break from the Google gods — it’s the result of savvy manipulation by a group of Internet hustlers known as search engine optimizers (SEOs).
I know because I am one. For the last few years, I’ve been pushing websites to the top of search engine results — websites that don’t necessarily belong there in the eyes of Google. SEOs like to call their tactics making a site “search engine friendly,” but what we’re really doing is gaming the system and getting inside the algorithm that powers Google. It’s what we are paid to do.
As of recently, Google’s algorithms are on the move. While there’s no doubt that some of the current manipulation tactics will still play a role in shaping search results, the newest component of search comes from a new (but important) source: You.
A Brief History
Over the last decade, search engines have evolved at a rapid pace for two reasons: To provide higher quality results to a given search query, and to keep SEO spammers from manipulating search results. But despite all attempts, the basic concepts behind search have remained consistent, and good SEOs have always come out on top regardless of minor algorithmic tweaks.
In the early days, Google would scrape a webpage looking for keywords on the actual site to determine its ranking. Search marketers came up with the clever idea of stuffing their page full of the keywords they wanted to rank for. After some time, Google caught up with the clever tactics and brought out the ban hammer.
Not all marketers are able to keep up with the rapidly changing algorithm. They continue to suggest that clients adopt mundane optimization techniques such as meta tags, keyword density, and directory submissions that, at the end of the day, won’t get you anywhere near the top of a search engine ranking page.
A New Model
More recently, the search engine’s algorithm has put most of its weight towards links around the web. To the search engines, a link is a vote of confidence. But not all links are created equal. A vote of confidence from someone influential in society is much more powerful than that of an Average Joe. A link from NYTimes.com is much more powerful than one from “JoesHardwareShopInNYC.com.”
SEOs figured this out too. It’s called “link building.” We either create high quality content (which is what Google likes) and hand it off to websites in return for a link (white hat SEO) or pay for a link without providing any content (black hat SEO).
With the proper techniques, good SEOs can take a website and, with good link building techniques, put them in the top 10 to 20 results for a term that gets millions of searches a month. And as of right now, it still works.
But as SEOs look around the field, it’s obvious that the engines are changing. Their most recent update, focused on killing content farms, saw had a nearly 12% change in their algorithm.
There is no doubt that the keywords on your pages and the inbound links to your site will still play a major role in rankings, but the next big change is the”you” factor.
The “You” Factor
In 2009, Rand Fishkin wrote a blog post titled “Terrible SEO Advice: Focus on Users, Not Engines.” I think if he wrote the post today, he might reconsider that first adjective.
As recent changes to Google have illustrated, search engines are moving towards a more user-focused algorithm. Most Internet marketers would agree that humans are much harder to manipulate than a computer-based algorithm. While there are certain aspects of life that are consistent for all people — eating, sleeping, and so on — everyone has their own unique set of preferences that define them as an individual.
So why hasn’t Google been taking these unique preferences into account in its search rankings? Well, it has, but not to the same extent that it has been changing its algorithm. In the past, links (which were often created by humans) were the most natural way to determine relevancy and popularity. As the Internet has evolved over the last decade, links aren’t controlled by human placement to the extent they were years ago. But, as the Internet has evolved, so has the way humans can express themselves. Online behavior isn’t limited to e-mail and stand-alone blogs anymore.
According to a 2011 Marketing Sherpa Report, 64% of marketers have begun integrating social media into their search marketing efforts. And there is reason to do so.
In December of 2010, both Google and Bing confirmed that links shared through Facebook or Twitter have a direct effect on search engine rankings. But one word that was continually brought up through the entire interview with Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land was “Author/Social Authority,” suggesting that it’s not the quantity, but rather the quality of a tweet or share that has an impact on SEO rankings.
In another recent post by Jen Lopez at SEOmoz, she presents an accidental case study that proves the correlation between a powerful Twitter account and search rankings. After being tweeted out by @smashingmag, SEOmoz’s “Beginner’s Guide to SEO” ranked number four for “Beginner’s Guide” on Google.
But if you’re one of “those” Twitter users — one who follows all of the other marketers who follow you, who also follow your other account, which follows them — don’t expect to get anywhere. Initial results indicate that the engines can easily weed out the Internet marketers and see true influencers in social media.
Despite the fact that Google can filter out Internet marketers and spammers, there are still problems. What prevents me from buying a tweet from an influential person in the social space?
Google’s New “Personal Blocklist” Chrome Extension
If there was ever an incredible opportunity for Google to really crack down on spam without having to manually intervene, their new Chrome extension for search is the answer.
The extension allows users to block websites within results — which is a good indication of content that doesn’t deserve to be there.
Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, explained the extension in greater detail on the Google Blog, saying it aimed to weed out shallow or low-quality content from suspected content farms. To do so, it allowed users to report or block sites from their web results. Those choices were then sent back to Google for analysis.
Links are easy to manipulate. Social media will most likely be easy to manipulate, unless quantity becomes a larger factor. But if tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people using the extension? That won’t be so easy to game.
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