It’s been more than two years since Google released Panda and nearly a year since the debut of the Penguin update. In that time, we’ve seen some massive changes in how search results are tabulated and presented to the general web-browsing public. SERPs have become more intuitive, user-friendly and in some cases unnervingly anticipatory. As the leader in the field of web search, Google sets the tone and the rest of the competition tends to follow. Online marketing has largely revolved around reacting to Mountain View’s policy shifts in recent memory. However, this status quo isn’t as secure as some might believe.
The arms race in search has spurred some interesting developments from Facebook in the form of the upcoming Graph Search. Likewise, Twitter is rolling out some advanced search tools of its own and Microsoft has unveiled its ViralSearch platform to boot. The major trend here is that companies with a lot of users are leveraging Big Data to find nuggets of information gold hidden among the chaos. As the pace of innovation in web search accelerates, we’ll see further disruptions soon enough that fundamentally alter the e-commerce landscape. The moral of the story is that the face of online marketing is drastically changing, so buckle up and prepare for a turbulent ride.
Quality From the Top Down
Probably the least shocking disruption is the all-out war on spamdexing, low-quality sites and cheap SEO tricks. Ever since Google decisively snatched the top search spot in the last decade, they’ve been aggressively tuning their algorithms to deliver relevance and better understand user queries. Spammers have actually helped to advance the development of Google’s garbage filters in a big way. The end result is a better search experience for the end user. Online marketers who refuse to take shortcuts have simultaneously benefited from this increased emphasis on quality.
For large and small brands alike, a focus on delivering quality at every level these days is a matter of life and death. Lame tricks like using exact match domains to drive traffic to squeeze pages isn’t really a viable option any more. The concept of overall, across the board, quality in the SERPs is finally gaining traction. Though not perfect, the preventative barriers of Google and Bing that keep junk from floating to the top are proving their worth in real life.
In order to demonstrate comprehensive value, brands are being forced to adopt a more holistic approach to their content creation and proliferation methods. While there’s never really been any single silver bullet that guaranteed top billing in the SERPs, online marketers are being forced to work harder than ever before. A combination of authoritative inbound links, social signals and current, cutting-edge content is what’s required to dominate the niches that brands are after. Before we get to what works long-term, let’s take a quick look at contemporary marketing and SEO tricks used to temporarily fool Google’s quality safeguards.
Flying Under the Radar, For Now
While major search providers have become more adept than ever at weeding out low-quality content, certain blog networks comprised of not much more than spam and links still get results, at least for the moment. In some instances, they’re even thriving. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about Russian blog networks still having a positive impact on rankings if you buy a few well placed links. This may be true, but’s not worth the risk and – very soon – I’m expecting to see another big smack down actively targeting these kinds of sites.
Crafting content for actual users rather than for search engine algorithms is the secret to sustainable SEO success. Keyword optimization still counts, though not to the absolute extent that it once did.
Google’s efforts to stamp out these shifty tactics include the de-indexing of BuildMyRank and other private blog networks like LinkVana. As clearly stated in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, paid links are for PPC (where they can actually make some cash from us) and not organic rankings. Though some refuse to read the writing on the wall, the effectiveness of these clever workarounds is quickly fading. Sooner rather than later, these underhanded and deceptive SEO practices will fall by the wayside entirely – something that just a couple of years ago was unthinkable to most.
The Social/Search Nexus
The most striking change we’ve seen in the online marketing world is the impact of social media on organic search. With so much data being accumulated by social web applications, it would stand to reason that Google and other search engines would use it in their ranking recipes. It’s actually been happening for a while, as the quality of inbound links being used to rank content is a form of social ranking. Some believe that social indicators will displace keywords and hyperlinks themselves. While the jury’s still out on that one, the ongoing merger of social and search can’t be ignored.
A really interesting point was made during a conversation involving Wil Reynolds and Rand Fishkin at a dinner before LinkLove London last week. Their thoughts, and this is extremely paraphrased so please don’t take any of this as gospel, was that links in Tweets could be treated the same as a link from a site just with a different algorithm applied.
Stop. Think for a minute. For SEO, that’s huge. Link building, in an instant, starts to get flipped right on its head.
Currently, the idea that social indicators directly impact SERPs is controversial at best. Since we can’t know exactly how Google cooks up its ranking algorithms, we can only speculate. In truth, it’s likely that social signals are used as an ancillary indicator of quality. At this stage of the game, user-generated reviews found on sites like Amazon, Yelp, Foursquare and Google+ are the most important pieces of social data for marketers. While Facebook Likes and Google +1’s are all well and good, nothing beats a healthy dose of actual consumer feedback.
Less Keywords, More Engagement
Clearly, the old model of keyword optimization, link quantity and niche targeting is on its way out. Google, in a round about way, went after the spammier side of long-tail marketing with Panda and to a lesser extent Penguin. In the wake of these updates, brands must cater to the customer instead of obsessing over keyword density. Put another way, Google and Bing are looking at indicators of engagement rather than mere latent semantic indexing match-ups. Basically, the focus should be on user experience rather than superficial hallmarks of what used to pass for optimal web content.
Naturally, the algorithmic formulas that govern the valuation of engagement are extremely complicated. What’s more, Google’s secret sauce undergoes changes on a daily basis that further muddy the waters. However, it’s a fairly safe bet that they use factors like click-through rates, bounce rates and other metrics of user satisfaction to determine the quality of a site. No matter how finely-tuned and keyword-optimized a landing page may be, no amount of incoming links will help if said page boasts a dwell time akin to George Michael picking up his latest prints from Snappy Snaps. To reach the top of the SERPs, you’ll need to produce a page that doesn’t turn off users.
Mobile Coming On Strong
No discussion of the changing face of online marketing would be complete without touching on the meteoric rise of mobile. The ramifications of millions of people walking around with pocket-sized computers constantly within their reach is tough to quantify. While the exponential increase in smartphone and tablet usage might seem to be a harbinger of the death of content marketing, the reality is a bit more complex. Obviously, there’s only so much information that can be consumed at one time on a small screen. Grabbing and holding onto the attention of mobile users is necessarily trickier.
The most visible ramification of this mobile surge is the appearance of hundreds of thousands of apps, most of which are geared towards delivering a browser-like experience for traditional sites. Most important to marketers are the various geo location apps like Google+, Facebook and Foursquare that enable them to hit customers where they live. In addition, a lot of location-aware mobile marketing occurs via SMS and email. Ultimately, the shift in web traffic towards mobile devices presents enormous opportunities to the versatile marketer that knows how to roll with the punches and adapt to the new paradigm.
Privacy Concerns & the Bottom Line
One aspect of the rapidly evolving online marketing landscape that many overlook is privacy. Now that the web has matured and the general public has a better grasp of privacy issues, users are far more reticent about having their private data bandied about the Internet. The recent EU cookie legislation accomplished little but had the notable effect of raising awareness about how the average person is tracked online on a daily basis. This awareness is bolstered by regular stories concerning the misuse of browsing data by the likes of Facebook and Google.
In particular, incidents such as Facebook’s abuse of user privacy in the Sponsored Stories imbroglio has led to a powerful backlash. Not everyone wants to be pushed towards greater sharing and many will actively resist, which doesn’t make the online marketer’s job any easier. At the end of the day, major web service providers have a vested interest in knowing more about their users. After all, advertising keeps most of the web free of charge. Figuring out where the line is for a specific consumer demographic when it comes to privacy is the key to success. Permission marketing in particular continues to be extremely effective as a result.
The Impact of the MSM on SEO
For the better part of a decade, the arcane world of SEO didn’t register on the radar of the mainstream media. That’s changed quite a bit in recent years as traditional news portals such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have finally taken notice. In fact, their increased coverage of the SEO world may even be affecting search as more stories concerning online marketing make the front pages. As it turns out, all that expanded coverage by the MSM is a good thing for the most part.
First things first, the heightened visibility that SEO has attained serves to educate the non-technical user as to how search really works. Leading back to the privacy concerns raised previously, that means that users may be more likely to use alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo rather than Google. More germane to a discussion of online marketing is the fact that the increased awareness of the importance of SEO means greater investment by businesses in every industry. Furthermore, greater scrutiny leads to greater search transparency as users question Google’s ranking methodologies and practices, which ultimately benefits the online marketing industry as a whole.
Web Search in 5 Years
Trying to predict what the future may hold for us in the field of online marketing and search is complicated by the highly transitory nature of the business and of tech in general. When the iPad first debuted, quite a few pundits derided it as a novelty. Now, it and similar tablets are fundamentally transforming the manner in which consumers access content and are exposed to marketing efforts. The biggest question on everybody’s mind at the moment is how much social media signals will affect the traditional search market in the coming months and years.
The quick answer is that we’ll see a gradual incorporation of social into mainline search moving forward. Google’s got a great thing going and they do what they do better than anyone. The web heavyweights are still trying to figure out how to best monetize social data. For now, high-quality inbound links and stellar content are still where it’s at for the most part. Google and Facebook are going to be increasingly at odds as the former moves further into social and the latter dives deeper into search. Google has inertia on its side, though there’s ultimately no such thing as a sure thing in the search game.
Staying Current and Competitive
More or less the only thing we can really count on is an increasingly competitive online marketing battlefield in 2013 and beyond. It’s no longer an amateur’s game and the stakes are higher than ever as the e-commerce playing field becomes ever more level. As you’ve no doubt guessed already, being up-to-date on the latest marketing trends and techniques is incredibly important. Even more important is remembering that all sales success ultimately boils down to the ability to connect with people regardless of the technology at one’s disposal. Consistently successful online marketers never forget this truism.