Big changes in the search industry have a lot of people wondering just what’s up with search engine optimization. This is a big question, because all through the late ’90s and early millennial years, as the Internet was blooming and growing, companies were investing in this practice at a tremendous rate, and the shorthand acronym, SEO, became pretty much a household name for almost everybody with any kind of tech experience.
Over the years, we’ve taken a number of things for granted — that short-form Web content, combined with specific HTML and syntax rules, can get a company better visibility on search engines, particularly, on the only search engine that matters for most of us: Google.
There are SEO professionals, SEO guidebooks and scads of articles written on how to do SEO right. But now, with Google’s dominance in the search world and its continual revamping of internal algorithms for search engine results pages, the term "SEO" finally seems to be going into hiding.
The Google Crackdown
Web managers, marketers and others waited with bated breath as Google rolled out new algorithms for search results – first Panda, then Penguin and Hummingbird. What these changes essentially did was punish sites that have used dubious SEO practices to try to game the system and get rankings, and reward sites that have been less aggressive on SEO, but more proactive in building a great experience for users.
That philosophy, the "user experience philosophy," is still in force today, and it’s finally starting to get companies actually working to provide something of worth and value to readers, not just generic keyword and meta-tag pages that trick readers into clicking into a site.
No More Keyword Stuffing
One of the best examples of "black hat SEO" or aggressive SEO is the practice of keyword stuffing.
Again, most of us who grew up around Internet technology are innately familiar with how you put keywords into articles to help them rank on Google. Just like the subprime mortgage practices of the years before 2008, keyword stuffing used to be "just the way business was done." Content marketers and others were valued based on their ability to stuff keywords into meta-tags, titles and just as importantly, the text of an article. That’s how we wound up with thousands and thousands of Internet pages where dense paragraphs of prose wax poetically about "San Francisco California dentists" or "plumbing repair in Nashville, Tennessee."
With new Google algorithms, it’s clear that keyword stuffing will be immediately punished. Articles like this one from QuickSprout show Google guru Matt Cutts explaining this in a very direct way — that above some important threshold, the SERP yield of additional keywords immediately stops, and then plummets.
As mentioned in some articles covering the Google changes, it’s the "long tail" keywords that are shunned the most. These are keywords like the above with four, five or even six words, keywords that don’t sound natural in any real context, especially if they’re repeated ad nauseum. That’s one of the overarching goals of Google’s new algorithms — to catch this kind of pitifully mangled web narrative and try to send it to the dustbin of history.
The Future of SEO
Although things like keyword stuffing are clearly on the way out, many experts contend that SEO is not dead — but that its future will be more oriented towards the organic crafting of reputable and elegant web sites that attract both human users and Google’s analytical machines.
One example of this kind of practice is called rich snippets. Rich snippets are specific little pieces of data in visual or text formats, or in another combination, that enhance a particular search result. To find examples of this type of short-form rich media, you only need to look so far as your average Google SERP showing things like product reviews, movie or hotel ratings, or anything else that can be embellished with a kind of numerical or visual ranking. Webmasters often work to put these visual editions into summaries and abstracts, so that they show up in SERP results, but they will also show up on the corresponding web pages as well.
Rich snippets are valuable to readers because they help to provide visual cues that orient us on the Web. In many cases, they eliminate words — for instance, you could see a five-star icon and know that something is highly rated without somebody typing out a few sentences about how highly rated that thing is. That makes this a good example of how Google allows for meaningful, constructive SEO — SEO that enhances rather than just tricking readers onto pages.
Other "Future SEO Practices"
Along with short-form or decoration items like rich snippets, Google is also promoting long-form meaningful authorship. Some reports show how Google authorship is on the rise, and how many SEO professionals have turned themselves into "content marketers," getting more real stories onto the Internet in lieu of robotic keyword-stuffed pages. This type of effort can be anything from collecting recipes or reviews for posting, to various types of long-form journalism that send reporters out into the world to gather what they can and deliver it to the web. For more on this, just look at this conversation on how guest blogging has changed, not died, within the Internet world.
Carly Fauth is head of marketing at Money Crashers, a personal finance company. In her view, SEO isn’t going anywhere, but with Google taking the reins, companies are forced to a higher standard.
"Now marketers and other digital folks basically have to do SEO the right way or not at all." Fauth says, noting other new influences such as the use of Google+, Google’s foray into social media, and the rise of the "mobile generation" where everything has to be tailored to smaller and more portable devices.
And, she says, in some ways, the basic "recipe" for SEO hasn’t changed too much.
"The tried and true ways of doing SEO are still legitimate, regardless of any crackdowns." Fauth says. "Create high quality, authentic, engaging content, get more involved in the online community around you, and include an appropriate amount of keywords and links in your postings."