Once upon a time, Google was at the mercy of SEO. The search engine was easy to exploit and â€“ what’s more â€“ it didn’t seem to mind. Some keywords here, some metadata there, then sit back and watch the results appear.
For many people, that sums up search engine optimisation: the parasite-boosting the prominence of rubbish websites by gaming the system. SEO has debased news reporting and is responsible for today’s epidemic of vapid clickbait, they say.
There certainly was a time when it was quicker and easier to get online results by writing your website for search engines than for human audiences. That time has passed. “Peak SEO” was dealt a crippling blow in February 2011 with the first of Google’s ongoing Panda algorithm updates, when search’s dominant player started seriously addressing the prominence of spam results on a systematic level. Fourteen months later, the first Penguin updates heralded the twilight of link building â€“ the offsite counterpart of onsite over-optimisation and content spam.
These trends have led many commentators to claim that SEO is dead â€“ although some of them might have just been laying clickbait… In fact, far from being dead, SEO has evolved into something far more benign.
The updates’ cumulative effect has been to rule practice after practice out of bounds, so that search results reflect ever more closely whatever it is users really have in mind when they run a search for these particular words.
Google isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its corporate heart. Whatever it may have started out as, search today is a byproduct of Google’s Ad Words business. Google sells the attention of search users to advertisers. If search results are not credible, that audience will eventually leave.
So the hidden hand behind SEO’s evolution is Google realising that it cannot take the loyalty of searchers for granted. Google is not a neutral marketplace for bringing together search users and website providers. It is a market maker, with considerable skin in the game.
For example, there was no a priori reason why guest blogging or exact-match domain names should be penalised. Google chose to do it, so as to define “good practice” and even “search” itself in ways that (happily) coincided with its own interests. But what can you do? The rules change and will continue to change. The reason behind the changes, however, does not.
SEO today, then, is something like zen archery: to hit the target, ignore the target. Focus instead on the beauty of aligning with your audience’s intentions.
What that means in practice is long-term success will only come when you try to achieve your goals by meeting the needs of online audiences, not by exploiting some concealed loophole in the rules. That is what “content marketing” means.
Google â€“ and all the other platforms that provide search or serve ads â€“ is gathering up all the behavioural clues you leave behind online. They are using this data to create a model of your interests, desires and intentions so as to provide what you want when, or even before, you want it. Our advantage as online marketers is that we are not trying to do this on a global scale and can focus on anticipating and providing that for our specific audiences only. Hence persona profiling-led content marketing is the present and future of SEO.
When you paint a picture of a typical member of your audience, you can build your content and outreach around where such people are found, how they communicate and (just as important) what deters them. And by “paint a picture”, I mean construct a data-driven behavioural model illustrating how users find, use and interact with your website.
Like it or not, Google is the sea that search marketers must swim in and its whims are as heartless and inexorable as the tides. There will always be rewards for the one who can outwit the algorithm, so keep looking for that loophole by all means. But remember, your success is unlikely to last. In the long run, the surest way to reach your destination is to swim with the tide.
Alan Boyce is managing director of the content marketing agency Axonn Media
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