Search engines are the link or bridge between you and the people looking for you online. That gives search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo a tremendous amount of power. SEO or Search Engine Optimization is the process by which you help search engines find your website or other material to help them help searchers find you. SEO has come a long way since Archie (archive without the “V”) first burst onto the scene in 1990 as the world’s very first search engine. Here is a brief overview of Search Engine Optimization – where it came from, how it works and where it’s going.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEARCH ENGINES
The earliest search engines only contained web addresses, not any information about what kind of content was on the site. Special computer languages also had to be used to search for websites. Within a decade however, the internet grew exponentially as did computer technology. By the mid 90’s search engines could handle searches in plain language and individuals could search for individual documents and not just websites.
In 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin began working on a web crawler that allowed them to count the number of links to a page, but even more importantly, how many others were linking back to that page. Thus, the search engine ranking system was born. It is the modern offspring of this original search engine ranking system that has created the need for today’s SEO. Search Engine Optimization is the means by which businesses and individuals who publish any kind of information on the internet get it seen and noticed by search engines.
EARLY SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION
It didn’t take long for internet savvy marketers to figure out loopholes to exploit in the newly developed search engines to get their pages to the top of search engine listings. This was called Search Engine Optimization – creating a page specifically designed to be exactly what search engines were looking for. And what were they looking for? Links.
Page and Brin’s search engine was developed off the idea of academic citations. An academic paper is evaluated by three things: the quality of the work itself, the number of sources cited in the paper backing up the premises of the paper and most important of all, the number of sources that eventually cite – or back link to – that paper. The more often that paper is eventually cited, the more important it is determined to be.
The pioneers of Search Engine Optimization exploited the system by loading their pages up with links to other sources and then seeding their subsequent work with sources back to each of their other pages. The more people clicked on a certain page, the higher it climbed in rankings. Which led to the birth of “clickbait.”
“Clickbait” generally consists of salacious headlines, wild offers or tantalizing bits of photographs or video that internet users just can’t resist clicking on. Once they click, they are usually disappointed by the actual content, but it doesn’t matter – they clicked. Every click drives the page higher and higher in search engine rankings, leading to more and more clicks and every click brings in revenue. Clickbaiters sell ad space on their pages with a guarantee that it will be seen by a certain number of users and they use clickbait to do it. And sadly, it worked. Or at least it did for a time.
GAMING THE SYSTEM
The early 21st century quickly turned into a constant battle between search engine developers and those who quickly learn how to game or manipulate the system. People that exploit the system are detrimental to both the searchers that search engines were developed to help as well as legitimate businesses, institutions and organizations that have genuine, high quality content to offer users.
When getting people to simply click on your site gains you search engine rankings, it becomes difficult for legitimate businesses and individuals publishing legitimate blogs and articles to reach the top of search results. As a result, developers work tirelessly to design ever more sophisticated and elegant algorithms that differentiate between legitimate substance and “fluff” designed to fool search engines. A few of the more heavy-handed tactics that exploiters have used are:
Keyword StuffingPaid links, internal page links and back-linksFake press releasesSlide Shows
” Keyword Stuffing: As a means of preventing “clickbait” sites from reaching the top of search rankings, developers created algorithms capable of searching for the number of certain key words or phrases in an article that showed the legitimacy of the article. In response, internet marketers developed the practice of stuffing articles and sites with so many ham-handed keywords, it was barely even coherent enough to read.
” Paid links, internal page links and back-links: Since the original algorithms were based on counting the number of links to and from a given site, then more links = higher rankings, right? As result, basically every other word of articles became a link to another page, article or blog on the same site, which generated more clicks to those pages, but is as annoying as anything to readers. Some business actually paid high traffic sites to include links to their sites to increase visitors and boost rankings.
” Fake press releases: Obviously the term press release is going to gain search engine attention because it implies that something important is happening or someone has something important to say. Some genius figured out that search engines would give priority to press releases and it created an onslaught of press releases that simply gave information about a business or individual, without mentioning anything of actual import.
” Slide Shows: Slide shows are still a regular feature on many sites and are one of the current means of fooling algorithms, but they are most likely next on the chopping block as well. Instead of offering one long article that contains a top 10 list or other number of items, slideshows offer tiny bits of information with a picture and force users to click to get to the next picture to continue reading. In the process, a whole new set of advertising is also loaded. In addition to racking up clicks, this also decreases their bounce rate, artificially inflating the amount of time users spend on a certain page.
These are just a few of the tricks that content marketers developed over the years to try and fool search engines in order to help them climb in rankings. Needless to say, this causes frustration for both internet users looking for legitimate information and businesses and sources that have legitimate, thoughtful content to provide.
THE ALGORITHMS STRIKE BACK
While search engine optimization is and always will be important, thankfully today’s algorithms are more sophisticated than ever before and are actually penalizing sites that use many of the old ham-handed tactics that used to gain gamers a boost in rankings. This both allows users to find higher and higher quality content on the basis of a single search, as well as rewarding sites that have useful information and high quality content to offer.
This doesn’t mean, however, that search engine optimization is dead or that it ever will be. As long as there is an internet, people are going to have a need to find what they re looking for on it and that is where search engines come in. And as long as there are search engines, there will be a need to optimize content to help those search engines get users searching for that exact information to your site.
Today’s search engine algorithms are more elegant and sophisticated than ever before as is today’s SEO. In addition, what content marketers are also figuring out is that users are also becoming more savvy than ever and just landing at the top of a results page doesn’t guarantee that users will click on the link to the top ranked page just because it’s first. In many cases, savvy users have figured out that sometimes the most legitimate results are farther down the page or not even the first page of results.
Here are some key tactics for optimizing content for modern search engines.
Judicious use of keywordsWell-placed and well chosen links to respected sourcesLists, bullet points and headersMeaty Content
” Judicious use of keywords: Keywords are still an important tool to help search engine algorithms determine what search your content or article would offer the best return on search engine results. Keywords should be used judiciously and sprinkled lightly throughout the piece, rather than clumped together or found every few words.
” Well-placed and well chosen links to respected sources: Links are still viewed highly, but now the kinds of links you use also matters. Links to online journalistic publications and .gov or .edu pages gives your content more credibility and subsequently returns a higher ranking.
” Lists, bullet points and headers: Studies have shown that people have an easier time reading things that are broken up into short paragraphs and use headings, bulleted lists and numerical lists. If you make your content easy for readers to read, that’s where search engines want to send people and they will reward you with higher rankings.
” Meaty Content: At one time, high quality content was considered to be at least 2,000 words. Today, pieces as short as 300-500 words can actually find their way to the top of search engine rankings, but it is rare. On the whole, search algorithms give the most “points” (so to speak) to content that is between 700-1,200 words. Remember, however, what more important than how many words you use is how much actual, factual, actionable or viable information you are offering.
“SEO” is neither a dirty word nor an ugly business. Search engines help users find exactly the kind of high quality content users are searching for. SEO is just one more way of finding the right marketing channel to connect the right users with the right content. While the best SEO tools are constantly evolving and changing, SEO is not going anywhere as long as there is an internet of things to search.