SEO is not what it used to be. The same strategies and tactics that drove results just a few years ago are a one-way ticket to the last page of the SERPs today. But amidst such a volatile digital marketing landscape, how should SEOs stay on top of their game when algorithms and best practices are always in flux? The answer is a sustainable SEO strategy—and here’s some search engine history that explains why you will need one in 2015.
The Rise of Organic Search
Consumers have always used the Web for only two reasons: to solve problems and to be entertained. Since the early stages of the Internet, search engines have been around to help users navigate through the clutter of the Web to meet these needs quickly and easily. Search engines revolutionized the customer journey and paved the way for buying behavior to diversify and fractionalize. They became go-to resources for consumers; the first step in finding information and shopping on the Web.
As the Web grew and more consumers moved online, brands followed in order to stay current and relevant. As the sheer volume of Web content produced by brands grew exponentially, so too did consumer dependency on search engines in order to access the right problem-solving content. As a result, the organic search channel quickly emerged as one of the most promising marketing channels for driving new business, and search visibility became a top priority for brands online.
The Dawn of SEO
The SEO industry grew out of the opportunity to help businesses create value through the organic search channel. In the early days of SEO, competition between brands was not quite as stiff and search algorithms were not as advanced as they are today. Prior to Google, search engines relied heavily on factors like Meta tags and keyword density. These elements are completely controlled by webmasters, and this led to simple manipulation of search results.
The ability to significantly influence search rankings with relative ease, and at a reasonable cost, led SEO partners to achieve ROIs of unprecedented proportions for their clients. This disequilibrium created a lucrative opportunity for all who knew how to optimize websites for search, and it wasn’t long before the SEO industry took off.
Google and the SEO Arms Race
Google rose to prominence in the early 2000s as the disequilibrium in the search industry necessitated an algorithm that could not be so easily manipulated for profitable gain by companies. Google built a reputation for serving up the best search results through a complex algorithm that accounted for citations and references. These factors have always been relevant to success in the offline business world, but had not been successfully recreated yet for organic search on the Web.
Since that time, Google has led an aggressive charge in search engine innovation, often making 500-600 algorithm updates per year. Google’s endless quest to better serve online search users caused regular disruption in the SEO industry and has kept enterprise companies on their toes when managing their organic search channels.
Historic weaknesses in search engine algorithms, as well as corporate focus on driving short-term results in organic search, created a culture amongst some SEOs of seeking out algorithm loopholes to exploit for short-term search benefit. The SEO industry earned a reputation for chasing the “next big thing” because most companies that weren’t exploiting algorithm weaknesses were not realizing returns to the same degree. The result was an SEO arms race: SEOs would find and exploit loopholes that would create a search advantage for clients, and then Google would respond by building greater complexity into its algorithm in order to close these loopholes. Brands would then notice diminishing returns in their organic search channel as a result—or get penalized—and then the pressure would be on to find the next big thing.
A Battle of Purpose
SEOs exist to help businesses, whereas search engines exist to help consumers. This simple conflict of interest has substantiated a struggle for power that is largely responsible for the SEO industry’s constant state of flux. From the perspective of SEOs, the purpose of search engines has always been to drive organic traffic to a brand’s website. However, from the perspective of the search engines themselves, their purpose has always been to provide consumers with the best possible answers to their search queries.
As marketers, we must remember that search engines are businesses too – their success depends on their ability to return the most relevant search results. Returning poor results would lead to loss of credibility, and ultimately the loss of users. Google will never stop chasing perfection. For Google, perfection is an algorithm that is 100% unable to be unfairly manipulated for profitable gains.
The beauty of organic search has always been the implied trust factor—brands can’t bid their way to the front of the line like they can with paid search—or at least Google never intended for that to be possible. As a moderator and advocate for the desires of consumers, Google intends to ensure fair play in the online search space. To Google, algorithm weaknesses created a conundrum in which the best brands weren’t winning in the SERPs. The brands that were winning were doing so by pursuing SEO tactics outside of its recommended best practices—essentially, cutting their way to the front of the line. This was bad for users, bad for organic search, and bad for the digital marketing industry as a whole. It taught marketers that ROI could be maximized through tactics that created no value whatsoever for consumers.
A New Era of SEO Calls for a Sustainable Strategy
Fast forward to 2014. Success in organic search can no longer be bought or cheated. Anyone with a pulse on the industry can tell you that SEO shortcuts no longer provide the type of results that will build search presence in the long run. SEO today looks much more like good old-fashioned marketing than ever before—and you can bet this trend will continue in the future.
A sustainable SEO strategy involves a laser-focused consumer-centric approach that answers questions, entertains and helps customers through every stage of the buying cycle. It’s about total online brand presence, not just keyword rankings. It’s about understanding customer behavior, needs, consumption preferences and conversion paths. It’s about informing and optimizing other marketing functions, from social and content to PR and IT. And most importantly, it’s about creating true value for any and all consumers that come into contact with your brand online, regardless of the channel.