Mastering SEO in an age of smart algorithms.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard some marketing guru tragically proclaim that SEO is dead.
The truth is, the tried-and-true techniques of search engine optimization (SEO) — the fine art of getting your website to the top of Google searches for relevant keywords — will never go out of style. It just keeps getting harder and harder to fake.
I often think of SEO as an arms race — between SEO specialists who want to “outsmart” the algorithm and gain a higher ranking than they “deserve,” and the search engine algorithms which get harder and harder to outsmart. That’s all the “Penguin” and “Panda” Google algorithm updates are about — making the algorithm harder to fool.
But the standard toolbelt of “White Hat” SEO will always work. Why? Because they align with Google’s reason for existing … or at least, the search engine’s reason for existing.
What is a Search Engine in the Business of Doing?
It’s the kind of question that seems so obvious … but if we take the time to parse it, we find subtle insights hiding in plain sight. “What is a search engine for?”
What is Google in the business of doing, and how does it go about doing it?
Let’s start with asking what the “customers” (i.e. users) want — Google Search users want to type in a search query and find what they are looking for.
So if you were a search engine, with an index of every public-facing website in the world, how would you go about fulfilling that need?
Google’s algorithm does this by ranking websites along two major vectors:
In order for users to be happy with the returned search results, the results have to be relevant to the query they entered into the search bar.
How do you do this? With keywords, of course. If your website contains the actual words the user was searching, that goes a long way towards establishing its relevance to the user’s search.
How has this evolved? Early SEO “experts” would try “keyword stuffing” — using the desired a thousand times, even if it made the content nonsensical. Maybe they would even include a block of text with nothing but the keywords, over and over again. They would also stuff keywords into image alt-text and metadata.
Algorithm updates enabled the Google AI to recognize this practice and to penalize it, so you actually had to use the keywords organically and sensibly in the content. In fact, your site could lose relevance ranking for those keywords if you used them too many times, even naturally.
The importance of relevance is also reflected in the weight of your bounce rate — the percentage of users who visit your site and immediately leave. Google penalizes the ranking of sites with high bounce rates, the expectation being that the user didn’t find the content relevant and immediately left.
In addition to being relevant to the user’s search query, Google also wants to return sites that have authority on the search query.
How does the algorithm assess a site’s authority? A number of factors play into it, including but not limited to:
Technical Optimization. A slow site, or one that is not mobile-responsive, is penalized — presumably because outdated websites indicate a lack of authority.
Quantity of Content. A big site index with a lot of content is seen as a sign of authority. Want to outrank a competitor in SEO? Have more content than them.
Age of the Domain. Domains that have been in use for a long time carry a higher authority score with search engines.
Backlinks. Aka other websites that link to your website. This is the gold standard of authority — other sites voting for your credibility by linking out to you. A backlink from a high-authority site like Forbes.com or Harvard.edu confers more authority than a low-authority website.
Google actually pioneered the idea of backlinks as a marker of authority … and then “Gray Hat” and “Black Hat” SEO scoundrels immediately began exploiting it, littering the internet with dummy websites linking to their properties.
It used to work … but then algorithm updates evolved to recognize bogus, easy-to-acquire links and discount them, looking instead for “legit” links.
So what can we take from this? Google’s mission for its search engine hasn’t changed — it wants to give search engine users what they are looking for, and it does so by ranking our sites for relevance and authority.
The algorithm has become harder and harder to scam, leaving brands with few actions but to actually be relevant and authoritative — optimizing their website technically, creating a large catalog of high-quality content, and earning backlinks through noteworthy action and meaningful partnerships.
Seriously, what is this world coming to? Against all the odds, there’s Google, keeping us honest.