The future of SEO

future of SEO

Search engines are all about serving valuable results to their users. But because they’re not human, they can’t actually assess value. They can only deduce it.

For the most part, they do this by looking for signs of what humans like. If a site’s useful, people will tend to link to it, and it’s likely to stick around for a while and deliver consistent subject matter, year after year. So the main signals today are backlinks, anchor text, site age and domain authority.

Of course these signals aren’t perfect indicators. For a start, they’re indirect, so they’re still open to interpretation and error. Even worse – they’re vulnerable to manipulation. SEOs and search spammers are continually finding ways to amp up the signal.

So where do the search engines go from here? How do they improve? What signal could they possibly begin to factor in that would give them a more accurate indication of value?

Visitor behavior

The future of SEO is all about visitor behavior. How better to learn the value of a site than to ask its visitors?

I don’t mean actually “ask”; I’m not suggesting a survey, or anything like that. No, what the search engines will do – what some have already started doing – is collect information about your site’s ‘stickiness’ and conversion rates, and factor this data into their rankings. They’ll consider:

  • How many people visit your site
  • How those people arrive
  • How long they stay
  • How often they come back
  • How many pages they visit
  • What pages they spend the longest on
  • Whether they comment
  • Whether they subscribe to your blog feed
  • What pages they bookmark
  • What keywords they use in their bookmarks
  • Who they share their bookmarks with (and who those people share their bookmarks with)

Let’s face it. If the search engines had access to all of this data, it wouldn’t just be logical for them to use it to determine their rankings. It’d be crazy of them not to!

So what does Google already know about your visitors’ behavior?

A lot! Take a look at the following Google capabilities.

ServiceHow it works
Google AdSenseWhen you run AdSense on your site, Google records impressions and Click-thrus. This gives it another traffic metric for your site, plus an indirect indicator of relevance (the more closely aligned your content is to your keywords, the higher
the click-thru rate should be).
Google ReaderGoogle Reader is one of the most popular content aggregators. Users use it to draw together and read blog feeds from multiple sites. Google records who subscribes to your blog, how long they subscribe for, what blog posts they read, what links in those posts they click, etc. This tells Google
how good your content is.
FeedBurner FeedBurner is the world’s most popular blog feed management utility. Webmasters use it to track subscriptions to their feeds and visitor stats. So does Google. It tracks no. of subscriptions, duration of each subscription, backlinks, visits,
links clicked, traffic sources, etc.
GmailMany people use Gmail as their primary email application. Google records when a user clicks on a link within an email and visits your site. So Google gets an indication of your site’s
trustworthiness and also some traffic details.
Google SERPsGoogle records all click-thrus, so it has some very useful traffic stats.
Google SearchWiki SearchWiki is a personalized, customizable version of Google. All Google Account holders see it instead of Google whenever they’re logged in. They can ‘promote’ results they like, remove results they don’t, and comment about specific pages, and
Google records their input.
Google Toolbar When added to a user’s web browser, the Google Toolbar can track site visits. So Google can sometimes tell when a user
visits your site.
iGoogle Users set iGoogle as their browser’s home page, and use it as a personalized hub in day-to-day work and web use. It includes their Gmail and a Google search facility. Google
tracks what sites they visit, including yours.
Google Web HistoryBy default, when someone is logged into their Google Account, Google tracks all their searches and site visits. So it can tell approximately how many account holders visit your
site.
Google BookmarksVisitors to your site use Google Bookmarks to save pages they want to come back to, and to tag them with Labels to make them easier to find.
Google DesktopGoogle Desktop is a utility for searching a user’s computer file
system. It can also record their web history, so Google can tell approximately how many Google Desktop users visit your site.
Google FriendConnectFriendConnect is a social media networking service that you can integrate into your website. Google can see all FriendConnect interactions, and also stores data about all members of your network, including participation rates,
relative influence and input.
Google Analytics Google Analytics reports on traffic from all sources, not just Google search and Google ads. It’s incredibly comprehensive and even encompasses conversion metrics. Google Analytics is free and is already widely used. Of all the visitor tracking
tools at Google’s disposal, this is the most useful.

Some of this data is only available to Google if the user is logged in to their Google Account. But remember, most of the services above are only usable if the user is logged in.

What could Google deduce from this data?

By combining the data from all of these services, Google has a very deep, broad and comprehensive dataset from which to draw conclusions. Eventually it’ll use this data to determine how relevant, engaging and important your content is, how loyal your visitors are, and how much they trust you. And it’ll rank you accordingly.

Here’s how it’ll work

Google will:

  1. continue to crawl your site for keywords, to see what you say your content’s about;
  2. look at the keywords your visitors use when bookmarking pages, to see what they say your content’s about;
  3. continue to look at the anchor text in backlinks, to see what other webmasters say your content’s about;
  4. use 1 2 & 3 above to index you appropriately;
  5. assume that people who stick to your site are interested in your content;
  6. continue to assume that backlinks are an indication that your site is important; and
  7. rank you high if you have a lot of sticky traffic, high conversion rates & a credible backlink profile.

In fact, it’s already started

This isn’t crystal ball stuff. It’s already started happening. Just ask Google Product Manager, Cedric Dupont:

We’re always looking at user data as a signal.”

Or ask Yahoo’s VP of Product Management, Tim Mayer:

We use signals from those [Del.icio.us social bookmarking] pages to increase diversity.” (Yahoo owns Del.icio.us.)

Some SEOs have even started reporting bounce rate-influenced rank changes.

And it won’t be long before SearchWiki data is thrown into the mix. Google’s not currently using that data as a signal, but they’re

…not closing any doors.” (Google Product Manager Cedric Dupont)

In fact, it might be closer than we think: according to Google’s Marissa Mayer, if “thousands of people” removed a result from their SearchWiki results, it might make sense to remove the page from everyone’s results. (Sourced from Search Engine Land Blog.)

And let’s not forget Microsoft. They’re working on ‘BrowseRank,’ a new method which lets “…Users Vote for Page Importance.” In essence, it’s PageRank, but based on user behavior data.

When will it really take off?

I know I said it’s already started, but it’s not yet happening in earnest. Obviously not everyone uses all of these services and some people opt out of data tracking. Nor do the tools and services capture the same rich information from all users. So there are still big gaps in Google’s dataset. Undoubtedly, Google is still trying to figure out the best ways to make use of all the data, too.

But even though tracking is optional in most of these services, in most cases, opting out isn’t intuitive, your opt-in status isn’t clear, and users are actively encouraged to opt in. (Often the full feature-set is not enabled until the user has opted in.)

So uptake is happening pretty quickly…

My prediction (for what it’s worth) is that visitor factors will be important within two years and they’ll be more important than backlinks within five.

But what about backlinks?

They’ll be devalued, but not discounted. After all, they still can be a good indication of the importance of your site. And let’s not forget their traffic benefits. Genuine buzz will never depreciate.

Other developments

Of course, new visitor signals are just one aspect of future SEO. (I covered it in detail because it’s the one that’s most relevant to anyone optimizing their site for a higher ranking.) There are a few other significant impending developments.

Personalization

Personalized search is simply search that ‘learns’ from your search and surf habits, and tailors search results accordingly. (In the future, it’ll even factor in things like user language preferences and the ‘populations’ or groups the user’s a part of.)

A few of the search engines offer variations on personalized search, but Google’s is the most noteworthy. Partly because Google has the largest search share, and partly because Google Personalization is very sticky (kinda defaults to on and isn’t easy to turn off).

Because personalized search has the power to deliver very relevant results to searchers, and because it’s quite… ‘assertive’… it’s definitely going to affect the results that most users see. But this won’t really change how you should be optimizing, it just reinforces the importance of:

  • Optimization – because you’ll have fewer chances to get your site in front of target customers. Once personalization kicks in around your target keywords, their results will be determined more by what they do than by what you do.
  • Quality content – you want your visitors to really engage with your site so it becomes a part of their personalized search experience.

Personalization is also important because it’s the carrot that Google dangles in order to get users to surrender more information about themselves. And as discussed on (‘In fact, it’s already started’), this information is already feeding back into Google’s algorithms.

Local search

As discussed on (‘Choose the right web host’), Google already shows different search results to different people, based on where they’re searching from. At the moment, Google decides whether your site will be included in a local search by looking at things like the location of your web host, the keywords on your site, and your listing in Google Local Business Center.

But as all of these things are fairly easy to manipulate, it’s likely that the geographic spread of your link profile will soon impact your ranking across different regions. Let me rephrase in English: If you have lots of backlinks from US sites, it’s likely that your site is relevant to US audiences, so it’ll probably rank well in searches by Americans, and not so well in searches by, say, Australians.

Local search optimization will become more important as more people adopt Internet-enabled mobile phones (see ‘Mobile search’ on p.173) and as Google refines its ability to detect and appropriately serve intent in searches. Again, in English: A shopping type query will likely return local results, whereas a research based query won’t.

Universal Search

Universal Search is a fancy term for the way Google now crawls online videos, audio, images, maps, products and news items, and includes them in the regular search results. (Previously, you had to search on these things separately.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not diminishing it when I call it “fancy.” Google’s ability to ‘read’ a video, and skip to   the section relevant to a search query, is amazing. So, too, is its ability to spider soundtracks and convert them to text. And when a video or maps result appears on a SERPs page, it really stands out, and may well attract more click-thrus.

But, unlike Bruce Clay, I don’t believe that Universal Search will turn SEO on its ear. It’s certainly a useful addition, and caters nicely to people who respond better to visuals than text. But it’s no replacement for quality, useful, unique, scannable copy, nor does it indicate that a site is any more useful. (Read more about this in my blog.)

Nonetheless, you should start thinking about how you can leverage video, audio, images, maps, products and news.

For more information…

Mobile search

With the introduction of Internet-aware mobile devices, mobile search is already happening. Because most mobile searches are for local retail and entertainment, if you’re offering products or services in these verticals, you’ll need to:

  • optimize for local search (see ‘Submit your site to the search engines’ local business centers’ and ‘Choose the right web host’ .

For more information…

What does it all mean?

In a Q&A over at Search Engine Land, Johanna Wright, Director of Product Management at Google, said of Google SearchWiki: “It lets you add your personal touch to our algorithms.” Although she was referring to only one of the products discussed above, her comment was relevant to all. And it was very telling…

All things considered, it appears Google is on its way toward a ranking system that’s much harder to manipulate, because it’s based on how people actually interact with a site. Ranking would no longer be simply  a matter of getting backlinks on trusted sites. You’d need to repeatedly attract lots of visitors, get them to stick around and eventually convert them.

Fortunately, if you’ve followed the steps outlined in this book, you’ll be well positioned to do exactly that. You’ll be generating traffic through your social media optimization and retaining that traffic with great content. You’ll even be converting because you’re a trusted, respected person in a community, not just a faceless vendor or service provider.

Conclusion

Search Engine Optimization is not a black art; it’s a science. There are defined rules and proven methodologies. And although there’s a lot more to it than can be contained in a book of this size, you shouldn’t need any more than what you’ve just read to obtain a high ranking in the search engines.

But there’s no denying that it’s hard work and takes a long time. Whatever you do, don’t rush into it. Make sure you understand the fundamentals, then take some time to plan your approach.

In other words, SEO strategy must be part of your marketing plan alongside traditional promotional activities such as print, radio, and TV. Just as importantly, it must be part of your marketing budget. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the search engines are free advertising. They’re not! Companies like Google and Yahoo may not accept payment for a high ranking, but that doesn’t mean it comes for free. Someone has to do the work to get you there. Whether you spend the time to do it yourself, or you engage an expert to do it for you, SEO requires a serious investment.

But the spoils are well worth it. I know, from personal experience.