SEO Then and Now at Search Engine Strategies Toronto – a decade in search

At SES Toronto I was one of three panellists talking about SEO from a decade ago to now.  I tackled the past while my fellow panellists tackled the present and future.  As always, I had so much more I wanted to say and thus this blog post.

I asserted that nothing has changed and yet everything really has.  At its core, the math for calculating relevance remains very much the same but layer upon layer of sophistication has been added turning the Google ranking formula a complex creature which is likely an engineering feat of mad genius.  I feel that Google engineers are extremely intelligent in their ability to conceive of, and execute the calculations surrounding, ways and methods of organising data on the web.  It’s also a bit scary in a I-could-kill-you-with-a-click kind of way.

A decade ago, I asserted in my talk, the fundamental aspects of the algorithm were fixed.  I feel the really major changes in how things are ranked happened more from 1995 – 2000.  I’m not saying nothing has changed at all, just that the core fundamentals upon which multiple layers of sophistication have been built seem to have been fixed around then.  These core fundamentals relate to links, title tags, on page text which is focused around a single theme, eliminating code bloat and using spiderable techniques.  That is as important today as it was ten years ago.

Ten years ago, it was easier to spam the index.  Buying domain names, creating duplicate sites and owning search results was much easier than it is today.  Spammers would buy multiple domains, create uniquely coded sites and small businesses would never get a chance.  Today while fairer, it is also more difficult for newer businesses to get ranked at times.  Today, the results are a lot cleaner, more diverse with higher quality.  As a searcher, I prefer the search results today and while I may at times miss what used to be possible it is better as it is and as it is becoming.

The world has also started to catch up with search and spammers.  Users are more ready to call out duplicate search results or businesses trying to own all of one search results whether for “Texas hold ‘em” or “bean bag chairs”.  They react badly when duplicity is revealed and they turn to social networks and a powerful word of mouth network further enhanced by the internet.  The law too has caught up making it a criminal offence in some countries to fail to disclose connections, free merchandise, payments or related activities.  Where before the spammer could move with impunity, the law is quickly catching up and making it even riskier to spam.

Today, we have multiple layers of sophistication and additional elements which go in to ranking each page of a site.  No longer are you dumped unceremoniously at the front door of a business from Google or Yahoo.  Searchers now experience richer results and dive deeply directly into the most relevant page of a site.  This is possible through a combination of factors including weighting the content of the whole site, the subfolder the page is in, the page itself, internal links pointing to the page, external links (followed or nofollowed) pointing to the page and mentions of the theme of the page in relation to the site but lacking a link.

To understand the future, we need to understand the past.  Core elements are more important than ever and must be correctly implemented in order to create a well optimised site.  URL structure, unique content, internal and external links (including breadcrumbs), keyword usage on page, themes on site and especially page titles are all very important.  The SEO Chicks are always releasing how-to blog posts about these fundamentals because they are so important.

In the future, the focus on spam elimination will continue and the network of ranking factors will become even more complex.  It has been many long years since an SEO could focus on only one thing and get better rankings.  A site owner, SEO or anyone trying to get a site more visibility online needs to ensure all core elements are in place from launch.  Once that is done, things like citations, social media mentions, social media engagement, and more will factor increasingly into rankings.  Since personalisation renders rank tracking almost irrelevant, analytics will take pride of place as a focus for improvements and on-page conversion analysis will help Google’s Web Optimiser become even more popular.

There is so much more to the algorithm now than there was a decade ago. Things like pagerank sculpting have come and gone, cross-domain canonicalization has helped reduce duplicate content issues, refinement in the method of recognising and eliminating spam links has dramatically changed the search results.  All for the better I feel.

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