Timeless Search Engine Optimization

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“Timeless SEO” is a set of concepts that are the fundamentals of a strong search engine marketing strategy

This article is based on a chapter from my book Ever Seeking: A History and Future of Search

While there are a lot of great sources of information for the absolute latest and greatest insights on Google’s latest algorithms, there are a few concepts that aren’t changing anytime soon and thus can make this a more evergreen look at search engine optimization. I refer to this as “timeless SEO” because they are concepts that are not going anywhere soon, and fundamentals of a strong search engine marketing strategy.

These principles of timeless SEO can be split into the following:

  • There are no tricks: algorithms are smarter now

  • Talk like you would to your customers

  • Content is (still) king

  • Paid search is an essential part of your search strategy

Let’s discuss each and how you can implement them into your current search marketing efforts.

There are no tricks: algorithms are smarter now

Let’s start with an important one: the days of “fooling” search engines is over. It used to be that by putting the right tags in your meta “keywords” tag, you would get a lot of traffic, even if they had nothing to do with your actual site content. What about “invisible” text, where keywords would be hidden using white text on a white background or some other HTML trickery? There are countless others that have popped up and gone away over the years: link farms, multiple subdomains, duplicate content pages, and the list goes on and on. These types of behaviors are often referred to as “black hat” SEO, and have gotten websites penalized and sometimes even removed from search results altogether.

One of the higher profile examples of this happened in 2006[i], when Google removed the BMW website from its search listings. BMW had been engaging in what is referred to as “cloaking” which shows search engine spiders a different set of content than human website visitors. They were stuffing keywords onto the search engine “version” of their page, while presenting something more eye-pleasing to its human visitors. Being removed from Google’s index was a stiff penalty for this, but quickly made news that resonated throughout the SEO community. While BMW’s website was re-listed only 3 days later[ii], it was a strong message from Google that it was taking black hat SEO very seriously.

Five years later, and only weeks after JC Penney[iii] was penalized by Google for a suspicious linking program, Overstock.com[iv] thought they had a good way to get ahead of the pack. They devised a scheme to get SEO-boosting backlinks to their website from schools (remember, .edu domain names are particularly valuable when getting links to your site) who signed up as partners. These links were designed to have specific keywords that would make them appear higher in rankings. Needless to say, eventually they got caught and penalized by Google.

The safe assumption these days is that there are no tricks that are a good idea in the long-term. You may even find a shortcut that works for a little while, but rest assured, if you’re doing it, chances are someone at Google is already onto you and a “fix” will be released soon enough that undoes your cheat.

Talk like you would to your customers

In the early days of the Web, it was sometimes hard to tell if a page was written for real people, or simply written to show up well in a search for a specific set of keywords. You could tell this by copy on a page that was “keyword stuff,” or unnaturally full of specific terms, making it hard to read content because of the redundancy, and how many times a few specific keywords were injected in every paragraph, heading, and any other areas of the page that the designers could think of.

As search engine algorithms have gotten more intelligent over the years, and in particular as Google and Bing have grown more sophisticated, the concept of keyword stuffing has become not only unnecessary, but at this point it can even be detrimental. While a certain amount of “keyword density” is still a good thing, there is no such thing as the more the merrier when it comes to sticking key phrases on your Web page.

Instead, the best thing you can do with your content now is the simplest: talk like you would to a real person, cite references as if you were writing a research paper, and don’t worry so much about things like keyword density, meta tagging and so forth. It’s not that none of that matters, but writing your copy at the expense of making it human-readable is no longer needed.

Content is (still) king

Great content has always been important in any marketing plan, but strong, well-written content was not always the first thing necessary to compete well in the Search Engine Optimization game. It used to be that keyword-stuffing and other black hat SEO tactics would allow you to stay competitive. But now that search algorithms are becoming more sophisticated, great content is being rewarded by Google, similar to how it has always paid results with genuine consumers.

Blogs are great tools to post frequent content, but also consider utilizing other channels besides your own. Guest blogging or getting your content featured on other reputable websites can be just as good if not better than posting a lot of content on your own site. Also make sure your content creation strategy is supported by a strong marketing support strategy. Social media, email, public relations and other efforts go a long way towards promoting a strong content strategy.

Creating a great content strategy and content marketing program is a topic for a different book, but here are a few things to keep in mind to get started:

A little strategy goes a long way

I’ve played a role as a consultant for over twenty years at this point. I’ve had a chance to work with many amazing clients over the years. I’ve also heard a lot of similar excuses for why some of the “internal” homework can’t get done!

A common complaint about content strategy is that it’s just too hard to create something comprehensive, and so it just never seems to get started.

My answer: start small. Start with something. You may not have the most robust content plan, and your competitors may have a better one, but starting with something lets you begin your journey. Refining and adding along the way is much easier, and in some cases better than starting with too many unproven assumptions.

Categorization helps you and your visitors stay organized

Break your content down into categories. This helps create more manageable “chunks” for you to work with; it helps you delegate content chores to many different subject matter experts within the organization; and it will help you measure the effectiveness of your categories.

Consider categories based on:

  • Subject matter

  • Customer needs or experience level with your product or service

  • Type of content (video, infographic, blog post, tutorial)

You will probably have many other potential ways to categorize things. As with anything, don’t create so many it’s an insurmountable task, but create enough to make your measurement and creation tasks more meaningful.

Use a calendar to help stay consistent and diverse

This goes hand in hand with you content categorization. Use a content calendar to keep things posted on a consistent basis, but also use your categorization to make sure that you’re providing a diverse amount of content within the course of a month.

For instance, you don’t want to have all of your how-to content posted during one week, then switch to a completely different content. Instead, create a “how to Tuesday” and share your content once a week. Then, you can mix in other types of content.


Paid search is an essential part of a successful strategy

Don’t misunderstand this. I’m not saying that advertising on search engines actually increases your natural search rankings (there have been many studies that have tried to find a correlation to no avail), but in order to be successful on natural search, you need to know when to use paid search as a complement.

One of the big reasons for this has to do with placement of paid search results on Google results pages. With the most recent layout update, paid search results are no longer in the right column of the page on desktop, but at the top and bottom. Because of this, natural search results have been pushed down further on a results page.

Conclusion

In a way, the secret to timeless Search Engine Optimization is creating great content, targeting it at your primary audiences, and making it easy to discover. While it sounds simple, any marketer knows how hard that is to do in reality.

The good news is that the same tactics that allow great content for real people are now the very ones that give you a step up on your competitors in your Search Engine Marketing efforts.

[i] Bloomberg News. “Google Imposes a ban on BMW Web site.” February 7, 2006.

[ii] Cutts, Matt. “Recent Reinclusions.” February 7, 2006.

[iii] Fox, Vanessa. “New York Times Exposes J.C. Penney Link Scheme That Causes Plummeting Rankings in Google“ Search Engine Land. February 12, 2011.

[iv] Fox, Vanessa. “Google’s Action Against Paid Links Continues: Overstock & Forbes Latest Casualties; Conductor Exits Brokering Business.” Search Engine Land. February 24, 2011.

Greg Kihlstrom