Why SEO Is in a Bind?

April 4, 2011

In New York City, I gave a breezy 15 minute lecture about “content with intent.” The main point was that traditional search engine optimization methods are now under attack. On one hand, the Web indexing systems have had to admit that SEO distorts results lists. Examples range from links to auto generated placeholder pages such as the one at www.usseek.com or links to sites not related to the user’s query.

Google has made significant changes to its method of relevance ranking. You can read about the infamous Panda update to the PageRank algorithm in these articles:

Blekko.com’s approach has been more direct. The company introduced filtering of sites. For more information about the Blekko method, read “Blekko Banning Some Content Farm Sites.”

The larger problem can be seen by running a free comparison on www.compete.com. Enter the urls for Bing, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo in the search box on this page. If the traffic from Facebook and Twitter are combined, the traffic winners will not be a traditional Web search engine in the future. Keep in mind that Compete.com’s data may be different from the data your Web analytics system uses.


SEO experts and service providers may find themselves hemmed in by changes such as Google’s Panda algorithm tweak.

The real problem for traditional search engine optimization service providers comes from a combination of factors, not a single factor. This means that Google’s Panda update has disrupted some Web sites’ traffic, there are a number of other forces altering the shape of SEO. These include:

  • A social system which allows a user to recommend a good source of information is performing a spontaneous and in most cases no cost editorial function or a curation activity. A human has filtered sources of information and is flagging a particular source with a value judgment. The individual judgment may be flawed but over time, the social method will provide a useful pool of information sources. Delicious.com was an early example of how this type of system worked.
  • The demographics of users is changing. As younger people enter the datasphere, these individuals are likely to embrace different types of information retrieval methods. Traditional Web search is similar to running a query on a library’s online public access catalog. The new demographic uses mobile devices and often has a different view of the utility of a search box.
  • The SEO methods have interacted with outfits that generate content tailored to what users look for. When Lady Gaga is hot, content farms produce information about Lady Gaga. Over the last five years, producing content that tracks what people are searching for has altered search results. The content may be fine, but the search engines’ relevance ranking methods often skew the results making a user spend more time digging through a results list.
  • Google, as well as other online search systems, is essentially addicted to online advertising revenue. Despite the robust growth on online advertising, Google has to find a way to generate the revenue it needs to support its brute force Web indexing and search system AND keep its stakeholders happy. With search results getting less relevant, advertisers may think twice about betting on Google’s PageRank and Oingo-based Adwords system.

When multiple forces such as the ones summarized above interact, a working method may prove effective one day and ineffective the next. The unpredictability of the relevance algorithms and the behavior of online users put stress on SEO methods. In fact, a method might work well today on one site and then tomorrow have a negative effect on another client’s site. Experimentation is no longer as useful as it was a couple of years ago. Software-based methods of SEO have proved effective in certain situations, but when software performs overly aggressive back linking, the Web site itself may be down checked.

Why is SEO in trouble? I think there are five reasons:

First, customers of SEO service providers are watching their investments in the Web and Web marketing. With Web traffic undergoing distortion by social sites like Facebook, the SEO expert may be the person in the hot seat. Without control over methods due to Panda or Blekko changes, the SEO expert may not have the ability to deliver results the client pays for and wants.

Second, the search engines need to boost revenue. SEO experts may be overlooked or deemed irrelevant as the Web indexing services that make changes designed to boost the search engine’s revenue. Google, for example, can offer a site that gets pushed down in a results list a way to get traffic. Google offers an advertising program.

Third, social networks can be manipulated but the work is expensive and often even more hit and miss that SEO methods. With social finding becoming more popular, SEO experts have to find a way to develop different skills quickly and then use those skills to deliver results. But when people are involved in social interaction, the rules of the Boolean search engine may not be easily spoofed.

Fourth, new types of content are flooding into servers. There is social content like tweets and video. When a video gets popular, the vendor wants to put an ad on that video. Finding a hot or needed video involves search, but often there are lists of hot, funny, or other categories of videos. Search becomes recommendation, clicking a link in a list, or following a shortened url in a tweet. Some SEO firms offer social centric services, but the costs and measurement for new types of content are different. In the short term, the differentness may be an issue, but there is no indication that SEO methods can be grafted neatly into the evolving social services.

Fifth, SEO experts have been working on a series of premises based on traditional Boolean search. Now there are mashups, reports, maps with animations, real time content flows in visualizations, and dozens of other applications. Search is really not the focal point of findability apps. The problem of building users of an app for a mobile device or one in a Web page is different from sticking in additional metatags on a static Web page.

There are other factors as well. Habit, comfort, the reluctance of humans to embrace change proactively and other non technical behaviors may also play a part.

What’s clear to me is:

  1. The problem of generating traffic is getting harder because of fundamental shifts in user behavior, access devices, and methods needed to get and develop habitual behavior.
  2. In today’s financial climate, a client’s appetite for expensive SEO services may be diminished.
  3. New findability methods are supplanting the familiar and very “guess oriented” key word systems. A query unlocks the information treasure stored in a black box. Users want an answer, not a lot of pointing, clicking, and hunting.
  4. SEO experts have created methods that seem to threaten revenues for some Web search firms’ business models. No surprise then that the Web search systems are taking steps to protect, preserve, and grow their revenue at the expense of those who created the problem in the first place.
  5. The device ecosystem is shifting from desktop computers to mobile devices. I like the traditional desktop boat anchor computer, but there are a lot of people who do not. In some fast growing countries, the boat anchor computer is used for specific purposes. The mobile devices are the habitual devices.

So what’s the fix? For SEO experts, I suppose these individuals will have to undergo the type of change required for a buggy whip company to adapt to the horseless carriage. For individuals and organizations wanting Web traffic, the choice may boil down to buying more traffic via online advertising or focusing on social information systems using real humans to participate and build relationships in hopes that traffic will follow. For search vendors, there will be increased effort to make the old online ad model work better. I see, therefore, more filtering and other aggressive actions designed to make money.

I want to invite those who disagree with my observations to post their comments and criticisms in the Comments section of this blog. Our approach to this problem is explained at www.arnoldit.com/simm.

Stephen E Arnold, April 4, 2011



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