Looking back over the 15 or so years that SEO has been researched, discussed and practiced, it's difficult to find any significant period of time when it wasn't changing.
Before Google came onto the search scene around the turn of the millennium, the search engines at the time were ranking websites based primarily on the sheer volume and density of keywords on the page. So ranking for "blue widgets" meant little more than finding ways to stuff those two words into every inch of your page possible while still maintaining at least the semblance of a user experience. The result was a plethora of webmasters who found creative ways to stuff keywords into every corner of their sites. Then Google changed the game.
With PageRank, Google introduced a new way of evaluating the relative authority of a website or page - links. PageRank, to put it in simple terms, provided a link map of the web. The more links pointing to a site or page, the more power or authority that page took on. And the anchor text of a link, the words that occur as clickable text, offered a clue as to what the linked-to page was all about. As Google garnered more market share, links became more valuable on the web.
A whole new form of webspam was born - free-for-all links and link selling schemes. Google has yet to find an effective way to completely crack down on these tactics, but in the 3rd quarter of 2007 they took some signficant steps including directly penalizing specific websites which were believed to be selling links for SEO benefits and relieving "free-for-all" directories of their power to pass PageRank altogether.
There should be no question that more big changes are coming in SEO - only a question of "what next - and how do I prepare for it?" Here's what's next: Personalized Search. In fact, it's already here - more likely than not you're already seeing personalized results when you search in Google.
Google has continually added to their impressive list of free services. To name a handful:
Every one of the above services sends usage data back to Google. Publicly, Google states that this data is "anonymous" and they don't attach personal information to it. Where legal issues are concerned, we have no reason to suspect they are doing otherwise. However, we know for certain that Google is using personal search history to skew search results that individuals get when logged-in to their Google account - they are quite clear on that point.
So What does Personalized Search Mean for You and Your Website?
1. You can no longer assume that rankings as you see them are global. Anyone logged in while they search is potentially seeing a different set of results for the same keyword. You can log out of your Google account to search or turn off personalized results, but it won't do much good since every other user is potentially searching with personalization.
2. If Google is incorporating usage data from other sources such as the Google Toolbar, Google Chrome and Google Analytics, it means that the user experience is going to play a heavier role in SEO. Keep this in mind: for Google, the user experience is everything. Doesn't it then make sense for them to incorporate available usage data when ranking websites?
3. With these new data sources, Google could potentially be scaling back the emphasis on inbound links in their ranking algorithm. Links to this point have been central for Google rankings. With their market share continually improving and the unparalleled usage data that affords them we can reasonably expect that they'll be putting more emphasis on these metrics in the future.
4. Expected traffic estimates based on rankings just became difficult if not impossible to achieve. In the past, traffic could be reasonably estimated by multiplying the available search usage for a given keyword by the known traffic percentage of a given position. The 1st position, for example, received some 48% of traffic for a keyword according to leaked AOL data from a few years back. For a keyword receiving 100 searches per month, you could reasonably estimate 48 visits per month based on a #1 ranking for that keyword. SEO companies used that data to take some of the guesswork out of their campaigns. With personalized search these estimates are going to become far less accurate if not completely unreliable.
5. Overall, this means you need to keep your eyes OFF the search engine rankings to a large degree. Does a #1 position for your Google account mean you could be somewhere back on page 5 for someone else? Probably not. But the point is, from here on out we can't be sure without extensive testing. Rankings have never meant much - they've always been a means to an end, the end being quality traffic and ultimately more sales, attention or whatever your website goal may be. Now, more than ever, high-quality traffic should be your focus.
Personalized search isn't exactly a new concept - it's been discussed for at least a couple of years now. But we're seeing it receive heavier emphasis lately, and the buzz is on that Google is going to change the game again soon. Like it or not, we're likely going to have to let go of rankings as a metric for success.
We may be better off.
About The Author - Mike Tekula is the President and Founder of Unstuck Digital, Inc., a Long Island SEO company that provides clients with effective and affordable search engine marketing strategies.