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In 2009 Rand Fishkin wrote a blog post entitled Terrible SEO Advice: Focus on Users, Not Engines.
The post generated over 170 comments of discussion, and illustrates how periniall the question:
“What is SEO?”
– has been in the history of the industry.
Alternative titles for this debate include:
- “SEO is Dead”
- “Focus on User Centred SEO”
- “Don’t Even Try to Manipulate Google, It’s Just Wasting You’re Time”
- “Create great content, forget the rest”
….Repeat, ad naseum.
When I think about the people I’ve met and worked with in the SEO industry, I break them down into two buckets:
The Word Men are the build it and they will come camp. When Matt Cutts advised us the secret to SEO was to just create great content and focus on users, the word men took it at face value, eschewing tactics such as internal linking architecture and PR sculpting for content creation, community building and social profile development.
Math men are the SEO geeks. They are the ones who care about and obsess over anchor text variation ratios, link velocity, and other quantifiable signals generally believed to influence ranking position and visibility. They specialise in technical SEO audits, data analysis and SERP correlation testing.
A simple way to think about what separates the two groups is:
Stuff normal users see on a page Vs stuff only Google notices
Unfortunately for the Math Men, in recent years, developments in Google’s underlying crawling and indexation technologies have made their roles increasingly less relevant.
A standard response within a technical SEO audit would be to avoid use of these technologies, or if the consultant was a bit more experienced and hands-on, they would implement Google’s AJAX crawling scheme.
Another example – the importance of ‘keywords’ on a page. It is entirely possible for a page to rank well for a search term, where that search terms is not even on the page. Google is not a dumb database that matches keywords entered by users against keywords present in it’s index. The present and future of Google is the knowledge graph – understanding ‘things not strings’, more closely to the way a normal human being understands relevancy i.e. that content is really about topics, entities and the relationships between them – not just individual words and a thesaurus database of synonyms.
At a macro trend level, the word men are right, and have been continually proven right. This is a trend that will continue in the future.
We know that all Google ultimately cares about is the user. That’s how their business model works. They don’t care about ‘fairness’ or your business’ advertising strategy – as many businesses decry whenever a new update steamrolls through their rankings. Google wants to surface the best and most relevant content users so people keep coming back to use it, thereby maintaining their dominant market leadership and the amount of ad inventory they can sell from their CPC business Adwords.
Nothing has ever changed about this mission. Ever.
The only thing that changes is Google’s ability to deliver on this objective through technology and iterative updates to its algorithm.
In the long term, the Word Men will win.
The difference between how human users perceive SERP relevancy and Google’s current implementation at any given point in time, is the distance indicated by the green line. This is the space that traditional SEO’s, and the math man, operate in and flourish.
In the early days of the industry, there was much opportunity to hide keywords with CSS and automate link spamming. Websites could gain a competitive advantage by hiring someone who new how to submit URLs with an XML sitemap, or tweak their internal anchor text.
Over time, the effectiveness of things a normal human user can’t see or don’t really notice diminishes, as Google’s algorithmic intelligence more closely resembles that of a normal user.
How Math Men Can Define The Future
Should we all SEO people be word men, then? Should we all turn into content producers and UX designers and forget everything we know about how we think Google works?
The future is indeed bleak for the Math Men of the SEO world. I argue that this group must adapt and use their analytic skills in a new way that positions their strengths to align with the inevitable future paradigm. The Math Men must realise that while, yes, ‘SEO is all about the user’, that’s not the whole story. The reality, is that:
SEO is about optimisation for users who enter a site via a search engine.
In the new world of data driven search ranking behavior, Google is increasingly turning to real user metrics that it is better able to measure and evaluate than anytime before.
These are your simple, everyday engagement metrics we’ve always had available to us, and some more exotic, SEO-specific ones:
- SERP click through rate
- Propensity to bounce and re-click another result
- Time on page
- Bounce rate
Since Google owns Chrome, the search engine has possibly the best and largest RMT (Real-time Monitoring Tool) available to accurately capture and assess this data, and then integrate into its algorithm.
User behaviour analytics and optimisation from SEO as a channel source will be the new battleground in SEO and where the Math Men must position themselves as thought leaders and own as a space in the digital specialisation eco-system.
This is legitimately a new paradigm, and differs from the existing ‘focus on the user’ SEO school of thought which is too broad. Users from a search engine (UFASE’s) are distinct from other users. They behave differently, have different objectives and the nuances of how they behave have more implications than other channels because everything is recorded by Google and thus affects search position and visibility.
Thinking UFASE first is the future of the SEO industry.