I’m betting you’ve spent some time thinking about Search Engine Optimization, either as a concept or as a line item in your marketing bill. It’s been on your mind for quite some time. Not just weeks or months, but probably something like years.
It’s been on our minds, too. In looking at the mysterious world of SEO, we’ve started to realize that there may be a time when SEO isn’t a special process or step in web development, but something everyone bakes into their development process.
Which leads us to the question: If there will be a time, not too far in the future, in which all web pages have been optimized for search engines, what happens after SEO? Figuring out what that world will look like allows us to make better and smarter plans now.
Google has been in charge of the internet for a very long time. We rely on it to collect, sort and manage the billions of web pages online in a way that makes it easy for us to find the information when we want it. Each one of these billions of web pages wants to be number one in Google’s search engine ranking, because the difference between being ranked first in a search and ranked eleventh is like the difference between winning the lottery and finding a penny on the ground.
Google isn’t perfect. It can’t understand every website because it isn’t a person. It’s a big machine and it thinks like a machine. It has rules that let it score each page in terms of its likely value to a searcher. The process of helping Google see your web pages’ value, helping it rank well and be shown to people who would appreciate it is called “search engine optimization” or SEO.
There was a time when SEO skills felt like dark magic. Only the real uber-geeks of the internet were able to infer Google’s inner workings and their skills helped web pages make huge leaps up the search engine rankings.
But SEO isn’t magic, it’s just learning how Google thinks and then uses what it knows about Google to each web page’s advantage. It’s akin to knowing that your friend hates cilantro, so you know not to serve them Mexican or Thai food if you want them to like your cooking.
Entering the Level SEO Playing Field
Currently, Amazon has more than 10,900 books on SEO right now for you or anyone else to learn. And when I say anyone, I mean anyone. SEO isn’t even all that hard to understand. It’s become part and parcel of how most web designers, web writers and web coders think about their work. It is less a separate idea and more of a better understanding of how the web works.
So if everyone understands and is utilizing this once-arcane knowledge to optimizing their pages for Google in order to gain an advantage, what happens then? If everyone reads the same books and learns the same tricks to become optimized, no one has an advantage. And in this post-optimized world, when Google still has to decide what page is ranked number one and which is ranked number one billion, how will it make that decision?
Content. Yes, Content.
Let’s face it. The difference between a good blog post (or video or article or podcast) and a mediocre one is the value of its content. In a perfect world, a great blog post, no matter where it comes from or who wrote it, should rank very well, driving lots of people to its wonderful content. The fact that it was properly titled and tagged in a way that helped Google understand it is only the oil for the engine. Done properly, it’s an upward spiral: good copy gets read and linked to by people, which increases its Google rankings, which drive more people to read and link to it.
Google wants to give a searcher the best possible result to a query because that keeps its customers coming back. When you ask it about Catch-22, it wants to give you the best article or analysis of that book possible. It’s an eager puppy, wanting to make you happy. Of course, Google can’t read every article on Catch-22 and rate which are the best, so they rely on a complicated set of criteria to help it filter out the chaff from the wheat.
For the last decade and a half, Google has engaged an army of incredibly smart people to figure out how to filter and weigh results better. (If you want to liken them to a million monkeys at a million keyboards, it wouldn’t be a stretch.) Every day, they get closer to truly differentiating authentically good content from the content designed to just look like good content. Every day, they get closer to understanding and properly valuing content, making SEO less important. We’re not there yet, but it can’t be too far off.
Welcome to the Long Tail of Content
You know what’s amazing? A Tale of Two Cities sold 480,000 copies in 2010. This is a rate roughly the same as when Dickens first published it. One book, untouched for 150 years, still generating sales enough to land it on the bestseller lists.
This is the power of content. Marketing is fashion and often has a very short shelf life. Promotion is virtually ephemeral. But content has a lifespan. How many people still buy Don Quixote, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or Catcher in the Rye? These pieces of content formed businesses into themselves. The Beatles, Carole King and Frank Zappa still make millions from albums they recorded before many of us were born. Every time The Great Escape comes on TMC, the producers get a little check.
Content lives and breathes. At its finest, it can stand up, tell the world its story, and continue to generate interest and engagement long after the creator has lost interest or just moved on.
Content is why we used to go to movie theaters, Blockbuster Video stores, Tower Records or Borders Books and spend money.
Good content rewards its readers or listeners with some form of value, be it informational, emotional, or just useful. And in so doing, it rewards the creators.
Think of content you could create about your company, the stories of the people who work there, the things they spend their time doing, the things they build and how it makes them feel. Once built, these stories will live on for weeks, months and years. I know a company that let their administrative assistant make a goofy and completely authentic “why to work here” video in her spare time on her phone. The quirky energy and the fact that she got the space to build and publish it makes people take notice. It makes them apply. That video, three years after being launched on YouTube, still gets hits. People still talk about it in interviews.
In another blog post, we’ll talk about the process of building a content strategy that will thrill both Google and your non-machine audience. But in the meantime, think about what content ideas are just laying around that would engage and excite potential recruits.