But SEO is changing rapidly, and one of the biggest forces driving those changes is the increasingly social nature of the web.
Search Engine Motivations
One fascinating thing about SEO is the constant change. Most of us experience this through the changes made by the search engines to their results, such as the recent advent of Google Boost. What interests me more is what motivates these changes?
We could provide the simplistic answer of "increasing profits," which would be correct, but it isn't sufficient. It may sound trite, but the answer for both search engines is increased user satisfaction.
In Google's case, this is measured by click-through rates, low bounce rates, and a variety of other metrics. These types of metrics are seen by the search engines as social signals.
Google's sources for this data include: Google Analytics, the Google Toolbar, Custom Search Engines, and user behavior within the search engine itself. Data available to everyone includes user engagement with social media sites. Google has more access to data on user behavior than any other entity on the planet.
Some of you may think I'm missing the fact that large companies are inherently evil and Google is no exception. Let's not debate that point. The profit motive of Google (and Bing as well) is well served by high levels of customer satisfaction.
Google's huge market share is the key source of its profits, and they have a huge disincentive to drive down that market share. If you were Google, would you make changes that increase your profits today by 5 percent if you knew that you would lose 10 percent in market share over the next year, probably to an extremely dangerous competitor, such as Bing or Faceboook? No.
That market share is the golden goose that drives profits. Google wants to maintain or increase that market share by using the enormous amounts of data it has to constantly test new ideas and increase user satisfaction.
With Bing and Facebook pushing new and innovative ideas, the pressure is enormous. Users aren't compelled to use Google, and all these services are free, so switching costs are low. Don't piss me off Google, or I'll take my searches elsewhere!
Another aspect is the interactions on social media sites. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter are the obvious examples, but there are also user reviews, comments in various forums, spam complaints, blog postings, news articles, and more. These all provide signals to the search engines.
Volume of activity is one signal. Lots of references to your site is certainly an interesting data point, but sentiment analysis also allows search engines to get a signal as to whether people like what you're doing. Sentiment analysis may not be in active use by the search engines at this time, but it's hard to believe that it won't be in the future.
Thinking about a spammy link campaign? Think again, because someone might decide to spill the beans on you and start a raging discussion on a blog, or set of blogs, about your site, or do it on a forum somewhere. That would provide negative sentiment signals.
Plan to do some guest posting and provide people with crappy articles because all you care about is the link? Bad idea.
Starting to build thousands of crappy web pages to capture the long tail of search? Could well backfire on you.
In our highly social online environment, the true spam police is us. Our behavior on a web site can impact the way the search engines perceive it.
What we write as comments on a blog post is crawled, interpreted, and read. Is there a risk of manipulating this collection of signals? Not easily.
Social communities guard the sanctity of their environments more thoroughly than any search engine ever could. Spammers still can run a bot that jams thousands of comments into inactive forums and blogs, but the search engines aren't going to put much weight on that. A discussion involving a popular Twitter user, or on a popular blog like TechCrunch will get a lot more weight.
How Does Social Behavior Affect SEO?
The main impact is on the amount of time you must focus on providing a positive user experience on your web site.
Tim Ash will love me for saying this (but I'll say it anyway!), website conversion optimization is now an important part of SEO. So is a deep understanding of usability and web design. As Kim Krause Berg would argue, a holistic approach to usability and SEO is required.
Traditional SEO thinking would tell us that videos and graphics should be used sparingly, and that text is king. However, the web is a place where instant impressions matter most, and few people want to engage in paragraphs of text.
Put another way, people want visual experiences. If you don't take the time to do that, what are you? To many, that is the mark of a spammer.
People don't hang out for long periods of time on sites that they believe are spam. This may not be entirely fair, but the judge and jury is the user.
This doesn't mean that text is dead. It still plays a big role in driving the long tail, and providing the search engines with context that they can't get from other signals. So you should have text as a part of your pages, but if you implement large gobs of text on the page you may drive users away and hurt your SEO results to boot.
Balance is key. In addition, there are some types of pages where large quantities of text are highly desirable. Someone who just found out they have cancer will want to read everything they can get on the topic.
From a link building perspective, it's important to provide value wherever you go. Give them something valuable to link to. Or, if you're giving them an article, give them good stuff to post.
Is that guest post something that someone might tweet? If you spew a hundred articles out in guest posts and no one ever tweets any of them, you've just provided a signal of low quality user experiences that reflects poorly on your site.
Embrace the Social Web
Instead of focusing on the negative, focus on the positive. Embrace the social web, feed it good stuff, and it will embrace you back.
This isn't meant as a "build and they will come" statement. You need to actively promote your stuff. You need to tell the world about it.
But, if you're truly a contributor, no one will mind. In fact, they will jump right in and do some promoting for you. Now that's a positive signal!