SEO in the Limelight

From Forbes’ Lewis Dvorkin’s exclamation in the NY Times that “Search is, in my mind, yesterday’s story…” to Michael Arrington of TechCrunch opining on why search is still challenged, that would be a lot of press about SEO in one week.

But with the Demand Media IPO, the HuffPo acquisition and the embarrassment of black hat SEO at JCPenney combined with Google webspam master Matt Cutts’ assertion that Google is, in fact, better that it was in 2000 and SEOmoz uncovering a massive gaming of Google’s algorithm, SEO has had a lot of coverage. And, in many ways, SEO has been a pretty secret world, and this kind of press sunshine is proving to be a major disinfectant.

So, what is our take on what has been happening? Well, believe it or not, stay the course.

Let’s break down the issues:

  1. Search Is Yesterday’s Story: If you haven’t been to Forbes recently, you should go. They have built a terrific blog network that is heavy on social sharing. But to say that search is yesterday’s story is just a great headline, and doesn’t reflect the substance of what is happening. Search and social are colliding. Search is becoming more social and look for major advancements this year to blend search and social into a single social graph/search result influenced experience.
  2. Search Is Still Challenged: Arrington has it right. Search, and Google specifically, is under enormous pressure to get better. There are competitors like Blekko that are making interesting inroads, and Bing is pushing ahead (although they are no better at spam killing than Google). But Arrington is right. Search does still suck, and it needs to get better.
  3. Matt Cutts and SEOmoz: Matt Cutts says that Google search is better than it was.  SEOmoz brings up something that smells like an organized crime ring that shows a deep understanding of how Google works. So Google can be gamed effectively and pervasively. As I mentioned in my 5 Things Wrong with Natural Search, this is a big issue for search. Google has to get better…and they are better than they used to be, but Google is simply an algorithm. They represent nothing except the sites that they list at the top of the search results are relevant based on their algorithm.
  4. JCPenney: JCPenney has been the beneficiary of black hat SEO techniques powered by their agency. For months, JCPenney has been a search monster, having premiere search positioning for hundreds of keywords. (This NY Times article goes into depth about the strategy.)  In the spirit of sunshine as disinfectant, this is a full solar blast. JCPenney, culpable or not, received the benefit of someone gaming the system. Their agency link spammed, and JCPenney received enormous benefit. And Google has punished them. (A search for any non-brand related term for JCPenney is an exercise in futility. They are showing up on page 5 and beyond for results.) Any benefit that JCPenney has received will quickly be diminished by near invisibility for the foreseeable future. The fault here is that JCPenney and their agency were chasing position rather than quality of search content. By leveraging link spam, the agency put their client at risk. The goal of search engine optimization is to remove obstacles and present content so that the search engines can understand the content that you offer in the best way possible. Gaming the algorithm provides a disservice to your customers and the e-retail community as a whole. Shoppers trust the search engines, and if you aren’t relevant for a search term, then it diminishes both your brand and the trust that consumers have in you. And further, exposure for non-relevant terms does not drive high-conversion levels. You drive traffic, but if you do not have high-quality relevance for the keyword, then you site will NOT generate high levels of demand.

Overall, this week in SEO has been enlightening. First, we can see that through the rise of Demand Media as a public company and JCPenney’s increase in natural search traffic through unscrupulous techniques shows that natural search traffic can drive meaningful revenue on non-branded terms. And the criticisms of the quality of Google search, frankly, I think are overstated. Of course, Google can improve, but Google quashes all kinds of spam every day, and the fact that weaknesses got exposed in public simply redoubles their effort. The inclusion of Dvorkin’s social element will do much to quash algorithmically-leveraged spam moving ahead.

And poor JCPenney – they have had a hard week. They (and their agency) grabbed some short-term dollars at the cost of significant brand and search equity. This could be significantly damaging to JCPenney in the long run. Spam negates your credibility with the search engines and the public. Search is a game that belongs largely to Bing and Google. They have their rules. They make them public. Cross them at your peril. Hell hath no fury like a search engine scorned.

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