The two most popular websites on the planet are Yahoo.com and Google.com. Most people open their browser right to a search engine, and most people experience the whole web through a search engine, so it behooves you to know how search works.
There are plenty of tactical lessons to learn — and many places to find them around the web — but I want to share a big strategic lesson that’s more important:
Ranking highly in search engines has nothing to do with SEO. Here’s why.
Premise 1: A link is the only way to navigate the web.
This is not hyperbole.
If there were no links from the page you are reading right now — and no one had been shouting URLs at you from the television set — you could not go anywhere else on the web, including other pages on my site.
I think the reason people miss this so often is that we perceive the basic unit of the web as a web site.
The web isn’t made up of sites, it’s made up of pages. The characteristics that connect pages into what we think of as a web site — a common group of links as navigation, the same domain name, similar designs — are illusory.
This isn’t semantics; it’s a technical reality. Any geeks out there know I’m talking about the stateless HTTP protocol (you can point to AJAX and Flash as a counterpoint, but practically speaking, those just don’t matter enough).
The illusion of the web site has practical reasons — for both humans and search engines — but the “home page” as a traffic gatekeeper is an antiquated idea.
The reality is that everything is one link away from everything else. Two pages are “next to” each other whether they belong to the same web site or not.
This means a search engine result page is just a collection of pages being placed next to each other, and you’ve got to make every one of those pages attractive.
Premise 2: Every link is a word of mouth recommendation.
The web is a giant word of mouth machine. People only get to your website through one of two ways — you paid someone to recommend you (an ad), or you were recommended naturally. Either way, the recommendation manifests as a link.
Every link is a choice to recommend a page, including on search engine result pages (SERPs).
Ranking highly in Google is the result of Google recommending you be “placed next to” the result page for a term someone has searched for.
You don’t need to be an SEO guru to understand that Google wants to recommend the most relevant results to a searcher’s query. Find out what people are searching for in your topic (Google Keyword Tool is a good place to find out), and come up with a way to give them what they want.
Google uses an algorithm that aggregates human judgment instead of an editor, but the result is still a word of mouth recommendation.
This is not a system you can game.
4 key strategic takeaways:
- Word of mouth is the only thing on the web.
- Search engines reflect the collective word of mouth momentum leading to your page. Forget SEO and think WOMO … er, word of mouth optimization.
- Optimizing for search can only be done by optimizing for humans. Translation — you rank highly in search by being worth caring about. If you optimize according to today’s SEO best practices to the detriment of human appeal, prepare to be left in the dust. Anyway, when Google goes away, what will you have left?
- Consider the synergies between pages you control, whether they live on your site or not. For example, every social media profile is another web page to make worth caring about. In search ranking, this matters.
Let’s switch modes and get tactical.
You don’t need to read a word of SEO technical jargon to know that search is about links. To understanding “linking strategy”, we turn to the great Groucho Marx, who once said, “I would not join any club that would have someone like me for a member.”
If it’s easy to get a link, that probably means it’s not a link worth having.
There are plenty of quick fix ways to dominate the search engines that will be useless in the long run — or get you removed from the index — and the long run is only a few months. They all involve treating search engines like they do something other than aggregate link word of mouth in order to make contextual recommendations.
So a word of warning: the short term tactics are what some SEO experts talk about because they want you to pay them to consult for a few weeks. You’ll see a nice ROI and pay them handsomely. Who cares if you crash and burn later?
To be fair, some of these tactics are standards compliant best practices that you should implement, but they’re marginally important compared to the big picture strategy. The only long term strategy involves making a website worth caring about, and that has nothing to do with search engines.
So here’s the search engine ranking lesson:
The things that actually work in the search engines are precisely the things you would be doing if search engines didn’t exist.
This may not be a useful tip to the SEO crazies (you know who you are), but to the rest of you who look at your website holistically, I think this is refreshing. After all, you do care about what happens after someone from search reaches your site… right?
I know this isn’t what some people want to hear. They want to know the easy way, as if there has to be one. Unfortunately for them, sometimes the things most worth having are the hardest to get.
It’s the people, stupid.
P.S. – This idea has been swirling around in my head for awhile, but I wasn’t inspired until I started reading the SEO 2.0 blog. SEO 2.0 is basically about how to avoid being an SEO dick (or an SEO 1.0 if you want to be nice about it).
For full disclosure, I didn’t know SEO 2.0′s Tadeusz until he called Josh Klein Web Strategy one of the must read new blogs of 2008, but I’m writing about him because his blog is smart. OK, maybe a little of both.
Due credit to Tadeusz for the inspiration.