Traditional SEO techniques — based on IT knowledge as well as automated or semi-automated tasks — are quickly losing their importance. Google’s Panda and Penguin filters have played an important role in raising awareness of the development, but they are just the beginning. Skills that come from marketing and customer relations are taking over and will dominate the search engine optimisation landscape in the future, with public relations as the new key skill set.
> Back When SEO Could Be Automated
> Panda and Penguin Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg
> 5 Skills an SEO Now Needs to Know
- Public Relations (PR)
- Social Media Marketing (SMM)
- Website Usability
- Search Engine Advertising (SEA)
- Newsletter Marketing
There was a time, not that long ago, when a search engine optimiser’s world was relatively simple. You had to know the rules of the game as established by the search engines, establish a list of relevant keywords, change the HTML code of your pages accordingly, and submit your pages to a maximum of other sites, frequently through automated or semi-automated processes. Sure, the rules would change from time to time, but overall you would change your scripts and carry on just fine. Technical expertise was often more important than strategic thinking.
Quite logically, many of the SEOs who learned the trade in the early days (and many of the following generations also) had an IT developer profile. Their competences made it easy for them to acquire the necessary IT knowledge and automate the tasks: modify the HTML code and server settings without the help of the IT department, write scripts for getting links from hundreds or thousands of directories, post (almost) the same messages to hundreds of Internet forums, spam blog comments, etc.
It’s remarkable that in French “search engine optimisation” is called “référencement naturel”, meaning “organic referencing”. If you believe this source, the term was coined in the mid-1990s by the inventor of a submission automation software when submitting your pages to the search engines and directories (who played a major role back then) was a big part of the job. The term has stuck till today.
However, it might not be around for much longer. The time when simply referencing your website was enough is definitely over and won’t come back. SEO is becoming more and more complex. Search for “seo is dead” with your favourite search engine and you will see that I’m not alone in thinking this way.
Google and the other search engines have been telling webmasters for ages that the best way to rank well in their search results is to create interesting content and to design websites that the users love. Yet they have been ignored by many of the old-school SEO, simply because it was still possible to rank high on the search result pages by using the good old semi-automated techniques. Then Google introduced two new filters that considerably changed the rankings for a large number of searches:
- Panda (1st application on Feb 2nd, 2011) targets low-quality content, such as text copied from other pages or only slightly modified content.
- Penguin (1st application on April 24th, 2012) penalises link spam, meaning links from low-quality websites or, even worse, sites that only exist to trick the search engine’s algorithm.
All of a sudden, the content and links created through mass-production — on which the old-school SEO’s business was built — lost much of their value or even became the reason for Google penalties.
Industry experts agree that this is only the beginning. Google seems to have made a significant push in the race against manipulative SEOs (which is very similar to the race of hackers against anti-viruses) and intends to extend its lead. Those who try to trick the search engines’ algorithms must fear every morning to wake up and find that a new update has made their work obsolete.
It will become increasingly difficult to get good rankings for a bad site while using SEO techniques that were successful in the industrialisation age.
Now and in the future, the skills that a good SEO needs will originate more often from marketing and customer relations than from IT. Relationship building will replace scripts. Here are the online marketing skills that a good SEO needs to master.
In my humble opinion, public relations skills are the new key competence for SEO! The Penguin update has stressed what many linkbuilders have known for years: to climb in the search results, you need links from authority sites. And who are these authority sites?
- Media sites (regardless of whether these media already exist offline or if they are pure player online media)
- Blogs of influencers in their respective domain (who frequently are also journalists, speakers or other publishers)
- Sites of public institutions or NGOs (high trust rank)
All of them are long-standing targets of PR professionals. Many of the concepts that are presented as new or innovative in the SEO world are old news for PR agencies.
- Link building? Making yourself known and getting media coverage are the basics of public relations work.
- Personalising your approach and staying away from link exchange requests with identical content? PR people know. Yes, you need to write a good press release, but you also need to follow up with your key journalists, interest them in your content, read what they have written before, organise press luncheons, etc.
- Building relationships with bloggers and other opinion leaders? There is a reason why there are “relations” in public relations. PR professionals are used to knowing journalists way before getting them to talk about you for the first time.
- Guest blogging? Again, PR people’s relationship-building skills are key to position a CxO or a company expert as the reference in his/her field before getting them to sign a tribune or be quoted in a media piece.
- Link bait and content marketing? Providing videos, quality photos, or infographics to journalists are well known PR tools to attract the target audiences’ attention, as are running competitions, donations, sponsoring, etc.
The correlation between social media presence (Facebook and Twitter, but there are many more) and search engine ranking has been widely discussed in SEO circles since 2011. We already know that certain social signals directly influence certain search results. And there is also no doubt that all search engines are increasingly personalising their search results, which at least, in part, is based on the user’s social network. Pages that your friends have shared on Facebook or Google+ are more likely to appear in your search results.
If you need more proof that social media works, the manipulators are recycling their linkbuilding techniques: scripts to generate likes and retweets through fake profiles, selling likes and tweets by numbers, etc.
But again social media success will be based on relationship building:
- Understanding what your customers like
- Creating spaces to share that match their demands
- Promoting sharing of content
Besides, in a web 2.0 world, there are more opinion leaders and information gatekeepers than just journalists or other professional producers of content. Everybody can influence the greater public and spread their word through social networks, discussion forums and comments. The difference between public relations and social media marketing becomes increasingly blurry.
Is there sense in deploying the entire arsenal of traffic generation (and paying for it), only to see the user leave your site immediately, frustrated by what he/she finds? Common sense tells you “No” and search engines do actually agree. All of them, more and more, measure user engagement on your site. The user doesn’t go further than the landing page and quickly returns to the search results to try the next link? Such behaviour can be measured by the search engines and devalues your site.
It becomes more and more vital to design sites with top usability, not only for the landing page, but your entire site. The user must be able to:
- Easily find the information he/she is looking for
- Instantly understand the navigation
- Trust your site through the entire check-out process for e-business sites
- Enjoy your site on an aesthetic level
If relationships become more important, but relationship building takes time, it subsequently becomes more difficult to obtain short-term results with only search engine optimisation. Yet you need traffic on your site immediately, because otherwise you can’t generate revenue.
That’s where search engine advertising can play a major role, at least for an intermediate time, because it immediately places you in the search engine results.
This is another area where the SEO world joins real life. In the real world, it is a well-known fact that the most expensive step is to acquire a new customer. Generating returning business with an existing customer is relatively easy … and more lucrative. Similarly, the expensive step on the web also is to gain new visitors, while making them return to your site is much easier.
Still, you have to remind him/her of your existence. A newsletter is an inexpensive and efficient tool to generate a significant amount of traffic for your site.
2012 might be remembered as the year in which Panda and Penguin made the entire SEO sector realise that it was no longer profitable to rely on traditional strategies with a high degree of industrialisation. Marketing and customer relations skills, especially public relations, will determine SEO success or failure. For the French, it’s time to abandon the idea of “référencement”.
PS: While researching this blog post, I came across this excellent article that I highly recommend for further reading: “The Death of SEO: The Rise of Social, PR, And Real Content“.