SEO is a false bubble, meant to burst, from the very beginning.
It is about to burst, very very soon.
Now, why would I say something that generic and that strong. I’ll quickly come to the point. However, to do that, we need to dig deeper into this concept called ‘Search Engine Optimization.
We start from the basics. At the core of this field (for the lack of a better word) and the axis of this universe are search engines. Although, due to Google’s dominance, most of the dynamics of the industry revolve around Google search.
What is a Search Engine?
Now, let’s try and define, at a fundamental level, what a search engine is. Wikipedia’s definition of a search engine is nice but states what a search engine does. A Google search for What is a search engine, throws up:
A program for the retrieval of data, files, or documents from a database or network, esp. the Internet.
Which is right, but doesn’t help me much. Let’s try and understand a search engine like 10 year olds. The internet is a like a library, vaster than any we’ve known in our lives. Each website is a book with, at times, millions of pages. To find anything in this library is impossible for a human being. Books solve this problem by creating table of contents and indices. Libraries create further indexes of books. However, if you go to the librarian and ask for a recipe for a samosa, there is no guarantee, they’ll find it. If they do, there is no guarantee, it will be the best recipe.
A search engine is like this index, only it is dynamic. By dynamic, I mean that the index is continuously updated and changed. There is a lot of content on the internet that you and I can never be able to access or interact with meaningfully, without this tool that lets us do that. So, my definition is
A search engine is a tool between people and content, to create meaningful interactions.
For, a long time search engines followed the definition thrown up by the Google search above. Then, along came Google that sought to become the tool that creates meaningful interactions between users and content.
The Ideal Search Engine
That paved the way for the world dominance of Google. It’s purpose and goal were very clear from the beginning:
Get the result that the user is looking for.
And to do that, Google kept doing things. It kept formulating ways of doing this better. It has been striving to give you and me, the exact thing that we are looking for. In fact, it’s trying to do it so well, that if you and I typed the same query, Google will return different results, because it has learnt more about you from your earlier interactions.
The Happy Honest Internet
The happy, honest internet is an Utopian concept promoted by the likes of Facebook and Google. It basically means that people write what they want to. When a lot of people demonstrate to Google that they prefer to click and stay longer to read a particular page over other pages in a result, Google believes it is good and ranks it higher.
The Search Engine Problem
It is very difficult to find the right result. It takes complex algorithms and heavy data analysis. The engine needs to learn as it searches. So, a lot of times, the first result is not the ideal result. This is because, to an extent, the way the search engine works, is not the ideal, finished, superlative piece of art that all of us want it to be. It has its limitations.
As shown in the picture above, this problem is actually a set of two problems:
- The search engine may not understand what the user is looking for, let’s call it the User Behaviour Analysis problem.
- The search engine may not understand the content well enough, again, let’s just call it Content Analysis problem.
The Ideal Solution
What should a search engine do? It must bridge the gap both ways. It must improve its understanding of what the user is looking for. At the same time it must improve its understanding of content to be able to match its understanding of the user’s need.
Understanding the User
This is the more complicated part, but Google seems to be the best at it. This is also the part where the search engine is in control. This is where the user interacts with the engine, directly. So, the engine can do whatever it takes to make sure it makes the best guess about what the user is looking for.
No one gets between the user and the search engine, not even the parent company, not even its other products. That’s where Yahoo and Bing lost.
This is the impossible part. Being a web developer, I can tell you, the number of shoddy, sub standard websites that exist are mind boggling. Then, how do you know what content is good, what is bad. This is where search engines have no control. This is where, the task is immense and again Google seems to be the best at it. Even now, Search Engines depend on some algorithms to analyse and understand content. There are parameters to consider.
Exploiting the Gap, Gaming the System: Birth of the SEO Professional
So, now suddenly, there are search engines that users like so much that they use it as a starting point for their browsing. A lot of websites, obviously want to get users to their site. Irrespective of whether the content is good or not. This is where, a whole new profession was born. One that observes the search engine’s behaviour, figures the parameters and algorithms and then games the content. This way, the Search Engine is made to believe, that the gamed content is the best content for the users’ query. In other words, it cheats the Search Engine, which, indirectly cheats the user.
The user is made to believe that the gamed results are the best results. There are various ways of gaming this system, or cheating this system. Some are believed to be legitimate, called white-hat ways of cheating and some are black-hat ways of cheating. Sooner or later, the search engine will get tired of the gaming because the users will start getting tired of the game. The useless, but SEOed results will push useful, but non SEOed results downwards into the pit of anonymity.
The Revenge of the Search Engine
And then the search engine will try and do something about it. Here is what Google did and announced it in a blog post.
But more important than that, are the comments,at times they are super hilarious!
SEO vs the Search Engine: the War Continues
Search Engines are most likely to continue this way. Keep disposing off the ways of the SEO industry so that it can interact directly with content (and hence the content writer). This is the only way it can solve its second part of the problem: understanding content. The SEO industry will be made redundant, also by a couple of simultaneous developments:
- Increased use of CMSes and automated content deployment solutions that take care of the basic SEO parameters, still used by Search Engines.
- Evolution of the web page into more semantic structures (html5 tags like article, aside, footer pretty much indicate what is important and what is accessory or redundant on a page).
- Increased usage of microformats like ratings, reviews, products on web-pages for better identification of content.
- Growth of Social Media (Google already values recommendations of your online social circle, for better results).
The Unfortunate Casualities of the War
On some of the comments on Google’s blog post above, you might notice people complaining that their original content has been outranked by copy-thieves. That’s because Google decides which is better based on what users decide is better. It is the standard tussle between pop art and true art. A genius will write a good article that nobody will find. However, a copycat wil just copy it, present it in a more interesting or popular manner and that will win in the race. It’s obvious. It’s not the Search Engine’s fault or responsibility. There is no feasible way of correcting culture via a search engine.
When the War Ends
Once, SEO is finished, what will be? That is more speculation and philosophy and the subject of another blog post (if there is one).
Disclaimer: This is just a point of view and philosophical ruminations. Do feel free to rebuke me, if you need to!
Editor’s Note: This post is part of our TDIS ( Thank Devil It’s Sunday) feature, where we publish casual and personal posts. You can read other TDIS posts here.