Search experience optimization is the future of SEO

If you ask anyone what SEO stands for, they’ll usually say, “search engine optimization.” This answer makes absolute sense, since it refers to the original meaning of SEO when it was coined back in the 90’s.

In those days, webmasters kept themselves busy trying to make their websites as flashy and attractive as they could using the technology of the time. (If you are feeling nostalgic for some 90’s retro web design, I recommend visiting the Space Jam official website.)

Search engines hadn’t been around for long, so their ability to crawl, index and make semantic sense of pages was far from sophisticated. And truth is, websites of that time didn’t make things easier for search engines. (I dare you to find one meta tag on the Space Jam official website!) In light of this situation, and with the increased popularity of search engines, Search Engine Optimization was born and webmasters began to optimize their pages for search engines. Technical changes that made your pages more search-engine friendly could give you a significant advantage and make you rank for key phrases that a growing amount of “websurfers” typed into those primitive search boxes.

As one could have expected, many tried to abuse these newly born optimization techniques to get high rankings at any cost. SEO became not about optimizing your site to make it more search engine friendly, but instead, the goal of SEO became to find smart ways to game the system just to get high rankings. And that’s when the quality of search results became poorer and SEO developed some reputation issues that it still needs to overcome. (“Is SEO killing America?” remains my all-time favorite).

Source: Dilbert.com

Things got pretty bad in 2010, to the point that some voices started to actively criticize the quality of Google results:

I actually worry that early adopters might stop using Google for commercial queries and start looking for alternatives because of how manipulative the top results feel.

Obviously something had gone wrong. A discipline that was born to help improve search engines was now being vastly used to take advantage of their algorithm flaws, producing search results that Google’s robot considered to be optimal, but that humans were getting sick of.

Google needed to bang their fist on the table and make it clear that their algorithm isn’t there to be tricked with shortcuts and workarounds, but to be understood and followed with one goal in mind: to improve the visitor’s search experience.

 

Panda, Penguin and other algorithm updates that changed the rules of the game

In 2010, the SEO industry started to hear (and feel!) the impact of Google’s fist on the table.  A series of algorithm updates turned things inside out and left those who had been gaming the rules in clear off-side. Here’s a quick (and simplified) chronology of the main events I believe shaped today’s SEO:

- May 2010: Mayday

This change in Google’s algorithm had a noticeable impact in the long-tail. Sites with large-scale thin content seemed to be hit especially hard, forewarning the Panda update.

- February 2011: Panda

A major algorithm update hits sites harder than ever, affecting up to 12% of search. Google’s main focus was to reward sites with quality content over those who are just well optimized for SEO, and penalizing sites with thin or duplicate content.

 - April 2012: Penguin

Update aimed at decreasing search engine rankings of websites that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by using shady SEO techniques, such as keyword stuffing or link buying.

- September 2012: Exact-Match Domain (EMD) Update

Owning an exact match domain used to be a powerful loophole to advance search engine rankings for the keywords contained in the domain name, producing search results topped by sites as horrible as www.2-bedroom-apartments-in-london.co.uk. This update was Google’s attempt to close that loophole.

 

There have been many more algorithm updates, but these are arguably the ones that have drastically changed the SEO scene. This has left those incapable of assimilating such a big shift in such a short time absolutely out of place, worrying about meta keyword tags and exact match URLs, instead of taking care of the quality of their content and the search experience of their visitors. Here is a friendly tip for all those anchored to 2008’s SEO techniques: stop thinking about search engine optimization. It’s time for search experience optimization.

 

What is search experience optimization and what is different about it?

I know what you are thinking: “Here we go again… Another attempt to come up with a fancy new name because they got bored of the old one…” Trust me: that’s not my intention. In fact, the name is not even new: Ben Potter from e-consultancy already wrote a very interesting article about search experience optimization and, as he mentions in his text, the first reference to the term points back to an article posted on seoworkers.com (although the term they coined referred to something substantially different).

The name is not new and I am not endorsing it as part of a branding ploy. I just really think that the original meaning of those three letters (the 90’s meaning) doesn’t make sense anymore. For some, like Ben Potter, it was never really there:

For me, the term search engine optimisation (SEO) has always been fatally flawed. It suggests that we optimise solely for search engines. However, search engines don’t buy products, people do.

The debate around the need to rebrand SEO has been going on for quite some time already. And there are good reasons for it. Namely

  1. The bad reputation it has outside of the industry by those who associate it with spammy link-building techniques
  2. Its inability to communicate all areas touched by the discipline
  3. And its lack of focus on the people

Many have turned to and put their hopes in “Inbound Marketing”. Numerous SEO’s have scraped the SEO off their job titles and replaced it with this new immaculate term that breathes holisticity. (Yes, it’s a word! I Googled it.) Even one of the most enthusiastic defendants of the SEO brand, Rand Fishkin CEO and Co-founder of SEOmoz , has given up and dropped it from his company name (now just “Moz”) to embrace the goodness of this new term. I like Inbound Marketing and genuinely believe it is the best kind of marketing, but I don’t think it’s here to substitute SEO. SEO is part of Inbound Marketing in the same way that Advertising is part of Marketing. SEO is one of the disciplines within the full scope of Inbound Marketing, so for me, rebranding SEO as Inbound Marketing is not really an option.

Inbound Marketing is great since it lets your customers get in contact with your brand and products in the moment they are actively looking for it, instead of interrupting their activity with an annoying advert or email they don’t want to see. This is something that is one of the shared aspects with SEO that I find so attractive. But Inbound Marketing is much more than Search. It’s Search, but also Social Media, PR, Content Marketing and a long etcetera. And yes, SEO relies on all of these to succeed, but these disciplines have their own space outside Search. So welcome Inbound Marketing, but the acronym SEO is not going anywhere.

 

So what exactly is search experience optimization?

 Search experience optimization tries to improve the customer experience of users that are searching for something that you can provide in a way that attracts them to your brand or simply to your website.

Search experience optimization is:

-          Creating good content that your visitors like

-          Being relevant and easy to find

-          Looking into your analytics to find that people don’t respond well when they land on your page, and doing something about it

-          Having rich snippets that make it easier to choose which page they click on

-          And so on. You get the message.

What search experience optimization is not, are all those things that might circumstantially improve your rankings, but not the visitor’s search experience. Things such as:

-          Buying links from irrelevant sites

-          Creating keyword stuffed unreadable pages with no content value

-          Adding meta keywords (how do meta keywords improve anyone’s search experience?)

-          And again, a long etcetera.

In essence, search experience optimization is anything that helps making people happy when they are searching. The underlying principle of this discipline should be that searching should be a pleasant, enjoyable experience.

By changing the meaning of SEO and sticking to the underlying principle of this new meaning we align our interests to those of users and, ultimately, the interests of search engines. All signs indicate that Google and other search engines are trying to reward this behavior and will continue to do so in the future – a future in which they will most likely be even more sophisticated than today in recognizing and rewarding those who make search a better place.