SEO has been continually researched, written about and practiced for around 15 years now and undergone constant change during this time.
Before 2000 prior to Google, the search engines at the time were ranking websites based primarily on the sheer volume and density of keywords on the page, so optimising for ranking meant little more than finding ways to stuff those keywords repetitively into your page, while maintaining some form of user experience. This resulted in an overabundance of webmasters who found creative ways to stuff keywords into every corner of their sites … then Google changed the game.
With PageRank, Google introduced a new way of evaluating the relative authority of a website or page ... LINKS. PageRank, in simple terms, provided a link map of the web. The more links pointing to a site or page, the more power or authority that page acquired. The anchor text of a link, the words that occur as clickable text, offered a clue as to what the linked-to page was all about. As Google gained more market share, links became more valuable on the Internet. A whole new form of web spam was created - free-for-all links and link selling schemes. Google has yet to find an effective way to completely crack down on these
campaigns, but in late 2007 they took some significant steps, including directly penalising specific websites which were believed to be selling links for SEO benefits and relieving "free-for-all" directories of their power to pass PageRank altogether.
There should be no question that more big changes are coming in SEO - only a question of "what next - and how to prepare for it?" Here's what's next - Personalised Search. In fact, it's already here - more likely than not you're already seeing personalised results when you search in Google.
Google has continually added to their impressive list of free services. For example -
* Google Analytics
* Google Reader
* Google Desktop
* Google Chrome
* Google Toolbar
Every one of the above services sends usage data back to Google. Publicly, Google states that this data is "anonymous" and they don't attach personal information to it and we have no reason to believe they are doing otherwise. However, we know for certain that Google is using personal search history to slant search results that individuals get when logged-in to their Google account - they are quite transparent on that point.
So what does personalised search mean for you and your website?
You can no longer assume that rankings as you see them are global. Anyone logged in while they search is potentially seeing a different set of results for the same keyword. You can log out of your Google account to search or turn off personalised results, but it won't do much good since every other user is potentially searching with personalisation.
If Google is incorporating usage data from other sources such as the Google Toolbar, Google Chrome and Google Analytics, it means that the user experience is going to play a more important role in SEO. Keep this in mind - for Google, the user experience is everything. Doesn't it then makes sense for them to incorporate available usage data when ranking websites?
With these new data sources, Google could potentially be reducing the emphasis on inbound links in their ranking algorithm. Links to this point have been central for Google rankings, but with their market share continually increasing we can presume they will be putting more emphasis on results gathered from their own data sources.
Expected traffic estimates based on rankings just became difficult, if not impossible to achieve. In the past, traffic could be reasonably estimated by multiplying the available search usage for a given keyword by the known traffic percentage of a given position. The 1st position, for example, received some 48% of traffic for a keyword according to leaked AOL data from a few years back. For a keyword receiving 100 searches per month, you could reasonably estimate 48 visits per month based on a #1 ranking for that keyword. SEO companies used that data to take some of the guesswork out of their campaigns. With personalised search these estimates are going to become far less accurate if not completely unreliable.
Overall, this means you need to keep your eyes OFF the search engine rankings to a large degree. Does a #1 position for your Google account mean you could be somewhere back on page 5 for someone else? Possibly not, but it’s reasonable to presume that from here on out we can't be sure without extensive testing. Rankings have never meant much - they've always been a means to an end, the end being quality traffic and ultimately more sales, attention or whatever your website goal may be. Now, more than ever, high-quality traffic should be your focus.
Personalised search isn't exactly a new concept - it's been discussed for around three years now, but we're seeing it receive more attention lately, and this will more than likely mean that Google will change the game again. Like it or not, we're likely going to have to let go of rankings as a metric for success.
Who knows … we may be better off!