Historically, the practice of SEO involved engaging crawlers — those robots that search engines like Google and Bing send out to sites to read and index their content and analyze their links. The big winners in SEO are those companies that figured out how to best engage these crawlers, and manipulate them to get the top search result positions. A new breed of publishers emerged to (ab)use this knowledge of engaging crawlers — publishers that could afford to produce massive amounts of low-cost content (whether because of the low quality of the content, or because the content was mostly “borrowed” by lightly editing others’ original content). That content was never really intended to engage humans…its sole purpose was to best engage search engine crawlers and get those top spots on search results on millions of search query combinations. If in the past (as in the print days past…) the best publishers were those that best engaged their human readers, with SEO that pendulum has swung. The kings of publishing are those that could best engage crawlers, get a windfall of free search traffic, and monetize those pages. Whether humans ever came back to that publisher site intentionally or not didn’t matter, as there was always a massive amount of traffic of new people coming in from the search engines via SEO. Quality of content had no part in this equation; the only thing that mattered is how to massively produce/borrow the lowest-cost-possible content on every imaginable search query in the world.
This pendulum swing caught many older publishers off-guard and has created massive frustrations at best, and devastating business problems at worst. At its essence, the ability to create quality, human-engaging content which was once an asset, became a net liability on the web. SEO completely disregarded the quality of content on the one hand; on the other hand, publishers in the business of real journalism could never out-SEO the SEO kings. This, along with 2 other factors — cost of print, and loss of classifieds to Craig’s List et al. — is what caused so much pain and mayhem to traditional journalism.
In short: Publishers looking to engage crawlers won; publishers looking to engage humans lost. There’s the famous saying that “You can’t fool everyone, all the time.” That assumes you’re trying to fool human beings…Those that won the SEO game were able to disprove this — by being able to fool a crawler into indexing content (of any random quality) highly, they were able to fool everyone, all the time, into consuming it. Think of it this way: It’s as if a cable channel that’s producing/”borrowing” very low-cost content, somehow found a way to dupe everyone’s remote controls, so that no matter what channel you enter on the remote, you still always get transferred to their channel. That would likely be a fairly frustrating practice for the NBC’s, ESPN’s and HBO’s of the world…that, essentially, is how SEO has been working.]
Since we started Outbrain, our expressed mission has been to support content that engages humans, not crawlers. Therefore, as an example — we’ve always been comfortable with our service having no SEO value whatsoever, even though many publishers like every link to- and from- their pages to help with “SEO Juice”. To us there’s crawler value in that, not human value. We believe that the SEO pendulum that has swung so violently against quality publishers — thanks, in most part to Google — should swing back to favor content that us humans actually like to consume.
With the most recent changes to its search algorithms (aka “Panda”, and its upcoming successors mentioned by Matt Cutts), we’re thrilled to see Google reverse its historic role of massively benefiting those who play the SEO game better than others. Google deserves a lot of credit here — this is not a simple change to make, and it’s likely going to create massive pains and pressures from the SEO players, but it’s the right thing to do, and it’s great to see Google doing the right thing.
So with the pendulum well in its swing back, here’s what the New SEO is going to look like for publishers in coming years:
If in the past the key was to produce as many, low-cost words (even if they are borderline random) in order to feed search engine crawlers — that is no longer going to have any meaningful benefit. The key now is to A) engage as big of an audience of people, and B) best engage each of those people with content they actually want to return. These are the signals that Google seems to be starting to value (and Outbrain always has).
Ironically though, both of these signals cannot be manufactured within search engines. Or in other words: If in the past it was possible via aggressive SEO to fool everyone, all the time, with New SEO the days of being able to fool people are coming to end. The new keys are A) creating great content, and B) getting exposure for it with the right audience. Publishers focusing on these two things should benefit greatly in the New SEO world.
Outbrain can’t help much with the production of great content — that is what great publishers do best. Outbrain is a perfect solution for publishers to get their audience feedback-loop working for New SEO purposes. By exposing your content with Outbrain, you can feed both of the signals that matter for New SEO: engage a very large audience, and have that audience stay very engaged with your content. By investing in Outbrain traffic, publishers should now get both direct value — more uniques with better engagement — and a big residual value…free search traffic by way of New SEO rankings.
These are great days for publishing, and we’re very optimistic about the future. Outbrain has started swinging the pendulum back, favoring humans over crawlers, and Google is making great changes to help in the right direction. We, like many others, hated much of what SEO has become. NewSEO is a world we’re looking forward to.
A similar version of this piece appeared on Advertising Age.