I started doing SEO in 1996. It wasn’t even called SEO back then. We called it search engine positioning. I remember the day I reserved the domain searchengineposition.com. I thought I had hit the jackpot. At the time, domain names were restricted to 20 characters. It was as close as I could get to laying my private claim to the generic industry title.
The same year I started doing search, two guys at Stanford launched a little side project called BackRub. A few years later they’d call it Google. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’m bringing you on this little trip down memory lane for a reason. At the time I started messing around with doorway pages, title tags and linking strategies, I figured I had about three to five years before the whole thing imploded.
Instead, I managed to ride the search wave for another 17 years. And I was the one -- not the wave -- that ran out of steam. Search and search engine optimization is still going strong, 23 years after I stuffed my first metatag full of keywords.
A few weeks ago, MediaPost writer Laurie Sullivan wrote a post on how search behaviors are changing. We are now talking to search engines. Despite this, parts of the essential act of searching are still the same. We are still hunting for something out in the digital ether. And search engines -- primarily Google -- are the channels we use to look for them.
As long as we continue to search, there will be a need to structure information so it can be found. There will also be those who probe the loopholes, looking for a way to game the system. I don’t think SEO is going anywhere any time soon.
In the sea of change that is the Internet, search has remained remarkably consistent. I think this is because the act itself is so fundamental to human behavior. It is intent stripped down to the essentials.
It’s also one of those very rare times when the user experience was pretty damned good right from the beginning. When you think how search has evolved since the introduction of the very first engine -- Archie -- almost three decades ago, the act of searching hasn’t really changed that much. You typed something into a search box and got back a list of ordered search results. Essentially, that’s still what you do.
What has changed is what happens on both sides of that interface. The back end of search - data structuring, search algorithms and indexing -- has all evolved greatly over the past 30 years. And our pre-query behaviors and intent has also changed in lockstep with improvements in search performance. We used to use search to bring some semblance of order to the dog’s breakfast of the World Wide Web. We now use search to help us live our lives.
When search was in its infancy, online used to be a distinct destination we’d go to -- an act quite separate from our real lives. But now technology has virtually erased the line between our physical and digital worlds. Our searches are often the connection points between those worlds, as we look for things to do, places to go, thing to eat and products to buy. We search as we live.
But despite the relative stability in the act of searching, Sullivan’s article did highlight an impending sea change in search. She writes about how voice search is marking a fundamental shift in how we search and, consequently, how data may be structured for that search.
We saw the beginnings of this trend when search moved to our mobile devices. Search became location-specific. But it was still essentially a text-based interface.
But search's move to be voice-based potentially marks the biggest change in search behavior in three decades.
It’s not so much the launching of the query. Speaking a query is not that different from typing one. It’s the return of the results that marks the fundamental shift. We can scan a full page of results on a desktop, parse the information and make a decision about the best possible result in a handful of seconds (under 10, based on our previous research). This isn’t possible when the results are spoken back to you. A voice search engine has to put all its eggs in one basket and bring back one result.
As we use voice search more, we will modify our behaviors based on the restrictions that come with this interface. We will restrict our queries to those that can be satisfied with just one result. This means our queries will usually take the form of questions that can be handled with a single answer.
As Sullivan mentions, this means engines like Google and Bing will rely on their Knowledge Graphs, used when there is a high degree of confidence that one single answer will be the right one -- for example, “What was the date of the Pearl Harbor attack?” We won’t use voice search for exploring and narrowing down options. There will be a distinct behavioral profile that goes along with voice-based search.
The byproduct of this -- as Sullivan mentions -- is that SEO for voice-based search will be significantly different from SEO for text-based search. The structuring of data will have to change.
But the biggest
difference is the “single spotlight” aspect of voice-based search. If you’re not happy with brand-related messaging in the answer your customers get through Alexa, Siri or Google
Assistance, you are rather stuck. Corporations will have to pay more attention to the brand-related messaging to be found in favored Knowledge Graph sources like Wikipedia, Yelp and TripAdvisor.
What all this means is that there is definitely a new chapter beginning in SEO. Still, it seems the story is a long way from being over. After two and a half decades, imagine that!