Evolving Requirements For SEO

Could the rules for search engine optimization change overnight?

It's unlikely, but you might have that thought after reading a column by Dorian Benkoil in the Jack Myers Media Business Report last week, "When Will Programmable and Semantic Search Replace Spiders and Web Crawling?" We'll play a round of "myth vs. fact" to give marketers and publishers a sense of what changes are really in store for SEO.

The biggest hint that something was amiss in Benkoil's column came from his first comment on Google. He wrote, "Experts say the company could release requirements this year that will force Web sites to revamp their optimization techniques to stay atop results." The operative word here is "requirements." Try to imagine what would happen if Google issued any requirements for search engine optimization. User-generated content would disappear from its index overnight, as would almost every small business Web site. It'd be great fodder for a science-fiction movie - "Invasion of the Traffic Snatchers."



Requirements for SEO would be anathema to the search engines. It would create a hierarchy of haves and have-nots, and it would also create new headaches for the search engines. Their goal is to index everything on the Web and then organize it by what's relevant for each query. Sites that rank high tend to follow one or more best practices in terms of site structure, inbound links, content freshness, and other measures, but there is no mandatory SEO procedure.

Following the warning of SEO requirements, Benkoil discussed how Bear Stearns analysts analyzed patents Google filed and posited that Google will become the "Programmable Search Engine," or PSE, which "will require sites to submit .xml feeds, telling the search engine what's on a site in a more fulsome way than the spiders can grasp." This will allow sites to create a data feed that includes "video, moving graphics and other non-text items that today are not well-considered by search engines."

Here, we're presented with a flurry of theories that can be all too quickly misinterpreted. Let's bring them down to Earth.

1) Just because a company files for a patent doesn't mean it will use those patents if they're even granted. It's fun reading the tea leaves, and Google may well follow through on some of its more futuristic patents like a way to target ads to different users at a public computer terminal even if they're not logged in, or a system to target online ads to the audio played from a TV program in the room. Yet a patent filing is not the same as an executive sharing a product roadmap on a quarterly earnings call.

2) Again, there's the word "require." SEOs will not be burdened by requirements. Go worry about something else, like which David Hasselhoff T-shirt you're going to buy.

3) Google Sitemaps already offers a way to submit an XML feed that provides Google with more information about crawling the site. The vision here with the PSE is basically Sitemaps on steroids. Again, this won't be required. Google and the other major engines also have various other data feed submission services that site owners should take advantage of, but these are meant to help increase rankings of sites that are already optimized to some degree.

4) "Non-text items that today are not well-considered by search engines" will ultimately be just as easy to index as text and meta tags. Google's photo organizing software Picasa lets you search for images by color, while Blinkx can index video speech transcripts as well as the text within street signs in videos. Thanks to engines' improvements and innovations from SEO technologists, there's ample hope for the crawlability of the increasingly non-text Web.

Marketers who are still concerned can take solace in the recent history of Google's natural search innovations. Around the launch of Google Base, Universal Search, and the widespread rollout of personalized search, pundits were outdoing each other trying to overstate the impact these would have on sites' rankings. One overly flowery dolt even waxed about Google Base, "I was more excited about Base's birthday this year than I was my own."

Yes, that dolt was me. I like to think I've learned a couple of things since November 2005, when that column came out. Yet it's hard not to get swept up in all the constant change in this industry. Most of the change, however, is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It's unlikely you'll ever have to overhaul every last search engine optimization strategy. You will, however, need to keep evolving. That's the only SEO requirement there is.

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