We get asked a lot about how search works, and where it's headed.  Many people are rightly concerned that the tricks of today may no longer prove effective tomorrow, and as a result they wonder if there is perhaps something slightly…unsavory about the whole affair.  After all, they say, isn't SEO just the art of fooling the search engines to improve one's rankings artificially?  What if we get caught?

Well, there are two kinds of SEO.  There is the sneaky kind, in which any possible trick or gimmick is considered fair game just so long as your rankings improve in the short term.  And then there is the legitimate kind, in which your ranks improve because your site has actually increased in value.  Some people call these two schools "black hat" and "white hat" SEO, named for their counterparts in the hacking communities.  (Black hat hackers are the guys who are bent on theft and anarchy, while the white hat hackers defend the rest of us.)

Understanding the difference between these approaches in the world of SEO can be difficult — it is, after all, a sliding scale, and standards continue to change.  But at Breakthrough Content we fall firmly into the white hat camp, and not just because it keeps our clients safe.  We are 100% positive that our approach is the only reliable way to win the search rankings.  

To help you understand why, we have prepared this little essay.  It describes where search has been, where it is today, and where it's headed.  Buckle up and read on — what follows is a sweeping tale of deceit and betrayal to rival your favorite dime-store novel.

Inside the Mind of Google

Imagine for a moment that you are Google.  You make lots of products such as Gmail, Android, and Google Voice.  And even though these products are wildly popular, you give them away for free.  Yet somehow your company is valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars.  Why?

Because of search.  Specifically, because of the little blue paid advertisements that appear alongside Google's organic search results, known as AdWords.  These tiny four-line marketing campaigns are based on a simple idea: business owners are constantly looking for ways to find the customers who are looking for them.  Why not charge those business owners to have their ads appear alongside the search terms they most desire?  

AdWords has quietly become the greatest online success story of the last decade.  AdWords is so incredibly, unthinkably lucrative, in fact, that it essentially underwrites everything Google does.  

And yet, AdWords is only successful to the extent that it shares screen real estate with Google's true core business: search.  In other words, it is only because everyone you know uses Google to find just about everything that AdWords is able to rack up millions of clicks every minute.  

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to ask what would happen to Google if its flagship search engine became less useful.  People would take their searches elsewhere, AdWords impressions would take a nosedive, and Google's revenues would suffer an outrageous blow.  Overnight, Google's diverse suite of products would begin to perish.  So it is safe to say that Google's very survival as a company is tied to being the best at search.  And the only way to do that is to provide the most relevant and useful results on the planet.

Which brings us to the main point: Google is deeply invested in returning search results that people like.  Hundreds of engineers have spent billions of dollars trying to improve this technology over many years, because nobody in Mountain View has ever found another product one-tenth as profitable as search.  

And in this Corner…

So now we have established what Google's goal is.  But what about everyone else, especially the millions of business owners who rely on Google's search rankings to draw visitors and traffic to their sites?  How do their goals square with Google's?

Well, there isn't a business owner or webmaster in the world who doesn't want to appear at the Number One spot on Google's search rankings.  A highly ranked site brings prestige, mindshare, and above all, traffic.  And traffic is the engine that drives all of online commerce.  

As a result, a battle has been raging for years.  On one side is Google, whose engineers are constantly tweaking its algorithm to maintain the most relevant and useful search results on the Web.  On the other side is everyone else, especially business owners doing anything they can think of to goose their rankings and increase their exposure.  

These companies are not concerned with the overall integrity of Google's search results so much as they are concerned with where they stand within those results.  And their desire for better rankings has spawned an entire industry: search engine optimization, or SEO.  

Both sides have been locked in an escalating arms race for nearly a decade now, with predictable victories and defeats on both sides of the ledger. Those who choose to ignore this history do so at their own peril, as the story can be highly instructive, both for SEO today and for where it is headed.  

So far, there have been Three Big Eras in search.

Era 1: The Curated Web

At the dawn of the Web, sites like Yahoo! and AOL offered users a human-generated guide to the Web.  These guides were created by actual people who sat around poring over actual computers in search of interesting sites and worthy resources.  Every site in these guides was neatly catalogued and annotated, with standout honorees earning awards such as the "Cool Site of the Day."  Users trusted the guides implicitly and rarely strayed beyond their recommendations.  

It was a simpler time.

But as e-commerce began to take off and people began to see that there was big money in this technology, grabbing a place of honor at the front of the Curated Web became a top priority.  The resulting run on the big portals created a predictable corruption of their results.  There was no expectation of purity associated with Web search back then, so many of the best-known search engines began to accept all kinds of payola for better placement.  Even those that were less egregious still accepted ads that created clear conflicts of interest.  

Meantime there was a bigger problem: the Information Superhighway was growing at an astonishing rate.  The Web was quickly becoming far too big for the "experts" to index on their own.  It was clear that the days of the Curated Web were numbered, and that people would soon need a better way to find what they were looking for.  

The dawn of automated search was nigh.  

Era 2: The Keyword Gold Rush

The first fully computerized search algorithms bowed to a rocky start.  Sites like AlltheWeb and Altavista grew quickly into sensations, and then vanished just as quickly as users became frustrated with their inconsistent results. Even the big portals like Yahoo! and AOL rarely did much better.

Then came Google.

Google exploded onto the scene with a brand new idea: why not base the search results on both keywords and links?  Keywords were the phrases that defined what a site was about.  Links were the little underlined snippets of text that pointed people toward another site.  Somewhere in the combination of these two signals, Google reasoned, lay the secret to relevant results.

It worked.  In fact it worked a little too well.  Webmasters immediately started looking for ways to game this new system.  And one of the first things they noticed was that something called "keyword density" seemed to be a hugely important factor.  Use one phrase over and over in an otherwise innocuous article, they discovered, and you could leap to the front of the search results.  Any page that used the phrase "children's plastic toy bins" a few dozen times across a few hundred words would win the rankings for that term.  

Overnight, an entire industry of "content farms" sprung up offering clients thousands of articles at pennies a word, all guaranteed to boast "optimal keyword density."  Businesses large and small began shelling out big money for massive content deliveries without even reading what they bought. Never had it been easier to win search with cash.

The gold rush was on.

Imagine Google's horror.  All of a sudden, sites that offered no relevant content at all were winning their vaunted search rankings.  The engineers at the helm of this still-young company knew it was destined for the scrap heap unless they could figure out a way to restore the integrity of their search results, and fast.  Their answer?  De-emphasize the keyword part and focus far more on the other half of the equation — inbound links.

Era 3: Rise of the Link Farms

And so opened the next front in the arms race between Google and SEO.

Links had always been in Google's DNA, of course — just look at PageRank, the idea that started the company.  But links became far more important once all that spam began to clog up the Web.  When Google changed its algorithm to make inbound links by far the biggest determining factor in search, they based the change on a simple idea: webmasters could always control and manipulate their own content, but surely they couldn't determine who linked to them.

Could they?

Overnight, all the companies that had been churning out hundreds of spam articles switched to buying hundreds of links instead.  "Content factories" morphed into "link farms," and sites sprung up across the Web that purported to offer unbiased content, all of which magically linked back time and again to client websites.  Even respected portals that already enjoyed high search rankings began selling links on their front pages, effectively renting out their accumulated prestige to the highest bidder.

Once again, Google's search results began to deteriorate.

The response was as predictable as the rain: they would tweak the algorithm once again.  This time they made two important changes: 1) punish the link farms by preventing them from passing along any benefit, and 2) punish any site, big or small, that they suspected of engaging in link schemes.

It worked.  In a matter of days, the link trade began to decline, and Google's reputation was largely restored.  Which is more or less where we are today.

The Future of Search

Stamping out the massive paid-links industry solved one of Google's last big remaining problems.  Currently genuine, organically earned inbound links  remain the coin of the realm in the race to win the search results.

But there is a new battle looming.  As we speak, both sides are gearing up for what is sure to be the next front in the SEO arms race: the social Web, including sites like Facebook and Twitter.  Stop me if you can already guess where this is going.

Google recently announced that it will soon begin to integrate social sites such as Facebook into its Web rankings.  This makes sense from a standpoint of quality: when a lot of people recommend something, that is generally a good indicator of value.  Facebook itself is even getting into the search game, and will soon begin leveraging its unique database of user preferences to create a search engine of its own in conjunction with Bing.

Meanwhile, the "black hats" are already busy poking at the castle walls, looking for new ways to manipulate the system.  Countless sites have already sprung up promising to earn you "likes" and "followers" by the thousand with little or no effort.

Now, maybe they can do these things and maybe they can't.  But you can be certain that Google and its search brethren will quickly find new ways to quash the latest tricks and gimmicks.  And when that happens, all the folks who briefly benefited from the latest black-hat tactics will get tossed once again to the back of the line.

SEO Endgame

So how does this story end?  

To answer this question, imagine a future in which the search engines are much smarter than they are now, much smarter than they will be for some time — as smart as you and me.  This may take a few years, but there is no question it's coming.  Ultimately tomorrow's search engines will be designed to accurately answer a single question: What would a human being recommend?

This is the golden question, the ultimate goal of search that will finally close the circle back to the early days of the Curated Web.  It is an enormously complex task that will require some significant advances in the field of A.I. But if the screaming pace of progress we have witnessed thus far is any guide, we are moving closer to this kind of intelligent search faster than you think.

And Google is betting the company that it can get there first.

Who will win the search rankings when all the gimmicks have failed?  What does SEO look like when there are no more tricks to be played?  The answer to that question is as simple as asking, what do people like?

People like things that are good.  True quality will never go out of style because people will always come online in search of worthy material, now and in the future.  Improving your site is the only truly timeless SEO strategy.

Now, this may be a disappointing answer to some people, especially those who are ill-equipped to generate anything of substance.  But to others, it should come as a tremendous relief.  After all, if all you need to do to win search is earn it, then let’s buckle down and get to work.  Work with experts to make your site worthy of people's attention, affection, and mindshare, and the rankings will follow.

Legitimate search engine optimization means making your site unique, relevant, and extraordinary.  

Every other approach comes with an expiration date.

The search engines love what people love.  Focus your energy on worthy content and tireless outreach, and you can be assured of earning strong rankings from now until the next epoch.

Zach Dodes
Founder and Principal
Breakthrough Content