The Future of Search

ML Jan 22, 2007

It’s time for me to start blogging again. It’s been awhile, and I’d really like to make HitTail one of the must-read sites for SEO. Aaron Wall mentioned HitTail for the second time in his popular SEO Book site, for which we are particularly grateful, considering the recent surge in popularity he must be encountering as a result of the mention in the USA Today article by Jefferson Graham on natural search engine optimization. That article was significant, because it marks the difficult concept of SEO becoming part of the mainstream conscious the way pay-per-click had from all the Google profitability and IPO articles. The conditions are right for the perfect storm, and we plan for HitTail to be there. I believe 2007 will be the year of natural search.

In choosing the headline, Jefferson chose the concept “How to get Google to notice you”. That is a brilliant approach, because it frames the issue by immediately anthropomorphizing Google—advice we consistently give to our clients when explaining how to guess what Google will be doing several years from now. Google is an algorithmic piece of Larry Page’s brain, and is much closer to that original vision, named BackRub, from his days at Stanford than people realize. Even with their product offerings exploding through acquisition and intrepreneurship, their homepage and the assumptions behind the crawling and indexing process are eerily close to what they were in 1999 when I first noticed Google. You must put yourself into the mind of clever engineers who are a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Rainman. There is very little that Google might do over the coming years that someone of reasonable intellect couldn’t guess. For example, if they’re making many billions of dollars per year today on micro-transaction advertising, it only stands to reason that there’s a two-front assault based around micro-transactions (as NOT applied to advertising), and advertising (as NOT applied to Web search).

But for the foreseeable future, the question on everybody’s mind, or at least which should be, is how to make Google notice you. And to answer that question, I like to take a brief journey into the state of the Internet and the Worldwide Web, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Yesterday, Google was proud to announce 2 billion pages indexed, 8 billion pages indexed, 20 billion pages indexed. Today, they stop reporting, as the number has become meaningless, suffice to say that there’s more pages on the Internet than there are people on the planet. If everyone on the planet read a page per day, they would probably never stop reading, especially considering the state of spamming, Moores’ law, and the considerable content still locked up on the “invisible Web”. There is simply too much information, and a finite number of people on the planet at any given time, performing a finite number of searches-and-clicks for any given time-period. And the great contest is the competition for those clicks so that advertising might be delivered or a customer created.

So, to compete in such a landscape, you must be rolling out both copious quantities of pages in order to keep pace with the rate of growth of the Internet, and high quality pages. Doing both and once seems incongruous, and it is. Hence the popularity of user contributed content. If you can get a community of several thousands of people generating several millions of pages—each one carefully thought out and considered, then you don’t need to do it yourself. In a way, this is what MySpace, YouTube and every other UCC-based social networking site designed to influence search. Alternatively, instead of enticing people into your network, you can creep out into theirs by creating a superior advertising network, and basically have them run your ads for which you take credit for the ad impression, kick them back a little bit, and keep the rest. This is effectively what Google is doing with the AdSense network, and many others are trying to spin different ways.

The above scenarios are possible while maintaining a relative degree of quality, because you have a low human-to-page ratio. Each person in MySpace cares about their profile, and each person participating in an Ad Network cares about their site so as to maintain readership and subscribed audience. But then there are also the people who are just making a pure, unabridged play for search traffic and ad impressions regardless of quality. These types of people can spin out millions of pages at a time, and you’re competing with them too. So, how is one to cope? How can one modest little blog or corporate site ever hope to compete?

Well, thinking of Google in the anthropomorphic sense, it has to keep pace or die. First, it must have brilliant algorithms for turning the tide of spam and removing the reward incentive for spammers. Second, it must keenly identify and reward those who should justifiably be rewarded. “Whoah!” You say? Why doesn’t Google just start to reward paid advertisers. They can’t. It’s a detente. The moment Google stops rewarding the righteous is the moment an opening is created for a new breed of super-search competitor. They’re out there, evolving in the shadows, starved for the mindshare sunlight they need to survive. So long as Google is the planet’s top search-lifeform and the environment can sustain it, those preditors are relegated to picking up Google’s crumbs. In order to remain this dominant creature, Google must give back to the environment what it consumes, and that is free natural search results. It’s an equilibrium. The great balance and natural order of the Web at this time in history.

So again, how does one compete for natural search effectively today, and in a sustainable long-term fashion? Easy. Be righteous!

Be sincere. Be prolific. Write in a trustworthy and authoritative voice. Write often. Become genuinely trusted. Get people to subscribe to you. If there is an economic market involved, make yourself the epicenter of that market by offering information and services that are must-have for that market. Develop useful apps and give them away for free if you can, just to get the relationship. Treat your customers well and establish a reputation that transcends the online world. Make yourself a genuinely good company (social cause, or whatever) that people would be proud to refer to you. You will be leaving plentiful clues for the Sherlock Holmes Rainman to follow. No matter how search changes, they will go out of their way to ensure that you’re rewarded according to the new rules.

And if you’re still worried about making the wrong decisions for natural search, simply pick a blogging platform and start blogging. It’s the ideal 80/20 rule solution to getting some immediate short-term results in natural search, while putting your data into a format that could always be transferred to whatever publishing systems come out in the future. There are copious articles on the extremely short-term tactics to employ for driving traffic to your site. This is a good one. Read it and follow the advice. And of course take advantage of long tail searches to make the time you do spend on natural search most effective. There’s simply so much to do that you WILL be overwhelmed by the choices of directions. But if you put your faith in HitTail, you can sweep away 95% of the things which will distract you, and get down to the business of writing about those things which you know will pull in the best sort of qualified visitors. See? The last step is the final micro-tactic of simply choosing the right things to write about.

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