Marketers: Start your search engines

While internet search is changing, core search engine optimization tactics remain the same. Keith O'Brien discusses how best to put them to use

While internet search is changing, core search engine optimization tactics remain the same. Keith O'Brien discusses how best to put them to use

Some day, children may look back and laugh at how a keyword on a search engine returned the same results for every American. Others might express shock at how search engine optimization (SEO) coding was invisible in website infrastructure, as opposed to being easily accessible and alterable by the community. The search industry is in a position where many changes are being considered and uncertainties are being discussed.

But SEO and search engine marketing (SEM) experts agree that while there is so much change underfoot, there are still bedrock principles that remain.

"Despite the evolution in the area of search, best practices with SEO haven't changed," says Peter Hershberg, managing partner at Reprise Media. "What we're [fundamentally] doing for our clients right now is not going to change."

Andy Beal, president and CEO of Fortune Interactive, points out that different search engines work more similarly than they did five years ago. This trajectory has meant that SEO pros have been able to apply pretty much the same policies to all engines consistently.

"I don't expect that we'll ever get to a point where we'll have one parameter for one and one for the other," Beal says. "There are slight variations, but the core components are the same."

The three tenets Hershberg cites are: keyword-rich text; clean site and page architecture; and strong link development. Tom Biro, director of new media strategies at MWW Group, says that HTML pages will most likely always be more searchable than PDFs.

"There are definitely core components: Using creative copy that's keyword rich and getting links to your site from other quality sites," Beal says.

But SEO pros are all excited about some changes on the horizon that might alter, if not completely change, how companies approach search.

When Yahoo acquired folksonomy (or social bookmarking) website in December 2005, the corporate world began thinking about folksonomies in a major way.

Folksonomies are easiest explained as ways to organize digital content in a transparent and community-minded way. Users put "tags" on online information, like blog posts or photos, so others in the community can easily find other bits of information within that category. One of the proposed corporate applications for folksonomies is through search, which would make known some of the criteria that search engines mine to determine placement.

However, one search industry expert, Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, was skeptical in a March 2005 post entitled, "Tagging Not Likely The Killer Solution For Search."

He wrote, "None - NONE! - of these search engines now or ever has made use of the tag in a way to let you perhaps see all the pages 'tagged' to be on a particular subject. Why not? The data is largely useless."

He argues that people intentionally or unintentionally tag things incorrectly and that no one uses the same language (what might be "marcomms" for one, might be "marketing communications" for another).

Regardless, Hershberg says there is a lot of buzz around folksonomies in the search world. Yahoo is leading the field in this category, allowing users to keep track of their search history and easily save and tag web pages under its My Yahoo function. While those tags are not integrated into its main search, users can easily access public tags.

"Essentially, Yahoo is saying with this acquisition and other web 2.0 strategies that it will be relying [in some part] on the wisdom of the crowd," Hershberg says. "But the web is growing at too fast a clip to have humans categorize it."

Instead, he thinks search will be a blend of automation with human input.

Another attention-grabber is the opt-in search database. Google, for the most part, uses automation for search results, but the company showed a large sign that it is pondering a more human element approach. That sign is Google Base, a searchable database where users can upload information, rather than its traditional search, in which Google spiders trawl the existing web and return results.

"Rather than spend hours and millions of dollars to go out and spider content, Google took advantage of its great relationship with its users," Beal says.

Consumers have used Base to upload things like classified and personal ads, blog posts, and pornography. But there are also real corporate possibilities for it.

"There are possibilities for content that's hard for Google to find, like white papers and PDF reports, as well as another place to post job listings," Beal says. "It's of interest to our clients, but they've not really embraced the potential it offers because it's still a free for all [as of now]."

Beal expects that Base will remain outside of Google's main search for the time being, as he expects the company to treat it like any of its products - that is, keep it in beta until it proves successful. He says all search engines are pretty much providing relevant results to all searches.

But Hershberg says, "There's no question that, at some stage, Google Base will be integrated with the broader results," conceding that with the program being in its early stages, "what that integration means is yet to be determined."

Another market trend is that search engines are looking at either opt-in or engine-created search personalization.

"You can already personalize your search experience," Biro says, referring to My Yahoo. Blog search engine Ice Rocket allows users to exclude websites from searches they deem uninformative or untrustworthy, and Biro wonders if Yahoo or Google will follow suit.

The other side of personalized search comes from the search engine monitoring habits and geographical data, where two different people in two different places will get different results, based on previous searches and environmental issues.

"We'll get to a point when someone in California and I type in the same search phrase, but get different results," Beal says. "But it's so slow in becoming a reality that we're not getting there yet."

Other alterations on the horizon are video and audio search, further compounding the need for a successful SEO strategy.

"SEO firms will have to figure out a search world that's increasingly complicated," Hershberg says. "There will be [more] complexity [combined with] clients' desire for simplicity."


Technique tips

Do make sure all press releases have at least one version in HTML

Do keep an eye on developments at all search engine companies

Do begin talking about how video and audio search might affect your company

Don't worry about the environment completely changing

Don't discount things like Google Base just because they are in their infancy

Don't forget small search engines that might be driving innovation

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