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Search engine optimization (SEO) – how search engines make money

The birth of SEO

In the early days of search, Yahoo! and its cohorts were run like Yellow Pages services: website owners submitted their sites for indexing, and search engines did their best to match up pages with search queries. Most ranking criteria centered on keyword density—did a given keyword show up in prominent places on the page? How many times did it occur in the page’s content?

It wasn’t long before website owners caught on to search algorithms and began to tailor their sites to meet search engines’ criteria. Search engine optimization was born! This meant that the first generation of web marketers had new tools to help get their content in front of the growing consumer base that was the Internet. It also meant that they could, through reverse-engineering the algorithm, easily create hundreds of pages that ranked for search terms without passing much value along to the searcher.

Life after Google

Google’s algorithm was based on a concept called PageRank, which weighed on-page factors against values passed from page to page via links. With PageRank, a link to a webpage becomes a “vote” for that page. It’s a form of social proof: the more people who agree that a site is worthwhile, the more credibility that site has.

Google quickly amassed a huge market share, edging out smaller competitors like AltaVista and toppling Yahoo!’s dominion over the search engine space. As more and more people turned to Google to shop, play, and find information, the Google SERPs (search engine results pages) became the place you had to be if you wanted to succeed online. In 2013, ComScore reported that Google had 67 percent of the U.S. search engine market share, trailed by Microsoft Bing and Yahoo! with 16.5 percent and 12.1 percent, respectively (http://mz.cm/XOG96n). Eager to reach customers on the web, more and more businesses are turning to SEO as a major revenue stream.

Cracking down

As Google rose to ascendancy in the search engine market, attempts to exploit the algorithm cropped up as fast as Google could squash them down. With updates to Google’s algorithm coming every few months, new ways to game the system had plenty of time to take effect before the next crackdown.

One major upheaval as a result of Penguin was the changing focus on link anchor text. Google had long-named keyword-rich anchor text in inbound links as an indicator of quality, but eventually also found that a high percentage of inbound links with keyword-rich anchor text (as opposed to the name of the website or generic text like “click here”) was also a sign of an unnatural link profile. Like Panda, Penguin is a periodic fix that Google runs to catch new offenders.

How search engines make money

When learning how to rank in search engines, it’s helpful to remember that search engines aren’t public services; they’re businesses, out there to make money. Google’s market share is an asset that can be used to sell ads. Sixty-seven percent of the available eyeballs in the U.S. are looking at Google when they’re searching, and that’s an audience advertisers can’t afford to ignore. Charging advertisers to get their ads in front of those eyeballs is what drives Google’s bottom line.

The future of search

In addition to a lot of volatility in the SERPs, the last couple of years have brought some really exciting opportunities and resources for search marketers. In 2011, Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft all agreed to support structured data through Schema.org. Now we have a hugely expanded ability to give search engines more information about different types of data on our sites, allowing for faster, more thorough parsing of that data.

Structured data has also led to “rich snippets” showing in search results, which may contain information about the page’s author, pictures from the page, reviews of a product or service, or more. These snippets can result in higher click-through rates on search results, even if they aren’t in the coveted top three positions.

The advent of social media platforms has also fundamentally changed the web, and web marketing along with it. In the early days of SEO, content creation online was limited to people who had their own websites or blogs. Social media changed all of that. Today anyone can create content on the Internet, and everyone is creating it—from Facebook statuses to tweets to Tumblers to Yelp reviews. People are interacting online all day, not only with each other but with brands and businesses as well.

Search engines see social media activity as a measure of social proof much like links are (hence the saying “Likes are the new links” among SEOs). Google and company aren’t about to ignore this vast buffet of data on what people like, how they interact, and what they’re looking for—and neither should web marketers. We have so many new opportunities to get our content and products out there and to really engage with consumers. In the modern world of search, businesses need to be participating in conversations around their brands, because they’re happening whether the business participates or not.

Last thought

The most exciting development in SEO has been how much the industry has grown up over the years. SEO has gone from something only a small group of hackers and cutting-edge marketers were doing to a full, legitimate industry. Businesses that might still have been buying Yellow Pages ads five years ago are investing in inbound marketing instead.

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