Search engine optimization started out as a simple technique for making sure a Web page received favorable position in any results index. Back in 1997, when search engines calculated rank by relying on page factors, this was easily accomplished by Webmasters. These folks knew how to calculate keyword frequency and density, and they could boost pages where the search query was present in prominent parts of the page, such as the title field, the headline or the first paragraph of a text.
That worked just fine until spammers began to flood search engines by excessively repeating keyword phrases and using tiny typefaces, or so-called invisible text (text in the same color as the background). Search engine operators replied by banning sites using such techniques. They also made algorithms more complicated and, thus, much harder to manipulate.
What really turned search engine optimization from something approaching an exact science into an occult art was when engines started taking off-page factors into consideration. The popular Google search engine did not abandon on-page criteria, but it added page popularity to the algorithm. In short, it took the number and types of sites pointing to your page as an indication of quality.
In the old days, a search engine optimization expert could change one page one day and get an improved ranking the next. But not only did the search engines take months to refresh their databases, a page also had to get other sites to link to it.
The worst was yet to come.
The dot-com crash killed off several search engines, leaving only a couple worth optimizing for, thus giving search engine optimization customers even less value for the money.
In the old days, a search engine optimization expert could change one page one day and get an improved ranking the next.
Just think how this will go over with your client:
"Yes, we have brought your site to a number one position in the search engine results. The problem is that AOL or MSN will first serve the visitor PPC results, then some special editorial pickings, and then hand-picked directory listings. Your site is, however, number one at page three!"
Is the search engine optimization adventure over? Probably not. Understanding the way search engines "think" is no longer enough. Search engine optimization experts must, in the words of search engine expert Danny Sullivan, become search engine marketing experts.
Traditional search engine optimization experts have intimate knowledge of how Web surfers behave online. They may use this knowledge when developing wider search engine marketing strategies. They know, for instance, how to find well-targeted keyword phrases that are used by searchers, and they can use this knowledge to determine what phrases to bid on in PPC auctions.
Understanding the way search engines "think" is no longer enough. Search engine optimization experts must, in the words of search engine expert Danny Sullivan, become search engine marketing experts.
One could say that the search engine optimization experts must change from being "reverse engineers" that calculate keyword frequencies to becoming more like online communications experts. The search engine marketing professional could, for instance, give advice on how to write good copy that attracts buyers as well as search engines, or on how to design Web pages that are easy to navigate for human beings and search engines alike.
Given how traditional advertising agencies are normally not that good at this, there should be room for these new search engine marketers. Imagine the following pay-per-click text ad: "Search Engine Marketing, Communication and Navigation Services: We lead visitors over your doorstep and make them stay!"
Per Koch contributed to this column.