The Future of SEO in a Personalized Search Interface

This is a debate that seems to have legs. A few posts back, I came to the defense of SEO from the user’s perspective.

In catching up with a few articles and chatting with a few key people in the industry, I’ve got another perspective that I’d like to share.

First of all, Joe Laratro in last Friday’s SearchInsider debunked Three SEO Myths, one of which was “Natural Search is Dead”. In it, Joe correctly stated:

“Natural search engine optimization is still thriving. It is more difficult today than it was five or six years ago, but the core of search results are still free. Natural Search Engine Optimization being dead is a popular myth because of the standardization of methodology that is now used. Each of the major search engines has released guidelines for Webmasters that detail the dos and don’ts of Web site optimization. Since more of the online world is aware of successful optimization techniques, they do not work as well. In other words, there is more competition from knowledgeable optimizers armed with the same toolsets.”

Back to this in a minute. Also, in sorting through some old articles set aside, I ran across this one from Todd Friesen about Learning the New Rules of Search. It touched on the same topic, looking at what might happen when SEO’s no longer have access to the intelligence tools they use on their competitors, through some type of authentication requirement.

“A move like this, which would block our ability to do competitive research at that level, would be a setback, if not a crushing blow, to SEO as we know it. That got me thinking. Where would that leave all of us search engine optimizers? What research avenues would be left?”

Finally, in the last few weeks, I have talked to representatives from the usability teams at Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. I asked each what was the major challenge for search. The answer varied slightly, but it all went to providing better results, aligned to individual intent. (By the way, I’m currently working on a series of articles from these interviews..more about this to come later)

So, to go back to the orginal reason for the post. What is the future of SEO? Both Joe and Todd are looking at this assuming the current paradigm of one query, one page of 10 organic results holds. In fact, the entire SEO industry is hanging on this paradigm. Right now, link baiting/building, optimization, competitive intelligence and all the rest are aimed at securing a top spot in the organic results. But what happens when there no longer is a “top spot” because every result is personalized, based on your geographic origin, your past search history, your behavior or preferences you’ve shared with the engines. That’s where search is going, through a number of different initiatives, and if less transparency with access to tools would deal a “crushing blow to SEO” imagine what that would do.

Now, that doesn’t make organic any less important to the user. In fact, the increase in personal relevancy will make it more important than ever. So I still stand by my original thought that organic results, of some kind, will always be part of the results set presented. But from a tactical perspective, the disappearance of universal search results throws a King Kong sized monkey wrench in the SEO works. In Canada, we’re already dealing with this as Google experiments with re-ordering organic search results based on Geo-targeting of user IP’s. The same is true in the UK and other markets.

But how do you tactically deliver SEO services in this new environment? The word ranking ceases to have meaning. There will always be a hierarchy in the results, but it will be different for each person. The control of measuring progress by positions achieved will come to a crashing halt and with it, the SEO industry as we know it. If you thought SEO was a black box before, wait til you try it under these new rules.

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