Trying to ‘trick’ Google to get high in search results is a short-term game. Ultimately all SEO techniques have to be totally natural if they want to future proof online exposure. Mark Preston, founder and director of WildShark, looks at Google’s attempt create their own ‘Frankenstein’ machines that can emulate human thought- and what this means for black hat and white hat SEO.
The Future of SEO is bright. So bright, in fact, that it’s quite blinding. The changes heralded by each new update to the Google Algorithm are so far-reaching in their implications that we must turn to science fiction writers and futurists to work out what may be in store. Which is exactly what Google have done, incidentally. Their Head of Engineering is none other than Ray Kurwzeil, our very own modern Dr Frankenstein, whose stated aims are to live forever and to bring his late father back from the dead.
Now, this may seem a world away from blogging, copy writing, UX and being mobile-ready, but it’s not as distant as it may seem. You see, Kurzweil’s brief at Google is to get the machines to understand natural language. In a word, he’s trying to make a machine that can actually read.
White Hat Vs. Black Hat
Those of us who know how the landscape of SEO has changed in the last few years already know that broadly speaking, there are two ways of going about optimising a website. In tech speak, they are the Black and the White Hat strategies. They represent the two extremes, and most SEO work falls somewhere between the two.
The White Hat strategies always play by the rules. It’s a cooperative, altruistic approach. The aim of the game is not to deceive anyone – not Google’s spiders, not the consumer. Loopholes are sought out only so the proper authorities can be notified and the loophole closed with all haste. White Hat strategists have relevant keywords in their content because they belong there, not because they’re attempting to artificially increase their density in the hope of affecting their rankings. This is an extreme – we are all trying to make money or sell products, but White Hat strategies rely on consumer confidence, and good service. They believe in the meritocracy.
Black Hat strategies, by contrast, are all about the loopholes. Find them, exploit them. It’s about getting things done, and not necessarily caring how it gets done, as long as you get results. This is competition, nature red in tooth and claw. One of the reasons Google is constantly updating its algorithms is to eliminate the effectiveness of any Black Hat strategy. You may have been doing this long enough to remember when the SEO business was, for some, all about using tricks with meta-tags and back-link generation that would fool Google’s spiders into thinking that a site had more going for it than it really did. These strategies would often work for a short time, but pretty soon Google would spot them and adjust their algorithms accordingly, and possibly sanction the offenders (BMW and Ricoh are two high-profile companies who were made to tow the line).
Just look back through the vast history of SEO articles and you will see that a new crop occurs every time Google releases a public update (there are thousands of updates that never get announced too). Top SEO people assess the new information and let the rest of us know what the implications are for our SEO strategies.
Anybody with a passing familiarity with Evolutionary Biology may notice we have an interesting situation developing here. We seem to be looking at a digital version of the Red Queen Hypothesis. Black Hat strategies act like predators or parasites on the world wide web. From an evolutionary standpoint, they are helping to drive the continued evolution of Google’s algorithms. But where are they driving them? Is it really possible to anticipate where all this is headed?
We’ve got a case of dynamic co-evolution happening here, but what is it that’s evolving? It’s a two way street; Google’s programmers are, in turn, helping to refine and redefine SEO strategies, White and Black.
A situation is developing in which there is simply no substitute for a high quality user experience (UX). This requires genuine, engaging content. What matters more and more to Google’s algorithms, what they are consistently attempting to program into them, is a realistic assessment of the UX. If the UX is positive, how does the user behave? It’s more subtle than just a CTR measurement, and there’s more to it than just back-links or even time spent on the page.
This is where Kurzweil and his team come in. Google need the users of the internet. It’s the users who are providing the data. Analysis of this data is showing that there is nothing quite like genuine, interesting content. There are no short cuts.
We are heading towards a point where the distinction between the Internet and the people who use it becomes rather indistinct. Google and Kurzweil are hoping to produce something that can read the internet, and understand what is written there, just like a human being. This is the technological Holy Grail.
You may have seen Benedict Cumberbatch’s latest film, about the eccentric English mathematician Alan Turing. Turing gave his name to a test that somehow lies at the heart of this tangle. The Turing Test is a test in which a computer has an on-screen conversation with a human being and manages to convince the human being that it is not a computer but a conscious human being too. No computer has yet succeeded. Siri is pretty impressive, but let’s face it, he’s nowhere near that yet.
The internet is like a thousand thousand versions of the Turing Test all running simultaneously. We have Black Hat Strategists acting robotically, inhumanly – treating the Internet like a mechanism to be exploited in whatever way they see fit. Google’s spiders, meanwhile are attempting to assess content as if they are actual human intelligences having actual end-user experiences, albeit rather faster than the average human user.
So where does that leave us, as White Hat SEO-ers?
It seems like the internet is driving us all towards quality. We’re being asked to dig a little deeper. Meta-tags and keywords are all now just window dressing around the most important thing of all – useful, interesting, genuine content from businesses and providers that mean what they say. This is what people want, and this is what Google are trying to program their algorithms to deliver. It’s becoming less and less possible to sling up a load of BS for a product or service that you don’t believe in, even if there’s a big pay-check in it. Unless people are genuinely engaged, Google are going to spot it a mile off. Try any funny stuff, cut corners, take shortcuts, and you’re trading off possible short-term gains for defninte long-term failure. You may even be actively penalised for your trouble.
The only viable long-term strategy is to produce work that you believe in, to do your very best. You’ve got to walk the walk. It may seem crazy to think of an AI that has our best interests at heart, but that is what Kurzweil has in mind, and the guy’s been right about quite a few other things so far.
By Mark Preston
Founder and director