Sudden Social Soil Liquefaction in SEO… When?

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 08/10/2012

Okay, I can feel client work heating up again. My last two days of journal entries have been flops. I’ve been put on another in-jeopardy account to do my ride-in-on-a-white-horse routine. Helping the agency with these needs pays for the rest of my time—preparing for SEO to become disrupted and helping the agency to navigate its SEO practice through those turbulent waters. That’s my special skill: a healthy paranoia and mad skilz to adapt.sudden social soil liquefaction seo

Meetings have also been increasing. And as per my review feedback, I’m trying to become less distant from the team. As I discussed with a coworker yesterday, it is precisely this “going into my own head” that makes me effective. I have to strike the correct balance, and solving puzzles like this is precisely what life is about. Everything you want and need to do is not always compatible until you really get creative.

I know I have course-correction to do, because my day-to-day work is increasingly misaligned with my mission—a technology education curriculum that could allow you to reboot society (based on the presumption that such deep knowledge will help you everywhere in tomorrow’s future). I need to tweak things here and there to re-align. But what to tweak?

There are really two different sweeping methodologies in life: “black box” in which you find a simple trick that works and go with it. Don’t bother learning too deeply. On occasion, incorporate a new trick. The other approach is “the hacker” in which you get under the hood and try to understand the reason for things, perhaps in hopes of improving it. Both have their merits, and varying degrees of effectiveness according to the situation and times.

The thing to realize is that the hacker approach is still black box—just progressively smaller and less abstract boxes. We haven’t yet seen into the mind of G-d, though pinpointing the Higgs Boson particle is getting us closer. But until then, the difference between a hacker and a black boxer is merely the level of detail one pursues in understanding the input/output of the various black boxes besides each other and inside one another.

As open as your open source code may be, it’s running on black box hardware and processors. Even if your hardware were open source, it’s relying on the semiconducting behavior of materials that makes logic gates possible. Maybe a handful of people truly understand that magic, but look at the next level down, and you’ve got quantum physics. It’s vastly too much for one person to know everything, so individuals focus on improving this black-box or that.

Picture the black boxes as levels in a pyramid. They also represent the giants whose shoulders we are standing on—usually a few great men or women behind each. Someone first understood that plain old fashioned switches are logic. Then someone understood that enough logic is computing. Then that vacuum tubes are smaller and faster switches. Then that transistors are smaller and faster vacuum tubes. We now realize that logic switching can be done at the subatomic quantum scale—and that binary switching isn’t always the best way to do processing. But I digress. We’re still at the integrated transistor level in everyday life.

I suppose I went on that hacker vs. black box approach is that the main tricks of SEO is like the black box approach—with the possible exception of the black hat crowd, who are most definitely hackers. I say this because the basic rules and tenants of SEO have been unchanging for about 15 years. Sure, they changed the weighting of different factors, and set threshholds to catch and penalize spammers. But the basic underlying rules have been unchanging—line up the crosshairs—put the targeted keyword that you have a reasonable chance of achieving in the title, URL, headline, and one or two places on the page, then link to that page using the same phrase-match keyword in the anchor text of links. The higher the PageRank and closer the topical similarity of the page you’re linking from, the higher you can push up your target page in the results.

It is those fundamentals that are shifting. They’re not shifting dramatically or overnight. But the writing is on the wall. Something having to do with a critical mass of social data will replace PageRank, because it simply has to. PageRank is actually social too, but it’s social between invisible-hand unaccountable webmasters. The value of PageRank and anchor text analysis and the link graph are gradually diminishing—or at least not going up at the same rate as the value of rapidly accumulating social signals. Soon, there will be a cross-over. And when that cross-over occurs… well, that’s where the idea of sudden soil liquefaction occurs.

Flash forward… the whole day has passed. Prior to this paragraph, the entire blog post was on the subway going into work. I didn’t even have the energy to write on the ride home. This will just close out comments on the day. The introduction to the new client went well. This is exactly the sort of account that I’m good at. I’ve picked apart their situation well. They are a category killer with a top position on a coveted keyword, which is their bread and butter. But they have also reached the point of diminishing returns on additional efforts in excessively similar keyword-space. It’s time to “spiral out” to other keyword spaces that they service.

I also spent a lot of time as it happens refining that Future of SEO Powerpoint. I have to re-record it, because we forgot to turn off the pointer on the screencast recording, but that’s fine because I used the time to improve the graphics and improve the script. I really want this one to be up to snuff with the spot-on accurate fortune-telling I did in 2009. Things are equally as clear to me now. I’m not as grave about the situation as Aaron Wall and WordStream. But I do see an attack on “free listings”—what we call natural or organic results. There’s nothing natural or organic about them. They’re algorithmically generated editorial content that’s paid-for by the ads. A balance will be struck, but one that cherry-picks the best attention-space for ads, and marginalizes the SEO world a bit. Perhaps not so much to kill off all the good guys, but certainly enough to disinvent the bad guys.

With all these Panda and Penguin algorithm updates, coupled with all the Webmaster Tools warnings to webmasters about suspected bad links, I can’t help but feel there is an attempt to squeeze out a few more years of life from PageRank while social signals aquire enough critical mass to replace them. On that day, having the a href link manipulation skills will be about as useful as your old Active Server Page skills. Sure, a few fundamentals will carry over. Site hierarchy will still be important in order to avoid the target dilution problem. And you will still want to line-up the keyword crosshairs. But now, it’s all for different reasons. Now, it’s to make the best possible URL destination “canvas” upon which to work your social SEO magic.