Ushering In The New World Search Order

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 06/27/2013

I stepped down from the role of being a Director of SEO (search engine optimization) Strategy at 360i, and into an internal projects role with the title Marketing Technologist. This is a calculated career risk, in order to re-emerge a better SEO than ever. I’m timing my personal career transformation to go along with what I believe to be the transformation that’s well underway in the SEO industry. This article explains the career maneuver.

I’m now deep-diving into acquiring new domain expertise in areas that are far from SEO. You might call it quick-and-clean SWAT-team programming. This might seem like an excessive detour, but I describe why I believe it’s necessary for the next generation of marketing, and why it will allow me to to re-emerge unencumbered by old habits and notions—still, with their roots in Google version 1.0 from the days of yore.

For you see, Eric Schmidt spilled the beans with this quote given to The Wall Street Journal regarding his new book: “Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.”

There you have it—the future. Google+ and author verification is bigger than anyone imagines. So unless you believe Bing can change the game, or DuckDuckGo will take the world by storm, this spells out a new-world search-order in which your online reputation matters more than how well you can slice and dice content. As further evidence, a few weeks ago, Matt Cutts spelled out in a new video that they will be identifying the domain expertise of individuals as a ranking criteria. And so the long-awaited second shoe is dropping in regard to Google+ and its ability to impact search results—the first shoe being author photos in results.

What this means for marketers is that you will have to actually be someone noteworthy in Google+ in order get content positioned well in search results—and probably only content related to your area of expertise. That basically kills the part of the SEO industry that moves traffic on competitive highly trafficked terms by manipulating links with domains deemed authoritative on particular subject-matter. In the new order, influential sites that confer relevancy on a topic are replaced by influential people.

An SEO expert might be able to build their own personal influence in one or two areas, but couldn’t possibly do so in all the areas that impact the results of all their clients. SEOs buoying content using their own identities would result in a neighborhood of cross-linking marketing experts and their clients—not a genuine “signature” of authority in the client’s field. And it’s harder to fake valuable identities than it is content. And so everything changes. The giant reset button is hit on the SEO industry, as surely as it was in the transition from AltaVista to Google 15 years ago. Only now, it’s from Google 1.0 to Google 2.0 that trades in the old link graph for the people graph.

This is not just more scuttlebutt. This is a response to 15 years of spam being tossed out into the Net for the specific purpose of influencing search results—often to make money directly from Google themselves with AdSense. There was almost no accountability, and these dumping grounds became a polluted wasteland.

But now that Google has “made it” and has all the really big premium advertising customers, the AdSense wasteland isn’t so important anymore. In fact, it’s a liability now to Google, so we’re seeing the early stages of the cleanup. Google is re-architecting itself around people. Calling it “social” and making fun of Google+ as a ghost-town is misleading. In the giant entity relationship diagram (ERD) that is Google, the box labeled “people” is now at the top—the master record, such as it were. Forget a Facebook killer. We’re talking about Google’s own Google killer. Evidence?

In 2009, Eric Schmidt called the Internet a cesspool and that they were going to start to cleaning it up—and shortly thereafter you had the Panda and Penguin anti-spam initiatives. Think of it as polishing the family jewels while getting ready to trade them in for something infinitely better, funded by the $40 billion cash cow that it AdWords—urgently motivated to affect this change, because that gravy train just doesn’t translate as well to mobile. Google has a very similar problem to Facebook with mobile revenue—the thing that torpedoed the FB IPO. AdWords is mostly a desktop thing. So, Google is a castle built on clouds, and Google+ is a hail-Mary attempt to pour concrete foundations.

Now not everything Eric says is not spot-on prophetic, but in regards to future initiatives, Google doesn’t really keep it’s cards close to its chest like Apple does. So, whereas Apple relies on surprising everyone with a big unveiling impressing everyone with what they had no idea they needed, Google spells it out and relies on massively iterated and time-tested evolution—such as Google Glasses and self-navigating cars. Google’s long-bets are mostly placed right out in public. And a people-powered Google+ actually replacing Google as we know it is one of those long bets.

And so when Erik puts such a core-DNA change so bluntly, listen! I expect Eric’s recent quotes regarding identity and relevancy to be much more sweeping than those regarding mere spam filters. It’s a refactoring of the very ERD-diagram underneath Google—but this time around people rather than pages. It’s deploying a profoundly strong spam immunity system based on ferreting out root causes of sickness (cancerous people). Google+ is the new reputation and accountability system—the new family jewels. It’s more than enough to prompt me to make a career switch.

What do I mean by an accountability system? Well, under the old scheme, performing some sort of audit to purge all the junk in the link graph is impossible due to nearly infinite potential content. You can always spin out more pages, sites and even entire companies to manipulate search results. It’s like there being nothing to stopping the printing of money—except for out of control inflation and currency becoming diluted and worthless. You need a fixed gold-standard. Something that isn’t easily diluted and can be trusted.

So how can you ensure content is genuine in the old PageRank system? The answer is, you can’t. Not reliably, at least because there’s nothing to cross-reference with, and no meaningful penalties for abuse. You just have to throw it out and start over. But you can’t let anyone know you’re doing it, because everyone thinks its the family jewels. So you have to reinvent yourself and do the old swap-a-roo while everyone’s joking about your ghost-town.

Meanwhile, without people realizing it, they themselves become the gold standard. Cross referencing content with the value of people connected to it is pretty easy, because there’s only about 7 billion of us—a pretty small number in computer terms, making human beings the gold standard for relevance currency. People with real identities and noteworthy content become inextricably interlinked with content in the new Google+ link graph, and rigorous meaningful anti-spam audits with real penalties become possible.

Therefore, it’s not enough anymore to just be a technical guru behind closed doors manipulating virtual objects like pages, sites and meta data—something I have became very adept at doing over the past 15 years. That kind of content, no matter how high-quality, will be “invisible” in the new order. You now have to actually proclaim your expertise via a Google+ profile and accumulate a preponderance of evidence that you are in fact the real deal. This evidence comes in via crowd-sourced voting with the +1 button on content that is bi-directionally signed with author verification (contributes-to & rel=author). Again, this presses the “reset button” on a lot of SEO careers.

But wait! There’s more! Consider the seldom-discussed impact of Google+ Circles on the new link graph. Specifically, think about what happens when you make a new circle to drop people into. You’ve got to name that circle. BAM! Meta keywords tied to people. Really think about what Google just did with that.

How many circles with the letters SEO in the name has Danny Sullivan been dropped into? The answer is about 1.8 million. Danny is a very active Google+ participant. But look at an inactive G+ profile like Seth Goden who did nothing more than activate his G+ profile. He’s already in over 100K circles, doing nothing—he merely answered “Yes” when Google pestered him to upgrade his Gmail account to Google Plus (like we all did). And Seth himself active or not, that G+ profile is now hard at work. How many of those circles that Seth’s been dropped into have the word “marketing” in it? The answer is probably most of those 100K circles. How much influence do you think he’ll have on search results when he signs or +1’s content? The answer is: a lot.

See? The groundwork to replace PageRank and the link graph with something much more identity-centric had been fully laid for some time now. It just takes time to accumulate a critical mass of data, so that no one will even miss the old (trashy) content. In this new scheme, old content doesn’t simply drop out. Worthwhile stuff gets a drop-hook lowered to it by the hovering G+ system (think Shield headquarters). When the day comes for the bottom to drop out, this meritorious old content gets buoyed—and bye bye spam.

This might sound bad for the endless flow of new and sometimes meritorious content that flows out onto the net, sometimes labeled “the long-tail”, but experts in the obscure fields will gradually buoy (lay claim & vote-up) whatever meritorious content actually exists until all the good stuff is safe. It’ll just take a while—back to the critical-mass concept and Eric Schmidt’s quote about information having to be tied to verified online profiles, or else maybe become irrelevant. People will jump on the G+ bandwagon when they realize how important is is to do so.

The old crawl-based system isn’t dead. I surmise that even under the new scheme, if you keep digging into search results, you will eventually get back to a more purely crawl-and-link-graph driven experience—sort of a way to churn up new stuff and dribble more content into the system, which in-turn can be “discovered” by folks of authority, who then can buoy up the content with buttonless +1 votes. But the true garbage stays at the bottom, and eventually gets swept away. This new graph is still really just links—only of a different kind than anchor-text.

Gone are the days of a handful of super-influential invisible-hand webmasters secretly manipulating the net topography with HTML code, and upon us are the days of hundreds of thousands of crowd sourced voters. In this new scheme, what still remains important is the smartly chosen, unchanging URLs—for these are the targets of all that social media voting goodness. And unfortunately, the social media equivalent of the 301 redirect is a long way off. So, don’t let your social media counters get reset on you! If old-school SEO’s need safe haven this new social linking landscape, then all the technical details about making your assets good long-term targets for social media may be the way to go. SEOs become target technicians.

Okay, so what about next generation spammers? You say they will just now spin-out endless social media profiles and get right back to the business of polluting the net? You cite the statistics that say already one in five is for market manipulation? Well, anti-spam systems are much more effective in this new world than they were before because you can find the offenders and chop off their head, killing their entire network of influence at the source. Conversely, genuine hard-won social profiles that have complete lifetime histories to them will increasingly become effective and difficult to fake—akin to real-life reputations. Bots faking it here will need to be very interesting, well-rounded creatures indeed.

And those lifetime online reputations are where I’m shifting my focus now—by working on my own. What I’m saying is that in order to be influential (at least in your expertise domain), you actually now have to walk the walk. It’s not enough to just say that you’re now an authority on being an authority—an obvious choice for career-jockeying SEOs. This may work for certain super stars whose genuine link-cruft will help them in the new order, like Danny or Rand. But it’s really bad for the invisible hands unknowns like me. We have to step out into the spotlight and demonstrate our mad skillz.

And so, we go full circle back to my career choice. it’s time to be a hands-on implementor again—then building my reputation by teaching others how also how to implement. Thankfully, I work for an enlightened agency where such a career adjustment is possible. They see the wisdom in my desired change. And I hope to sell them on the idea of teaching in tandem.