Despite the notion that to get ahead in SEO we need to be constantly evolving and have our fingers in front of or at least on the pulse, in many ways SEO is exactly the same now as it was 10 or 15 years ago.
This might appear, at first, to contradict most of what I said in this recent article about Google's 'Evil' Plan in which I argued that it is up to us as SEOs to make the most of Google's latest features and developments rather than moan about them.
It doesn't contradict it; if anything it complements it. Being up to date with the latest search developments doesn't mean you can neglect the traditional, functional and exceptional methods that have been employed for years, the sort of methods we teach on our 1-day SEO workshop.
After using possibly the best phrase ever committed to (digital) print: "(B)efore you publicly flagellate me for sounding off with such sacrilegious puffery, please continue reading", Adam Audette discusses this point in his excellent piece on Search Engine Land about the paradox between new and old SEO and comes to the conclusion that as more and more changes, more and more stays the same.
In this industry we suffer from, according to Audette, 'Shiny New Object' syndrome wherein we're so focused on the 'next big thing', we've already forgotten about the 'current big thing' or more importantly, the 'perennial big things'.
With all that in mind, I thought I'd take an analytical glance at 'old school' SEO tactics, how they've been updated or remained the same and whether you can teach a new dog old tricks (*hint - you can, that's what dog training classes are for).
Much of the issue as to whether old-school SEO still works comes from its broadening definition. What would have just been called 'SEO' in 2003 is now often called 'technical SEO'. I won't be just focusing on the technical aspects in this piece though, which is why I'm sticking with just 'SEO' as a title.
Add to all this the fact that 'traditional' marketing techniques have been absorbed into the definition of SEO, as well as having Social Media banging noisily at the door all the time, begging us to believe it's brought more with it than just pictures of small mammals and an abundance of misspellings (dnt gt me rong, im al lyk 'twitter n FB 4 lyf'), and it's no wonder that 'traditional' SEO is constantly being told (often by itself) that it's on the way out.
Defining SEO Now
So, to be clear and in no way patronising, let's take a quick look at what I mean by SEO in this context. My best mate Wikipedia has a definition that covers most of the bases:
"Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine's "natural" or un-paid ("organic") search results"
I also like a phrase that comes later in the definition:
"(SEOs seek to) remove barriers to the indexing activities of search engines". Removing barriers is as much as a part of our job as building ladders (needed to get over the barriers we can't remove?!)
AJ Kohn has a more comprehensive definition:
"Search Engine Optimization is a multidisciplinary activity that seeks to generate productive organic traffic from search engines via technically sound and connected sites by matching query intent with relevance and value."
The true definition probably falls somewhere between Wikipedia's and Kohn's: what we have is an industry whose proponents' main aim is to positively affect the position of their own term in results in whatever way necessary.
Defining SEO Then
Before we can look at 'old-school' SEO and the extent to which it has stayed the same we not only need to know the current definition, but know 'old' definitions, to make an initial comparison between the aims and techniques of then and now.
I had a little wade through Google and stumbled across this gem. From 2003, www.rankforsales.com (sounds legit!) had this to say - "(SEO is) a highly specialized process of building a successful website"
Now that sounds just as wishy-washy and generalised as a Wikipedia definition from 2013. Now we're getting somewhere!
It would appear that SEO has always been that guy dancing by himself in the corner at the party who is definitely on something but whose outward appearance gives nothing away as to what that something is.
In order to really examine SEO through the ages then, what we need to do is to tie down some key components of SEO that were there 'at the start'.
Let's focus on three 'traditional' SEO activities: meta tag optimisation, link building and content creation, and examine how the 'best practice' for each has changed.
But you can't have right without left, up without down, the force without the dark-side* (*obligatory Star Wars joke/pun/analogy) so I'm also going to take a look at how, despite the changes, these elements are as important as they've ever been.
Meta Tag Optimisation
How has it changed?
Mostly, it hasn't. It is still as important as ever to have a site that is in the truest sense, optimised. All the tags listed by Google as important are... get this... still important.
However, one tag which has its best days behind it is the keywords tag.
With Google's lack of regard for the keywords tag apparent to all, the idea of focusing any sort of significant time on it seems as crazy as the second half of a Harlem Shake video (current cultural reference that will be outdated in a month? Check.)
This statement from Matt Cutts in 2009 was pretty much the nail in the keyword-stuffed coffin, in it he said:
“Too many people have spammed that too much, so we don’t use that at all… We don’t use that information in our ranking even the least little bit.”
Finished. Done. End of story.
Or is it? (*hint - it's not.)
Why is it still important?
From a purely 'get my page higher on those searchy-things' perspective, meta tags have no intrinsic value. What they do do however, is make it possible for Google to do their job and well, funnily enough, that's kind of important when it comes to SEO.
It all comes back to the 'removing barriers' part of the Wikipedia definition. In fact, tags like the meta robots are essential - if you want to be indexed, you need to have them!
From a UX perspective meta tags have never lost their importance. Some, like the meta description, help the user understand what the page will be all about, and while this may be a benefit that seems intangible from a purely quantitive, 'where are we in the SERPs' assessment, the reality is (as my colleague Craig states in his piece about Customer Service in SEO) that human signals are becoming increasingly important and will only continue to be so.
That's not to say that we want perfectly crafted 156 character meta descriptions all over the SERPs - but in fact most of us these days concoct our opening sentence with at least some kind of nod (consciously or unconsciously) to how it will appear in the results.
And don't forget, just because Google has discounted meta keywords, doesn't mean Bing and others have.
How has it changed?
I realise that this is opening a whole can of worms. Link building as a practice has probably changed the most out of any of these traditional elements and is still changing all the time.
Post-Panda and especially post-Penguin, all the old techniques that were, even then, ethically dubious have been scrapped almost entirely.
No more buying links or reviews or posting irrelevant links in comments; link building is dead. Sort of...
Why is it still important?
As Rand Fishkin says in this excellent Whiteboard Friday, link building has changed entirely but that doesn't mean it no longer exists.
Link building is the bread and butter of SEO - it's just that we've had to switch to wholegrain and low-fat.
Quality, relevant links are always going to have enormous value and so (good) guest posting is still the way to go.
It's also worth investing some of your hard-earned moolah in Paddy Moogan's new book: 'The Link Building Book' - one of the most comprehensive resources available when formulating post-Panda and Penguin link building strategies.
Unfortunately, guest blogging happens to be another tactic that's abused and gamed as or more often than it's used well.
Link building done well can have a cataclysmic impact on rankings, but beyond that, outreach as an SEO policy can only be beneficial in the long-term. A strong and interactive community that spans sites and networks will soon be the key - to hark back to the point about human signals.
Building a link should never be the end goal, it should be a means to developing an engaged relationship with peers and clients as well as being something nice for the machines to chomp on.
How has it changed?
Since the Gates-meister himself said that content is king all the way back in the mid-90s (*if you remember this then you were definitely a 90s child - or you were born prior to the 90s.), everyone and their dog has been scrambling to create things that people and machines want. On our Content Marketing Course you'll learn how to strike this balance.
The problem is, that has led to such an abundance of quite frankly, barely palatable dross, that just having content is not enough.
It's no longer the case that a blog a day keeps the penalties away.
The monarch has been dethroned, by...
Why is it still important?
Seriously, if content is king then most of what's on the internet is a royal turd.
Great content, and by that I mean useful, interesting or fun stuff (*check, check and check, if I say so myself. Which I do.) should and does prevail - not just in the eyes of Google but in the eyes of those all important people again... 'the people'.
It is 'the people' who will have the biggest say in the long-run about whether they think something is any good. It is 'the people' who ultimately use a site or don't. It is 'the people' who have the power (at least on the internet)!
Google both recognises and encourages this.
Matt Cutts himself said way back in 2011 that 'Content trumps SEO'. That doesn't mean useless content for content's sake, that means decent, user-orientated content.
SEO by its nature is a constantly evolving industry and it becomes very easy to get caught up in the latest trend but it's also important to have one eye on the past
The truth is, a bit of common sense and a lot of good practice is what it takes to really be successful in SEO. Old essentials like those above, done with consideration and according to the current best practice, should stand you in pretty good stead. Of course coming on one of our SEO Training Courses would be your best bet for developing these skills!
So is SEO still the same as it ever was? 100% Yes and 100% No.
Glad we cleared that one up.