A decade ago, SEO reigned as a false king. Attention was drawn to the places that spoke loudest, rather than those that spoke best – with greater accuracy, relevance and authority. Before Google’s algorithm became more sophisticated, placing a greater emphasis on quality – and authority – over quantity, content mills were the weapon of choice. Paragraphs were injected with a surfeit of keywords; the language contorted to accommodate them. We’ve moved on from those times, but now SEO must contend with another, altogether different reality: misinformation.
What’s changing: a new age
The pandemic has changed how we view and use SEO, and heightened the onus on search engines to improve the accuracy of results. Living shut-in lives, our existences a series of familiar hallways and familial settings, search engines have become our primary point of access into the wider world. Outside of that which is curated through feeds, the majority of questions and enquiries are now satisfied through a search bar. And in such a time of global crisis, this includes critical questions, such as the origins of a crisis, or solutions to its ailments. Not always, but often enough, what’s returned is what’s believed. While we have a responsibility to research and trust only credible, authoritative sources, the emotional mind is often quicker to the draw than the rationale.
Both search engines and brands have a vested interest in curbing the spread of misinformation. Brands face the danger of tangential connection to the sensational, fictionalised or unverified, and the subsequent reputational impact. Unverified conspiracy theories can be connected with brands through metadata – and, due to pattern recognition, frequent connections breed further connections. This is a danger especially for companies currently transitioning to digital-first models in the wake of the pandemic, and who may still possess a rudimentary knowledge of SEO and the base but not-quite-right assumption that the repetition of frequently used keyboards lead to more frequent connections. The importance of SEO is underscored by the danger of ignoring it.
These are times of transition. During the last financial crisis, the nature, role and impact of SEO changed dramatically; now, it’s likely we’ll witness another, catalysed by the simultaneous crises of a global recession and the battle to once more establish a baseline of truth and fiction. Key to this new transition will be AI-assisted technologies: the recognition and incorporation of context – the intention behind the action – in SEO results. This will deliver more actionable insights to SEO engineers, and a greater understanding of how the searcher arrived, their objective, and whether the content offered matched their intention.
SEO as brand (and culture) shaper
What we find influences how we think. If the only means to find out information is through a search engine, it follows that it has a critical role in shaping mindsets – a role that will only grow with new technologies and greater sophistication. Good SEO optimisation that approximates the intention behind the keywords – meeting visitor expectation with results – lasts. It doesn’t have a shelf life. Bad optimisation, however, does – and worse, may inadvertently create a source of bad traffic. A page that performs well but fails to meet visitors’ expectations is likely to create a stream of negativity rather than positivity, and audience behaviour is dictated in large part by first impressions.
The challenges we face require that SEO assume a greater societal – even ethical – responsibility. If SEO, as with other algorithms, can guide how we think and what we come to believe, then those responsible for it must ensure the quantity of traffic does not come at the expense of quality, or of brand reputation, or – indeed – of societal health. Being the loudest does not mean being the clearest. It’s critical that SEO teams work with content production and wider marketing teams to ensure that the user’s journey is – to a lesser or greater degree – a positive journey. That they arrive where they wanted, find what they needed and can be reassured of the speaker’s authority through facts, rather than relying on emotional triggers.
The risks, and how to navigate them
The risk of poor SEO is not only that a business fails to net positive results – and does not increase their traffic and engagement – but succeeds in increasing their negative results: unmet expectations, brand damage and potential customers that fail to convert. The correlation can be indirect as well as direct. And here’s the rub: it’s not always clear. To know correlation requires careful analysis and broader research, including individual user feedback, to verify what information led to a specific action, and whether the impression made was ultimately positive or negative. Data may be concrete, but interpretation of data is not; rather, it’s fluid and changeable, susceptible to varying perceptions.
Google does release information on its algorithm, but it remains opaque, and many factors remain undisclosed. For example, there’s an ongoing discussion about the relevance of LSI (Latency Semantic Indexing) keywords, which are part of a natural-learning process. Put simply, this is where ambiguity creeps in: the words used by a searcher do not necessarily reflect the words used to index the corresponding information. Through synonyms, metonyms and associations between words, a searcher may end up acquiring a very different set of information to the one intended. Oftentimes, this is essential, and may lead to better results, but it can also lead the searcher astray. We may interpret the role and significance of LSI keywords from data, but, for now, data and the (sometimes differing) opinions of experts is all we have to rely on. Understanding SEO is an evolution, in which interpretation and supposition play key roles – as well as requiring a healthy dose of scepticism.
Protection comes through preparation. SEO is the main way modern audiences acquire information. What information they acquire, and what they interpret of your product, brand or company as a result, is a key factor in success. For SEO engineers, this means continually challenging assumptions through data, and questioning the broader value of a SEO strategy over its quantifiable goals. What does the traffic lead do, and what does the engagement mean? Successful brands are defined by their wider impact. Most correlation studies are unreliable, and likely always will be. Continual analysis is necessary for continued learning.
As the weighting of authority-based content increases – in no small part to stabilise the fact-versus-fiction equilibrium – companies will need to place greater value on fact checking. The accurateness and veracity of content determines not only its long-term value to the reader, but whether it is discovered at all – and how future content is ranked.
SEO’s role has changed, and will continue to do so. With increased reliance comes increased responsibility: the figurative window to our world, SEO has the power to both distort and clarify what we see. Audiences will continue to appreciate brands that clarify, educate and lead, and reject those that bend facts to support emotional hooks. SEO requires an investment – and a substantial amount of self-education – but its importance has never been higher, nor its impact greater. To learn more about creating, developing or perfecting your SEO strategy, and how it can help you establish lasting connections with new audiences, contact us today.