SEO Killed Internet Democracy: The Republic of Authority Reigns

If there is one thing that’s constant in web promotion and SEO, its that search results change.  After a few “Google dances,” all rookie webmasters should learn to never get complacent about SERP positions because links can fade and new algorithms can make old strategies irrelevant. Remember, if you’re standing still, you’re actually sinking.  In the last few years, there’s been a subtle-but-distinct trend toward cutting out the noise of an often corrupt and noisy web Democracy, and that trend is rewarding authority sites and recognizable web brands with the titles of aristocracy in a new online Republic.

Brand and Authority – The Aristocracy

A particular SEO vulnerability allowed for relatively unknown domains to rank for specific keyword phrases by excessively optimizing for the terms.  Deep links were relatively powerful, and just a few anchor-text/title matches could promote a site to the front page for just one of its URLs. Super-specialized URLs could overpower the broader obscurity of a site.  This was really easy to accomplish just two years ago when I started publishing online and it gave me a good start financially to explore refining my efforts.

But to counter-act this, Google has been placing more emphases on the sites with signs of activity and overall authority. Not every SEO really has passion for the writing and coding they promote, and a pure profit-motive frequently delivers a poor experience to the surfer.

We can be fairly certain that Google is constantly in the process of expanding the number of variables they’re considering and evaluating how they are ranked, but we can really only speculate on what exactly the important variables of the month are.  The most common guesses would assign high value to the following variables, in no particular order:

  • Frequency of Content Updates
  • Typical Rate of Link Acquisition
  • Value and Source of Links
  • Homepage Pagerank
  • Engagement Signals (Bounce rate, comments, time on page)
  • Non-hyper-linked brand mentions
  • “Depth” of content (more unique words, images, videos, PDFs)
  • Feed Subscriptions
  • Exclusive Subject/Niche Focus

We do know that Google is doing its best to collect all of this data, but we don’t know exactly how its being used and what relative weight is assigned to each of the factors that are considered.

And while small, ultra-specialized sites are still fairly successful, it only seems to work well now if the entire domain is dedicated to a singular purpose.  If you’re branching out beyond one topic, your site will need to show more popularity in all of them before the specialized keywords connect.  In short, you can’t half ass your link-bait and focus on generating links for your best sales pages.

Google followed its customers – The People Have Spoken

This trend toward brand and authority isn’t something Google decided to push the internet toward.  It was a movement pioneered by the searchers themselves.  People were adding “wikipedia,” “youtube,” and “myspace” to a huge number of search queries and Google has no choice but to give searchers what they want.  If you only learn one thing about SEO, learn this:  Google has to deliver the best search results to stay in business – everything else is made possible because searchers like the service.

So while the internet version 2.0 promised to strengthen the web’s democracy by giving everyone a voice and a vote, we actually ended up with something more like an aristocratic republic.  Webmasters (property owners) get a vote relative to the value of their properties, but commenters and social-sphere contributors have mostly been filtered out of the search engine voting process.  Don’t act surprised now, when was the last time you heard someone talk about the “Democracy of the Web?”  Collectively, some social sites may have a significant vote left, but the vast majority have opted out with the wide use of the nofollow attribute on outbound links.  And don’t act sad either, if you’re interested enough in SEO to read this far in you probably wanted to vote twice or ten times yourself.

As blogs and bookmarking sites were the most easily abused by SEOs, these were the democratic votes that had to be filtered out.  Unfortunately for proponents of a more egalitarian web, the average surfer has never had less influence on how the information of the web is stored by search engines.  As political analysts rave about the democratizing effect of the web in Iran and China, they haven’t talked much about how the web itself is recoiling and backing away from that very democracy.

Long Live the Republic?

Where direct democracy is susceptible to fraud and absurd or extreme whims (remember when searching for “failure” took you to Bush’s biography?), a Republic concentrates more power in fewer hands.  “Power bloggers,”  mainstream news outlets, and “power-Diggers” get to vote on behalf of their followers.  This may theoretically lead to a circle of self-reference and a “shallow web.”  Unchecked and taken to the extreme, much of the diversity and sporadic innovation that marked the web’s early days could become less common as established interests protect their spheres-of-authority.  Instead of mass movements and a herd-mentality, you’re liable to end up with conspiracies among the powerful and cartels designed to preserve control and influence.

In fact, the lack of an industry aristocracy may have been a reason why web publishers have been under-represented in American politics.  Other economic sectors form cartel-like associations in order to co-ordinate lobbying efforts and industry standards:  as much as it interferes with innovation and competition, it does provide member businesses with political advantages like favorable regulation and even state funded subsidies.  The temptation to consolidate for political advantage must be strong:  With banks and auto-makers gorging themselves at the trough, Silicone Valley has never been hungrier.

The Democracy is done – and we’ll probably have a few years or decades under the Republic before its unwanted effects become extreme enough to spin another revolution around the wheel of adaptation.  The trend is still pulling toward a more stable web product with a higher minimum-quality threshold, and there’s probably more push toward that until we simply find ourselves completely bored with its predictability.

Will Google Caffeine be the first step toward reversing the trend?  Although the current sandbox results suggest many of the penalties and filters have been relaxed, it seems counter-intuitive that they’d release a more SEO-friendly search just a few months after the July/August 2009 update took an iron fist to all sorts of link schemes and keyword strategies.  Until it goes live, we won’t really know if they’re intentionally left out or not applied until release.

Of course, the internet isn’t a country and Google isn’t the government of it:  The parallels are just strong.  As popular as the Google brand is in search and online services, they’re not immune to competition like a public bureaucracy is.  If we don’t like the Republic of Google, we’re free to surf and draw traffic from any other site out there – and that’s the option that could restore our Internet Democracy at any moment we wanted to.  In the meantime, I’ll keep voting for the Republic every time I cash an Adwords check, or send an IM on G-chat, or analyze my traffic in Analytics, or study surfing trends.. or study advertising trends with the Adwords Keyword Tool.. or.. well, I think you get the idea.

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