Where can search engine optimisation go if the time-honoured technique of stuffing a page full of keywords no longer works? Fran Molloy discovers how search engines are beginning to understand the meaning and context of our words – and how we'll need to adjust.
Five years ago, search engine optimisation (SEO) was an arcane and boffin-like science; these days it's so mainstream that SEO scammers are up there with Viagra sellers in the junk-email stakes.
No longer the domain of the über-geek, SEO now even has its own voluminous, trademark-yellow Search Engine Optimization for Dummies book, co-authored by a well-known search guru, US online marketing consultant Bruce Clay.
And it's no wonder SEO is so hot right now; if you run an online business, your company is going to live or die by the place your website ranks in Google.
Search engine specialists have long stood by the mantra ‘keyword, keyword, keyword' when talking about the way to max out your page rank.
Years ago, web experts came to the fairly obvious conclusion that by getting the keywords included in your web copy, you'd be well on the way to search engine nirvana; and so, the SEO expert copywriter was born.
Plenty of smart commercial writers-for-hire put themselves ahead of the game years ago by learning to write copy that catered to the whims of Google – and was peppered throughout with target keywords.
But copywriter Glenn Murray caused something of a storm recently when he suggested that search engines are now so smart, that there's no need for specialist SEO copywriting.
Murray's recent blog post on the high-ranking Australian search engine industry blog Science for SEO was titled ‘SEO Copywriting is Dead'. In it, he said that a good copywriter could just forget about keyword optimisation.
"All we copywriters need worry about is writing helpful, informative, engaging, compelling copy," he wrote.
Keywords are, like, so last year
Murray, who has managed to carve out an influential web presence from his home office on the NSW Central Coast, says that five of his seven years of copywriting experience were spent as a specialist SEO copywriter.
Despite predicting the death of SEO copywriting, Murray's webpage, divinewrite.com, still lists his services as a web copy and SEO copy specialist.
"Google now is looking for more natural sorts of copy," says Murray.
"It's my belief that in five years, even customers will not be really searching for an SEO copywriter anymore when they want someone to write their copy, they'll be looking for just a plain copywriter again.
"Right now, mainstream clients are just coming on board with the whole SEO thing; many think that they're pretty cutting-edge early adopters by looking for an SEO copywriter, but I think that the term ‘SEO copywriter' is already outdated."
To test out his theory that keyword stuffing didn't improve search rankings, Murray compared some material he had written for print brochures with some copy that he had optimised for search engines by targeting particular keywords. He found that, just as he had begun to suspect, natural-sounding, helpful, on-topic copy was just as search-engine friendly as the copy that had been optimised for keywords.
"I believe that most businesses, particularly smaller businesses, can get away with just writing good quality, helpful, informative copy around the subjects that are important to their business," says Murray.
He says that we naturally write using words that are associated with the main subject rather than repeating a keyword; and these days, that's what Google is looking for.
"If you just focus heavily on one particular keyword or phrase and bang that across your copy everywhere, you're stuffing your page at the expense of related words that you should be using," he says.
"That might deteriorate your page ranking instead of boosting it."
Keyword stuffing is stuffed
Kate Gamble is a search manager with Bruce Clay's Australian office, advising plenty of heavy-hitting companies on how to improve their site rankings.
"People have always tried to stretch the limits with Google," she says. "A few years back, the algorithms were less discerning than they are now, and you would often get high-ranked sites that were not useful, just portals and links full of keywords."
Gamble says that writing copy over-stuffed with keywords has the reverse effect and is usually penalised by search engines. However, rumours of the death of SEO are pretty baseless – for now.
"I would argue the opposite; SEO is just getting started in terms of levels of sophistication," she says. "Having relevant content on the page is still probably one of the best things you can do to get your page to rank well."
Gamble explains that the latest algorithms driving Google have around 200 factors, many of them driven by the number of keywords on the page and what other words are on the page.
"Google picks the best websites based on the sample of websites they have available that use a particular keyword, so that suggests you can't possibly rank for a term if you don't have that keyword on the page, right?"
But then Gamble throws in a wildcard.
"We discovered about a year ago that the US site redsox.com ranked very well for baseball – despite no use of the keyword ‘baseball', not once on the entire website. The site mentions Red Sox, players, sponsors, coaches, past games – but never mentions baseball."
The Red Sox site was reaping the benefits of the many, many thousands of other websites that had used the term ‘red sox' on pages littered with the word baseball; Google had somehow absorbed the ‘brand building' of the century-old club name.
Gamble adds that this was a pivotal moment, when SEO experts started to realise that page ranking wasn't just about what's on the page – there was far more sophistication involved.
This is why search engine optimisation often includes extensive social media support and link building. Writing copy that attracts search engines is still just one part of the overall optimisation process, says Gamble.
"Keywords are critical for SEO and picking the right ones is the most important part of the process."
Is SEO a lost cause?
Glenn Murray is quick to point out that, while focusing on keywords in the site copy is no longer critical, keyword analysis and identifying keywords are still an important part of topic selection.
A long-standing debate continues to rage among copywriters in the SEO space about ‘keyword density' – that is, what percentage of the words on a web page should contain the keyword.
Of course, the debate goes on and on, but it seems that the definitive answer is that it all depends on the keyword.
As search engines have become more discerning, the optimum keyword density seems to have dropped to around 3% – but Murray says that he no longer uses keyword density as a measure.
"I used to promise clients I would optimise copy for a keyword density of up to 3% for the primary keyword phrase and up to 1% for your secondary keyword phrases," he says.
"But I no longer say that; now I supply a ‘tag cloud' for each page, illustrating what words are most prominent – and if their target keywords are prominent, then that's going to work."
Murray believes websites that have clearly been over-optimised – some with keywords occupying 10% and more of page copy – are being penalised with lower page ranks. There's a fine line between using the right keywords and keyword stuffing, he says.
"Google is smart enough now to determine whether your page is actually about what it says it's about. I don't think keywords in copy are anywhere near as much use as they were in the past."
While he believes that keyword analysis and choice is still a vitally important part of the overall SEO mix, he says that it's more critical to use these to cluster your pages around those subjects (called ‘siloing' by SEO geeks).
Will computers write content for you?
Sydney-based academic and search guru Marie-Claire Jenkins does SEO work on the side while researching her PhD on natural language processing and artificial intelligence.
Jenkins says she's worked on both sides of the SEO fence, building and optimising websites – but also building search engines and working on ranking algorithms.
Trained as a linguist, she has a Masters degree in computer science and her current research is intricately related to the future development of search engines.
"The problem for search engines for so long has been trying to understand language," she says.
"As with all areas of computing, that involves looking for patterns in the data, then recurring patterns become rules. But they have advanced so much, now machines are starting to understand what words mean, what sentences mean."
As a linguist, Jenkins says this is normal progression – just like the language development of a child. "If you can understand language, in a few more steps, you can generate it as well."
Prominent linguistic academics last century theorised about the importance of categorisation in language development – and as search engines evolve, these theories are becoming reality.
If Google can start generating its own content, perhaps full-time writers like me should enrol in a carpentry apprenticeship, I suggest.
"The point of machines generating language is not to replace humans, but to help them," says Jenkins, explaining that, as you enter a phrase into search or a paragraph into a word document, your computer can contextualise meaning from the surrounding words and deliver more targeted results for anything that you generate.
"The ideal is that your search engine understands exactly what you're doing, and gives you back an answer rather than a list of results."
Maybe keyword stuffing is just slowly dying, not dead.
Jenkins believes that using keywords to dictate content for your website is still a good strategy; particularly for those new to writing for websites.
"Glenn [Murray] is someone who's written good web content for years and years and it comes as second nature to him," she says.
"When you're writing copy for search engines, you need to centre yourself less around individual keywords and more around semantic fields. So if I'm writing about surfboards, I'll centre myself around that semantic field – I might talk about fins, rails, wax, and so on. There's a whole lot more to good copywriting than just getting the keywords in."
This is where search engines are headed in the immediate future, she adds.
"Google is already developing search algorithms that look at sentence level."
Is the future all semantics?
Jenkins says that the concept of the semantic web – touted as the next great development in internet technology – is widely misunderstood.
Most people assume it as all about the net becoming more human-like in its language recognition, particularly focusing on search results.
But the semantic web, as Tim Berners-Lee intended, involves putting tags on each bit of content on each webpage – a bit like the meta-tags used in HTML now – that can then be sorted and identified and aggregated by the super search engines of the future.
Sort of like Wolfram Alpha, but – you know – useful. (It's worth noting that Wikipedia now calls Wolfram Alpha an answer engine, not a search engine.)
I wonder how this will affect people who blog about their cats, and suspect those blogs will continue to have an audience of one.
Will the semantic web mean that the way you build a site – the actual tags you use and the way that you structure it – becomes more important than the content writing?
"Yes and no," says Jenkins helpfully. "What's going on around the semantic web is really about creating links in the data."
The end result is search engines that identify the portion of a webpage that is relevant – and then identify linking portions from related sites, creating a widening of the web.
Does this mean the end of webpages?
"Not yet," says Jenkins. "This is all stuff that's being developed at the moment."
And with the web likely to exist in its current incarnation for quite some time, she says: "I think that the best thing you can really do for your site is to write well, write really relevant stuff and keep it focused."
So there's plenty of life left in writing good content for the web – as long as you keep it lively. #