The Human Touch of SEO

As online marketers become more aggressive with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) campaigns, there can become a point at which businesses begin to over-optimize. When focusing purely on SEO, many companies lose sight of the end goal, which is to provide information to users.

Even when you are following all of the more recognized SEO rules, when is optimization overdone and how can you prevent this from happening on your website? Are there Tsunami warning indicators to get out of the game before Google's next Panda or Farmer update? And how do you find the ideal balance for your site, not overdoing SEO but also not leaving organic search traffic to your competitors?

High Tech Meets High Touch

In the last few years, savvy marketers have learned that sometimes less really is more when it comes to website optimization. It has become too overblown for its own good. There are clear indicators that it is time to get back to basics, be true to your brand and serve as that expert source, while not adding to the clutter.

As the SEO market has matured over the last 15 years, many advances have enabled online marketers to make smart decisions based on usable data. Many SEO enhancements have revolutionized the way we think about online marketing, and how we help educate consumers while personalizing their online experience.

But at what point does this cross the line and get too tangled up in itself? How you use tools to ensure that your website is found by the right audience at the right time and in the right place is part science, part art and part human nature - a blending of high tech and high touch.

To help you drive a balanced SEO campaign, we offer a few observations as well as tips to tuck into your hip pocket. We will help you recognize the signs that indicate you are about to jump the SEO shark. Search engines continue to release updates, and each one of them will have an impact on your website's success.

What Rules?

In the beginning, there were keywords - and they were good. Along came spiders, 'bots and other Web crawlers and indexes. Then page ranking. Algorithms and meta-tags. And they, too, were good.

Companies aimed to use the right keyword mix, building them into a campaign's design, even modifying HTML code to get their websites to appear at the top of searches. An entire SEO/SEM industry has grown up in a remarkably short period of time to help companies navigate this strange new world. Specialists would offer their services to companies, and the rallying cry became "optimize everything": websites, news releases, advertising, articles, videos and shopping carts.

People became quite giddy with each new optimization discovery. There was no end to the madness.

Spamdexing, or black hat SEO, was inevitable because there were no specific rules at that time. As search engines recognized the false rankings were often caused by data manipulation, they developed more sophisticated algorithms and approaches to rank content and to out those dabbling in what became known as black hat SEO practices.

Stuffing, Cloaking and Link Building

Companies started using so many keywords, also known as keyword stuffing, that it became impossible to read. Some tried cloaking, which is attempting to make keywords invisible to the reader. Through the phases of SEO, it reached a critical point where a majority started to abuse it, losing sight of how much is too much.

Most recently, search engines said the more links the better, that they provided an authority to a site. So build links is what the marketers did. With link juice as the currency of SEO, marketers paid for, posted and exchanged links like mortgage-backed securities until the search engines noticed. Search engines realized that a big link budget could really impact results, and a new set of rules was born. JC Penney, being one of the most infamous recent cases of questionable link building/buying practices, was made an example of to deter others from contributing to the proliferation of spammy links.

Content for Content's Sake

Noticing a pattern yet? The search engines went on to say that content-rich sites are good, and more keywords are good. So, create is what the content marketers did; some using automation, some just hiring writers - not experts - to pump out loads of content around keywords.

As a result, "content farms" such as sprang up, featuring a page on just about every topic under the sun. These sites became mammoth, providing hundreds of pages of keyword-rich but often shallow and, even in some cases, inaccurate content. This has made it difficult for smaller, more authoritative sites to be found. Also, marketers forgot the most important thing - users want quality content.

Google introduced its Panda update earlier this year to combat low-quality content and those that produce it. If weak content is discovered on your site, Google will now pull down rankings of the entire site. Next, Google is going after content scrapers or scraper sites that copy content for use on their own websites without linking, attributing or acknowledging the original sources.

The New SEO World - The Way Forward

You can't blame marketers for being confused, but it's clear that companies forgot that they first are made up of humans working for humans. Marketers would do well to reduce search optimization fat to help users actually find the information they want them to find.

The truth is that it is really competitive out there, so the best thing that you can do is to be strategic and use your resources wisely. Set reasonable goals and understand that SEO is a long-term investment that will continue to evolve. We recommend the following strategies:

Diversity of approach: Use different tactics without focusing on one thing, even if it appears to be working well. Search engines "appreciate" diversity in link building, along with quality content written for human beings, not 'bots. SEO changes all the time, so what works today may not work tomorrow.

Write for people - optimize later: It is possible to overoptimize. When you lose sight of your intended audience: your customers, your readers -- and what is important to them -- because you want to please Google, you hurt yourself. Think about the person who will read and be motivated by your information.

Test, and test again: Don't be afraid to test new methods and discover new techniques because search engines are changing every day. Just don't throw everything that has been working for you out of the window and similarly evaluate old tactics to ensure that they are still effective.

International search requires special consideration: This will depend on the dominant search engines in a given country or market and how they work, including culture and language. Research and understand those parameters.

Use the right tools: SEO tools are advancing every day to help marketers be strategic and make informed decisions. Take advantage of tools that help save time, provide insight and keep up with the ever-changing search engines.

Finally, remember when you were in school you were told to write about what you know and write from the heart? The same rule applies when successfully writing - and optimizing - for the Web.

About the Author: Dr. Horst Joepen is CEO of Searchmetrics, a global expert in search analytics software. Searchmetrics empowers marketers to increase visibility and market share on the world's leading search engines. Headquartered in Berlin, the company also has a wholly owned U.S. subsidiary, Searchmetrics, Inc., in New York.